Formative Assessment of Language: an Essential Feature of Curriculum Design

June 29, 2023

Effective teachers evaluate and respond to students’ learning both in the moment and in a systematic, ongoing way. They make as-needed adjustments to their instruction and encourage students to reflect on their learning by providing timely and actionable feedback. This process is referred to as ‘formative assessment’.

Robert Stake, an evaluation researcher once said, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative; when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative” (quoted in Scriven, 1991).  In other words, rather than assessment of learning, formative assessment is assessment for learning and it is essential to the learning process.  

Because multilingual learners (MLL) have to learn new content and new language simultaneously, teachers need to assess and provide timely and actionable feedback on students’ language as well as their content knowledge. When teachers have the resources and knowledge to analyze student language and identify next steps in their language developement, they can refine instruction to help students pay attention to and engage actively in their own learning.

Effective materials are designed to include formative assessment that: 

  • guides teachers to look for evidence of content and skills learning,
  • plans for how to respond to learning needs with suggested scaffolds and modifications, 
  • helps teachers to demonstrate how to share learning goals with students,
  • helps students understand how their learning is progressing (metacognition), and what to do next to support their continued progress.  
  • Examples include turn and talks, quick writes, student identification and correction of errors, gallery walks, etc.

These same formative assessment activities can also be used to understand language learning and guide teachers to collect samples of student language. Teachers can analyze the samples based on language targets related to the content  and support the next steps in students’ language development.  The language analyzed needs to occur naturally as part of the learning activities. This means students need opportunities to practice language in conversations and writing about content so they can make the language their own.  

All students, regardless of language background must be explicitly taught language in a way that builds on their current reading, writing, listening and speaking skills within the content area, but it is especially important for those learning in a new language.

For many teachers, learning to look for and respond to language evidence will mean a significant shift in instructional practice. This is why formative assessment of language and content must be designed into instructional materials. 

Designing for Effective Formative Assessment of Language

How can content developers approach design with a language lens? 

First, content developers must analyze what students need to DO with language (in addition to concepts and skills) as they proceed through tasks and lessons and create language goals and success criteria. Just as units are organized sequentially to build content area knowledge and skills, the lessons should build on students’ content area language so that they produce increasingly more precise language forms and functions. When content developers design materials with an initial analysis of language demands for each unit, then there are opportunities to build into the lessons, relevant and responsive scaffolds and supports that teachers can use to understand students’ knowledge, skills, and language use.

Formative Assessment in Unit Design 

Let me provide an example. In a middle school science unit on light and matter (spectroscopy), the unit goal may be for students to develop a model and explanation for how light interacts with an object’s material so that we see differently under different conditions. Each lesson has a goal and success criteria organized in a sequence that facilitates students’ eventual conceptual mastery and ability to demonstrate their understanding and apply it in a summative unit assessment. Students may need to analyze phenomena and describe that phenomena in writing and illustration, and make inferences about how that phenomena relates to other phenomena.

Some of the language demands of that unit might include:

  • learning and using science terms (light waves, frequencies, reflect, refract, bend),
  • developing the linguistic structures of analysis (inherent in science and engineering practices)
  • describing their observations of light and matter, and
  • making inference statements based on students’ observations.

Teachers should focus on those critical language features that students need to engage in reading, talking and writing about light and matter in science. Lessons should progress from providing opportunities for students to use their own language resources (including home language), to enhancing their language with more specialized science terminology and language and literacy patterns associated with the content and skills. The unit must build in many opportunities for students to see, use, and practice the specialized science language so that the words, phrases, patterns become part of their language repertoire.

There are many assessment tools and routines that can be built into and across the curriculum.  For example, guidance for collecting language observation notes with specific look fors or listen fors on each student’s performance in group work or presentations will help teachers notice patterns in language related to the goals of the lesson.  

In the science unit mentioned above, look fors / listen fors might guide teachers to notice and give feedback on the following:

  • students’ word choices related to light and matter throughout the unit,
  • words or phrases typically used in descriptions (e.g. for example, involves, can be defined, for instance).  
  • features of descriptive text structure (e.g. main idea, unique features, supporting ideas, examples), and
  • sentence structures typical in written analysis of phenomena. 

Guidance for collecting written work samples and using a language lens while assessing those samples will help teachers respond with language scaffolds, direct instruction, or other responsive teaching methods. Routines such as Stronger and Clearer or Collect and Display can allow for teacher, self and peer assessment.  

Teachers should not focus on teaching correct language use. Too much focus on correctness can inhibit MLL participation and confidence. As the linguist James Gee would say, we need to apprentice students to the Discourse community. Effective guidance helps teachers “apprentice” students by engaging them in activities that develop their language awareness and help them discover and learn how language is used within the content.

Formative assessment guidance is essential if teachers are to more effectively adapt and respond to what students are saying and doing as they develop content area language and content skills and knowledge simultaneously. Only through intentional design of materials, and support for effective implementation can language development be built into teachers’ instructional practice and students’ classroom experience. 


Resources for Content Developers:

  1. This Fall, ELSF will hold its annual in-person content developer institute, Demystifying Curricular Design for Multilingual Learners.  Instructional materials’ designers and writers can expect to dive more deeply into how to design effective formative assessments of language and content. 
  2. ELSF recently updated our Do’s and Don’ts of Formative Assessment to make them supportive for content developers in designing curriculum. Download the PDF now.

Renae Skarin has almost 30 years of experience working with English learner and minoritized populations through research, advocacy, and program development and implementation with educators nationwide and abroad. She currently serves as the Senior Advisor for Content at the English Learners Success Forum (ELSF) where she leads its research efforts to identify strategies and develop resources for improving education policies and practices with regard to high quality instructional materials for multilingual learners. Before joining ELSF she served as an associate researcher at Understanding Language at Stanford University. She received her M.A. in Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and did Doctoral studies in Educational Linguistics at Stanford University.


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