Adapting formative assessment to support second-language learners

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By David Richards, Senior Leader, Vinschool Central Park, Vietnam

In international schools, teachers and educators face an additional challenge when preparing students for high-stake examinations. The majority of students are second-language learners (SLLs), and so are learning a language in conjunction with subject content.

Students need to master academic literacies to tackle summative assessment tasks. If they do not, they will be ill-equipped for the type of challenging essay-type questions at the end of their secondary school career. Providing language support can effectively prepare students for examinations.

All teachers are English teachers

When moving the pedagogical paradigm to teach SLLs, it is useful to think of each subject as a subset of English.

A student can appear to have a decent level of English but still have significant gaps in their academic literacy. If this isn’t understood, it is difficult to accurately track student progress and highlight areas for improvement. A poor performance on an assessment may be viewed as a student lacking ability or not working hard enough, when in fact they need language support in that subject.

Language and content

When teachers and curriculum planners first decide to introduce language support, there are many questions: Do we assess language or content first? Do we sometimes assess one and not the other? If so, which and when, why and how? When do we assess? How do we assess?

It is important to not see language and content as two totally independent dimensions of a student’s competence to be assessed. They are two sides of the same coin. It is a good idea to look for opportunities to provide language support and to assess a student’s academic literacy as part of normal classroom activities.

Adapting formative assessment

One way of providing language support is for teachers and curriculum planners to develop, or adapt, existing formative assessment tasks with academic language awareness and with systematic scaffolding built into the tasks.

This approach can gradually enable students to master academic literacies to take the summative assessment tasks where language support is withdrawn.

This can include an array of strategies, such as sentence generating tables and writing frames. For example, in chemistry the following sentence patterns may be provided to help students write answers.

  • To state a flaw in a design of an experiment.

There was more ____X___ in tube B than tube A.

There should be the same amount of ___X___ in tube B and tube A.

  • To write up the section on observation and results.

The temperature of water rose ___ °C in tube A and ___ °C in tube B, respectively.

The water temperature rise in tube B is higher than that in tube A by ___ °C.

  • To write a conclusion

A bigger candle therefore gives/does not give a hotter flame.

A hotter flame is therefore given/not given by a bigger candle.

In this example it may seem that students are being ‘fed’ the answers. Indeed, teachers often believe that too much scaffolding is ‘cheating’. However, a distinction can be made between formative assessment tasks which take assessment-as-learning opportunities rather than merely testing. Scaffolding helps to bring out the potential of the students.

Initially, enough language support and scaffolding should be given to help students successfully complete a task. If a class requires a lot of support, they should receive it. The following is part of a writing frame to aid the construction of a discussion essay. This is information for only one paragraph.

Side 1 position: nuclear energy is preferable, supporting details

Nuclear energy > fossil fuels

More environmentally friendly because:

  • Burning fossil fuels → air pollutants, e.g. SO, nitrogen oxides → air pollution, acid rain → harms vegetation, human health versus nuclear energy: no air pollution during nuclear fission.
  • Burning fossil fuels → carbon dioxide → greenhouse effect → global warming. Versus no greenhouse gases during nuclear fission.

Sequencers: On the one hand, first, in contrast, second, on the contrary.

This is very detailed, but it provides all the information needed to produce high-quality writing. By consulting this writing frame, a student could write a paragraph like this:

On the one hand, generating electricity with nuclear power is more environmentally friendly for two reasons. First, burning fossil fuels generates air pollutants like SO2 and nitrogen oxides. These pollutants may cause acid rain which harms vegetation. In contrast, no air pollutants are produced in the process of nuclear fission. Second, burning fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas speeding up global warming. On the contrary, there is no emission of greenhouse gases during nuclear fission, and so using nuclear energy is more environmentally friendly.

Once a class is writing consistently well, the writing frame provided can become gradually less detailed until it can be withdrawn completely.

Overall, developing formative assessment tasks to include academic language awareness can be an effective way to improve educational outcomes in international schools.

If implemented well, this approach can gradually enable students to master academic literacies needed to excel in high-stake examinations.

About the author:

blog-author-david-richardsDavid Richards is part of the Senior Leadership Team at Vinschool Central Park. He has five years’ experience working as a subject coordinator in international schools.

Contact him directly at


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