What You Need to Include in an ELL Needs Assessment

Congratulations! You made it through another school year. Enjoy your summer, but unless you’re retiring (in which case, congratulations again) it will be time to prepare for the new school year before you know it.

There will be some familiar faces at the end of summer as well as new students who you have little data about beyond their placement test scores or previous school records. Those can indicate the level of instruction for grouping purposes, but to really find out what students at the secondary level already know and need to learn, it helps to do a needs assessment early in the school year. That’s why I start each session with a few assessments, such as icebreaker games or short writings, to understand where students are starting from and to get an idea of what the most pressing needs may be so I can tailor the instruction to their needs.

After developing, changing, scrapping, and redeveloping those tests about a dozen times, I found some things to keep in mind before handing them to students.

1. Make sure the instructions are comprehensible and progressively challenging.

Those of us who teach multiple levels need to use our time efficiently, but I found this is one area where customization is important to learn the range of levels you have in a particular class. For example, it may help to have the first questions for the intermediate class be the hardest questions from the introductory class and the last questions the same as what students would see when they start the advanced class.

I learned this when I tried to use the VARK questionnaire to find out my students’ learning styles. Because the test was available in many languages, including Simple English, I assumed the students could share their results with me so I knew what types of activities they would enjoy. In practice, though, I learned some students couldn’t read in their first language well enough to answer the questions, while others lacked the digital literacy to print or copy their results to me. Since then, I’ve taken more care to be sure students can go through each step of the needs assessment process until it’s their level of proficiency that determines how far they can make it, not the actual test itself.

2. Do a previous education survey.

It’s common to find out what language the student hears at home via a home language survey, but what about the students’ previous educational history? Some of my students arrive from districts that don’t forward along their previous grades or even their WIDA scores, so it’s up to me to determine what the student did in previous ESOL classes. Don’t be afraid to ask what they studied, what books they used, what other languages they studied, and if their program was bilingual. This page from Colorín Colorado has some specific questions you may want to include.

3. Consider formal as well as informal language.

Even though you may not be the students’ first ESOL teacher, they’ll likely be nervous when they take a test so soon after enrolling. Thankfully, we have the opportunity to make small talk, ask open-ended questions, and possibly try a few wordplay jokes to see how well students can spontaneously answer and understand conversational English. Not only will this give you a better understanding of the students’ communicative skills, it can also alleviate the tension so the coming school year won’t seem like a foreboding future.

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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