Portfolio Based Language Assessment (PBLA) is here to stay. “Teachers cannot opt out” (p. 58) and it is “an expectation of employment” (p. 71). Once implemented the way it was meant to be, the evidence suggests, it is an academically sound approach to teaching and learning. The PBLA programme, now being implemented in all ESL non-credit classes that are funded by Citizenship and Immigration, has two critical shortcomings which I have encountered while trying to implement it in my classroom. The shortcomings are identified in the academic literature.
The Canadian federal government’s text, Portfolio-Based Language Assessment (PBLA): Guide for Teachers and Programs (2014 ed.), from which all quotes in this blog are taken, does mention the various birth pains associated with the coming of something new, in this case PBLA for many instructors, myself included, unaccustomed to- task based instruction and task-based assessment. The guide mentioned above, now used to train instructors (myself included) throughout the country, ignores two substantive and interrelated caveats central to the smooth implementation of the PBLA programme. And I don’t need to nit-pick.
The first is on the issue of needs assessment and tasks based on authentic materials that are used in real-life situations. The PBLA guide in question, like many other teaching guides, rightly emphasizes needs assessment. It further added that instructors should introduce PBLA “as they would any other topic, such as a module” (p.29). Here lies the problem. Since using PBLA is specific and mandatory on using tasks, it is impossible to introduce it using “any other topic, such as a module.” My main point is that if we are going the PBLA route, we need to do task-based needs analysis to see the target tasks (real-world things) learners need to do to match with their learning goals. Whether I, or anyone else, (I would like to know) could plan a term’s work using tasks is another matter. Current needs assessment simply consists of asking learners to check boxes with items such as clothes, transportation, food, time, money and so on. Surely we can generate endless tasks and activities from such topics, but what is it about any of those topics that the learner really needs to transfer into real-world situations? A task-based needs analysis and not a needs assessment could determine real world language tasks learners need in the real world of today and tomorrow.
The second point, directly related to the first, is that the Guide for Teachers and Programs fails to address the question of differentiation. Students’ autonomy, individualized competencies, need,s and assessment techniques – the foundations of PBLA – necessitate the differentiation of everything, from feedback, materials, and even instructional practices. The guide states that “teachers need to adjust their lesson plans to accommodate PBLA activities appropriately and effectively” (p. 35).
For over two decades now, I have tried ‘effectively’ to adjust my lesson plans to ‘accommodate’ the needs of my students ‘appropriately’. Today I have examined the many wonderful samples of task-based lessons on TUTELA. I have also tried using a few of them. They are great, but not for a whole class since each part of one of them has to be differentiated, in one way or another, to suit the individual needs of each student. The mechanics of constant differentiation- some call it modification- of both the learning task and assessment task is not a subject addressed in the above-mentioned guide. Differentiation, after much time and painstaking detail, is doable and it wonderfully serves each individual student. This means that I (and maybe others too) need to learn how to do it effectively and quickly.
I am not questioning the merits of PBLA. There is indeed strong academic support for its use. There is also strong academic support for task-based needs analysis and the mastering of differentiation of tasks in PBLA. I see a bright future for PBLA.
Pettis, J. C. (2015). Portfolio-based language assessment (PBLA): Guide for teachers and programs (2014 ed.). Ottawa, Canada: Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks.
After completing his TESL Instructors’ Course from the Ministry of Citizenship in 1991, Sridatt started as an ESL instructor with the Toronto District School Board. He has a BA from the University of Guyana, an MA from the University of Windsor, and a BEd (Adult Education) from Brock University. He has written extensively for a number of publications including peer-reviewed journals.