An approach to EAL assessment

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An approach to EAL assessment

Author: Breda Matthews, EAL Specialist

Assessment in an EAL context takes many forms. It can be formal (e.g. tests and examinations), informal (e.g. teacher observations) or learner self-assessment.

At the beginning of the year, or when a new learner starts, teachers need to be able to make judgements about a learner’s language strength and learning needs. This is when teachers often look for a test or assessment to determine learners’ English language levels. There are a number of commercially available tests available, but in reality, there is no single test that will assess all of the necessary aspects of language skills. Teachers need to use a variety of assessments to make accurate judgements about learners and must be prepared to revise those judgements if necessary.

Why we assess

Teachers need to know about learners’ strengths and learning needs in the key skill areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening. It is also helpful to know about a learner’s vocabulary level. This knowledge helps us to determine what we should teach learners. For example, if a learner already knows the first thousand words of English, we would start teaching at the second thousand words.

There is a wide variety of both formal and informal tools to determine learners’ skills and knowledge.

Continuing learners at a school will have previous work from EAL and other subjects that can be used to determine language strengths and learning needs. It is also good practice to involve mainstream teachers in making judgements, as they will know how learners are coping with the demands of the curriculum.

Assessment types

Whilst it is not best practice to assess learners within a short time of arrival, it is often unavoidable. Judgements for newly arrived learners often have to be made using observation and more formal assessments in EAL classrooms. Such assessments might include:

  • A speaking assessment: This could be a short interview, which will also enable you to find out about the learner’s learning background and allow you to gauge the learner’s listening skills.
  • Assessment of vocabulary knowledge: You will need to know a learner’s vocabulary level, which is usually measured as the first 1,000 words, the second 1,000 words, and so on.
  • A writing sample: Referenced against the learning continuum used in your context, e.g. CEFR, NASSEA, EAL Assessment Framework for Schools or the ELLP Matrix.
  • Reading assessments: This might include assessing decoding (i.e. can learners say the words) and, perhaps more importantly, assessing comprehension. Constructing reliable reading comprehension assessments is a highly skilled task and it is best to purchase a commercial decoding and comprehension test, such as the New Salford Sentence Reading Test, which provides an assessment of the learner’s reading age for decoding and comprehension, the New Group Reading Test (NGRT) or the Probe 2 Assessment in New Zealand.
  • With very new learners of English, you will also want to assess alphabet knowledge and letter sound correspondence.

Once you have gathered the data from the assessments, you need to place the learners on the learning continuum used in your school. Armed with this information, you will be able to determine what the next learning steps for your learners are.

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