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What is a rubric?
Simply put, a rubric is a way of measuring student success. How well did they accomplish a particular task?
It may be helpful to think of rubrics as a scoring tool if you have to provide students with a grade. In order to earn each grade, you should have a set of necessary criteria. For example, in order to get an A on an essay, a student must complete the assignment with less than five grammar errors, use level-appropriate vocabulary and write at least 750 words.
However, for ESL conversation classes, you are generally not grading in that way. What the teacher must evaluate is a student's success at a particular class activity. This sort of rubric is harder to define, but we can still apply the same idea of criteria for successful completion.
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Establishing a baseline
In order for students to be successful at an activity, they need to have a clear idea of what to do, so making a good rubric always starts with considering appropriate classroom instructions.
The instructions should tell students the bare minimum they have to do to complete a task. For example, if your task is to read a passage and then discuss it with a group, the baseline criteria for completing that task would be that the student must read the passage and participate in the discussion. How successful they are begins from those two points.
Make it clear to students exactly what is expected by using simple language. Classroom instructions should always use grammar and vocabulary well below a student's level. As much as possible, stick to very simple SVO (subject verb object) constructions and break things down into multiple steps. For example, for the task in the previous paragraph, the instructions might be, "Read this. Do you agree? Talk to your partners."
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Steps to success
Once you have a baseline for completing a task, you can think about relative levels of success. You can make as many levels as you like, but when it comes to conversation, it is often easier to think in terms of two or three levels. For example, you may treat the baseline criteria as "meets expectations," and then come up with criteria that would "exceed expectations." If you want to track student performance in various areas, you could also set criteria for individual categories, such as grammar accuracy, vocabulary, fluency, etc.
For example, again using the reading and discussion exercise, you may set criteria such as using compound sentence structures, referencing quotes from the article, using target vocabulary and facilitating the discussion ("What do you think, Kenji?") as things students could do to exceed expectations.
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Clarity is key
As a teacher, it is important to have a clear idea what you want your students to do in class and what you want them to achieve by doing it. By knowing what your desired outcomes are, you can more fairly and helpfully evaluate your students' performance.
For students, knowing what is expected of them helps them to focus and do well in the lesson. One way this can be communicated is through the instructions, but you may also choose to explain your rubrics in detail, particularly if you are giving grades. This has the added advantage of making students think about areas where they may be falling short.