6 Strategies for Assessing English Language Learners

Featured image of boy using computer and headphones for assessing ELL

Assessment plays a monumental role in any classroom. Educators use a variety of assessment types all to understand what students have learned or still need to learn within their curriculum. However, when assessing English Language Learners, or ELLs, it can be difficult to determine if a student’s misconceptions are due to language ability or difficulty in underlying concepts.

By ensuring that assessments are designed to get at the heart of learning, we also ensure an equitable learning experience for our ELLs. When designing assessments, there are many strategies that teachers can implement to measure their ELL’s content knowledge more effectively and gain a better understanding of what they have learned. 

Planning Assessments for ELLs

With over 4.9 million ELLs enrolled in schools in the United States, every teacher must plan their assessments with language learners in mind. English, in particular, is a uniquely complex language. Implementing strategies for assessing ESL students needs to consider knowing the contextual background of your learners. In other words, teachers need to consider what cultures and linguistic backgrounds their learners are coming from, as well as how long they have been learning English.  

In addition to planning with student background in mind, educators also need to consider the purpose of their assessment. Many times educators plan an exam or assessment with the assumption that their students can access complex linguistic materials such as readings and audio, with no additional support. In reality, what ends up happening is the teacher has created an assessment that measures reading or listening skills in English but does not assess the desired standards. 

This is why it is so important to understand your learners and to understand what you are assessing. By understanding both of these aspects, educators can create targeted assessments that measure student learning towards a desired concept with greater accuracy. 

Assessment Strategies for Assessing ELL 

When designing an assessment, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the many options and strategies for assessing ESL students that are available. However, there are a few strategies that are effective across grade levels and content areas and are worth having in a teacher’s toolbox. These include: 

Leverage Technology that Utilizes Universal Design Principles

Universal Design principles involve giving students a voice and choice in their assessments and giving students multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning. This could include allowing students to show learning using multimedia, speaking, written response, or even artistic expression. In terms of assessing language learners, tools built based on Universal Design principles give students a better opportunity to access information and show what they know through means that may have a lower linguistic barrier, while still allowing the student to demonstrate learning and growth. 

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment runs the gamut from short quizzes and responses to a simple thumbs up or thumbs down check for understanding. The key to utilizing formative assessments is that they should be able to show the educator what students know in a low-stakes manner, quickly. 

For ELLs, this is an important strategy because it allows teachers to know where their students are at in their learning before the end of a unit. This means that they can correct misconceptions and errors while reinforcing understanding before the learning is solidified. 

Portfolio-based Assessment 

Leveraging portfolio-based assessment rather than a traditional test allows educators to look at a body of work, completed over time, rather than a single data point, to assess a student’s learning. For all students, but ELLs, in particular, this lowers the stakes tremendously and enables students to get feedback on their successes and areas of growth throughout the assessment process. A popular tool for assessing English language learners, portfolio-based assessment removes the guesswork on the part of students and gives them a better chance of showing their understanding. 

Performance-based Assessment

There may be no greater demonstration of learning than the performance-based assessment. By having students apply what they have learned in the real world or a real-world scenario, educators can truly determine how well a student has learned the concepts. 

As with the other items on this list, performance-based assessments are a great way to engage ELLs and allow them to demonstrate learning. Performance-based assessments in classes such as math or science give students the ability to put their learning to use without placing a ton of weight on their English skills. This gives educators a good idea of how well the concepts have been retained and which students understand them and which do not. 


By making learning feel more like a game educators can boost motivation and engagement and intrinsically motivate students to build their skills. Many students naturally respond well and learn more when engaged in gamified learning. Language learners are no exception. 

Assessment tools that support the QTI Portable Custom Interaction (PCI) standard make it possible to impart game-like simulations and even AI into an exam. Gamified assessment takes many of the strategies for assessing ESL students and combines them. For example, gamification can include Universal Design principles by allowing for multiple opportunities for learning while also serving as a great formative assessment and performance-based assessment tool. As gamified assessment tools enable multi-step problem solving, educators are also afforded a clearer snapshot of a student’s understanding or mastery of the learning concepts that the test is designed to measure. 


All students learn best when they know how they are being assessed. Language learners need to have a clear understanding of what the final product should look like and the level of knowledge and expertise that they need to shoot for. By providing clear, student-friendly rubrics to students, educators enable ELLs to take control of their learning and understand the expectations more clearly. 


Most of the states in the USA have more language learners today than they did 20 years ago. With this in mind, educators must have a large toolbox of assessment strategies to ensure that every student in the class can succeed and demonstrate their learning. Even though this may seem overwhelming there are digital programs available to ease assessment design and develop assessments with ELL learning strategies in mind. 

Open Assessment Technologies has a wide range of digital assessment products designed to enhance student learning and remove some of the language barriers in assessment for language learners. If you are interested in learning more about how Open Assessment Technologies can work for you, contact a sales representative here to learn more. 


learn more about TAO digital assessment platform integrations and tools for assessing english language learners