Identifying Language Proficiency for Program Placement

The purpose of assessment for program placement is to identify those English language learners (ELLs) who need specific instructional services. State policies on program offerings vary, but they tend to offer sheltered English, ESL, or bilingual education. According to federal and state laws, students whoare not proficient enough to bein a mainstream all-English program must receivespecializedlanguage instruction(unless parents decide to opt out). The goal of this instruction is to help students learn the English language skills they need to succeed socially and academically in amainstreamclassroom.

The identification of ELLs' language and academic needs is very important, because it becomes the basis for the development of a proper program of instruction. When ELLs' needs are not identified, their program may lack the instructional components necessary for their success in language proficiency and academic achievement. A proper assessment of your ELLs' needs will identify their:

Student home language survey

Many state and district mandates require families of ELLs to complete a home language survey in their primary language (or if not available, then in English) as soon as they register in the district. This survey is usually given in the front office when ELLs and their parents first arrive. The survey has questions to identify the ELL's home and preferred language. For the most part, home language surveys include versions of the following questions:

  • Is English your first language?
  • Can you speak another language? If yes, what language?
  • What language do you speak most often with your friends?
  • What language do you speak most often with your family?

Here are some sample home language surveys from the Vermont Department of Education and the Washington State Department of Education.

Note: California offers a list of common FAQs related to Title III, including information about parental notification of LEP services, on their Department of Education website.

Identifying educational background

In addition to knowing what language an ELL speaks at home, you will need to find out about his or her education, literacy skills, and previous experience with English. Questions like the following are useful:

  • How many years were you in school in your native country? In the United States?
  • What is the last name of the school you attended?
  • What grade were you in at the last school you attended?
  • What is the name of the school you attended?
  • Can you read in Spanish (your native language)? How well?
  • Can you write in Spanish (your native language)? How well?
  • How much help do you need to learn English?
  • Where do you need to the most help? Speaking? Listening? Reading? Writing?

Identifying levels of English proficiency

At this point, it is important to find out what your student's oral communication and literacy levels are. Your state will probably have a very specific process that you are mandated to follow, such as the LEP Identification Process in New York. Ideally, this process will help you assess whether the student can communicate orally, and read and write in English at grade level.

Remember to take into account the differences between social English and academic English. Students who can understand and respond orally in English in a face-to-face conversation may not be proficient in academic written English or literate enough to be placed in a grade-level English classroom. It is one thing to have a conversation in English with classmates. It is another, however, to read in academic English and understand textbook presentations of content material in science, math, social studies, and language arts.

Here are three commonly-used oral English language proficiency tests:

  1. Language Assessment Scales (LAS)
  2. IDEA Oral Language Proficiency Test
  3. Basic Inventory of Natural Language (BINL)

Learn more about assessing fluency in reading.

Identifying academic experience

Once you have assessed the student's level of language proficiency, it may be helpful to assess his or her knowledge of content areas in English and/or Spanish (although this may not be part of the formal assessment process). Knowing your ELL's level of content area knowledge is another important part of determining the best placement for this student.

Here are some questions you may want to ask the ELL (or parents or guardians) about his or her academic knowledge:

  • What subjects did you study in your previous school(s)? In what language(s) did you study?
    (¿Qué materias estudiaste antes de venir a esta escuela? ¿En qué idiomas estudiabas?)
  • Which books did you use in your other schools? In what language(s) were the books written?
    (¿Qué libros de texto usaste en tus estudios? ¿En qué idiomas estaban escritos?)
  • Did you study in a bilingual program? If yes, which subjects did you study in Spanish and which did you study in English?
    (¿Estudiaste en un programa bilingüe? Si es así, ¿qué cursos estudiabas en español y cuáles en inglés?)

With all of this information in hand, your next step is making recommendations for placing ELLs in the best program of instruction.


Adapted from: Eastern Stream Center on Resources and Training (ESCORT). (2003). Help! They don't speak English. Starter kit. Oneonta, NY: State University College.

And from: Ovando, C. J., Collier, V. P., & Combs, M. C. (2003). Bilingual and ESL classrooms. Teaching in multicultural contexts (3rd ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.

Sample survey questions adapted from: Hamayan, E.V., Kwiat, J.A., & Perlman, R. (1985). The identification and assessment of language minority students: A handbook for educators. Arlington Heights, IL: Illinois Resource Center.


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