Assessing ELLs Part 1: The Purpose of Assessment

These next few posts will discuss assessing ELLs: the purpose of assessment, challenges of assessment, and working language/learning objectives into assessments.


Greetings everyone! I hope you all are having a relaxing and exciting summer break! This week is my own summer break, and it’s given me some time to work on some projects at home (like my book). I have also enrolled in a few (free) online classes from ASU via the MOOC website, Coursera. One class I enrolled in focuses on assessing ELLs. It’s a six-week course and it has some excellent points to consider. I would like to share some of the things that I’ve learned after just the first week!

I’ve previously written about assessment here, and have shared a number of posts related to assessment in various ways, but this time I will focus purely on ELLs.

What is assessment and why do we assess students?

I’ve shared this definition before, but it’s good to read it again (you can never have too much review, right?)

Assessment is the process of gathering and discussing information from multiple and diverse sources in order to develop a deep understanding of what students know, understand, and can do with their knowledge as a result of their educational experiences; the process culminates when assessment results are used to improve subsequent learning.  (Learner-Centered Assessment on College Campuses: shifting the focus from teaching to learning by Huba and Freed 2000)

The purpose of assessment

The purpose of assessment is to provide diagnostic background knowledge, help decide student placement, measure student learning and achievement, and improve or inform instruction (how effective the methods are).

For teachers, that means assessment also helps us do the following things:

  • diagnose students’ overall content knowledge
  • diagnose students’ language abilities and skills
  • monitor students’ progress in cognitive learning and language development
  • measure students’ achievement in content mastery in language development
  • identity aspects of student’s motivations for learning
  • identify and develop appropriate support needed for instruction
  • inform parents, administrators, colleagues, and students of their progress

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How does this relate to ELLs?

When assessing ELLs, there are three areas to keep in mind:

  1. Language: Teachers need to take into account their L1 (first language) literacy along with their L2 (second language) literacy. They should also factor how easily they can transition from L1 to L2.
  2. Culture: A class may have ELLs from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. In some cultures, students are expected to listen and seldom speak, while in others students may be more active. When working with ELLs, it’s important for teachers to get to know their students, and form an assessment that best suits their cultural style.
  3. Prior Educational Experiences: In the US, Canada, and the UK – for example – students come from very diverse backgrounds. Some students come from high SES (socioeconomic status) families, while others do not. Students from lower SES families, can be very challenging to handle. It’s important take a history of your ELLs (both high and low SES students) to find out where they are in terms of their educational development. Teachers should talk to the students’ parents, previous teachers, and the students themselves to get an idea of where they’re at. Three questions are key to answer here:
    1. What have they already learnt? – Some students may already know the content, but only in their first language.
    2. Have they had any previous L2 instruction? – Students from high SES families may have had some English-language instruction prior to joining the class, while lower SES students may have not.
    3. Is there any parental involvement at home? – It’s important to find out if parents read to their children in either their first language, or in English, or if they work on vocabulary, or any language skills at all.

What are inappropriate assessments for ELLs?

When writing assessments for ELLs it’s important to make them easily understandable for your students – especially if they’re young learners.

Here are three things to stay away from when writing assessments for ELLs:

  1. A heavy language load: Don’t make your instructions too wordy and full of big words. Also don’t make instructions too vague. They should clearly state what the students are expected to do on the exam in an understandable manner.
  2. Out of context questions or examples: Don’t present students with questions that have an unclear relation to classroom content, or worse yet, no relation to classroom content.
  3. Cultural bias: Don’t make inappropriate generalizations about a student’s particular culture, or use cultural references students may not understand.


It’s important to remember that assessment is not a one-size-fits-all deal. Teachers should differentiate their assessments just as they differentiate their teaching methods. It’s a safe corollary to make that if student’s don’t learn in the same way, they probably don’t test in the same way either.


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So, what’s the next step?

Use assessments to check how effective instructional methods are. Use both formative and summative assessments. Check for understanding frequently (daily, monthly, yearly). Develop teacher-useful and student-friendly assessments. Gather resources from home, parents, around the community, and perhaps develop some yourself.


I hope this post has been helpful to you! Look forward to more posts about assessing ELLs!

Thank you!


Filed under Assessment, EFL, ELL, English, ESL, Second Language, Teaching

5 responses to “Assessing ELLs Part 1: The Purpose of Assessment

  1. Pingback: Assessing ELLs Part 2: Challenges of Assessment | So, You Think You Can Teach ESL?

  2. Pingback: Assessing ELLs Part 3: Developing Language and Learning Objectives for Assessment | So, You Think You Can Teach ESL?

  3. Pingback: Assessing ELLs Part 4: Using Authentic Assessment | So, You Think You Can Teach ESL?

  4. Alma Farrell

    Love your content!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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