Portfolios are a popular and effective way of motivating young learners, providing a fun way to review language and helping them to reflect on their own objectives, ways of learning and success.

  • A brief history of European Language Portfolios
  • What are Language Portfolios?
  • Advantages of using them
  • The problems with Language Portfolios
  • Using Language Portfolios with young learners

A brief history of European Language Portfolios
Teachers and learners have been working with Language Portfolios since the mid 1990s, and between 1998 and 2000 various ELP models were piloted in Europe.

There has been much literature written about them and there are lots of interesting examples. In the year 2001, which was also the European Year of Languages, The Council of Europe launched ELPs throughout Europe.

Many adult and young learner course books now contain features of language portfolios such as passport activities and learner checklists while many classrooms have learner portfolios stored on their shelves.

What are Language Portfolios?
They are a collection of individual students’ work put together in a file or ring binder. They belong to the student and can be updated as language learning continues by adding to and taking away pieces of work.

Language Portfolios are made up of three parts:

1. The Passport
This contains factual information about the language learner. It gives a history of the learners’ language learning experiences which in this case refer to learning English.

It may also contain any certificates or qualifications which show the learners’ level in an internationally transparent manner. For our young learners this may mean a certificate they received from a summer camp they attended or a qualification they got from taking an English exam at school or in any other English language centre. It may also include a ticket to a theatre production in English, a film they saw or a trip abroad to an English-speaking country. See Working with passports

2. The Language Biography
This is a personal history of the learners’ language learning experience. For example it may include a short narrative about the summer camp which they went on and for which they have included the certificate in their passport section.

It also includes self-assessment materials, such as the learner checklists and any aims that learners have for the future. These aims might be passing a specific exam, attending a course and feeling well prepared for it or being able to speak English to a visitor. See Working with biographies

3. The Dossier
This is a collection of course work which shows learners’ level of English. It may include corrected class or homework, tests and exams or any other piece of work which illustrates where the learner is at. In this part of an LP, a learner may include voice or video recordings or any part of project work which they have done.

Download portfolio activities 55k

Advantages of using them
There are many advantages for teachers and learners.

  • They enhance learners’ motivation by providing something personal and tangible which they can build up and develop over the course.
  • They help learners to reflect on their own learning and achievement by asking them to make choices, review, compare and organize their own work.
  • They enable learners to look for new cultural experiences by opening their eyes to the possibilities available to them. Part of portfolio work involves ‘show and tell’ sessions where learners talk about their experiences and look at other portfolios.
  • From a teacher’s point of view, portfolios lead to greater learner autonomy since they involve self assessment, learner responsibility and parent involvement.
  • Learners can work in their own time on different sections of the LP.

The problems with Language Portfolios

From my experience there are a couple of considerations when using LPs.

  • First of all with large groups the storage of portfolios can be problematic. Of course, learners can look after them themselves but this always means there are lots of students who forget or lose their portfolio. I have found it is better to store them in class and only allow them home occasionally throughout the year. In this way it means they are readily at hand for parent interviews and of course class time.
  • Secondly, as a teacher portfolios involve the provision of the folder and the organisation of the contents, which can be quite time consuming. However, once I had made templates for the three sections, found an attractive folder and decided on the topic to work on, learners could work at their own pace and the sessions ran themselves.

Using Language Portfolios with young learners

I have always had very positive feedback from parents who have shown great interest from the start.

  • Whenever working on portfolios I have sent a letter to parents at the start of term, briefly explaining what an LP is and the reasons for working with them.
  • I have asked parents to look for any ‘realia’ that their children could bring into class which would help them talk about a language / cultural experience. Children have brought in photos, leaflets to interactive museums, theatre tickets and magazines and comics in English.
  • Obviously not all children get so involved and by the end of the course there can be quite a difference in the contents of LPs. However, I always make time in portfolio sessions to help individuals who have been absent or fallen behind in their work so that each LP is reflective of the level of its owner. Other learners can finish off pieces of work or start on new topics.
  • Throughout the course, learners have personalised their LPs by including photos, decorating the front cover and preparing an individual passport page. In this way the notion of ‘ownership’ has been a motivating force.
  • Finally, at the end of term students take their LP home where they can be kept intact or used the following year to build on and update.

Further reading
Peter Lenz & Gunther Schneider: European Language Portfolios. www.coe.int/portfolio
Council of Europe Standard (C.O.E.): What your language level means.

Malisa Iturain, Teacher British Council YL Centre, Barcelona

This Article was first published in 2007


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