How to Test ESL Writing

Regardless of what you teach, assessing an ESL student's paper can be particularly challenging. Should you have the same expectations for ESL students' papers as you do for native speakers' writing? Should you give separate grades for content and grammar? These are just a few of the questions you should ask yourself when grading an ESL paper. The answers to such questions will depend at least partially on individual circumstances, such as the nature of the course. However, following some general guidelines can help you effectively test ESL writing.

Things You'll Need

  • Pen and paper
  • Student work


    • 1

      Read for content. Unless you are grading an exam that is meant to assess only usage and punctuation, content always trumps grammar. Determine whether or not the student is attempting to answer the prompt or fulfill the parameters of the assignment. Question the paper's depth, development, and unique insight. If allowing for revision, make comments that clearly explain how the student could improve her content.

    • 2

      Note usage errors. Mark grammar, punctuation and sentence structure problems in such a way that it requires the student to look up and understand these problems. Don't simply correct the essay. Use a circle, check mark, or highlighting/underlining system. Make a summary note to remind yourself and the student of the largest mechanical problems in his text. Also note whether these mechanical problems interfere with the paper's meaning. According to Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock's book on ESL composition, keeping notes on your students' writing, attendance and participation are all important parts of grading.

    • 3

      Read through all the papers written by a particular class. Before assigning a grade, read through a stack of papers with a pen and notebook beside you. Make notes of problems that seem to appear often. If you're seeing the same error over and over again, it may be a result of too little time spent on the issue, rather than a student's lack of understanding. Be sure to take these issues into account when you assign the final grade and plan your next lesson.

    • 4

      Use a rubric. Design a rubric that clearly lists important grammatical and content areas. For each paper, assess a student's performance in each content area. Choosing four categories that range from excellent to unacceptable can make it easy for the student to understand skills that she has mastered and must develop. This also allows you to easily justify a grade. Additionally, by presenting the rubric to your ESL students before you grade the paper, you clearly communicate what you are expecting from them.

    • 5

      Manage your time. According to "Teaching ESL Composition," it can take as long as eight hours to grade a stack of 500-word essays. The book recommends that you schedule enough of your time to respond thoroughly, building in time for any possible delays.

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