Formative Assessments for ELL Students

Instructor: Jesse Richter

Jesse holds two masters, a doctorate and has 15 years of academic experience in areas of education, linguistics, business and science across five continents.

Need some new ideas or just a refresher about formative assessment methods for ELL students? This lesson introduces the concept of formative assessment and offers practical strategies for implementation.

The Assessment Dilemma

As teachers, we know that students must be assessed to inform our own instruction and also to measure learning. Most schools require assessments that document numerical data such as statistics and percentages. Unfortunately, these sorts of assessments are usually reserved for prescribed times throughout the year and do not capture what happens on a day-to-day basis. Effective teachers require more information to truly support learners, especially those who are learning English in addition to academic concepts. How can we ensure that these students are continually learning before standardized tests are administered? Formative assessment methods help us to answer this question.

What Is Formative Assessment?

Formative assessment methods allow the teacher to ensure student comprehension through ongoing, flexible and qualitative data collection during the learning process. For example, you, as the teacher, may ask a student to briefly restate or summarize a concept in his or her own words following instruction. This is in contrast with traditional summative assessment methods, which typically take the form of standardized tests, quizzes, essays, multiple choice, fill-in blanks and short answer formats. Summative assessments are administrated after the learning process (e.g. at the end of a quarter or semester). Let us now take a tour through some proven formative assessment methods.

Formative Assessment Methods

Total Physical Response

One particularly fun and highly versatile method is known as total physical response (TPR). With TPR, students are prompted to respond in some physical (i.e. observable) manner to demonstrate comprehension. For example, the teacher might want to check comprehension of prepositions of place by prompting: 'Put your hand on top of the box. Great! Now put your hand beside the box. Wonderful! Put your hand under the box. . .' In this way, you can confidently verify through simple observation that students recognize and understand the words through listening. As an extension, you might switch roles with the students and have them offer prompts; make intentional mistakes, and see if the students can catch you!

Ask, Don't Tell

Ask, don't tell (ADT) is a little trick to get students thinking actively rather than passively by asking questions instead of telling information. For example, you might tell a student, 'Eating unhealthy food may cause illness.' This means that you offered a piece of knowledge to the student, but it does not ensure comprehension. On the other hand, consider engaging the student with a built-in comprehension test by asking, 'What might happen if we eat unhealthy food?' In this way, the student is obligated to respond, and that response yields critical information for the teacher.

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