ELL Identification: Information for Administrators

Transforming Schools for English Learners: A Comprehensive Framework for School Leaders

Administrators play an important role in shaping the policies and procedures for identifying the language and academic needs of English language learners (ELLs). In this excerpt from Transforming Schools for English Learners: A Comprehensive Framework for School Leaders, Debbie Zacarian offers administrators an overview to ELL identification and placement best practices within the context of choosing the right program model for the population.

Topics include information about home language surveys, test validity, and scheduling considerations.

What steps are needed for effectively identifying ELs?

A home language survey

A home language survey is by far the most common means and tool to determine who might or might not be an English learner (EL). It is intended as a means for determining who should be assessed. The purpose is not to decide who is and is not an EL. This document should be furnished to parents at enrollment, one for each enrollee, as a means for initially sorting the students who use a language other than English. A school principal will include this as part of the enrollment forms that parents will complete.

One might think that, because the dominant population in most of the nation's schools is monolingual speakers of English, a home language survey seems like a nice but unnecessary, or even impractical idea. A school may decide that it can figure out on its own which families should be given the survey. But how would a school know? Would it be when a parent speaks with an accent? This may lead to unintended discriminatory practices, and a school may miss many potential ELs if done by guesswork alone. Therefore, a home language survey should be given to each and every new enrollee and ideally will include a series of questions about a child's language use with family members and others as well as a few questions about prior schooling.

If the answer to any question on the home language survey indicates that a child uses a language other than English (e.g., if the child uses another language when speaking with friends or a grandparent), the child must be assessed to determine whether he or she is an EL. It is a federal regulation that potential ELs be identified. The home language survey is a crucial first step in this process.

However, this survey should not be the only means for identifying language-minority students. Some parents may indicate that their children use only English when that is, in fact, not the case. This may occur for a variety of reasons, including the fear that their children will not be allowed to attend school or will not be treated like other children. When a school suspects that a student may be an EL, the student must be assessed.

Identification testing

Testing must include, where age-appropriate, assessing a student's ability to listen, speak, read, and write in English. It is not uncommon for a student to test proficient in listening and speaking but not in reading and writing. The federal definition of an EL is a student who is not yet able to do ordinary class work in English. The capacity to do ordinary work requires English proficiency in all four areas: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The purpose of the assessments is threefold:

  • Identifying a student's need for EL services
  • Establishing an EL's English proficiency level
  • Determining the number of ELs in a district and their English language and learning needs

There are a number of reliable commercially available screening tests that are specifically designed for identifying ELs. In alphabetical order, the following are five commonly used English language proficiency tests:

  • Bilingual Syntax Measure (BSM) of listening and speaking
  • IDEA Proficiency Test (IPT)
  • Language Assessment Scales (LAS)
  • WIDA-ACCESS Placement Test
  • Woodcock-Muñoz Language Survey-Revised (WMLS-R)

Some districts use the listening and speaking components of one test in combination with the reading and writing components of another. For example, they use the BSM to test listening and speaking and the LAS to test reading and writing. With the exception of the WIDA test, English and Spanish versions of these tests are available.

Assessment in the primary language

It is very helpful, when possible, to test students in both their primary language and English, and this is essential for planning and implementing bilingual programming. It provides key information about a student's ability to listen, speak, read, and write in both languages. For example, students from literacy-oriented backgrounds may perform at the proficient level in Spanish and the pre-production level in English, whereas students from non-literacy-oriented experiences may perform at a lower proficiency level in Spanish.

The Student Oral Language Observation Matrix (SOLOM) was developed by the California Department of Education to assess students' ability to listen and speak in any language (Lindholm-Leary, 2001). It is particularly helpful for assessing the primary languages of students who speak languages other than English and Spanish.

To administer the SOLOM, an assessor observes a student engaging in listening and speaking tasks and then rates the student's skills in these tasks according to five language areas: comprehension, fluency, vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. The assessor must be fully proficient in the language being assessed. As with any identification testing, an assessment of reading and writing should also accompany the SOLOM results.

Administrators may wish to have their own identification assessments created in English and/or another language by knowledgeable staff. They should check with their state department of education to ensure that the identification testing that is used is in compliance with state requirements.

Identification considerations

When should identification testing be done?

Potential ELs should be tested as soon as possible. State regulations may require schools to complete identification testing within a certain period of time after enrollment. A good rule of thumb is to assess a student within his or her first five days at school. There are two very good reasons for completing identification testing quickly:

  1. It allows a school to determine programming needs as soon as possible.
  2. It enables students who have been identified as ELs to receive appropriate programming as soon as possible.

Allocating staff and time for testing

School leaders should consult with their state department of education to determine whether those who identify ELs are properly licensed to do so. Generally, ESL and bilingual education teachers are trained to administer identification testing and should be the ones to do it. In the absence of this, school administrators must make every effort to assign and train staff to do this task according to their state regulations. They must also ensure that there is enough staff for all of the testing that needs to be done. Further, whoever is assigned to do it must be proficient in the language that is being tested.

Most testing is administered individually and may take anywhere from just a couple of minutes (e.g., if a child is completely non-English-speaking) to an hour or more; the more language proficiency a student has, and the older the student, the longer the assessment period will probably take. The time needed to complete this task is important to factor into one's planning. It is helpful for districts to keep a record of the time that it takes to conduct their identification testing and to use these calculations from year to year to estimate the time needed for it. School leaders, especially those in districts with large numbers of ELs, should also calculate the anticipated number of enrollees per year and the hours needed for testing so that this activity can be completed successfully in the shortest time possible.

It is also important that the testing be done in a comfortable, quiet location to ensure the most accurate results. This may mean having staff travel to the school in which the student is enrolled or training staff in each school to provide the testing. Districts that have central registration centers should allocate appropriate space for identification testing to occur.

Documenting language proficiency test findings

Documenting test findings is important, as is tracking student growth. This and the home language survey provide key information about the ELs who have been identified.

Including a parent and/or student interview when an EL is identified

As essential as they are, neither the home language survey nor the EL testing provide information about a student's prior schooling and other relevant background information. When a student is identified as an EL, it is important for school leaders to gather such information. This is particularly true for students with interrupted formal education and students from non-literacy-oriented backgrounds. An interview with the parents and/or their child is an important next step. Parents and students should be provided with bilingual translators, as needed, to conduct the interview or provide the needed interpreting support of the interview.

Analyzing home language survey, testing, and interview of findings

The initial analysis of home language survey, EL assessment, and interview data guides school leaders in selecting the most appropriate EL program models for their school or district. Programming should be understood as an inclusive way for a school's ELs to be active learners in and members of their school community. The more information that is gathered, the better the chances are that the program model will be successful.

Determining commonalities and differences in the data is crucial for selecting the most appropriate program model. For example: Do many of the district's ELs speak the same primary language? Are they in the same grades, separated among all of the grades, or scattered throughout the district? Are there commonalities in their English proficiency levels? Some important categories to help you organize your data include:

  • First language
  • Country of origin
  • English proficiency level
  • Interrupted or limited prior schooling
  • Receiving free or reduced lunch
  • Receiving Title I services

Program model options will become clearer through the analysis process. For example, a district may find that it has many speakers of the same language and that a bilingual program model is, therefore, and appropriate choice.


Reprinted with permission. Zacarian, Debbie. Transforming Schools for English Learners: A Comprehensive Framework for School Leaders. 42-45. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2011.


Lindholm-Leary, K.J. (2001). Dual language education. Avon, UK: Multilingual Matters.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.

More by this author

Donate to Colorin Colorado

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.