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 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.

How can I use Twitter to learn about what’s going on in ELT? A brief beginners’ guide for teachers, editors and publishers

Firstly, a confession… When I was working as a teacher and then in-house for a publisher, I was largely oblivious to the AMAZING information-sharing, networking and opportunities for research offered by the ELT community on Twitter and Facebook. I don’t mean the promotional stuff I knew about that, of course I mean the teachers who take it upon themselves to use social media to develop their own personal learning network (PLN), who share their ideas and best practice, and befriend strangers in order to talk about English language teaching in their free time. It was only when working freelance that I plunged into Twitter, and I’m now so completely converted that I’m going to use this blog to evangelise about everything I was missing out on before.

This post will give you some starting points which I hope you’ll find helpful if you’re new to Twitter or just weighing up its benefits.


bird-1295782_1280 pixabay
Source: Pixabay. Reproduced under Creative Commons license.

Getting started on Twitter

(Skip this bit if you’re already there!)

Knowing where to get started can feel quite overwhelming.  It can take time to build up a useful network (more on that later). But first, set up a profile here. Completing the “About You” section allows people interested in the same things to find you. Including a photo is important, too. (After all, who wants to have a chat with the default Twitter egg picture?) You can read more tips for getting started here. 

If you’re not convinced yet of the benefits of Twitter for teachers, the many quotes here might change your mind.

And if this post does end up inspiring you to join the ELT Twitter community for the first time, or to go from lurking to participating, then send me a tweet to say hi! (Lurking is fine, too, of course. You can learn lots from lurking.)

Twitter lists

Lists allow you to organise your twitter connections into groups. Doing this makes the bombardment of information and opinions more manageable, and has greatly improved the whole Twitter experience for me. You can create lists through your profile page. Lists can be public or private. You can take a look at my ELT lists here (and you are very welcome to plunder them for contacts, which might save you a bit of time-consuming legwork).

Twitter hashtags and participating in Twitter chats

Hashtags are just a way of tagging tweets so people can find them more easily. Chats are online get-togethers which use hashtags so others can see what’s being said. If you want to participate in a chat, just make sure you’re logged in at the scheduled time, and search for the hashtag. Don’t forget to include the hashtag in your own replies (so that people can see them). Chats usually revolve around a set topic, and involve discussion around pre-designated questions. Chats are often summarised afterwards so you can catch up if you miss them. Here are some that I’ve found useful (and I’m sure there are plenty more to explore).

#ELTchat is held every Wednesday  (though, as is the case with all of these, you can read the tweets anytime).

#eltchinwag is a bi-weekly Twitter chat on Mondays moderated and run by ELT Ireland.

If you’re into young learners, like me, then check out the new #EFLYLchat, which is already bursting with fun ideas. The chat is held on Tuesdays. Topics so far have included favourite games for young learners and favourite listening activities. IATEFL young learners SIG are also getting in on the act, with twitter chats starting in July at #iateflylt. Definitely worth watching out for.

One particularly useful function of hashtags is to bring together all the tweets from a conference, so whether you are participating as a delegate or having a quick nosy from the comfort of your sofa, you’ve a way of seeing what is being talked about. See #IATEFL17 and #TESOL17 for starters.

More general education hashtags which are useful to keep an eye on include: #edtech #edchat #ukedchat

For fun, you can also admire the boardwork on display at #ELTwhiteboard.

There are ideas worth stealing from other language teachers over at #mfltwitterati, too.

Freelance ELT editors can find useful info tagged #FreeELT.

Finally …

I’d love to hear about your recommendations for using social media for ELT professional development. Please do share any recommendations in the comments.

You can read lots more about free online training opportunities, including MOOCs, training courses, podcasts and webinars on my previous posts here and here.

You can read more from teachers about using Twitter to network and boost professional development here and here.

Happy tweeting!

My article for IH Journal on gender equality and young learners


Photo: My own


I’m delighted to feature in the 42nd edition of the IH Journal which you can read here. See me on page 62 talking about ideas for promoting gender equality with young learners (and why there’s no such thing as a ‘lady farmer’).

While you are there, check out Katy Simpson’s excellent article ‘Why we should all be (ELT) feminists’.




Talking about gender equality at the Future of ELT conference, Regent’s University London

On Saturday June 17th, Trinity College and Regent’s University held the second teachers’ conference on ‘The Future of English Language Teaching’. Together with Melody Philip and Varinder Unlu, I spoke on the panel ‘Women in ELT: How can we achieve gender equality?’, chaired by Jackie Kassteen. This blog is a summary of my contribution to the session. I took the student experience as my focus, looking at how students are taught and the materials used.

According to a report by the World Economic Forum, the gender gap for economic participation and opportunity now stands at 60%. At the current rate of progress, it’s estimated that it will be 81 years before women can expect equality in the workforce, internationally.  In the light of these stats, what can we do as teachers, writers or publishers to help promote a more gender-equal future for our students? In my talk I suggested three areas to look at.


Me talking at the Future of ELT conference panel discussion on Women in ELT (Photo credit Melody Philip)


1 Being critical of materials

In a show of hands, about half the audience said they currently considered gender representation as a criterion when selecting classroom materials. When asked how many had come across materials they found sexist, about half said they had. The examples of sexism they volunteered to share included the cliché of women rather than men performing domestic duties.

This comes as no great surprise. I have talked at length about gender representation and materials development in a previous blog for IATEFL MaWSIG, outlining the subtle but recurrent imbalances we see in course books, and the problematic lack of women depicted in aspirational roles. Essentially: students can’t be what they can’t see. One way to tackle this is to incorporate role-models in the classroom materials we put under students’ noses.

As well as identifying poor gender representation in course books, and avoiding or adapting that material, I suggest that when we find good resources which empower and inspire, we share them! (The Women in ELT facebook group is a forum sometimes used for this, for example.)

2 Being self-critical – monitoring the behaviours we model and the language we use

We’re all sexist. I know I am. We all have unconscious bias. We have it because we are the products of the society we live in, which is unequal in some fairly fundamental ways.

How does this affect the classroom?

There’s a lot of research showing that teachers interact more with boys, call on them more frequently and ask them more questions. Boys are also more likely to shout out answers, and less likely to be reprimanded for doing so. We can be aware of these biases, and consciously try to rectify them.

We can also be mindful of the language we use. Lots of people will say this is unimportant but I don’t agree – language shapes the way we see the world, and in defining our reality we change the way we experience it. We can find and teach neutral alternatives to gendered language (eg firefighter, police officer, actor, head teacher, chair, spokesperson etc)

3 Encouraging learners – male and female – to be critical too

We know that visual literacy is a crucial 21st century skill. Kids are bombarded by images on TV and the internet, as well as in books, and they need to know how to read their messages. We can encourage learners to be critical of the visuals they consume by routinely asking questions: What do you think about this picture? Is it realistic? Why or why not? Is your family like this? What message does this picture tell us? What’s missing?

We can also teach learners to be aware of gender stereotyping (and other types of stereotyping) and call it out when they spot it. Perhaps the most effective way to get students talking about this is to surprise them by highlighting their own unconscious biases. Check out this recent post by Adi Rajan on an activity which uses images to explore stereotypes, for example. And see this fantastic video by Inspire the Future about the surprise a primary class had after being asked to draw a firefighter, a fighter pilot and a surgeon.

We can encourage learners to think about gendered assumptions about behaviours and expectations and not to be pigeonholed.

Attitude to risk is also part of this conversation. It’s important to create learning environments in which girls become accustomed to taking risks. In this TED talk, Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code asks us to ‘Teach girls bravery, not perfection’. She argues that we’re raising girls to be perfect, and we’re raising boys to be brave. Girls are taught to avoid risk and failure, which holds them back. This ‘bravery deficit’ accounts for female under-representation in many parts of the public sphere, she says. Women have been socialised to aspire to perfection and are overly cautious as a result.

Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, makes a similar argument in her influential book Lean In. Her main point is to say that as well as facing institutional obstacles, women face internal ones, which prevent them from putting themselves forward for opportunities and make them more likely to downplay their achievements and abilities. She has a refrain which she comes back to over and again, which I think is a good note to end on:

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

This is something we need to ask ourselves about our own careers, and can also get students thinking about, too.

Over to you

I’d love to hear your ideas about gender representation in materials and what we can do to challenge stereotypes. Please do share your thoughts in the comments.


Chair Jackie Kassteen, with speakers Melody Philip, Varinder Unlu and me, Emily Hird (Photo credit Caroline Robinson)


For more about the ‘Women in ELT’ panel session, read Melody Philip’s blog here.

Ten takeaways from the Educational Writers’ Seminar by the Society of Authors

On May 6th, I attended the seminar day for educational writers run by the Society of Authors in London. It was a first for me.

The day kicked off with Lionel Bender, co-founder of book packager Bender Richardson White, who talked about the differences in the educational publishing landscape between the UK and USA.


  • There is a huge appetite for non-fiction in the States. (This is in contrast to educational publishing in the UK which has seen a decline in the number of non-fiction titles published since the 1990s.) From my own point of view, it will be interesting to see how this focus on non-fiction reading texts begins to influence the ELT sector, as it surely must, if not in the form of stand-alone readers, then incorporated within course book publishing.
  • The Common Core (that is, the US national curriculum) places strong emphasis on reading content-rich non-fiction at school. This is partly as a result of consultation with industry leaders in the US on how to best to prepare students for working life. At Elementary school, 50% of the focus on reading texts should be devoted to non-fiction, increasing at senior school to 75%.
  • Educational non-fiction writers in North America are highly regarded and much sought after.
laptop Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

After lunch, Ken Wilson, ELT course book and methodology writer, shared his often entertaining experiences of delivering webinars.  The topic was well-received by writers in the audience, at a time when publishers increasingly seek to reduce author travel budgets by replacing face-to-face conference presentations with webinars conducted at a distance.


  • Remember the end-user experience and how sitting alone at a computer differs from attending a conference presentation.
  • Look at the camera!
  • Don’t do one trial run. Do ten.
  • Be aware of being too serious or too light-hearted.
  • Read the comment stream, and, if at all possible, line up someone to read it for you and help you sift through the comments for particularly useful or pertinent questions and responses.
  • Watch Nicky Hockley’s webinar tips on Youtube.

The day concluded with Nick Bilbrough talking about giving English lessons via videoconferencing through the Hands Up project to children in Gaza, Pakistan and camps for Syrian refugees. He showed footage of children in Gaza talking to a conference room at IATEFL and to a class in Russia, whose teacher is one of the Hands Up project volunteers. His talk brought home the power of video conferencing as a means to create authentic contexts for children to speak English and to develop meaningful inter-cultural links. He painted an inspiring picture of the possibilities facilitated by this readily available technology, even for teachers operating in such difficult circumstances.


  • Use Zoom for video conferencing. It works better than Skype in areas with limited internet connectivity. It is easy to record sections, which you then have available as an MP4. You can also share your screen easily.

A final word

Before the day, the event had attracted criticism for its (highly regrettable) all-male line up, which had been acknowledged by the Educational Writers Group Chair and Secretary as being rather problematic. With the work done by the Fair List, promoting gender balance in UK ELT events, it might be hoped that gender imbalance like this on panels and plenaries was a thing of the past. Unfortunately, this may have put something of a dampener on enthusiasm for the event, which was otherwise welcoming, relevant and informative.