Larry Ferlazzo - Assessing English language learners

Assessing our English Language Learner students can be a minefield, especially in the face of potential outside-of-class pressures from administrators, school and district mandates and, in some cases, parent pressure.

Assessing our English Language Learner students can be a minefield, especially in the face of potential outside-of-class pressures from administrators, school and district mandates and, in some cases, parent pressure.
What assessment practices can we use that might be relatively objective and useful to everyone?
There are many I use in my classroom, and the rule that guides how I use them all is the importance of being data-informed and not data-driven.

When schools and teachers are data-informed, they use assessment data to make thoughtful decisions which directly benefit students. If schools are data-driven, they might make decisions which are less helpful to students, like focusing a lot of energy on teaching a “strand” that is heavy on the tests — even though it might not help the student become a life-long reader or learning of English. Or emphasizing speed in reading instead of prosody (reading with feeling). Or demand perfect grammar instead of making the ability to be communicative a priority. In other words, the school can tend to focus on its institutional self-interest instead of what’s best for the students. However, in schools that are data-informed, "tests" are broadly defined, and results are just one more piece of information that can be helpful in determining future directions. Teachers who are data-informed will use assessment data to reflect on their practice, identify areas to modify and adjust, and seek out the resources and knowledge needed to enact those changes.

Here are a few of my classroom assessment practices the follow that guideline:

Initial/Diagnostic Assessments

When students enter a class it's essential to assess their reading, writing, and speaking skills to get an idea of their current proficiency level. The purpose of these initial assessments is to gain information about students’ levels of English in order to tailor future instruction to meet students’ language needs.


Having students produce a piece of writing either in response to a prompt or on a certain topic is a way to get an idea of students’ writing abilities. For example, after showing students a letter from the teacher, students could be asked to write a letter to the teacher about themselves.

Cloze Assessments

Giving students cloze passages with fill-in-the-blanks (or gap-fill) can give the teacher useful information about students’ vocabulary levels and reading comprehension skills. As students read a passage and make guesses about which words could go in the blanks, they need to employ comprehension strategies like using context clues, as well as draw on their own vocabulary knowledge. The level of the passage can be adjusted according to the overall proficiency level of the student or entire class. (see The Best Tools For Creating Clozes (Gap-Fills)).

Reading Fluency (and Speaking and Listening) Assessments

Sitting down with each student and listening to them read aloud in English can be a useful practice at the beginning of the year to get an idea of students’ reading abilities in English. This is also a valuable opportunity for the teacher to have a brief one-on-one conversation with each student which also serves as an informal assessment of students’ speaking and listening skills (the teacher could ask a few questions about students’ lives and interests).

It's important that teachers choose an appropriate level of text for students to read aloud and that it is done in a sensitive, safe way so that students do not feel like they are being “tested.” The teacher can have students read for about a minute and discreetly keep track of the time, mark the errors made, and make notations about the students’ reading.

Formative Assessment Throughout The Year

Formative assessment is not a type of test or assessment, but is a process which combines teaching, learning, and assessment. It's an on-going process where teachers and students evaluate assessment evidence in order to make adjustments to their teaching and learning. It's different from a summative assessment, which is typically used at the end of a unit or semester to gauge a student's overall mastery of a skill or knowledge about what has been studied.

The tools I typically use for formative assessment include:

  • Weekly very low-stakes formal tests that can take many forms.
  • Regularly checking for understanding by asking students to show a thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or thumbs-level periodically, accompanied by my saying something like "It's fine to say you don't understand what we just talked about."
  • Short writing prompts, with sentence-starters, paragraph frames, and/or graphic organizers as scaffolds.
  • Student Self-Assessment and Reflection

When students are asked to think about what they have learned and how they have learned it (the learning strategies they’ve used), they are better able to understand their own learning processes and can set new goals for themselves. Students can reflect on their learning in many ways: answering a set of questions, drawing a picture or set of pictures to represent their learning process, talking with a partner, keeping a learning log or journal, etc. Having students regularly identify their own goals, their plans for achieving them, and their ongoing progress can also be an important element of self-reflection.

  • Cloze, Reading Fluency, Speaking and Listening Assessments

As described earlier in this post, cloze and fluency assessments can be used to initially assess students’ reading skills (and the conversation that takes place during that time can be used to gauge listening and speaking levels). They can also be used throughout the year as formative assessments which the teacher can use to design instruction targeting areas students are struggling with.

In addition to having teachers administer them quarterly, students can do it themselves even more often through the use of technology. Having students read a passage on one of the many available free audio recording sites, save it, and then repeat it regularly so they can gauge their own progress can be a confidence-building experience.

Sites like English Central, which evaluate speaking while taking into account specific accents, is another excellent way for students to self-assess with less fear of making mistakes (since no one is listening) and, therefore, more willingness to take risks.

And then there's the new Literably site, which can help evaluate a student's reading fluency.

Summative Assessment

Summative assessment is another important assessment topic. I'll cover that issue in a future post.

Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He has written six books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and has his own popular resource-sharing blog. He writes a monthly post for the New York Times on teaching English Language Learners. Portions of this post were adapted from the book, The ESL/ELL Teacher's Survival Guide, co-written by Katie Hull Sypnieski and Larry.


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