Assessment for Learning in the primary classroom

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I have recently led a webinar on Assessment for Learning organised by the British Council as part of a week-long event dedicated to assessment. I have really enjoyed attending the other sessions over the week. It has been great to connect and interact with so many educators from around the world.

Prior to the session, participants were asked to respond to a pre-webinar survey regarding Assessment for Learning (AfL) and the responses provided some food for thought.

  • Although over 34% of respondents incorporate AfL into their teaching once a week or more often and 30% do it regularly, every day or every lesson, when asked about AfL specific CPD, circa 69% of respondents reported they have not received dedicated training. This shows a real gap in practice and something I will focus on when I start in my new role in August. This is also why free events like the one that this webinar was part of are so important.
  • Overall, the data suggests that there is a positive perception among respondents regarding the integration of AfL in their teaching. Around 80% of respondents agree, at least to some extent, with the statement: ‘AfL is fully integrated in every lesson I teach‘, and almost half the respondents find this integration easy. However, it is unclear whether the respondents fully understand the concept of AfL and what it means to fully integrate it into every lesson as evidenced by responses to the statement about making effective use of AfL data and regular use of peer- and self-assessment.
  • The survey also suggests that there is some variability in respondents’ levels of confidence when it comes to the difference between AfL and AoL. This could have implications for teaching and learning, as a lack of understanding of these concepts could impact the effectiveness of assessment practices.

The webinar

The webinar was divided into three parts: Assessment, AfL in the primary classroom, Practical ideas. Read on for my notes and reflections from the session.

Part 1 – Assessment

As suggested by the pre-webinar survey, there were some questions regarding the difference between AoL and AfL, so we started out by discussing these to ensure that we were on the same page regarding these assessment types. Participants were asked which picture they thought was a better representation of assessment and the responses were split. While many people suggested B, there were quite a few who thought A was a better representation. This is hardly surprising considering that the attendees were spread out around the globe and local contexts probably have great influence over what is common practice in assessment.

assessment for learning vs assessment of learning
Which picture do you think best represents assessment – Picture A or Picture B?

We moved on to clarify the terms:

Assessment of Learning, aka assessment for summative purposes, evaluates a learner’s progress up to that particular point and provides a summary of where they are at. AoL is seen as a more traditional approach to assessment and the aim is to collect data that can give information about attainment. An example of this is an exam at the end of a course or a unit test or an end of term assessment in a primary or secondary school setting. These examples all share some features, namely that they usually result in a grade and report on success or failure.

Assessment for Learning, aka assessment for formative purposes, is, as William (2018) defines, a teaching approach that generates feedback students and teachers can use to improve their performance. For example, observing class discussion, asking questions, reviewing work in progress, etc. It is often immediate and gives students more control over their learning. It is a process by which assessment information is used by teachers to adjust their teaching strategies and by students to adjust their learning strategies. AfL boosts motivation and teachers can gain insight into students’ level of understanding. While AoL usually occurs at the end of the learning process, AfL can happen at any stage.

Part 2 – Key principles of AfL

key principles of AfL assessment for learning

To be able to employ AfL strategies we need to do a number of things:

1.Encourage learners to focus on their own progress

It’s essential that learners don’t compare themselves with each other and that their progress needs to be emphasized over their attainment.

2. Communicate confidence that every learner can improve

We can help learners believe they can improve by giving specific feedback on what they need to do to and how they can do it.

3. Empower learners to take an active part in their own learning 

The AfL process can help learners become more aware of what they are learning and how they are learning it. This empowers them to take control of their own learning by developing their skills of self-regulation. As they begin to assess their own work and set goals, they also become more independent.

4. Develop learners’ confidence in peer and self-assessment

These are skills that learners need time and practice in. The more they do it, the more confident and accurate they will be in their assessment.

5. Allow for longer response time and ask follow up questions

Research has shown that on average teachers tend to pause for 3 seconds after a question. Thanks to Rachel Tsateri‘s inquiry, I’ve realised that the actual Rowe’s research says the typical wait time after a question is between 0.7 and 1.5 seconds (!) and her suggestion was to extend it to around 3 seconds. That is way too short in either case. Learners need time to process questions, and this is even more important to remember in verbal situations. They need time to process what they heard, maybe internally translate that into their L1s, gather their thoughts about the content, make decisions about how to express that in the target language, and all that before they are ready to utter a word. Once you get a response, you also need to encourage your learners to extend their answers so think about follow up questions to ask.

6. Have some slack

As William claims, some things need to stop even if they are good things, so that better things can happen. There needs to be enough wiggle room in the curriculum or syllabus to create space for formative assessment. Think carefully about what areas or topics you might be able to skip to allow enough time for appropriate formative assessment to happen.

7. Focus on the relationship between what you did and what learners learnt to be able to improve your own practice

Formative assessment is important because we need to check if our learners have learnt what we intended for them to learn. Or did they learn something else? (Which might not be a problem!) Once we have that information, we can make informed decisions about how to move on.

5 underlying principles of AfL (William and Thompson, 2007)

William & Thompson formative assessment principles
The 5 underlying principles of formative assessment as presented by William and Thompson

1.Clarifying, understanding and sharing learning intentions

This principle relates to all three stakeholders (teacher, peers and the learners) and focuses on the importance of learning intentions, which is what we want all learners to know and be able to do. In Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction this would be linked to sequencing concepts, providing models & appropriate scaffolding.

2.Engineering effective classroom discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learning

In responsive teaching the focus is on how the teacher responds to where the learners in in their learning. We need to get feedback from students about the learning and instructional teaching needs to be highly interactive with good questioning and knowledge check routines as well as appropriate question design. Rosenshine talks about checking understanding and using probing questions.

3.Providing feedback that moves learners forward

Feedback is only successful if students’ learning improves. Our goal is to change students’ capacity to produce better work (moving forward from guided to independent practice in Rosenshine). Teaching should be cyclical so that when students receive feedback they get to have another go and improve their performance. Don’t be mislead by the word ‘back’ in feedback – good feedback avoids the should’ve/could’ve/would’ve ideas and tells the learners what they need to be able to do better next time.

The last two strategies relate to Rosenshine’s principles of guided student practice & scaffolding and highlight the importance of learners being active participants in the classroom and beyond.

4.Activating students as learning resources for one another

Providing opportunities for learners to work in pairs and groups is the greatest resource we have. Activities such as think-pair-share, structured dialogues, pyramid discussions, etc. are valuable assessment tools that allow for peer support.

5.Activating students as owners of their own learning

We need to enable our students to become independent learners. We can do this by:

  • Setting learning goals and forming effective schemata
  • Giving students access to long-term plans
  • Setting up (achievable!) milestones
  • Providing clear rational models for conceptual schemata building
  • Providing models at various levels of success

Part 3 – Assessment for Learning in practice

To me, AfL is the backbone of teaching. It provides teachers with valuable information about what the students know and can do independently and what they need more help with. They also help the learners figure out how to get better. AfL involves a lot of reflection both on the part of the learners and the teacher. Sometimes reflecting individually does the trick, while at other times we need peers to point out how we could do better.

Here are some of my favourite AfL activities that I have successfully used with primary learners:

  • Learning intentions

William argues that it’s essential for teachers to be absolutely clear about what it is they want their students to learn. However, it does not mean that learning objectives need to be stated on the board and learners need to copy them at the beginning of every lesson as that might take the fun out of the entire session. It is up to the teacher to decide when and how it’s best to reveal the learning intentions in a lesson. So let’s now look at some variations that are motivating for primary learners.

  1. Consider setting up an appropriate lead-in activity before eliciting the learning objective from your students. For instance, if the LO is to discuss their last holiday with their families, you can start the lesson by showing photos of your own holiday, letting them guess where you went and what you did. Answer any questions they might have before asking them to guess the LO.
  2. Give a gapped version of the LO early on in the lesson (can be right at the beginning or after the lead-in) and tell your learners that you will want them to be able to complete the gaps by the end of the lesson. This way you can easily tie the different lesson staged together and even use it as a reflection task or exit ticket at the end. Learners are bound to be motivated to stay on track to be able to crack the puzzle.
  • Targeted questioning

One of the easiest ways to implement AfL in any lesson is utilising questions. Asking the right kinds of questions is key and there are a few things we need to be aware of:

  1. Give ample time for your learners to process the question, think about their response, process the language they need to respond before expecting them to say anything. So get comfortable with silence.
  2. Ask concept checking questions to find out whether your learners understand the topic at hand.
  3. Use ‘might’ to elicit how to get to the next stage, e.g. So how might you correct that mistake? What might you do next? What might you need to succeed?
  4. Use the magic word: why? Encourage your learners to extend their answers by asking them why they think what they’ve just said.
  5. Try not to put your learners on the spot. Don’t target learners individually unless you are 100% certain they will be able to give you an answer. Instead, you could ask them to write their response on a whiteboard and hold it up towards you. That way, you can see everyone’s responses without singling anybody out.
  • Statements

Questions are essential tools for any teacher. However, sometimes statements are better to generate effective classroom discussions that allow you to elicit evidence of learning. Take the image on this slide as an example. Imagine that you are working on the topic of travel. You could, by all means, introduce the topic by asking them about their travel experiences or show them some pictures of your own. You will most probably end up with some discussion and some answers but the learners are most probably working in the lower two tiers of Bloom’s taxonomy – remembering and understanding. However, if you start the same lesson by showing them a statement like the one you can see, you are prompting your learners to think more deeply about the topic. They are more likely to give you more extended and deeper answers that show more evidence of their learning because they are more likely to Applying, Analysing or Evaluating the statement.

  • Traffic lights

Get learners to make sets of coloured cards (or make them yourself) in the fashion of traffic lights. Teach your learners that green stands for feeling confident about a task, yellow means they might have questions or there are parts they can’t do independently, and red means they need immediate support because they don’t know what and how to do.

Hand these out in every lesson or have them in a place where learners can easily get to them and ask them to use them frequently. You do not have to wait till the end of a lesson to ask for feedback. You can ask them to show you a card to indicate how much they think they already know about a topic you are about to start or ask them to show you how they are progressing halfway through a lesson or an activity.

The beauty of this strategy is that you get immediate feedback, and you can course correct accordingly. You see some red, go and help right away. There are some yellow cards – offer support or ask some guiding questions. Seeing lots of green? Give yourself a pat on the back! It’s also a great way to activate learners as resources to one another. There are way too many learners for you to be able to support everyone by yourself. But based on the colours your learners picked, you can rearrange the pairs or groups to allow for peer support.

It also does not require much, or any, language on the part of the learners so even learners with very little English will be able to participate. Not to mention that it, of course, works regardless of age. I’ve used this strategy successfully with teens and even adults.

  • Gestures and emojis

Another alternative to the traffic lights idea is to ask learners to use hand gestures or smiley faces. For instance, they can show you a thumbs up if they are feeling confident and a thumbs down if they aren’t. They can use mini whiteboards to draw smiley faces to show their level of confidence with the task or even clap once, twice or three times to give feedback about their learning. Those of you who are raising little ones are probably making use of this in everyday life. Most kids love kinesthetic activities. My daughter knew what thumbs up means before she was even able to say the words. Not to mention that emojis are a universal language helping us express a range of ideas. As an EAL teacher I use them extensively to communicate with new arrivals who speak no English and whose L1 I don’t speak.

  • Can-do statements

Using can-do statements is a great way of getting learners to assess themselves. Lots of modern coursebooks use this strategy as well where they have a list of these at the end of a unit as reflection. The learners then get the chance to evaluate their own learning. Can-do statements are a great way of making the learning visible and to bridge the aim of a lesson to the outcomes. We just need to make sure that the statements are written in child-friendly language.

Here is an example:

Learning objective: By the end of the lesson, learners will be better able to use the present simple to talk about their daily routines.

Can-do statements:

1.I can use present simple verbs to make sentences about my daily routine. E.g. I get up at 7 every weekday morning.

2.I can use present simple questions to ask about somebody else’s daily routine. E.g. When do you usually get up?

  • Mistakes

My students are always surprised when I tell them that I absolutely love mistakes! I guess they must think teachers aren’t supposed to say, much less feel like that. Mistakes are meant to be non-existent or hidden at the least. We aren’t supposed to acknowledge them, much less love them, right?

But I strongly believe that mistakes are great. They are great because we can learn from them. When a learner makes a mistake, I’m delighted because first of all, they are learning and because I get to learn more about the way they are thinking. In my experience, eliciting reasons for correct and incorrect answers, especially if done before the correct answer is revealed, often leads to highly useful conversations that tell teachers a lot about where things might have gone wrong or what needs to be clarified.

Students also learn that mistakes are part and parcel of the learning process and not something that we need to be ashamed of or avoid at all costs. This builds motivation, confidence and rapport in the classroom.

  • Success criteria

To succeed at anything, it’s important to know what is expected. It’s no different for our learners! Assessment criteria, rubrics and checklists can provide learners this information and they can be referred to during and after the task as well. With older learners I like getting them involved in making the assessment criteria that will be used. This way I can make sure they fully understand what is expected of them and they get the chance to engage with the expectations before they attempt the task. I then ask them to use the same set of criteria for peer assessment and I mark their final draft using the same too.

An added advantage of these is that they can be as detailed as you wish. The professional ones, e.g., IELTS, are quite complex and might need to be graded for your students. However, it is important to train them to be able to deduce information from them. Another pro is that they can be highly visual. I like giving feedback by highlighting parts of the rubric that apply to the work I’m marking and adding personalised comments. When the learner gets their work back, they receive it with the highlighted rubric attached. They can easily see where they are at and what they need to do to progress to the next stage.

  • Comment only marking

Grades and points can be scary. Learners and parents tend to put too much emphasis on this measure of performance. The problem, other than the pressure it puts on the learners, is that they often can’t seem to see past that one letter or number. Therefore, whatever feedback they receive won’t be as useful as it could be.

Sticking to comments only and avoiding grades, if possible, help learners focus on how to get better. It encourages them to engage with the feedback and make corrections to get better. Even when I was teaching in a secondary school, I would often return assessments (these were summative ones!) without a grade at first and I would ask my students to make corrections in a different colour and resubmit, only then would they get their grade. This forced learners to focus on the feedback over the grade.

Remember, feedback should be forward looking so when you make comments about your primary learners’ work, focus on a few areas only at a time and make sure they get the chance to repeat the task and do better. For instance, your learners have just written some postcards to their families from a school trip. Hopefully you had planned the success criteria with the task and made your learners aware of it. Use that as a basis for your comments. Find areas that the learner is doing well with as well as 2 to 3 areas they can improve. Keep a balance of relatively easy fixes and challenging ones.

So you could comment on:

-Their use of the past tense (easy fix)

-Use of capital letters and punctuation (easy fix)

-Spelling (depending on the word/level and age of the learners, this might be challenging)

-Extending sentences to improve coherence, etc.

Now that they’ve seen your feedback, give them a chance to do better. Ask them to rewrite their postcards as homework or in the following lesson ask them to write post cards to their best friends while they are on holiday with their families. They aren’t repeating the same exact task, but they can put put your feedback that you’ve spent valuable time on to good use.

  • Two stars and a wish

This is a great peer assessment activity that encourages learners to look at someone else’s work and find positives as well as give constructive criticism. We all tend to find mistakes in other people’s work much more easily than in our own so the ‘one wish’ part is usually quite easy for students to do. They might need a bit of help with phrasing that wish, though. However, in my experience, learners tend to be much harsher on themselves and each other than the teacher would be, so they might struggle to come up with two positive comments at first. Eliciting a few areas to comment on before they do the activity will help them with this.


I have really enjoyed delivering this session because even though I have been passionate about this topic for a while, I have still learnt a lot while researching it for this particular webinar. Interacting with the participants in the chat has been valuable too, not to mention all the insights that the pre-webinar survey has provided.

It seems clear that teachers around the world want to know more about AfL and how to implement it effectively for everyone’s benefit. However, the Q&A also highlighted how local contexts might place restrictions on how much room can be made for AfL in the classroom, syllabus, or curriculum. Nevertheless, the fact that so many people attended the week-long event and watched the videos since suggests that there is need for even more AfL focused CPD.

Further reading on Assessment for Learning

For some more ideas to use with secondary learners, click here and here.

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