Alice Savage

Assessment and Feedback for Conversation Classes


the-labour-code-3520806_1920In both theatre and English language classrooms, participants investigate language, work to achieve interpersonal goals and improve through rehearsal or practice. Consequently, it may be helpful for teachers to take a page from the director’s playbook when it comes to supporting students’ efforts to ‘perform’ successfully.

One way to do this is to incorporate the concept of notes, which is a common practice in staging a play. Here’s an example. Two actors are rehearsing a scene. The director observes as a couple argue about the young man’s computer game habit. At the end of the rehearsal, the director does not assign a grade. Instead, she gives notes based on her observations. She might tell one actor to gesture more or suggest the other work on finding the feeling behind the words. Her notes might also include other observations about intonation or strategic pauses.

This model of giving notes on an iteration of a performance can be especially helpful in an oral communication setting where curricular goals involve helping students “become better speakers.” This rather abstract objective gets at the core of why people want to learn language, but it is very hard to quantify into a grading scheme. In fact, it can be inappropriate when students are struggling to apply disparate skills and knowledge in a conversational interaction, whether it is trying to change someone’s mind, apologize for a mistake, or roleplay ordering food in a restaurant.

The beauty of notes is that they hep students improve through multiple iterations, and this is supported by research. At the 2016 TESOL conference in Portland, Oregon, Diane Larsen-Freeman spoke of the need for students to iterate and reiterate language patterns. For example, when guys talk sports, they use certain phrases repeatedly but in new ways, e.g., “That was the worst/best game ever!” She pointed out that every time someone makes a comment in the real world, it is a unique situation in a unique place in time, even if that language is a ritualistic utterance, such as. “It’s been so hot lately. I hope it rains soon.” This conversation opener may feel formulaic, but it frequently occurs because people need to make a connection on familiar ground before they can move on to a more novel level of engagement.

Larsen-Freeman suggested an activity where students tell a story to a partner, then switch partners and tell the same story again, but faster. Then they switch again and tell it again, but faster still. This reiteration gives them practice with the same story, but the new partner makes the context original and meaningful. By the end of the activity, students have gained fluency with that particular story. With notes, the teacher can also play a role by addressing elements the students may not notice.

If students can look forward to notes at the end of a roleplay or script reading, they may relax and even look forward to the attention that is being paid to their delivery. The opportunity to give notes also puts the teacher in the role of supporter and coach rather than judge, which can open a different kind of conversation. Here are some examples of notes that a teacher might give after students do a roleplay:


  • You started out well, An. I could hear you clearly, but after a while, your voice got really soft.
  • I kind of got that you were telling a story in the past, Raul, and the next step is to work on your past tense endings so it’s clear.
  • The conversation felt a little one-sided. Irving, you did most of the talking, so I wasn’t sure if Louisa understood. It’s good to be able to elaborate, but I’d like to see a little more turn-taking. Louisa, you need to say more than yes, or no. Can you prepare some longer answers for Irving’s questions?
  • Sophia, you sounded like you were reading. Remember that you are trying to get Carolina to give you a ride to the airport. You need to use intonation to persuade her, not just words. Try to “feel” the emotion of your request. You really need her to do this for you, and she is a close friend, so you don’t mind putting a little pressure on her.
  • Jay, you did well on the whole, but some of the longer words tripped you up. Try a stress on the second syllable of imposs Let’s try it, imPOSSible. Again, imPOSSible. That’s imPOSSible. Do you feel it?


The circumstances in which notes occur is also important. A teacher might arrange individual conferences with students about their performance, but often a whole group stage in which all students hear notes is not only more efficient but also quite productive. The whole group participation provides opportunities for classmates to test their own hypotheses about random elements. They may have noticed that impossible was not stressed correctly, but they would not have their assumption confirmed without hearing the note. This sharing of details related to a work-in-progress can then inform the next iteration well before the summative assessment at the end of the grading cycle.


From Notes to Rubrics


Ultimately, however, most teachers are expected to provide a grade, and in oral communication classes, rubrics can be very helpful in supporting performance based curricular objectives. Here, notes can inform descriptors for specific assignment criteria. Creating a rubric in this way can take a lot investment, but once established, it can save time in actual grading.

One way to create an assignment rubric is to start with the notes. The notes are indicators of work that needs to be done. These notes can inform descriptions for a beyond expectations performance, a meets standard and a below standard performance. I also like the categories, a pleasure, fairly comfortable, and difficult to describe how hard I have to work to understand.

After using the rubric with the first assessment cycle, you can adapt it for subsequent assignments. When the process goes well, students feel that their strengths and weaknesses have been fairly accounted for, and learners have information that will help them improve.

A challenge with rubrics, however, is a lack of models. For example, pragmatics or the skill of achieving conversational goals through effective use of language, voice and other non-verbal communication has also recently become a hot topic in the field. Pragmatics is clearly valuable, yet it calls for new language.

The following is an example of a teacher designed rubric for a specific performance assessment of a roleplay between people meeting in the semi-formal atmosphere of a wedding reception[1]. It illustrates an attempt to value elements of the lesson plan, while the use of a broad point scale provides flexibility in the determination of a final grade.


Assessment: Reception Roleplay                                      Name:


High: A pleasure Medium: fairly comfortable Low: difficult
Fluency  (17 – 20)

      Past and present tenses support shifts in time.

      Vocabulary and expressions are easily retrieved.

Fluency (12 – 16)

      Past and present tenses mostly signal time shifts.

      vocabulary and expressions are retrieved with occasional effort.

Fluency (0 – 11)

      Shifts in time require listener effort.

      Frequent pauses to retrieve language delay comprehension.

Pragmatics (17 – 20)

      An engaging and enjoyable conversation

      Partners smile and express interest and understanding through gesture.

      Speakers elaborate easily.

Pragmatics (13 – 16)

      Turn taking occurs. Topic shifts are handled with some effort.

      Expressions and gestures communicate intentions and understanding.

      Elaboration supports message mostly.

Pragmatics (0 – 11)

      Speaker is slow to initiate or respond.

      Minimal non-verbal communication may result in misunderstanding.

      Lack of detail creates challenges for listener.

Pronunciation (17 – 20)

      Speech is comprehensible.

      Stress patterns support emotional intentions.

      Question intonation is clear.

Pronunciation (13 – 16)

      Speech is mostly comprehensible.

      Stress patterns mostly support intention.

      Question intonation used at times.

Pronunciation (0 – 11)

      Speech is slow or difficult to understand.

      Emotional signals are lacking.

      Question intonation is not clear.


Total Score ___/ 60



A rubric such as this can be shared with students at the outset. They can see what is valued and get the most out of practice opportunities and notes. At the end of the cycle, there may be fewer unpleasant surprises and a grade can be given that feels supportive even when students only partially achieve the target outcomes.

In the English language classroom, theatre techniques are a natural fit because the performance of a play is similar to preparing for a performance in a conversation. We can adapt the feedback model of directors and allow students to explore identities and language choices fearlessly.








[1] The wedding reception activity can be found on the Speaking and Listening tab .



2 replies »

  1. This is really excellent training for real world conversation and for getting students ready to take the TOEFL. As a TOEFL teacher, I work constantly on trying to get the student to sound natural during the speaking section of the test. They not only have to pronounce each word correctly, but the entire sentence and entire paragraph needs to sound smooth and unrehearsed. All too often a student will pause in an inappropriate place, such as the middle of a sentence and not realize why they don’t sound natural. I teach this skill and I can see how performing a play would give students the opportunity to practice common phrases. Best of all when the teacher lets a student know where they can improve on their breath or hand gestures, the entire class benefits. This is a really great idea.


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