María D. Wilbar
This paper analyses the use of technology and some of the web 2.0 tools in the assessment of oral skills in second language acquisition. It first addresses the fact that in order to lay a solid foundation, there is a need for a well planned construct. It also analyses the pros and cons of traditional methods of assessment versus alternative methods. This paper also stresses how technology facilitates authenticity, creativity and empowers students to be self-learners.
Assessing oral skills with technology
Finding the right methods and tools for assessing oral skills is a concern that many language teachers share. This is so because the assessing of oral skills in foreign language acquisition is a complex task, and one which demands careful planning. Both oral comprehension, or listening, and oral expression, or speaking, are taught in foreign language classrooms. However, they are not always adequately assessed.
Laying the foundation: The construct
Fig.1. Assessing oral skills, Mind map (figure is mine)
Oral skills involve an intricate process which calls for a “multi-faceted” (Buck 59) approach to assessment. As a result, test designers need to have a clear idea of what they want to measure. The purpose, or construct, of the test will determine the assessment criteria to be used. Scholars such as Buck (2001) and Luoma (2004) underline the significance of defining the construct. They see it first in its “theoretical or conceptual” phase, and then in its “operational” phase (Buck 94). The “theoretical” refers to questions such as: what type of speaking or listening will the assessment focus on, how will it be done, and what will the grading criteria be. The “operational” focuses on the texts and tools which students will be asked to use and the tasks students will perform. Only a well planned construct will ensure the validity and the reliability of the assessment (Luoma 186).
To this foundation it is necessary to add another key component which is authenticity. If second languages are taught under the umbrella of the communicative approach, (i.e. the use of the language) they should also be assessed with this approach in mind. Así el hecho de que la evaluación se decante por entender la lengua como uso (y no sólo como un sistema constituido por unidades discretas), repercutirá en el replanteamiento de las tareas de examen como “tareas auténticas” (Bordón 7). This means that the tasks will aim to reflect how communication takes place in the real world.
Under these considerations, technology and the web 2.0 tools can provide countless possibilities. Their impressive development can inspire test designers and teachers to create relevant tasks for measuring student’s proficiency in many aspects of the language.
Using technology: Tools and methods for assessing oral skills
The teaching of second languages has benefited greatly from what technology has to offer today. In fact, technology and the web 2.0 tools have opened the door to possibilities that would not have been thought possible before. One of the aspects of SLA where technology can play an important role is in the assessing of oral skills.
Buck (2001) noted that most of the work in testing listening comprehension was concerned with non-collaborative listening versus interactive collaborative situations. He also explained that one of the reasons this happens is that non-collaborative tests are more convenient and cheap, especially in settings where many students are taking the test at the same time. Collaborative tests, on the other hand, are harder to set in place and more costly because they demand the presence of test takers who can establish the interactive communication, and other people to grade the performance of the students (98).
This is an area where technology can be of particular help. For instance the use of a tool such as Talk Abroad can facilitate the assessing of listening comprehension in a collaborative way by making it both more convenient and cost-effective. The possible use and characteristics of this tool is shown below, in table 1.
Talk Abroad as a tool for assessing oral skills
Conversations with native speakers in real-time via Skype
Another tool with very similar characteristics is Lingua Meeting. However, it differs in two ways. Lingua Meeting is geared solely to the teaching of Spanish as a second language, and it works in combination with a textbook[i] for A1 and A2 levels of proficiency.
The type of technology provided by the tools presented above facilitates also the creation of authentic conditions for assessing speaking. It provides the scenario wherein students can negotiate meaning and the use of conversation micro skills (e.g. to claim turns of talk, yield turn of talk, check the comprehension of the listener, initiate, ask questions, ask clarifications, etc). It assures that these can indeed take place (Riggenbach, qtd. in Hughes 81).
Many scholars in SLA have concluded that alternative assessment, rather than the traditional model, provides the most realistic view of students’ linguistic development. Richards and Renandye (2002) point out the characteristics of alternative assessment which cause it to be more effective than traditional assessment:
1) Focus on communication instead of focus on language.
2) Learner-centered rather than teacher-centered.
3) Integrated skills instead of isolated skills.
4) Emphasis on process rather than emphasis on product.
5) Multiple solutions instead of one-way correctness.
6) Tests that teach rather than tests that test (qtd. in ATESOL webinar).
In accord with this view, ePortfolios are a promising tool for enabling learners to take an active role in their education, and for teachers to assess students’ language skills in an integrated way. Ferrari and Zhurauskaya (2012) followed 10 students, using ePortfolios in a post-beginner Italian module at York St John University. The results of their findings show that most students demonstrated a greater degree of creativity in producing video and online language work, alongside other written activities.
Warren (2009) studied the impact of web-based language portfolios, using 27 students in intermediate-level classes. Students did tasks which make culture a vital part of language learning. These tasks were also designed to empower students to develop their own learning strategies. Study results found that students had developed a better understanding of the target language and the target language culture (196). Overall, an ePortfolio is a strong assessment tool. It can give a teacher a significant insight into student learning. (Warren 184).
Some of the tools that can be used for assessing the oral skills within an ePortfolio are videos, podcast, and audioblogs. One important thing that needs to be taken under consideration is that ePortfolios demand the use of a platform in order to function. Canvas, is a stable and very intuitive platform where ePortfolios can be nested. Students can build an unlimited number of ePortfolios; they can keep them private or share them with other students, or instructors.
To conclude, technology offers a vast array of possibilities for teachers to be creative and inspire creativity among their students. It provides also the means to create tasks which reflect real world communication. However, it is important to underscore that regardless of the technology or the tools a teacher uses; the success of the assessment lies on establishing a solid construct. The tasks that are presented to students must be authentic, valid, and reliable.
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[i] Potowski K, Sobral S, Dawson L. Dicho y Hecho: Beginning Spanish 9th Edition. January 2011