Assessing language, teaching language
Assessing language competence is a profoundly difficult business. It's also a very big business - how many English Language tests alone are produced every year? The vast majority of these actually test Language Incompetence - they check a student's use of the language system, count the mistakes, subtract these from the total number of marks available - and there's your answer.
But what about Language Competence? The problem is how one defines 'competence'. Everyone would agree that some people are more competent at using the language than others - but how do you recognise competence ? What are the indicators that could lead to an accurate, objective analysis? How do you quantify such indicators? Can you quantify them?
Seventeen years of involvement with the IB's examination system (seven of them as Deputy Chief Examiner of English B) have convinced me that there are no easy answers to such questions. However, these years have also convinced me that there are answers - provisional, hesitant, fragmentary, perhaps, but workable; and that the IB, for all its occasional errors and flaws, genuinely strives to assess Language Competence and not just Language Incompetence.
This section of the site aims to discuss all of these issues, and in the process give guidance to teachers of English B in how to carry out efficient, accurate assessment of students.
Teaching for the exam?
No, I'm not suggesting that. All of the rest of the site is concerned with teaching language and intelligent thinking without specific reference to final assessment - because language and thinking skills are valuable in themselves, whether or not the student sits a exam in the end. However, the English B exams quite justifiably and sensibly test abilities in language and the handling of ideas which are important. An analysis of the Criteria for the Orals and Paper 2 can provide valuable indications to essential skills, so paying attention to what the IB tests can aid us in deciding what needs to be taught.
Paper 1 : Productive skills - writing The language competence required here is the ability to combine command of the language system with an understanding of forms and conventions, in order to express effectively developed and organised ideas.
Teaching writing skills has a whole section devoted to it - - covered both Text types and Communicative purposes
Paper 2 - Receptive skills: reading & listening Language competence in Texthandling means the capacity to demonstrate understanding of not just overall basic meaning, but also of details of some subtlety.
Teaching reading skills is principally dealt with under the Literature section, but many of the skills suggested there are clearly of relevance to performing well in Texthandling.
Oral Internal Assessment Language competence here involves command of the language system, fluency and intonation, and, most significantly, the ability to maintain a coherent conversation.
Extended essay The particular aspect of language competence required for the 4000 words of the Extended essay is to do with handling length - clear structure, methodical explanation, and coherence of style and expression.
Teaching the Extended Essay is not something that many English B teachers usually have to deal with - there simply aren't that many essays in English B - but when you need help in advising a student about the EE, you really need it! I particularly offer advice about choosing the right topic and approach, since this is the crucial stage in counselling the student - if you get this right, the actual writing of the Essay will be fairly straightforward.