Reflections on the implementation of PBLA

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“You have to get your SBA’s, SUA’s, T’s and A’s in order to have an organized portfolio, Sridatt,” said the Lead Instructor of Portfolio Based Language Assessment (PBLA) implementation. “You also have to get,” continued the official, “peer evaluations [PE’s], learner reflections [LR’s], and inventory checklists [IC’s], all in order to have a good, organised portfolio.”  The order and presentation of the portfolio, not the teaching of the language itself, seems paramount. I welcome myself to the new world of English as a second language teaching, even though my new teaching practices are not aligned with my educational philosophy.

By the time the individual was finished, I was beginning to see a sort of preoccupation over skill building activities (SBA’s), skill using activities (SUA’s)  tasks (T’s) and assessments (A’s). When the individual was gone, it didn’t take much reflection to conclude that Portfolio Based Language Assessment (PBLA) seems to be a faulty assembly line approach to education.  Both the didactic language and its teaching now appear fixed. The teaching of language is now task specific and it feels like teaching excludes such things as discovery learning, problem-based learning or expository teaching (Johnson, 2018). What now matters, so it seems, is the acquisition of competencies and the assessment of tasks. The latter is the only determinant of what a student has learned. It must be noted that local high schools and colleges have yet to set up a procedure to evaluate a portfolio for credit purposes. The question is, are the competencies transferable?

Fundamental issues with PBLA

Every good and firm structure, as everyone knows, must have strong, interconnected parts or components. The PBLA approach to teaching and learning appears to have missing components or components that contradict its stated objective. Space allows raising only two issues: The lack of a syllabus and competency-based assessment.

PBLA needs a syllabus

The Canadian government says there is “the need for a nationally recognized set of language standards” (Canadian Language Benchmarks: English as a Second Language for Adults, 2012, p. 1). No one would disagree with that, however, the first thing one confronts is the lack of a syllabus to achieve such a goal.  Noting that something is missing, I ventured to research and learned that “task-based language teaching requires a syllabus in which the content is specified in terms of the tasks to be performed” (Ellis, 2013, p.5). “Ready- to -use classroom tasks” syllabuses (Desyatova, 2017, p. 38) are being used elsewhere.

The tasks we create now are from the learners’ needs assessment. That concurs with the principles of adult education (andragogy) which states that adults want to learn what’s most important to them (for a discussion, see Knowles, 1984). I am in complete agreement with that, but how can we achieve a national standard if there is not a national syllabus to follow?  Another question that arises over learners’ needs is whether their “subjective learning needs … reflect their objective language needs” (Desyatova, 2017, p. 39). My question is whether the tasks I now assess would be of much importance to my learners when they confront their objective language needs, noting that our society is ever changing.  Another problem that comes to mind as Ellis (2013) has pointed out is “how tasks can be ordered to ensure a full and systematic coverage of the linguistic features that learners need to learn” (p. 21).

The incongruity of competency-based task assessments

The inclusion of competency-based assessment in PBLA seems to contradict the spirit of the learner-centered approach posited by PBLA.  The latter engages learners in goal setting, peer and self-assessment, needs assessments and student-teacher progress conferences (see, Mudzingwa, 2017).  When PBLA requires the mastery of tasks through a competency-based approach to learning, the learner-centered approach ceases to exist. Competency-based assessment is an objectivist, behaviourialist outcome where the mastery of the subject (in this case tasks) determines who stays and who goes up. It is anathema to the learner- centered approach.

The individual components of PBLA may have sound research behind it. However, the assessment of individualized tasks cannot lead to a national language strategy which has national benchmarks and competencies. A national syllabus is needed. National competencies are fine, but their current implementation and achievement (i.e. results focused) go against the grain of adult education (andragogy) in our learner-centered, liberal democratic society.

What has been your experience in using PBLA?


Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. (2012). Canadian Language Benchmarks: English as a Second language for Adults. Ottawa: Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks.

Desyatova, Y. (2017). Implementing task-based language teaching in Belgium. Contact, 43(3), 37 – 43.

Ellis, R. (2013). Task-based language teaching: Responding to the critics. University of Sydney Papers in TESOL, 8, 1 – 27.

Johnson, A. (2018). Being and becoming an expert teacher. Academica.Edu. Retrieved from https://www.academica.edu34992046/BEING_AND_BECOMING_EXPERT_TEACHER

Knowles, M.S. (1984). Andragogy in action.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mudzingwa, C. (2017). The Portfolio-Based Language Assessment (PBLA): Suitable for Adult Learners? BC TEAL Journal, 2(1), 14 – 24.

Post written by Sridatt Lakhan.  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.


5 thoughts on “Reflections on the implementation of PBLA”

  1. Thank you once again Sridatt for your courage and your thoughtful and convincing feedback on the Portfolio Based Learning Assessment experiment.

  2. Hi Sridatt,
    I agree with you completely. In addition to the already mentioned challenges, you have raised other good points. I was thinking of taking it further, such as presenting at the next TESL Ontario conference where I would describe my personal experiences without holding any punches in trying to ” implement the impossible “

  3. Nice analysis! I like the idea of eliciting desired tasks from the learners themselves although that has its own set of presuppositions.
    I was also wondering what a national syllabus might look like given that you’d like to avoid the top-down, behaviorist pitfall. How would that syllabus interact with the current LINC and ESL curriculums?
    Thanks for the sharing.

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