Beginning a new unit of an EAL/ESL class with a pre-assessment is an effective method to determine each student’s prior knowledge or skills. This data can then be used to inform future instruction such as how to differentiate instruction and how to group students based on their different abilities. It allows teachers to make data-driven decisions rather than just relying on assumptions (Pendergass, 2014). Pre-assessments are particularly useful when teaching English in international contexts as students have already been exposed to a variety of different vocabulary, grammar structures, and skills in different schools. Pre-assessing helps teachers quickly determine what students know and need to know and therefore avoids wasting precious class time teaching what students already know.
Types of Pre-Assessments
There are a number of types of pre-assessment, both traditional and more innovative. One of my preferred types is the pre-quiz. Ideally, this quiz should cover the same language or content objectives as the end of unit test (Johnson, 2011) but it shouldn’t be counted for grades. Pre-quizzes allow you to easily compare a student’s progress from this initial assessment to the end of the unit assessment. It is also has the advantage of clearly showing students the learning goal – the knowledge or skill they are expected to master by the end of the unit.
Another option for a pre-assessment is starting a new topic with a KWL or KWHLAQ. In this graphic organizer, students write what they already know (K) and want they want to learn (W). In the KWHLAQ, a 21st century adaptation of the KWL, students also have to write how they will find out (H). While KWLs may reduce anxiety compared to a pre-quiz, students might find it hard to write down what they already know or reluctant teenagers might need some prompting by the teacher.
If you are bored of pre-quizzes or KWLs, you can also use graffiti. In this activity, students use color markers to jot down or draw anything they already know about an upcoming unit of study or write down any questions about the topic. It is useful for starting a new thematic unit in an EAL class, but it is less useful for checking
understanding of a grammatical structure. The students use large poster size paper so that multiple students can be writing at one time. This poster can be displayed during the whole unit, so students can compare what they knew before with what they know at the end of the unit. The advantages of using this type of pre-assessment is that it is easy to prepare, allows students to be creative, and also gets the students moving around the classroom. It also gives students who are shy more opportunities to express ideas that they might not want to share in a whole class discussion.
At the beginning of a unit on comparison and contrast writing in my Grade 10 EAL class, I will get students to do a quick pre-quiz on comparison and contrast vocabulary. This, in addition to paragragh organization and city vocabulary, is the main learning objective for this unit. This unit builds toward the final assessment which is a paragraph comparing two famous cities.
The pre-assessment for this learning objective will be a simple 10 minute gap fill to see if students can use a variety of vocabulary to express similarity and difference. An alternative option could be to ask students to write a paragraph comparing two countries. Providing a word bank of key vocabulary can ensure students use the target language otherwise the pre-assessment may not provide any useful data to measure students use of this particular language objective. While I’m checking the pre-assessment, students will watch this video comparing New York and Paris and make a Venn diagram comparing the main differences.
I will then divide the students into 3 groups based on my rubric:
- Group 1 are those who can use a wide variety of comparison structures accurately (Good or Outstanding on the rubric)
- Group 2 are those who demonstrate some variety of structures accurately (Satisfactory on the rubric); and
- Group 3 are those who cannot use a variety of structures accurately (Needs Improvement on the rubric)
Each group will be given a different task sheet that has their instructions.
After watching the video, this group will use their Venn diagrams to discuss the differences between Paris and New York. The students will also look up new vocabulary on their dictionaries and be asked to conisder other differences not shown in the video. Students will then draft a paragraph comparing New York and London. In the following lesson, students will peer review another member of this group’s paragraph using the same rubric as the final assessment paragraph. They will then discuss improvements with their partner, before submitting to the teacher as a formative assessment. The teacher can follow up or further extend students in student-teacher conferences or through written feedback.
Likewise, Group 2 will use their Venn diagrams to discuss the differences between Paris and New York. However, this group will be given the key vocabulary from the video such as ‘neon lights’, or ‘architecture’ as well as comparison and contrast words such as ‘likewise’, ‘whereas’ and ‘however’. These students will use the vocabulary words and comparison signal words to discuss the differences first, before drafting the paragraph.
Group 3 will be given sentence frames to scaffold the use of comparison and contrast vocabulary. For example, students might be given strips of paper with example sentences such as:
“Paris has ______________ whereas New York _____________.”
“New York has lots of ____________. However, Paris doesn’t have ______________.”
“New York’s architecture is ____________ than __________________.
This group will first use the sentence frames and then use the same structure to create their own sentences about Paris and New York. I will usually spend the majority of my time with this group. Once students have created lots of sentences using a variety of comparison and contrast, I will give them a paragraph template with a topic sentence and a comparison and contrast word bank containing the target vocabulary. While students in group 1 or 2 can do peer evaluations, I will have conferences with students in this group to help them evaluate their own paragraph. Within this group, I can give extra support to low proficiency ELLs and students with special needs. These students can also use a computer to type their paragraph and I can provide feedback using the track changes feature on MS Word.
Another option to divide students into groups is by dividing them into surface, deep, and transfer groups as has been done in this flowchart.
Tracking Student Progress
Between the pre-assessment and the end of unit test, it is necessary to check student progress and ensure they are extending their learning.
Depending on the length of the unit, this can be done through regular formative assessments such as exit tickets, journals, or questioning where students can show their understanding against the unit goals. To check students’ ability to use a range of comparison and contrast vocabulary accurately, I will have them do another gap fill with different vocabulary (as an exit ticket), get students to peer evaluate their New York vs. Paris paragraphs, self-evaluate a new paragraph comparing two new cities, and then finally publish the final paragraph comparing two cities of the students’ choosing.
One way I would like to track student learning is by charting student scores on a graph for the pre-assessment (see image below) and then for each of the formative assessments above using the same rubric (Marzano, 2010). For each learning goal, there will be four different levels of understanding such as ‘Needs Improvement’ (1 point), ‘Satisfactory’ (2 points). ‘Good’ (3 points) and ‘Outstanding’ (4 points). In the pre-assessment, many students will get ‘Needs Improvement’, but after more scaffolding in ability based groups and more feedback from formative assessments, students will hopefully progress to a demonstrate a higher proficiency of using the comparison and contrast vocabulary. This is very motivating for students and also provides excellent data to discuss progress with students or parents (Marzano, 2010).
Donaghy, K. (2014). Paris and New York. Retrieved June, 11, 2018 from http://film-english.com/2014/11/03/paris-and-new-york/
Johnson, B. (2011, June 2). Pretesting Students and the KWL Strategy. Retrieved June 9, 2018, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/pretesting-students-kwl-ben-johnson
Marzano, R. J. (2010). The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for effective instruction. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Pendergrass, E. (2014). Differentiation: It Starts with Pre-Assessment. Retrieved June 9, 2018, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/dec13/vol71/num04/Differentiation@_It_Starts_with_Pre-Assessment.aspx