One Small Step: Ensuring Assessment and Feedback in the ESL Classroom

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Ensuring that students are truly learning is one of the most important aspects of any educational endeavor. The importance of this aspect of instructional design becomes even more crucial when dealing with English as a Second Language. ESL students face three tasks in the classroom: gaining a grasp of various subject matter, improving their English language skills, and gaining the ability to interact and function in a social setting. All three of these tasks require ESL class observation, assessment, and feedback if they are to be achieved. An ESL teacher or instructor can lecture, ask questions, encourage discussion, assign activities, and play games all day long, but if he or she does not ensure a specific form of assessment and feedback, the entire process may simply be a waste of time. Instead, ESL teachers ought to select and design both formal and informal assessment tools and procedures to allow students to demonstrate their learning progress. This will also allow students to both provide and apply the feedback gathered through these assessment measures. It is through this process that ESL teachers can guide improvement in their students. As an ESL teacher, I will ensure this process within four specific criteria. First, I will encourage a collaborative approach in my classroom. Second, I will frame each class within the context of certain “steps”, from setting standards to specific assessment tools. Third, I will periodically assess my class primarily with informal assessment tools – such as performance or portfolio based assessment. Fourth, and finally, I will use the results of these assessments to improve students’ performance through feedback. While this is most definitely not an exhaustive practice of ensuring assessment and feedback to improve performance, I believe that operating under these four criteria throughout my tenure as an ESL teacher will make for both a more enjoyable and more educational classroom environment, leaving my students better equipped with their language skills.

The first step, which is relatively obvious, is to encourage collaboration between my students and myself, as the teacher. This is not a specific practice, but more of an overall attitude to bring to the classroom – an attitude, however, that takes both commitment and practice to achieve. One of the ways to encourage collaboration with students is also to collaborate with one’s fellow teachers – especially the subject-area teachers from which the students are also learning. As suggested by Sylvia Helmer (1995), encouraging collaboration in this way increases comfort levels in all parties involved. Some of the ways that this can be achieved is through sharing expertise, classroom materials, and teaching experiences, planning a demonstration lesson together, working with small groups of students to either ‘pre-teach’ or review a specific lesson, or to periodically co-teach a class together (Helmer, 1995). By collaborating with subject-area teachers, students have more of a congruent educational experience, and assessing their performance and providing feedback to improve their progress can become a much easier task. While this may not have directly to do with the assessment and the feedback for students, allowing a collaborative approach in their educational experience can work to make them much more open to this assessment and feedback, improving both their performance and their progress along the way.

A second way to ensure that assessment and feedback are provided is to work within a specific framework for each class. This will often look like specific tasks, steps, or goals to achieve throughout the instruction. To begin with, I would set the first task as choosing a set of content standards, performance descriptions, and student expectations. If I have a clear picture of what the class is going to look like, it will make the flow of the class much clearer as well. The second step is to clearly communicate these performance expectations to students at the beginning of each semester, week, or class period. Communicating these expectations to students will make it much easier for them to know what the achievement goals are, and to self-assess and provide feedback later on. The third step is to develop, adapt, or adopt assessment tools that are both aligned with and reflect the performance expectations that were determined and communicated in the previous two steps. By ensuring that these assessments are aligned with the performance expectations and goals, I avoid frustrating either students or myself with unnecessary assessment that may not even be relevant to the lesson at hand. Finally, I will use the results of the assessment tools to inform the direction, style, and pace of the class. This includes, of course, feedback on how to improve student performance. However, it also includes a frank assessment of my own teaching practices. Using feedback to inform future lessons will ensure that students learn faster, better, and deeper than they would be continuing with a trajectory set from the beginning. My goal is to be adaptable in both performance goals and teaching styles.

The third criteria I will utilize in ensuring assessment and feedback for my students is through specific informal assessment tools. These informal assessments “can provide a more well-rounded picture of [students] skills, abilities, and ongoing progress” (ESCORT, 2003). I believe that informal assessment is superior to formal assessment for two main reasons. First, informal assessment can be completed without the undue pressure of tests, oral quizzes, or graded homework assignments. Simply put, students can feel free to utilize their language skills without having to worry about marks. Second, informal assessment can be completed more often than formal assessment – sometimes at the end of every class. This means that teachers are better able to chart the progress of their students and the success (or weakness) of their teaching styles or strategies. Instead of setting time aside just for assessment, informal assessment uses typical classroom activities, in which students are learning anyway, to track progress and inform teaching. There are two informal assessment tools in particular that I would utilize: performance-based assessment and portfolio-based assessment.

According to Stefanakis (1998), performance based assessments “are based on classroom instruction and everyday tasks. You can use performance-based assessments to assess English Language Learners' language proficiency and academic achievement through oral reports, presentations, demonstrations, written assignments, and portfolios” (n.p.). These performance based assessments use both processes, such as writing and re-writing several different drafts of a writing sample or short essay, and products, such as assigning the class team projects to be completed in class. A more specific set of performance based assessments include reading with classroom partners, retelling stories in front of class, role playing in groups, debating, brainstorming, and playing games. This reduces the student anxiety that comes with reading English. These are set apart from regular classroom activities by using rubrics and checklists to assign scores, which evaluate and grade students’ performance in the processes or activities (Stefanakis, 1998). It is important to design these rubrics carefully, as performance based assessments do not usually lead to a single, correct response. As Stefanakis (1998) clarifies, “when using performance based assessments, it is important to establish clear and fair criteria from the beginning” (n.p.). However, with a clear criteria and a fun activity, teachers will be able to assess students on an on-going basis, week to week and class period to class period.

In contrast, portfolio assessments are usually completed outside of the classroom and a method of tracking a student’s progress throughout the entire course of the year or semester. In Stefanakis’ words, with this method teachers “can systematically collect descriptive records of a variety of student work over time that reflects growth toward the achievement of specific curricular objectives” (n.p.). This is better than just one measure by itself, because it is easier to track progress as well as performance. Portfolios can include writing samples, tapes of oral presentations, teacher descriptions, as well as formal assessment tools, such as tests and data sheets (ESCORT, 2003). Portfolio also encourages the collaboration discussed above, as it allows students to have an active role in their own assessment by allowing them to select work for their portfolios and see realistic improvement in the long run. Both of these informal assessment tools, when taken together, provide both ESL students and teachers a great measurement of success and progress.

Finally, I will utilize the results of these assessment tools to improve student performance by providing (and taking) feedback. As Hui Chin Lin and Paul Shih Chieh Chien (2009) state, “when you analyze the results of student assessments, you should be able to identify those areas of knowledge and skills that students mastered and those that need more work” (n.p.). This is a two-part evaluation. First, if only a handful of students did not do well on the assessment of a specific knowledge or skill set, a teacher can group those students together to provide a review or revision session. However, if most students did poorly on the assessment, this tells the teacher that they must revisit the instructional design of the class and apply the feedback to the instruction, rather than the students. Both of these are forms of feedback, informed by the outcome of the assessment tools. If the students’ progress and performance continues to improve, it means that the assessment provided authentic and significant feedback for both student learning and teaching practices. These are the four main criteria I would apply to myself as an ESL teacher, in order to improve both assessment and feedback.


Chin Lin, G.H., & Chieh Chien, P.S. (2009). An introduction to English teaching. Germany: VDM Publishing.

CNN. (2008). Mandela: In his own words. CNN Reports. Retrieved from

ESCORT. (2003). Help! They don’t speak English: Starter kit for primary teachers. Oneonta, NY: State University College.

Helmer, S. (1995). Joint work between ESL and subject-area teachers: A case study at the secondary level. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation. Vancouver: University of B.C.

Stefanakis, E. (1998). Whose judgment counts? Assessing bilingual children, K-3. Portsmouth, NH: Heinamann Press.