Online Course: Formative Assessment to Inform Quality Adult ESL Instruction

Use this discussion thread to post your response to the question below from the ELL-U online course, Formative Assessment to Inform Quality Adult ESL Instruction. Please share your comments and feedback on the course.

  • What is one important thing you are taking away from this online course? What do you hope to implement in your classroom?


Performance Learning Goal:  Calling in sick to work

Assessment Goal #2: Ss can apply learned language and content outside the classroom

Student language proficiency level: Low literacy/Beginning

Learning objective: Ss will learn vocabulary related to illness (fever, headache, backache, vomiting), as well as how to call in sick to work

Desired result: Ss can effectively communicate work absence due to illness

Need evidence that: Ss understand illness vocabulary, and have language for a simple phone conversation (greeting, identifying self, stating reason for absence, stating return to work date).

Formative assessment tasks:

Show Ss pictures of people with five common illnesses—headache, backache, stomachache, fever, and vomiting. T uses TPR to demonstrate what illnesses are. To assess comprehension, T acts out illness and Ss put a chip on the appropriate picture. Ss take turns acting out illness, while class puts chip on matching illness pictures. T walks around to check accuracy. Check for understanding before modeling “I have a (headache).”  

Talk about calling in sick to work. T role plays both sides of conversation of worker calling in sick to work place. Worker: Hello, this is Maria. I have a fever and can’t come to work today. I’ll be back tomorrow. Boss: I’m sorry you’re sick. I hope you feel better. Worker: Thank you. See you tomorrow.

Ss practice in pairs role playing: S1 calls in with a headache; S2 is Boss. Then Ss switch roles and illnesses.

T circulates to monitor progress. T asks for volunteer pairs to role-play in front of class. T verifies comprehension by asking questions: Did S1 have a backache? No, fever. Did S2 have a headache? Yes.

Criteria for evaluation: Ss can effectively call in sick to work. T and Ss can understand the reason for work absence. 

I enjoyed this course and gained a lot of knowledge on how to use formative assessment in the classroom. Building assessment into the class as you go, as well as at the end of a unit helps the teacher adjust to learners' needs on the spot, and help to formulate a more tailored lesson plan for the next class. Identifying goals and working backward by building in assessments throughout helps both the teacher and learners gauge how well the content has been mastered. Learners can see their own progress, gain confidence, and feel motivated to continue coming to class. 

I have used many of these assessments but have unfortunately not been diligent about recording them formally. I do jot down notes for myself about what the students have been able to accomplish but need to be more disciplined as a teacher in doing this .I use picture stories and sentence strips too, along with retelling and inferring at the higher levels. Something I have yet to do but now in going through this course would like to do in the future is dialogue journals. This is a great way to have students write freely and have the teacher not only see what needs to be worked on more but also to give insight into the students' lives.

I need to improve upon the writing feedback portion. I must admit I have been a product-oriented person, and I realize now how important it is to be process-oriented. I have to blame it on my major, which was journalism, but now I'm not in the role of editor but rather a guide in this aspect of teaching/evaluating. The red pen has got to be retired!

I have asked students what they would like to learn (i.e. which skills were most applicable to them) and then based planning off of that. I have also asked students where they speak English most often or why they need English. I attempted to do an "exit ticket" several times, and I either forget to do it or students were not enthused. I probably should have used some external motivation to tell them they couldn't leave until finished.

However, the scope of this class is beyond me. This is an area I need to improve on. I know in particular that we don't do a lot of authentic writing in our class--just note-taking. Reviewing vocabulary words sounds nice too. Additionally, I like how she chose to only focus on one or two students each day in particular. That makes the load of teaching much easier. 



Performance Goal:

Given visuals of house/apartment in disrepair, report problem, and request repairs.

Students will be given the visuals of house/apartment in disrepair. Each form will be the same, except each student will get partial information for each vocabulary word discussed in this unit. Students will need to interview each other to get the information they need using phrases like, “What do you call this in English?” “Can you say that again?” “How do you spell that in English?”

Each student should completely fill out the chart and be able to pronounce all the words when the teacher comes to check their work. No formal grading required—just checking to see if students have completed the worksheet.

The second formative assessment is that students will be given a different picture sequence stories with thought bubbles to fill in. The teacher will model some example phrases one can use in calling for repairs. (e.g. My ________ is broken.) Each student will get different pictures of the items in disrepair from the original activity. More advanced students will be given all blank bubbles.

Teacher will go around and help students modify their writing if necessary. Then students will pair up and read the dialogue with a partner. They will take turns reading each other’s dialogue. Again, no formal grading here but monitoring comprehension, clarity, and communicability is the task of the teacher.

Nicole Bowman

I think I tend to use all three correction styles depending on the situation. If a student who does not speak up very often is participating more, I hope, I think, that I would be likelier to use implicit correction such as recasting the student's sentence. If I am looking for a student to communicate with more fluency and I am afraid that explicit correction will cause the student to be less likely to participate in class, I will also use implicit correction.

For explicit correction, I probably would remind the student explicitly if I have already taught the concept, just to bring the student's attention to the fact that they have used the form incorrectly. If the student cannot remember why the form is correct or if I am seeing a mistake being made consistently across the classroom, I will go into a metacognitive correction, which I think is very helpful for the Adult ESL classroom.


Nicole Bowman

At beginning levels of ESL, I am going to look for content familiarity both to build on and supplement. I would also look to see, at all levels, whether or not the student has strategies to repair communication when misunderstandings have come about.

As for language complexity, I am going to look to see if students can use full sentences when necessary or if they avoid using long sentences or have mixed up word orders. I really simply want the bare idea to be able to be expressed at that level, and at the advanced level I want to see complexity of verb tenses, adjectival and adverbial phrasing, independent and dependent clauses. I want to see what a student is comfortable with. What mistakes they commonly make. If they avoid using a certain form because they aren’t comfortable with it.

At a beginning level, I want to look for how easily I understand him or her. For example, I have a more “advanced” student in some ways, but she is very difficult to understand when she tries to form sentences because of her pronunciation and word order. At the advanced level, I probably want a student to be able give a circumlocution in order to explain her thoughts if its not clear. Basically, at the advanced level, I want students to be comfortable in almost any topic.  


Nicole Bowman

I have used some informal formative assessment such as having students give me feedback on whether or not they liked an activity. I have also been pretty successful in monitoring and respecting to the feedback loop while in class. However, I think I could definitely do a better job of doing a needs assessment to ensure that my planning was authentic to the needs of my students. Additionally, I believe I could do a  better job of creating more interactive tasks in the future.


Nicole Bowman, signing out.

I think this training session painted a really clear picture of how assessing my students more regularly can increase the quality of my lessons. I loved the idea of a "needs questionnaire" at the beginning of the session, and I also loved the idea of performing informal assessments on one or two students each and every day. I am anxious to get back in my classroom with this knowledge.

Informal assessments (also called authentic or alternative) allow teachers to track the ongoing progress of their students regularly and often. While standardized tests measure students at a particular point in the year, ongoing assessments provide continual snapshots of where students are throughout the school year.

The methods of formative assessment outlined in this course have given me some great resources for developing learning goals that plug into a health and nutrition unit I am currently designing. 



I really enjoyed learning about ways to provide feedback to students. I hope to incorporate these into my lessons. I also appreciate some of the ideas for activities, like Hot Spot. I will definitely be using these in my classes. 

To use formative assessment when teaching directions on a map, I would first show them a simple map and review the directions of east, west, north and south. I would then ask the class where a few locations are on the map. Then we would review cross streets and what that means. I would give a couple examples on the map and then ask students to give me some more examples. Then I would point out two locations and ask how students would get from one location to another.

I feel as if I am already doing well at getting feedback from my students as to whether or not they're understanding the lesson and class directions. One thing that I am missing is long term objectives and having students reflect on their work and progress.

Hi Mary, It's great to hear that you are doing well at providing feedback to learners. Finding ways to explore long term objectives with learners is a more challenging task --as is ongoing reflection on progress toward those longer term goals. It's great that you understand that setting time aside to do so is important.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

1.  First, select a performance learning goal:  1.4.1 Identify different kinds of housing, areas of the home, and common household items 

2.  Design two assessment activities, identify specific tasks, and determine how you will measure success:  a.  Using a cardboard boxes and magazine pics, students create and label models of types of homes and their areas.  Success will be measured by students' use of vocab in writing labels and pics  b.  Students will present their projects to class, and success will be measured in their spoken use of vocab in telling labels.

I like that Liz asked students to choose the topics for their learning in class. In the past, I have used the student's test results to develop lesson plans on any theme I thought suitable. Liz took into account her students interests in the topics that they are most interested in right from the start. This can boost students interest and their class participation, I will do this at the start of a new class in 2018.

Generally, when I'm working with students, I need to get to know them before I begin correcting errors they make when speaking.

One aspect of errors when speaking is the affective response - that is, students may implicitly or explicitly shy away from contributing if they are anxious about their productive abilities. To avoid this, what I do is wait until everyone has spoken (or everyone has read - sometimes we do read alouds for fluency checks), and then I'll address an error that I detected to the whole class. Never in a way to shame a student, but always as a celebration - a chance for all of us to improve our pronunciation or knowledge of correct form.

Given the three areas of oral language proficiency, what might the instructor look for and provide feedback for students at the beginning levels of ESL? Advanced levels of ESL?

For both levels, it is necessary to be aware of the degree that the comprehend what they are listening to. I have found this to be more complicated than it seems with my intermediate students. I've found that, for instance, after giving them oral instructions about completing a task, they may not understand what they need to do, or they may have missed key components of the instructions. The best feedback is actually what they give me - I try to remind them at the beginning of each class - if I am speaking too quickly, they can signal to me to slow down. In student-centered activities, it is easier for me to see if the students understand what they are saying to each other, as I circulate and observe groups working.

Regarding language complexity, in spoken and written texts that they have produced, I certainly pay attention to the following aspects (for my intermediate students):

  1. Detail and elaboration they provide
  2. How precise their vocabulary is - many of my students are Spanish speakers. I pay close attention to see if they are using cognates appropriately, or if they are using false cognates to try to convey the sense that the word in Spanish is used for. I try to be mindful of appropriation (putting words in their mouths), but I also try to provide them with general vocabulary that I think they can retain and transfer to other contexts.
  3. Sentence structure - I generally look for syntax and word order. I pay more attention to this than to correct verb form (which is also important, but can be treated in a pop-up type grammar lesson when there is enough student interest. Explicit grammar instruction is generally fun for the instructor and maybe one other student.)
  4. How coherently their thoughts are organized (this may be a bit subjective). - If I understand what they are saying, I am happy. This also involves self-questioning - do I really understand, or just think I understand? If that's the case, I repeat to them what I understood them to say.

Finally, how well has meaning been communicated in a comprehensible way? As per standard procedure, I focus on pronunciation, intonation, and word choice. Other aspects relate back to some questions asked when considering language complexity. If I feel that I'm guessing at what my student is trying to communicate to me, then that's a good opportunity to teach practical circumlocution skills, that is, to find another way to express what it is they're trying to say.


(part 2, dealing with the Student Interaction Log, will be addressed in a future post)

Please see the two learning goals, followed by tasks (in bold) and assessment strategies (underlined).

Students will be able to describe something that is wrong in their house so that they can talk to the landlord about it. They will demonstrate this ability through a role-play.

  • Show visuals of housing problems – have students id/match
  • Create a small poster or slideshow describing two problems that can happen in the house
  • Present this to the class
  • Read a short story about someone’s housing problem and how it was resolved; leave out the ending – students must use inference skills to guess how it ended
  • Respond to this reading in a writing journal
  • Students fill out complaint form?
  • Brainstorm socioculturally appropriate responses to a phone conversation with the landlord
  • Teacher observes, looking at comprehension, or language structure, or non-linguistic outcomes, or a combination of these.
  • We can re-visit this activity in a later class – students can, for instance, type out their journal entry, then exchange it with a partner (or email it to a partner). The partner can ask questions about the student’s journal entry.


 Ask for/give advice about good health habits, nutrition, and home remedies

  • Hook – class reading about someone’s visit to the doctor or the hospital (from our corpus of English-language materials)
  • This would be a good opportunity for students to collaboratively learn through the Language Experience Approach. The lesson would be targeted towards Intermediate level students, but could be differentiated for different placement levels.
    • Fortunately, this area lends itself to a selective process of the students: they can choose to talk about either good health habits, nutrition, or home remedies as a class.
    • This type lends itself to a product-based assessment. We can put together a videotaped PSA.
    • This is the experience: Students will work in pairs or groups of three. We will first discuss the topic, brainstorming examples and ideas.
    • Following this, students will pair up and develop a script for their PSA. Examples of PSAs will be shown to them. They will do this over the course of at least two classes. In the first class, they will determine what they will say and how they will present their topic. The instructor will help, giving ideas and pointing out effective contributions that they have made. They will determine any materials, props, or costumes that they will be needing for the following class.
    • In the second class, they will film their PSAs. For students who cannot do so on their phones, the instructor will obtain a camera for them from the IT department.
    • They will upload their film online. We will view each other’s PSA.  The instructor may have a viewing guide for the students to fill out, but more likely, we’ll have a small discussion following each viewing.
    • Following this, either in this class, or in the next, we’ll have a class discussion about the experience. All students will contribute their perspective.
    • The class will then work together to develop a written account of what was done or discussed. The students may engage in some pre-writing and pre-speaking brainstorming or mental mapping. The instructor will write out what is said during the discussion, and it will be projected onto the board for all students to see.
    • Once completed, we will read it aloud as a class (to practice fluency).
  • This is the product. The experience can be extended:
    • Students can write a response/critique of this text as a journal, to which the instructor or another classmate can respond in writing
    • Other texts can be introduced to the students regarding film-making or PSAs
    • The instructor, with or without the students’ help, can come up with comprehension questions

This was a genuinely challenging course, in that throughout the entire experience, I was prompted to actively reflect on my own role as the classroom instructor. I can see some areas that I am supporting my students, such as in having them reflect on their learning and working on strategies to express themselves effectively in situations where communication may be difficult. I also work to differentiate for my students according to interest and level of preparedness. I am fortunate in that my class is leveled (I work with Intermediate students). There are also numerous areas where I need to hone my preparation and classroom presence. Here are some areas where I need improvement, with a bit of commentary:

  • backwards design - "begin with the end in mind" - this has long been my mantra, as I was hired on by my supervisor to work on HSE curriculum development, but, even so, the ELP standards have taken a bit for me to grasp and use in my instructional design. Since we are mandated to have standards-based lesson plans, I took some time to familiarize myself with the standards, including the guiding principles, and how to use them as a point of departure when designing lessons. They are the kernal around which assessments are generally built
  • project-based and problem-based teaching - to me, this can be the epitome of a well-functioning class - students, working with guidelines that they themselves helped generate and improve in a number of skills (the four domains of language acquisition, as well as the cognitive and metacognitive skills necessary for critical thinking and problem solving), some of which are specified, others (hopefully) may emerge through serendipity;
  • a third area where I would like to improve in my assessment of learning is the design of learning activities and tasks that break out of my toolkit of tried-and-true resources. I know that I can start with the Hot Seat activity, and expand from there.

Hello Walter, It's clear that you are taking away a great deal from the Formative Assessment course. You've identified some important and practical steps to enhance the effectiveness of your teaching. In your postings, you indicated that you pay attention to students as they are speaking and then present a quick mini lesson to the whole class on aspects of pronunciation. You referred to this type of teachable moment as a pop up lesson when it comes to grammar. I want to affirm that this kind of quick mini lesson can be quite effective. I noticed that you are also integrating communication strategies quite naturally into your teaching by encouraging students to tell you when they would like you to speak more slowly -- clearly a useful strategy that can be applied outside the classroom, too!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

I have realized how important it is to include multiple forms of formative assessment into each lesson I teach.  I want to incorporate "instructional routines" that are regular activities but also a means of assessing student learning.  I have not used journals in the basic ESL class that I teach, but this is something I want to do now.  

Hi Barbara, It's great that you are interested in implementing dialogue journals in your instruction. There are so many benefits for doing so. You might be interested in taking a look at an article on this topic that you can access in the LINCS collection "Dialogue Journals: Interactive Writing to Develop Language and Literacy" by Joy Peyton. Best of luck with this effort!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

Performance Learning Goal:  Call 911 for medical or other emergencies, identifying nature of problem, location, and personal information

Learning Objective: Students will be able to call 911 to report a home invasion and theft, identifying the nature of the problem, location, and personal information

Formative Assessment Goal: Goal 4: students can communicate successfully with others.

Formative Assessment Tasks:

  1. Students will look at pictures of thieves breaking into homes and describe what they see.  Through this discussion, students will generate the vocabulary for the performance learning goal.
  2. Students will practice using the vocabulary words in activities such as matching, sentence strips describing a home invasion.
  3. Students will role play a script between a dispatcher and caller to report a home robbery.
  4. Students will be given a written scenario describing a home invasion and will answer  questions in writing about the incident, such as  What happened? What time did it happen? Where did it happen? Was anything stolen?  
  5. Students will practice playing the role of dispatcher and caller in a 911 call to report the home invasion and give information about the crime.
  6. In a one-on-one simulation,  the instructor will play the role of dispatcher and formally assess the student’s ability to report the crime they have been practicing in role plays.

The criteria for assessment: ability to state the crime, describe what happened, report items stolen, and respond to requests for personal information (name, address, phone number)


Formative assessments are an integral part of instruction, and this course has been extremely helpful in outlining the 5 main learning assessment goals and providing numerous examples of strategies and techniques to assess each of these goals.  I have had success with the use of role-plays and other performance-based assessments.  However, I would like to build in more frequent use of written formative assessments, such as the use of journals, portfolios, and various types of product-based assessments.

Hello Barbara, It's great when we can walk away from a professional development experience with concrete goals. I want to applaud your interest in adding more writing to your instruction. Good luck with these efforts! And please let us know how it goes.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

I have used many of Liz's techniques, including needs assessment and general topic selection for initial planning. Similarly, I use group work to assess speaking and weekly vocabulary quizzes to assess and review vocabulary.

I will try using five-minute journal writing and "exit ticket" techniques. 

I have used surveys at the beginning of the semester and alphabetizing of the students' names afterward as a pair work. To improve this activity, more preteaching has to be done for a mixed level class and possible multilevel surveys as well.


Assessment goal: students can give advice about common health problems


High Beginners

The desired result of this objective is that students can give advice about common health problems; therefore, I need evidence that students can use such verbs as should, need to, must and specific vocabulary on common health problems, types of exercise, nutrition, and home remedies; so, my assessment tasks should include a vocabulary quiz/bingo and a role play.


Vocabulary can include (vocabulary can be expanded through brainstorming with the class):

Feel tired, have a headache, have a sore throat, have a stomachache, have a backache, be overweight

Go for a walk, go to the gym, take a nap, eat more vegetables, use a heating pad, take an aspirin, have some tea, take a cough drop, take vitamin C, see a doctor, 



For example, the role-play can include a conversation with a friend:


A: What’s the matter?

B: I feel tired.    

B: You should take a nap.


Criteria for evaluation are the correct use of vocabulary and grammar (especially the modal verbs and expressions).

Depending on the objective of a certain activity and a level of the student, I use a different method of error correction. For example, if it's a low beginner, short implicit correction is the best. For a higher level student, recasting would be sufficient in a controlled practice. I may explain the rules one more time (metalinguistic approach) after a speaking activity when I notice that many students make a similar mistake. During a speaking activity, I tend not to correct my students unless their mistake hinders comprehension.

Formative assessment skills are probably one of the most important set of skills for a teacher to have since they help to shape and improve our students' knowledge and performance when done correctly; however,  improper use of formative assessment, especially of feedback, can hinder the progress and frustrate the students. I have had success with such methods of assessment as an observation of role plays for oral assessment and short writing assignments at the end of a thematic unit. I need to be more effective in collecting the data in order to use it for tailoring my instructions more closely to the needs of the students. I also need to expand the arsenal of the tools/activities I use, including self-assessment, peer assessment, portfolio of student work, Hot Seat activity, journaling.

Hello Olena, Thanks for completing the ELLU formative assessment course and contributing to this thread with your thoughtful comments. You wrote, "Formative assessment skills are probably one of the most important set of skills for a teacher to have," and I couldn't agree with you more.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP



I think I use more informal assessments than anything---giving individual students corrections or hints during speaking activities, asking "What's missing?" and pointing to students' writing as they're in the process, paying attention to body language and facial expressions. I've rather stopped collecting written assignments to correct after class as I usually don't find the time to correct them, or the students' papers sit in my binder for weeks because of infrequent attendance. So, I'm in the process of using more digital tools that give immediate/timely feedback for students and have trackable student progress fore me and my program. Since I finished our textbook this semester, I'm thinking of givings students a choice to choose 2 of the first 5 units that they want to work on, so they are more motivated and have some buy-in. I'm not too keen on unit projects as my students have irregular attendance which makes projects difficult to show what they learned if they've been absent for many of the lessons. Instead of "building-block" lessons, I'm just trying to get through the day's lesson and get to my trackable formative assessment.

Hi Jacqueline, From what you describe, you are carefully observing learners all the time and providing helpful feedback to them. It's great that you have found technology to be a useful tool assisting you to provide more immediate feedback on student writing. You mentioned projects as being difficult due to persistence issues.

I wonder if you might consider having students engage in projects that can be completed in one class period. Here's one example that has worked well for me called one-question interview. Pairs of students are given one question. Each pair gets a different question. They collect data on their question by asking their question to each member of the class. The pair then create a graph of their data and present their graph to the class.

One set of questions I've used for this activity include the following:

  • Do you like to garden?
  • Did you have a garden in your country?
  • Do you have a garden in the US?
  • Do you like to grow flowers?
  • Do you like to grow vegetables?
  • Are you looking forward to spring?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP





As an Adult ESL educator and a 4th grade public school teacher, I have used a variety of formative assessments with adults, and younger students.  You need to tailor your chosen assessment, e.g., journal writing, to your group of students, their needs and your daily objective.


Hi, I have adult ESL students, and I teach according to themes. I use the picture dictionary each time I start a new Unit. We go over the vocabulary that is relevant to the theme.We review the vocabulary numerous times and I walk around listening to the pronunciation. If a word is mispronounced, I say the correct pronunciation a few times and the students repeat it after me. I like using the Picture dictionary for the pictures.

I like to put them in groups, so that the more advanced student can help the ones that need help.  I also do a lot of dictation and the give a final exam after the Unit has ended. when grading the final exam, I talk with the student individually if I see they are having problems in certain areas. 

My lesson goal is: Making a doctor Appointment. I would start off by reviewing the days of the week, months of the year, numbers, and time. I would also review vocabulary for illnesses using (Picture Dictionary).   The class will spend some time writing out a short dialogue, which they will copy from  the board. We  would then take turns acting out different symptoms of illnesses.We would practice taking turns reading the dialogue with a partner. The last thing we would do is role play an actual call to the doctor's office. As the student's are saying the vocabulary, and doing the role playing, I will assess the areas we need to continue to practice. 

  • Call 911 for medical or other emergencies, identifying nature of problem, location, and personal information.  I would take a dialogue of a 911 medical emergency, such as a heart attack. I would find the appropriate pictures and discuss what is happening in the pictures. When the students are comfortable with the pictures, I would have them take turns putting the pictures in order. I would also ask them to explain why they put them in the order they did.

Performance Learning Goal: Students will successfully demonstrate the sequence of writing out a check. Task is to successfully write out a check with the correct information. They will use sequence words such as:  First, write the date, next, write to whom  the check is made out to. Next, I fill in the dollar amount in numbers and then I write out the  dollar amount. Then, I write a memo of the reason  the check was written and finally, I write my signature. Student A will ask,the questions: what goes in this blank space on the check? Student B will answer as he/she is filling  out the check. This will continue until the check is filled in correctly. Then Student A will ask student B the same questions.

This seems like a simple task, but when I asked my adult students, how many have written a check, not many hands went up.

As this is taking place I will stay close to assess the situation and see where they are struggling.

I have learned so much from this course. I tend to follow the course material, and try to reach the goals that are set out for the students.  As I was reading the course material, I realized that I don't use enough Formative Assessment. I want to record the students progress more. I printed copies of the material and I will review it and will try to apply it to my classroom. I am excited to be able to use the different techniques presented in this course. I think I sometimes get in a rut, and I need to keep reading to learn new and better ideas on how to be more student-centered verses teacher-centered. For me this was a great course.