4 Ways to Maximize Your ESL Test Prep
In recent years, legislature has increasingly focused on academic accountability, resulting in standardized tests becoming a routine part of education. All students need to take standardized tests to show what they know, including students in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs.
Test-taking can be especially stressful for English language learners (ELLs) as they are navigating a new language. When it comes to ESL testing and evaluation, every test is a test of the student’s language proficiency.
According to Shelley Fairburn, author of Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, “English language learners’ scores on large-scale and classroom achievement tests are often low due to a number of issues beyond the knowledge, skills, and abilities that the test is intended to measure. Matters of language, ineffective use of test accommodations, and unfamiliarity with the test and/or format…may impact test scores in such a way that the scores represent issues beyond the content and/or skills that are the focus of the test.”
4 ESL Test Prep Tips
It is crucial for teachers to be intentional in using ESL test prep strategies and practices that will help to close the achievement gap. The following list of ELL test prep tips will help your students confidently show what they know on test day.
1. Provide a solid foundation of content knowledge
Since ELLs receive educational services both in the general education classroom and in the ESL classroom, it is important that ESL and general education teachers are in frequent communication and collaboration. Utilize each teacher’s unique experience and background—strengthening your co-teaching relationship will ensure your students have a good academic foundation.
It is also important to assess your students in a variety of methods throughout instruction. While this is considered best practice for all learners, it is especially helpful for ESL testing and evaluation. Traditional tests typically involve rote memorization or require the application of language skills that ELLs are still developing. By assessing students in a variety of ways, you can get a better understanding of their mastery of the content, instead of simply how well they can perform on a test.
2. Focus on stress-reduction strategies
Test anxiety can make it difficult for any student to perform to their fullest potential— even if they know the content. ELLs have the added stress of taking a test in an unfamiliar language. Educators can help students overcome their test anxiety by teaching stress-reduction strategies:
- Reinforce healthy habits, like getting a good night’s sleep and eating well.
- Practice mindfulness in and out of the classroom.
- Encourage a growth mindset.
- Promote good study habits.
Many schools will send home handouts to give parents ideas on how to support their children during testing days. This is especially important for parents of ELLs, who may not be familiar with standardized testing and its purpose. If you don’t have an interpreter available, you can use free services like Google Translate or Microsoft Translate for Educators.
We’ve developed our Homework Tips and Test Taking Strategies Parent Guide to provide parents with tips and resources to support their child’s learning at home. This title is available in Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, English, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Urdu.
3. Teach test-taking skills
Some ELLs may not have had much schooling in their native language and, as a result, have not had much experience with taking tests. For these students, it’s especially important to explicitly teach test-taking strategies.
Types of test strategies
When introducing a strategy, make sure you model it first. Then, have students work in pairs or small groups to practice the strategy before having them practice independently. The following are helpful strategies to teach during your ESL test prep:
- Read all the choices before selecting your answer.
- Use the process of elimination.
- Look for keywords in the question.
- Look for words like “all” or “none” to help you narrow down your choices.
- Read through both sets of terms before you answer.
- Select the matches that you know first.
- True or false
- Pay attention to qualifying words like “always,” “never,” or “every.”
- Watch for double negatives (i.e. “It is unlikely that the rabbit will not win the race.”)
- Remember, the entire statement must be true for it to be considered true.
- Read the entire prompt carefully and underline any key ideas.
- Organize your thoughts before beginning to write.
- Reword the question into an introduction for your answer.
Build test structures into daily routines
It’s important to provide students with many opportunities to apply these strategies before they encounter them on their exams. Consider incorporating the following ideas into your instruction to boost your ESL test prep:
Daily timed writing prompts
Help students become comfortable with timed tests by regularly implementing quick timed writing responses in your lessons. These prompts should be fun and engaging. Remember, the main goal of the activity is for students to practice managing their time during tests.
You will need to scaffold this activity for your ELLs’ different language levels. You may begin by giving the students a longer timeframe to write and then gradually shortening it, or you may provide students with a pre-filled graphic organizer to organize their writing for them.
By integrating games into your lessons, you can help your students practice testing strategies in an engaging format. Create a Kahoot! to review content and reinforce multiple-choice ELL test prep strategies. Plickers is a fun method that incorporates technology into your ESL test practice—students hold up cards to answer and the teacher scans the room with a phone or tablet to quickly assess understanding.
Adapt “Four Corners” to help students practice identifying statements as true or false. Label two corners of the room as either “true” or “false.” Give students a statement and ask them if they believe it’s true or false. Students can show their answers by standing in the corresponding corners.
4. Give practice tests
You can use practice tests as a formative assessment throughout the year to help you hone in on what your ELLs need to practice for the test. Ideally, you will be using multiple forms of assessment to determine your students’ levels of understanding of content knowledge. ESL practice tests will help you to see what they need to focus on for the test itself—do they perform well on multiple-choice questions but need help with true and false?
If the test involves technology, you will want to be sure to have your ELL students practice using technology before the exam. For example, WIDA’s ACCESS for ELLs 2.0® test is available in both paper and pencil and online format. Depending on their background, some ELLs may not be familiar with using computers or tablets to answer questions for a test. Our Finish Line for ELLs 2.0 features interactive eBooks to provide students with authentic practice for their assessments.
Online language lessons give English learners an authentic assessment experience for WIDA's ACCESS for ELLs® 2.0 and allow you to track their performance and progress.View Product →
ESL students may also be able to utilize accommodations during testing. Accommodations for ELLs are generally academic, language, opinion, or time-related. Examples include completing the test in another room, using a bilingual dictionary, extending the time for the exam, and having an interpreter available. Policies vary widely from state to state, so be sure to research your state education accommodations guidelines.
The more that students can become familiar with the test, the more confident they will feel on test day. Offering practice tests for ESL students will allow them to become familiar with the testing format as well as the types of answers they will need to provide.
Testing can be stressful for any student—especially ELLs. Taking time to incorporate ESL test prep into your instruction will go a long way in helping students feel prepared and confident on test day.
WIDA is a trademark of the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.