Speaking & Listening Assessments for ELL Students

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.

This lesson will present an overview of informal versus formal assessments. Teachers will learn strategies for assessing English language learners' (ELLs) speaking and listening skills.

Speaking and Listening

Twelve-year-old Greta moved with her family to the United States from Hungary. In school, her science class is learning about ecosystems. Although Greta knows a lot about the subject, she recently failed a test.

Unfortunately, this type of experience is all too common. If a student is not a native English speaker, tests may end up assessing his or her language skills rather than content knowledge. Perhaps Greta simply had trouble understanding the directions or couldn't comprehend her teacher's verbal instructions.

Informal Vs. Formal Assessments

It's important to make a distinction between informal assessments and formal assessments. Informal assessments are ongoing and happen during learning. Examples include teacher checklists, student self-assessments, and exit tickets. A teacher listening in on small group discussions and jotting down quick notes would also be considered an informal assessment.

Formal assessments occur after learning. Examples include administering a test at the end of a unit or giving weekly spelling quizzes. Many factors can affect student performance on formal assessments, so the data can be skewed.

Additionally, when testing ELL students using formal methods, it can often be difficult to determine if you're testing a student's actual knowledge or just his or her language skills. The language barrier can affect students' ability to demonstrate their knowledge. This was the case with Greta and her science test.

Speaking Skills

Let's look at some examples of assessments you can use to test students' speaking skills.

Dialogues and Role Playing

You can present students with pre-written dialogues to use in role-playing, or students can participate in writing them. This kind of assessment is two-fold: not only do students get practice speaking, but they also gain experience using language in a variety of real-world situations. Students can role-play making a deposit at the bank, ordering dinner in a restaurant, or socializing at a party.


Students can practice their speaking skills by conducting interviews with each other. You can provide the interview questions or students can write them. Students can rotate partners to learn more about their classmates. As you circulate through the classroom, listen in on student conversations and provide support as needed.

You can also use interviews to determine students' background knowledge. For example, Student A interviews Student B about a topic and writes down his or her answers, and then Student B does the same with Student A. Students can then share their partners' responses with a small group or with the class. For example, prior to a lesson about the ocean, students can interview one another about their experiences:

  • Have they ever been swimming in the ocean?
  • Is the Earth mostly water or land?
  • What kinds of animals live in the ocean?
  • What is the biggest ocean in the world?


Students can use sentence frames to help organize their discussions. Sentence frames are pre-written sentences that provide a template for students to fill in with their own words and phrases. Thus, students actually complete a sentence that is already partially written. You can provide students with a handout or display a large poster of helpful sentence frames for class discussions, including:

  • I agree/disagree with _____ because _____.
  • In my opinion, _____.
  • I would like to add that _____.
  • That's a good point, but _____.
  • Could you explain what you mean by _____?

Providing sentence frames encourages ELL students to take language risks, which builds their confidence and improves their vocabulary. As an informal assessment, you can sit in on each group of students for a few minutes and take notes, complete a checklist, or use a rubric to assess speaking skills.

Listening Skills

Here are some ideas for assessing listening skills.

Total Physical Response

Total physical response (TPR) is a teaching method that was developed in the 1960s by psychology professor Dr. James J. Asher. Since then, teachers throughout the world have used it to teach a second language.

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