Formative assessment and EAL

Written by: Patricia Brooks | Published:
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Formative assessment is a high-impact strategy and at St Mary’s School it has been yielding positive results for pupils who use English as an additional language. Patricia Brooks explains

The classrooms that employ formative assessment in the best possible ways are those in which both teacher and student learn from continual, conscientious, quality feedback.” (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2015 – p141)

Formative assessment

The principles of formative assessment are well established – the descriptive feedback it provides shows the student what is successful in a piece of work, and why it is successful. By also highlighting areas for improvement, it allows for re-learning and the planning of next steps.

Formative assessment, therefore, makes for a winning formula whereby independent learning skills are honed (Wollenschläger et al, 2016), teaching can be adjusted appropriately and performance is improved.

These benefits have been loudly proclaimed. Perhaps most notably by Professor John Hattie who, in his ground-breaking 2009 study, Visible Learning, demonstrated that formative assessment was the third highest ranking influence on student achievement (Hattie, 2009). (Prof Hattie’s top influences and effect sizes related to student achievement can be seen here: http://bit.ly/2vu3x2O.)

The cognitive underpinnings of these benefits are that, through formative assessment, students develop metacognitive skills (systematic planning, abstract thinking, problem-solving) and are able to talk about them (Hattie, Masters & Birch, 2015). With the development of metacognitive skills comes the ability to self-regulate which is seen as a reliable indication of effective learning (Mercer, 2013).

Research into education for students who use English as an additional language (EAL) in the early 2000s, in fact, recognised the value of formative assessment: “There is now widely recognised support for classroom-based formative teacher assessment of student performance as a pedagogically desirable approach to assessment which is capable of promoting learning.” (Leung & Mohan, 2004 – p335).

Although Prof Hattie’s 2009 study was conducted in an English-language context, the wider validity of formative assessment was clear. Visible Learning has now been published in a number of languages including Arabic, Danish, German, Mandarin, Norwegian and Swedish. Formative assessment is also a key component of the Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework for Schools published in 2016 (see further information).

“When we interview students on what they understand by feedback and why it is important to them, one theme emerges almost universally: they want to know how to improve their work so that they can do better next time.” (Hattie & Yates, 2014 – p64).

The experience of EAL teachers at St Mary’s School is that this response is clearly echoed by EAL students.

The implementation of formative assessment at St Mary’s

Turning to its practical implementation in EAL, in the senior school at St Mary’s School in Cambridge, formative assessment is used at key stages 3, 4 and 5.

At key stage 3, two EAL teachers have been testing the use of a formative assessment scheme based on assessment take-away “menus” of language learning targets.

Using the standardised Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) criteria for Level B1 as the frame of reference, numbered menus of targets have been developed for the assessment of students’ progress in grammar, writing and speaking in year 9 (see figure 1).

Students’ work is assessed against the targets on the relevant menu and this is recorded in the format of a “two stars and a wish” grid (figure 2). The stars indicate what has been done well, the wish shines a light on next steps.


Figures 1 & 2: The assessment take-away menu for grammar at CEFR B1; a sample of the EAL ‘two stars and a wish’ grid


Students are asked to relate the numbers against each star and wish to the targets on the menu. This helps them to understand which targets they are meeting and where the opportunities for improvement are. The grid has been used for peer assessment as well as teacher-student assessment.

Our observation is that students find the scheme easy to understand and enjoy the opportunity to talk about how they learn. It is also worth noting that successful implementation of the scheme requires the regular inclusion of a few minutes in lessons to allow students to map their two stars and a wish on to their menu of targets.

At key stage 4 and 5, formative assessment in EAL is based on the standardised examination marking criteria for the Cambridge First, Cambridge Advanced and International English Language Testing System (IELTS) examinations. Samples of formative assessment used in IELTS teaching at St Mary’s are shown opposite, for listening and reading, speaking, and writing.

Formative assessment for listening and reading is used with self-study programmes of practice tests which include teacher-monitored, student self-assessment. For each practice test, students use a two-sided A4 sheet with the IELTS answer sheet on one side and an additional error analysis grid on the other (see figures 3 & 4). Students mark their practice test and use the grid to record and analyse the types of errors made. The student keeps each answer sheet not only as a record of work but as a guide to further linguistic improvement – in areas such as spelling and grammar – and as a reminder of where improvements in technique – such as focus – can be made.



Figures 3 & 4: Examples of a self-assessed practice answer sheet and a self-assessed error analysis from St Mary’s School


The teacher monitors students’ use of the grid, checking that errors have been assessed correctly while making a positive note when this is the case. This fosters a positive attitude to error-assessment. The teacher keeps an on-going tally for each type of error made by each student and can advise on next steps.

Students are also encouraged to “trade” errors, which involves verbally sharing in class their reflections on a particular error – why they think they were tripped up and how they intend to avoid the pitfall in the future.

During speaking practice, students make regular short recordings of examination speaking tasks, often as presentations. The teacher evaluates recordings against IELTS band descriptors, highlighting good practice as well as specific areas for improvement in each of the four criteria (figure 5). Students add each speaking assessment sheet to a personal “library” of topic-specific speaking feedback which they use to address problems as required, and for revision purposes.


Figure 5: A sample of IELTS speaking feedback from St Mary’s School


Students’ writing is assessed against IELTS writing band descriptors and corrected in detail using the reviewing annotation tools in Microsoft Word (figure 6). A range of graphics is used to give positive feedback or signal areas for improvement. A traffic light symbol/icon, for example, signifies that the error has been covered in class and should be added to the student’s “points to remember” list and reviewed.


Figure 6: A sample of formative assessment for IELTS writing at St Mary’s School


Links to relevant lexical or grammar resources are also provided to encourage student autonomy. Students correct their first draft in the light of the annotations and re-submit a second draft. A useful “library” of revision materials is created over time.

The EAL department at St Mary’s aims to provide students with the tools they need to understand and improve their performance. Formative feedback is an important part of this process since it allows students to reflect on their learning and helps them to develop strong language learning skills which will continue to serve them beyond secondary school, making them effective, lifelong learners.

  • Patricia Brooks is joint head of English as an additional language at St Mary’s School in Cambridge.

Further information

The Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework for Schools (2016): http://www.bell-foundation.org.uk/eal-programme/teaching-resources/eal-assessment-framework/

References and reading

  • Hattie, 2009, Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement (Routledge).
  • Hattie & Timperley, 2007, The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.
  • Hattie & Yates, 2014, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (Routledge).
  • Hattie, Masters & Birch, 2015, Visible Learning into Action: International Case Studies of Impact (Routledge).
  • Leung & Mohan, 2004, Teacher formative assessment and talk in classroom contexts: assessment as discourse and assessment of discourse. Language Testing. 21(3), 335-359
  • Mercer, 2013, The social brain, language, and goal-directed collective thinking: A social conception of cognition and its implications for understanding how we think, teach, and learn. Educational Psychologist. 48(3), 148-168
  • Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014, Making Classrooms Better: 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain, and Education Science (WW Norton & Company).
  • Wollenschläger, Hattie, Machts, Möller & Harms, 2016, What makes rubrics effective in teacher-feedback? Transparency of learning goals is not enough. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 44&45, 1–11.


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