Beyond exams and essays: Creative methods of assessment in the Department of Languages and Cultures

Our students have just finished choosing their modules for their second and final year, and one question they often ask when selecting their modules is ‘how is this module assessed’? This is also a question that prospective applicants often ask, so we wanted to showcase in this blog post some of our more creative methods of assessment. We are proud of our innovative assignments, which enable students to develop their skills in many different areas, so we have asked our Programme Directors to give us some recent examples of assessments for Spanish, German, Italian, French and comparative modules!


In this first post we cover some examples of recent creative forms of assessment used in our comparative modules. Comparative modules compare and contrast the history, literature, cinema…produced in different cultural spheres, bringing them together in modules such as Greats of European Cinema, Comparative Literature, Society, Thought and Art, or Language and Power, to name only a few.


Our comparative modules involve exciting methods of assessment, for instance for the module “Language and Power”, a radio show on language and migration was recently designed, written, and conducted by the students enrolled in the module. The whole module had been designed around this outcome, and therefore all lectures were delivered in preparation for the show. Before going on air, students received a 2-hour training at Junction 11, the University digital radio which hosted the show. A series of five 50-minute shows (Voicing the invisible(s)), on 5 different topics, went on air, involving all 25 students of the module. By working with a professional equipment, students could include sounds, songs, interviews and live feedback in their shows, and had to carefully mix up solid research-based content with some more “entertaining” material. It was such a success that some students designed and presented their own radio show after this experience. As one of the students wrote: “This project taught us and gave us a lot, and such opportunities to flourish are surely what education is all about”.


Another innovative method of assessment was the project Who wants to become… and editor? How to transform a classroom in a publishing house, for the module ML2LLM “Literature Language and Media”. Over 10 weeks in the Spring Term, students designed, wrote, edited, and managed to publish a 96-page book entitled Behind the Screen. Social Media through the student eye. The class was organised as a publishing lab. Week by week, invited guests introduced as to book design, book editing, proofreading, book marketing, etc. Students then decided a topic they wanted publish on, and took a role: most of them became authors (of chapters), then we had 2 assistant editors, 2 iconographers, 2 proof-readers, 1 production manager (in charge of getting in touch with the printer, i.e. the Department of Typography), 1 event manager (to organise a book launch), etc. It was like the big game of writing and publishing, but we ended up with a collective book with 13 short chapters based on research, professionally designed by a graduate from Typography, and digitally printed in 200 copies. Students left the module with 2 copies of the book each, to show what they are able to do, and with the feeling that when talking about books the combination of content and technical skills is not only possible, but almost necessary to understand the physicality and the complexity of books and book industry.

Beyond exams and essays: Creative methods of assessment in German studies

Our German section make wide use of different assessment formats which boost our students’ creativity, flexibility, promote dissemination of students’ research findings and work inclusively. Generally, coursework assessment offers varying tasks which allow students to play to their strength but also explore new forms of working. Thus Part 1 modules like Icons of Modern Germany base tasks on varying primary sources from East German schoolbooks to West German pop songs; students can choose between text question, contextualising visual materials or commenting on a song or poem; they can also decide to either write an essay or produce a poster.

This variety continues into Parts 2 and 3. For example, uur Word Formation module allows students to write a commentary as well as updated version on a dictionary entry. In the module on Romantic literature, students get the option to do a creative project which can consist of a translation, writing a (fictitious) letter or diary based on an author or literary character, or generate a series of drawings or paintings on some literary piece. The option to do posters which present findings to a wider public can be chosen in the German cinema module. This broad range of formats and opportunities to think beyond the usual essay, is also there in our language modules which offer portfolio assessment or video shooting in addition to tests or essays.


Beyond exams and essays: Creative methods of assessment in French Studies

In French, students on the module ‘How to Think in French’ (FR2HTF) carry out an assessment with the contemporary French publication Philosophie magazine. They are individually assigned a copy and are asked to locate a number of common expressions and figures of speech. This develops their analytical skills in a contemporary and varied context. The articles they read range from letters pages to cartoons, snippets of canonical texts to interviews with contemporary philosophers and cultural figures.

In the module ‘The First World War: Then and Now: students write a learning journal in which they are invited to reflect on how their understanding of a particular aspect or topic has evolved as a result of class discussions and of the independent research they have conducted. Students often choose to explore lesser-know aspects of the conflict, such as medical advances, the parallels between occupation (and resistance) in WW1 and in WW2, or the way the war was portrayed in children’s albums during the conflict.

As for our French language modules, in first and second year students complete a portfolio, a collection of creative and independent work showcasing their progress in French. It’s a great opportunity to receive personalised feedback on their accent and intonation (especially for shy students!), written expression, and other language skills.

For practising their French and keeping track of their learning, students can also test their grammar each week through easily-accessible online tests and in class, we like to do Kahoot quizzes. For beginners’ and intermediate levels, there are different forms of weekly formative assessments available to students: they can test their vocabulary with Quizlet via the flashcards that we have created, based on the topics discussed each week. They can also contribute to these lists by creating and editing their own flashcards.

Beyond exams and essays: Creative methods of assessment in Spanish and Latin American Studies

In Spanish our first-year cultural module ‘Icons of Spain and Latin America’ involves an assessment designed to help you understand what we’re looking for in university essays and how to improve your work. Students hand in their essay and we provide feedback, then the students use the feedback to develop their essay and resubmit it with a reflection on what they’ve done and how it’s helped. It’s great to be able to do this in the first year as you’ll need those essay writing skills all the way through your degree. It also helps you learn how to reflect on feedback and use it to improve your work (useful at university and beyond!). Students find this really helpful and often comment on how beneficial it was in the module feedback.

In our final-year module on dictatorships in South America, students take it in turn to write a blog post summarising the seminar reading and some questions they think it would be useful to discuss. This helps us to have really interesting discussions in the seminar, and students find the blogs are really useful resources for their revision.

In Spanish language, several of our modules have a ‘language portfolio’, where you submit activities throughout the year. Students create some of their own activities, so you can focus in on the areas of language learning you really want to improve (and let your creativity run wild if you like!). This helps you to work on developing specific skills gradually over the course of the year, which is important for language learning.

Beyond exams and essays: Creative methods of assessment in Italian studies

Our Italian section’s creative assignments enables students to ‘posterise’ their research! In several cultural modules we have embedded poster presentations, i.e. academic posters in A1 format which let students present a topic of their choice in a very effective, visual way. In “Poster presentations” sessions students bring their own posters and display them like in an exhibition, which is open to anyone. After the presentation students can keep their professionally-printed posters and take them to job interviews to show their ability to sum up information in a catchy way. It is a win-win assessment method. Teachers can transfer some presentation skills onto their students, and students do enjoy the visual appeal of their posters, which stay with them as a piece of evidence of a good quality and effective work.


In one of our Italian socio-linguistics modules, students recently edited a newsletter – entitled Reading Italians (where the plural is for signalling the linguistic variety of contemporary Italian). Financed by a small grant from the University Teaching and Learning Development Fund, and professionally designed by an undergraduate student of Typography (which could use the newsletter as the final project of her academic year), the newsletter was edited by two students from the module, and included several articles written by students to talk about their sociolinguist projects. Two issues of the newsletter were released (100 copies each): one to discuss ideas, and one to disseminate the results of the students’ research. Graphically stunning, the two issues were sent to all the Italian departments in the UK, to let colleagues and students from other universities what we were doing.

Danielle George – DLC 1st prize Year abroad competition

I took this photo on a freezing day in January, about halfway through my Year Abroad which I spent living in Padova. Living so close to Venice I spent a lot of weekends there and one day a friend suggested we take a tour of some of the smaller islands which I would really recommend to anyone who visits! This photo was taken on the island of Burano, which is famous for its painted houses.

To anyone going on a Year Abroad, I can’t stress enough how important it is to travel! You should obviously spend lots of time getting to know the city you’re living in, but I would really recommend using your free time to travel around and get to see some other places. In Italy, trains and coaches were reasonably priced and so I’d usually spend Monday to Friday working in Padova and then pretty much every weekend in a different place. Once you get back to the UK and have to pay for a flight to go see these places you’ll definitely regret not going while they were so close-by!

New BA Modern Languages

We are very excited to launch our new BA Modern Languages! This flexible programme enables students to move with confidence across one, two or three languages, allowing them to build their own degree based on their linguistic and cultural interests. Whether specialising in one linguistic area, or combining two or three languages and their associated cultures, students will have the opportunity to expand their horizons and develop their skills as versatile linguists.


Why launch a ‘BA Modern Languages’ programme?

The introduction of this new programme comes in response to students’ requests to be able to combine more than two languages, and we are delighted to be able to offer them this opportunity to focus on up to three languages. The range of languages on offer has also been increased, with the introduction of a series of ‘additional languages’ that complement and diversify our existing offer.


A highly flexible programme

From September 2020 onwards, students will be able to study one, two or three languages, choosing from

All of these core languages can be taken from beginner’s (no prior knowledge required), intermediate (post-GCSE) or advanced level (Post A level) – please note that only one core language can be taken from beginner’s level.

Our programme also allows students to combine up to two core languages with our additional languages, which currently include (subject to availability):

  • Arabic,
  • British Sign Language,
  • Chinese (Mandarin),
  • Japanese,
  • Modern Greek
  • Russian


Exploring new cultures

The study of core languages focuses both on developing linguistic proficiency (up to near-native level by the time our students graduate) and deepening their understanding of the cultures of the countries in which the target language is spoken. For example, students who elect to study French (on its own or combined with another language/subject) can explore French Caribbean Identity, French popular music or French children’s literature.

Students on our German programmes may choose to take our modules on Migration in Germany, on German Romanticism or on ‘Glorification, Denial and Contempt – Reconstructing Austria’s Past’.

In Italian our cultural modules may include History of the Italian language, Italian Cinema and ‘Crisis, Change and Opportunity; Italy from 1968 to the Present’.

Students on our Spanish programmes can explore ‘Icons of Spain and Latin America’, ‘Culture and Revolution in Modern Latin America’ or ‘Writers and Publishers in Spain’.

For a full list of current modules please contact us (all modules subject to availability)


 The Year Abroad

Our BA Modern Languages includes a year spent abroad, in the third year. Students have the opportunity to expand their linguistic skills and intercultural understanding in one or two of their core languages. They can choose to study at a partner university, go on a work placement or work as a language teaching assistant. If they choose to study more than one core language and start one of their languages at beginner’s level, it is possible to spend the full year in a country where the language taken form beginner’s level is spoken.

To find out more about BA Modern Languages do not hesitate to contact us!

Helping visitors to find their way around the MERL

First year students at the MERL

This year, first and final year students of German have worked together with the Museum of English Rural Life to enhance the museum experience for German speaking visitors.

The Museum of English Rural Life, based at the University of Reading’s London Road campus, has recently become part of the Great West Way. The Great West Way is a new tourist initiative targeting tourists from the US, Germany and the Netherlands who visit places of interest along the Thames between London and Bristol. The German section started a new collaboration with the MERL which enhances the museum experience for German speaking tourists in the Berkshire area. This collaboration provides students with an opportunity to develop transferable skills and use their language skills in a non-academic, tourism-focused setting.

Final Year students created a series of translations for the museum galleries and visitor pages as part of their translation course. The experience helped students to translate for a specific target audience and expand their knowledge of both the German language and the factors involved in a successful translation process. The students’ work will become part of the MERL website and the project will continue in the following academic year.

As part of their language course, First Year students learn to write blog entries. Students took part in a blogging workshop in the studio at the MERL. Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer at the MERL, gave students an introduction to the museum, its collection, the Great West Way and its target audience, before our First Years set out to explore the museum and find aspects that they would like to present to a German speaking target audience. By writing blog posts for MERL, they could put their skills into practice. Their texts cover a vast range of topics, from the Museum’s special exhibitions to special activities for families and young adults. Some of the texts that were created can be found here:

Both groups had the opportunity to use their language skills in a real life setting that helped them to understand that writing blogs and translation can be challenging and rewarding at the same time.

See also:

Discover The Great West Way:


The Museum of English Rural Life:


Sara Sullam: uncovering valuable documents in the University’s special collections.

Sara Sullam is Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University of Milan.

Sara Sullam is Assistant Professor of English Literature at the University of Milan. She spent her six-month Visiting Fellowship funded by the British Academy at our Department. In this blog post she tells us what she discovered in the University’s Special Collections.

In her 1925 essay on “How Should One Read a Book” Virginia Woolf reflected on the fact that the very act of reading was always, in a way, taken for granted, while it in fact deserves further scrutiny and attention: “For though reading seems so simple – a matter of knowing the alphabet – it is indeed so difficult that it is doubtful anyone knows anything about it”. Research on reading has undoubtedly progressed since then: however, much remains to be discovered on how reading habits are formed and on how our experience of reading across languages and cultures is shaped.

Funded by a Visiting Fellowship of the British Academy hosted by the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies under the supervision of Dr Daniela La Penna, my project British Novels for European Readers, European novels for British Readers: A Working Hypothesis for the Anglo-Italian Case (1945-1965) has investigated the crucial function of publishing for the development of reading culture in a key moment in the history of European integration. In particular, it has focused on the strategies devised by Italian and British publishers to select, evaluate, translate, promote and market fiction from 1945 to the mid-Sixties. Who were the people involved in these processes? What was their way of reading? And how did it impact on the way the common reader in both countries made sense of fiction coming from abroad?

To address these research questions, I literally plunged in the incredible wealth of materials of the Archives of British Publishing and Printing housed at the University of Reading’s Special Collections. I read the correspondence between English and Italian publishers – Chatto & Windus, The Hogarth Press, Jonathan Cape, The Bodley Head on this side of the Channel, Mondadori, Feltrinelli, Einaudi in Italy. I studied the reports written by professional readers, key actors in the process of literary transfer, whose work has very often remained buried in the archives. I was able to see how much is gained, and not lost, in translation. Working on these papers has made literature come alive.

Illuminating the transnational networks of people who shaped the availability of post-war European novels in the British and American markets has also inspired the research practice underpinning the project, aimed at building research networks across disciplines and languages. Besides funding a number of presentations of the project at other UK universities (Manchester, Nottingham), the BA grant allowed me to co-organize with my host Daniela La Penna an international conference ( that brought together publishing historians, scholars of Italian and English literature, from Italy, Germany, the US and the United Kingdom. The conference gave us all the opportunity to reflect on the networks of the past to build the research networks of the future.


Sara Sullam

A Working Life Built on German

On 4 February, students and staff of German had the enormous privilege to meet Andrew Sims, a German alumnus, who has pursued a successful career as an interpreter and translator with the German Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Andrew studied German and Russian at Reading in the 1980s. Since his MA in translation and interpreting, he has worked first for the West German government in Bonn and, after 1990, for the government of unified Germany in Berlin. His talk introduced students to the different types of interpreting, from simultaneous and consecutive to whisper interpreting, and gave an insight into how the types of interpreting determine the role of the interpreter within this quite daunting process. To reassure students who are thinking of choosing this career path, Andrew showed us the interpreter’s survival kit. It included strong nerves, good knowledge of shorthand, the ability to be invisible in the middle of a room, an insatiable appetite for new words and phrases (to be learnt for each new policy, political development, and project), the art of inserting place-holder words as long as the message of the sentence remains unclear, absolute confidentiality, and a good grasp of the audience you are interpreting for.

Andrew also talked about his work as a translator, a rapidly changing profession. The future of translation will depend on ever-improving translation software while a highly qualified translator is needed for the post-translation editing. While the rough work will be managed by machines, human linguistic and cultural know-how – including superb knowledge of the target as well as the source language – will remain central for producing a text fit for sensitive political communication.

Students were inspired by the talk and encouraged by Andrew’s assessment that English natives who master both their own language and German are desperately needed, and will always be welcome in Germany.