George Lucas Educational Foundation
English-Language Learners

A Valuable Tool for English Language Learners

Portfolios provide great benefits to students writing in their second language, allowing them to see their progress toward their goals.
A young Asian girl works on her writing in class.
A young Asian girl works on her writing in class.

Writing is one of the most challenging skills to master in school. Compound this challenge by asking a student to write in their second or third language while meeting benchmarks and grade-level standards, and it’s no wonder writing appears to be such a daunting task for many English language learners, resulting in classrooms filled with apathetic and unmotivated students.

Portfolios are assessment tools designed to address these issues by placing students in the driver’s seat. The benefits of portfolios are well-documented in both theory and practice: (1) Students are able to select pieces of writing that showcase important milestones in their learning trajectory; (2) students take ownership of their learning through consistent goal-setting, reflection, and other metacognitive processes; and (3) students develop self-regulation skills that empower them with agency. But can portfolios be tailored to the specific learning and linguistic needs of our English language learners?

According to principles in second language writing research, portfolios can break down the writing process by content and language to better engage English language learners. This makes writing much less daunting and allows learners to become more aware of their own development as writers. The downloadable sample portfolio checklist that accompanies this article is one I used as a teacher of elementary-aged English language learners—and it can easily be adapted for use with older students. It covers three critical stages of the writing portfolio: goal setting, monitoring, and reflecting.

1. Goal setting

Student-directed goal setting provides learners with a purpose for writing. While some children might aim to write “the scariest horror story ever known to mankind,” English language learners often feel that their creativity is stifled by the errors they will likely make. Let them know that their ideas are important by providing them with a list of goals divided into content and language (page 1 of the download). This encourages them to use their artistic license in their content while maintaining separate, tangible goals for the mechanics of their writing.

Classroom tip: Change the content and language goals according to the genre that children are writing. For example, fables or stories may include characters with speech (content) and past tense (language) goals, while expository texts may include examples (content) and topic sentences (language). Consider setting a class goal so you can hit important features of the writing genre, but allow students to choose other goals or make up their own. Also, make sure students don’t check too many boxes, so they can go in-depth and monitor their goals more precisely.

2. Monitoring

Portfolio assessments are distinct from other assessments because they require students to monitor their own learning. Learners need to monitor their goals with each writing piece. As students write, remind them to refer to their content and language goals. When conferencing with students and providing written feedback on their drafts, make sure your feedback relates to their goals. Also, provide rubrics (page 2 of the download) to students before the writing begins—incorporate elements of the content and language goals into the rubrics for reinforcement.

3. Reflection

Finally, after each writing unit, students need to undergo two stages of reflection: first on the recently completed writing piece, and second on their overall writing development. Besides making sure that students reflect on their content and language goals, an important consideration for English language learners is to let them reflect using language(s) they are comfortable with. The goal of reflection is not to practice the new language, but to cognitively engage in the monitoring process.

The second stage of reflection requires students to reflect on all of the writing pieces they’ve produced thus far. This may vary from classroom to classroom because some portfolios may include student-selected pieces of writing, while others might include all of their writing. Either way, this final step of reflection is critical. To reflect on their language goals, English language learners need to become aware of the types of mistakes they make (e.g., tense, punctuation, spelling). An error log (page 3 of the download) is a wonderful tool that allows students to tally and monitor these errors over time.

Finally, allow students to systematically reflect on previous writing units by using a form or worksheet to serve as a guide (pages 4–5 of the download). Make sure these reflections include both the technical aspects of writing and students’ personal enjoyment/reactions toward writing. Reflections should end with a resolution for future writing-related goals.

When English language learners are treated as writers and given the opportunity to understand where they are in their journey to becoming writers, they become much more motivated and excited to write. Moreover, allowing students to assess where they are in their writing, set goals for the future, and then monitor and reflect on how well they’ve achieved these goals teaches them the invaluable skill of self-regulation—a life skill that will see them through college and adulthood.

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Sandra Ajaps's picture

I really enjoyed reading this article, and I particularly love the attached Writing Portfolio Checklist. I feel like I need this for my writing, even as a graduate student..haha. One of my favorite sentences in the article is "Portfolios are assessment tools designed to address these issues by placing students in the driver's seat". This is because students are usually relegated to the back seat of their own learning. For example, most of the assessments I have undertaken were not this transparent, and in most cases I didn't know the specifics of what I was doing correctly or wrongly. Please continue sharing your awesome work Kevin, and I hope they get to be widely adopted.

Kevin Wong's picture
Kevin Wong
Educator | Researcher | Advocate

I'm glad you enjoyed the article, Sandra. I also think that breaking down the writing process into content and language is a good practice for everyone, graduate students included! Regarding the "driver's seat" quote, I am a firm believer that modifying our instruction without lessening our expectations is key if we want to motivate students with successful experiences and cultivate a love of writing.

Nick Blackwell's picture

Thanks for the article. I love the point about having students reflect in two ways after posting new pieces of writing. This is a great way to help students monitor their proximal and distal goals in their writing.

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