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Identifying Variations in English Learner Performance

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you work with students who are learning English, you probably want some good ways to identify differences among them. This lesson discusses the use of assessments to understand these performance variations.

Teaching English Language Learners

As a teacher who works with English Language Learners (ELLs), or students whose native language is not English, Marty knows that he must get to know as much as possible about each student.

Marty takes seriously the tremendous role of assessment, or meaningful evaluations, in his work. He knows that a strong assessment can inform his instruction by helping him learn more about his students' strengths, weaknesses, and specific instructional needs.

Right now, Marty is especially interested in the ways he can use assessment to learn more about the variations in different students' performance in English.

Assessing Oral Language

Marty spends a lot of time assessing his students' oral, or spoken, language skills. He knows that a big part of oral language for ELL students is basic interpersonal communication skills, referred to as BICS.

To assess his students' oral language, Marty observes and listens to them in casual conversations. He makes notes on their vocabulary, fluency, and syntax, as well as their awareness of the social skills involved in spoken English.

He also gives his students more formal interviews to find out whether they can express themselves fluidly on a variety of topics. He takes notes so that he can track his students' oral language progress over time.

Assessing Reading and Writing

Marty also knows that assessing his students' reading and writing will help him plan more meaningful instruction.

To assess reading, Marty thinks about decoding, the ability to sound out words, as well as fluency, speed and expression in reading.

He also assesses comprehension, students' ability to understand what they read. Marty finds running records a strong way to keep track of his students' decoding skills. A running record tells him how accurately students read at different levels, as well as what kinds of mistakes they are more likely to make.

Marty assesses comprehension by talking to his students about what they have read, asking them direct questions about stories and expository texts, and having them engage in expressive projects based on texts they have read. He also uses informal assessments, such as a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, to check for understanding.

He assesses students' writing by giving them prompts or topics to write about, and then reading their work and looking at vocabulary, mechanics, voice, and expression, as well as structure and thematic coherence.

Having children write in response to prompts can tell us a lot about their language performance.
child writing

Marty also assesses his students by asking them specific questions and talking with their families to find out their:

  • Level of literacy and academic language in their home language.
  • Capacity to write in their home language.
  • Willingness to engage in complex cognitive tasks in their home language.

Assessing Content Area Performance

When it comes to assessments in the content areas like social studies and science, Marty finds it most helpful to collaborate with classroom teachers to create meaningful assessments. He also uses translators so that his students can take content area tests in their home languages until they are capable of the necessary English skills.

This enables Marty to assess whether a student's difficulties have more to do with language or with the specifics of the content at hand.

Atypical Performance

One of the reasons Marty uses assessments is so that he can identify atypical patterns of performance in his students.

Special Education and Other Supports

Some of Marty's students have disabilities that qualify them for special education and other interventions and support services. Marty knows that ELL students have been historically overrepresented in special education, and he does not want to participate in misdiagnosing disabilities when really a student just needs more time and instruction in English.

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