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From Portfolios to Rubrics — Ways to Assess English Language Learners (ELLs)

written by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 12/27/2013

Assessing a student's understanding of a lesson can be a nightmare for many educators. When teaching ELLs, English language learning assessment tools are a necessity. Students learning English need to be evaluated before, during and at the end of their coursework in order to gauge their learning.

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    ELL Assessment Tools

    Finding the best English language learning assessment tools for English language learners can be like searching for a needle in a English Rules haystack! The options are seemingly endless. Most educators utilize one or two assessment tools in their lesson plans, mainly because they are not familiar with the other options. If asked, most teachers would say that they assess through examinations and/or with rubrics. But what are some other options?

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    Exams

    Exams are familiar to everyone. We all have our individual nightmares about failing that "big" exam. Exams can be multiple choice, true or false, or essay in nature. For English language learning students, exams may or may not be an accurate means of evaluating the extent of their knowledge and proficiency.

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    Rubrics

    A rubric, described by expert Heidi Goodrich, is "a scoring tool that lists the criteria for a piece of work or what counts." In other words, a rubric is usually shown as a table that lists various objectives to be met and how they will be scored. The complexity of the rubric depends solely on what is being assessed and to what extent it is being graded.

    Some rubrics simply have two columns in which the assessor ticks off yes or no next to the task completed. Other rubrics have a series of boxes with detailed information such as,

    • CATEGORY – Can retell the story orally;
    • SCORE: 4 – proficient – re-tells the story in proper sequence using a lot of detail; 3 – developing – re-tells the story in proper sequence and uses some detail; 2 – beginning – re-tells the story orally, may have one or two mistakes with the sequence, and uses some detail; 1 – emerging – re-tells the story, has several mistakes in the sequencing, and uses few details.

    Teachers should check online for downloadable rubrics. (See link under References.)

    Most ESL teachers are familiar with rubrics, since they are used throughout the language-learning realm for assessment.

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    Concept Maps

    A tool not often seen in an ELL classroom for assessment is the concept map. A concept map is similar to a mind map with the exception of it being created to show exact information in the nodes. The use of the concept map can be as a tool for students to:

    • Discuss what they know and how they know it. For instance, a concept map created for an ESL unit on occupations would begin with the main node displaying the word, Occupations, and then have nodes connected to that with words such as, Service, Mechanical, Computer, etc. From those nodes, further nodes would show specific jobs, such as teacher, plumber, data processor, etc., or
    • Use as a fill-in-the-blank where various nodes are left empty for the student to add his answer.

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    Presentations

    Presentations are one of the best English language learning assessment tools simply because they allow students to talk, listen, read and write! PowerPoint presentations can be given as well as presentations using posters, overhead projectors, slide shows or SMART Boards.

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    Peer Reviews

    Teachers of high intermediate or advanced English language students might consider using peer reviews as a method of evaluation. There are various ways to do peer reviews. The students can be given a list of criteria from which to choose a score or a rubric. Peer reviews are excellent to use as an added evaluation of student presentations.

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    Portfolios

    Finally, if students are enrolled in a year-long ELL or ESL course, literacy portfolios offer an excellent means for appraising the progress of a student's written language learning. In addition, portfolios allow the instructor to review the work over a given period, enabling him/her to see areas of difficulty that repeat in an individual student or across the class, thus prompting them to modify instruction to cover the problem area.

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    Assessing Assessments

    Regardless of which one of the English language learning assessment tools an instructor chooses, it is important to strive to find a tool that will give an accurate account. To this end, it may be necessary to utilize more than one or two of the tools mentioned above to obtain a well-rounded evaluation of a student's grasp of English.