Senior 3 English Language Arts: A Foundation for Implementation

Implementation Overview: Senior 3
Teaching and Learning in English Language Arts - Part 2

Promoting Strategic Learning

Many of the language tasks students perform are problem-solving tasks, such as finding sources of information for an inquiry project, making meaning of a difficult text, or organizing a body of information. To solve problems, a student requires a strategic mindset; when confronted with a problem, the student surveys a number of possible strategies, selects the one that seems likely to work best for the situation, and tries an alternative method if the first one does not produce results.

Strategic learners in the language arts need to have not only a strategic mindset, but also a repertoire of strategies for making meaning, for processing information, and for expressing ideas and information effectively. Whereas skills are largely unconscious mental processes that learners use in accomplishing learning tasks, strategies are systematic and conscious plans, actions, and thoughts that learners select or invent and adapt to each task. Strategies are often described as "knowing what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and why it is useful."

Immersing students in language-rich environments and encouraging them to produce texts are essential in language learning, but these initiatives alone are not sufficient to ensure the development of proficient literacy skills in all students. Students also need methodical instruction in the strategies that adept learners use in approaching language tasks. Section 4 of this document includes numerous teaching, learning, and assessment strategies, and identifies professional resources that elaborate additional strategies and approaches.

Scaffolding: Supporting Students in Strategic Learning

Many literacy tasks involve a complex interaction of skills. The most effective way to learn, however, is not by breaking down the tasks into manageable parts and teaching the skills separately and in isolation. In fact, this approach may be counter-productive. Purcell-Gates (1996) uses the analogy of learning to ride a bicycle, a skill that requires children to develop an intuitive sense of balance at the same time as learning to pedal and steer. Children do not learn to ride a bicycle by focusing on only one of these skills at a time. Instead, they observe others who can ride a bicycle successfully, and then make an attempt themselves. In the early stages of learning to ride, a child counts on someone to provide support — to hold the bicycle upright while the child mounts, to keep a hand on the seat to stabilize the bicycle for the first few metres, to coach and encourage. Gradually, these supports are withdrawn as the rider becomes more competent. Eventually, the process becomes automatic, and the rider is no longer aware of the skills being performed.

Providing this sort of support in teaching has come to be called scaffolding, based on the work of Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976). Teachers scaffold by

  • structuring tasks so that learners begin with something they can do
  • reducing the complexity of tasks
  • calling students’ attention to critical features of the tasks
  • modelling steps
  • providing sufficient guided and independent practice

In a sense, each learning strategy is an external support or scaffold. At first, working with a new strategy may be challenging and the main focus of students’ attention. Eventually, students use the strategy automatically and rely on it as a learning tool. Students gradually internalize the process of the strategy. They begin to adjust and personalize the process and to apply the thinking behind the strategy automatically.

In strategic instruction, teachers observe and monitor students’ use of a strategy for a time, intervening where necessary. Students vary in the length of time they require scaffolding. In this respect, strategic instruction is also a useful tool for differentiation.* Struggling learners may work with simplified versions of a strategy, and they may continue to use the supports of a strategy (e.g., a graphic organizer for essay organization) after other students have internalized the process.

Strategic instruction works best when teachers pace the instruction of new strategies carefully, so that students have time to practise each, and when they teach a strategy in the context of a specific task of everyday literacy.

* Ideas and strategies for differentiating instruction are provided in Success for All Learners: A Handbook on Differentiating Instruction (Manitoba Education and Training and Training, 1996).

Characteristics of Effective Assessment

Effective assessment assists learning. It helps focus effort on implementing strategies to facilitate learning both inside and outside the classroom. Effective assessment

  • is congruent with instruction
  • is based on authentic tasks
  • uses a wide range of tools and methods
  • is based on criteria that students know and understand
  • is a collaborative process involving students
  • focuses on what students have learned and can do
  • is ongoing and continuous

A detailed discussion of these seven characteristics of effective assessment follows.

Effective Assessment Is Congruent with Instruction

Assessment requires teachers to be aware continually of the purpose of instruction: What do I want my students to learn? What can they do to show that they have learned it?

How teachers assess depends on what they are assessing — whether they are assessing declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge, or attitudes and habits of mind.

  • Declarative knowledge: Declarative knowledge is the most straightforward dimension of learning to measure using traditional tools — if teachers wish to measure fact-based recall. The purpose of fostering literacy, however, is not met if students simply memorize the declarative knowledge related to language arts; what is more important is whether students understand and are able to apply this knowledge. It is not as important, for example, that students reproduce a definition of metaphor, as that they understand the purposes and effects of metaphors, that they respond to and interpret metaphors they encounter in texts, and that they use metaphors with ease to enrich their own writing, speech, and visual representations. The challenge teachers face is to design tools that test the application of declarative knowledge.
  • Procedural knowledge: Tools that are designed to test declarative knowledge cannot effectively assess skills, strategies, and processes. For example, rather than trying to infer student processes by looking at final products, teachers would assess procedural knowledge by observing students in action, by discussing their strategies with them in conferences and interviews, and by gathering data from student reflections such as learning logs.
  • Attitudes and habits of mind: Attitudes and habits of mind cannot be assessed directly. They are implicit in what students do and say. Assessment tools typically describe the behaviours that reflect the attitudes and habits of literate individuals. They identify the attitudes and habits of mind that enhance language learning and use, and provide students with the means to reflect on their own internal processes. Rather than assigning global marks for class participation, for example, teachers assess learning outcomes related to students’ effective contribution to large and small groups.

Assessment is intended to inform students of the programming emphases and to help them focus on important aspects of learning. If teachers assess only the elements that are easiest to measure, students may focus only on those things. For example, if language arts curricula place a high value on collaboration, creativity, and divergent thinking (learning outcomes that may be more difficult to measure), then assessment tools and processes must reflect those values. What and how teachers assess inform students what teachers consider important in learning.

Effective Assessment Is Based on Authentic Tasks

Assessment tasks should be authentic and meaningful — tasks worth mastering for their own sake rather than tasks designed simply to demonstrate student proficiency for teachers and others. Through assessment, teachers discover whether students can use knowledge, processes, and resources effectively to achieve worthwhile purposes. Therefore, teachers design tasks that replicate the context in which knowledge will be applied in the world beyond the classroom.

Authentic language arts tasks employ the forms used by a wide range of people (e.g., journalists, filmmakers, poets, novelists, publicists, speakers, technical writers, and academics). As often as possible, students speak, write, or represent their ideas for real audiences and for real purposes. In developing assessment tasks, teachers may consider providing students with the resources people use when performing the same language tasks in real-life situations.

Authentic assessment tasks are not only tests of the information students possess, but also of the way their understanding of a subject has deepened, and of their ability to apply learning. They demonstrate to students the relevance and importance of learning. Performance-based tests are also a way of consolidating student learning. The perennial issue about "teaching to the test" is of less concern if tests are authentic assessments of student knowledge, skills and strategies, and attitudes.

Effective Assessment Uses a Wide Range of Tools and Methods

Assessment in language arts must recognize the complexity and holistic nature of language learning. To compile a complete profile of each student’s progress, teachers gather data using many different means over numerous occasions. Student profiles may involve both students and teachers in data gathering and assessment.

Effective Assessment Is Based on Criteria That Students Know and Understand

Assessment criteria must be clearly established and made explicit to students before an assignment or test so that students can focus their efforts. In addition, whenever possible, students need to be involved in developing assessment criteria. Appendix A describes a process for creating assessment rubrics in collaboration with students.

Students should also understand clearly what successful accomplishment of each proposed task looks like. Models of student work from previous years and other exemplars assist students in developing personal learning goals.

Each assessment task should test only those learning outcomes that have been identified to students. This means, for example, that reading tests need to be devised and marked to gather information about students’ reading comprehension, not their ability to express ideas effectively in writing.

Effective Assessment Is a Collaborative Process Involving Students

The ultimate purpose of assessment is to enable students to assess themselves. The gradual increase of student responsibility for assessment is part of developing students’ autonomy as lifelong learners. Assessment should decrease, rather than foster, students’ dependence on teachers’ comments for direction in learning and on marks for validation of their accomplishments.

Assessment enhances students’ metacognition. It helps them make judgements about their own learning and provides them with information for goal setting and self-monitoring.

Teachers increase students’ responsibility for assessment by

  • requiring students to select the products and performances to demonstrate their learning
  • involving students in developing assessment criteria whenever possible (see Appendix A) (This process clarifies the goals of a particular assignment and provides students with the vocabulary to discuss their own work.)
  • involving students in peer assessment -- informally through peer conferences and formally through using checklists
  • having students use tools for reflection and self-assessment at every opportunity (e.g., self-assessment checklists, learning logs, identification and selection of goals, and self-assessment of portfolio items
  • establishing a protocol for students who wish to challenge a teacher-assigned mark (Formal appeals are valuable exercises in persuasive writing, and provide opportunities for students to examine their performance in light of the assessment criteria.)

Effective Assessment Focuses on What Students Have Learned and Can Do

Assessment must be equitable; it must offer opportunities for success to every student. Effective assessment demonstrates the knowledge, skills and strategies, and attitudes of each student and the progress the student is making, rather than simply identifying deficits in learning.

To assess what students have learned and can do, teachers need to use a variety of strategies and approaches:

  • Use a wide range of instruments to assess the multi-dimensional expressions of each student’s learning.
  • Provide students with opportunities to learn from feedback and to practise, recognizing that not every assignment will be successful nor will it become part of a summative evaluation.
  • Examine several pieces of student work in assessing any particular learning outcome to ensure that the data collected are valid bases for making generalizations about student learning.
  • Develop complete student profiles by using information from both learning outcome-referenced assessment, which compares a student’s performance to predetermined criteria, and self-referenced assessment, which compares a student’s performance to his or her prior performance.
  • Avoid using assessment for purposes of discipline or classroom control. Ryan, Connell, and Deci (1985) found that assessment that is perceived as a tool for controlling student behaviour, a way of meting out rewards and punishments rather than providing feedback on student learning, reduces student motivation.
  • Allow students, when appropriate and possible, to choose how they will demonstrate their competence.
  • Use assessment tools appropriate for assessing individual and unique products, processes, and performances.

Effective Assessment Is Ongoing and Continuous

Assessment that is woven into daily instruction offers students frequent opportunities to gain feedback, to modify their learning approaches and methods, and to observe their progress. Teachers provide informal assessment by questioning students and offering comments. They also conduct formal assessments at various stages of a project or unit of study.

Continuous assessment provides ongoing opportunities for teachers to review and revise instruction, content, process emphases, and learning resources.


Implementation Overview: Senior 3