In my country’s national educational system, continuous or regular assessment is a must.

The final state exams are compulsory. During the academic year, various kinds of tests are in place, to assess students’ progress in all the traditional skills, such as reading, writing, speaking and listening, as well as grammar. They are all orientated towards the current children’s age and level. We teachers can be somewhat flexible about it, in that we are not obliged to conduct any one specific kind of test throughout a school year, nor are we restricted in terms of the frequency. If need be, we can perform spot checks every week; larger tests are held at the end of every term and every year. Traditionally, the English Language Department would issue several tests during every year, quite often unexpectedly. For instance, a traditional “Revision” test is a must in early September. As any practicing teacher knows, those may bring quite disastrous results, since many pupils come back to school with their heads marvelously empty of any previous knowledge! They need a little time to switch back into working mode, and to remember what they had learned earlier. The same test done in October is usually much better. Neither teachers nor students have any say in the matter of those “Revisions”. We just tell both children and their parents that it is nothing to worry about, and continue doing our job. However, there is one positive side to such tests. There are often a few students who perform quite well, which draws our attention to them and shows us that they may become the top ones in our subject. Students and parents may ask teachers to include certain topics, to conduct some tests orientated towards specific skills or areas of concern.

For me, assessment starts with myself. Whether I conduct lessons at school, deliver lectures at a university or do a teacher refresher course for my colleagues, I always double check everything. Am I familiar with all the themes? Are my materials suitable for the level and age of my students? Can I explain all the difficult words, expressions, rules, realia? Do I know my audience well enough? Am I ready for the unexpected?

Experience brings confidence (hopefully). Having survived all the joys of adolescence with my own three kids, I feel that I know lots of tricks; I can read the expressions on their faces and deduce that something is going on, or is about to happen. Sharing my knowledge with my colleagues, especially with those who are younger, or who are childless, is an important part of my work. They do not have firsthand knowledge so to speak.

I have had this class, twenty teen boys. “Have you learned anything new during your school break?” I asked. A hand shot up. I could also see the grins, the shifty looks, and the air of expectancy. Clearly my best pupil was going to do something “on a dare”. “Teacher, I learned a new expression!” He couldn’t resist glancing around, then blurted out, and I reproduce his pronunciation here: “I don’t know Jack Sheet!” What happens next is up to us. The class predictably becomes very silent, waiting for my reaction. I stifle the first impulse, to correct his pronunciation, and thus to say the **it word. It is my belief that when a situation can be diffused, it works out to the benefit of all those concerned. And of course it pays to turn the unexpected element around, and to do the same thing that youngsters did. So I reply mildly, taking special care to enunciate and to emphasize the relevant syllables: “I don’t know JACK about Jack SHEET either. However, I do remember that in English, the LENGTH of a vowel plays a large role in the SENSE of word. SHIP or SHEEP, guys. Please come out to the board and write down as many examples as you can”. Thus what could be an inappropriate joke turns out into a spontaneous little test on Speaking and Pronunciation.

To help them remember the “It or Eat” problem, I bring up one of their favourite film characters. Boys and girls alike love Johnny D. (as in Depp) and his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. After a good phonetics drill, I would ask them, “Savvy?” This is a word they all know from the films. It is often enough to establish rapport.

Any student may indeed “know Jack” in the beginning of a school year. With regular assessment activities, be it large complicated tests or short spontaneous spot-checks and drills, we may see their progress, give good advice, and encourage them to work harder. At the end of the year, if they indeed show good results, they will get their deserved good grades.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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