14. Description of a cycle

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Task details

Name of oral assessment task Description of a cycle
EAL curriculum level range  A2, B1, B2, B3, C1 , C2, C3
Text orientation Informative
Task type Listening and responding/interaction and negotiation/oral presentation 


Task specification

Purpose To assess students’ ability to describe a familiar diagram and known processes in a relatively formal academic context.
Description Students review a diagram of a cycle relevant to their stage of schooling, such as the life cycle of a chicken, or the water cycle, and are asked to name the significant parts of the diagram, and describe what the diagram depicts.
Assumed knowledge and description

1. Content knowledge: Familiarity with and understanding of a cycle relevant to the students’ ages and stages of schooling. For younger students this may be a life cycle of a familiar animal, for older students a natural cycle such as the water cycle. Students need to understand the main stages, and the nature of changes between different stages of the cycle, and relevant processes of changes between stages of the cycle.

2. Text type, genre: Formal spoken description of a natural cycle, with reference to a visual representation of the cycle being described.

3. Linguistic structures and features: 

  • Use of the simple present to describe on-going, universally true events
  • Use of passives to describe processes
  • Use of adverbials to indicate the sequence of events in processes and parts of the cycle
  • Simple present verb forms
  • Use of the passive (‘to be’ as auxiliary verb + past participle)
  • Contrast in form between nouns: evaporation, condensation; semantically related verbs: evaporate, condense

4. Vocabulary

  • Names of the parts of the cycle at different stages: liquid, gas or vapour, chicken, egg hatching
  • Words for actions which take place in the cycle
  • Names of the key processes



Learning/teaching context

Language centre/mainstream class EAL support
Subject/key curriculum  objectives, outcomes 
  • Relates to the Victorian Curriculum Science content at different levels e.g. Level 2 Living things grow, change and have offspring similar to themselves (VCSSU043) and Level 4 Living things have life cycles (VCSSU058), Level 7 ‘Water is an important resource that cycles through the environment’ (VCSSU101), and Level 10 Global systems, including the carbon cycle, rely on interactions involving the biosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere (VCSSU128). Also cross-curricular focus on sustainability.
Topic/teaching unit
  • Knowledge and understanding of the forms in which water exists on the earth and in the atmosphere, and the ways in which heating and cooling influence changes in state of water
  • Understanding the nature of the water cycle: Changes in the form of water in the atmosphere (as liquid, solid and gas), and key processes associated with the cycle (evaporation,  condensation, transpiration, precipitation).
  • Resources
    • A diagrammatic depiction of the water cycle, which the students have been studying (see black line master, attached, from Cleland & Evans 1984)
    • the coloured, labelled diagram available online from NASA. Many other diagrams of the water cycle are available online.
    • The choice of using a labelled or unlabelled diagram depends on the students’ need for scaffolding in completion of the speaking task.
    • Cleland, B. & Evans, R. (1984) ESL Topic books: ESL Through General Science, Teacher’s Book, Melbourne, Longman Cheshire.
Assessment conditions

Individual/pair/group activity


Planned/spontaneous speech

Students should be given the diagram, and a few minutes to consider it and what they know about it, and then asked to give their spoken presentation, without rehearsal.

Time limit: five to seven minutes per student

Teacher intervention: Limited to response to student request for clarification, encouragement, or direct teacher question for clarification from student about any part of the diagram the student has not referred to.

Access to resources: The student being assessed has access to a copy of a diagram depicting the water cycle (at least A3 size).

Scaffolding:  modelled/guided/independent


  • The task is more appropriate for upper primary than middle primary aged students. Students at primary levels may substitute the life cycle of an animal such as a chicken, butterfly or frog for the water cycle.
  • Students newer to the topic should be given a diagram that includes some key written vocabulary as a memory aid.
  • Students who do not recognise the diagram and understand what it depicts (see pre-assessment Activity 2) should not be asked to complete the task, without some class teaching of relevant content.
  • Pre-assessment activities can be extended as appropriate for the learners.
  • Student performances may be audio recorded for provision of feedback or formal assessment by teacher, and or self-evaluation and reflection by the learner.




Pre-assessment activity
  • Students are given a diagram depicting a cycle.
  • The teacher should ask the student if they have seen this sort of diagram before, and can explain it.
  • The students may be asked to sequence or construct the diagram from its component parts.
  • The student is given three minutes to look at the diagram, and to silently think about what it shows.
Assessment activity
  • The students are asked to describe what is shown in the diagram.
  • They are allowed to point to the diagram while describing what it shows.
Post-assessment activity
  • The students may be asked to label the diagram.
  • The students are asked to write a description of the water cycle (see also writing assessment Activity 23).

Task procedure: (instructions for students) and stimulus/prompt: (rubric, visuals )

Give the students these instructions, in a format and style of language accessible for them. Provide support and scaffolding by pointing to particular parts of the diagram, or asking open or focused questions to elicit a description of the cycle from the students:

Look at the diagram and say whether you have seen something like this before, and whether you understand what it shows.

Study the diagram. for example, if using the water cycle, ask students to think about  words that describe parts of the diagram and the things it shows. Think about how the diagram shows how water changes on the land, in rivers and seas, and in the air.

Discuss what the diagram shows, and how the water changes from liquid to gas. 

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Source: Cleland, B. & Evans, R. (1984) ESL Topic books: ESL Through General Science, Teacher’s Book, Melbourne, Longman Cheshiire.


TEAL Oral Task 14 – Unmarked criteria [PDF]

TEAL Oral Task 14 – Unmarked criteria [Word]

An explanation of the purpose, nature and use of criteria sheets is available at 4. Using the assessment criteria.


Sample One
Sample Two
Sample Three
Sample Four
Sample Five






Nature and purpose of the task

This task assesses the academic language required to talk about cycles, such as the life cycles of animals or of natural resources such as water. Such topics which are common in the science and geography subject areas. It also relates to TEAL Writing Task 21: An explanation of the water cycle. The task involves language relevant to describing universal truths, Water vapour cools as air rises, and processes, As air warms it rises, or in passive structures, Air rises when it is warmed. In addition, the task involves explaining changes that form part of natural cycles, The caterpillar changes into a butterfly, or Water vapor condenses and when droplets are heavy enough, rain falls to the ground. As this task is based on a diagram students may also use tenses associated with describing a picture such as The water vapor is rising into the air.
Contextual information
The students in the sample videos were asked to perform this task at relatively short notice, without explicit preparation for the task. To some extent they had all recently worked on the topic, but they had not explicitly been told to prepare for this task, so there is a diagnostic quality to these assessments. The secondary students in Samples 4 and 5  had studied the water cycle and related language in class prior to completing the task, so the task also has an achievement assessment dimension.
The primary aged students in Samples 1 and 2 were directly scaffolded in preparing to describe the water cycle by manipulating picture cards showing the life cycle of a chicken, and then discussing and talking about it, before being introduced to a single picture depicting the water cycle. The teacher continued to scaffold these students in the task by asking them questions about particular parts of the diagrams.
The early years students in Sample 3 were not asked to describe the water cycle and instead they worked with cycles that were familiar to them (the chicken and mealworms), which their class was working on at the time the students were recorded. They also discussed the stages of growth of human beings. In this way the  primary teacher used familiar knowledge to revise the notion of a cycle – using the life cycle of chicken as a prop to introduce a visual of the water cycle, in turn introduced by the idea of a child growing into an adult and having children who also grow into adults. She structured this discussion with the students to reflect the different nature of their learning at different grade and developmental levels.The secondary students in Samples 4 and 5 discuss the water cycle at a greater level of abstraction than younger students, and are more familiar with the concepts involved in the water cycle as they have previously learned about it in the class.
The performances of the students on the sample videos are all dependent on varying amounts of teacher scaffolding in performing the task, including reference to the diagram being used to prompt their descriptions. The early primary students in Sample 3 also complete the task in a pair and provide mutual support in constructing the conversation. While the video samples cover the four levels of performance identified on the criteria sheet, the task could be performed more independently and with greater precision by students at higher stages than the target levels for this task. The performances illustrate developing capacity to describe the cycle with increasing precision and detail. At times the students talk about what they can see in specific pictures, at others they talk about general truths in the cycles they describe. To a large extent, the increasing details and use of technical terminology reflects the secondary aged students’ increased cognitive development and knowledge, as much as increased language skills. However, the primary aged students have less noticeable accents than their secondary peers. Despite the secondary students’ overall more advanced language skills, their phonology is not as developed as the younger students, and there are more noticeable errors of production in their speaking than for the younger students, who make more structural errors, but whose pronunciation is very clear. The primary aged students pronunciation is less marked for accent than the secondary aged students, whose accents are more influenced by the phonology of their first language, which is an interesting illustration of the effect on age on the development of pronunciation of EAL learners. While accent is not an issue in EAL speaking, unless it makes a student difficult to understand, younger children usually come to sound more like fluent English speakers more easily than older children.

Sample One
Sample Two
Sample Three
Sample Four
Sample Five

Sample 1

Biographical information

Grade 5

Home language: Burmese

This conversation about cycles is heavily scaffolded by the teacher. There are three parts to the conversation. At first, the teacher familiarises the student with the notion of a life cycle with an explanation, and then by asking the student to name the stages in a human’s life, which the student is able to describe, showing he understands the notion of a ‘cycle’, by gesturing with his hands and saying, … it never ends. Then pictures are introduced to show the life cycle of a chicken, and the student sequences the pictures, and in response to the teacher’s questions the student describes the cycle in a series of short statements about each picture. Finally the teacher introduces the diagram depicting the water cycle, explains it is a different type of cycle and asks the student to explain it. He provides a brief statement, which is essentially a long run-on sentence to describe the whole picture. The student uses short phrase-like utterances in the first two parts of the conversation. He uses a variety of tenses in describing the pictures, sometimes using simple present, it grows, present continuous, she is hatching (he may have been influenced by the form of the verb on the picture here) and (inappropriately) even the simple past, the egg came out. There is some inconsistency in his control of third person singular ‘s’ at this stage of the conversation. He is sometimes correct, it grows, and sometimes incorrect, it hatch, it lay. He also shows awareness of the ordinal numbers first, second, in this part of the conversation. In describing the diagram of the water cycle the student is not troubled by a lack of subject-specific vocabulary. He strategically points to parts of the diagram, saying this one go up… Interestingly, in doing this he uses both simple present and third person singular ‘s’ quite accurately, in contrast to the earlier part of the conversation. He partially describes the cycle in two clauses joined by ’and’. In response to a teacher question he elaborates part of the cycle, the cloud get bigger and it makes rain, again revealing inconsistency in his use of third person singular ‘s’. The student’s pronunciation is quite intelligible, with only a hint of an accent influenced by his L1.
The marked criteria sheet for this student shows he mostly meets descriptors at level 1 of performance of the task, although his pronunciation is at level 3.
The student’s English language use in this task is consistent with the descriptions of students at Level B1, Victorian Curriculum F-10 EAL.

Sample 2

Biographical information

Year level: Year 3

Home language: Burmese

This is also a quite heavily teacher scaffolded conversation following the same stages as in Sample 1. The student is quite communicative, despite some inadequacies in his control over grammatical structures. He is quite competent in turn taking and interaction with the teacher, nodding and giving feedback, and making appropriate eye contact with his conversational partner. He has a relatively wide range of vocabulary, but in describing the life cycle of the chicken, he uses short basic utterances this one here is laying, and turn into hen again which contain some grammatical errors. He uses simple present tense it turn into.., but omits the third person singular ‘s’, and present continuous it’s laying (again possibly influenced by the form of the word on some of the cards), but makes some errors, including sometimes omitting the auxiliary verb in present continuous, it hatching.

When the conversation moves to the diagram of the water cycle he is also not really daunted by his limited topic specific vocabulary, describing parts of the diagram by pointing to them and using pronouns such as it go up here. There is a similar pattern of verb errors as in the earlier parts of the conversation. He has more vocabulary river, ocean, clouds, warm, than the students in Sample 1, and uses the term recycling to flesh out his explanations. He also attempts a statement to describe the overall process it tell us how the rain come.

The student’s pronunciation is very intelligible, with only a hint of an accent influenced by his home language.

The marked criteria sheet shows that his performance of the task is mostly at level 2 on the criteria sheet. However, some problems with subject-verb agreement are consistent with level 1 descriptors, while his pronunciation meets the level 4 descriptor.

The student’s English language use in this task is consistent with the descriptions of students at Level B2, Victorian Curriculum F-10 EAL.

TEAL Oral Task 14 – Criteria sheet – Sample 2

Sample 3

Biographical information

Year level: Year 2 (both students)

Home language: Burmese

Because of the young age of these Year 2 students, the teacher restricts this conversation to life cycles the students are familiar with, and doesn’t use the water cycle. The conversation begins with some questions about the mealworms the students currently have in the classroom – as well as in the staff room refrigerator! A series of questions elicits the students understanding of the changes in the mealworm life cycle, but it is not discussed as explicitly as a cycle before pictures of the life cycle of the chicken are introduced.

The students are quite fluent in describing the life cycle of the chicken. They have quite a broad range of vocabulary to describe the cycle, Student B, lay egg, Student A, … and some turn to a rooster. They consistently use simple present to describe the actions, but make some errors with first person singular ‘s’. However, as they often speak of third person plural they, this is not a major problem most of the time. The idea of a cycle, as a circle, is introduced at this part of the conversation. They are very fluent and motivated in interaction with the teacher, giving enthusiastic and quite fluent responses to questions, such as when talking about the mealworms in the fridge, activities, as when they sequence the pictures of the chicken life cycle, and explanations, as when Student B explains the chicken life cycle.

Their pronunciation is very intelligible and fluent throughout the conversation.

The marked criteria sheet for this sample shows that this performance is mostly captured at level 2, while their pronunciation is consistent with the level 4 descriptors.

The students’ English language use in this task is consistent with the descriptions of students at Level A2, Victorian Curriculum F-10 EAL.

TEAL Oral Task 14 – Criteria sheet – Sample 3

Sample 4

Biographical information

Year level: Year 7

Home language: Italian

The conversation begins with the teacher requesting the student explain the diagram, without any further direction or focus. The student responds with a long turn, in which he describes the main features and processes of the water cycle. He begins with a general statement about the cycle, describes the parts of the diagram and cycle, and finished with a statement about the nature of the cycle. The teacher then refers to particular parts of the diagram to elicit further more detailed explanation about particular parts of the process, which the student answers.

This student has control of much more technical vocabulary than the younger students, although his pronunciation breaks down to some extent in trying to say precipitation. This student shows good control of subject-verb agreement and tenses as he provided his explanation. He also uses adverbials to sequence the processes, at first, then. At times he lacks vocabulary or structures to say what he wants to, but he uses strategies like naming places, Alaska and Egypt to show his intended meaning, which is something like ‘the position in the world’ or ‘the latitude of a place’. He is also able to directly state when he is unsure of the answer to a question he is asked. However, he is still partly dependent on teacher scaffolding to give an explanation of all details of the cycle.

While his pronunciation is quite intelligible, there are some noticeable influences of his L1 on his production of sounds, and often in his  stress and rhythm, such as incorrectly stressing the final consonant in condensed.

The marked criteria sheet shows his performance of the task is mostly consistent with the descriptors at level 3, although his pronunciation meets the level 2 descriptor.

The student’s English language use in this task is consistent with the descriptions of students at Level 2, Victorian Curriculum F-10 EAL.

TEAL Oral Task 14 – Criteria sheet – Sample 4

Sample 5

Biographical information

Year level: Year 7

Home language: Greek

As in video Sample 4, the conversation begins with a request from the teacher for the student to explain the diagram. She does this in a long description in which she explains the diagram using quite academic language, including terminology like radiates, precipitates and transpires. She loses some fluency when she struggles with the pronunciation of precipitate. The teacher then asks some questions about the different parts of the description, but the focus of the questions is mainly to elicit from the students more everyday terms, like rain, for some of the more technical terms she has used, like precipitation. Some questions also ask for more detailed description of parts of the explanation, like transpiration. She does this on the whole, but some scaffolding is needed to assist her in doing this. Her grammar is generally accurate in the different stages of the conversation, and her pronunciation is intelligible and clear, despite a slight L1 accent.

While she gives a reasonable explanation of the cycle in a long turn, her use of academic language  she is still partially dependent on the teacher scaffolding to fully explain details of parts of the process.

The marked criteria sheet for this sample shows the student meets the description of communication and pronunciation at level 3, and others at level 4.

The student’s English language use in this task is consistent with the descriptions of students at Level C3, Victorian Curriculum F-10 EAL.

TEAL Oral Task 14 – Criteria sheet – Sample 5


Using this assessment for further learning

Self review

1. Subject-verb agreement

The following procedure would be useful for  students who make noticeable errors with subject-verb agreement.

  • Remind students of the following patterns

I go; You go; It, she or he goes; We go, They go.

I fall; You fall: She, he or it falls; We fall; They fall.

I change; You change; Water changes; We change; They change.

  • Build on this basic pattern to remind the students of significant forms that should be used in the cycle(s) they have described, such as:

Hens lay eggs; The hen lays an egg. The egg hatches, the eggs hatch,. Water vapour condenses. Mealworms grow; the chicken grows. 

  • Ask the students to build a written list of the subject and verbs they should use in their descriptions. (This needs to done in way that is suitable for the age of the learners. e.g. as game for younger children, as matching exercise for older students).
  • Ask the students to watch or listen to their explanation, and note where they both make errors, and get right the subject-verb agreement in what they say.
  • Ask them to repeat the explanation, being careful to get subject-verb agreement correct in what they say.

(Audio recording may help student to separate the focus on production and focus on monitoring this involves.)

2. Using present tense or present simple to describe what is shown in a picture.

  • Explain the practices and contrast between the way we use simple present to describe things that are true, e.g. eggs hatch, chickens grow, water evaporates, water vapor condenses, rain falls. Contrast that with how we use present continuous to describe something in a picture, when the picture is in view and being referred to, e.g. the egg is hatching, water is evaporating, rain is falling.
  • Ask the students to refer to the picture they have used as the prompt for their description of the cycle.

First point to the relevant parts of the diagram, and describe what is happening, talking about the picture, and using the present continuous.

  • Next, ask the students to describe the cycle, without reference to the picture, using the simple present. Explain that they are now  describing something that is always true, without referring to a specific picture or diagram. (With younger children this might involve getting them to match sentences with pictures and highlighting verbs.)

Peer review

Technical and everyday words.

For younger children:

  1. A two-way activity for younger children to match pictures and sentences. One child has the pictures and one child has word cards with the technical words and they work together to put the cycle in order. E.g. one child says first the chicken lays the egg, the other student then finds the picture of the relevant part of the cycle and so on.

For students at more advanced stages of learning who may be expected to use technical terminology:

  1. Make a list, matching technical terms and everyday language, relevant to their cycle. Make the list as comprehensive as possible.
  2. Put the students in pairs.
  3. Ask the students to explain their cycle to their partner, first in technical language, like they would to their teacher, or an expert who knows about these things.
  4. Next, ask them to explain the cycle to their partner, assuming their partner not to be a technical person (such as friend, a younger brother or sister, or even their parents), using everyday language, so they can make their explanation as simple and clear as possible.
  5. Partners alternate in each type of presentation.
  6. Information gap type activities using missing everyday words or academic language could be used. E.g. one student has the cycle in the academic language and the other has it in the everyday language and they need to match the synonyms.


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