English in Education, Spring 2017: Assessment and Learning

Are all thy conquests, glories, spoils, Shrunk to this little measure?

Julius Caesar, Act III, scene I

Annie Harris, Guest Editor

Associate Dean, School of Education & Professional Development, University of Huddersfield

What is assessment andAnnie_Huddersfield_1 how can we, as educators, ensure assessment of learning, and perhaps more particularly assessment for learning?   During the last thirty years, in many English-speaking countries, change has been endemic in the teaching and assessment of English. Some developments have been based on research related to key issues such as linguistic deprivation (Bernstein 1971), teaching language (Kingman 1988) or early reading (Rose 2006). Others, such as the recent curtailment (in the UK and elsewhere) of coursework, seem motivated more by political partisanship. The effects of such changes in assessment and public examining practice are documented in several papers in this issue, most explicitly in Bethan Marshall’s The Politics of Testing.

Debates around assessment in English have included the nature of assessment and what it measures, as well as debates around validity and reliability, ‘subjective’ or impression marking, and notions of a more ‘objective’ professional judgment. Accountability has also been prominent, especially for stakeholders, since public examining, particularly in the later stages of schooling, represents ‘high stakes’ assessment. Yet where does that leave learning? How can we best judge whether learning has taken place and if credit is due? Do we need base-line assessment to determine whether learning has occurred or value has been added? How is familiarity with testing regimes likely to affect the way in which we teach and what learners learn? This special edition takes on some of these debates and examines them in a contemporary context.

The distinction between assessment of learning (summative) and assessment for learning (formative) has been well rehearsed, but the more recent assessment as learning focuses where we might locate more recent, 21st century development.   This implies the need for pupils to be active in both learning and assessment. Some of these ideas will not be new to English teachers, for whom the pragmatics of a creative and critical classroom have often demanded the involvement of the student in the process of pedagogy. Each of the articles in this special edition challenges ideas of assessment and learning, presenting alternative perspectives on how one might accommodate both,  from primary schooling through to post-sixteen senior secondary studies.

Nerida Spina’s article, Governing by numbers, offers a detailed analysis of the impact of the Australian national testing programme, NAPLAN, undertaken at grades 3, 5, 7 and 9, which assesses literacy in terms of spelling, grammar, punctuation, reading and writing. Spina’s institutional ethnographic study indicates how this emphasis on examining with its concomitant pressure on schools has undermined both the curriculum and opportunities for classroom creativity.

Bethan Marshall’s account of The Politics of Testing picks up this argument, initially by looking back fondly to a time in the UK when teachers and educators could comment on the examining system ‘and the exam boards listened’. Her article then goes on to address in turn the phonics screening test, key stage 2 literacy and GCSE English, and the effect of ‘politics, even party politics’ on assessment processes.

Tony Hall and Eilis Flanagan’s article on Digital Ensemble presents an innovative approach to English assessment through the integration of drama pedagogy and mobile computing with senior students. Those of us outside the Republic of Ireland are left to speculate, given its value and significance, what scope, if any, there might be for us to do something equally creative in assessment and learning.

Jonathan Glazzard gives us an account of synthetic phonics and the impact of the phonics screening test in relation to models and theories of reading development in UK primary schools. Glazzard’s account questions the compartmentalisation of reading skills, and he argues for a developmental framework which recognises the phases and stages in sequential reading skills development.

Victoria Elliott’s paper What does a good one look like? takes us behind closed doors to observe two examiner training meetings. The training deemed to take place through these meetings is evaluated through the interaction and notions of compliance with the mark scheme, standardisation, representativeness, and cognition. Examining, the article reveals, is a process fraught with challenges and contradictions as well as with significance.

John Hodgson’s article with Bill Greenwell, The work of the course: validity and reliability in assessing English Literature, describes an ‘alternative’ UK English literature syllabus from the 20th century where informed response to literature was encouraged. Students genuinely did their coursework throughout the course, and teachers, who were familiar with their students’ work, were cradled within the developmental context of a consensual and supportive moderation process.

The book reviews in this special edition focus not so much on assessment as on learning, yet in doing so they offer thoughtful comments on where we place value and significance. Marcello Giovanelli discusses The Discourse of Reading Groups: Integrating Cognitive and Sociocultural Perspectives (2016) by David Peplow, Joan Swann, Paola Trimarco and Sara Whiteley.   Andrew Burn looks at James Gee’s Literacy and Education (2015), a book by an author familiar with the field and one which provides lively examples as well as revisiting his ‘Big D’ notion of discourses. .

Jo Carrington’s poem Remember me reminds us of the implications of and the responsibility that comes with teaching and learning within a curriculum that at times might appear neither to permit flexibility in its assessment nor fully to acknowledge individual needs. Hopefully, the articles in this special edition will remind us that knowledge and understanding of process and of practice as well as creativity and professionalism are fundamental to ensuring that our pupils and students, whoever they are, are given a fair chance to succeed through the learning and assessment they experience.

This special issue is now available online and print subscribers will receive their copy shortly.   If you are a NATE member and cannot access the online publication, please email membership@nate.org.uk with your name and membership number to receive a unique code.

The Politics of English …


… is the correct title for the current (Spring 2016) special issue of English in Education.   In producing the print edition, the publishers accidentally transposed the title Assessment and Learning from the proposed 2017 special issue.   The online version has the correct title, and print subscribers will receive a postal note from the publishers.

So how does the special issue view the current politics of English?  In his editorial, Ken Jones writes:

The articles in this special issue register the effects of … the ways in which English, through a thirty-year process of cumulative change, has come to be regulated and redefined. They examine some of the intellectual justifications put forward by advocates of change. They track its effects on teachers’ sense of the possibilities of English. Without hyperbole, they consider alternatives.

Simon Gibbons’ article focuses on the ways in which teachers have internalised the requirements of policy in their own sense of what it means to be a good English teacher. Andrew McCallum studies the teaching of English in a state secondary school and a private school.  He argues that, in the first school, where creativity is seen not as integral to English but as conditional upon the prior mastery of something uncreative, a skills focused curriculum produces a drastic narrowing of the learning experience.  This experience is captured by Michael Rosen in his poem ‘Bear Grylls’, which the author has allowed us to reprint for the special issue from his latest collection.

Drawing on  a comparative study of teaching Romen and Juliet in London and Palestine, Monica Brady and John Yandell insist that ‘classrooms are places where meanings are made, not merely transmitted’.  In similar vein, Karen Daniels, in her article on Early Years education, argues that English – or ‘literacy’ – is a site where students develop ‘repertoires for meaning-making’.    These micro-practices of English teaching are not insulated from the political, as they are enabled and constrained by the wider, ‘macro’ social practices of policy-makers and social movements.  Howard Ryan and Debra Goodman consider these in their account of the ‘whole language’ movement in the United States.  As Ken Jones concludes, to make significant changes to the present state of English requires looking beyond the micro-politics of the classroom.


Assessment and Learning – Call for Papers



2017 Special Issue on Assessment and Learning

Edited by Ann Harris

Deadline for Submissions: 2 May 2016

Despite the prevailing rhetoric around learning, assessment remains a crucial measure of success in schools and colleges. Students are judged, qualify and progress on the basis of assessment. Institutions and their teachers are commended or condemned on the grounds of results. Thus, while we might like to think education is about personal growth and the fulfilment of potential, all too often it is about a mark on a page or the copy of a transcript. These issues are not just national but international, especially in an increasingly globalised and competitive economy where the transferability and currency of qualifications is of vital importance to stakeholders. So, is assessment about certification and selection; or is it about meritocracy and social justice? How can we find our way through the uncertain and conflicting notions of the social function of educational assessment? Debates have raged about assessment for decades: whether standards are rising or being dumbed down; whether norm or criterion referencing is preferable (and whether the latter is even feasible); whether knowledge or understanding is being assessed; whether memory or competence is being tested.

In English and related arts subjects, the debate has been particularly keen both about the mode of assessment and the matter of judgement. In the UK, English was the first of the “traditional” subjects to introduce significant assessment by coursework and to celebrate the notion that the learning and teaching of language and literature gained from this. In the 1970s and 1980s, “experimental” courses in literature and language demonstrated the creativity and criticality of which secondary school students were capable if they had the opportunity to research, draft and develop a response. Academic judgement was required, however, to grade the work and to establish the validity and reliability of the assessment, and, as a result, standardisation and moderation needed to be meticulously conducted to ensure credibility and an appropriate professional discourse around assessment and grading.

Such courses were introduced in different times: before the World Wide Web and before league tables; and such initiatives have retreated in face of the increasing politicisation of learning and assessment. Yet, whether it involves evaluating coursework or marking an examination, assessment is always a socially constructed activity involving cognitive processes, social judgement and cultural quantification when applying standards, determining levels and deciding whether specific assessment objectives have been met. In England and Wales, what are the professional and social implications around assessment in English now it is moving back primarily to summative examinations? Nationally and internationally, how do we define success and failure, given the global influence of PISA? Is there still a concept of fitness for purpose and of authentic, fair and just assessment?

In this special edition, we welcome papers from the UK and internationally around all aspects of learning and assessment, whether from the perspective of researchers or of students, teachers or examiners; and from whatever sector – primary, secondary, post compulsory or higher education. We are keen to debate theoretical or practice based approaches to the challenges of relating assessment to learning within different contexts. Contributions which seek to interrogate prevailing dogma, introduce comparative or international dimensions or discuss alternative approaches to learning and assessment are also welcome.

Please prepare your submission in line with the guidance in the English in Education section of the NATE website.  Submissions should be made via our ScholarOne site.  Please select the correct ‘Special Issue’ as the Manuscript Type. Deadline for submissions is 2 May 2016.

Discovering Literature – digital resources for Romantics and Victorians

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by Moyra Beverton

Resources for learning have a different meaning since the digital revolution, which has to some extent democratised access. Teachers and students can now explore whole archives of text, sound, image and moving image.

Some digitised archives stand out because of a concerted effort to focus on learning. The British Library has collaborated with educators to make their items both accessible and useable.   Resources are organised in collections and some offer teachers’ notes for guidance.

The Discovering Literature website, aimed at KS4 & KS5, initially focuses on the Romantics and Victorians. Teachers can weave their own path through the plethora of original manuscripts, recordings, articles and artefacts or can take inspiration from the materials on offer for each author and theme. These materials can be used in diverse ways, for example to stretch and challenge the more able, perhaps by clustering activities; as directed work for background research; as a stimulus for speaking and listening assessment, whilst sharing discoveries; or for co-creation of new writing.

Most importantly, students can be guided to wider reading, given enough direction for independent research and sufficient confidence to bring discoveries back to learning in the classroom.

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In making my contribution to the teaching materials, I wanted to address certain issues that have arisen over recent years, as well as current topics such as independent learning, critical thinking and peer- or self-assessment. Anyone who has ever had to tackle issues of inclusivity, differentiation, wider reading, independent learning or accessibility to resources beyond their budget will find a reservoir of materials to suit their needs and save time, as well as a means of teaching their students the rudiments of research practice.

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With the current need to plan work on 19th century literature, opportunities for accessible, independent work can seem remote. Many students could struggle to access the unfamiliar texts; however through the Discovering Literature website they could also begin to contextualise a novel and its writer, for example investigating status and gender. Examples below are from the Teacher Notes for Persuasion:

  • Before examining The Navy List* in some detail, attribute names to students e.g. Charles, William, Edmund etc. Ask them to notice how often their name crops up in the lists. This would work well as a paired learning activity. Which person with their name is earning the most/least?
  • Which names from The Navy List are still in use today? Students could research today’s most popular names* and compare which ones have fallen into disuse, have stayed popular and/or have had a resurgence. This could lead to a discussion on the impact of names on context and vice versa.

Following on from this, the teacher could select a passage that is focused on an aspect of life in the navy and, through close reading, discuss the writer’s connection, motivation or stimulus for using this context. In this way students can contribute their opinion based on their research, thereby increasing their connection to the text, motivating them to read on in pursuit of the narrative or writer’s intentions.

The teacher’s planning for critical analysis remains within familiar territory, yet with little further effort from the teacher or department, the students have had the opportunity to increase their engagement. In addition students can use the website routinely for independent study, either guided by the teacher or making self-selections in pursuit of their own interests.

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* links to suggested external websites are included in the teachers’ notes.