Saturday, March 20, 2021

Things to avoid Part 1: Grading accuracy, participation, and engagement/effort

Things to avoid: grading for accuracy, participation, effort. Text is overlaid on a terracotta and lavender background.


There was a discussion on a Facebook group page that asked for guidance regarding grades and grade books.  I was surprised to see the number of teachers who count things like accuracy, participation, and effort.   

Now, my thinking has changed a bit, especially on participation and effort, as I continue to decolonize my classroom, my teaching practice, and my curriculum in my journey to become a more equitable educator. 

 (Update on that: I am also a Teaching Assistant now for the MITx class, Becoming a More Equitable Educator, that was so impactful for me last year, and it is just as impactful going through it again and working with learners from ALL OVER THE GLOBE in their pursuit to become more equitable educators.  It is *free* and great.)  

I am really struggling with where classroom management, white supremacy and systems of oppression, and my classroom practice intersect, but I have no clarity, so I am going to keep struggling on that and asking questions and seeing what I can think of.

However, over the course of my work and collaborations with amazing educators, I have really come to understand more about the role that grading for effort, accuracy, and participation/engagement play in a comprehension based classroom. I don't think I have all the answers, but I have some strong thoughts! 

 In terms of grading for participation, effort, and accuracy, I would say that all of those concepts may allow teacher bias to strongly interfere with grades.  They create systems of  rewarding some students for being better at "playing school", and reinforce a "numbers=learning" mindset.  And of course, if some students get rewarded, other students are going to be penalized.  

As I continue to work with teachers on assessment and grading practices, this student (and caregiver) mindset about numbers (percentages, points) being the equivalent of learning is consistently the number one issue that teachers have, so it is worth considering how our classroom practices play into creating the situation in the first place.  Remember that effort and participation might look a lot like compliance, and grading for compliance is never a good idea. Read my previous posts about grading for accountability, which is another way to say compliance.

Text reads: Students have no control over the rate at which they acquire language. Grading for accuracy on a daily basis rewards faster processors and punishes those who are not. Image of a girl with an afro sitting and smiling on a terracotta and lavender background.

Grading for Accuracy 

Since students have no control over the rate at which they acquire, grading for accuracy on a daily basis is going to reward only faster processors and punish other students for not being faster processors.   

Research about Ordered Development tells us that language features (verbs, word order, what we think of as grammar, etc.) is acquired in an order that is independent of instruction. 

That is to say, it doesn't matter how many times or how creatively a Spanish teacher teaches the difference between ser and estar (to be and the other to be) or the difference between the preterite and imperfect past tenses, students will not produce them until their brain is ready, and when they have traversed the developmental stages of acquisition for that word (or language feature).  Furthermore, learners move through those stages in a non-linear fashion!   They may be able to use a feature accurately one day, then in another context revert back to an earlier phase of development.  This developmental order plays out in every language, for every language feature, no matter what the learner's first language is. We see it in first language development as well.  For more information about ordered development, there is a paywalled article in Hispania by Dr. Bill VanPatten, as well as his great books available from ACTFL: The Nature of Language and While We're On The Topic".   

Accuracy is probably the least important component of proficiency.  Consider: for those of you that have very young children, can they communicate with you?  Of course! It is usually imperfect and often adorable, but it is communication. For those of us who prefer four-legged furry friends, do you know when your dog or cat wants something? I sure do, and I speak terrible Dog and her English is just as poor. But we communicate! (Usually.)   

Why would we expect our students to communicate about something accurately after mere tens of hours of instruction? Even after hundreds of hours (600+) of instruction, the rather small percentage of students who reach a proficiency level of Intermediate Mid (ACTFL proficiency scale) can only do so much.  For example, they can handle concrete, familiar, and predictable situations but might have difficulty linking ideas and time frames, and they are not expected to be accurate speakers of the language.  Read about that study here, and my analysis of it when published:  What Standards Should I set for my students? 

In short, we should not grade students for accuracy, especially on a daily or weekly basis.  

Grading for Effort

Effort is another tricky concept. Many teachers say that if students are trying, then they are making the effort. But what does that look like? Does "trying" look the same across cultural contexts? Does my "trying" look the same as someone else's? And if the teacher sees someone trying, but doesn't see someone else, who gets the reward (the grade)?  

This goes right along with the familiar teacher practice of "well, little Johnny tried really hard so I will just bump up their grade because they deserve it."  Now, that is coming from a place of love and support, but wow- there are so many issues with that!  

First, if we bump up one kid's grade, why don't we bump up another? Who are we to judge how hard one kid tried and value that over another? Do we have the right to make those calls? 

Again, I guarantee that our implicit biases are going to come into play.  If we bump up the grade, do little Johnny and their caregivers have an inflated idea about what they can do in the language? Or does it mean that little Johnny gets credit despite not being able to meet a performance target?  

Grading for effort is a dangerous road, fraught with opportunities to let implicit biases reward students who understand the dominant cultural norms of the classroom and/or fit the teacher's definition of trying hard.  

Text reads: PARTICIPATION: Learners don't have to speak in order to acquire language. There is an image of a black man with a beard holding coffee, in terracotta, yellow, and beige.


Participation is also one of those concepts that needs to be carefully considered. The silent period (lasting 6 months to two years) is a documented stage of language acquisition. We also know that students do not need to be speaking in order to acquire language (they do need to be participating in communicative events, but that doesn't mean speaking!) 

Students who are not neuro-typical may demonstrate participation differently, as might students from other cultures. Again, teacher bias may strongly affect these grades, rewarding kids who are good at "playing school" and/or who understand the norms of the dominant culture.

But What About Engagement?

But wait! Don't you ask students to engage in class?  Don't you expect them to take risks and try to use the language?  

The answers to those concerns are COMPLICATED.

Engagement and participation are DIFFERENT in my book. Participation often looks like forcing kids to speak before the words come pouring out of them, or to speak in complete sentences. It also might be coupled with the belief that students must take risks in order to acquire language.  

I do not believe that students should feel like they are taking risks in speaking in my class.  My goal (and it *is* a high bar, I recognize) is that they feel like they have so much to say and they want to say it so badly that words just pour out.  

Engagement is something that I am really working through.  In order to meet the need for enough grades in a grade book, in my last school placement I asked students to self-assess on behaviors that support language acquisition, then I recorded that grade. (You can read more about what I used to do in this blog post: What goes in the Grade Book.)  After a while, I continued to ask students to self-assess, but recorded it less and less.  The practice was useful in some ways, but now I am really asking myself some hard questions about how I was rewarding those kids who played school (and penalizing others, including students from different cultural backgrounds and those who would be considered to be neurally diverse), and how I can try to reach the same goals (helping students self-regulate and attend to the input) while eliminating white supremacist culture in my classroom.  This is an ongoing exploration for me.  Whew!  

Text reads: the ways we grade can help us become more equitable educators. The ways we grade should help all students believe that they are capable of acquiring another language. Text is beige on a terracotta and lavender background.

I truly believe that the way we grade can help us become more equitable educators, and that the way we grade should help all students believe that they are capable of successfully acquiring another language. 


  1. What are your recommendations for how to grade? I am required to have a certain number of tests/formal assessment and daily grades each grading period. What does a formal assessment look like when not grading for accuracy?

    1. Hi! Great questions. If you have to do a daily grade, make it a complete/incomplete, and advocate (when time and energy allows) to do away with that practice. You can look at a whole series of articles and resources that I have gathered about assessment! And, both the upcoming Acquisition Boot Camp and a soon-to-be announced TeacherLab on Assessment will address some of those questions, if you are looking for more formal training!

      Free resources for assessment (I suggest you start with the first video):

      Info for upcoming trainings, including Acquisition Boot Camp can be found here:

    2. Also, the blog post I wrote on grading compliance and accountability have a lot of concrete suggestions, especially in Part 2! (But read Part 1 first.) Hope that helps!

  2. I just started following you, Elicia. Your blog posts are so meaty and thought-provoking. Thank you so much!

  3. I have my students do campanadas and take some notes in a notebook (like dictionary pages). I look at the students notes in class regularly to reinforce a sense of accountability, like I see you if you are doing the work or not. Today a parent told me her daughter (who is depressed and reluctant about returning to in person instruction) was smitten when I drew a heart of approval on the handful of definitions she wrote. Once every three weeks or so, I give a grade for completing the notes. The notes don't have to be perfect; students get full credit just for taking the notes. Also students can copy any missing notes at my desk right before I enter the grade. I think the notes really help students because the process of thinking and writing is useful, and because they can use their notes for reference on pretty much any activity or assignment. Of course, the students who take notes and use their notes quickly grow out of the notes because they incorporate the target vocabulary and structures into their working language. I really do think the notes are useful and want to hold students accountable for the work. But also I feel like to some extent it's a participation grade. With or without the notebook grade, students who do the notebook work have higher proficiency. So I guess the notebook doesn't technically need to be graded since it's redundant with proficiency. On the other hand, some students are motivated by my acknowledgement and assessment of their notes. I drew a banana yesterday on each completed notebook and the students were literally delighted. We had a debate about whether my banana looked like a chile (it did). Would you lump notebook notes into the category of "participation"?

  4. Hi! Sorry for commenting on this so late. Here's what I think: you are grading for participation and compliance in the instance you described. This is not inherently a bad thing, but I think you answered yourself: the notebook doesn't technically need to be graded. I would also consider that students who are able to take notes are generally ones who are already good at "doing school"- and synthesizing information that will likely be useful on tests and assignments. This means that some students are going to have a head start on those tests and assignments, and that those assignments might not really be measures of student proficiency in the classroom context, as they are able to use those resources- and those resources are going to be dependent on their school skills. If they are not good at taking notes, they are penalized twice over. Does that make sense?

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