Can Writing Be A Part of Student Assessment?

A common push from L2 teachers is to require students to speak and write in the target language.  In a sense, this compulsion is understandable: we want some evidence that we are teaching well and that they are learning well. If we embrace a framework of teaching informed by Comprehensible Input, we should keep the following in mind when it comes to requiring students to write and how we use that activity. While neither speaking nor writing in Latin has been a common part of traditional Latin programs, that is changing with the increasing number of Latin teachers who are finding success with Comprehensible Input as a framework for their teaching, and writing has become an important part of that. 

Dr. Krashen has elsewhere observed that output (student writing) can tell teachers when students are actually getting comprehensible input.  This is basic to CI principles: output (writing and speaking) is always the result of much comprehensible input. So, asking students to write can be used as a formative assessment helping teachers understand if students are getting enough input. 

We must be aware, however, that output can affect acquisition indirectly, by encouraging or discouraging interaction and other forms of getting comprehensible input. This is especially true when output is turned into a high stakes test or when the output must reach some arbitrary requirements (e.g. students must write 50 words or 100 words within a 5 minute timed write). The truth is that some students in that situation will write 50 or 100 or 150 words.  Others will write 15 or 30. Others will sit and stare at the page either because they have not received enough input or because the timed write as assessment has so raised the affective filter (anxiety) that it shuts down their ability to write anything.

A preferable alternative is to invite students to write on a regular basis (in a classroom composition notebook that never leaves the room).  The invitation is to write about something that the class has recently spent a lot of time on (a story, a discussion, a theme). The invitation is to write as much as they can using the words they know.  When they are finished, they count the number of words they wrote. A time limit can be given like 5 or 10 minutes (dependent on the level of students) but as the time comes to an end, ask who needs a few more minutes.  If no one raises their hand, they are done. If hands go up, that’s wonderful. Give them 2 more minutes. Then, have them count their words, put the number at the top of the page, and circle it. At the end of a grading period (6 weeks, 9 weeks, semester), ask students to evaluate their work. I have written about this process here, and I have shared what that set of instructions for students looks like here. The teacher can, at this point, use both the student’s observations on his/her own work along with their professional assessment of the student’s progress to give a summative grade for writing progress. This will be a summative and qualitative assessment, i.e. the student’s progress is measured against his/her own demonstration of progress and not against some arbitrary number of required achievement. A student who moved from 13 words to 55 words might, in the estimation of the teacher who knows the student well, give this student an A or a 95 for their writing grade. A student who moved from 55 to 175 words might also receive an A or a 95.  A student who moved from 30 to 90 words, but whose work is showing good use of vocabulary and more complex sentences might also receive an A or 95. Assessing this way requires that the teacher know the students and their individual progress in the class.

There is an important distinction is between forced and unforced output. Forced output occurs when students must produce aspects of language that they have not yet acquired. Establishing how many words they must write, or targeting certain aspects of grammar or vocabulary are examples of this forced output.  A student will write what he/she has acquired easily.  

Unforced output can help quite a lot. First we encourage output that only requires students to use aspects of language that are already acquired. This can then move classroom discourse along and helps the teacher provide more comprehensible input. 

So, can writing be a part of student assessment?  I think that it can, but we have to check our traditional inclinations.  At this point with over 20 years of teaching within a CI framework, here is a summary of what I find helpful both for learners continuing to make progress in L2 and for teachers who are designing and assessing learning.

1. Invite students on a regular basis to write about things that have received much attention in class, i.e. a lot of comprehensible input.

2. While you may set a time, always check to see who needs more time.  When students don’t need more time, they are done. The time aspect of this is not the important thing.  What they can write tells us what they have acquired, and that is important.

3. Never set an arbitrary number against which students are graded.  This is very popular even among CI teachers, and I think it is a critical mistake.  Students do not acquire language at the same pace for a variety of reasons. So, the question is not whether students have written an arbitrary number of words (by the way, that number, whatever it is, is always arbitrary). The question is whether the student’s writing today is better than what the student wrote last time and the times before that.  “Better” can be both a quantitative issue (number of words) and qualitative (more coherent, complex writing, using a larger array of meaningful vocabulary). A much better practice is the measure the student against him/herself.  

4. Keeping all student-writing collected in a composition notebook that never leaves the room and which is only used for this purpose can, over time, become an amazing picture of that individual student’s evolving acquisition of the language.  In our program, these composition notebooks travel with the student from one level to the next, one teacher to the next, and at the end of four years, they are asked to analyse their own writing over four years and what it has to say about their acquisition of the language. This becomes an excellent record of progress (output which indicates input) as well as an important metacognitive analysis of the student’s learning.

As L2 teachers make progress pulling away from the traditional systems that we were trained in, much of this begins to feel more natural to us.  In the meantime, it is hard and necessary work to check ourselves and our assumptions about the components of language acquisition. Krashen has written a very useful paper on the various components of writing which I take myself back to often as a check on myself and my expectations.

Bob Patrick