Assessment and ELL Students

A Wiki page by Brooke Ramsay, Danielle Funk, Michael Smith, and Scott Slenders.


This page gives an overview of current challenges and strategies for overcoming language and cultural barriers for assessing students who are English Language Learners (ELL). Specific subject areas will be explored as follows: Art, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies.



Art is a very universal skill for all students, but problems can occur when a teacherART.jpg wants to do holiday themed projects.

As we all know, art is very subjective and therefore we may be faced with students who are reluctant to engage with the chosen examples of art.
  • Students of different religious backgrounds may celebrate different holidays or none at all
  • They may want to do a project that is relavant to their own religion or culture

Art projects that use colours in association with words can be difficult for students to produce a finished product.
  • Colour schemes that are close, such as gold or yellow, would be difficult for a ELL student

Teaching Strategies

An appropriate marking rubric needs to be put in place for holiday themed art projects:
  • Students understand criteria
  • Formative assessment methods
  • Marking rubric must include technique, colour relationship, etc.
  • Encourage students to explore a variety of styles
  • The end product will be different but the learned skill outcomes will be the same

Assessment Strategies
  • Stay within the lines (do not colour outside of the lines)
  • Cut out the objects
  • Glue them onto the appropriate paper
  • Use the colour scheme discussed in class
  • Overall product should be neat and presentable
  • Master the use of colours
  • Connect colours with words
  • Do not have colours that are similar in the same scheme so that differentiation would be easier
  • Don’t ask for student to do more than they are comfortable with
  • Use colours that are known in their cultural background



People often believe that language is not a large concern when teaching mathematics. If that were the case, ELL students would have a fairly easy experience in learning math. However, this subject has its own set of characteristics relating to language, including:
  • Vocabulary, including technical mathematic terms (quadrilateral, divide) and terms that have different, everyday meanings (volume, product, similar, face)
  • Specialized syntax (the use of words like ‘if’, ‘a’, ‘and’)
  • Ways of speaking and writing (word problems, writing solutions, giving explanations)
  • Social factors (the use of ‘we’ to refer to all people who do math, as in “we call that a hexagon”)

All of these language factors influence the success that ELL students have in math. The challenge comes in the fact that mathematical concepts are often too abstract to introduce without using language. In addition, many assignments use word problems with language that further confuses ELL students; the math concepts themselves may be familiar to the student, but the way the question is phrased may create confusion as to what is being asked.

Teaching Strategies

  • Personalize the learning - discussion and debate help students create mathematical meaning for themselves
  • Avoid 'regurgitation' of information (things like repetitive choral response)
  • Discover as much as possible about the ELL student, including home language(s), prior proficiency in school, and mathematical knowledge in their home language(s)
  • Discuss and highlight mathematical English terms only when appropriate - let the student finish expressing their idea first!

Assessment Strategies

Typical worksheets are not always conducive to ELL student success. There are a variety of other tools which can track student progress, including the following:
  • Growth portfolios with samples of work
  • Oral explanations of concepts
  • Illustrations
  • Role playing activities
  • Visual aids


Receiving education can be challenging for all students, but what if you cannot speak the language? Then, let us assume that words that sound similar in everyday conversation are applied in a different manner in science, or the word itself has no similarities to the students' language or the English they know. These are the issues facing ELL Science students.

There are many issues surrounding ELL, including:
  • language and literacy skills are needed to build the foundations of education in science classes
  • Issues with vocabulary and terminology specific to the lessons
  • Students who may not understand the material may claim that they do in order to save face. This is an issue for educators, as it is difficult to do formative assessment to employ better techniques to help the student.

Teaching Strategies
external image science_senses.gif
There are many teaching strategies that can be implemented:
  • Use of worksheets that employ simple language
  • Emphasis on vocabulary labs to help extend ELL students' vocabulary
  • Use of pictorial materials
  • Use of peer interpreters
  • Altered assessment tools such as drawing and individual interviews

A theory by Rod E. Case, was that instruction should be scaffolded, so as to ensure that each concept builds onto another. He believes that a three fold method is required, a) the concept understanding, b) the concept retelling phase, and c) concept demonstration. Through careful discussion, guiding, and hands-on learning - such as demonstrations and visual aids - learning objectives can be achieved.

Assessment Strategies
Assessment of ELL students is a complex issue. One theory of student assessment for ELL students is not to put them at the same level as English speaking students. The belief that the attempt to understand the course material and gain conceptual, skill, or factual understanding of the material should be adequate. Collaboration with ELL instructors would also be beneficial to any assessment in classes. Some strategies that can be employed are:
  • Having students keep a learning journal: this allows for formative assessment of the language, material, and vocabulary and can be shared with other instructors
  • Testing for conceptual understanding through both written summaries and illustrations

Social Studies


In addition to language barriers, ELL students may also present with a lack of prerequisite knowledge of their new country’s geography and history as well as political, economic, and social systems, depending on their country of origin.

Teaching Strategies

Any host of resources provide suggestions that using visuals instead of, or to supplement, reading materials is a viable strategy for making the information accessible to ELL students. This can include using texts with illustrations in its simplest form, or giving tangible objects such as providing students with maps and a set of labels and asking them to place the labels on the map, instead of writing them.

As a strategy for identifying gaps in prerequisite knowledge, the student can use a content log with the headings “Things I Understand” and “Things I Don’t Understand” as a way of communicating specific needs to the teacher. This also lends itself to “dialogue journals” with the teacher, in which the teacher and student write their conversation with each other. This is particularly effective for students whose reading/writing abilities are more advanced than their aural or oral English skills.

Assessment Strategies
Some juristictions, such as Ontario, have modifications of Specific Learning Outcomes, depending on the stage of English language development of the student.

For students with lower levels of English language development, modifications usually fall into two categories:

  • 1) The volume of skill demonstrated or product being assessed (ie, “demonstrate several differences” becomes “demonstrate a few differences”)
  • 2) The amount of independence in reporting or performing a task (ie, “identify a few” becomes “with assistance, identify a few”)

For higher levels of English language development, modifications tend to centre more on acceptability of alternative products for assessment (ie "make a list" becomes "make a chart"), though the volume of knowledge required to be demonstrated to meet the outcome may be the same as for non-ELL students.


The Intersection of Language, Education, and Content: Science Instruction for ESL Students
Rod E. Case, The Clearing House , Vol. 76, No. 2 (Nov. - Dec., 2002),
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd., pp. 71-74
Article Stable URL:

Science Education with English Language Learners: Synthesis and Research Agenda
Okhee Lee, Review of Educational Research , Vol. 75, No. 4 (Winter, 2005)
Published by: American Educational Research Association, pp.491-530
Article Stable URL: