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Formative Assessments--and Teaching ELLs to Read

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A new book, Formative Assessment for Literacy: Grades K-6, provides some help for regular elementary or reading teachers who have ELLs in their classrooms. The book, published by Corwin Press, isn't about ELLs in particular, but includes them in various examples.

In the field of commercial test development, banks of test items or tests that can be given periodically are called "formative assessments." But in the book, the term "formative assessment" does not necessarily refer to a specific formal assessment. The authors include under that umbrella assessments with different degrees of spontaneity, such as observations by teachers and conversations they have with their students. For example, the book describes how one teacher assesses a six-year-old ELL student named Marco simply by listening to him read for a short while. She soon realizes that he's reading some unfamiliar words backwards and may need help in learning to scan words from left to right.

I took note of the book because it is co-authored by Alison L. Bailey, an associate professor in psychological studies in education at the University of California, Los Angeles. In her previous book, co-authored with Frances A. Butler, a retired researcher from UCLA, she helped to advance educators' understanding of what "academic English" means for ELLs. That book was called The Language Demands of School: Putting Academic English to the Test and was published by Yale University Press in 2007. Here is my take on that book.

Ms. Bailey sent me a few notes about her new book in an e-mail. "With the help of the teachers who shared their stories of formative assessment, we have simply formalized what effective teachers tend to do naturally all the time," she wrote. She explains that the intent of the book is to help teachers shift from simply making mental notes of how their students are progressing to thinking about how they can change their instruction based on their observations.

She co-authored the new book with Margaret Heritage, the assistant director for professional development at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Learning.

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Informal assessments of reading are usually better. They are usually geared towards the native speaking population and that often makes interpretation difficult.

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