Providing Solutions for a High-quality, Assessment-driven English-language Education for Every Child

By Veronika Timpe-Laughlin

In March of this year, ETS, our subsidiary ETS Global, Goaltesting, OPO Hof van Twente, and schools in the Netherlands, Finland, and Denmark were awarded a two-year grant from the ERASMUS+ Programme of the European Union. ERASMUS+ is an initiative of the European Union to support education, training, youth, and sport throughout Europe. Our project, Innovating and Building Understanding to Improve Language Development with Information Technology, or iBUILDIT, will utilize the large-scale, standardized assessments included in the TOEFL® Young Student Series to drive and promote high-quality instruction for every child. The TOEFL Young Students Series consists of the TOEFL Primary® tests intended for students ages 8+ and the TOEFL Junior® tests for ages 11+.

Teachers need to know what their students can and cannot do and which steps each student needs to take in order to progress to the next level. The practice for teachers to monitor their students’ learning and inform instruction is referred to as formative assessment. One key question that needs to be explored in more detail is how teachers use assessments to inform and adjust their teaching, and similarly, how we can better leverage large-scale, standardized assessments like the TOEFL Young Students Series to continue to effectively inform and further drive English instruction. As a result, this grant-funded project is aimed to deliver best practice guidelines for assessment-driven, individualized instruction.

How will we approach this work?

Teachers from three combinations of primary and secondary schools from the Netherlands, Denmark, and Finland will cooperate for two years to innovate English Language Teaching (ELT) through meaningful implementation of the TOEFL Young Students Series and other digital tools. The TOEFL Primary and TOEFL Junior assessments will be used to assess and monitor students’ English-proficiency levels over the course of the project. As a curriculum-independent, large-scale assessment tool, the TOEFL Young Students Series (YSS) provides educators with a highly detailed score report on the different skills of English for each individual learner.

In tandem with the administration of these assessments, our collaborators will conduct trainings to help teachers enhance their digital and assessment literacy skills. A particular focus in these teacher trainings, that include teachers from all three countries, will be placed on how to use the TOEFL Young Students Series assessment information in specific formative ways, in face-to-face instruction, in blended learning environments, and in fully remote learning contexts. Thus, teachers will develop professionally in order to continue to be adaptable to changing needs of their students and the world around them.

The role of ETS Research & Development

As part of this project, I am excited to lead a team of scientists within our Research & Development division to investigate key aspects within the larger context of more individualized English-language instruction. Together with Yeonsuk Cho and Shinhye Lee, I will document the use of the TOEFL Young Students Series assessments as a key component in the individualization of instruction. Additionally, we will investigate two specific areas of students’ English-language development and their learning trajectories.

Study 1: How do students’ speaking and writing abilities develop over time?

In this longitudinal study, we will investigate how speaking and writing abilities in English as a foreign language develop in young learners. Speaking and writing are both essential elements of English teaching in primary and secondary schools. However, we only have limited insights into how young learners’ speaking and writing abilities in a foreign language develop over time. Knowing more about how language proficiency develops can help teachers, educators, and assessment developers provide more targeted instruction and assessment — both in face-to-face and online settings.

Study 2: How do students perceive the move from English in primary school to English in secondary school?

The second study focuses on the transition from learning English in primary school to English in secondary education. Transition from primary to secondary education represents a big change: the number of lessons usually increases, students have new teachers, methods of instruction may change, and new textbooks and requirements are implemented. Research that touches upon this transition period is rare. We know relatively little about how young learners perceive the transition, what challenges teachers face, and how they deal with them. This study will focus on uncovering how young English as a foreign language (EFL) learners perceive the transition from primary to secondary EFL education, and how secondary school teachers deal with the challenges of the diverse lower-secondary level English classrooms (i.e., having children from various primary schools with different English proficiency levels and learning experiences in one classroom at the beginning of secondary school). A particular focus will be placed on whether the TOEFL Young Students Series assessments can help guide the transition process and support teachers in individualizing their instruction.

I am honored to be part of such a prestigious grant and excited to undertake this important research as it will support and promote high-quality ELT for young learners, a population that has grown immensely worldwide over the past two decades. In addition to underscoring the need for more individualized, child-appropriate English teaching, this project speaks to the high-quality of the TOEFL Young Students Series assessments and their capability to support language teaching and learning in primary and secondary English classrooms. This project will shed light on how teachers utilize assessment scores to prepare for and implement EFL lessons for young learners. Thus, the findings will provide guidance for other teachers on how to approach and successfully integrate assessment-driven instruction in order to promote individualized EFL learning more effectively. Finally, it will also shed light on how the TOEFL Primary and TOEFL Junior assessments can be used effectively in online and remote learning contexts.

Veronika Timpe-Laughlin is a research scientist at ETS.