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Initial Diagnostic Assessment


What are we trying to find out about the student in our initial assessment and why?

1. Students background: In order to ‘know the learner’ we need to learn about the student’s language and their strengths and find out more about their background. E.g. age; birth date; where they were born; what countries they have lived in; why they came to New Zealand;  where they live, the language/s they speak; previous education; any previous exposure to English;  their family, any physical or learning disabilities; how literate they are in their first language; prior schooling experiences etc. The more you can find out the better you will ‘know your learner’.  

2. To gather enough knowledge about the student’s level of English in order to determine whether they are eligible to receive ESOL funding from the Ministry. 

3. To determine the type of language support the student may require. 

4. To determine the student's current stage of English to be able to make a best-fit judgment on each of the ELLP matrices (oral language output, oral language input, reading and writing). 

How do I determine what assessment tools to use and when to test them? 

Obviously a variety of assessment tools and observations can be used to gather this information. You will need a plan to continue to assess the students across the school year in order to build a picture of their language stage and rate of English language acquisition. There is no set of recommended assessment tools or tests to use. In selecting any standardized test you need to know your purpose for using the test and its’ suitability for use with ELLs. The ESOL Progress Assessment Guidelines (PAGs) provide this information. 

When determining a student’s placement on the  English Language Learning Progressions (ELLP) matrices you will first need to become very familiar with the matrices in order to determine what knowledge you will need to gather. For example, in oral language you will need to gather how well they can follow, understand and participate in pair, small group and whole-class converstions, across a range of contexts.

You then need to come up with a battery of tools, tests and observations to gather the knowledge required to place the student.  I often view the process as an upwards spiralling filter of assessments as you determine what a student can or cannot do. When students are new they can be hesitant to speak and struggle to understand our New Zealand accent and the pace of our speech. Many things are unfamiliar and they may be suffering from a level of cultural shock. This is why it is often recommended to wait a number of weeks before testing a student, however this is not always practical. You may make an initial placement but closely observe the student in the upcoming weeks and then move them if appropriate. 

Initial Assessments Given

Often the selection of tools you make will be determined by the age and stage of your students. To exemplify what this initial diagnostic testing may look like I am sharing what I used at an Intermediate school where I taught. My school developed an initial assessment booklet which each student completed. These were then saved in individual student portfolios (a clear file).

The booklet included the following: 

  • A form with blanks to fill in to tell about themselves. The aim was to quickly gather some useful information on the student. It also provided us with a quick gauge on where they may be at in their English. What they could, or could not do, gave us an indication on which follow-up tests were most appropriate. We always discussed what they wrote with them further. This provided further information on both themselves and on their ability to converse in English. Sentences to complete included: My name is… ; My birthday is on … ;  The date today is … ; I am male/female;  I come from…. ; My address in New Zealand is … ; my telephone number is ….;  my favourite school subject is … ; One sport I enjoy is …. ; Tell me one thing about your country…. . This would usually allow us to see if the student had a minimal level of English or not.
  • If more information was required an interview was held with the student’s family/caregiver. This was to gather background information about the student in order to ‘know the learner’.  A lot of information was also gathered by the school office on enrolling the student.  You should be prepared to use an interpreter to assist. We would also hold a BBQ for all of the families of the students early in the school year and informally gather information whilst mingling with the parents as well as initial school-wide parent interviews.  
  • An oral student interview conducted by the teacher with each student. We wrote this so that it had 3 levels of difficulty. There were between 3-5 questions at each level and the vocabulary and sentence complexity increased as you moved up the levels. For example on level 1, short, personal facts were needed to answer the questions – How long have you been in NZ? Where did you go to school last year? How long have you been learning English? On level 2 the student’s needed to respond with a little more information and some personal opinions. E.g. what was school like in …..? What activities do you like to do in your free time? On level 3, a deeper level of thought was required. E.g. what do you think has helped you the most to learn English? How do you think you can continue to improve your English? What might you do to try and make a Kiwi friend?   
  • An Alphabet Knowledge Checklist, both upper and lower case letters. This was only used on students with minimal English or at Foundation stage. This was a check to see whether they knew each letter name, letter sound and could provide an example of a word that started with each letter.
  • Grammar Tenses. 8 sentences which the students were required to change from present tense into past tense, with increasing difficulty. 
  • A record of oral language (From Jannie van Hees, “Listening and Speaking” published in 1999.) 
  • Write a story based on a personal topic we provided E.g. My journey to New Zealand. Note we avoided getting them to write about their family as we found that this was often a well-rehearsed topic that didn't accurately reflect their stage of English. If students were unable to write a story they were asked to write down all the words they knew in English, in later assessments, they would write on an academic topic of study.
  • A speaking dictation. We provided a picture and would ask the student to talk about what they could see in the picture. The teacher wrote down word-for-word what the student spoke.  This helped us to determine whether they spoke in complete sentences, fluency, vocabulary knowledge etc. 
  • A probe reading test. While not always ideal as some of the contexts used in the stories are difficult for ELLs, using Probe did provide us with a useful guide as to their reading level and for grouping students and progress over time. We allowed the students to read the texts silently and to provide written answers. When marking, if their response was unclear we questioned them orally.

We did not allow the use of dictionaries.

Together these initial assessments usually allowed us to group students and determine their initial starting point on the ELLP stages. We were not reliant on just one assessment for each mode; we had a form of cross-confirmation.  We would insert other tests if we thought they were needed or the information gathered didn’t seem to fit the usual pattern we would expect.

Once grouped we would do some further testing: 

  • Vocabulary tests, students at Foundation level were tested on the first 125 words and then the first 500 words. Stage one student’s on the first 1,000 and stage 2 student’s on the second thousand words, (Paul Nation’s tests) 
  • A Picture Dictation to see how well they could follow instructions. 
  • A listening transfer task. (Pitman’s or teacher devised). All the information was recorded on a progress tracking sheet for each student. The sheet was based on the ELLP tracking sheet but with additional information added. It covered the two years they were at our school and was passed on to the local High schools when the student moved. 

What other ongoing assessments are regularly used across the school year?

  • The PROBE reading tests, vocabulary tests, Record of Oral Language and Listening Dictations were administered twice yearly. In addition, two spoken language assessments (related to a current curriculum task) were assessed. This was scored against a 5 point scale for each across the following criteria: pronunciation; grammar; fluency; comprehension; vocabulary and sentence complexity. 
  • Examples of pre and post teaching student writing samples across a range of genres. These were each given an ELLP best fit score. 
  • Running records were completed as required on students to help determine whether they were reading at an appropriate level or experiencing any reading difficulties.  

Initial Diagnostic Assessment Reflection Questions 

1. Do the assessments and processes that you currently use provide enough information in order to:

  • make an initial class/ESOL group placement?
  • make an initial ‘best fit’ placement on the oral language, speaking and reading ELLP?
  • apply for MOE ESOL funding?
  • determine the level and type of language support that this student might need? 

2. Are any of the tests you use redundant as they don’t provide useful information? Or do they simply repeat what you have learnt from using another test? 

3. Is there a better test available than what I am currently using?  Check it against PAGS.

4. Am I over/under testing the students? Or do I have the mix about right? 

5. Who should carry out the testing? Which tests should the classroom teacher conduct and which should be done by the ESOL teacher? 

6. How will the information gathered be shared with classroom teachers, the ESOL teacher, the student and their parents/caregivers?  

7. How do you track each student's language progress across their entire schooling? 

8. How will you monitor student language progress in order to determine that adequate progress is being made? Are they on target to catch-up with their cohort peers? 

9. Can I make better use of ICT to record data and for testing students? Who can help me with this?