Innovative Approaches to Teaching and Assessing English Language Learners

Guillermo Solano-Flores, Professor of Education, Stanford University

Guillermo Solano-Flores

Addressing EL Linguistic Heterogeneity. The performance of English language learners (ELs; students who are still developing English as a second language) on tests in English and in their first language is inconsistent across languages and across test items. This instability is due to the fact that every EL student has a unique combination of strengths in each language that is not possible to capture based on tests of English proficiency.  In addition, each item poses a unique set of linguistic challenges. One implication of this heterogeneity is that blanket testing approaches (providing the same form of accommodation to all EL students) are very limited in their effectiveness to promote fair, valid testing for these students.

Design of illustrations as Testing Accommodations for ELs. Illustrations (visual representations of textual components) accompanying test items, constitute a promising form of accommodation for ELs in large-scale assessment. We have evidence that, in interpreting the content of test items, EL students use the content of illustrations to make sense of the text of items and they also use the text of the items to make sense of illustrations. This evidence provides the key to developing test items that are more accessible for ELs. However, to provide the intended support and minimize the visual complexity and cognitive demands of items, illustrations need to be carefully developed—which is costly and time consuming.

The importance of Social Interaction for EL Science Learning. Teacher-student social interaction is critical to promoting science learning among ELs. Unfortunately, teachers tend to spend most of their time interacting with the whole class, with limited social interaction with individuals or small groups of students. This limits the opportunities for teachers to understand ELs’ needs, support their language development through content learning, and integrate them socially into the classroom.

Conclusions. Lessons learned from my NSF-funded work indicate that effective teaching and assessment of English language learners largely depends on: 1) the ability of school and assessment systems to address students’ individual needs; 2) the commitment to allocate sufficient time and resources for the development of accommodations and resources accessible to ELs; and 3) the ability of educators to socially integrate ELs into their classrooms.