Alternative Assessments for English Language Learners

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  • 0:04 Equitable Access
  • 0:56 Portfolios
  • 1:36 Pictures
  • 2:52 Role-Playing
  • 3:26 Paper-Based Assessment…
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Mills

Sarah is an educational freelance writer and has taught English and ESL in grades k-12 and college. She has a master's degree in both Literacy and TESOL.

Alternative assessments allow English language learner (ELL) students to demonstrate their learning. In this lesson, teachers of ELL students will learn some strategies for offering alternative assessments in their classroom.

Equitable Access

As a teacher, you probably know that it's essential to keep track of your students' progress. When you assess ELL students, or English language learner students, on content that's been taught in your classroom, what are you actually assessing? Unless you're an ELL or language acquisition teacher, you're probably not assessing your students' ability to read, speak, and understand the English language. However, lack of English proficiency makes it difficult for these students to demonstrate their content knowledge.

Alternative assessments are extremely important for ELL students, as they help provide equitable access to education. While native English speakers are typically able to complete reading and writing exams due to their English proficiency, ELL students should be allowed to demonstrate their learning in other ways. Let's take a look at some common types of alternative assessments for ELL students.


Portfolios are one way of collecting student work samples to monitor progress throughout the year. You'll likely marvel at how much your students' language skills advance in just a short period of time. You can keep paper-based portfolios in a folder or binder, or you can keep electronic documents in a digital portfolio that can be accessed by parents to keep track of their children's work. Examples of artifacts you can collect in a student portfolio to demonstrate progress include:

  • Writing samples
  • Drawings that display content knowledge
  • Photographs
  • Recordings of oral presentations
  • Your own written observations and checklists of students' learning


Using pictures can help students with low English proficiency demonstrate their content knowledge. Here are examples of how the use of pictures could be implemented as an assessment in different content areas:

  • To test student comprehension after reading a text, have students arrange a series of pictures from the story in chronological order.
  • To test knowledge of science lab equipment vocabulary, have students point to the correct picture of the vocabulary word when you read it aloud.
  • Give students laminated cut-out pictures of pizza slices. Have them show you the correct number of slices represented by different fractions that you point to and say aloud.
  • Have students place pictures of historical events in chronological order on a timeline.

You can also have students create their own drawings, diagrams, charts, and models to demonstrate knowledge of a topic. Here are some examples:

  • Have students draw a picture representing the theme or main idea from a story.
  • Have students draw a picture representing the water cycle or the process of photosynthesis. Provide them with vocabulary words that they can cut and paste to label the picture.
  • Have students create a bar graph based on a class survey.
  • Have students create a poster or brochure about a historical event.


Teachers can participate in role playing with their ELL students by asking questions and eliciting responses about a topic to assess knowledge. Here are some examples of how to use role playing as assessments:

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