Possible to Make Assessment Culturally Inclusive?

A dear friend and colleague of mine, Amy Puett, posed a very interesting question about culturally inclusive language assessments a while back. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very helpful in answering. What I could offer, however, was a space to share this question with the larger world of ELT. If you have any insight into what Amy offers below, we’d be very grateful.  


I’m currently working on an MA in TESOL, and I’m doing a research project on biases in spoken assessments. In my experience, there hasn’t been a lot to account for in differences in cultures, ages or purpose when it comes to assessing students in their level of spoken English. The standard guidelines for assessing one’s level of spoken English are generally the CEFR and ACTFL guidelines; however, these don’t account for shy, uncommunicative Korean students who might be under a lot of pressure with their studies or a socially astute Pakistani student who knows when and where to pull out stock phrases to impress others with their English skills. Also, there is little room in these guidelines to accurately describe young learners. I’ve taught many Korean elementary students who are at a B1 level of reading, and I can’t see the students acknowledging their level by saying “I can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. I can enter unprepared into conversation on topics that are familiar, of personal interest or pertinent to everyday life (e.g. family, hobbies, work, travel and current events).”

Even the guide to using the CEFR guidelines states in the introduction that ‘The Framework aims to be not only comprehensive, transparent and coherent, but also open, dynamic and non-dogmatic. -Council of Europe (2001a:18)’[1] It also mentions that it’s not expansive in describing young learners. [2] However, I have still witnessed that many students are nonetheless labeled with these terms, which I feel can affect how some teachers teach them. The ACTFL has similar issues. For example, the following is said about a student with ‘low intermediate’ speaking skills:

“At the Intermediate Low sublevel, speakers are primarily reactive and struggle to answer direct questions or requests for information. They are also able to ask a few appropriate questions. Intermediate Low speakers manage to sustain the functions of the Intermediate level, although just barely.”[3]

It would be beyond many people’s conscience to behave in such a manner in some of the countries I’ve taught in, and they would learn how to fake responses or gloss over any gaps in their understanding. I also know language students of higher speaking levels who would act in the same manner due to their naturally shy nature in dealing with foreigners.

I feel there must be more TESOL instructors can do to incorporate a more inclusive set of terminology that would allow either more room for interpretation or include a more sets of guidelines to adequately assess students and describe their levels of spoken English language skills.

My question is can any share their experiences with this issue or recommend relevant research? Any help would be appreciated.


Ticking the Native Language Box

This past weekend, over a round table discussion with friends (not necessarily the academic kind), the question “What is a native English speaker?” was thrown into the mix. The talk was inspired by Michael Griffin’s latest post, A letter to Korean English teachers. This discussion reminded me of all the times I had to tick that dreaded box on application forms: identify your mother tongue.

You see, as soon as I ticked that box, I already knew people would approach me with a whole lot of misplaced assumptions: they’d speak to me in French; I’d respond in a standardized version of French speckled with intermittent structures of Franglais and my Acadian dialect; they’d have a hard time understanding me; and finally we’d start speaking English anyway. Why did this happen?

a little history

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post (Practicing Nonviolence in My Mother Tongue Isn’t So Easy), I grew up in an Acadian-French speaking community in Nova Scotia, Canada.  French is considered to be a minority language in this province.

As my grandparents’ and parents’ generations were growing up, they faced confusing linguistic messages.  During the early 1900s officials in the Nova Scotia Department of Education, who were of English descent, created curricula for Acadian public schools that were designed to ‘integrate’ French-speaking children into the dominant English culture (Deveau and Ross 1992, 154).  Deveau and Ross (1992, 155) describe the dualism that my grandparents’ and parents’ generation faced between this school system and their home life:

Acadian children were doubly disadvantaged:  they came to school speaking one language and were expected to learn everything, including reading and writing, in another language.  Their mother tongue, the very basis of their culture, was thus placed immediately in an inferior position.

The regulations of this educational system created immense linguistic alterations for the Acadian community. In 1931 thirty-two percent of Acadians had stopped considering French their mother tongue; then in 1971, 59.3 percent felt the same (Deveau and Ross 1992, 164).  The assimilation was a quasi-success.

But by the time it was my turn to go to school (early 80s), things were changing. I went to a francophone elementary school. When I was in middle and high school, I had the choice to continue my studies in English or French. I chose French.

My elementary school – École Jean-Marie Gay

The community was bridging the gap between school and home. Then finally, in 1996, a decision was made to find a more suitable working balance between both languages, when the *Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (Acadian school board) was lawfully established.  As a result of the unrelenting efforts of Acadian educational and parental organizations, children of Acadian heritage must now be educated solely in their native language.  Children of English-speaking families also have their own schools.

*I’m happy to say that my father was the superintendent of this school board from 2001 to 2006. The story of what he’s done for the Acadian community could be a blog/book in itself. Something I hope to see one day.

Why the Conflict with the box?

I’ve been speaking English my whole life. I don’t remember when I started. I’m sure cable television, the Sweet Valley Twins, Video Hits, and all those rockin’ 80s radio tunes had something to do with this learning. I’m also sure that this, connected to the teasing I got  for the way I pronounced “th” from my English-speaking cousin, and the English classes I had since I was in third grade, made for what I consider to be a seamless learning experience. With this practice and knowledge, I went to an English university, and since then I’ve been living my life in English. When I decided to make English teaching my career, it came with a lot of reflecting on what I just shared with you.

My mother tongue is a dialect. I speak it with family, friends and people in the wider Acadian community. I rarely read French books, but when I do, I enjoy them. Though it would take a lot of work to write a good French essay, I teach an advanced EFL writing course.  When I speak French to francophones from other countries (Quebec included), they hear my accent (stemming from years of living in anglophone communities, and from my dialect) and assume I’m an English speaker. Due to the discomfort and confusion, we usually revert to English.

So now when I’m asked what my native language is, I just tick the English box. I’ve made my peace. It’s just easier. Not just for me, but also for whoever is at the receiving end of that box.

But is this what it’s come to? In order for you to believe my English ability, I have to fit into some box? What’s the criteria for that box? It’s obviously not as clear as you think.

Have you ever felt confused about how to answer when asked about your native language? How have you felt, and how do you respond?

Deveau, A. and Ross S. (1992). The Acadians of Nova Scotia: Past and Present. Halifax: Nimbus Publishing.

The Teacher: The Authentic Self?


  • not false or imitation: real, actual
  • true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character

I’ve lived in Korea for 7 years:

  • I now can eat spicy food.
  • I’ve been told I use metal chopsticks better than the average Korean.
  • During conversations, I don’t feel uncomfortable during ‘awkward silences’ as I much as I did before.
  • I believe I’ve developed better “nunchi“.
  • When I’m drinking alcohol with someone quite older, I turn away when I take a drink.
  •  I bow when I say “hello” or “goodbye” no matter what country I’m in.

These are behaviors and abilities I didn’t possess before living here. I’ve adapted.

Continue reading “The Teacher: The Authentic Self?”

Cultivating a Bountiful Crop of Rest in Nova Scotia


Teachers need rest.

Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop. – Ovid

We need rest in order to maintain our levels of compassion and empathy towards our students. We need rest in order to remain creative because creativity profoundly serves our lesson plans. We need rest to stay open to the change that learning requires.

This is how I’m taking a rest right now.

Home Cooking

Rapûre (rappie pie in English) is the traditional meal for Acadians from Nova Scotia. Click on the link to find the recipe for Clare‘s best selling rappie pie, Evelina’s Rapûre.

Some of you may not know this, but I’m of Acadian descent. This means I was raised francophone and my second language should be English. I, however, can’t see an identifying division between my two languages. My intention is to write a blog post of how this has affected me as an English teacher. Stay tuned for that processing.

Nova Scotia’s Beauty

un petit bergot (a periwinkle snail)

Continue reading “Cultivating a Bountiful Crop of Rest in Nova Scotia”

Personal Disclosure in the Korean Classroom: Do You or Don’t You?

Looking back on most of my blog entries, I realize that I rarely write explicitly about my cultural experience in relation to teaching Korean teachers. It may be because I’ve been here for a while, and I take our cultural roles for granted. Maybe I’ve become so comfortable with “the Korean way” that I have forgotten a bit of what “the Canadian way” used to mean for me. I tale for granted the little details about what it means to teach in Korea.

However, after having spent last night with my Korean family-in-law — it was my husband’s uncle’s 70th birthday (cultural-linguistic note: my adopted “Korean way” is now naturally prompting me to say “our uncle”.) – I remembered what makes many interactions in Korea so specifically Korean; it’s their need to try to make everyone feel comfortable in a social situation. Of course this will vary from group to group, but in my experience when it comes to hanging out with family or instructing a group of teachers, the moment will run much more smoothly if everyone feels comfortable.

So what does this cultural comfort look like? In Korea it’s all about knowing your position in a group, and behaving according to the rules if that position. I have to say this is one of the biggest challenges when I’m with a bunch of elder family members. Although they may have thought I was comfortable last night, I was a tad ill at ease. My Canadianess naturally inhibits me to know how I stack up on the totem pole, especially when it comes to Korean table manners. But I digress.

Most of my Korean family

When it comes to meeting people in a closer circle of interest or age, the rules may seem uncomfortable to the unknowing Westerner (linguistic note: in Korea the foreign English teacher’s nationality is quickly replaced by the status of our perceived hemisphere; therefore, we simply become known as Westerner instead of Canadian or Australian.) Questions about age, marital status, and your personal experience of Korean culture can come within the hour of your first meeting. I know the Canadian in me used to be shocked by the seemingly personal invasion.

This kind of probing doesn’t stop in my classroom. Within the first week the teachers find out if I’m married. Then they ask if my husband is Korean. When I say yes, there is a hush over the crowd. They quickly want to know how we met. I must admit that my “love story” gets better with each semester. Each semester it is dubbed as our “love story”. Throughout the next five months, similar questions persist, but they usually connect to my experiences in Korea and Canada. I hardly bat an eyelid to these kind of questions anymore.

Most of my colleagues follow the same disclosure rules. They have lived in Korea for much longer than me, and probably have also realized that this is one of the ways we can create a comfortable atmosphere in our classrooms. By accepting the questions instead of opposing them, we become part of their way of doing. This is how we have adapted to the “Korean way”.

I have heard of “Western” teachers refusing to talk about their personal lives. They exclaim that it isn’t professional. They say students/trainees don’t need to know this kind of information since they are here to learn, and not to become friends. I don’t connect with this reasoning. However, I also realize that some Korean teachers are not ready to hear about the “unique” lifestyles of their Western colleagues. For this reason I can understand their need to protect their privacy. Maybe part of cultural dance is knowing what to disclose and how to disclose it.

I don’t share my stories to become friends, although I welcome such an evolution in our relationship. I have become close with many of my past trainees, would feel sad to miss out on such connections.

KIETT Trainees and Trainers at KOTESOL
KIETT Trainees and Trainers at KOTESOL

From my perspective, by refusing to open up about myself, trainees will feel less inclined to do the same. I know how important this kind of connection is when it comes to learning in general, but more specifically when it comes to learning language. When we communicate, we express who we are and what is important to us. If we feel that we aren’t among instructors that can take gentle care of our story, then we clam up. We feel more apt to learn and share when we feel that we are in a safe environment.

Within each culture the boundaries of safety and comfort will vary. I doubt Canadian teachers would feel the need to know about my “love story” in order to learn something from my classroom. When I juxtapose my experience with training teachers in Korea, to my own experience in teacher training at SIT, I shudder at the thought of asking for such information from my professors. I can just imagine myself asking Pat Moran during Approaches to Teaching Second Languages, “So Pat, how did you and the Mrs. Moran meet?” Not cool.

But we aren’t in the same context. The teachers I teach value this kind of information because it helps them connect to me on an intimate level. When they come to our program, they feel extremely vulnerable. They have huge doubts about their language ability and how that reflects on their ability to teach English. They lack confidence, and I believe it is my job to do what I can to connect with their fears in order to improve their confidence. When I see and empathize with their fears, they learn that it’s okay to expose them because they are in a safe environment. Sharing tidbits about myself is part of this process, because that’s part of the “Korean way”. It offers them some familiarity in an environment that can feel so foreign.

There are other ways that I work with the concept of safety and comfort in the classroom, but I’ll save that for another posting. For the moment I have explored this cultural reflection to the fullest. I now leave the debate up to you:

What are your boundaries of personal disclosure in Korea? Why do you, or don’t you expose your personal life to your students/trainees/participants? How have you learned to disclose your personal stories to your Korean students/trainees/participants?