For the online learning world


The Moodle ‘essay’ question type in second language learning

The ‘essay’ question type is a Moodle quiz question requiring manual marking. However, if you use essay questions for translation exercises and provide the necessary feedback tools, essay questions can become almost self-correcting – and they are great at beginner level!

Translations in second language teaching – really?

Using translations as an integral part of language learning is considered old-fashioned and outdated by many. However, translations are a good way for students to check whether they master specific elements of the target language (vocabulary, idioms, grammatical structures). When having to translate a specific text, students can neither resort to well-known ‘islands of reliability’ nor avoid more challenging structures. In John Whitlam‘s words, “translation (…) can be directed by the teacher to test specific areas of grammar, degrees of difficulty and formality and vocabulary content, whereas in free composition students can show off what they do know, but also avoid what they do not”.

We all know that there are many ways to translate a text. There is no “perfect solution”, and students will come up with different suggestions. This is why ‘essay’ questions cannot be totally self-correcting. On the other hand, translations are usually not very complex at beginner level, as the vocabulary and syntactic structures are still limited. All this makes translations rather predictable at these early stages of language learning.

How to use the ‘essay’ question for translation exercises

If you want to use essay questions for translations, here’s one way to do it:

  1. Compose a text that you want students to translate, and enter it into the ‘Question text’ field.
  2. Provide your own translation and enter it into the ‘General feedback’ field.
  3. If the translation is graded by others, provide some useful advice about what to focus on. What is the purpose of the exercise? Are there some specific (grammatical/lexical/idiomatic) elements you wanted students to use?

Students will be able to read the general feedback (the “model translation”) as soon as they have submitted their text. This happens automatically – no action is required on the teacher’s part. Herein lies the value of essay questions for translation exercises: Students can start comparing their own version with the one provided by the teacher while waiting for the teacher’s individual feedback.

Increasing linguistic awareness

I think there is a lot of pedagogical value in the process of reflecting upon translation divergences. Students can compare versions on their own and at their own pace, realise mistakes they have made, and become aware of doubts they want the teacher to clarify. This reflective process promotes noticing and language awareness (Guy Cook).

As the teacher has already provided some general feedback, the individual feedback given to each student can be far more specific and address individual weaknesses or strengths, or focus on interesting choices made by the student.

If formal grading is required, the teacher will still have to do it manually. However, the essay question is a great option for exercises involving shorter texts, and where students can benefit from a more generic feedback.


Ruth Horak

Ruth Horak

Based in Denmark since 1998, Ruth is an Innovation & Educational Technology Consultant and has been a teacher of Danish as a 2nd Language at Københavns Sprogcenter (although she is a native German speaker, and also proficient in English and Norwegian). Her specialties and areas of interest include alternative pathways of learning, method development, adult education, ICT, Moodle (of course!), gamification, teaching, design & development of teaching material, project development & management.

2 thoughts on “The Moodle ‘essay’ question type in second language learning

  • I must admit I rarely use essay questions in quizzes – I mainly use Moodle quizzes to create self-marking activities.
    In language teaching it’s a different thing of course!
    I can see a lot of value in the way you approach this question type for languages 🙂

    • Ruth Horak

      Thank you, Stuart. Yes, I definitely think the essay question type works well the way we use it.

Add a reply or comment...