Assessment of Young English Language Learners

Dr. Barbara Leys, Chicago State University

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Dr. Leys is Co-Chair of the new ITBE Early Childhood Education Special Interest Group (SIG).
From the day they are born, children begin the process of learning to communicate through observing and interacting with important people within a cultural context (Vygotsky, 1978). The languages that children first learn to speak are those that are spoken in their families. As they move from their families into the larger world, including early childhood settings, they may often begin to experience various languages through interactions with teachers and peers. Since they will be in schools where English is the predominant language, there will be many assessments and strategies used to support the development of language, and it is important that the cultures and languages of children are fully embraced for them to feel accepted as full members of these classroom communities (Espinosa, 2010; Mindes & Jung, 2015).

Assessment of English Language Learners in Early Childhood – Past Practices
There has been considerable disagreement about how to best support the development of language with little support from research. In the not-very-distant past the emphasis tended to be on teaching children to use English, often at the expense of losing their mother tongue; speaking more than one language was seen as a hindrance. There is now considerable research that demonstrates the linguistic and cognitive benefits of speaking more than one language; however, we must use appropriate assessment strategies to best understand how to scaffold their learning in both languages. It is important to understand how the interactions among developmental stage, temperament, and the languages that the child is speaking impact learning, and to do this all in a holistic, developmentally appropriate, and culturally responsive way, in collaboration with the family (Cummins, 1984; Espinosa, 2010). 

Early in the history of assessment in early childhood, there was little research that was specific to assessing young children who were in group settings. With the advent of Child Find and the push to have all children experience a standardized screening, as well as the changes in laws relating to meeting the needs of a diverse range of children in classrooms, parents were torn between wanting to be sure that their children were developing typically and the belief that some assessments were not adequately representing their children. Even very young children were generally assessed by unfamiliar adults using standardized instruments. Parents were less involved in the assessment when their children turned three and transitioned from participating fully in the development of the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), to feeling marginalized as they entered the land of the Individualized Education Program (IEP).

There were few appropriate standardized assessments, particularly for children whose primary language spoken in the home was not English; numbers representing scores from standardized assessments were generally used to create plans for children. If a child whose home language was not English was struggling in the classroom, the team was often required to choose between a learning disability or second language concerns to access any support or services (Cummins, 1984). Oftentimes educators worked within systems where there was no understanding of how long it took to become fluent in a second language or the difference between the language used to converse with peers and academic language. When children were observed talking to peers using English, it was assumed that they understood English and that something else was wrong if they weren’t able to follow what was happening in the classroom. There was also a lack of understanding the ultimate benefits of learning two languages. The problems assessing young children and interpreting the results of assessments were real, particularly relative to fully supporting the child and the family.

There were differences in the assessment practices from one district to another, and sometimes from school to school within a district, but this was a hotly debated topic with very little research to support beliefs on any of the positions taken. Those of us who went through this period often experienced a range of emotions from frustration to anger to helplessness and isolation. Occasionally, there were glimmers of hope, but my memory of this time is that they were few and far between.
Creating a Comprehensive Assessment System for Young Children
While it sometimes feels like we have made little progress, it is important to look at where we are today. There is far more integrity in our approach to assessment and how what we learn can be best used to support families and children whose home language is not English. Perhaps one of the most important realizations is that in order for children to make progress in educational settings, we must approach assessment from the position of strengths and that the students must be valued, which includes embracing their language and culture in our classrooms (Espinosa, 2010). The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE). (2003) have written a powerful position statement that addresses the need for appropriate and responsive assessment of children, curricula, and programs to assure that the needs of all young children are met. As the professional organization for early childhood, NAEYC has published several statements that guide the assessment practices for diverse groups of young children (NAEYC, 1996; NAEYC, 2005; NAEYC, 2009). Whereas in the past there were relatively few screening tools, there are now choices (Meisels & Atkins-Burnett, 2005), and many of them address needs of English learners (ELs) (Mindes & Jung, 2015).

Perhaps the greatest gain is the understanding of the importance of using a comprehensive assessment system that includes various tools and strategies to gain a holistic picture of a child (Mindes & Jung, 2015). We understand the importance of observation as a primary tool for data collection, whether using standardized assessments or authentic assessments within an environment that includes play and learning centers; however, we also embrace the fact that we need to use research-based tools, goals, and benchmarks to assess progress and appropriate support for development and learning across domains (Dodge, Rudick, & Berke, 2011; Meisels, Marsden, Jablon, Dorfman, & Dichtelmiller, 2013). We collect work samples, use screeners and checklists, have conversations, document experiences with pictures and detailed data, and most importantly, we open ourselves up as learners in the process who examine our own assumptions. Parents are welcomed into the process and seen as partners in making sense of our data. We never hesitate to have conversations with children to gain their perspectives. The assessment process is recursive – it never ends.
Yes, we have made progress but there is still work to be done. As advocates, it is very important for us to stand up so early-childhood professionals are able to provide the support and assistance that all children and families deserve. It is my hope that many of you will come to the session on Assessment in Early Childhood at the Fall Workshop so that we may have a discussion of the tools and processes that are currently being used in the field. Let’s share those that we find very useful as well as the challenges that we face in assessing young children. See you at our interactive session on October 25!


Dr. Leys is a member of the Early Childhood – Primary and Bilingual Department at Chicago State University and teaches courses in development, assessment, methods and supervises field experiences for undergraduate and graduate students.


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Espinosa, L. M. (2010). Getting it right for young children from diverse backgrounds: Applying
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Meisels, S., & Atkins-Burnett, S. (2005).  Developmental screening in early childhood: A guide (5th ed).  Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Meisels, S. J., Marsden, D. B., Jablon, J. R., Dorfman, A. B., & Dichtelmiller, M. L. (2013). The work sampling system  (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Mindes, G., & Jung, L. (2015). Assessing young children (5th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ:Pearson.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). (1996). NAEYC position statement: Responding to linguistic and cultural diversity – recommendations for
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M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.).  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

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ITBE Link - Fall 2014 - Volume 42 Number 3

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