English Second Language (ESL) learners are those students whose English language proficiency hinders them from full participation in learning experiences. There is an increasing number of ESL students in classrooms today. We as teachers must be able to develop these children in all areas of education as well as in the English language. Assessing ESL students differs from assessing students whose first language is English in that ESL students may learn and understand concepts, but their written or oral work can display a lower level of understanding. This site will share some ideas on how to teach and assess ESL students in today's classroom.

General Learner Outcomes

The Alberta Senior High Program of Studies lists four general learning outcomes for ESL students:
  • Use spoken and written English to gather, interpret and communicate information
  • Use spoken and written English to establish and maintain relationships
  • Use spoken and written English to make decisions, solve problems, and plan and carry out projects
  • Explore, respond to and extend ideas and experiences

Learning Levels

ESL students move through four levels containing listening, speaking, reading and writing:
  1. Pre-Beginner - Not ready for instruction in English, act as observers and listeners in the class
  2. Beginner - Ready for intense instruction in speaking, reading and writing in English
  3. Intermediate - Gain some competence in English, but still requires direct instruction
  4. Advanced - Have English competence, language skills continue to develop naturally


Oral Assessment

Speaking for English as a Second Language students is of great importance to their success within the academic and professional world. Communication elements such as intonation, timing, inflection, speed, rhythm, pausing, gesturing and facial expressions are all included in the assessment of speaking. Students progress through levels within assessment of speaking. The levels progress from levels 1 to 5. Students are placed in levels based on their grade and english literacy. These levels are determined by benchmarks.


Speaking Competency is categorized into four categories; linguistic competence, strategic competence, socio-linguistic competence, discourse competence. These categories assist teachers to organize the lesson plans they create to ensure the success of the ESL students.


Effective lesson plans for ESL students are done in both individual situations and group situations. Formative assessment is key in order to gage where on the ESL benchmarks the student should be placed. Practice makes perfect!

For Individual assessment
  • Be sure to include one-on-one time with the student during class time
  • Use video and/or audio recording to help the student gain confidence
  • During verbal reading assessment ensure there is effective interaction
  • Conduct it on an ongoing bases
  • Use prior knowledge and relevant information from the students native land in lessons
  • Use visual cues

For Group Assessment
  • Teachers should closely observe the student during class group work
  • Encourage the student to participate within discussions
  • Place the student in groups that involve other students who are supportive of their needs


This video displays a grade 5 student who is at level one for speaking proficiency.
Grade 5 - Level 1

Notice the progressive change with this grade 5 student who is at a level five for speaking proficiency.
Grade 5 - Level 5

How to conduct assessment:
  • Interviews
  • Oral Reports
  • Role Plays
  • Describing/Explaining
  • Paraphrasing stories

Writing AssessmentMI0570.jpg

Obviously making the switch from another language to English is going to be an intimidating task for the student as well as the teacher. It is important for students to be able to read, understand and speak in English and it is also essential for the student to be able to express themselves through writing as well. Assessment of ESL writing is a task that may seem daunting to some teachers, but it is important to know that proper assessment is a process that takes time, patience and the proper use of steps and scaffolding to achieve this goal.

Areas of Assessment

Linguistic Competence: It includes grammar, vocabulary and the mechanics of language. These performance aspects of written language are highly valued in judging the quality of a piece of writing.

Strategic Competence: A strategic writer creates text appropriate to purpose, voice, audience, form and occasion.

Socio-linguistic Competence: The student is able to vary the use of language in terms of audience, purpose, genre, topic and degree of formality. It is through socio-linguistic competence that writers mainatin their credibility with their audience.

Discourse Competence: Knowledge of transitional devices that connect one element in a text with another. Transitional devices such as reference, substitution, ellipsis, conjunction and lexical cohesion.

Here is the link to the Learn Alberta site which outlines the benchmarks for students to achieve competence in his or her writing: Learn Alberta

Assessment Tools

For a teacher it is important to keep the process of formative assessment in mind. By using formative assessment it allows the teacher to know where the student needs to put in some extra work and also shows where students are being successful. Focussing on the small goals and using steps to success will ensure a positive and motivating learning environment for the students.

Some interesting ideas for assessment tools are:
  • Learning logs
  • Dialogue journals
  • Summaries
  • Unedited student written work
  • Close procedures
  • Using samples of completed work to help improve student understanding

Some assessment ideas to keep in mind when reviewing students work are:

Does the student:

  • Write for a varitey of audiences and purposes?
  • Write on specific topics?
  • Demonstrate a variety of written formats?
  • Manipulate verb tenses?
  • Vary sentence construction?
  • Pay attention to punctuation and spelling?

Provided here is a link to the ATA: Understanding ESL Learners: Assessment page: ESL Assessment

Social Interaction

Assessment of social interaction of ESL students can be challenging. It can be hard to be sure that the student is not repeating what the teacher or fellow classmates are saying, but rather applying their own knowledge. Social interactions in society are crutial for school, everyday tasks and work. Social interaction should be done mostly through formative assessment.

Accuplacer ESL Listening Test

This is a computer-based test in which the ESL student has unlimited time. The test measures the ability to listen to and understand one or more people speaking in English. The questions are multiple choice and converations and questions can be played a maximum of three times.

The assessment measures the following abilities:

Literal comprehension
  • identify the main idea or main subject of the passage
  • identify factual details and information
  • understand instructions

Applied meaning
  • understand the relationship between ideas (e.g. sequence of events, cause and effect, comparison and contrast, problem and solution)
  • make inferences
  • make predictions
  • identify the speaker's purpose, tone, or point of view

I found some example questions that would be on this test, here is a link:



There are many challenges involving assessment of ESL learners.
The language and literacy needs of these students are often misunderstood by the fact that they may be fluent at least in informal spoken English. Therefore, their academic challenges are commonly attributed to a ‘deficit’ in ability in the students, rather than recognition of the need for ongoing support in their literacy and language development.

Teacher's Challenges

There are three key challenges involved in teaching ESL students:
  1. Language Barrier
  2. Being able to cover curriculumesl-teacher.jpg
  3. Assessing the level of improvement

Student's Challenges

The challenges involved in ESL learning for students are numerous:
  • explaining that they do or do not understand
  • listening to instructions
  • interacting in groups with other students

ESL students are typically very different from other learners in their past experiences, background, and skills. Some learners may have literacy skills and content knowledge from attending school regularly in another country, but these skills are probably known in another language. Other learners may be from war-torn countries or from a country with a natural disaster where schooling was not readily available. These learners are generally from low-income families and the resources these learners needs are entirely different. It is important that a teacher finds out about who the student is and where they come from, so they can help understand what their needs are.

This video shows struggles and strategies for ESL learners


A goal for teachers is to be able to successfully integrate ESL learning into the classroom, where all students can learn together. We should try to move away from separating ESL learners into a different learning environment, and focus on integrating ESL learning styles into our lessons. Teachers should research specific strategies for ESL learners and practice them in the classroom so that they feel comfortable teaching ESL students, and those students achieve greater success.


Hammond, Jennifer. "Intellectual Challenge and ESL students: Implications of Quality Teaching Initiatives." Australian Journal of Language & Literacy (2008) 128-154.

Ernst-Slavit, Gisela, et al. "Changing Lives: Teaching English and Literature to ESL students." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (2002) 116-128.
George Brown Colledge. N.p., 2012. Web. 1 Oct 2012.

"ESL Accuplacer." Montgomery College. N.p., 2011. Web. 1 Oct 2012.

English as a Second Language: Guide to Implementation, Kindergarten to Grade 9 (2007) Alberta. Alberta Education. Learning and Teaching Resources Branch.

Cheng, Liying, and Terry Milnes. "Teachers' Assessment of ESL Students in Mainstream Classes: Challenges, Strategies, and Decision-Making." TESL Canada Journal. 25.2 (2008): 49-65. Web. 2 Oct. 2012.

Villamil, O., & Carrasquillo, A. (1988). Assessing Writing in the ESL Classroom