Essays in Language Classrooms

Essays have a very limited role in the assessment of second language learners.

As opposed to assessments that observe how children understood what they read, listened to, and are able to write, the traditional essay is limited to only one domain of language: writing.

In a limited way, we can get indirect clues as to overall ability in language with writing assessments.  But without interactive, communicative assessments that let children read, listen, and speak, we can only directly gauge one thing with essays: writing ability.  Rick Stiggins explains, “For instance, say we want to find out if students can perform certain complex behaviors such as participating collaboratively in a group, communicating orally in a second language, …There is no way to use essay responses to tap these kinds of performances...” (124).    Writing ability can relate to or give us hints at how well children can read, but why not assess them directly by letting children read and then respond verbally or nonverbally to input.

We learn to write by reading, not by writing (2005).  Writing merely makes reading more engaging and gives students a voice in a classroom.  According to Stephen Krashen, the purpose of output is to provide more input:  retelling a story to engage kids in stories and compel them to read more;  writing a friend, then reading their response; asking a question to hear a response, etc.

Sadly, most essays cut off the communication: there is a short, often low-interest prompt that is not always related to a book or story children have read or heard.  Children don’t get to contribute to the story and ideas are one-way.  Children do not feel like their words or ideas will be used for any back-and-forth exchange, only as a test.

Research suggest that  “…perceived L2 writing competence predicts L2 writing anxiety better than L2 writing achievement does”  (Cheng 647). This means children do not always write to their full potential when anxious; they write how they think they can write.

This disadvantages non-traditionally academic writers, the non 4%ers, who will feel anxious about writing and under-perform classmates who expect to write well.  This creates validity issues with the test itself, and may skew data.

Time can also be a factor. Many (but not all) essays do not give adequate “incubation time” as Krashen describes it (2005, 2).   Children are not always given time to go home, relax, and let ideas naturally come to them, sometimes days later.  Timed writes in particular do not honor the way children learn to write, and a focus on writing over responding to text can also create negative wash back (Krashen 2015, 3), and hurt motivation to focus on compelling messages.

It is important to consider the limitations of  cold writing assignments or essays.



Cheng, Y.-s. (2002), Factors Associated with Foreign Language Writing Anxiety. Foreign Language Annals, 35: 647–656.

Krashen, S. The Composing Process and the Academic Composing Process. In Selected Papers from the Fourteenth Interntional Symposium on English Teaching. English Teachers’ Association/ROC, Taipei. Taipei: Crane Publishing Company. pp. 66-77. 2005.

Krashen, S. TPRS: Contributions, Problems, New&Frontiers, and Issues. July 2015. Web.,_problems,_new_frontiers,_and_issues.pdf

Stiggins, Richard J., and Richard J. Stiggins. Student-involved Assessment for Learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.



Reading & Poverty

Brown and Krashen in 2005 described a simple, logical suggestion: “We can improve the achievement of all students by providing a print-rich environment in school.”  If the answer is so simple, why aren’t we creating opportunities for kids to read?  Why are we de-funding libraries?

Students are continuing in a catch 22: they have to read to get out of poverty, but they can’t read because of poverty-related obstacles.  Students are being told they should read… but what books and how? Continue reading Reading & Poverty

Literary Circles


For too many children, books are a chore, a thing to do.  Books are just thrust upon them.

Books are for “holding children accountable” for reading by answering A, B, C or true/false, or even worse, Close Reading.  Children analyze text in such a robotic, formulaic way that any joy in figuring out the puzzle of a good story, guessing what will happen next, or comparing characters to your life- it’s all gone.


Then there are literary circles.  

In groups, students enjoy reading and reflecting on self-selected text with friends.    The goal is to give students the power to choose to read, then share or even lead others towards deeper connections with the text.

Continue reading Literary Circles

Why “Test” is a Four-Letter Word

Tests are simply unnecessary for language learning.  Because I ascribe to Krashen’s mantra of “No unnecessary tests,” I chose not to use traditional tests, but instead focus on what children are authentically doing in a classroom.

An authentic assessment is one where we don’t just test for knowledge or skills, selecting A, B, C or true/false.  Instead, children actually use knowledge or newly-acquired language  to communicate in a way that imitates the classroom and real-world communication.

Continue reading Why “Test” is a Four-Letter Word

They aren’t just sitting there

Every teacher has those early language learners who are not yet fluent in social language.  To the untrained eye, they’re just “sitting there” but we know they are processing input.

Nonverbal response to comprehensible input is at the heart of methods like TPRS and TPR.  Assessments are built into the natural back-and-forth in a TPRS classroom, though sometimes teachers find nonverbal responses are hard to document.   Continue reading They aren’t just sitting there

Self-assessment: Students

Assessment is simply noticing students in an intentional way.  I consider it an honor to assess, to help shape how a student thinks of themselves as a scholar and a person.

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It’s the time of year to be noticed in middle school, with new shoes, new backpacks, and new friends to make.  There is never a more perfect time to assess students’ interests, their strengths or weaknesses, and most importantly their attitudes towards books.  Continue reading Self-assessment: Students

The Ignored Newcomer

Despite an ever-growing presence in US schools, many Newcomer students with limited English proficiency continue to be instructed with inappropriate methodology and programming.  Newcomers are commonly identified as those in their first year in US schools who lack proficiency in Basic Interpersonal Conversational Speech (BICS).

Newcomers lack proficiency in social language or BICS, which is foundational is to understanding the context-driven, content-reduced Academic Language used in most US schools.

Continue reading The Ignored Newcomer