Ongoing Assessment Question 2

2. How can English oral language proficiency skills be assessed? English oral language proficiency is an essential prerequisite skill for English language learners (ELLs) wishing to read in English (Garcia, 2002). Students who have not developed adequate oral language skills in English will not be able to comprehend what they read. Without strong oral language skills they are also more likely to lack confidence when they read aloud in English. ELLs should be given numerous opportunities to develop oral language before and during their development of literacy skills.

ELLs need to develop both receptive and expressive oral language skills in English. The receptive skills refer to the skills required to comprehend what has been said. The expressive or productive skills refer to one's ability to speak and convey one's thoughts and ideas to others. Without a foundation of receptive skills, students will not be able to develop strong expressive skills. Receptive and expressive skills should be assessed.

ELLs need to have conversational as well as academic language skills. According to Cummins (n.d.), ELLs must be proficient in academic language in order to be academically successful in the English language curriculum. When students are able to talk with one another and participate in informal conversations with their teachers, it is easy to assume that they have mastered the English language. However, we must not confuse this ability to converse informally with a mastery of academic language. ELLs do need to be able to converse informally, but they also need to be able to use more complex, abstract language in order to comprehend and use academic English.

Receptive Oral Language Skills. Listening skills can be assessed for ELLs at all stages of language acquisition, even at the beginning. Novice ELLs can demonstrate comprehension nonverbally. Teachers can assess this comprehension by observing how well ELLs follow simple commands such as, "Stand," "Take out your pencil," or "Go to the window."

Teachers can also ask novice ELLs to indicate comprehension by holding up pictures and showing yes/no cards. ELLs can point to appropriate pictures in response to simple questions. For example, "Show me a banana," or "Show me something that you eat." Teachers may wish to keep anecdotal records to indicate how much individual ELLs are comprehending. These records may be kept in ELLs' portfolios.

Expressive Language Skills. Oral language skills can be assessed holistically or analytically. Holistic assessment provides one overall score or rating, whereas analytic assessment rates discrete language skills. Both holistic and analytic rubrics can help teachers pinpoint different aspects of language that should be assessed. Breiner-Sanders, Lowe, Miles, and Swendler (1999) believe that the way an educated person uses language is a good yardstick for language proficiency. This philosophy is the basis of the revised Proficiency Guidelines on Speaking that the authors developed for the American Council of Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL). In addition to tests, there are other analytic tools that help teachers focus on the different aspects of language use. Rubrics and matrices generally focus on the following aspects of language use: comprehension, fluency, pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.

It is important to carefully observe how individual ELLs use both receptive and expressive language. Listed below are questions that may help teachers analyze ELL oral language use. Note that the first two items focus on receptive skills, though receptive and expressive oral language skills are often intertwined.

  • Does the ELL understand what is being said?
  • Does the ELL understand conversational as well as academic language?
  • Can others easily understand what the ELL says, or does pronunciation interfere with the ELL's communication?
  • Does the ELL speak at a natural pace or haltingly?
  • Does the ELL make many grammatical errors? What types of errors are made? Are these errors typical of a beginning language learner or of someone who is at a higher level of language acquisition?
  • What types of vocabulary words does the ELL use? Does the ELL use academic vocabulary appropriately? Is the vocabulary used appropriate to the message being conveyed?


Breiner-Sanders, K., Lowe, P, Miles, J., & Swendler, E. (1999). ACTFL proficiency guidelines: Speaking (Revised 1999). Foreign Language Annals, 33(1), 13-18. 

Cummins, J. (n.d.) BICS and CALPS.

Garcia, G. E. (2002). Oral English proficiency (Issues and questions). In Reading instruction of English language learners (chap. 2c).