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  • Writer's pictureKyle Larson

Step 3: Assessing ELs in Reading Conferences

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

Using leveled texts as a medium to facilitate reading conferences shows students what they need to learn.

Why Individual Assessment Matters with English learners.

Assessment. We. Must. Assess. It's what teachers are told, and so they do it. The authorities point at the numbers and ask the simple question: are your students learning?

And their point is clear: assessment is important. Assessment is the key to understanding where we are now, and where we need to go. And the truth is that, they're right. It is important, but more important, is the instruction that makes assessment meaningful. This is where the ball is being dropped.

We can assess all we want, but teaching, growing students' understanding of the world around them, is what teachers are hired to do. Assessment merely demonstrates this growth. The reason people are tired of assessment is because it's become THE thing, rather than A thing. But what if we could do it differently? What if, instead of assessment data being this oppressive mountain, it could be diverse, that is, a winding trail, ever changing for every student? What if assessment could be helpful for students?

What if we could put assessment and instruction together? What if we could make them one discrete unit?

Assessment that takes away from student learning is wrong. That is the reason for this blog post: to point to a better assessment, to a more relational assessment, that is, reading conferences as a means of individual assessment and teaching.

Now, AIR Language is a language reading company, not a bull-blown educational philosophy book publisher, so how we should go about disrupting modern education in favor of better data is beyond our purview. We simply have insight into a better way to assess and teach reading and language ability at the same time.

In their article entitled, CELL protocol (conferring with English language learners): Supporting ELLs' reading comprehension in middle level education, Joe Tarrantino and Sarah J. Donovan introduce a protocol to support reading conferences for English Learners. It contains both assessment and instruction, and we have tweaked it a bit to fit the needs of our reading platform at AIR Language. The six steps of a reading conference in the amended CELL Protocol go like this:

Step 1: Building Rapport

Step 2: Gauging Prior Knowledge

Step 3: Reading and Assessment of Reading

Step 4: Drawing Attention to Content-Specific Concepts

Step 5: Setting Reading Goals

Step 6: Closing

All of these steps are outlined in our eBook, and further detailed in the blog posts on this website, but I wanted to draw attention to two things: 1) assessment is only one step (or arguably two), and 2) is implemented in service of growth.

Without real emphasis on the future of the student, assessment is for nothing.

So, how do we do it? How can we make assessment functional for student improvement? Easy. Make it relational and practical, and make Step 5: Goal Setting an integral part of the assessment. Below are several tips that lead toward practical steps of growth for English Learners.

Assessing Student Growth during Reading Conferences

Tip 1: Individualize assessment.

Every student is at a different place in their language learning experience in terms of academic discipline, reading stamina, and language proficiency, so when you assess a student's reading ability, it is important to keep all of these in mind. This is one of the reasons we have implemented "reading goals" into our amended CELL protocol--so that, when you are assessing students, you not only have a focal point on which to gauge growth, but the student also has a point toward which they can grow.

Tip 2: Diagnose a gap that is functional and can be remedied now.

When we teach reading or language or both in tandem, we can focus on any number of deficiencies from which a student can grow. Which area is more important? Is it reading stamina or defining words from context? The answer is always, which one will help them more in their immediate lives? Reading is a functional skill, meaning, they need it to live in society. So, use your teacher intuition. What does the student need right now?

Tip 3: Ask what the student thinks.

This is especially important. Remember: you can't control students. You can only guide them. Collaboratively setting a goal with a student is fundamental to that student taking ownership of their academic pursuits. If you simply tell the student what they need without their input, there is little chance of them actually doing the work. Remember: the long game (as in, the years after this student graduates) is on the line.

Tip 4: Wait in silence for the student to respond.

This can be uncomfortable. But believe me, it is more uncomfortable for the student. Some students have zero desire to show their skills to you, but if you are comfortable with the silence of waiting, they will often speak just to avoid discomfort.

Of course, we are talking about English learners here. It could be that the student has no language to express what you are asking of them. In these cases, ask yes/no questions, count on your fingers, or tell them to point at the screen in order to define a word from context. In other words, use your teacher intuition and creativity to assess the student. Again, teacher intuition is your most important tool.

Tip 5: It is okay for your student to speak in their first language.

So many EL teachers are gifted with bilingualism. This is a major help in reading conferences! Some students benefit greatly from that L1 connection to demonstrate that they indeed DO know what you are asking, or to build a rapport that allows a more personal teacher-student connection.

With this being said, it is also important that proficiency in English is the goal. It is easy to speak in the student's first language for every conference, but at some point, returns diminish. Remember: reading conferences are often one of the few times where your student sits in a quiet setting and is listened to. If you are able to lower the student's monitor enough to get a true sense of a their actual interlanguage, you are able to see real linguistic gaps, toward which you can tailor lessons.

Student growth, not data, is the goal.

Assessing student ability is about as boring as any other topic in teaching, and yet, here we are: being pushed to ensure that what we do in class is indeed helpful for every student. It is super important, but why does it have to feel so sterile? We are told that relationships are key to the classroom, and then to judge our students with a faceless paper exam. Why? What if we were able to give students time to practice, and supply them with pointers in real time? does this not involve assessment?

In the mid-20th century, Oxford Don, C.S. Lewis, had about 15 freshmen students in his care every year. They were his responsibility. And the way he assessed them was fundamentally different than the way we tend to in education today. Every student would schedule an appointment for an hour, during which they would read their essays out loud to him, just him and the student. After the student read the essay out loud, the two would have a conversation. You see, it was relational, and because of their great admiration for the professor, students would do their very best to present an essay worth speaking.

As an EL teacher, maybe you don't have the time to sit and talk with every student for an hour every couple of weeks, but you do have the opportunity to pull them aside, one-by-one for five minutes at a time to talk about the skills they are developing, (if you implement silent reading). Setting gradual, concrete steps in place for students to follow as they progress is the key to relational assessment, and that is what our students need.

Now, how to quantify that, so data can be calculated is another topic of discussion.

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