Assessing Advanced English Learners

Hello colleagues, With the goal of supporting English learners--especially those who are advanced in English and are now at Adult Basic Education levels instead of ESL levels--  to transition to training programs, college or advancement in the workplace, I'm wondering what assessment tools programs are using and how the tools are supporting these important goals. For example,if programs are using TABE-CLAS-E, which was designed for adult English learners, or the regular TABE, which was not designed for language learners but has been approved for use with advanced English students, how are these tools working for you? If your program has used both the TABE and the TABE CLAS-E with language learners, it would be quite helpful to hear how you would compare the two assessment tools. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences.

Happy New Year, all!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Assessment CoP


 I have used both TABE- E and TABE with my advanced adult ESOL students. TABE- E is only a little advanced than Best Literacy. In my opinion, TABE-E is not a good assessment for those that are transitioning to college or preparing to take professional license exams. TABE-E is good for students that need or want better basic communication skills.

Yes, I have ben dealing with the normed/standardized for native and non native students for more than 10 years. It is technically true, but we have to take academic reality and immediate skill needs of our students instead of waiting until the time consuming norming and standardization process is complete. I am not commenting from a research background but from my class room experience. TABE level A has prepared all my college transitioning adult ESOL students  not only to do well in college classes, but also to test above the remedial classes scores in college placement tests. In  my opinion, it is a waste of time and money on the part  of adults to go through unnecessary classes or requirements.

We also cannot have a common across the board requirement as our adult ESOL students come from different countries and educational backgrounds. Each individual HS transcript and courses must be evaluated before advising the students about the best path for them to take. I have decided to do that for my students as they seldom get the correct help or advice from advisors in higher learning institutions. I have in my class both the  HS graduation requirements for my state, and  course requirements for basic, college prep and honors/AP track diplomas for the local HS. I compare each student's HS transcript against these and then suggest to them  the best options for them. I am only helping them have the information so they can ask the college advisors more productive and helpful questions.

We also have to take into account that a lot of  people have English as a foreign language background. They can't be lumped with students/ adults that do not have it. In my experience, adult ESL students with  EFL background tested higher than  native speakers in my GED class when using TABE. Non natives also have strong math and science background, so it is wrong to deny these people the  proper recognition of their skills. When I started working with adult ESOL students our local CC gave a 9th grade equivalency to all foreign HS diplomas. I thought it was wrong because the local university gave credits as same for all the incoming international students. Most ABLE  coordinators  advised all nonnative adults to get a GED which is 4 general subjects. Now things have changed a lot,which is good for  nonnative adults.

I am also curious about how TABE is working for ESOL students in other states.

Hello Anitha and all, Thank you, Anitha, for sharing your experience with using both TABE CLAS-E and regular TABE with advanced English learners. This information is extremely interesting and helpful. As you note, it is vital that learners not spend precious time taking classes that do not move them quickly toward their important goals. It's clear that you recognize the vastly different profiles,--especially educational background and prior training in English-- that adult English learners represent. The kind of guidance you are offering is critical to accelerating their progress.

It is not surprising, but nonetheless interesting, that you have evidence for successful transitions when English learners perform well on Level A of the regular TABE. What subtests are students taking -- Reading, Math, Language, Vocabulary? Would you be able to comment about learners who take lower level TABE tests and what is typically required to support their transition? What guides your decision about which test to give, TABE CLAS-E or regular TABE?

I'm hoping other members who have experience as well as questions about this issue will weigh in on our discussion. This kind of sharing is so very helpful.

Happy New Year, all!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL & Assessment CoPs

Yes , I have used  lower level TABE s also. What I see from my experience is that student who score at High intermediate or Advanced level scores on Best Literacy scored at the same level on TABE-E. I usually give TABE tests to students that have  expressed very specific goals of  gaining advanced English skills for either higher learning. professional license, or workplace skills tests. I give locator and use the scores to decide the TABE level. Almost all students have scores low in Language. In my opinion, it is because most are not sure of the writing rules for American English usage. Even though, working only on the lowest target area is what TABE tests recommend. it doesn't work well for non native speakers. I have students work on both reading and language arts. In my experience, reading helped students improve vocabulary, grammar and punctuation. With the availability of on line tools and resources, it is not difficult for our students to attempt different tasks instead of attempting only one at a time. I let students decide how they want to go about accomplishing their goals. Our on line component of the lessons are the biggest help for us to let students work on targeted lessons to move faster. I assign the lesson, monitor their work,  give clarification to their questions, and advice them about progress. Most students are very strong in Math and we only point out the terminology differences. Once the reading skills improved, most didn't have any problem with Math problems. We teach Math concepts to our students that have lived in the US for many years and have pretty strong oral communication skills, but little literacy skills. Most of the time we use real life story problems , that can serve both purposes; language skills and Math skills.

Hello Anitha, Thank you for adding more details about how you are supporting advanced English learners to achieve their transition goals. I'm curious about the online component you are using in your program.  Is this component added as homework or perhaps as an aspect of a flipped classroom? Is it completely individualized? Is the online resource you are using widely available? Thanks again for contributing to this important conversation.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL & Assessment CoPs

When determining which assessment to give, I think you have to take into account the goals of the student. If the primary goal is to learn more English, I would use CLAS E. If the goal is to work on specific content to help transition to college such as science, math, history, etc. I would use TABE. I would also think about the type of instruction that the student desires after they have been tested. If the student is working on English and wants to be part of a whole group instruction class that may look different than a student doing more independent work or computer based instruction.

Our Adult Education and Literacy Program has been using TABE CLAS E for over 2 years in our ESOL classes. We feel the assessment is a great tool for students who want to know where they are in their English skills and determine what they need to work on to improve. Our students are challenged to gain skills, not only in reading, but also in writing, speaking, and listening. The ability to test and progress in all four areas is critical for the students to become fluent.  Before we used CLAS E we used TABE reading and Language tests for the higher level ESOL students. Although the students showed progression after a substantial amount of time, we didn't feel the assessment always matched the instruction or captured all the skills the students were learning.

If the goal of a higher level student is to transition to college or work on more specific topics such as history, science or math I would use the TABE test so you could measure the skills in the area they will be working on. We use TABE for our higher level students who are in the High School Equivalency class. The reason is because we want the instruction to match the assessment. If they are working on science comprehension or math word problems we want to assess the students on those skills.

One handy feature of the CLAS E test is to give you a predicted TABE score. So, if the student starts in one class and transitions to a new class you have an idea of their skill level.

Hope this helps.   


Mary Bader

Adult Education & Literacy Director

Carthage, Missouri

Thank you, Mary! It sounds like you are pretty much affirming what Anitha posted about using TABE with advanced English learners who have academic goals. From what you write, it's clear that these two assessments serve different purposes and align with different instructional goals. It's interesting to learn that TABE CLAS-E provides predictive scores for TABE.

Since you also mention computer-based instruction, could you say a word about how that works in your program for advanced English learners?

Thanks again for your valuable contribution to this thread.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL & Assessment CoPs

Our program has been using CLAS E for over two years now with more than 2,000 ESL students. Most of our students are refugees and recent immigrants.   It is an improvement over using the CASAS test and is a much better diagnostic assessment because it assesses Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening.  We see an array of students from all over the world and on different levels.  We place them in 8 different levels of instruction and offer a HSE/GED course.  We ask that our ESL students be at an Intermediate level before they enter the HSE class. Anything below this level makes it hard form them to understand the academic content.  We have seen that the CLAS E is a good tool to transition to the TABE.  Very few of our students are able to reach that level of instruction, but the ones who have reached  that level transitioned well from CLAS E to TABE.  We do use CASAS Literacy test for our non-literate students because the CLAS E does not go that low.  


Deborah Briggs

Don Bosco School of English

Kansas City, MO 


Our program has been using CLAS E for over 1 year and we serve around 250 ESL students a year.  Like the Kansas City program above we have refugees and recent immigrants who want to learn English, but many want to understand our communities workforce system better.  Our program believes the TABE E is a much better assessment than the CASAS assessment we have used in the past.  We find great success with level one, two and three.  We struggle with students who are pre-literacy and do not fit any testing program with great success.  We have had a large number of these students in the past two years.  Making progress for progression has been extremely hard and many times we lose the student when they have to be assessed in so many areas.  I would love to see a literacy level assessment produced by TABE E.

Moving students to proficiency in order to enter certain workforce or college programs is a struggle with the students we currently serve.  We will continue to do our best.

Betty Wymore

St. Joseph Adult Education and Literacy

St. Joseph, MO

It is good to hear that the new TABE works well for Betty's program, but also dismaying to hear once again that the evaluation of the pre-non literate adult ELs remains a mystery and is also a problem for recording progress "for progression."  I sat in on a session at the National Families Learning Conference in Detroit in October in which research on best practices for  moving "the lowest skilled ELs" into career paths was supposedly being surveyed.  It turned out that "lowest skilled" referred only to ELs' English, not their literacy-- and in fact, the researchers ruefully pointed out exactly what Betty reports-- that the one program of the 12 or so surveyed in three major cities that even takes in pre-literate students was criticized by funders for doing so precisely because these learners could not be moved along at a pace that satisfied them (the funders).   

I have nothing to add to that except incredulity that after decades of having large numbers of non/preliterate students flooding into ESOL programs, there is not a better way of evaluating them (the irony is of course that pre-literacy should pretty much preclude any paper or 2-dimensional evaluation, but that is another topic....) and that there is still such an unrealistic-- and dare I say inhumane-- approach to moving them through programs so the effectiveness of the programs can be rated on scales that do not include the preliterate.   I say inhumane because SO MUCH in the way of fundamental skills and school skills are need by these learners that have nothing to do with the current testing tools.....  I have long maintained-- and some programs actually do this-- that the preliterate must be a separate population in an ESOL program and in no way included in the measurement and instructional standards of the literate.     It is only fair.....

Robin Lovrien 




Hello all, Thank you, Robin, for your passionate message. Those of us who work with this special group of English learners have longed for an appropriate assessment that would be suitable. It is still our mission to serve those with the greatest needs. It's clear that refugees and immigrants who have had limited opportunity for schooling are among that group.

What would such as assessment ideally look what? What literacy skills do members think should be targeted?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

This is an interesting discussion about evaluations and I have learned much about the different assessments offered by TABE.

In WA state, we are mandated to use CASAS assessments and they do not assess the type of learning that our students are experiencing, so it is frustrating.

I, too, am surprised that the pre/low literate students who make progress slowly aren't welcomed into our programs. Last year, we didn't take any pre/low literate students because of this reason. We were also doing flipped classroom work. It would have been impossible for a pre/low literate students to have participated and would have been a real hardship on the instructor who would be trying to help students with the technology while at the same time be teaching literacy skills to the pre/low literacy level students. This year, our school is not participating in any grants so we are free to accept pre/low literacy students as with the help of volunteers, we can serve them also. Now, I am sure that we will be running into the problem that the lowest level students may not be able to progress as set forth in our progression policy, and will have to sit out every third quarter.

We use the CASAS Literacy Assessments 27 and 28. They seem to let us assess the pre/low literacy students with accuracy. If you are familiar with these assessments, they are about survival skills and what a student may have learned in his/her home country or here in the USA. It's mainly recognitions of letters, signs, words, strategies the student may have to cope with in a society that is so text-based as ours. The assessment has a few "glitches" because it hasn't been revised since 1994. For example, the student is asked to recognize a telephone number. but the number used has only seven digits and now all our phone numbers have 10 digits. The assessment also considers a signature as a name written in cursive and not printed. Other than that, it assesses the literacy and survival skills the students possess. It has been useful for us.

Take care,


Judith Aguilar

ELA Program Coordinator

Centralia  College


I've found the same issue with projects... we want to help students -- but we need data that will say we were successful so let's just screen out the higher risk ones.

My favorite (eyeroll) is the plea to abandon remedial classes at college because embedding help into college level courses could be successful for as many as half of the students.   It may be speaking to innumeracy as well as elitism. 




Hi Susan and all--I am hoping Minnesota will chime in on this conversation--- and a few other places that apparently are doing good research on the pre/non-literate and have innovative ideas for instruction and evaluation. 

In the meantime, one thing I advocate for fiercely is evaluating and targeting pre-literacy skills, particularly phonological processing skills.  I cringed at a recent conference session when the presenter announced that the preliterate need pre-literacy skills such as knowing how to hold a pencil....this is a different category of skills:  the culture of school (which Feggy Ostrowski-Solis addressed eloquently in her research on non-literate persons).   You cannot even EVALUATE someone who does not know how books, paper,  and pencils -and SCHOOL  work....  

Meantime, as I say, I find it is possible and effective to evaluate the phonological processing skills-- what one Boston-area expert on language development calls the " lights out, eyes closed" skills of language-- that is, all the skills we learn BEFORE we encounter text.  These are the skills babies and toddlers MUST have to develop oral language skills and then which are gradually expanded to include the awareness of sounds and words needed to understand how written language relates to oral language --i.e..competent reading and writing.  ALL persons who are competent readers and writers in English have excellent levels of these skills, which include awareness of/sensitivity to sound chunks -- words in the speech stream, syllables, phonemes and other sounds with meaning; then phonological memory--which is the function used to hang on to and reproduce novel sounds.  Babies are constantly engaged in trying to establish archetypes of sound and build a "library" of sounds to which sounds and words are compared to eventually build speech (see the work of Virginia Kuhl at Washington on babies' acquisition of language and on adult foreign language acquisition)   It is this function that underlies learning idioms and grammatical phrases (babies, remember are NEVER taught grammar directly, but Chomsky reminds us that all 5  year olds are masters of the language of the speech community in which they function-- the grammar, vocabulary, idioms, and pronunciation-- all products of a high-functioning phonological memory.)   Phonological skills include identification of phonemes, especially first and last sounds-- and, in kindergarten and 1st grade children should be able to identify medial vowel sounds.  Also hearing and producing rhyme are also important skills.  The ultimate phonological skill is deletion--where you hear a word, are asked to remove a part of it and then say what is left -- e.g.  grasp-- without /p/ is grass.     Janet Lerner, one of the original gurus of learning disabilities and reading disabilities, maintained through her entire professional career that if a person could not readily hear and produce rhyme, that person would not be a really competent reader.  I have found this to be true in MANY cases, one in particular which I have written up-- a Jamaican woman who could not learn to read through the usual phonics instruction in a literacy class.   She was completely unable to hear or produce even the simplest rhyme:  cat-- bat, mat, sat,  etc.    After much work on this, she had a breakthrough and was able to rhyme more and more reliably-- and then she had a giant breakthrough in reading and within just a few months had worked her way through a Laubach book, reading fluently.   

Note that part of phonological memory is the ability to HEAR/perceive sounds accurately. One thing that has been well-recorded in research is that the phonological memory reduces in function as the person matures (this is part of the "window" which begins to close and reduce the ability of persons to learn foreign languages, a factor confirmed by Kuhl's research).  The ability to perceive sounds is impeded by the brain trying to match what it hears to existing sounds in the "sound library", says Kuhl; hence when a new sound does not match what is known,  there is difficulty remembering it and producing it accurately.   This skill is further impacted by normal reduction in hearing skill that happens in many older people, and in some younger people as well, especially those who might have been exposed to war sounds or who had illnesses affecting their eardrums (this is a direct plea for getting the hearing of adults checked...).  

So-- I evaluate these skills in EL's using a tool I have adapted from versions used for English speaking children.  As ANY ESL teacher knows, one of the greatest areas of weakness for most Els is hearing all the words in a sentence and repeating them correctly, two skills evaluated on my tool.   Syllable counting, phoneme counting and rhyming are also evaluated.     My tool is not standardized, but, as I say, it is based on existing tools used for English speakers.  And I have also developed a wide range of games and activities to target phonological skills. 

Research on non/preliterate has repeatedly shown that they have phonological skills of about 3 year olds-- so it astonishes me that literacy programs for these students start off with an assumption of phonological skills that a 5 or 6 year old in our culture would have-- which would be after several years of direct instruction in all aspects of phonological skills.   Not only that, but because English is so complex phonologically-- with so little regularity in sound-symbol association-- phonological awareness has to continue throughout schooling-- we have to learn, for example, how to pronounce all the Greek based words, all the French words that we throw in  and so on, as we continue to be educated.  This is in contrast to children in languages with far more regular writing systems, who have fully developed phonological skills by the end of the first year of school ( a huge meta study was done in Europe on this topic a few years ago and reported that fact; English is the slowest to develop -- up to 9 old years for basic mastery, while in languages like Finnish and Italian, phonological awareness develops very quickly-- by age 7 at the latest.)  ( PLEASE note that we are NOT talking about PHONICS here-- rather the skills that are necessary for phonics to happen).   

Imagine how difficult it is, then for a person who has no idea of literacy /text and has not had meaningful experience with school-based behaviors and skills who is then faced with text right off and expected to make sense of the many activities we do in our classrooms around text.  This, again, is why I so strongly advocate that the non-literate be instructed separately as much as possible until they have basic literacy under their belts.  

Those interested in more information on evaluation of phonological skills in ELs can contact me off-list, and can visit my blog at, where I write about these and other adult ESOL issues.   Many of you know that I teach about using games and activities to manage adult ESOL classrooms.  I use some of these same games for teaching and evaluating the non-literate, too. There is more about that at the blog, too. 

In any case, it is one way to evaluate the pre-literate for pre-literacy skills-- other areas of evaluation should include visual perceptual skills ( lots of research showing this group does not perceive 2-dimensional information the way literate persons do), and an inventory of learners' school-based skills so these can be directly taught if necessary.   

Sorry for the long post, but these are topics I have long been passionate about--- 

Robin Lovrien  

Hello Susan, Robin and all, thank you for focusing on this part of our adult ELL population. I have been teaching nonliterate and very low literate adult ELLs in North Carolina since 2009. Our community college uses Best Plus, which is a speaking/listening assessment, for placement and to measure level gains. We also use various literacy assessments to guide placement in classes, including the Ventures pre test and other assessments teachers have devised. Many non and low literate students are able to show level gains on the Best Plus. What tends to happen over time is that students' Best Plus scores rise to an intermediate or even high intermediate level but their literacy skills keep them in Beginning Literacy (our lowest level) or Level 1 (low beginning). I agree that there is a strong need for a fair literacy assessment for these students that would give teachers good information to guide instruction. The CASAS test sounds very promising!

As far as instruction goes, this is what has worked in my classes. In my beginning literacy class, we use several literacy resources alongside the Basic OPD, Ventures, and other beginner texts. When I started in 2009, I couldn't find published literacy materials for ESL adults that were low enough, so I wrote a beginning literacy curriculum for my students: At the River and Other Stories for Adult Emergent Readers (Wayzgoose Press, 2016). It starts with small groups of letters and sounds (short vowels and single consonants) and CVC words with those letters and sounds. Students build up gradually to reading simple stories with decodable words and common sight words. After students have been successful with this material, they are able to use Sam and Pat 1 and/or Talk of the Block (short vowel series). These decodable readers start at the sentence level, a notch higher than At the River. When students show mastery with these materials, they are typically able to move up to our Level 1 class. Still, it is challenging for nonliterate and low literate students to keep up with their literate classmates who had the benefit of formal education in their L1.

As a teacher trainer, I’ve had many opportunities to work with instructors at my college and across the state. Many instructors are seeing the need for early literacy skills, and are working hard to provide appropriate and effective instruction. We’ve made a lot of progress in this area, but I’m sure there is more we can learn and do in terms of assessment and instruction.

Dr. Robin, I’d love to see your tool for evaluating phonological skills. Where can I find it?

Thanks again for this discussion.

Shelley Lee









HI Shelley-- I can send you the assessment and information about it if you contact me at       As I mentioned, it is being developed into a whole package of materials that includes videos on how to administer it and demonstrations of activities that can be used to target and strengthen the phonological skills.   

Your materials sound wonderful-- it is such a challenge to know what is going to work best for this group of learners.   While I welcome efforts at developing tools for evaluation, I cringe at trying to standardize anything, given the range of learners, the range of their educational and linguistic backgrounds and so much more.  I am a very firm believer and practitioner of highly individualized instruction-- and of whatever works for this learner is what is going to happen.   In fact, I get quite exercised at materials that purport to be the end-all be-all of instruction for ALL learners of English..... I am sure you have seen them and heard the pitches from the publishers.......  I am going to COABE in April, and am looking forward to seeing what the newest claims are for materials for the non-literate.  I am always  taken aback by those publishing print materials for those who don't read print.....

I wish there was a way to usefully compile the great range of things that HAVE been developed and methods that work-- it is so haphazard right now...  I have worked with teachers all over the north American continent, like yourself, who have developed really excellent things for their programs.    Once upon a time I was attempting to do that, but I did not land on a useful way to do it.  

Any thoughts on that ??? 

Robin Lovrien (Schwarz)  

Robin and others here have noted the great difficulty assessing low and preliterate learners.  A major obstacle has been the lack of published and standardized tests for this group of leaners.  My experience in this area has been through my work on accountability (NRS) for OCTAE as well as research evaluating instruction of low-literate EL learners. For accountability, the lack of tests has meant that these learners are assessed only on oral language (for example with BEST Plus) or through CASAS and TABE CLASE or BEST Literacy tests. These tests often meet accountability requirement but are not very good for understanding and assessing underlying literacy skills--information needed to guide instruction and to understand learning..  For instruction and research, we have relied on tests on children's tests of basic literacy (e.g., word attack, phonics) and vocabulary, as Robin discusses in her post, which have proved useful, though limited. They often do not capture what learners really know.  My colleague Heide Wrigley developed a reading demonstration years ago ( that we found useful to understanding learner's literacy, including native language literacy but administration of  this test is very time intensive.  I know that CASAS was developing a test for low literate learners though I do no know hat came of that effort. Similar approach to assessment used for research are reported in the conference proceedings of the international organization LESLLA Until there are formal tests developed for this learner group (if ever there are)  assessing low literate ELS requires creative approaches drawing from multiple sources.

Thank you for that great summary, Larry!  I echo all of your comments/suggestions, and I agree that Heide's literacy demonstration is excellent.

I'll just add one additional resource here - an assessment that is focused on alphabetics skills that we developed here in Minnesota.  It doesn't focus on other aspects of reading, but if a teacher is trying to figure out what phonics/phonemic awareness skills a student has, this can be quite useful!  My colleague Marn Frank and a handful of teachers, particularly Kristin Perry, put together the BATT - Basic Alphabetics Tests & Tools.  It can be dowloaded here for free:

Here is a description:

BATT strives to provide a ‘principled’ system for ABE/ESL teachers wanting to develop their students’ knowledge of Roman alphabet letters, English letter-sound patterns, sight or high frequency words, and transfer of those letter-sound-word skills to text fluency and comprehension. This 71-page resource includes: (1) teacher-friendly tests for determining known and unknown skills, (2) evidence-based reading instructional practices, orders, approaches, and five lesson plans* for teaching unknown skills, (3) teacher-tested lists of other activities and materials, and (4) time-saving teacher resources. 
*Aligned with four Reading Standards: Foundational Skills (K–5) from the Minnesota Academic Standards (MDE, 2010) and Career and College Readiness Standards for Adult Education (OCTAE, 2013).



Patsy Egan

ATLAS Director


HI Patsy-- thank you so much for sharing this wonderful resource with us.  It is just you and you colleagues from MN I was hoping we would hear from on this list, since you all have such deep experiences working with the non-literate.  Are there other resources you could direct me and others to to help in learning best teaching practices, etc.?  

One thing I do not see referenced here in any way-- though the CASAS test may touch on it-- is measuring how well the non-literate see and interpret 2-dimensional materials.  I am sure you are aware of earlier and more recent research showing that this is a real issue with many. A teacher from East Africa was on the Pro-Literacy in November discussion list asking about what to do with her non-literate student who rotated drawings and letters when trying to copy them, etc.   This issue comes up over and over.  I have had personal experience with non-literate or extremely low literate students totally misinterpreting pictures and drawings, and being very confused by visual information on pages.   

Does anyone know of any reliable test for that?  When I was learning to be a tutor for persons with a variety of reading difficulties many decades ago, there was a test of visual motor skills and visual perception that was extremely useful in anticipating problems in  reading text.   I will look it up and run it past this group to see if anyone knows if it is still in use.  It was just these kinds of issues that I sought wisdom about from persons who worked with students with other disabilities-- visual processing, visual perception, visual-motor skills etc. It seemed very important to me from the beginning of my work on issues that looked like LD in the English learner population to consult experts in other fields of learning to help understand some of the issues I was seeing.   Speech pathologists, OT's, PTs, and many other kinds of specialists have informed a great deal of what I do with hands-on materials and "learning centers" in the ESL/ESOL classroom and for individual instruction.    I would love to hear from others who have had wisdom and input from specialists in other fields.  It was the neuropsychologists who were puzzled about non-literate persons not scoring "normally" on tests of intelligence and perception who pioneered much of the really good research on the non-literate.  I cited Feggy Ostrowski-Solis the other day.  There are others who did research in Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela, as well as those in Europe-- the Dutch and the Finns and others--who have helped us understand more about this interesting and challenging group of learners.  Many of these references are in the paper Martha Bigelow and I co -authored on the non-print-literate adults in 2010.  

When you teach your courses on this topic, who do you direct your students to to help them learn about the research?

Robin Lovrien (Schwarz) 


Hello Robin and all, Thanks to everyone for contributing to this important discussion. Robin mentioned the paper she co-wrote with Martha Bigelow, which is in the LINCS collection. For anyone interested in this issue, this article makes a valuable contribution. It is well worth reading.

Bigelow, M. & Schwarz, R. L. (2010). Adult English language learners with limited literacy. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Assessment & AELL CoPs

Hello again,

While I've not done the research myself on visual literacy, I can direct folks to this article written by my colleague Dan Bruski about his research on the topic:

More recently, Jenna Altherr Flores in Arizona has been researching this topic and presented on it at the LESLLA Symposium in 2016. Her presentation was entitled Social Semiotics and Multimodal Assessment in the Resettled Refugee ESL Classroom.  I'll message her to see if she's following this conversation.

And I haven't seen this great set of blog posts from Rai Farrelly mentioned yet, all about teaching low-literacy adults.  They are at the TESOL blog:, and . Definitely worth reading!


Patsy Egan

ATLAS Director

St. Paul, Minnesota


I’m glad to see the topic of assessing low/preliterate ELs in this discussion group. I’d like to give a brief update on what CASAS has done, and is currently working on, in this arena. The CASAS Beginning Literacy Assessments (Forms 27 and 28) are NRS-approved and target low literate ABE and EL learners. They were originally available only in a consumable paper test booklet but can now be administered online, including with tablets through CASAS eTests. This means that learners can easily take them using a touch screen.

CASAS conducted research and developed a “touch screen” low literacy assessment from 2008 - 2011 with support from the state of Florida. Through extensive tryouts and field testing, we found that low literate learners were eager to take a computer-delivered test, and that the touch screen enabled them to interact directly with the test items, without an intervening answer sheet that is too challenging for them to negotiate. Test items use color photos and audio in two item types for Reading: Listen and Touch which contain items assessing phonological awareness, and Read and Touch (with no audio). There is also an item type that measures listening using color graphics and audio, focusing on very basic vocabulary and comprehension. A detailed curriculum at three levels of low literacy, as well as native language and English language screenings delivered electronically were also part of this project.

Six years ago, the ability to deliver this test using touch screens was limited and expensive. Now, with the advent of tablets and html5 programming, CASAS has recently begun work to re-field-test these low literacy assessments and carry out the necessary preparation and research to make the native language screening and the assessments available to the field on tablets and computers.

We thank the many programs serving low literate ELLs that participated in the initial tryouts and field testing of these assessments. We now welcome all programs serving low literate ELLs to participate in the current round of field testing and test-related research. Please contact me if your program is interested.

Linda Taylor, CASAS
800-255-1036, ext. 186

Linda, Thank you so much updating us all on the state of the CASAS evaluation that was to be administered on a touch-screen computers.  I am delighted to hear the software will be updated so that it can be used on tablets etc.   It will make things so much easier for a LOT of people.!!   Keep up posted on the progress of the re-field testing......

Robin Lovrien (Schwarz) 



Thank you Larry and Patsy for referencing the Reading Demonstration as an alternative assessment. 

Here's a bit of information on the principles behind this type of performance assessment. We wanted an assessment that invited  adults to show what they could do with print in a way that allowed them to showcase their strengths. We selected a number of authentic print materials that students would be likely to encounter in their daily lives (bills, grocery flyers, product packaging, a map) and asked them which items they recognized (answering the question What is this?) We invited learners to show us the words they recognized and answer questions like  How much are the bananas this week.  We included a simple little story and asked students to read it with us. We also included a short section in the native language to see how well the student might be able to read aloud (in Bessima's case we could see right away that she could read but did so haltingly and she stumbled quite a bit indicating that perhaps she only had a fews years of schooling the home country and didn't quite have the phonological processing skills we could build on helping her to read in English.

As you can see in the video, Bessima (one of the students from  a class I had worked with in Chicago) is a whiz at finding information on a grocery flyer and recognizes both a phone bill and a McDonald French Fries bag, telling us that she is managing to negotiate environmental print quite well  ( she later explained that she takes the grand children for fast food).

This type of alternative assessment is by no means scientific but it certainly tells us what a students can do and where gaps might be. In addition, as Larry points out, because it is a one-on-one assessment, it is time consuming to administer. But I think variations could easily be used in intake interviews or on the first few days of class in an ESL literacy class where you are trying to find out who has basic literacy skills and who cannot deal with print in any language. 

I am still surprised (ok appalled) that so many programs rely on standardized English placement tests that fail to distinguish between students who scored low in English because they (1) simply cannot read and those (2) who scored low because they don't know enough English yet to read in English (but are otherwise literate).  

Much to talk about. I am thrilled of course by all the resources that Patsy and others have listed (including reference the work of www. with its major focus on low literate adults learning the language of their new country. It's great to see the field move forward adding both depths and breadth to our knowledge.

If those of you, who wpi;d like to read more about other forms of alternative assessments that focus on what students know and what matters to them, I'm attaching a link to a chapter I wrote several years ago for a book called Adult Biliteracy: Sociocultural and Programmatic Responses, edited by my friends Klaudia M Rivera and Ana Huerta-Macias. 

Here is the draft chapter:

thanks for listening 





Hello Heide and colleagues, Thank you, Heide, for providing us with some details about the demonstration video you created for assessing print literacy skills. I wanted to provide another direct link to this video for our members. If you have not yet viewed this video, you will want to do so.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to this vital discussion. I'm sure there is much more to say, so keep your questions and comments coming!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

Hello all and thanks Susan for referring others to the YouTube version of the Reading Demonstration - so much easier to watch it in chunks. I the meantime, I also wanted to mention a article I wrote last year for the Dyslexia Association (of all places), discussing some of the challenges that low literate adults face.

Just another resource with a few comments about assessment (and I realize I'm starting to sound like a broken record)



Hello colleagues, I hope everyone will read this important paper, "New to Literacy: Challenges Facing Immigrants with Minimal Prior Schooling" that Heide Wrigley references above. I had not seen this article before. Among other issues highlighted in this paper, Heide discusses some of the policy changes in Germany related to supporting adult immigrants to acquire print literacy. As Heide notes, the need to train teachers in how to teach print literacy is a key concern. Heide argues that learners with limited formal schooling should be placed in classes where print literacy is addressed explicitly. Many of us know that trying to address print literacy in classes made up of learners with mixed educational backgrounds--some with high school and college degrees and others with no or minimal formal school-- is extremely difficult.

Please share your thoughts on this informative article and any questions that arise for you as well as your insights for moving forward to address the needs of adult learners who want to learn to read and write.

Thank you, Heide, for your invaluable work!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

Hi, Susan and all. I'm wondering if we wanted to bring the discussion back to assessing higher skilled immigrants and refugees still learning English. I just had an interesting discussion with the folks of Upwardly Global who have a new partnership with Education First. I don't have details yet, but apparently Education First offers an online assessment to determine if learners are ready for training (I'm not sure what level training). Apparently, there is also an online curriculum that accompanies the assessment. I don't have any details yet but will share details this week. 

I know all about Work Keys but I'm wondering if others have found other assessments specifically geared toward second language speakers that set thresh hold levels for readiness for careers and career pathways

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