Assessment in the context of primary languages

Suzanne Graham, University of Reading

The mention of the term ‘assessment’ in the context of primary languages usually prompts two, related responses: should we be assessing learners; if so, how should we be doing it?

Taking the first of these, an argument sometimes offered against assessment is that it takes the enjoyment out of language learning, and makes the experience too similar to other curriculum areas like maths and literacy where formal tests like SATs are an important focus. Likewise, it is sometimes claimed that one of the very reasons that learners enjoy language learning is because it is not like their usual classroom experience. In a useful discussion about the whole topic of assessment, Marianne Nikolov contrasts the focus on making primary school language learning about ‘fun and ease’ with the requirements of ‘standards-based measurement’ of learning outcomes that are commonplace in many educational contexts (Nikolov, 2016, p.4). A related argument is that assessing young learners can be a stressful experience for them.

Then, there are classroom and teacher-related factors. When curriculum time for language learning at primary school is typically fairly limited, can teachers afford to devote some of it to assessment? Furthermore, how to devise assessment formats that give the most useful information about learners may not be something all primary language teachers know or have been trained to do.

Viewed from another angle, however, we also know that students’ motivation and confidence are enhanced if they feel they are making progress in their language learning (Graham et al., 2016). Assessment, and especially formative and/or diagnostic assessment, can make an important contribution to that sense of progression, giving both students and teachers valuable insights into strengths and areas that need developing. Assessment information is especially important for helping teachers plan in the short, medium and long-term. It is also an important tool in the transition from primary to secondary school language learning.

Several authors have outlined factors that need to be borne in mind when deciding how to assess young language learners, which can be summarised as follows: assessment tasks should be concrete rather than abstract; in a format that enables learners to maintain concentration and motivation to complete the tasks; have just the right amount of challenge to give a sense of progression but not so much as to be daunting; and to be in a format which is similar to the kind of learning activities experienced in class and related to learners’ interests (other principles of primary languages assessment can be found here). Any form of assessment that causes learners to be anxious risks being less reliable, and therefore tasks should be “psychologically safe” (McKay, 2006, p. 10). Arguably, however, the information gathered should be detailed enough for teachers to have a clear idea about how well their learners are doing and what areas need more development. The information should also relate to the learning objectives, of course. That more detailed information will then allow teachers to make informed decisions about how to adapt their teaching and planning. Louise Courtney (2019), citing the large Cable. et al (2010) study and the Language Trends survey (Tinsley & Board, 2016), points out however that assessment in primary classrooms can be ‘impressionistic’ (Cable et al., 2010 p.101) and broad-brushed, assessing against broad descriptors and ‘can-do’ statements. The latter can and indeed should form part of teachers’ assessment tools (see this link for an example), but alongside more focused forms of assessment.

So, what sort of things might that include? Well, many of the activities that teachers are likely to be already using in their ‘normal’ teaching can double-up as a way of assessing learning. For example, speaking activities play a central role in language work, and therefore they should be central assessment tools as well. Such activities could include oral role plays or structured conversations with prompts (Courtney, 2019), which learners carry out in pairs, and on which the teacher ‘eavesdrops’, taking notes on learners’ spoken language for such areas as vocabulary, pronunciation, ability to use sentences and phrases, and ask and answer questions. For an example, see the ‘Transition’ section of this webpage.

Similarly, Alison Porter writes about how she used a range of formative assessment practices to find out how well her young learners were progressing in areas such as spelling, knowledge of sound/spelling links (phonics), and then also to inform her own teaching. She used staged questioning within lessons as an important part of that, following the sequence outlined in Jones and Coffey (2006). This involves showing the class a picture of an object, saying the target language word it represents, and asking the class ‘yes or no’. At the next stage, the teacher gives two target language words orally (one correct and one incorrect), and asks the class (either as a whole or individual learners) to choose the correct one. The final stage involves asking ‘what is it?’. In Alison’s class, after answering that question orally and having the correct answer confirmed, learners then wrote the word down. They were able to check their answer once it was revealed by the teacher, giving it a tick or writing the correct form next to their version. The question format was often followed by discussion between learners and the teacher allowing them to reflect on their learning of vocabulary. Not only did the questioning sequence and format give learners themselves insights into their own progress, they also gave the teacher valuable information to help with planning subsequent lessons. The written final question in particular gave a record of learner progress, but oral questioning, especially to individuals, can also give useful assessment information.

Other diagnostic or formative assessment tools that teachers have found useful include ones that take the form of computer games. For example, The Language Magician is a computer game designed as a diagnostic assessment tool to be used periodically to give insights into learner progress over time. Based around a strong story line, the game asks learners to complete language tasks as part of a challenge involving freeing animals held prisoner by an evil magician. Learners can see their progress as they move through the game, and they are motivated by the level of fantasy in the story and the desire to solve a problem, which also helps give them experiences of success as part of the game itself. When the game was piloted with 3,437 young language learners of English, Spanish, German, Italian and French, in England, German, Spain and Italy, they thought it was fun to play, worth playing again, and helpful for telling them about their progress. Learners also liked the game regardless of how well they scored on it, suggesting it can be used across the attainment range. It appealed to both boys and girls, and to learners from age 6 to 13 years.

When learners in a class have finished playing The Language Magician, their scores for listening, reading and writing are stored in an Excel file for the teacher, who can then use that information to see areas of strength and weakness across the class, and plan future lessons accordingly. Technology issues mean that the game does not assess speaking, but its website provides materials for teachers to assess speaking through non-computer methods, that draw on the same story line as the computer game.

In conclusion, although assessment potentially poses certain challenges for teachers, it need not threaten the positive atmosphere we are aiming for in the primary languages classroom.


Courtney, L. (2019). Role plays: A versatile tool for assessing young learners. In S. Rixon, & D. Prosic-Santovac (Eds.), Integrating assessment into early language learning and teaching. Multilingual Matters

Jones, J., Coffey, S. (2006). Modern Foreign Languages 5-11. A guide for teachers. London: Routledge

McKay, P. (2006). Assessing young language learners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nikolov, M. (2016). Trends, issues, and challenges in assessing young language learners. In M. Nikolov (Ed.) Assessing young learners of English: Global and local perspectives (pp. 1-17). Educational Linguistics, 25. doi 10.1007/978-3-319-22422-0_1

Porter, A. (2019). Exploring roles for formative assessment in primary FL classrooms: looking through a primary FL classroom window. In S. Rixon, & D. Prosic-Santovac (Eds.), Integrating assessment into early language learning and teaching practice. Multilingual Matters.


  1. I agree with the points raised in this article by Suzanne Graham and want to elaborate, giving examples of the work we are doing in Hackney. I know that some teachers worry about summative assessments killing the enjoyment and love of language learning that many primary pupils experience. However, the need to ensure that pupils are making progress is crucial and does not need to be threatening nor arduous. It is key, I think, to have agreed objectives to be achieved each year. Thus, both pupils and teachers can monitor progress throughout the year and identify areas for further work. The involvement of pupils in individual and peer assessment against the objectives is vital, especially when the language teacher is not the class teacher. Tracking progress througout the year can be based on assessing things such as role plays, short conversations and plays and individuals reading aloud.
    Since language skills are not developed in isolation from each other, the objectives do not need to be divided into single skills. The 4 skills’ approach in the GCSE is just used as a convenient construct. So, for example one of our Year 6 objectives ” Pupils can write individual words from his/her oral vocabulary, with understandable spelling, when delivery is slow, clear and repeated” involves listening, phonics knowldge and writing. These objectives can also include grammar structures. So, for example a Year 4 objective: “Pupils can use indefinite and definite articles in both singular and plural” applies to spoken and written work and indicates to the teacher that planning must show how this objective is to be achieved. As with all good teaching, the planning needs to be excellent, starting from the Programme of Study Objectives to the overview indicating what the required outcome is by the end of year 6, midterm planning per half term and then lesson plans to implement the learning. I believe that our subject has been given a boost by the new Ofsted Framework. Languages can be the focus of the deep dive. No longer will we complain that no-one is looking at the great work that we are doing. But it does require us to be explicit about what we are teaching and assessing and how our pupils make progress.

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