Language portfolios are perhaps one of the most serious attempts to provide a modern day assessment method that incorporates much of the current thinking on assessment of language learning.
What is a language portfolio?
The basic idea of a portfolio is to provide a much wider range of evidence of the language skills of a student. The roots of the idea probably go back as far as the work of Dewey (1916).
Portfolios offer students the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned and experienced with the target language. It can include a whole range of language evidence reflecting a much wider range of skills. It might include tests, readings, written work, essay plans, feedback and reflections.
Norton and Widburg (1998: 237) describe a portfolio as ‘a systematic and selective collection of a student’s work that has been assembled to demonstrate a student’s motivation, academic growth and level of achievement.’
A lot of teachers struggle with the idea of a portfolio because it is not always clear what to include in them. There is no one definition of a portfolio but the idea is that they demonstrate and reflect the language experiences that the student has had, and through this, demonstrate a broader picture of a student’s language ability. It is not just the products of a portfolio that are of interest. The process of actually developing and finding content for the portfolio often means that both the teachers and the students play a role in the form they take.
For example, it may be left to the student to decide what examples of writing or reading to include in the portfolio. In doing this the students ‘own’ their portfolios and learn and reflect from the process of actually choosing the content for the portfolio itself (Lam and Lee, 2010).
This process of selecting and reflecting on their work is key to a portfolio as it adds to the process.
Tomlinson (1995) suggests that students should learn from the assessment process itself, and this is certainly one of the goals of a portfolio.
Portfolios are at the heart of what the Council of Europe Language Policy Division was trying to do for language assessment (Cummins and Davesne, 2009).
There are similar ideas in the USA with the LinguaFolio and Global Language Portfolio. Each one is slightly different.
The European portfolio, for example, is made up of three components:
- The language passport, which is a record of language learning both inside and outside the classroom. This has personal information like any passport, plus a grid which provides information about the languages that the person speaks and their level, using the Common European Framework of Reference.
- The language biography which is a diagnostic self-assessment of L2 skills. It is done through a series of ‘can do’ statements where the student ticks check boxes to demonstrate what they can and can’t do in a given language.
- Finally, there is a language dossier. It is here where the student provides actual evidence of their language ability through a variety of artifacts (Cummins and Davesne, 2009).
The language portfolio includes much of the current thinking regarding assessment. It can be used by a variety of stakeholders; it covers a broader range of language skills including both a focus on process as well as product; the process of actually creating the portfolio can be a learning process itself; it is often negotiated and requires decision making both by the teacher and the student; it allows for self-reflection, encourages autonomous thinking and is hopefully motivating.
An e-portfolio is a digital version of a portfolio. It is an excellent example of where the affordances of technology can really make a contribution. E-portfolios can be word processed documents; blogs, wikis, mind maps or other specialist tools (for example, Mahara) and can include a wide range of digital assets such as video or audio recordings, saved chat room discussions or forum contributions and a whole range of other electronic artifacts.
The language dossier part of the portfolio can be much richer and cover a much broader range of language skills. The can do statements in the language biography can also be done online. A tool called DIALANG was developed to allow students to self-evaluate. It is similar to the checklists produced in the paper-based portfolio, but has the added dimension that once the students have completed their can do lists, they can click on a button and get some guidance on what to study to improve.
Alderson (2005), among others, believes the self-assessment component of a portfolio is a vital element in developing self-reflection. An obvious key element of an e-portfolio is that they can be distributed and even adapted very quickly. They are also more portable.
We tend to think of the needs of a much broader group of stakeholders when we think about assessments. We understand that teachers, students, heads of school, external bodies, visa regulators, university application bodies and employers may all be interested in the language ability of a given student.
The variety of artifacts and the broad scope of an e-portfolio hopefully mean it can facilitate the necessary information for a broader range of stakeholders, and since this information is in electronic format, it should also be easily accessible.
An e-portfolio is one example of what can be achieved through using technology to assess students.
Many teachers started with the simple introduction of a blog, wiki or electronic writing tool as the starting point in introducing technology into their assessments, and then at a later stage introduced more ICT elements. Teachers are looking for ways of assessing a broader range of language skills, to make assessment more relevant and interesting, and provide effective feedback, involving the students in the process and getting them thinking and reflecting on their own learning etc. In other words, they are incorporating elements of an e-portfolio into their assessment processes.