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Recognizing Diversity

To be effective, assessment must recognize the diversity of learners and allow for differences in styles and rates of learning. To accurately assess English language learners, variations in students’ English language skills, along with the other growth and development variations based on their age, must be considered.

Consider the background information gathered during the initial intake and other important factors that may impact student learning and knowledge; e.g.,

  • proficiency and student achievement in first language
  • prior schooling experience
  • trauma due to war or other factors
  • health, physical and other characteristics that may impact learning
  • involvement of parents and guardians
  • family and cultural values.

Developmentally Appropriate Assessment

Developmentally appropriate assessment calls for the use of a range of assessment strategies because English language learners need a variety of ways to demonstrate their understanding. The lower the language proficiency, the more important it is to use assessment techniques beyond pencil and paper tasks. Developmentally appropriate assessment provides opportunities for students to show what they know in an environment in which it is safe to take risks associated with learning.

Latency Effect

Some English language learners who have had prior English instruction may not perform to their true potential on initial assessments for various reasons, such as a difference in dialect or rate of speech. Within one to six months, English language learners who have had prior English instruction may appear to accelerate in their language proficiency as they begin to access their prior English learning more readily. Students with prior English may have the appearance of initial rapid English uptake and then appear to slow down as their prior English reaches its ceiling and the student is learning English at a more gradual rate. Be prepared to reassess within the first few weeks if there appears to be a significant difference between initial assessment proficiency and current proficiency, especially if it impacts course selection or access to specific supports.

Age-appropriate Content and Graphics

It is important to ensure that assessment materials are for the appropriate developmental age of the students. Some English language learners may be at a beginner level and require simplified texts; however, the images and content should be appropriate for the age of the student; e.g.,

  • high-interest, low-vocabulary books and nonfiction texts may be options for reading assessments
  • when using picture prompts for speaking and writing ensure images are age-appropriate
  • when using written prompts ensure topics and supporting images are age-appropriate.

Differences between Receptive and Productive Language Skills

Some English language learners may demonstrate discrepancies between their oral and literacy skills in English depending upon their educational and cultural background. Some students may also understand more English when they listen or read than when they speak or write or vice versa. When completing assessments, follow the procedures and scoring instructions. It may also be helpful to note the students’ actual responses in order to analyze their use of language and strategies. This additional information may be helpful for teachers when making decisions on instructional supports.

Transfer of First Language Literacy and Skills

Literacy in any language is an asset to learning English, as students who can read and write in their home language have knowledge of words, concepts, grammatical structures and the understanding of how language can be documented, accessed and interpreted. Students who know how to read in one language typically transfer that knowledge of how certain formations of marks on a page can be read; they must then learn the graphophonemic (sound/symbol) system of English to be able to read. Students who understand a first language with an alphabet and phonemic system similar to English and left to right, top-down reading usually adjust readily to decoding in English. English language learners who read in another language can often decode at a higher level than they can comprehend in English; whereas students whose language experiences were with characters or a different system of reading have to learn an entirely different alphabet and system of reading. Therefore, decoding and comprehension require additional instruction and support. Students who have had limited formal education experiences often require support in understanding about reading as well as skill development in decoding and comprehension strategies.

During assessment it is important to be aware of these considerations when observing what the student can do and where the student requires support. English language learners with prior schooling in their first language have many skills, such as decoding, comprehension strategies, copying, writing, representing understanding through images, graphing, charting, and working in cooperative groups. These skills are transferable across languages and will assist students in acquiring language. It is important to be able to distinguish when a student has a skill and when the student has the English language as well as the skill; e.g., when the student is asked to read words in English, is the student able to understand them or does the student simply have the decoding skill?

Differences between Social and Academic Language

When assessing English language learners note the type of language the student is using to get his or her message across. Many English language learners use familiar and high frequency vocabulary and long simple sentences to demonstrate social language competency. However, more academic and specialized vocabulary and more complex sentences may be required in the classroom setting. At times, a student may be assessed above his or her actual language level as the social language competency may mask the academic language competency.

Addressing Cultural Bias

Cultural bias can occur when language, images or content reflect a particular context that is unfamiliar to a student. Take into account cultural contexts and potential bias when selecting and administering assessments and interpreting results. It may also be helpful to make intentional connections with the student’s prior experiences.

Home Language Assessment

Assessment of the student’s home language is often not possible or appropriate. If home language assessment is to be done, it should be completed within the first few months of arrival, as a student’s home language can quickly fossilize or regress as he or she becomes more competent in English. Appropriate home language assessments are those that have been developed in the student’s home language and are administered as per the assessment protocols. It is important to be aware of gaps in home language exposure and instruction when interpreting results. For more information about home language assessment, see ERGO Provision of First Language/Bilingual Assessment.

Translating English assessments into other languages to assess proficiency in a home language is not an effective strategy. As the test has not been designed or normed for this use, the results would be invalid. Similarly, it is not good practice to have an interpreter translate into another language as part of the assessment procedure.

Assessment Tools Developed and Normed for Native English Speakers

Many assessments have been developed and normed on native English speakers and, therefore, great caution must be taken when interpreting results when used with English language learners. It is recommended, where possible, to use assessment developed for and normed on populations that include English language learners.