The perfect alignment

What we focus on in lessons is driven by the assessment objectives (AOs) for the exams in our subject. But how can we develop students’ language to express the cognitive complexity behind the tasks?

Where assessment objectives, cognitive tasks and academic language meet Where assessment objectives, cognitive tasks and academic language meet
The lessons we teach – and the material our students learn – are driven by the assessment objectives (AOs) for the exams in our subject. We know what these AOs are, and very often we communicate them to our students via our starter slide. Our students are probably more familiar with the abbreviation ‘AO’ than they are with, let’s think, ‘EU’. Sure, we let our lessons ‘breathe’. We don’t want to be a slave to the AOs, but they inform what students do every lesson.

In turn, what students are doing is heavily cognitive. For instance, AOs for the Pearson Edexcel International GCSE in English Literature require students to do the following:
AO1 Demonstrate a close knowledge and understanding of texts, maintaining a critical style and presenting an informed personal engagement.
AO2 Analyse the language, form and structure used by a writer to create meanings andeffects.
AO3 Explore links and connections between texts.
AO4 Show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written.

Other subjects require students to do similarly challenging cognitive tasks. For instance, the Pearson Edexcel International GCSE in Geography has these four AOs:
AO1 Demonstrate knowledge of locations, places, processes, environments and different scale.
AO2 Demonstrate geographical understanding of: concepts and how they are used in relation to places, environments and processes; and the interrelationships between places, environments and processes.
AO3 Apply knowledge and understanding to interpret, analyse and evaluate geographical information and issues and to make judgements.
AO4 Select, adapt and use a variety of skills and techniques to investigate questions and issues and communicate findings.

Look again at the cognitive tasks in these AOs: students have to analyse, evaluate, interpret, and understand – and that’s just A E I and U! Students also have to apply, engage, enquire, reflect, appreciate, draw conclusions, and more. Challenging cognitive tasks like these turn up across all academic subjects, to various extents.

The crucial thing is that all this cognitive activity has to be communicated through language. Otherwise all our students’ work will remain invisible in their brains! Students have to draw on the English language they know when they write, or say, their responses. All too often, however, students – across all subject lessons – tend to fall back on the language they already know. This language may be serviceable – it probably does the job and gets the message across – but often it is limited in range and sophistication.

To maximize success, we need to provide students with the language they need while they are doing their cognitive tasks. Clearly, there is a lot of language to learn. If we take one frequent cognitive activity, EVALUATION, this could include any of the following language:

I think… / I feel… / I believe… / For me…
It seems to me… / It appears that…
On balance it may be seen that…
It is interesting / important / crucial / necessary that…
It is not surprising that…
This is not clear / This lacks clarity
There is little / no doubt that…
Surprisingly, / Worryingly, / Inevitably, / Probably…
This policy is worthwhile / flawed / important / significant
no doubt / of course / on the whole / as a rule / in a sense / in principle / in most cases

If we give our students these ten language areas to work with, their spoken and written output is likely to be clearer and more sophisticated. They can create their own variations to express the exact meanings they want.

Going forward, let’s provide our students with the language they need when they’re doing cognitive tasks driven by those AOs. It’s crucial!


About Edward de Chazal
Edward de Chazal is a teacher, author, and conference speaker. He teaches English in secondary and university settings. He specializes in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and has published resources for the global English-medium international school and university sector. Visit his profile to find out more and connect with Edward. 

If the article got you interested in exploring more AOs, you are welcome to browse more information about the Pearson Edexcel International GCSE qualifications  and Pearson Edexcel International Advanced Levels.