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'Language Portfolio makes students aware of their levels'

Alessandra Corda works for the Language Centre of Leiden university and co-manages the INTUIT project. At the Leiden University two pilots were run with an online language portfolio. We asked Alessandra about the results of these pilots.

What was the aim of the pilots?

We wanted to investigate how the online language portfolio on www.europeestaalportfolio.nl could be used for coaching students in our English courses. We were primarily interested if the use of the ELP can help to make students more aware of their weak points and motivates them to work on improving these in self study and during classes. The pilots were run in short courses at the Language Centre. The emphasis was on productive skills, because students in master's courses are expected to give presentations and write texts in English.

How were the pilot studies carried out?

Before the summer [of 2006] we did the first pilot, followed by a second one between September and December. The teacher, Annemiek Wegman, introduced students to the Common European Framework and the competence levels during the first class. After that students used the online portfolio to completed the can-do statements for speaking and spoken interaction. During the second pilot they also wrote brief texts in Word and uploaded these to the site. This was because during the first pilot students reported problems in uploading documents and making them available on the site.

What are the experiences of students working in the pilots?

Nine students from the first group and five from the second completed the evaluation form. We asekd them the same questions in order to able to compare their experiences. During the two pilots students got more opportunities to practice speaking because they received feedback on the monologues uploaded to the language portfolio. The actual recording took place outside the classroom, at home or at the university. The students rated this way of working useful to very useful. Pedagogically, this was also the most challenging aspect. In this way, speaking practice takes place outside the classroom: of course this also used to be possible with audiocassettes, but the logistics of that (handing in tapes, listening, returning) prevented teachers from using it. As far as technology is concerned, about half of the respondents found the interface unclear and the portfolio site not very user friendly. Especially the uploading of files and making them available to the teachers were unclear.

What is the added value of can-do statements for students?

About two-thirds of the students find self-assessment useful, one-third doesn't. We think that assessing with can-do statements may work better with longer courses, where students are followed for a longer period of time. This makes it possible to use the can-do statements at the beginning and end of courses to chart progress. In our situation, this is a method to make clearer to students what a certain level of language competence involves. It is a new way for students to look at language learning: they may have scored a 5, 6 or 7 for English, but how good this is, by objective standards, is what they find out when they take the Dialang test (obligatory at the beginning of every language course) and complete the can-do statements. An explicit objective of each course is to make students more aware of their current level and of what they should do to speak better English. The can-do statements are a means to achieve this end.

What is the experience of teachers participating in the pilots?

The teacher concerned is enthusiastic. She found that providing feedback to the speaking assignments does not take much extra time: the monologues were 2 minutes each; it never took her more than 10 minutes to give feedback.

At the beginning of the pilots the teacher had expected that many students would have preferred to improve their speaking skills only on the basis of this online tutoring method. The evaluation showed that most students want to combine this online coaching with class-based learning. A small minority would rather not have a course but only online training. Apparently students find courses more attractive, possibly because of the social aspects and the fact that you are "pushed" to work on language.

What is the best way of integrating the European Language Portfolio in university courses?

It depends on the length of courses. In language departments teachers are in a better position to stimulate students' reflection on their own learning. The department of Italian in Leiden has been using language portfolios in this way for a year now. Students see how their language skills develop and complete can-do statements at the beginning and at the end of the year. In Language Centre courses running for a shorter period this instrument should be deployed differently. We think the can-do statements help them understand what language proficiency is all about. They cannot advance from level B2 to C1 during the course. This would take hundreds of hours, but they get instruments and recommendations with which they can make progress independently.

What plans do you have for the next pilot?

We will continue to use the can-do statement of the online portfolio. In addition we will develop a Blackboard course for uploading files and providing teacher feedback.

In the ELP uploading files is mainly for demonstrating you have attained a certain level; it does is not document everything you do to improve your speaking skills. In addition we want to experiment with Versant SET-10 which can be used to test speaking skills via a telephone or the internet. Our colleagues in Nijmegen have used it and they are very satisfied with the results. In addition to an instrument for coaching students we are also going to use a testing tool.


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