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February 2016 | Volume 73 | Number 5
Helping ELLs Excel
Diane Staehr Fenner
Three strategies can help teachers more accurately assess their English language learners.
At a recent professional development institute in a school district in New York State, I led content-area
teachers new to teaching English language learners (ELLs) through a geometry lesson entirely in German. I first
lectured to them without providing any scaffolds, and then I gradually included visuals and a bilingual glossary
in my instruction. Later, I had them complete a classroom assessment in German using the supports provided,
working in pairs, and speaking in English. Reflecting on his experience, one middle school teacher noted he
suddenly realized why his beginning-level Nepalese student seemed so tired at the end of the day. This exercise
gave teachers a small sense of how flawed content assessment can be for ELLs when students are not yet fluent in
Research has clearly demonstrated that assessments designed mainly for native English speakers may not be as
reliable and valid for ELLs (Abedi, 2006). In fact, average scores for ELLs on the 2013 reading and math
National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in grades 4, 8, and 12 were significantly lower than average
scores for native speakers of English, and the gap in scores widened with increases in grade level (Office of
English Language Acquisition, 2015).
My work with ELLs and their educators is based in an advocacy framework in which the concept of scaffolded advocacy—or providing just the right amount of advocacy on the basis of
students' strengths and needs—is crucial to support their academic achievement (Staehr Fenner, 2014).
And nowhere does advocacy for ELLs play a more important role than in assessment.
Compared with fluent speakers of English, ELLs are held accountable on more assessment measures and spend
more time being assessed. Title III accountability under No Child Left Behind requires ELLs to make progress in
learning English; attain English language proficiency (ELP); and learn academic content. In addition to taking
part in content testing, all English learners must also take annual ELP or English language development
assessments, whether or not they receive language support services.
The three strategies that follow can help educators collaboratively advocate for equity in assessments for
their English language learners.
Testing accommodations give English language learners a greater chance to demonstrate what they know and can
do on content tests (Staehr Fenner, 2014). A few broad points to keep in mind:
There are multiple ways of categorizing and naming a student's level of English proficiency. Many states
belong to English language proficiency consortia (for example, WIDA and ELPA21). For the purposes of this
article, let's consider ELLs at the more generic beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels.
Dalton and Shafer Willner (2012) provide guidance on which types of accommodations should be used for ELLs in assessment. At the beginning level, ELLs have the greatest need for accommodations but may face bigger challenges in
using some accommodations effectively. For example, the sheer number of unknown English words would preclude a
beginner ELL from effectively using a bilingual word-to-word dictionary. You can provide oral supports, such as
a read-aloud of both the directions and the test, in lieu of less effective written supports. In some cases, you
might provide a home-language translation of the directions and the test.
At the intermediate level, consider offering a state-approved bilingual word-to-word dictionary if ELLs are
literate in their home language, and give them additional time to consult it. You could also allow students to
request that selected portions of the text be read aloud.
At the advanced level, ELLs need the fewest accommodations. They may still benefit from a bilingual word-to-
word dictionary if they are literate in their home language, as well as extra time to use it.
Ahmet is a 9-year-old boy attending 3rd grade in a suburban elementary school. He was born in the United
States to Syrian parents. His school uses an inclusive model of instruction, with a grade-level teacher and a
teacher of English as a second language (ESL) co-teaching English language arts. Ahmet also receives small-group
instruction from an ESL teacher three times a week.
Ahmet is at an intermediate English language proficiency level and lives in a state where the Partnership for
Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment is administered. He has trouble decoding
longer words in English and has weak spelling skills in the language. Ahmet's English speaking and
listening skills are stronger than his skills in reading and writing. Although he is comfortable speaking Arabic
in social situations, Ahmet's literacy skills in Arabic are weak. His parents don't read to him in
Arabic; they want him to learn English quickly.
One important step a school or district can take to advocate for more equitable assessments for their English
language learners is to form a committee that includes the ESL teacher, content-area teacher(s), guidance
counselor, and even the student and the student's parent or caregiver. Because it can be detrimental for an
ELL to receive unfamiliar accommodations (such as a bilingual dictionary) for the first time on a content test,
committee decisions about accommodations should be made at the beginning of the school year so the student gets
used to the accommodations. The committee can meet throughout the year to track the utility of the
accommodations and make adjustments as needed.
As content and English language proficiency assessments transition to computer-based platforms, we can't
overlook the digital divide that exists between students whose families can afford to provide technology in the
home and those who lack such technology. Of note, two-thirds of ELLs nationwide come from low-income homes
(National Education Association, 2008).
In addition to possibly having limited access to technology, ELLs might not be fully literate in the use of
the technology that's necessary to navigate the test platform. For example, students may be familiar with
mobile devices but not with certain tasks on a desktop computer, such as clicking with a mouse and dragging
numbers or typing an extended response.
Also, English language learners arrive in school at all points of the school year. In many cases, they still
need to take content or English language proficiency tests even though they may not have received the training
on the test platform that other students were given. Regardless of their arrival dates, ELLs will need to
understand all the online test features and know how to use them. The PARCC student tutorials are in English
with no built-in scaffolds to help ELLs navigate the platform. Smarter Balanced's student tutorial offers
an option for Spanish, but not other languages.
The following guidelines will help ensure that English language learners focus on test items instead of
getting distracted by the platform:
It's important for educators to work together at the building level to do a needs analysis of where ELLs
could use additional technological support. Teachers should collaborate to choose accommodations for computer-
based tests and find a time and place for ELLs to practice using those accommodations.
In addition, a collaborative team could make certain that parents of their English language learners are
aware of both test requirements and the platform. For example, computer-based testing could be the topic of an
ELL parent meeting either in school or in a location convenient for parents, such as a community center or place
Depending on your district's testing window, your ELLs may soon take their annual English language
proficiency test. Teachers and administrators can use the data on score reports to design appropriate learning
tasks and differentiate instruction for students at different levels of proficiency. In addition, teachers can
collaborate to align the choice of accommodations on state content assessments with students' ELP levels
and design classroom assessments appropriate to the student's level of proficiency. Teachers can also use
ELP assessment data to communicate the students' progress from year to year to students and their families;
additionally, they can share students' areas of linguistic strengths and needs with other educators. ELP
assessment results can be used as one data point among many in gauging ELLs' progress and planning for
In some recent ongoing professional development with school districts, I've worked with content-area and
ESL teachers whose administrators brought the groups together for regular collaboration. We've shared
sample ELP score reports with them. In most cases, it's the first time content-area teachers have seen an
ELP report, and it's been an eye-opening experience for them. Specifically, it's been helpful for
content teachers to see how the ELL performed in each language domain (speaking, listening, reading, and
writing). In one sample report, the student's weakest domain was in writing, so teachers determined
strategies to support the student's writing skills within and across content areas.
To help familiarize teachers with the features of ELP score reports, I recommend a scavenger hunt. Using
either an actual student's report or a sample score report found online, teachers can search for the answer
to such questions as, What is the student's grade level? Which domains of language were assessed? How is
the student's overall proficiency level determined from the assessment components? How can you use this
information to collaboratively plan for instruction? The ESL teacher can take a lead role in facilitating the
Teachers can use the data to determine the language domains most in need of development and then focus
instruction on these areas. They can also use this information to select appropriate accommodations for content
testing. I suggest that educators take a longitudinal look at each student's ELP scores to see whether the
student is making the expected progress in acquiring English.
TESOL International Association (2013) contends that with the implementation of challenging content
standards, ESL teachers are called on to assume new leadership roles as experts, advocates, and consultants.
Serving as facilitator of a discussion about ELP scores is just one example of this more specialized role. ESL
teachers can also let content-area teachers know when score reports become available and set up a time to
collaboratively interpret the results. Similarly, content-area teachers can include ESL teachers in
conversations around analysis of their ELLs' content and ELP assessment data and in planning for
For their part, administrators can demonstrate their commitment to this success by setting aside a regular
time and place for collaborative planning to support ELLs. By doing so, they set the tone in their buildings
that collaboration is crucial to the success of English language learners.
Abedi, J. (2006). Psychometric issues in the ELL assessment and special education eligibility.
Teachers College Record, 108(11), 2282–2303.
Dalton, G., & Shafer Willner, L. (2012). ELL accommodation assignment protocol
created for the 2012 DC OSSE testing accommodations manual. Washington, DC: District of Columbia Office
of the State Superintendent.
National Education Association. (2008). English language learners face unique
challenges (NEA Policy Brief). Retrieved from www.nea.org/assets/docs/HE/ELL_Policy_Brief_Fall_08_%282%29.pdf
Office of English Language Acquisition. (2015). English learners (ELS) and
NAEP (OLEA Fast Facts). Retrieved from www.ncela.us/files/fast_facts/OELA_FastFacts_ELsandNAEP.pdf
Staehr Fenner, D. (2014). Advocating for English learners: A guide for
educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
TESOL International Association. (2013). Implementing the Common Core State
Standards for English learners: The changing role of the ESL teacher. Alexandria, VA: Author. Retrieved
Diane Staehr Fenner is president of DSF Consulting, LLC, and blogger for
Colorin Colorado. Her most recent book, coauthored with Peter
Kozik and Ayanna Cooper, is Evaluating All Teachers of English Learners and Students with
Disabilities: Supporting Great Teaching (2015, Corwin). She is also the author of Advocating for English Learners: A Guide for Educators (2014, Corwin). Follow her on Twitter.
Copyright © 2016 by ASCD
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