Language skills assessments: Formative and Summative assessment

In order to understand the progress that language learners are making, language educators should ensure that assessment is a key part of their regular teaching programme. Although many people incorrectly assume that assessment only refers to taking a test, assessment is much broader than that and often takes place in the classroom without much fanfare.

This blog post looks at the two main types of assessment in detail: summative assessment and formative assessment. We will explore how each type can contribute to an educator’s understanding of their students as well as providing some tips and tricks to help teachers maximise the effectiveness of the assessment they undertake.


What is summative assessment?

Summative assessment is described by Irons 2008 as “any assessment activity which results in a mark or grade which is subsequently used as judgment on student performance.” It is therefore usually used to summarise what a learner has achieved at the end of a period of time, relative to the learning aims and any relevant standards.

The period of time is, of course, dependent on what the teacher wants to find out. The summative assessment could therefore occur at the end of a topic, at the end of a term or at the end of a year. The format of the summative assessment is also determined by the educator – it could be a written test, a reading observation, a conversation with a native language speaker or a collaborative group task. As such, in the context of language teaching, the output of the summative assessment should be recorded in an appropriate format, whether that’s a written response or an audio recording.

Whatever format is used, the assessment will show what the student has learnt at/by a particular point in time. This can then provide individual and group data that is used to track progress and inform stakeholders (e.g. students, senior leaders, parents etc.).

However, because summative assessment only serves to reflect what a student has learned in the past (Ahmed, Ali & Ali Shah, 2019), it does present some drawbacks for the student. As Myers 2019 states the most significant issue is that very little is usually done to help learners to address the deficiencies identified in the summative assessment. The class simply marches onto the next topic and the gaps in student achievement continue to broaden.

Furthermore, this assessment format is also frequently characterised as relying on grades and scores. It often does not provide a complete picture of the student’s level of knowledge beyond that demonstrated in the assessment.


What is formative assessment?

The second major type of assessment type is known as formative assessment. This was defined by Irons in 2008 as: “Any task or activity which creates feedback (or ‘feedforward’) for students about their learning. Formative assessment does not carry a grade which is subsequently used in summative judgment”. Ahmed, Ali and Ali Shah (2019) take this a step further by arguing that formative assessment does not only support students, it also “informs teachers about how to adjust their teachings, appropriately.”

As such, formative assessment usually takes place at the same time as the teaching is being delivered. Conducting assessments on an ongoing basis allows learners and educators to assess progress more frequently. Teachers are then better able to see what concepts or skills have been mastered, or not, and can then restructure their content / lessons accordingly.

A formative assessment may actually look very similar to the summative assessment outlined above – they might even be a formal test. The difference is that the results are not always recorded or shared with others. They’re simply used to highlight areas that require further work, which is then incorporated into future lessons and activities.

However, formative assessments do also have drawbacks.They may act to demotivate those learners who grasp concepts more quickly and who have to sit through repeated teaching on the same topics. Myers 2019 also expresses concern that formative assessment can be incredibly time consuming for teachers and can lead to increased workload and unnecessary stress.


How do these assessment types work together?

Of course, it is possible for the two forms of assessment to work powerfully together and language educators should ideally seek to balance both forms of assessment throughout their language courses. At the very simplest level, the use of summative assessment techniques ensures that students take their studies seriously and do not use continuous assessment as an excuse to slack off. Furthermore, the results from summative assessments can (and should!) be used formatively by both students and educators to guide their efforts and activities in subsequent courses.

It is also possible for educators to design formative assessments so that they scaffold learning (and assessment) and contribute to an overall summative task. This lowers the workload on the students and provides them with necessary feedback to improve their final performance. Conversely, summative assessments can also be completed and complemented with outputs /  resources that enable teachers to use the results to inform future teaching and learning – they therefore deliver a clear formative benefit.


Language teacher helping student with an exam


Tips to implement an effective language learning assessment system in your classroom
  • As always, the better you know your students and their preferred learning styles, the more accurate and effective your assessments will be. To that end, talk to them and trial the different assessment approaches individually, and in combination, to work out what’s most effective for your setting and classes.
  • In either instance, take the time to explain the rationale behind your choice of assessment model clearly to students. It can also be worth emphasising the need for regular assessment and the benefits that it brings to them as learners – it’s not just testing for testing sake after all! And always be open with students about your evaluation, rubrics, and mark schemes. They should be completely clear about what you’re looking for and how every assessment will be marked.
  • Bear in mind the Swedish and Norwegian word “lagom”, when planning your assessments. It means “just the right amount” and a balanced approach will certainly be welcomed by your students. Try to use a variety of different activities, tests and outputs to engage all students. Similarly aim to avoid having one single massive summative assessment that carries a disproportionate amount of weight in students’ final grade. No one needs the extra stress in their lives!
  • Whatever assessment approach you follow, do try and mark it promptly. Otherwise students will have forgotten their answers and will have already moved on to the next topic in the curriculum. On that point, make sure to keep a record of student grades and always provide an opportunity to go through the assessment with students to address any gaps in understanding before moving on.
  • Linked to the above, try to emphasise the positive elements of their performance rather than highlighting what they got wrong. Where possible, always encourage and motivate them to do even better next time.
  • And finally, explore how concepts of peer evaluation and self-assessment could be used in your classroom. In peer evaluation, students are asked to review each other’s work and to identify areas for further development and focus. In the latter, students are encouraged to critically review their own work, to consider how they could improve and what gaps in their knowledge need to be addressed.

Whatever assessment approach you use to measure your students’ knowledge, Sanako’s market-leading tools include a wealth of unique features that help language educators teach languages more efficiently and more successfully. It’s why the world’s leading educational institutions choose Sanako as their preferred supplier to support online and in-person language lesson delivery.

You might also want to check out Sanako’s recent webinar recording related to formative and summative interpersonal speaking assessments.


If you are interested in learning more about how Sanako products support language teachers and students and would like to see how they could benefit your institution, book a FREE remote demo now to see them in action.

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