What is Assessment for Learning? A look at how we can use AFL in ELT

Already widely employed in the mainstream, Assessment for Learning, or AFL for short, is gradually gaining importance in ELT. We’re starting to see references to it in some primary and pre-school courses (such as Pearson’s Big Fun) and it’s begun to feature on conference programmes, too, with Sarah Priestley giving a great introduction to this topic on this as part of the IATEFL Young Learners SIG pre-conference online event in February, for example. This post will cover the basics of AFL and give ideas for how to get started, and what the benefits could be.

What does it mean? How is AFL different from self-assessment?

‘Assessment for Learning’ means encouraging learners to think actively about their learning, review their progress, and create a feedback loop which then informs the teacher’s priorities for future lessons. It’s linked to the concept of ‘formative assessment’ – the feedback both helps teachers monitor student progress and allows them to adapt their teaching to student needs, for example by identifying what has and hasn’t gone well, and then planning additional activities to plug any gaps in students’ knowledge, perhaps using a different approach. Through this process, learners themselves should become more confident in knowing what they are supposed to learn and to what standard.

In a nutshell …

  • AFL happens regularly, not just at the end of the school year or school term, like traditional forms of assessment.
  • Students are more involved in the process of learning, and begin to ‘think like teachers’.
  • Learning is made VISIBLE.
  • As well as considering how well they did, learners identify what they need to do next.
learn-1970845_1280 PIXAbay
Source: Pixabay. Reproduced under Creative Commons license.

Why do it?

At the recent ‘Future of ELT’ conference run by Regent’s College and Trinity College London, Gail Ellis from the British Council delivered an excellent plenary about the role of metacognition in helping children become more effective learners. She argued that we frequently underestimate young learners’ ability to self-assess. By giving them more credit for their metacognitive abilities, and allowing them to become commentators on their learning experiences, we respect their rights to show their preferences, give them increased autonomy and often boost their motivation along the way.

There are also some important implications for attainment. Research published by Paul Black and Dylan William shows that formative assessment has a strong positive effect on achievement (Inside The Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment, School of Education, King’s College, London, 1998).

So how can we do it?

Gail Ellis argued that reviewing, which can be carried out in L1, should be based around five reflection questions:

  • What did you do?
  • What did you learn?
  • How did you learn?
  • How well did you do?
  • What do you need to do next?

Her plenary also promoted the value of incorporating a range of multi-modal reviewing techniques, including:

  • Students drawing pictures to show what they learnt
  • Filming students during an activity and asking them to talk about what they were doing
  • Photographing students and asking them to comment on the process they followed for an activity
  • Constructing models to show understanding
  • Movement activities, such as miming a favourite story
  • Using a puppet to ask reflection questions
  • Using visual prompts as opportunities for reflection on previous work

Top tips for implementing AFL

Share success criteria with students so that they know at the beginning of the task what they are going to be assessed on. Give students a list of the things you will be looking for, or build them into the task design, and refer back to them in assessments. Examples of success criteria for a writing task could be: Include a heading, include three adjectives, include a picture, have a beginning, middle and end.

With clear success criteria in place, students can also give each other more meaningful peer feedback.

Give specific and useful feedback not just grades. In Sarah Priestley’s talk she suggests structuring feedback as two stars (two good things) and a wish (something she’d like to see next time).

Scaffold output by providing sentence starters or gapped sentences so the focus is on meaningful self-assessment, not on struggling to produce the language to talk about it. This can also be achieved by having learners answer yes/no to a series of statements about a task (eg I used paragraphs or I predicted what the story was about from the title). With lower levels, we can make use of visuals like traffic lights, and happy or sad faces for students to colour according to how confident they feel about their learning.


Further reading

Sarah Priestley has very kindly made her IATEFL YL SIG talk slides available, and with her permission I’m reproducing them here: SPriestley AfL iatefl ylsig Feb2017

For more detail and a list of titles for further reading, I also recommend the British Council’s page on AFL here. Cambridge International Examinations have a useful guide here, too.


Over to you

Are there tips you’d like to share with other readers about effective Assessment for Learning? Perhaps you’ve seen the benefits of involving learners as active participants in assessment? Is AFL something you’re already familiar with or considering trying for the first time? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


12 thoughts on “What is Assessment for Learning? A look at how we can use AFL in ELT

  1. This is sort of old news to primary teachers (actually, ELT could do a lot by looking at mainstream education and vice versa), but one that pays massive dividends when done right.

    The only problem with it is you do get ‘fake’ AfL, with learners still stating that they get everything (to save face) or saying they understand nothing (in some cultures this is a quasi-compliment, that the lesson was *so* difficult). While reflection is great, it is often a good idea to as some questions for formative assessment and to ask where exactly the next stop in the teaching and learning journey is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes – it’s slightly baffling that this hasn’t been a bigger thing in ELT given that it’s kind of old hat in mainstream ed. I think in ELT young learners’ materials there is still a very definite sense of “let’s do a self-assessment because we’ve finished the unit” rather than “let’s do the self-assessment to see what we need to do next”.
      Re: ‘fake AFL’ – yes I can see how those problems would arise. I liked Gail Ellis’s suggestion to use L1, in order to explore more meaningfully and in more depth. I think also that if you’re saying ‘Show me how you …’ or ‘Tell me about how you did blah blah blah’, while looking at a photo or watching a video of the kids in action, then that might be a possible way of avoiding the limits of the ‘Can you do it? Y/N’ conversation. But that’s perhaps only possible if a bit of L1 is allowed – I know that in many classes it wouldn’t be. I’d be interested to hear how others tackle the issues you’ve raised. Thanks Marc.


      1. An absolute pleasure. And you just mentioned one of my YL pet peeves. ‘I can’ statements at the end of units. ‘I can talk about my favourite animal’ – of course! There’s an example directly above the can-do box!


  2. One of the ideas I’ve been encouraged to do is to let the students create their own success criteria for task. That usually requires a model text (written or spoken) where they can they can analyse it, I identify the language and genre features present, use those are criteria, adapt the criteria as needed (so a weaker student might set themselves a shorter word limit than a stronger student in the class) and then they can complete their text and be evaluated by a peer in the class. This is almost certainly too difficult for the students at first (especially Young learners and not teenage leaners) but after a couple of months my guidance can usually be reduced to almost nothing.
    Thanks for the great post 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for referencing my AfL webinar Emily & pleased to see this area being discussed more in ELT circles.
    Questioning techniques are something I’ve been working on in my own primary yl lessons this year and also an area I’ve been encouraging my mentees to work on, too. Different questioning techniques allow the teacher to involve all ss, not just the first to put up their hand & or shout out the answer! Plus you get to see/hear who knows what, identify gaps in knowledge & plan next stage accordingly.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for your blog Emily and for referring to my plenary. Actually I think I was using AfL well before the term was coined as it is closely linked to learning to learn! I like the transparency about it, the sharing of learning aims, success criteria and the use of self- and peer-assessment to promote active and questioning learning and learner autonomy. Reflection is the key and if learners don’t have the English language skills yet to talk about their learning it doesn’t matter – their will be no loss of the learning to learn benefits if the target language is not used. Little by little they will be able to use more and more English when talking about their learning as they become familiar with this approach to learning. Thanks again for your post!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s