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Writing Assessments for ESL Students

Instructor: Daniel Brown
This lesson addresses ways in which ESL teachers can assess writing from students of varying ages and English levels. It examines how mechanics, organization, and style all play a role in developing effective writing skills.

Importance of Writing Assessments

Writing is sometimes assigned less importance than other English skills in ESL classrooms. However, along with speaking, listening and reading, writing is essential to a comprehensive English training program. Students of all levels can benefit from being able to express themselves in a variety of writing forms. But how do you, as a teacher, assess an ESL learner's writing ability? Is grammar and spelling the most important part of a writing assignment? What about sentence and paragraph structure? While these are vital aspects of writing assessments, it's also important to look beyond the mechanics of writing and into the style and organization of a composition.

Mechanics of Writing

The importance of proper writing mechanics, namely grammar, spelling and punctuation, can depend somewhat on the type of writing being done, the learning objectives of the student and the desired outcomes of the teacher.

For example, in journal or diary writing, the primary goal should be expressing unfiltered ideas in a format generally free from harsh criticism. Therefore, grammar and spelling are not as important as getting thoughts down on paper. Too much insistence on proper writing in a journal or diary can actually stifle expression and creativity. In this type of writing, the clarity of the voice of the writer should be paramount.

Low-level ESL learners should be taught conventional grammar and spelling in order to build a solid foundation for future, more complex writing tasks. So, when assessing basic writing assignments, it can be helpful to focus on correcting mechanical errors. One tool that can be extremely helpful is a marking key, which shows students exactly what errors they have made. This can also greatly speed up grading time and can be used with intermediate and advanced students as well.

Example Marking Key

GR=Grammar mistake

SP= Spelling error

WW=Wrong word

TS=Wrong tense

?=Unclear meaning

HW=Unclear handwriting

WO=Incorrect word order

INC=Incomplete sentence

FR=Sentence fragment

RO=Run on sentence

^=Missing word

//=New paragraph

PU=Incorrect punctuation

After handing out a copy of your marking key to students, tell them to keep it for future reference. It can also be helpful to post the key in a highly visible area of your classroom. As students become accustomed to the marking abbreviations, it will be relatively easy for them to determine what types of errors they are making and in which specific areas they need to improve.

For intermediate to advanced learners, the writing assignments inevitably become more difficult. At these levels, mechanics are still important but should count for less in an overall assessment score. The reason for this change is the need to assign more importance to organization and style.

Organization & Style

By following a few basic rules, accurately assessing the organization and style of a piece of writing can be done without causing too much stress. As you assess the writing, ask yourself these five questions:

  1. Is the writing coherent? Does the writer follow a clear structure? (e.g. thesis statement, introduction, body, conclusion, etc.)
  2. Is the writing cohesive? Does the writer use transitional signals and sequencing to connect paragraphs, sentences, and ideas? (e.g. however, therefore, in addition, first, second, next, finally, in conclusion, etc.)
  3. Does the writer stay on topic? Are there any sentences that do not relate to either the thesis statement or the body paragraph topic sentences?
  4. Does the voice of the piece remain consistent throughout? Is there significant switching of tenses or pronouns? (shifting from past to present tense for no reason, changing from I to we etc.)
  5. Does the writer answer all parts of the writing task posed in the assignment? Was any necessary information ignored in the response? Was unnecessary information added?

Using the above questions as a guide can help to make assessing ESL writing simpler and faster. Once students are writing longer pieces such as essays, reports or critiques, an assessment breakdown like the following can be used.

Example Scoring Guide

15% Coherence

15% Cohesiveness

15% Topic relevance

15% Consistency

15% Answer completeness

25% Mechanics

Lesson Summary

Tailoring lessons to meet the needs of individual students is not as difficult as it sounds. By using a few uniform tools, like the above marking key and scoring guide, you can easily reduce confusion in the classroom and set clear objectives. These assessment ideas are a good place to start your journey toward developing a comprehensive ESL writing program that will keep your students active and engaged.

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