Ongoing Assessment Question 5

5. How can ELL writing be assessed in the classroom? Teachers in the current educational climate are striving to prepare their students for high stakes testing that often requires the students to produce a writing sample. Assessing ELL writing can be especially difficult, however (McKeon, 1992). ELL writers will certainly make more grammatical errors than their native English-speaking counterparts, who have already acquired the structural features of oral English. ELLs may also come from cultures that have different styles of expression, and this may impact their writing.

The holistic approach to evaluating student writing samples yields a single overall score for the written work. This approach is problematic for ELLs, because raters can assign too much weight to grammatical forms and conventions that take years for ELLs to master. This approach also does not provide learners with the detailed feedback they need to improve their English writing skills, nor does it take into account that different ELLs can be at the same grade level, but in varying stages of learning English. It should be noted that educators in New York State have put together a set of holistic rubrics specifically designed for students at different levels of English language acquisition.

The more analytical approach to evaluating writing samples requires evaluators to identify different traits of the written work and to assign a score to each trait. This method is time consuming, but thought to be more useful to students and teachers alike. Some of the most widely used traits for analyzing written work are those developed by the Northwest Regional Educational Lab (NWREL) in their "6 + 1" formula. The traits are: ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions, and presentation. These traits help teachers identify for their students the different aspects of their writing that need to be improved. Definitions of the traits may be viewed on NWREL's Web site at

Not all rubrics are appropriate for every classroom. A teacher, or a group of teachers, may wish to develop their own rubric for assessing their students' writing. Mansoor and Grant (2002) worked with teachers to create rubrics for their group of English language learners. The process of creating rubrics can itself help teachers tailor their instruction to meet the unique needs of their ELLs.

Writing Prompts for ELLs. Writing samples used for assessment purposes are usually written in response to prompts in the form of an assigned topic, a picture to describe, a question to answer, or a statement with which to agree or disagree. Writing prompts for ELLs should include clear directions and should describe the context or situation to be written about. They need to be carefully construed to take into account cultural and linguistic factors. Prompts should be based on the cultural knowledge the students possess as well as the information they have learned as part of their academic studies. Although it is impossible to have culture-free prompts, teachers should strive for prompts that allow learners to draw upon their cultural heritage. Similarly, teachers should try to avoid prompts in which students are expected to learn about the new culture.

The following prompt could be very confusing for ELLs: "Do you plan to go to the Thanksgiving sales at the Mall? Why or why not?"

Although the students may know about the shopping mall, about Thanksgiving, and about sales in general, they may not understand the broader concept of Thanksgiving sales. A more appropriate prompt could be: "We do not have any school on Thursday and Friday because of Thanksgiving. What do you plan to do? What would you like to do?"

In addition, the instructions should be written using clear and straightforward language. It is challenging enough for an ELL to learn how to write in a foreign language without having to struggle with the instructions and prompts for a written assignment. Following is a good example of clear instructions: "During the last month we have learned about three presidents. We learned about President Kennedy, President Carter and President Clinton. Pretend that you could meet one of these three presidents and talk to him. Write about the president whom you would choose to meet and talk to. Explain why this president would be your choice."

Making General Comments on Student Writing. ELLs benefit most from concrete feedback about their writing. When Lyons and Bolton (1999) conducted a wide-scale assessment of ESL writing, they found that two types of comment were especially useful: praise and suggestions for improvement. Both types of comment should be clear and straightforward.

Analytic writing traits, such as those previously mentioned, help teachers focus their comments and feedback. For example, a comment on word choice might be: "I like the way you used the words wavy and dark to describe Melinda's hair. It helped give me a picture of Melinda."

Suggestions for improvement should be specific as well and can also be based on the analytic writing traits. A comment relating to sentence fluency could be: "All of your sentences were very short. I felt like I was on a bus that kept starting and stopping. Let's combine some sentences to have a smoother ride."

Commenting on Language Usage. One of the biggest challenges facing teachers working with ELLs on their writing is language use. Since ELLs tend to make more grammar errors than their native-English speaking counterparts, it is sometimes difficult to determine if all of an ELL's errors should be corrected or just some of them. Some errors are common to ELLs; others are common to anyone using English, such as incorrect use of subject (I, he) and object (me, him) pronouns or subject verb agreement. A course in second-language acquisition can help classroom teachers determine which errors are more common among second-language writers. If a course is not available, the teacher may wish to work with an ESL teacher or bilingual education specialist to determine which errors are worth focusing on. Teachers can also give their students editing checklists highlighting the types of errors they will be corrected on. Such checklists could be compiled with assistance from an ESL teacher and/or bilingual education specialist.


Lyons, C., & Bolton, S. (1999, Summer). Using rater comments in large-scale writing assessment. MidTESOL Matters.

Mansoor, I., & Grant, S. (2002). A writing rubric to assess ESL student performance.

McKeon, D. (1992). Holistic writing assessment for LEP students. Proceedings of the Second National Research Symposium on Limited English Proficient Student Issues: Focus on Evaluation and Measurement. Washington, DC: OBEMLA.