How to evaluate language interventions: the golden pentagon

golden-pentagonThe evaluation of language programme and instruction quality is highly relevant, everywhere. To test the effectiveness of a language intervention programme, one needs to take a holistic approach. For a language intervention to be effective, the designer has to bring into harmony five components: policy prescription, curriculum, instruction, learning and assessment When these are aligned, we have the golden pentagon of language intervention design. Where to begin?

  1. Start with the policy that make the courses compulsory, prescriptive or worthwhile taking. Is there anything in that respect that leaves something to be desired, or stands in the way of presenting a more effective course? Regulations for course enrolment may impact on the success of a course. Downstream from policy and regulation come logistical or administrative impediments, for example timetable restrictions. In my experience, courses are often too short. To be really effective they need to be offered both at greater frequency and for longer, as several studies have shown.
  2. Critically examine the theoretical justification of the curriculum. Is it valid in terms of having a theoretical rationale that can withstand critical scrutiny? How current are the ideas behind the instruction, ideas that inform both the syllabus and the intended language development? Are the language needs functionally defined, for example, and are they in tune with expectations beyond university?
  3. Ensure that language instructors are appropriately qualified and remain up to date with new developments in language teaching. Naturally, all well-run courses have students evaluate them at the end. But students may confuse enthusiasm and charm on the part of the teacher with instructional competence, and the personality of the instructor could well mask professional shortcomings. Are our language teachers really qualified, or are they re-treaded (or even frustrated) teachers of another language field (e.g. the study and enjoyment of literature)? The critical issue, tied up with the next two, is: are students learning and developing their language?
  4. Evaluate existing assessments. Is there any way of improving the quality of pre- and post-course assessments, or their reliability? The same applies to mid-course assessments, usually in the form of smaller tasks and class tests. Are they adequate? Do they present us with evidence that learning and language development are indeed taking place as a result of the instruction that is being offered?
  5. Ask the end user. Do the probes into how the course is received by students and others include the real-life end users, the employers who are at the receiving end of your preparation? In my experience, if one starts with a needs analysis among them, that has a marked influence on the curriculum (and even the policy that precedes that); identifying the needs informs the teaching, the learning, and the assessment.

Finally: Make sure that all these components work in harmony. Is policy out of kilter with curriculum? Curriculum misaligned with assessment? Learning and developing language not really in tune with real language needs beyond the classroom?

At every step, one can make improvements. The full checklist I use contains fourteen design principles that my students and I have employed productively in all kinds of design. That will be dealt with in a subsequent blog: Top 14 design principles of language interventions.

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