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Measuring Expressionism

Jenny Williams uncovers the secret elements of expressive language using assessment

Can a computerized assessment measure expressive language skills? This is an important question, since the ability to express ideas is one of the major indicators for College and Career readiness. Many times, I am asked this question in workshops. Participants inquire about expressive language skills because they associate expressive language with oral vocalizations. To analyze this question, we must first define expressive communication and its components.

Communication can be divided into two major categories: receptive (the elements that we understand) and expressive (the elements that we use to let others know our thoughts). Receptive and expressive communication occurs in, both, oral and written language. In assessment, expressive communication is measured by analyzing writing and making “writerly” choices. That is, students outwardly demonstrate their ability to use written forms of communication to express their thoughts and ideas based on the choices they make. Elements of storytelling provide the foundation for application of skills and creation of novel ideas.

Discourse, also known as storytelling and conversation, is an important indicator for College and Career readiness. It is the foundation for expressing ideas and works of creativity. Elements of discourse include: knowledge of setting, characters, conflict and resolution, emotions and communication partners, all of which are embedded within a specific sequence of events. Computer adaptive assessments ask students to arrange story events in sequential order and draw conclusions regarding characters, setting, conflict and resolution. Assessment can also ask students to identify character emotions and to make inferences regarding the author’s or character’s intent. Each of these types of questions requires students to understand these discourse elements, and actively express their abilities by applying this knowledge to the content. When students can sequence a story, make inferences regarding intent and draw conclusions, they are applying their knowledge of diverse perspectives and purpose. Each of these elements, when used in assessments, allows students to demonstrate their ability to engage in constructive discourse. This stimulates novel connections and ideas – again, an indicator of College and Career readiness.

Adaptive, computerized assessments, such as NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP), can indeed provide indicators for expressive language abilities that teachers can use to understand students’ current capacity, and make an informed plan to build new learning.

Virginia “Jenny” Williams is a professional development facilitator for NWEA. She holds a Doctorate in curriculum studies and educational leadership from Georgia Southern University. She has held a variety of positions within education including speech-language pathologist, lead teacher, literacy coach, assistant special education director, program specialist for a regional education service agency, and college professor. Jenny has been providing professional development for the past eight years, with a focus on data analysis process to inform instructional decision-making.

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