The Internet TESL Journal

Numerically Assessing Young ESL/EFL Learners Without Tests

James Abela
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University of Leeds (Leeds, United Kingdom)
This article shows ESL teachers how they can quickly turn simple observations into information that is easy to compare, analyse and share with parents.


Parents would like as much information on their child as possible and this is especially true when they are paying for English lessons. Furthermore they want to see clear improvements and hard evidence of those improvements. However for young learners tests can be very intimidating and in some cases are only being done, because the teacher does not have a better system in place for assessing students. This article will show you, step by step, how to take simple observations and turn them into quantified information. Very few parents are likely to argue with hard figures especially when they are presented in a graphical form.

From Observation to Numbers

A test is easy to quantify, because there is a mark and that mark can then be entered into a system. For example the 44 common sounds that English use in the International Phonic Alphabet can simply be measured on a 0 to 44 scale. (O' Connor 1980)

However that does not tell the whole story and a large part of assessment in younger learners is their attitude to learning and the social skills that they learn. For example, one goal in the Early Learning Framework is to, "Enjoy listening to and using spoken and written language, and readily turn to it in their play and learning." (UK Govt: DSCF 2008)

The first step is to turn this goal into an assessment of some kind. In this case observation might be appropriate and so the teacher would listen to the dialogue that children use in play and learning.

The second step is to turn this into a scale with:
Other scales might include those for motivation or interest:
The advantage of a 0 to 4 scale is that it can also be quickly be turned into grades with, 0 being Ungraded, 1 being D, 2 C, 3 B and 4 A.  You can also make half grades with the use of the decimal point so 3.5 could be a B+ etc.

These two sets of scales could be applied to a wide range of skills and really show to parents that you have measured progress.

From Numbers to Information

Once the scales have been decided then you can either decide to keep them in a manual mark book, which in itself would allow you to quickly compile reports for parents or put it into a spreadsheet such as Microsoft Excel or the free Open Office Calc. The advantage of a spreadsheet is that you can quickly generate individual reports and show the information graphically. 

There are a number of useful functions in Excel that once learnt will enable you to quickly identify children falling behind and those who are getting ahead of the class.

One of the most useful functions and least used is conditional formatting. This allows you to change the colour of the cell dependent on number put in. In Excel 2007 this can be found in the home ribbon and there are a number of ready made schemes to use.

Also you can create averages that allow you to see how the class is doing as whole. Excel uses the mean average as the default average, but do not forget the mode average which allows you to know how the majority of the class are doing. It is also good to use MAX and MIN to find out the highest and lowest scores at a glance.

What is most important for parents is to be able to see how their child has improved and line graphs are an invaluable tool to do this and once you have the information in a spreadsheet, a graph can be generated in a few clicks of the mouse. There are other useful functions such as VLOOKUP, which allows you to change numbers back into grades.

If you are not familiar with spreadsheets, then here is a ready made spreadsheet template with all of the formulae for 20 students in Excel 2007 (grading.xls 20KB) and Open Office Calc. (grading.ots 60KB) If you have more than 20 students, just use two sheets.


People have traditionally divided science and humanities, but by taking this approach we can take advantage of a scientific numeric approach without significantly compromising on qualitative assessment. In essence this approach quantifies the unquantifiable with excellent benefits for teachers, parents and centre managers alike.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 4, April 2010