Realizing A Turkish European Language Portfolio

Written by: Rebecca Shaffer, English Preparatory Program Lecturer, Fatih University

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Abstract

The European language portfolio (ELP) has been established in many European educational institutions to improve student’s effective production of English.  In attempts to provide higher quality English education, the ELP has been adapted for Turkish EFL students at Fatih University.  Two portfolio designs are evaluated and critiqued to get closer to finding an effective Turkish ELP.  The concepts of learner autonomy and self-evaluation are essential to the ELP design.

1. Introduction

How is it that so many EFL students at Turkish universities cannot produce even basic sentences in a language they have studied since youth and will be using in many cases as a medium of higher education?  The problem is partially due to a lack of practical language use, as too much emphasis is placed on grammar rules and formulas.  Perhaps a way to improve students’ effective production of English is to implement and correctly use the European Language Portfolio (ELP) as a pedagogical tool.  The ELP is an opportunity for students to develop and improve their written and spoken English through genuine feedback from the teacher. This paper will first look at what exactly an ELP is according to the Council of Europe. Then, a description of two portfolio design formats used in B2 classes at Fatih University’s English preparatory program in Istanbul, Turkey will follow. The first design, modeled after the Canadian benchmarks (2000) was implemented in the 2003-2004 academic year and an updated design closer to the ELP was fully implemented in 2005.  During the 2005 fall semester, some problems were encountered with this ELP adaptation. In order to address some of these problems a revised version of this ELP adaptation was used in B2 classes in the 2006 spring semester.  The differences between the two designs in student output and comprehensive use of academic English as well as pragmatic functions are clearly evident. This paper will then conclude with an overview of the steps that have been made towards realizing an effective Turkish European Language Portfolio.

2. Description of The European Language Portfolio

What is a portfolio?

According to the Common European Framework, a portfolio is a personal notebook documenting an individual’s cultural and linguistic knowledge, experiences and background. (Council of Europe, 2000)  Thus, an officially approved portfolio can be given as a part of university and job applications. The benefit of such a portfolio is that employers and educators can see the real-life language level of potential employees or students.

The ELP has two main functions: a reporting (assessment) function and a pedagogic function. In other words, the ELP should be not used only as a grading tool but also as an interactive teaching tool.  Included in this portfolio are three sections: 1) the language passport, 2) the language biography and 3) the dossier.  The language passport and language biography provide information about one’s proficiency in different languages as well as cultural experiences in those languages.  The last element, the dossier, gives individuals the opportunity to showcase their language achievements through documents and other selected materials.  (Council of Europe, 2000). The European Language Portfolio for Adult Learners lists the following materials as appropriate inclusions in the dossier: diplomas and certificates from language teaching institutions, letters, photos, mementos, stories, pages of diary, poems, projects, tests, essays, homework, group work, etc (90).

Thus, it is important for language learners to establish strong portfolios for two reasons: 1) to learn a foreign language in a real-world context and 2) to be prepared for educational and employment opportunities in the EU.

EFL instructors can see portfolio as a means to teach their students real-life English as well as provide one-on-one feedback on their written works. They can aid them in self-realization of their errors as well as guide them to better production of English.  Ideally, students could include work completed in our program in their dossier to showcase their language abilities.

3. Comparative portfolios: an old ‘known’ and a newcomer

In attempts to improve the quality of EFL education at Fatih University, a portfolio design adapted from the Canadian Language Benchmarks was implemented in 2003.  The structure of this portfolio design is described below. This design was used for two years and later readapted in 2005 to closer match the ELP given Turkey’s close political relationship with Europe.  Although successful in terms of student improvement, some evident problems were encountered with this adaptation.  In order to experiment with alternative designs, a revised version of the adapted ELP was administered during the second semester of the 2005-2006 academic year.  Both the first ELP adoption fully implemented in the fall semester of 2005 as well as its revised form used in B1 classes (called A-level at Fatih University) during the 2006 spring semester will be discussed in detail. A criticism of the strengths and weaknesses of each design will follow their respective descriptions.

A. An old ‘known’: Portfolio Design One (Fall 2006)

B1 students spend a total of 22 hours in the classroom per week: 4 for writing, 6 for grammar, 4 for listening and 6 for reading.  In addition to these hours, B1 students also spent 2 hours in a portfolio class where they presented their homework assignments in an oral presentation. The assignments and structure of this portfolio is described in detail below:

The Homework:

Students submitted 3 written assignments every week: 1) a summary of a graded reader 2) a summary of a newspaper article and 3) a writing assignment. Also, a grammar element is included in the portfolio as well in which students answer a grammar question asked to them in class, and based on their answer received a score.

In the class:

In 80 minutes of allotted class time the students each gave two-minute oral presentations of their book or newspaper article summaries, sometimes writing assignments. Other students who are listening were randomly asked after each presentation to comment on what their peer discussed for 5 out of 10 points of their own oral presentation.

Additional Projects:

A three-stage revision project was spread throughout the entire academic year. Stage one requires organization of all portfolio work into a dossier.  Stage two entails intensive revision of several major essays and some other portfolio assignments, but is completed in the second semester. (This revision project is also extended into the second design)

Time:

Number of students per teacher: 54

Amount of time for portfolio classes: four 40-minute class periods

Amount of time available per student: almost 3 minutes

Strengths of portfolio design One

The most evident strength of design one is the development of summarization skills.  Students are offered a variety of realia (books and newspaper articles) to first comprehend and then restate in their own words.  This exposes students to real, practical uses of English by native speakers.  Also, some pragmatic devices (apologies, making requests, etc.) can be learned through exposure to realia. Additional writing assignments allow students to develop their academic writing skills with essays and writing assignments focused on their personal interests.  Basic essay styles such as classification, narrative and comparison and contrast are examined in detail.  Feedback from the instructor further helped students understand how they could better improve their work.  Students made average improvement on their oral presentation skills as they had very limited time to cover all their material, thus, leading us into a discussion of the problems inherent to this design.

Problems encountered in portfolio classes and student work

As is can be seen from the above description of design one, there is not adequate time allotted to actually advise students on how to improve their writing and general English skills.  Thus, the instructor is essentially giving students busy work and not real, effective homework practice. Like the saying goes, “quality before quantity,” EFL teachers too should focus on their students actually producing quality work that might be able to be included in an international language portfolio, not just many mediocre assignments.

With such a portfolio class, the teacher is essentially running a ‘doctor’s office’ where they see their student ‘patients’ one-by-one for a couple of minutes each and then sends them out and calls the next one in.  This is not an environment that nurtures student improvement through teacher-student interaction, but rather a waste of time and teacher’s resources, not to mention an ineffective use of student effort.

Students do display gradual improvement in their overall written and speaking skills, but many students still reproduce the same errors week after week despite proof-reading comments made by the teacher.  This indicates a deficiency in the student-teacher interaction of portfolio design one, that can be most likely related to a lack of time to focus on individual students.  Also, since the whole class is together as a unit, individual one-on-one tutoring is not possible.  Given the low teacher-student ratio, a more personal classroom setting is not practically achievable.  This problem is later addressed in the second semester when a second instructor works with half of the B1 students, allowing more time per student.

B. Attempt to find a solution: Portfolio Design Two ‘the Newcomer’

In order to solve some of the problems seen in portfolio design one, a revised portfolio was designed for the second semester, spring 2006. B1 students spent 16 hours a week in English classes: 3 for writing, 5 for critical thinking, 3 for listening and 5 for reading. In addition to these 16 hours, students spent 2 hours in English for specific purposes (ESP) courses (divided by major) and 2 hours in portfolio class. The raising of the teacher-student ratio alleviated some of the problems related to limited one-on-one time with students.  Also, ten minutes was added to all class periods (taking classes from 40 minutes to 50), including portfolio also allocating more time to individual student mentoring.  But perhaps the most drastic change in terms of class structure was the splitting of students into two groups, A and B, who alternated weeks.  Thus, only half of the students presented their portfolios one week and the other half the next week.  This allowed students to have adequate time to focus on the quality of their work as well as allow more time for one-on-one interaction with each student in the classroom.

Secondly, the nature of portfolio assignments was adjusted to foster independent critical thought in students. For example, instead of simply regurgitating a summary of graded readers, students had to make critical commentaries of the book from prompts presented to the students (see appendix A for prompts).  Students also completed a news report at the end of the semester in stage three of a revision project.  This forced students to connect at least three events they wrote about in previous newspaper summaries and to critically analyze them.  Thus, the reigns of critical thought were gradually handed over to students through step-by-step designed projects and essays units.

Thirdly, oral presentations were significantly extended from not even a full three minutes to eight to ten minutes.  This provided students with more opportunities to develop both their spoken English and oral presentation skills.  The addition of a visual aid forced students to organize a multi-media presentation that is often suitable in academic and professional atmospheres.

Lastly, the accumulation of their personal growth was evaluated and demonstrated through stages two and three of the revision project.  After having organized their works into a notebook, students were able to clearly document their improvement (stage one).  In stage two students selected two of their major essays and one newspaper summary to heavily revise.  They were also asked to write a one-page revision reflection in which their strengths and weaknesses as well as feelings during revision were discussed. Thus, most students have at this point achieved confidence in their ability to correct and evaluate their own writing as well as being to think about an English text critically.  Stage three gives students more responsibilities in further developing their revision skills as their critical thinking skills.  Students again revised two different essays (not from stage 2) and wrote a news report (mentioned above).  Lastly, a two-page self-evaluation was required, asking students to discuss how they improved their English skills and comment on their strengths and weaknesses.  In the conclusion of their evaluations students were asked to grade themselves and defend their case.  This forced students to take autonomous responsibility for their learning, or at least think about their own role in learning. Self-evaluation and student autonomy is later shown to be an important goal of the ELP in the discussion section.

Below is a summary of portfolio design two:

The Homework:

Students submitted 3 written assignments every two weeks: 1) a critical commentary of a graded reader 2) a summary of a newspaper article and 3) a writing assignment, sometimes a short writing and sometimes an essay. (The grammar element has been removed).

In the class:

In 100 minutes of allotted class time the students each give eight to ten minute oral presentations of their book or newspaper article summaries, sometimes writing assignments.  The student also had to provide a visual aid, anything from a poster to an object, to enhance their presentation.

Additional Projects:

The three-stage revision project from deign one was continued. Stage two required intensive revision of several major essays. In the final stage students must selected three news articles from their previously completed portfolios and wrote a critical news report connecting the events.

Time:

Number of students per teacher: 27 (divided into two rotating groups – 13 to 14 students/week) Amount of time for portfolio classes: two 50-minute class periods

Amount of time available per student: almost 8 minutes

Noticeable steps forward: getting closer to a Turkish ELP

Perhaps the most obvious improvement seen in the revised design was the focus on independent student thought.  Critical thinking skills are presented to students in a step-by-step format where they first focus on summary and then eventually to making connections between separate events in the news report.  The first semesters graded reader only provided opportunities to practice summarizing a text.  Unfortunately, in several cases students simply plagiarized their summaries as a large pool of uncritical summaries is eventually accumulated among the student body.  In order to not only curb plagiarism but to also encourage students to understand the main ideas and themes of a book, stimulating prompts were provided to students in the second semester, encouraging independent analysis of their reading of books.  Although weaker students struggled during the first weeks, eventually students were able to express even if very basic, critical thoughts about what they read.  These open-ended prompts also pushed students to use pragmatic language associated with critical analysis as well as incorporate pragmatic information found in realia into their own writings.

Below are some samples of student writing exhibiting the development of critical analysis:

Average student: “In 2005 it was very hot.  Also, it was very cold and there were many severe storms around the globe.  Climate change was one of the most important environmental problems of 2005.” (From news report introduction)

Strong student: “Despite the fact that technology has been developing day by day, a lot of people die of incurable diseases.  As we known, one of these diseases is cancer.  Although there are some new treatments against some kinds of cancers, there are significant steps for the cancer.  Firstly reasons to cancer, secondly diagnosis of the cancer and treatment of the cancer.” (News report introduction)

Exceptional student: “Education is important for people’s life.  It begins with parents at home, then children begin to go to school, but some people prefer not to go to school.  They prefer to study at home and take some exams with the students who go to school.  Although home schooling have some advantages, its disadvantages are more than advantages.  I think it is not good educational system.  It has some difficulties.  For example, parents have to bear the full responsibility for children’s education, learning with no teacher is very difficult and the students have no social life.” (Argumentative essay)

An important element that received much more attention in the new ELP was the oral presentation.  The amount of time allotted to student presentations jumped drastically, from a minimum of less than three minutes to eight minutes.  Students were able to cover most of their prepared material, gaining experience in how to complete presentations from start to end.  Students also had more time to express their ideas in their new language, eliminating some of the stress caused by not having much time to construct their thoughts and ideas in comprehensive English. The visual aid also forced students to think about how to visually represent their presentation, an element essential in academic and professional arenas.

Another important element stressed in design two was revision.  The second and third stages of the revision project really pushed students to rethink their essays.  Everything from vocabulary, structure and thesis were thrown away, changed and restructured into new, improved essays. Peer-tutoring also had an important in student revisions.  Students were required to submit peer-tutoring worksheets as part of their final revision grade as well as write short essays about their revision experience.  These activities encouraged students to take full advantage of the entire revision process and understand that writing is not just a finished product but an ongoing process.  A short reflection essay allows teachers to see what the student learned from the revision process, thus enabling them to better help the student based on their independent needs and/or interests. Lastly, each step of the revision process was included as a percentage of their overall portfolio grade to further emphasize the importance of this constructive process.

Overall, students were provided with opportunities to develop not only their critical thinking skills and writing, but also their speaking and oral presentation skills.  Also, the two-week time period gave students adequate time to really polish their works as opposed to quickly and unsatisfactorily completing weekly assignments.  Thus, design two emphasized the quality of student work in all areas.

4. Discussion

Firstly, EFL instructors must maintain a positive, optimistic attitude towards portfolio.  An effective and enjoyable portfolio for both student and teacher can be achieved.  In fact, the portfolio itself can be a motivating tool, “having a Dossier can be motivating, especially in school language learning. Knowing that the results of a project will be in the Dossier as an example of what one is able to do can be an additional incentive to creating an attractive-looking product a learner is proud to present” (Schneider and Lenz 43).

The first portfolio design for B1 classes seemed to usually serve a reporting function only, in other words, a tool of assessment of final product writings.  However, Kohonen warns us that “if portfolio work is largely limited just to the reporting function of the ELP there is the possibility that the ELP will not find a meaningful place in regular classroom practices.” (2001b). Here lies the root of the problem with this portfolio design.  The first step in solving this dilemma is to move away from an assessment-based portfolio and towards a more pedagogically-focused one, the assessment aspect not to be completely forgotten of course.  Thus, ‘the dual function of the dossier provides an interface between language learning, teaching and assessment’ (Kohonen 2001b).  This ‘interface’ can be achieved when instructors  serve as guides to student’s learning process and providing regular feedback regarding their language development through written assignments. Students must then take responsibility for their own language skills by improving their written work with the guidance of teacher comments and tutoring. (Kohonen 2001b) Thus, students will start to take charge of their own learning and learn to become self-aware of what they are learning.   On a final note, to effectively promote the pedagogic function of the ELP, language teachers need to consider the following kinds of questions in their national and local settings (Kohonen 2001b):

  • How can students be helped to develop a more differentiated awareness and understanding of the phenomena of language, communication, learning and learning processes?
  • How can they be guided to direct their learning efforts and monitor and assess their language skills?
  • How should they be taught to establish and maintain mutually beneficial and responsible social relationships in their learning groups and communities?
  • How can students be guided to acquire new knowledge, understanding and skills increasingly on their own?
  • How can they be provided with sufficient support, tutoring and encouragement?
  • How can they be helped to build up and modify their physical and social learning environments?

If instructors at Turkish universities ask themselves these questions, perhaps an ELP format suitable for the cultural and educational background of Turkish students can be realized. By implementing an appropriate format instructors could ideally achieve both a pedagogic and reporting function in portfolio. By looking at other successful ELPs perhaps the current portfolio designs can be evaluated and improved to find a suitable ‘Turkish’ European Language Portfolio:

5. Conclusion

Though perhaps a challenge, Turkish Universities can better motivate learners to become autonomous learners through use of the European Language Portfolio. Students should be made to realize their role in learning and through appropriately designed class activities, be made aware of their learning process.  Self-evaluation should also be employed to reinforce this as seen in Fatih University’s second portfolio design.  Revision needs to become a key element in portfolio and in-class activities.  The goal of EFL instruction should be fostering quality student work and progressive learning, not the quantity of student work.  Fatih University’s first portfolio design seems to focus on the latter, instead of the former.  The second revised design seems to have addressed some problems, but can perhaps be further developed to be even more successful.  The emphasized elements of critical thinking and revision seen in the second portfolio design focus on helping students produce quality work, worthy of being included in a language dossier (see section 1: ELP). Students achieve quality work by producing work from their own original thoughts, placing the center of learning on the student not the teacher.  Thus, learner autonomy is cultivated in a portfolio classroom.  Although a total complete realization of achieving an autonomous learning environment may take years, some first steps can be made.  This has been shown through the first forms of the Turkish ELP, which will only further develop until its most appropriate form is achieved.

References and Works Cited

  • Center for Canadian Language Benchmarks. 2005. Relating Canadian Benchmark Skils to Essential Skills: A Comparative Framework.  Ottowa: Center for Canadian Language Benchmarks.
  • Council of Europe. European Language Portfolio. 2000. Strasbourg, France.
    *Note: permission to republish given to Ankara Universitesi, Tömer. 2004.
  • Kohonen, V. 2001a. Developing the European language portfolio as a pedagogical tool for advancing student autonomy. In L. Karlsson, F. Kjisik and J. Nordlund (eds.) All         together now. Papers from the Nordic conference on autonomous language learning.     Helsinki: University of Helsinki Language Centre, 20–44.
  • Kohonen, V. 2001b. The European Language Portfolio: From portfolio assessment to portfolio-oriented language learning.  In Kohonen, V. & P. Kaikkonen (eds), Quo ,
  • vadis foreign language education? Tampereen yliopisto: Tampereen yliopiston   julkaisusarja A 27, 77-95.
    Retrieved on 26 January 2006 from http://www.caslt.org/pdf/kohonen_european_language_portfolio.pdf
  • Schneider, Günther and Peter Lenz. European Language Portfolio: Guide for Developers. Lern-und Forschungszentrum Fremdsprachen University of Fribourg/CH.
    Retrieved on 26 January 2006 from http://www.coe.int/T/DG4/Portfolio/documents_intro/Eguide.pdf

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