Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Mastering academic writing with EALs via formative assessment

I recently wrote about an extended piece of scientific writing I assign to my Grade 12 biology students. This is to be a fully cited and referenced piece, and in order to guide my students I set them a small number of brief pre-essay formative assessments relating to paraphrasing, summarising, and how to correctly use a consistent style (e.g. APA) for in-text citations and reference lists. Since these are formative assessments, and therefore assessments for learning, I check them and provide feedback but do not grade them, although students do get credit for participation.

One of the recurring problems for my learners when looking at author lists for their citations is determining an author's family name. This sounds like it should be straightforward, except that in Thai culture the family name is very rarely used, except in very formal situations. While someone's given first name is used slightly more commonly, it again is generally used in more formal situations. Mostly, people go by their ชื่เล่น (chu len), or nickname. This does somewhat simplify things in most day-to-day interactions, because Thai official names can be very long. For example, someone called Chattamachode Krassanairasuriwongse may go simply by the nickname 'P'! But it does bring me back to my original point - that Thais can find it difficult to correctly ascertain a Western author's family name when writing their citations and references. Carrying out formative assessment is a great way to identify these problems and provide learners with rapid feedback about where they are going wrong. 

Paraphrasing and summarising academic writing can prove difficult for many learners, but may present EALs with a much bigger challenge. Although there is some evidence to suggest that EALS can have an advantage when it comes to certain linguistic skills, there are some difficult challenges to overcome when learners' first language is so very different, and this is compounded in this case with the use of academic English. My students are often shocked when I point out that when writing literature reviews, authors must summarise entire research papers in a couple of lines. Again, I am hoping that by having learners engage in these formative assessment tasks they will gain a much clearer understanding of what is required for their final essay task.

A big help this year in providing timely feedback for learners came from using Google Classroom. This allowed me to distribute the formative assessments to students easily, and to then provide direct comments in their text and where they made errors. What I am also able to do, which was more difficult when using our previous LMS, Moodle, is to offer students the option to share their early drafts with me. This will allow me to give them real-time feedback on the development of their essay. Obviously I will not be re-writing their work for them, but I would like to scaffold them to achieve a level of mastery in academic writing, which will be more feasible with this kind of ongoing support. I will be interested to see how this approach affects the essays which get submitted at the end of the semester.