Using Portfolios With English Language Learners
By Dr. Natalie A. Kuhlman, ELL Outlook™ Contributing Writer
Most teachers, even if they don't know a lot about how to assess their students, do know that multiple measures are good. Decisions should never be made based on just one piece of information, be that one test, one essay, or one project. This is particularly true for English language learners (ELLs), for whom many aspects of language need to be assessed in several different contexts. One way to put these multiple measures together is in a portfolio. This article will focus on why portfolios are useful for ELLs, and how to plan, organize, and use them.
What Are Portfolios and What Are They Used For?
Portfolios were originally associated with artists and fashion designers, who would gather examples of their work in a large folder or box and take them to galleries or fashion houses to market them. School portfolios have been around for years, and from the beginning they have been a collection of each student's work. However, early on, teachers thought that portfolios had to include every single scrap of paper that a student produced. This clearly provided a broad array of what the student could produce, but it was also overwhelming. Boxes or file drawers or even whole rooms devoted to all this work weren't helpful, and what were teachers to do with these boxes of stuff when students moved on to the next grade? This didn't make portfolios very popular.
A major purpose of classroom portfolios is to provide a profile of where a student began and how he or she has developed. This is particularly useful for showing students, parents, and other teachers how an ELL's acquisition of English is progressing. But careful planning and implementation are necessary in order to ensure that portfolios serve this function. A TESOL publication called "Managing the Assessment Process (MAP)" (TESOL, 1998) describes four stages in the implementation of any assessment process: (1) planning, (2) collecting and recording data, (3) analyzing the information, and (4) using the information to inform instruction and for reporting and decision making. The first three stages are particularly helpful when creating portfolios for ELLs.
Planning for Portfolios
Before a single piece of paper is collected for a portfolio, a plan must be created so the portfolio doesn't become the jumble of paper described in the previous section.
The first step in the planning stage is to determine the purpose of the portfolio. Is it intended only for the classroom teacher to see how the English language is being acquired? Or does it have a broader function, such as supplementing state English language proficiency tests to make determinations for reclassification of students into mainstream classes? This decision may lie with the classroom teacher alone, but if portfolios are to be used throughout a school, the decision may be made by a committee, the faculty, the principal, or some combination of these. There may be district-level requirements for portfolios as well.
The purpose of the portfolio needs to be decided during the planning stage because the purpose determines what kinds of work will be collected. For example, if the purpose of the portfolio is solely classroom assessment, then it may focus on just one area of English language development (ELD), such as vocabulary. If it has a broader purpose, the portfolio may include examples from all subject areas and focus on how ELLs can use English in those areas, rather than on the content itself. For example, a piece of science work might demonstrate whether a student has acquired the science vocabulary and sentence structure needed to understand science texts, not whether he or she can perform a specific experiment.
Even if the portfolio is intended to show the language growth of an ELL, planners need to decide if it will focus on overall growth or on discrete aspects of language, such as grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, reading, writing, listening, speaking, or some combination of these.
How the portfolio will be evaluated also needs to be decided during the planning stage. As Lorraine Valdez Pierce (personal communication) has said, "You need to know where you're going in order to know how to get there." In the case of portfolios, that means knowing what the objectives are, or which standards will be demonstrated via the portfolio.
These issues will affect all other aspects of the portfolio process, so they must be decided at this stage, before moving on to the collection of information.
Collecting Pieces for the Portfolio
Once the purpose of the portfolio has been decided and a plan has been made, decisions have to be made about data collection, either at the classroom level or at a broader level. These decisions are still part of the planning stage; the actual collection of the pieces is the second stage of the process. Data collection decisions include what types of information to add to the portfolio, what kinds of products to include, how often to add pieces, what quality of pieces to add (best, drafts, etc.), and who decides which pieces are selected for inclusion.
What types of information should be included? Anthony, Johnson, Mickelson, and Preece (1991) provide a useful way to organize and think about the information that is collected for assessment in general that applies equally well to the portfolio. They organize the information into four quadrants: (1) observation of process, (2) observation of children's products, (3) classroom measures, and (4) decontextualized measures.
Examples of observation of process may include anecdotal notes given to the student by the teacher as an ELL's oral language develops; responses to reading, which may be in the first language for students in a bilingual program; and text reconstruction. These responses may be easier to include in a portfolio if they are organized as a rubric (see Kuhlman, 2005 on performance-based assessment rubrics).
Student products might include reading and learning logs, journals, various stages of writing, self-made dictionaries, and interest inventories. A learning log might include a list of idiomatic phrases in English that the student has acquired. An ELL's self-made dictionary might focus on newly acquired English words, words that are difficult to spell because of interference from the first language, or even a bilingual word list.
Classroom measures would be any text-related activities (e.g., homework assignments practicing verb endings), and teacher-made or student-generated tests. Performance-based measures, such as the Language Observation Task System (LOTS), discussed in Kuhlman (2005), may be included here as well. These will balance more formalized measures such as grammar or vocabulary tests.
The last part of the quadrant, decontexutalized measures, may include both criterion- and norm-referenced tests, usually at the district or state level. State language proficiency test scores may also be included.
Organizing the information via these quadrants helps to provide balance to the portfolio, and ensures that a variety of measures are incorporated into it.
What kinds of products can used to show English language development?
How often should you collect pieces? This is a major issue. If pieces are added too often, there will be too much to go through to see English language growth clearly, but if items are collected irregularly or infrequently, the portfolio becomes meaningless. The answer is relative, going back to the purpose of the portfolio. If only one classroom teacher is requiring portfolios, the decision might even be made between the teacher and the students. That said, placing items in the portfolio monthly or quarterly will generally allow growth to be observed. Except in the case of tests, that is enough time to see changes such as emerging vocabulary, grammatical structure, and fluency, but not too long to miss pinpointing needed improvement, if the portfolio is used for that purpose.
If the decision about when to collect items is made at the school or district level, then it is out of the teacher's hands, and it is more common for items to be added on a quarterly basis, coinciding with grading periods.
What quality of pieces should be collected? This is another relative decision, and going back to the purpose of the portfolio can help make it. If the purpose is to demonstrate ELLs' growth in writing and supplement a statewide yearly test, then students should probably include one example of the best work they have done, and perhaps one piece that needs improvement, on a monthly basis. Or students (maybe with the teacher's assistance) might include what they consider to be their best piece of work at that time and the teacher also might choose a "best piece." Or a piece might be chosen because it uses a new grammatical structure, or newly acquired adjectives, or a move from invented to standard English spelling. Very few students will want to include their worst piece of work. For written pieces, a draft and a final product might be chosen.
Who decides which pieces of work to include? Obviously the answer to this question goes back to the purpose of the portfolio. If this is a classroom-based portfolio, then the teacher and students should negotiate who decides which pieces go in for each category. As discussed below, reflections in which students justify their choices should be required for all student-selected pieces.
Evaluation of the Portfolio
Student reflections: To make the portfolio valuable, it needs to include student reflections. Self-assessment is a powerful tool. O'Malley and Valdez Pierce (1996, p. 36) discuss three kinds of self-assessments that can be used with ELL portfolios. In documentation, students provide a rationale for why a piece was chosen. For example, the piece may have been chosen to demonstrate a new verb tense that has been learned. In comparison, students take a new piece of work and compare it to one they did in the past. Obviously, here the intent would be to see growth in English, such as longer and more detailed sentences. Finally, in integration, students evaluate how they have improved more generally, for example, how they have become more confident in their use of English. Each of these three types of self-assessment encourages students to take ownership of their learning of English. English learners who are not yet ready to write such reflections may use a form of smilies or another visual that allows them to share how they think they have improved and why they chose specific pieces for their portfolios.
Peer assessments may also be included, since they have multiple benefits for ELLs. Students can learn everything from content to form, including grammar and vocabulary, from the work of others. Peer assessments also allow students to sharpen their own error correction skills. However, it should be emphasized that peer assessments must be positive and constructive.
Grading the portfolio: This is probably one of the most common dilemmas concerning portfolios. What do they mean? How are they used to demonstrate achievement? Obviously putting a grade on every paper, presentation, project, and test would seem to be the easiest way to determine a grade, and perhaps by using some kind of conversion chart all of the products in the portfolio could be averaged for an overall grade. However, that one grade will not reflect the broad array of products that the portfolio includes, and in a sense it negates the benefits of having a portfolio. A better solution would be to develop a rubric (as discussed in Kuhlman, 2005) that would help to summarize the growth of the student in specific areas. Grades aren't going to go away, but portfolios are more in tune with authentic and performance-based assessment than are quantitative measures.
In this article I have introduced the reader to portfolios and specifically to how they can be used with ELLs. Portfolios are a rich way of documenting students' growth over time. They have a great deal of flexibility, so they can be adapted for use in the ELD classroom or in the mainstream classroom with ELL students. The richness of the portfolio is that it portrays growth and development of the student in English, using multiple measures. It includes the student's own reflections, as well as the teacher's. It is an excellent way to put together a profile of authentic assessment of real products.
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Using performance-based assessment in the ELD classroom. ELL Outlook, 4(4). Retrieved January 19, 2006, from http://www.coursecrafters.com/ELLOutlook/2005/sep_oct/index.html#article1
O'Malley, J. M., & Valdez Pierce, L. (1996).
Authentic assessment for English language learners. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (1998).
Managing the assessment process. Alexandria, VA: Author.
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