Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Let's take grades out of language learning

Language learning is an inherently confidence-shaking enterprise. It is commonplace to work really hard, practicing every day for months, only to see someone else achieve the same level as you in weeks. We get our students to come to school and face this tangible reality every day. It is true that everyone can learn a language, and they can do it by applying the same natural language-learning skills. While those skills are universal, every learner has a heuristic that works best for them, and progress is never equal.

It is through ownership and cognizance of their learning that students can discover the correct recipe that will consistently lead to progress (at any rate). So, how best to provide them with guidance in this endeavor, and, in this setting?

In Ontario, with our new focus on CEFR-inspired, action-oriented tasks in the French classroom, it is of paramount importance to foster classroom environments conducive to taking risks. It is what you can do in the target language that counts. And, to get students doing things in French, you need them to take risks. I see grades as an impediment in fostering risk-taking and metacognition. Students need to focus on the increments of progress native to their own language-learning heuristic, and that can be best helped along by receiving judgement-free feedback based in observations and conversations. What do you think?

Really, what do grades mean in language-learning, anyway? Language is fluid. If you do not use it, you lose it. If a student receives an A+ for French in grade 9, for example, then proceeds to not use French for 10 years, would the A+ have any value to an employer? Would it in any way tell anyone about their current language ability? Even thinking of the mark as a “snapshot” of this hypothetical student’s potential is erroneous, I think. But, at this point, I want to know what others think.

Please, leave a comment with your thoughts about this blog post.


  1. An intuitive teacher who knows her students can help those learners to set goals for language learning and to engage them in the kind of learning that motivates. As long as we, as teachers, continue to focus on quantitative evaluation, so will our students. How do we judge our success or progress in any subject or endeavour over a specific period of time? Does a number or a grade letter help a student to move forward? And really, if we are to be honest, is grading ever a rigorously objective process, anyway? It is time to reconsider grading. Thanks for a great post!

  2. Most of my assessments use descriptors such as Let's work on this, Getting there, Got it or Meets expectations, Exceeds expectations. We talk about what Ss do well and something specific to focus on next time. one of my Ss today wrote a goal: to try to complete rough drafts. Yay!!

    1. You would, or already do, like single point rubrics.


      Thanks for your feedback with specific examples, Madame!

  3. Great feedback Laura and Jeanine! If learning is continuous, then feedback is what is important for helping students to progress!

  4. My grade 9s have gone an entire month (since the beginning of Sem 2) and have not received one grade. Surprisingly, they've also not asked for any. They know where they are and how they are doing because we talk about it daily. Their target goals are visible in the classroom, their successes are celebrated on our "Je peux" board, and we conference all the time. They are telling me how they are doing, rather than the other way around. It's so refreshing to see.

    In speaking with a colleague, we felt a bit nervous about throwing out the grades at this point. But we are still tracking progress (using FreshGrade) and we are seeing the students continue to try based on our feedback. We are trying to train ourselves to think differently:-)