Assessing ELL Writing Skills in the Classroom

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

Assessing writing skills is no easy task. Assessing the writing skills of ELLs can be even more challenging. This lesson provides teachers with guidelines, advice, and techniques for using both formal and informal writing assessments with ELLs.

An Assessment of Writing

English writing poses a unique set of challenges for ELLs (English Language Learners). In addition to utilizing appropriate vocabulary, accurate spelling, and proper grammar, ELLs must also think about style, structure, and tone when they write. With so many elements to combine, it can be difficult for a teacher to accurately and fairly assess ELL writing skills.

However, if you utilize a combination of appropriate formal and informal assessments and distinguish how ELL writing assessments differ from those that may be given to native English speakers, your ELLs will be better prepared for academic writing success.

Formal and Informal Assessments

There are two main types of writing assessments that can be used with ELLs. Formal assessments, which include writing exams, essays, and reports, are helpful for testing a student's ability to follow directions and also demonstrate whether the student has retained information delivered in class. Informal assessments, on the other hand, are better suited as practice, creative, and collaborative opportunities.

If possible, your use of formal assessments should be clearly outlined at the beginning of a semester. Providing your ELLs with a tentative schedule of testing dates and content will allow them to plan ahead and properly prepare. You'll also want to provide ample review time, both inside and outside of class, before a formal writing assessment. ELLs thrive on guidance that is as specific as possible, and detailing the exact type of questions that will be on a formal assessment can help the greatly. For example, providing them with the following sample information can boost confidence and allow them to create specific study plans.

  • The writing exam will include:
    • Vocabulary and definition matching
    • Fill-in-the-blank subject verb agreement sentences
    • Short answer questions in which you must use the descriptive writing techniques we learned in class
    • A five-paragraph essay that must include an introduction, supporting body paragraphs, and a conclusion

An assessment preview of the type outlined above can remove some of the apprehension ELLs often feel about writing exams. If there is a detailed study outline to follow, ELLs will feel more confident in their preparations for a formal assessment.

In contrast to formal assessments, informal assessments should provide an opportunity for your students to explore and play with the writing tools they have learned. Creative writing, games, and group writing activities can be used to keep students entertained and keep the knowledge fresh and relevant. You can also be more lax in your grading of informal writing. While exams may require an adherence to proper language use and scores, when students partake in informal assessments, they can relax more if they know they are not being graded.

One effective technique is to give a participation or effort score for informal assessments rather than a letter grade. If students know that the most important thing is to try, they will feel more comfortable trying new things and incorporating newly acquired skills into their writings.

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