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Vocabulary tests, Initial ELL Assessments and Great Reading and Writing Activities

Hi everybody

Wow, thank you to everyone who has shared over the past week your responses to other members’ questions has been amazing! Due to the busy nature of the site this week I will review the discussions in this update and add a few points of my own. Please feel free to continue to add to the discussions below. 

Something to prepare for Samoan language week is coming up 24- 30 May.  What are your plans to celebrate this week?

Don't forget the monthly English, Literacy and ESOL newsletter is available. If you don’t already subscribe to it then you can read it here: http://deliver.tki.org.nz/static/2018.html  

 L1 and L2 Reading process

In response to my last weekly update Felicity kindly shared some literacy supports that she has found to be the most effective when teaching her year 4-6 students particularly pre and post activities and conversations- Disappearing text, listening grids, speaking and writing frames, sequencing tasks and cloze exercises. You will find these and other ideas in the esolonline pedagogy, teaching strategies section.

I will continue my Reading Updates throughout this term as they fit in with our discussions.


Nikki asked whether there is an age-appropriate Vocabulary Assessment available that can be given to students with minimum English literacy to establish what level of vocabulary they already have? 

This is an important question as we know how important it is to learn a huge number of vocabulary words as quickly as possible. A number of tools were shared but they are not necessarily normed for English language learners. I know researchers are currently developing a test for younger learners so in the meantime we just need to be patient and use what is available with caution. As well as the contributions below there were also other suggestions made in the literacy community.

  • Lynne shared a great article “Choosing Words to Teach” by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, Linda Kucan, on the Reading Rockets website.  www.readingrockets.org/article/choosing-words-teach . Teaching vocabulary is complex. What words are important for a child to know and in what context? In this excerpt from Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, the authors consider what principles might be used for selecting which words to explicitly teach.
  • Cath shared an ESOL vocab checklist that she created. It is to be used alongside the 'Picture Dictionary for New Learners of English' produced by AUT and available on the Ministry's 'Down the Back of the Chair Website.

Paul Nation’s page on the Victoria University website has a wealth of information on this topic and a range of vocabulary tests and resources http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/about/staff/paul-nation.  It is a great place to recheck from time to time to stay abreast with the latest. Scroll down Paul Nation’s webpage and you will find a link to Picture Vocabulary Size Test for Reading Recovery (Sue Ruffell) this is a picture based vocabulary test which could be used with younger learners. The test was designed for six year olds and was based on a corpus of books used in reading recovery in New Zealand. Almost all of the vocabulary in the test is in the first 2,000 words of English, with most in the first 1,000.

On his site you will also find the headwords for the first 10,000 words in English. These are the most important words to learn for the greatest coverage of English. We usually start with the 1st thousand. He has links to a variety of tests as well but most are for use with older learners.

Don’t forget Paul’s book “What every ESL Teacher should know” which anyone can download and read for free. Chapter 4: Needs and Environment Analysis for Learners Going to School, is highly relevant to this vocabulary discussion. In it he provides some important cautions and administration checks for using his tests.  Paul also says that:

“Native speakers of English learn vocabulary at the rate of around 1,000 word families a year, and this continues until their early 20s. The rough rule of thumb when estimating a native speaker’s vocabulary size is to take about two or three years away from their age and multiply the result by 1,000. This means that a five or six-year-old has a vocabulary size of around 4,000- 5,000 words. An average 13-year-old beginning junior high school has a vocabulary size between 10 and 11,000 words. A senior high school student at the age of around 17 has a vocabulary size of around 14,000 words.”

Another site that many teachers are now finding helpful is Quizlet a vocabulary learning website. It allows either the teacher or the students to create sets of vocabulary words and their meanings to be learnt (or use sets that other people have created). The programme then allows you to study those words using a variety of study games that make learning fun. You can also create flashcards and tests.  

Obviously for very young ELLs in the junior school they will pick up a lot of the vocabulary required through the graded readers we use when teaching reading (Learning to Read series). However they are likely to arrive at school with less vocabulary than their native speaking peers of the same age therefore they would benefit from some additional support.

 Fun ideas for Foundation level students to write simple structures sentences

Cath asked if anyone has any fun ideas/suggestions of activities for getting ELLP stage 0 writers writing in simple structured sentences. I have a group of year 2 students who are ELLP stage 1 orally but ELLP stage 0 for writing and I’m looking for some fresh ideas! 

Once again the esolonline - pedagogy, teaching strategies section has other good ideas.

How much time to acculturate before being assessed for placement

Another really worthwhile question was asked by Lori. How much time should be given for a new migrant to New Zealand or new to New Zealand school English Language learner have to acculturate before being assessed for placement into classroom or levels?  

Cath shared what her school does and their reasons for not assessing any new students until they have been with them for 6 weeks, regardless of whether or not they’re ESOL.

Brenda also shared her thoughts on not specifying a set amount of time due to a number of different variables. “It's so important to know the learner, to gauge where they have come from and the things that are the most vital to learn first.”

MOE resources to assist us in thinking about this question- they can all be found as a booklet in the large green English For Speakers of Other Languages, folder.

  • ESOL- Progress Assessment Guidelines (PAGs)  pages 7- 8
  • NESB- A handbook for Schools Chapter 3 particularly pages 32-33.
  • ESOL- Refugee Handbook for Schools, pages 3-7. NOTE: there are some additional factors to consider to those provided below.
  • ESOL- Effective Provision for International Students page 13 -15 NOTE: there are some additional factors to consider to those provided below.

Some key messages from these resources on Assessment and Placement of ELLs

  1. It is sometimes necessary to make initial decisions about placement before a student’s needs have been comprehensively diagnosed.
  2. When possible it is best to delay placement until a full and accurate picture of the student’s needs has been obtained. In primary schools it is often best to delay … to allow new NESB learner to settle in and to begin to understand routines and expectations of the school and classroom. Initial diagnostic assessment of primary school NESB students can occur in the first two or three weeks they are at school.
  3. When placing English language learners, teaches should consider their age and prior learning experiences as well as information gained from assessments of their academic ability.
  4. A range of assessment tools and processes needs to be used to gain a comprehensive picture of the student.
  5. It is desirable to test their productive language skills (speaking and writing) and receptive language skills (listening and reading).
  6. It is essential that students at early stages of English language learning have their fundamental understanding about reading and writing assessed. (phonemic awareness, their ability to write upper and lower case letters. Their recognition of word boundaries (where each word begins and ends) and their use of basic punctuation.
  7. Placements should not solely be based on the student’s level of English language development. In the primary setting, it is best to keep NESB students with their age group. … Placing a student who has missed out on schooling or conceptual development in a class of students only one year younger is unlikely to cause much difficulty. However such placements should be decided on an individual basis and in consultation with the student and their family.

In both the refugee and International handbooks further advice is provided. Consideration should be given to placement in reception classes, foundation classes or withdrawal classes for specified periods of time for intensive programme delivery - in years 7-8 or at secondary school for students with minimal levels of English.    

Flexibility is a key and teachers should review placement decisions regularly and be prepared to move students as appropriate.

I think assessment of ELLs is a complex task due to a lack of normed assessment tools. However with using a mix of teacher observations, formative and summative assessments and normed tools for native speakers of English, we can make fairly accurate placements and we can track progress and achievement. It is important to use a range of assessments and to use teacher judgement when making decisions based upon what you know about the student and the tools and assessments used.  

I would welcome other people’s thoughts and hearing different schools procedures and processes. What does your school do? How successful is it? Does it need reviewing? What assessments do you find most useful?


Enjoy your week and continue the discussion and questions.