Rubrics: a basis for qualitative feedback


This is one of those things I wished I’d learned about years ago, because it would have made my own life as a teacher so much easier.  I’ve learned about them now, however, so I’m shouting my joy from the rooftops.  Hurray for rubrics!

What is a rubric, one might ask.  A rubric is a means of giving detailed, qualitative feedback to students regarding a given product.  It contains concrete descriptions of the criteria for a well-completed product.

There are different sorts of rubrics.  I’ll explain two sorts of rubrics, using generic sample rubrics I wrote for this purpose.  The first one is a criterion-referenced rubric, and the second one lists success critera for different levels of ability.  I wrote these rubrics for a group project in which the children had to create posters demontrating what they’d learned during the last unit of learning.  They were to use the new words they’d learned in correct sentences.  For the sake of simplicity, I’ve omitted criteria for layout and presentation.  I’ve only included the very basic criteria of content, language, and process.

The first example here shows a criterion-referenced rubric of the sort most people might use.   For teachers, this is an easy form of marking, since the standard for the work remains the same, no matter the ability level of the child.  Also, the criteria for success are clearly described, so all children can know ahead of time what he needs to do in order to pass the assignment.  Another positive aspect is that children get differentiated feedback per criteria heading.  On the downside, it’s perfectly possible for a child to fail the given assignment, as the criteria for success are of the one-size-fits-all variety.  There is no way to allow for differences of ability when using this sort of rubric.Rubric01

That problem can be solved by using a different setup.  The example shown below demonstrates a way to differentiate feedback per ability level.  For instance, if you work in a classroom with a broad difference in language ability, then it might be nice to set up the assessment so everyone has the chance to succeed.  At the same time, this rubric also allows you to set up minimum success criteria per ability group that are just above the actual level of the children so that each child is pushed towards a higher level of ability.  This is called differentiating in output.

In this case, the children should know ahead of time what group they belong to, and they understand that they each have a choice: to succeed at his own level, or to work towards success at a higher level.  The term minimum success criteria is critical here: children should reach the minimum level indicated, but may also choose to work towards a higher level.  Sometimes, if a child needs, he may choose to work at a lower level, but that is a pedagogical decision that you and that child can discuss.  In this rubric, the indicators for ‘process’ are the same for all children, since it would be reasonable to expect all children to work on their social development irregardless of their language development.


Rubric for differentiating in output.  Note that success criteria for the ‘process’ are the same for all children, regardless of ability level.

Of course, no matter what kind of assessment format you use, it’s important that children be aware of the criteria for success so they know what they need to work toward.  As a teacher, I post my rubrics on their electronic bulletin board at school, so students know what they can expect.  It helps them focus their work and gives them the space to make informed decisions when it comes to their own learning.  It also means they have no surprises when they get their grades back, which makes a big difference for everyone involved.

For more information on the use of minimum success criteria and rubrics, feel free to have a look at this site: http://www.assessmentforlearning.edu.au/professional_learning/modules/success_criteria_and_rubrics/success_criteria_landing_page.html

What other topics would you like to see covered on this blog?  Please let me know!


More than just a pretty tune: musical intelligence and ESL


Buddy you’re a boy, make a big noise

Playin’ in the street gonna be a big man some day!

You got mud on yo’ face, big disgrace,

Kickin’ your can all over the place, singin’

We will, we will rock you!  Rock you!

There may be a few people out there who do not know this song, but I suspect that many people will recognize the stomp-stomp-clap pattern when the audience sings along with the band, Queen.

Inside each and every one of us is a musically intelligent being.  Some discover their inner musician whilst under the shower, others whilst listening to their favorite singer.  My husband, for instance, cannot hold a tune to save his life, but has a song reference for everything he does and sees.  I can throw any random word at him, and he has a song to match.  When I don’t believe him, he looks it up on Youtube, and proves it actually exists, along with a cover song or two.  That’s a game he wins every time.

The question for us, of course, is how to apply this knowledge to teaching ESL?  No doubt enough teachers out there already know a load of children’s songs, singing them daily to help teach new vocabulary and reinforce already learned concepts.  But what about the rhythms of the language?  I decided to play around with my ESL preschoolers and came up with a fun idea.

I started with flashcards.  For instance, if teaching words the children might need during their summer holiday, I would teach words like sand, bucket, shovel, boat, fish, and sun.  I would take three flashcards, then hold them up, one at a time.  The children would say the words as they saw them.  It never took long before the children found the pattern: sun, boat, fish, sun, boat, fish, sun, boat, fish….

The children would then get the assignment to make their own patterns.  Preparation for this activity was simple enough.  First, I looked up pictures using Google image seeker and saved them to my computer.  (tip: use “image settings” on Google to get line drawings.  These are easier to use.)  Second, I pasted a number of each picture onto a sheet of paper, in random order.  It’s important that the children be able to cut around the pictures, so I left a bit of space in between.

Line drawings of the words we've been learning during the lessons.

Line drawings of the words we’ve been learning during the lessons, collected from Google images (settings: line drawings).

Third, I made a number of long, thin strips of paper, one for each child.  These were usually around 50 cm (about 20 in) in length, but longer was also fine.

The children then got to work.  Each child decided what words he wanted to use, and then cut out a number of these words.  As a minimum, the preschoolers had to use two different words, and the kindergarteners at least three.  After that, he lined up his pictures to make a pattern.  For some, this was a more difficult task than for others.   Only after the child created a pattern did he get a strip of paper.  He then stuck the pictures onto the strip of paper, and then read his pattern out loud.  Voila!  A chant!

A few samples of simple patterns children might make.

A few samples of simple patterns children might make.

It was always fun to see what kinds of patterns the children made up.  I found that they also enjoyed “reading” their patterns out loud to their classmates, and these patterns made excellent material to keep in the children’s language portfolios.

Contemplating portfolios

Two children sit at the table, ready for their role play. 

“What’s the matter?” one of them says.

“It’s my arm.  It hurts,” the other answers.

The two of them carry on for another exchange or two, and then look at me.  “All done!” they grin.  I turn off the camera, and give them a thumbs up.  “Great!  That’s for your portfolio!” I tell them.  

By now, the children know to expect me to show up with the video camera every once in a while.  We make recordings of their work which then go into their portfolio.  It took a few tries to figure out a workable portfolio, and quite frankly, I’m still working on it.  But first, a short history of what I’ve tried out…


The first thing I decided was that I wanted the children’s portfolios to be related to the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR).  The CEFR had printable checklists that I could easily use to keep track of children’s learning.  From there, I had to decide how to document the children’s learning.  Ideally, I wanted to have some tangible form of proof: videos, pictures, recordings and the like.  A paper checklist alone was not going to be sufficient, that much was clear.  

My thoughts turned to digital documentation.  I scoured the internet for a child-friendly language portfolio.  The closest thing I found was the “Europees Taal Portfolio” (European Language Portfolio).  I decided to try it out with the children.  


This online language portfolio had a lot of good aspects to it: nice colors and design, space for documents and images, and checklists the children could fill in for themselves.  It also had room for improvement, such as: videos and sound recordings could not be uploaded and the teacher could not add documentation to the children’s portfolios.

After a year or two of working regularly with children on these online portfolios, I had to throw in the towel.  Too many children lost their passwords, the suggested activities for portfolio development weren’t always complete, and to top it off, I accidentally erased my own, years-old portfolio with a single click of the wrong button.  Recovery would cost an entire day, so my portfolio – including any access to those of the children – was scuttled.  Soon after that, the entire project was unexpectedly taken off the air, so all of the portfolios my children had built were gone as well.  

As a result, I renewed my search for an alternative.  Until now, I have yet to find anything that I can really use, and so I find myself making do with an external hard drive and a cd-writer.  Every year, I make certain to get two examples of work from each child.  This work is kept on the external hard drive.  When the children graduate or leave school, I burn their work onto a cd-rom as a good-bye gift.  

video4What kinds of work do I put into their portfolios?  I like to have a balanced sample of reading, writing, speaking and listening skills.  Writing, obviously, is the easiest sample to get: I scan samples of their writing from their project notebooks or save copies of power points.  For reading, I make a sound recording of the child reading.  For speaking, I make videos of the child doing a presentation or taking part in a role play.  I’m still not sure what to do for listening, so that’s something I think about on a regular basis.

I’m still on the lookout for a child-friendly online portfolio that actually allows all forms of digital documentation, so if anyone knows of anything I could use, please let me know!