4 Ways to Help ELLs Self-Assess Their Writing

As part of my TESOL MA program, I had to take a language testing class. One of the hardest tasks of the course was—believe it or not—working in a group with other graduate students to create a writing test. Some of the group members had been teaching writing for at least some time, and thus they had their own understanding of what “correct” writing prompts and rubrics should be. Honestly, our group had a really hard time finding a common ground on these issues.

When I started teaching writing in an intensive English program, one of the responsibilities of academic writing teachers was to prepare students for the TOEFL; therefore, once a week, I had my students compose 30-minute essays on a variety of prompts. Since I created my own prompts, I soon enough realized that in addition to the skill of designing effective grading criteria and rubrics, I needed to learn how to write clear prompts. Not uncommon were situations when I was reading a student paper thinking “Oh no, this is not what the prompt asked you to do!” Then I would go to the next paper only to find out that the author understood the prompt the exact same way as the first student!

Formal writing assignments, of course, are not the only tools that can be used to evaluate students’ composing progress as well as their achievement. In fact, Weigle (2007) mentioned various types of informal writing assessment, identified by Brown (2004), such as clarification checks, gathering responses from students, and observing students while they participate in peer review activities. These informal activities are no less important than formal assessment and thus, as Weigle (2007) rightly stated, they should “have a place in a teacher’s assessment toolbox” (p. 195).

In addition to the examples of informal assessment mentioned in Weigle’s (2007) article, throughout my teaching practice, I have implemented various types of self-assessment, such as dialogue journals, writing-to-learn activities, reflective journals, or learning logs.

1. Dialogue journals, for example, can be implemented as a classroom routine, when students regularly spend (not necessarily every class period) 5–10 minutes to write a journal entry addressed to the teacher on a topic of their choice. The teacher then responds to the student without correcting students’ grammatical errors or word-choice issues.

2. Writing-to-learn activities can be implemented as regular writing tasks to help students think deeper about concepts taught in a course; reflect on their learning processes, and strengths and weaknesses of their writing; and set goals for further improvement. These writing-to-learn activities can be used at any stage of the lesson (please read more about writing-to-learn activities in my earlier blog).

3. Reflective journals are another way of raising students’ awareness about their writing processes. As a teacher, you can either provide specific guidelines in terms of length and content of reflective journals, or you can give students more flexibility.

4. Learning logs can be another helpful type of self-assessment, which requires students to regularly document the time they spend on different writing activities, record the results or the outcomes of these activities, and reflect on and evaluate their achievement.

One of my favorite types of self-assessment is a reflective journal. In my writing classes, I like to implement reflective journals to provide students with the opportunity to think about and analyze their composing processes. For each draft that students write for the course, I give them a prompt to respond to and ask students to submit their responses within 24 hours after the submission of the draft. The prompts for the reflective journal are usually related to the material presented in class. For example, if one of my recent lessons was devoted to the use of cohesive devices, I could ask students to reflect on the effectiveness of transition words and phrases used in the draft they just turned in. Thus, in addition to growing as writers and developing reflective and analytical skills, students also have the opportunity to apply the material learned in class to their own writing. (For some reflective journal prompts, please read my earlier blog.)

To conclude, assessing student work does not always have to be done through formal evaluation techniques, such as exams and quizzes. By giving students the opportunity to reflect on their own learning processes, teachers can glean helpful information in terms of how effectively students are learning in the course, and what the instructor can do to help students achieve success in their learning.


Brown, H. (2004). Language assessment: Principles and classroom practices. White Plains, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

Weigle, S. C. (2007). Teaching writing teachers about assessment. Journal of Second Language Writing16(3), 194–209.


About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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One Response to 4 Ways to Help ELLs Self-Assess Their Writing

  1. Michael J. Edwards says:

    These are all great suggestions for assessing writing. I find it important to provide authentic models of writing in order to streamline the task when prompts are used, perhaps in other blog entries, articles etc. I think it assists learners in making more accurate associations in the discourse with regard to the author, reader, audience, and other interlocutors. I particularly like dialogue journals (either student-to-teacher or peer-to-peer) for that reason.

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