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Working with Portfolios in German Primary Schools

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1. Introduction

When it comes to teaching English, the topic of assessment is always relevant and important. Over the last decades, there has been more and more of a shift away from traditional and towards alternative assessment.

When thinking about alternative assessment in English language teaching, we often think of assessing learners in secondary school and higher education. But how can it be applied to teaching English in primary school? There are many forms of alternative assessment, but one that has been very popular and highly acclaimed is the portfolio. It has been a part of education in America for decades and has also gained popularity in Germany over the last years.

The purpose of this paper is to answer the question of whether we should use portfolios when teaching English in German primary schools, and if so, how they should be used.

I will start by defining what exactly portfolios are. Then I will present advantages and disadvantages of the portfolio as well as highlight possible dangers and chances, both in general and particularly in a primary school context. This should help resolving the issue of whether to use portfolios in primary school English education in Germany.

Afterwards I will make suggestions on how to practically work with portfolios, highlighting the chance of students learning self-assessment through this method. The concept I have chosen to analyse when discussing this, was proposed by Groß in 2006 as part of the BLK-Verbundprojekt „Sprachen lehren und lernen als Kontinuum“. The reason I have decided to use this source specifically, is that it is a guide for teachers who want to work with portfolios in primary school and that the project was done for the state of Hesse, besides North-Rhine Westphalia and Thuringa. Since I will most likely teach English in Hesse in the future, this concept is very relevant for me personally.

Finally, the question of how to assess and whether to grade English language portfolios in primary school shall be answered.

2. Theoretical Background

2.1 Defining the Portfolio

In order to find out if it is advisable to use portfolios when teaching English in primary schools, it first needs to be defined what exactly portfolios are. However, this is no easy task. Häcker argues that defining what exactly portfolios are is difficult “because until today no single definition of school portfolios in neither the Anglo-American nor the French-Canadian or the German language area predominates”1 (2007: 86).

One of many different definitions comes from Paulson, Paulson and Meyer who claim:

A portfolio is a purposeful collection of student work, that exhibits the student's efforts, progress, and achievements in one or more areas. The collection must include student participation in selecting content, the criteria for selection, the criteria for judging merit, and evidence of student self- reflection. (“What Makes a Portfolio a Portfolio” 1991: 60)

According to Häcker, a portfolio presents development, abilities or achievements of a person through a collection of work which authors of portfolios autonomously choose themselves. He claims that portfolios are “addressee-oriented and intention-focused”2 meaning that a portfolio is not made for the author themselves but rather “for the eyes of a third party as well as for a specific purpose”3 (2007: 86). While Häcker mentions a third party, both of these definitions have the author and their individual process, progress and journey of learning as the major focus of the portfolio. It becomes clear that these points must always be at the core of portfolio work.

Furthermore, in “What Makes a Portfolio a Portfolio”, Paulson, Paulson and Meyer claim that

[a] portfolio, then, is a portfolio when it provides a complex and comprehensive view of student performance in context. It is a portfolio when the student is a participant in, rather than the object of, assessment. Above all a portfolio is a portfolio when it provides a forum that encourages students to develop the abilities needed to become independent, self-directed learners (“What Makes a Portfolio a Portfolio” 1991: 63).

This highlights the fact that the portfolio should not simply be seen as a way of assessing students, but should also help them to learn more about the process of learning itself. Portfolios can become a way of teaching students valuable skills and therefore, be both an assessment and teaching tool. While in traditional assessment, learners are often seen as passive objects, portfolios give them an opportunity to be actively participate.

2.2 Disadvantages

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