One of the main objectives of the test is to assess my pupils’ ability to understand and work with the concepts which lie behind the language. The problem with the traditional question-answer format is that the questions invariably pre-empt the language and structures that the pupils are required to produce in the answer. Let’s look at the first paragraph of our reading text as an example:
Dolphins, like humans, are warm-blooded mammals. They give birth to one baby calf at a time. At birth a dolphin calf is about 90-130 cms long and will grow to about 4m, living up to 40 years. Dolphins are highly sociable animals, living in groups called pods, with dolphins from other pods interacting with each other occasionally.
Dolphins use their powerful tails to move through the water. They also use their tails when hunting fish; they hit fish up into the air. A dolphin slaps its tail on the water in the wild to warn other dolphins of danger. Their tail muscles are extremely powerful – so powerful that they can walk on water.
Dolphins eat their fish whole, head first. When they nod their head, it means that they are ready to attack. If they make sounds with their jaws it means they are really furious.
Now let’s look at the following questions: What is a baby dolphin called? How many centimetres long is a dolphin at birth? How long do dolphins live? What is the name for a group of dolphins? These are probably the kinds of question that would appear in many reading assessment tasks. But do they really test the pupils’ comprehension of the text and its contents? I would argue that at least two questions here could be answered by someone with very little knowledge of English. For example, the question How many centimetres long is a dolphin at birth? already contains most of the language found in the sentence which carries the answer: At birth a dolphin calf is about 90-130 cms long.
Activity 1: Using tables
By using a table format to elicit information, we are testing the pupil’s grasp of both the language and concepts more effectively. The table format focuses on key concepts while avoiding too much repetition of key language. Look at the following example:
The categories on the left are language items that do not appear in the text, although we will need to check that our pupils are all familiar with this language. Thus a wider set of study skills is required; pupils need to decode and categorise the information, which requires a deeper understanding of the text and its content.
Activity 2: Using a mind map
The following activity consists of a mind map, the purpose of which again is to identify (implicitly) how the information in the text is organised and thus allow pupils to extract the key concepts and language.
While Activity 1, the table, gave the pupils the categories, Activity 2 goes a step further and asks them to organise and decide for themselves which tasks are important. Here, I took the map itself as the starting point as it will condition the way that pupils approach the text, ie in this case looking out for ways to categorise dolphins (warm-blooded, pods, sociable, can live up to 40 years, etc). For this reason the instruction is Look at the mind map, then read the text to complete it rather than Read the text and complete the mind map. Naturally this is a skill which pupils need to have practised at various stages during the course.
Activity 3: Applying wider knowledge
This activity requires pupils to use a greater degree of cognitive analysis, encouraging them to relate the concepts in the text to their wider knowledge of the subject. The idea behind this activity is that it is not a memory exercise; memory testing often comes at the expense of other skills. However, if you allow pupils access to reference materials (or their own notes) during an assessment task, the thinking processes involved are often more complex and challenging, with the need to demonstrate understanding of both language and concepts.
Activity 4: Defining words in context
This is a definition activity and requires pupils to contextualise given vocabulary from the reading text. Again, a deeper understanding of the content is being assessed. It is useful to give pupils a scaffolded format to follow, through which they can demonstrate this understanding.
Activity 5: Using a text to help you write
When setting writing assessment tasks, it is a good idea to train pupils to look at the reading text as a model for this. They will be able to draw on both the language and any thought processes they used prior to the writing task to decode and categorise the information in the reading part.
In CLIL assessments we need to make sure that the pupils’ grasp of language is sufficient for the content area to be understood and reflected in the assessment task. This means designing tasks that draw on higher-level thinking skills which force pupils to analyse rather than simply repeat information. No assessment procedure is ever perfect, but the more we can design our tasks to reflect real language use, the more successfully we can gauge our pupils’ understanding of the content topics.
Ricardo Luceño Bermejo is a teacher and teacher trainer. At present, he works as a Bilingual Resource Teacher in Schaumburg, IL, USA.