of Language, Literacy, and Content Knowledge
When students first enroll in school, it is essential to determine if they are English language learners (ELLs) and thus eligible for educational services that will help them achieve the educational performance standards of their states of residence. This section provides educators with strategies for assessing students when they first enroll in school, as well as suggestions for assessing language and literacy skills in students' first language (L1) and English.
- Why do ELLs need to be identified and assessed?
- How are ELLs identified and assessed throughout the United States?
- Why are home language surveys used?
- What should be considered when selecting a suitable language proficiency test?
- Who should administer the language proficiency tests?
- Why assess students' academic and language skills in their native language?
- How can native language literacy skills be assessed?
- What are the broader issues to be considered in assessing a student's educational background?
1. Why do ELLs need to be identified and assessed? According to federal statutes, school districts are legally obligated to identify students who are ELLs so that appropriate educational decisions can be made and appropriate services provided. The Federal Government does not specify how this identification should be accomplished, only that every child who speaks a language other than English must be identified. This requirement has evolved over many years and is based on a long history in the United States of striving to provide everyone with an equal opportunity for success. There is a conscious effort on the part of legislators and the courts to make sure that individuals are treated justly and fairly. English language learners are no exception to this basic premise.
For details on the legal milestones that protect the educational rights of school-age English language learners, see the Policy section of this Web site.
2. How are ELLs identified and assessed throughout the United States? The U.S. Government mandates that ELLs must be identified and that students who have been identified as ELLs must be offered a program designed to help them succeed in school. It should be noted that parents and guardians, however, may choose not to have their children receive these services.
The Federal Government does not mandate a specific process that must be used to identify ELLs. There is a great deal of variation in processes used to identify ELLs (Burnett, 1993). The U.S. Government only mandates that a fair and unbiased process be used to determine if students are language minority learners. Listed below are broad guidelines for identifying and assessing potential language minority students. It may be necessary to modify these steps based on local conditions, including and not limited to demographics.
Initial Identification of Language Minority Students:
- As part of the school enrollment process for a new student, the school provides the parent/guardian with a home language survey in the parent/guardian's primary language. Interpreters who speak the parents/guardian's primary language should be available to assist with the registration process.
- School staff members who have received the appropriate home language survey training administer the surveys; they then evaluate the surveys to decide whether the student needs to be assessed to determine his or her level of English language proficiency. Staff members either identify the student as non-language minority or refer him or her for language proficiency assessment and academic assessment. If the student is not identified as language minority,the student's enrollment process continues without language proficiency assessment.
- The home language survey form is filed in the student's cumulative folder. Forms should be filed for every student enrolled, not just for those who are ELLs.
- Students are referred to appropriate school personnel for language proficiency testing and an assessment of their academic skills. For more information, see the Sample Procedures for ELL Identification and Assessment.
- Once students have been assessed and identified as ELLs, an
appropriate program must be designed and offered to the
student. Parents and guardians have the option not
to allow their students to have ELL services.
2a. Why are home language surveys used? This
survey tells educators whether or not the child is exposed to
languages other than English in the home environment. Some surveys
only ask if the parents/guardians speak English to their child.
However, this is culturally biased, since in many cultures the main caretakers
for young children are grandparents, and they may provide more linguistic
input than the child's parents. A good home language survey
not only determines what language the child speaks with his
or her parents, but also queries what other language(s) the
child may be hearing.
The home language survey needs to be administered in the parent or guardian's primary language. In some cases it will also be necessary to provide the information orally, since parents or guardians may not have the literacy skills to complete a written version of the form in their primary language. In other words, the parents may come from a culture where oral traditions are emphasized over traditions of print literacy.
There are a number of cultural considerations that should be taken into account when creating a home language survey. It is important to ask when a child was born as well as the child's age; in some Asian cultures, age is calculated differently than it is in the U.S.
Examples of Home Language Surveys
2b. What should be considered when selecting a suitable
language proficiency test? The language proficiency assessment
of English language learners is a complicated process and requires
practitioners to address a variety of factors (Hargett, 1998). There are a number of issues
that should be taken into account when selecting a language
proficiency instrument for use in a specific school, school
district or state. Listed below are questions that may be considered
in the selection process.
- Test Instrument Theoretical Basis
Does the test instrument have a strong theoretical basis?
Is there evidence that the test has a strong degree of validity and reliability?
Are the technical documents describing and supporting the test easy to understand and theoretically sound?
Are the theoretical underpinnings of the test consistent with the educational philosophy of the local/state education agency? Has the test been approved by the local/state education agency?
- Cultural and Linguistic Suitability
Has the test
been normed with members of the same cultural and linguistic
groups as those whom the instrument will assess?
Are the test items comprehensible to students who represent
a variety of cultures? (Although it is impossible to have
a culture-free test, the test should assess the student's
ability to understand English, not their cultural knowledge.)
Are there members of different ethnic/racial groups favorably
depicted in the test pictures?
Does the test take into account
students who are non-English speakers? For example, is there
a mechanism for stopping the test before it is completed
for those students who have no, or very limited, English skills?.
- Practical Considerations
Is the test easy to administer? Is it feasible to provide school staff members with the training they need to administer the test properly?
Is the test age appropriate for the students being assessed?
Are there multiple test forms? (Multiple forms make it possible to administer pre- and post-testing.)
Is the length of time it takes to administer the test reasonable or excessive?
Is the test easy to score? Does it take a lot of time to score the test or can it be scored quickly?
Is the cost of the test reasonable or excessive?
- Diagnostic and Placement Information
Does the test provide adequate and appropriate information for program placement?
Does the test provide useful diagnostic information for the classroom teacher, as well as other educational personnel?
Does the test include subtests? For example, is there are a reading test, a writing test, a listening test, and a speaking test?
There are many different language proficiency tests available. It is important to choose a language proficiency instrument that meets the needs of the state, the specific school district, and the individual school.
Examples of Language Proficiency Tests
2c. Who should administer the language proficiency
tests? The test examiner must be thoroughly familiar with
the test. It is not adequate
for the test examiner to be given the test a couple of minutes
before the test is administered. The test examiner should also
receive the type and amount of training recommended by the publisher
of the test.
The test examiner should have the cross-cultural skills necessary to work with students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In many cases, the language proficiency test examiner is the first representative of the school community to interact with the student. This first encounter can have a positive or negative influence on the student's school experience. There are many resources available to help educators become more culturally responsive to the needs of ELLs.
The test examiner may need to receive comprehensive cross-cultural training to work effectively with students who are potential ELLs. The training should help test examiners learn how to respect cultural differences and to take these differences into account when working with students from different cultural backgrounds. Students from different cultural backgrounds often have different cultural expectations when it comes to behavior between children and adults. For example, some children do not look adults in the eye because this is considered disrespectful in their culture. In this regard, test examiners should not expect all students to look them in the eye. Test examiners should also be careful about physical contact with students. In some cultures it is considered rude to pat a child on the head. Test examiners should also be aware that in some cultures it is considered inappropriate to write in red ink the name of a person who is still living. Some ELLs may be unfamiliar with testing procedures and practices such as this and may need to have them demonstrated and/or explained in their primary language.
3.Why assess students' academic and language skills in their native language? When new monolingual
English speaking students enroll in school it is customary
for the school and/or classroom teacher(s) to assess their academic
skills. This is done so that the program and instructional strategies
can match the skills and needs of the learner and can build
on his/her prior knowledge. For ELLs,
it is also important to ascertain the literacy skills that students
have gained in the first language, as well as in English. Literacy skills from the child's first language can translate to and facilitate
the acquisition of English language literacy skills (August,
Calderon, & Carlo, 2001).
In addition, from a cross-cultural standpoint it is very important to value the student's native language. Assessing students' academic skills in only their second language implies that the first language is not important. Assessment of academic skills in the student's primary language demonstrates that the school values prior literacy attainment. Research shows that students can benefit from literacy skills in their native language (Goodman, 1998).
4. How can native language literacy skills be assessed? It can be very challenging to assess students' academic skills in their primary language. There are commercially produced standardized tests available to assess academic skills for major language groups such as Spanish. However, for low incidence languages such as Estonian or Fijian there are no such tests available.
There are many informal methods of assessing literacy skills. Reading specialists know that both story retelling and reading running records, which allow the observer to document and analyze a child's reading behavior, are methods of assessing reading skills in the student's native language. Unfortunately, there are not always bilingual educators readily available to assess the student's native language skills. A team approach including both reading specialists and educators with training in second language acquisition is essential.
5. What are the broader issues to be considered in assessing a student's educational background? It is important to determine a student's educational background. Listed below are some issues that educators may wish to explore:
- The date of a student's last attendance in school.
- The number of years of schooling the student has had both inside and outside the U.S.
- Any extenuating circumstances which prevented the student from attending school.
- The grade level that the student was assigned to and what the age equivalency is for students at that level in the U.S. For example, students in some Eastern European countries are enrolled in grade 0 which is equivalent to grade 1 in the U.S.
- The type of school that the student attended. For example, the student may have attended a bilingual school in Mexico where s/he learned Náhuatl as the primary language and Spanish as a second language. Or the student may have attended a school in Russia specializing in science.
- Whether the school was a same sex or coeducational school.
- The type of curriculum to which the student was exposed. Textbooks, school certificates, transcripts, etc. can be useful in determining the student's educational experiences.
- The educational background of the parents, guardian or other adult household members.
- Pertinent health information, including immunization records. For example, does the student wear or need corrective lenses? Does the student wear or need a hearing aid?
August, D., Calderon, M., & Carlo, M. (2001, February). The
transfer of skills from Spanish to English: A study of young
learners. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL). Summary article available: http://www.cal.org/pubs/articles/skillstransfer-nabe.html
Burnett , G. (1993, April). The assessment and placement of language minority students (ED357131). ERIC/CUE Digest, No. 89. Available: http://www.eric.ed.gov:80/ERICWebPortal/Home.portal?
Goodman, E. (1998, April 20). The bilingual question. Currents, 2(34). Santa Cruze, CA:
University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) Public Information Office. Available: http://www.ucsc.edu/oncampus/currents/97-98/04-20/crede.htm
Hargett, G. R. (1998). Assessment in ESL and bilingual education. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Education Laboratory's
Comprehensive Center. Available: http://www.nwrac.org/pub/hot/assessment.html