LANGUAGE AND CROSS-CURRICULAR PORTFOLIO PROJECTS:
SOME PEDAGOGICAL IMPLICATIONS
a Journal of TESOL-Italy - Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Spring 2001
Most EFL teachers in Italy have been introduced to the idea of a portfolio through the recent Council of Europe European Language Portfolio project. This document is organized into three basic parts: a Language Passport, which shows at a glance the level reached in different languages; a Language Biography, which contains a summary of one’s personal language learning history, self-assessment checklists and plans for future learning; and a Dossier, a collection of documents selected as evidence of personal competences. This evidence can be anything, from examples of written work to audio or video cassettes, projects on CD-Roms and so on.
Portfolios have been used quite extensively in the USA and elsewhere, basically with two main functions, which are also evident in the Council of Europe project:
a reporting function: this refers to their administrative uses - what are
sometimes called “showcase portfolios": one of the many possible ways to
implement alternative forms of assessment. This can coexist with more
traditional forms of assessment or can even replace them;
a pedagogic function: this refers to the classroom uses of portfolios.
These “learning portfolios” are not necessarily linked with formal,
institutional assessment – rather, they are a collection of items which
document how each individual student goes through the process of achieving
paper is concerned with ways of developing a learning portfolio (that is, one
that has mainly a pedagogic function), for adolescent learners (that is,
students at media or biennio level), mainly for internal (that is, school) use,
and focussing on language learning, but also open to cross-curricular
developments. Because cross-curricular portfolios have a very wide pedagogic
value, there is ample scope for using them across the watertights compartments
of the curriculum.
paper consists of three main parts. First, I will describe a possible structure
of a language or cross-curricular learning portfolio; then, I will discuss the
pedagogical implications behind this structure; and finally, I will briefly talk
about a set of practical guidelines for developing a portfolio project.
An example of a possible portfolio structure
can be seen in Fig. 1, a portfolio could open with a front cover, which would
include personal identification and some other details chosen by the student as
personally meaningful and valuable. We could then have a series of
self-assessment grids for each subject, and within this, for a number of crucial
points in time: for example, at the beginning and at the end of the school year
and/or at the end of each module or period of instruction. Notice that any
documents or certificates relevant to this section would go either into the
dossier or into the certificates folder at the back of the portfolio.
we would need a space for students to record their activities and experiences,
both at school and out of school: here they would describe any activity which
has in some way contributed to their learning progress – it could be films
they have seen, books they have read, trips they have taken, websites they have
visited. Notice that any documents or certificates relevant to these sections
should go into the dossier: for example, report cards on films and books,
projects they have carried out, letters they have written …
that, we would also need a space for students to make a note of their own plans
and projects: for instance, their thoughts about their language learning
priorities at the beginning of the year, or short-term plans to improve a
particular aspect of their competence, or longer-terms plans to learn or to use
the language beyond school. Finally, we would need a specific space for what I
have called Learning Biography: by this I mean a space where students could
record what they discover about the languages and cultures they are studying,
about the learning and teaching process, and about themselves as learners. Here
they would gradually build up and update their personal profile. I will describe
this part in more detail further on in this paper. It goes without saying that
any document relevant to this section would find its way to the dossier: for
example, questionnaires on learning styles and strategies, reports on tasks,
observation cards, learning logs or diaries, and so forth.
will now focus on the pedagogic implications of this structure. It is my firm
belief that a portfolio project involves much more than the collection and
organisation of materials. In fact, it can be an example of promising innovation
in learning and teaching, but for this to happen, we need to make the pedagogic
assumptions behind such a project as clear as we possibly can. We will therefore
consider the proposed portfolio structure once again, starting from the front
is no formal introduction; it is rather meant to stress that the portfolio is
the student’s property, something which the student should feel belongs to him
or her. The question really is how to promote the student’s involvement, both
a sense of belonging and a sense of the portfolio as a serious enterprise, one
which can offer rewards but also demands responsibility and active participation.
We are aiming at students' intrinsic motivation – a kind of motivation which,
unfortunately, is often stifled at school. I have already heard high school
colleagues complaining that the first question that students ask is, will I get
a mark for my portfolio? Will you use it for my final grade? I think that these
are legitimate questions to ask, but in a way they highlight the fact that so
many things at school are valued by students only if there is an extrinsic
reward or an extrinsic punishment involved – getting a good or bad mark,
passing or failing an exam, and so on. The portfolio works in a different
direction - so it is a question of developing new beliefs and new attitudes
about work done at school, in students as well as in teachers and parents.
points to another crucial pedagogical implication:
view of what we have just said, I think the problem for teachers is, how to
gradually introduce a portfolio into their own teaching practice and how to
provide support to the students, especially in the early phases. One of the
dangers here is to fall into the trap of thinking that working for a portfolio
means doing extra things in addition to what is already being done. Such a
project would be doomed to failure from the start if
teachers and students were to do things for the sake of the portfolio. In
fact, it is the other way round: we do things and then select those things that
lend themselves well to being included in the portfolio.
the problems are manifold, but I will just mention one or two. On one hand, we
need to identify and describe the competences we are trying to make our students
achieve, the expected outcomes. On the other hand, we need to make these
descriptions user-friendly, that is, easily manageable by the students
themselves. The Common European Framework, the European Language Portfolio, and
our coursebooks help us a lot in this respect, because they provide us with many
ready-made checklists, but the problem is how to make these competences
recognizable by the students. This is a problem
which is often underestimated.
descriptors are obviously easier to understand than others. For instance, the
Framework descriptor for written interaction at A2 level reads: “Can write
very simple personal letters expressing thanks and apologies” – I think that
is clear enough. But let us consider another Framework descriptor for reading
strategies at A2 level, like this one, which we would obviously translate into
use an idea of the overall meaning of short texts and utterances on everyday
topics of a concrete type to derive the probable meaning of unknown words from
are obviously talking about deducing the meaning of unknown words, but what can
a twelve or thirteen-year-old make of a descriptor like this, even in Italian?
It is partly a question of complicated language, naturally, and we can
reformulate it using simpler words. However, it is also a question of making the
described behaviour recognizable by the student, that is, the student must be
able to refer this general description to a task or a series of tasks which she
or he has actually just done, or done in some recent past. In other words, the
descriptor of a competence needs to describe a sort of “memorable
performance” – maybe it would be enough to remind students of a specific
task or exercise which they did not so long ago, with prompts such as: “Do you
remember what you did on the task on page 67 last Friday? Look at it again. What
did you learn to do then? Do you think you can still do it?”.
other problem related to describing and assessing competence has to do with the
need to set clear but “open” targets. This simply means that, on the one
hand, we have to identify competences, for example in the form of “can do”
statements, that are clear and unambiguous. But on the other hand, we also have
to recognize, respect and value unexpected outcomes, things which students might
produce during a task but which do not fall neatly into prefabricated checklists
of objectives. We know that input does not equal intake, that what we teach is
not necessarily what students learn. Out of a reading task, students may learn
to do other things in addition to, or even instead of, developing a reading
competence. They may feel that through the reading task they have learnt new
words that interest them, or some useful information they can use for their
hobby, or a new way to work with classmates. I think we need to give students
the opportunity to assess, not just what we would like them to have learnt, but
also what they have actually learnt, whatever that might be.
Activities and experiences at school and out of school; plans and projects
we come to the sections of our portfolio where students record their learning
experiences and their personal plans and projects. Here we are concerned with
designing, implementing, documenting and assessing activities.
challenge is how to implement meaningful experiences at school. Of course
teachers are committed to designing activities, from the simplest exercise to
the most complex project, which produce new knowledge and new competence – but
the problem is, it must be new knowledge and new competence which can be
recognized by students as personally meaningful, that is, of direct relevance to
them personally. Why would one want to record an experience which has meant very
little to him or her? Here the implications for task design are clear. It is not
just a matter of selecting interesting and motivating content, of making the
task active and concrete, of providing context, purpose and a realistic focus
for communication – it is also a question of designing tasks which are
problem-based – by this I mean tasks which cannot be solved through the use of
routine behaviour, but rather require the use of strategic behaviour.
useful benchmark to judge the value of tasks in terms of a problem-based
approach could be whether you can do them without thinking or whether you must
stop and think, stop and look for a new way to solve what appears to be a
problem – in other words, stop and find a strategy to deal with the unexpected.
Notice that this can happen with the most demanding project work, but also with
a reading passage which creates expectations and calls for higher cognitive
skills such as inference and deduction. I am obviously not advocating new ways
to make things more difficult for students! I am perfectly aware of the balance
we should keep between task difficulty and students’ ability. It is a bit like
walking on a tight rope: if the task is too easy, no strategy will be called for
and no new knowledge or ability will be produced – we will fall on one side.
If the task is too difficult, even the best strategy cannot make up for
abilities that one does not yet possess – we will fall on the other side. So
the question is, find the right balance so that the task poses a problem which
can be solved by using strategies. Then the activity can possibly become
meaningful and worth talking about and recording in a portfolio.
other challenge which faces us in connection with documenting activities is how
to recognize and value the full range of experiences that may be carried out by
students out of school. We know that this is especially relevant today, when
most learning seems to take place out of school, in informal settings, whether
on the web or in a disco, during a trip abroad or while playing a computer game.
It is a fact that a portfolio should be a record of a student’s global
learning experience, wherever and in whatever contexts it is carried out. The
problem is, rather, how to describe and assess that experience, so that both
students and teachers can get meaning out of it. It is just not enough to read
books, watch films, surf the net or study abroad. Just as we are striving to
identify and describe formal competences to be acquired at school, so we should
make an effort to describe – or rather, ask students to describe – what they
have learnt through a particular experience out of school.
instance, it makes little sense to record that you have spent three weeks in
England. So what? For all I know, you might have spent three weeks sitting on
the beach or in a pub with your Italian boyfriend or girlfriend. Tell me where
you stayed, who you stayed with, what you did with them, what opportunities you
had to listen to, speak, read and write English, what you feel you have learnt
from these opportunities. Other, more difficult but maybe even more important
questions I could ask you could be, how did you realise you have learnt new
things or to do new things? And also, do you think you have become a better
language learner through this experience? Why, or why not?
a word, doing things is fine – but it is no use doing things if you do not
extract some meaning out of them. Action needs to be combined with reflection.
One of the major functions of a portfolio is exactly this: providing space and
time to give meaning to what we do, to focus on both product and process.
is a special part of the portfolio – special because it is meant to focus both
on product and, above all, on process. If competence has to do with the what of
learning – what you know, what you can do - process has to do with the how and
the why of learning: the strategies you use to carry out tasks, your learning
preferences, such as cognitive styles and intelligences, your very personal
aptitudes, and, going even deeper, your beliefs, attitudes and motivations. Why
is process important, and so, why is it worth making it visible, recording it in
a portfolio? Basically, I would say that process is important for three main
in the first place, and although this may sound a bit banal, because it
is through process that competence is achieved;
secondly, because the ability to monitor and manage process is a
competence in itself: you may call it in different ways – metacompetence,
ability to learn, cross-curricular thinking skills – but there remains the
fact that today everybody, but especially young people, need to be equipped not
just with specific knowledge and skills, but also with the flexibility to learn
all through their lives;
and finally, a
third reason why I think that process is important is, because by focussing on
how and why you do things you discover your own learning self, your problem
areas but also your potential strengths.
I would like to provide a simple example of how a Learning Biography
could be organized (Fig. 2).
The core of it would be a sort of a diary, with just a few basic entries:
there would be a date and a context, to remind me that I can discover
something about myself as a learner any day, any time, in any context: for
example, today … (date) … while doing a grammar exercise at home … during
a class discussion … while watching some Italian video clips …
there would be a synthesis of my discovery: I have found out that … for
example, … that it is useful to revise my class notes … that it is easier
for me to make a written list of points … that it is fun to spot English words
in Italian programs …
there would be a further synthesis of my discovery in the form of
essential key words: for example, “revise class notes” … “use writing”
… “be ready to spot English” …
key words could then easily be transferred to the other basic tool of a Learning
Biography, which is “My personal profile” (Fig. 3).
is an extremely simple mind map, or spidergram, where I can arrange and
rearrange my key words in any way, delete, add and change them as I think it fit,
to capture my global self and how it evolves and changes over time.
Physically, the Dossier could be a big envelope, a box, a folder,
something big and strong enough to contain the hard evidence, the documents
which are witness to what students have done and learnt and talked and thought
about in the various sections of their portfolio. The pedagogical implication
behind the Dossier is clear enough:
An attempt is being made to select evidence to make learning visible – according
to some clear criteria which should be shared with students.
think we need some simple tool to describe the documents students are enclosing
particular card was inspired by the Swiss version of the European Portfolio. For
each document which I decide to enclose in my dossier, I jot down a number, a
title or description (for instance, “A CD review for the school’s web
page”), the type of work done (for
instance, whether it is an individual or a group work, whether it is the result
of a free, spontaneous production or the
final version of a work which I have corrected and redrafted one or more times,
and so on), the reason why I include the document (for instance, “because my
classmates liked it and it’s linked to one of my great interests –
music”), and the date. Notice that the reason is particularly important,
because I have to justify the rationale for my choice and, by doing so, I become
better aware of my own abilities and how they are changing over time. This is
why the items included in the dossier do not need to show mastery, but only that
progress has been made towards a goal.
checklist of guidelines
In the final part of this paper I will briefly describe a checklist of guidelines to develop a portfolio project. It is probably useful to see these guidelines as a set of basic wh-questions.
First of all, WHY? Why would we want to set up a portfolio project? There may be several different reasons, but it is essential that we should make them very clear to everybody concerned. In my examples I have focused mainly on the pedagogic value of portfolios, and no doubt this would be at the forefront – but we may address other specific needs, for example, the need to use the information gained through portfolios to assist students, parents and teachers in choosing a school or a job (“orientamento”), or the need to document experiences to be evaluated as part of the school’s final assessment (“crediti formativi”).
we would want to clarify WHO would be involved in the project, and WHAT it would
focus on. Here a decision would have to be made both on the subjects or subject
areas involved and on the kinds of materials to be included in the Dossier. I
have already mentioned that practically anything could be included, provided it
is clear, hard evidence of a learning experience. A Certificates Folder can be
the ideal companion to the Dossier, and these certificates would come from
sources other than the student: teachers and organizations, of course, but also,
and depending on the age of the students and on the purpose of the portfolio,
peers, parents and other adults.
we would want to consider the HOW. This involves choosing an appropriate
physical format for the portfolio (for instance, a folder? A box? A CD-Rom?) and
its overall structure, which we have already discussed in some detail. However,
one of the most difficult issues to be faced here is, which sections of the
portfolio can the student be supposed to manage on his or her own. Which
sections would probably require some kind of support from teachers, especially
in the early stages of development? And if we decide to provide support, that is,
to assist students in the management of their portfolios, which sections of the
portfolio would most need support? Who (that is, which teachers) would offer
this support, and in what circumstances? Here we are probably facing one of the
most practical, but also of the trickiest, issues.
final questions in the checklist have to do with the WHERE and the WHEN. Where
should portfolios be kept? In the classroom? In a lab? In a library? When should
they be updated? On a regular basis, at fixed times, or whenever students feel
the need to do it? And, in connection with this, on which occasions should
portfolios be made public? Portfolios are the students’ property, students
must develop a sense of ownership as a prerequisite for the very idea of a
portfolio - but that does not mean that portfolios should be kept strictly
private. It is important to discuss and decide who else could be entitled to see
them, and on what specific occasions: for examples, teachers and parents during
class meetings, or tutors during remedial lessons …
up and running a portfolio project is in many ways a new and challenging idea,
both for its important pedagogical implications and for the impact that such a
project can have on the very nature and organization of work at school. Because
the stakes are so high, we probably need a fair amount of both teacher training
and learner training to provide both us and our students with some essential
guidance and support.
time and space resources is no easy task. Innovations take time and energies.
They cannot be expected to happen just “by default”, as we say in computer
jargon. Perhaps our most challenging task is to work within the constraints, but
also using the opportunities which are provided by the changing status of our
I know that this paper has provided more questions than answers, more challenges than comfortable thoughts. But we live in an age of uncertainty, and I think we must learn to manage uncertainty in our daily routine. As Edgar Morin recently wrote in his UNESCO publication “Seven Complex Lessons for Education in the Future”
should learn to navigate on a sea of uncertainties, sailing in and around
islands of certainty”
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www.learningpaths.org Luciano Mariani, Milan, Italy