Canada welcomes new immigrants each year, many of whom speak limited or no English. In 2010 Alberta received 32,640 immigrants who collectively identified speaking 157 languages! The make-up of K-12 classrooms in Alberta has become increasingly diverse. Statistics from September 2005 show the ESL Student population at 37,300.

Imagine you're a Grade 4 teacher in Lethbridge and you are informed that next week you will be receiving a new student who has just immigrated to Canada. You are told that Bibash, a shy yet happy young boy, is a Bhutanese refugee who lived in a camp in Nepal his whole life and appears to speak and write very little English. As a teacher how are you going to assess his English level? How will you meet his needs? How will you evaluate if he meets the learning outcomes? You've never taught an English as a Second Language (ESL) learner and you are feeling overwhelmed with the prospect of teaching the curriculum to him and the other students.

This wiki will give you a starting point to learning effective assessment for and of ESL learners. This page will explore the various challenges to assessing ESL learners such as the need for unique types of assessment tools, modifications to standard forms of evaluation, assessing special needs, and difficulties in reporting student learning to parents. The page will provide suggestions to overcome these challenges and recommended resources to obtain further information.

Section References

Assessing ESL Learners

Teachers' most difficult assessment challenge is how best to assess ESL students so that their true abilities and potentials are not compromised. All assessment procedures must be considered within the context of ESL students' cultural backgrounds and experiences.


When ESL students arrive at school, it is important to gather intake information about their English language proficiency, academic achievement, interests, and short- and long-term goals.

Alberta Learning recommends age-appropriate placement for new immigrants. This is based on current research stating that lack of content knowledge and required skills is not reason enough to warrant placing newcomers in lower than age-appropriate grades. Some schools have literacy classrooms where students with limited schooling or proficiency in English are place before being mainstreamed into age-appropriate classrooms. Differentiated instruction and assessment will be key in helping English language learners achieve the same learning outcomes as their same-aged peers.

The following are examples of differentiated products:
Grade and outcome
Typical Product
Differentiated Product
Mathematics, Grade 1
Pose oral questions in relation to the data gathered.
Gather and graph data and then pose questions
to peers to test comprehension.
Create a pictorial graph to analyze
a set of objects, then complete questions using stems or cloze provided by the teacher; eg., _ out of blocks are red.
Social Studies, Grade 7
Recognize the positive and negative consequences of political decisions.
Complete a "cause-and-effect graphic organizer"
Paste ready-made basic text with pictures into a "cause-and-effect" graphic organizer.

Purposes of Assessment

Alberta Education identifies the following Purposes of Assessment:
  • identify strengths and weaknesses of individual students
  • adjust instruction so that it builds on students' strengths and alleviates weaknesses
  • monitor the effectiveness of instruction
  • provide feedback to students and parents and sponsors
  • make decisions about the advancement of students to the next level of the program

The purposes of assessment of English language learners are similar to other students. To effectively assess English language learners, requires differentiating assessment through the use of supports and alternative assessment strategies.

Assessment of English language learners should:
  • remove language-related barriers as much as possible
  • gather information from a variety of sources
  • align with instructional practices used to teach content
  • document individual growth over time
  • take into account student age and developmental level, grade level, learning preferences, language proficiency, cultural and educational backgrounds.

Developmentally appropriate assessment calls for the use of a range of assessment strategies because ESL students are often unable to represent their understanding in conventional ways. The weaker the language skills, the more important it is to adopt techniques other than pencil and paper tasks. See page 140 of the ESL Guide to Implementation (K-9) for tips on how to Modify Assessments for ESL Students.

Section References

Assessment Tools for ESL Learners in Alberta

A study completed in 2004 that reviewed K-12 ESL Education in Alberta found that over 60 different assessment instruments were used in schools. Most schools reported being dissatisfied with the tools and mentioned the need for assessment tools referenced on Alberta students. The report recommended to Alberta Education that they develop a list of recommended diagnostic and assessment instruments for ESL learners.

Alberta Proficiency Benchmarks

Since the publication of this report Alberta Education did significant work on their ESL Proficiency Benchmarks. The Alberta ESL Proficiency Benchmarks website was created in 2010.
The Alberta K–12 ESL Proficiency Benchmarks:
  • provide descriptions of language proficiency for each grade-level division
  • support schools in delivering effective instruction and program planning for English language learners by:
    • identifying initial language proficiency levels of students
    • developing consistency in assessment of language proficiency for English language learner
    • promoting collaboration and communication about an English language learner’s progress among all of the student’s teacher
  • support teachers in
    • assessing, monitoring, tracking and reporting language proficiency
    • communicating with students and parents to develop an understanding of language acquisition
    • planning for explicit language instruction within everyday classroom learning.

Benchmark Strands

The benchmarks are divided into 5 levels per grade and four language strand per level. The strands are Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking and are based on age-appropriate language development expectations. Kindergarten, for example, only has Listening and Speaking strands as their strands because they are just learning how to read and write. These strands can be viewed as receptive (receiving information and ideas) and productive (producing information and ideas) or oral (transmitted aloud) and written (transmitted in print).

Source: P.3 How to Use the Alberta K–12 ESL Proficiency Benchmarks
Assessment tips:
Continuing with the example of Kindergarten here are a few ways you can *assess the Listening and Speaking benchmarks:

  • One-on-one interview during class time
  • Listening Task in which students complete oral or written response to orally given prompt
  • Observation during class discussions, demonstrations and cooperative learning.
  • Listening task in which all students complete written responses to orally given prompts
  • One-on-one interview during class time
  • Interaction during routine reading assessment
  • Video or Audio recording
  • Observation during class discussions, demonstrations and cooperative learning
  • Video or Audio recording
Source: P.6 How to Use the Alberta K–12 ESL Proficiency Benchmarks
*as you can see, the above is a way to assess both the group and individual in a formative way.

For more information on how to use the Alberta Proficiency Benchmarks and assessment tips, there is a how to guide posted here.

Initial assessment :

It is important to remember that a new student’s initial assessment may be influenced by feelings of stress and dislocation. In some cases students may under-perform due to anxiety, a lack of confidence, and/or unfamiliarity with the local dialect and rate of speech. In these cases the student will often show a significant improvement in English language proficiency in four to six weeks as the student has become more comfortable, confident and familiar with the environment.

One of the most valuable aspects of the website is it provides videos with examples of students speaking at different levels. You can also view writing samples of students at each of the five levels.

You may also use other language proficiency tests such as the Language Assessment Scales (LAS) or the Woodcock-Munoz Language Survey (WML).
  • Caution: most language proficiency tests are developed and used in American educational settings, therefore they may not provide a accurate assessment of Alberta ESL students.

The Alberta ESL Proficiency Benchmarks can be used for both initial and ongoing assessments.

Section References

Types of Assessment

1. Formative Assessment

Ongoing assessment that monitors students' strengths, weaknesses, attitudes, interests and ability to work independently. It provides feedback to students and teachers about student growth and the next steps in learning.

The following formative assessment tools are useful when working with ESL students in all subject areas:
  • classroom observation
  • anecdotal records
    • dated, written acounts that briefly describe occurrences, behaviours or interactions. This focuses on what students can do and provides an ongoing collection of documented events.
  • checklists
    • efficient and helpful way to gather information on students' development.
  • journals & learning logs
    • valuable tools for assessing growth in English language proficiency. Differentiate for ELLs by allowing them to record their ideas using their first language, English words and phrases and/or illustrations.
  • audiotapes and videotapes
  • portfolios
    • purposeful, organized collections of materials or artifacts from students' classroom activities.
  • homework assignments
  • feedback on students' written work
  • assisting student as they complete in-class assignments

The above video explains the benefits of using portfolios with ESL students.

Portfolio assessment is ideal for ESL students because:
  • it is a systematic approach for focusing information gathered from alternative and standardized assessment to make specific instructional decisions
  • it shows student growth over time and reveals student interests and strengths in a variety of learning/social situations
  • it helps classroom teachers and ESL specialists or resource teachers make decisions regarding program placement, the extent of student progress and specific instructional objectives to be implemented
  • it is a continuous, collaborative and comprehensive assessment that includes information from many sources.

2. Summative Assessment

This type of assessment provides physical proof of student(s) achievement and is used to make a judgement about student(s) competence or program effectiveness. In other words it measures and verifies learning.

Summative assessment can be accomplished through:
  • Standardized tests
    • Provincial achievement test
    • District Tests
  • English Language Proficiency Test
  • Report cards

Issues with Standardized Testing :

Teachers want to know how well the student can think, read and respond, problem solve and express their ideas orally and in writing. It is argued that there is a lack of thought about who is being tested and how the grade levels and percentiles are to be used to assist in planning and teaching a class of students. Also there are teachers who believe that time used to administer and write the standardized test can be better spent gathering information about the student(s) and the skills that they have for the classroom.

Some other issues are:
  • Comparing ESL students’ scores to test norms is a questionable practice, because norms are generally based on mainstream, monolingual or English-proficient students.
  • There is limited opportunity to assess first-language proficiency or to administer diagnostic tests in first language.
  • Standardized assessment of ESL students generally tests both content knowledge and language proficiency. Changes in scores are difficult to disaggregate.
  • ESL students are disadvantaged by their lack of experience with culturally specific objects, situations or viewpoints in test items.
  • Methods for administering tests may be unfamiliar to ESL students. Scoring and recording methods may be intimidating. Students may lack test-taking skills and familiarity with testing formats.
  • Instruction received by ESL students may have been modified. If students have not studied the curriculum to be tested, it would be unfair to compare their results to a norm.
  • Oral instructions given prior to tests may be more complicated than the test itself.


  • Adapt tests and test administration by giving students more time, having readers read the questions, administering the test over two sittings or reducing the number of questions that evaluate the same outcome.
  • Use types of assessments that will show off the child's knowledge.

Section References
Book: Brownline, Faye et Al. Instructions and assessment of ESL Learners: Promoting Success in you Classroom pg 24

Suggestions for Increasing Students' Roles in Assessments

  • Encourage students to suggest alternative assignments to demonstrate their learning.external image self-assessment2.gif
  • Involve students in developing assessment rubrics
  • Use tools for student reflection and self-assessment at every opportunity (eg. learning logs, statement of goals, self-assessment rubrics)
  • Remove the mystery from assessment. Explain the scoring criteria for performance-based tests prior to the tests and provide students with exemplars of various performance levels.

Section references

ESL Students and Special Education Needs

  • Issue:

There is a disproportionate representation of ESL students in special education. It is a challenge to distinguish between normal second language acquisition characteristics and characteristics of a learning disability.
    • Over-representation: some ELLs are incorrectly classified as having learning disabilities. The reason for this is the use of IQ tests and linguistic and cultural biases of the school environment. Struggles with the curriculum content can be mistake for a learning disability if an instructor is not aware of cultural biases within the curriculum.
    • Under-representation: some ELLs have learning disabilities but these are not identified. Teachers may avoid testing ESL students for learning disabilities, mistaking learning difficulties as normal second language production.
  • Tips for Accurately Identifying Learning Disabilities:

    • ELLs cannot be assessed for learning disabilities the same way as their Canadian-born, monolingual peers. Assessment tools such as IQ tests are not effective for determining whether a ESL has a learning disability. There is a high risk of misdiagnosis of learning disabilities if IQ tests are used.
    • Assessments should be done in the child's native language or language of proficiency and administered with regard to cultural backgrounds and histories that many impact test results.
    • It is recommended that teachers receive extensive training in the areas of second language acquisition and cultural diversity.
    • Identify and limit cultural and linguistic biases located within curriculum.
    • Observe a child's language use in multiple settings, not just in the classroom.
    • It is imperative that teachers include parents in the assessment process.

Section References:

Reporting ESL Students' Learning to Parents

external image parent_teacher_crop380w.jpg?1273599571


Just like the students, the parents may also be new immigrants to your area and as such may have no or little skills in English. This poses a challenge for communicating a ELLs progress and challenges to parents.


Parents are an important part of the Student's progress in the education system and so it is important to report the progress of the child to their parent. The Government of Alberta has written a document that provides information on ESL learners and their schooling. In this document it states that schools can support ESL students and their family by :
  • Welcoming the parents and children and answer any questions they have
  • Provide a School tour
  • Invite the parents to visit the school and watch a class in progress.
  • Find out if there are cultural holidays that they observe
  • Use plain English when writing information letters
  • Contact Citizenship and Immigration Canada to learn about various cultures and community supports
  • Encourage families to maintain their home language, as it has been proven to enhance English Language acquisitions and student success.

In addition, language barriers should not be a reason to exclude parents from their child's education. There are many different ways that you can report your student's achievements to their parents:
  • Bring in a translator for Parent-Teacher conferences
  • Have a video report card, this provides a way for the parents to see what their child is accomplishing and the child can talk about the video in their home language.
  • Student-led conference
Even if the parents do not speak English they can simply listen to their child read an English book aloud.

Section References:
Book: Brownline, Faye et Al. Instructions and assessment of ESL Learners: Promoting Success in you Classroom pg 44-49

Master References