Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Teaching Science to ELLs, Prt II: Classroom-Based Assessment Strategies for Science Teachers

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Teaching Science to ELLs, Prt II: Classroom-Based Assessment Strategies for Science Teachers

Article excerpt


Despite the burgeoning numbers of English language learners (ELLs) in our schools, many science teachers have little training in meeting their specialized needs. During the 2007-2008 academic year, 4.7 million or 10% of students in U.S. schools were classified as ELLs (Boyle et al. 2010). By the year 2030, it is estimated that 40% of K-12 classrooms in the United States will contain nonnative English speakers with varying levels of proficiency (Thomas and Collier 2002). Teaching this growing number of ELLs poses a pressing new challenge for educators.

Effective education of ELLs requires that teachers adapt instruction to meet the needs of this unique population of students (TESOL 2006). This is especially true for teachers of subjects requiring specialized vocabulary, such as science. Since the academic success of ELLs depends on effective instruction and assessment in the mainstream classroom, it is imperative that teachers have proven strategies for working with ELLs.

In this article, we provide four classroom-based assessment strategies for science teachers. These strategies include tailoring assessment to ELLs' language proficiency, making the assessment tasks accessible, diversifying the ways in which ELLs can demonstrate content knowledge, and documenting student growth.


To properly assess science content knowledge, teachers must learn how to evaluate ELLs based on their level of language proficiency. Though standardized tests are used to determine whether or not students have met state and national standards, these tests do not detect incremental growth in ELLs' content learning; they cannot provide the kind of day-to-day feedback teachers need.

Classroom-based assessment strategies help teachers make instructional decisions on a daily basis. They diagnose students' strengths and weaknesses related to classroom instruction, and provide specific feedback to support students' language and content learning. The following sections present four classroom-based assessment strategies for ELLs.


1. Tailor assessment to language proficiency

Prior to assessing content, science teachers must establish--or re-establish--ELLs' level of language proficiency. Teachers should acquaint themselves with the English-language proficiency standards developed by the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) organization. These standards specify five levels in which ELLs can demonstrate measurable language proficiency (TESOL 2006): starting, emerging, developing, expanding, and bridging (Figure 1, p. 41; see also Figure 1 in Part I of this series, p. 36).

At the starting level, ELLs can react to language with frequently used words and memorized chunks of language; they can also communicate minimally to meet their social needs.

At the emerging level of proficiency, they demonstrate further understanding and production, including the use of simple academic vocabulary.

At the developing level, ELLs understand more complex speech and can comprehend some specialized academic vocabulary.

The expanding level is evidenced by a well-developed degree of understanding, coupled with some difficulty in comprehending abstract academic content.

Finally, at the bridging level, students have moved through the continuum but still need some language support, guidance, and modification of instruction when working with academic language and concepts. (Note: See the complete PreK-12 English language proficiency standards document for more detail [TESOL 2006].)

Although these five levels represent predictable patterns and identifiable stages of proficiency, teachers cannot assume that all ELLs will progress through this language continuum at the same rate (Harper and de Jong 2004). This variation demonstrates another reason why classroom-based assessment--specific to ELLs--is a vital skill for teachers. …

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