Multilingualism and Foreign Language acquisition
Making Assessments More Equitable for Multilingual Learners

Four cheerful pupils
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Teachers can take steps to make sure that tests only measure students’ content knowledge rather than their reading comprehension.

By Tan Huynh

Two assessments used widely by educators are final exams and reports. When these assessment types are scaffolded so that they are accessible, they become equitable tools for evaluation of learning. However, when the appropriate scaffolds are missing, these assessments can become confusing reading comprehension tests and frustrating writing tests, particularly for multilingual learners. Through engineering assessments, teachers can design exams and reports to assess only content by incorporating various linguistic scaffolds.

Engineering Exams

Scaffolding an exam does not reduce the academic standards. It simply makes the instructions more comprehensible and helps students produce more accurate responses. For example, teachers can write synonyms behind academic words that might be unfamiliar to students to make the question more accessible.

Walrus © © Colourbox Walrus © Colourbox
A hypothetical engineered sentence could be “Identify (list) all the adaptations of the walrus (see image) to survive (live) in an aquatic (water) habitat.” Adding a picture of a walrus below the exam question helps support comprehension. Providing synonyms for the words that might be unfamiliar also provides an important scaffold.

Adaptations and habitat do not need a synonym behind them because they were taught in the unit, so students had multiple opportunities to learn them. Without adding synonyms to the unfamiliar words, the question could be incomprehensible to multilingual students who fully understand the concept of adaptations and habitat.

When asking for a short response on an exam, teachers can provide a sentence starter or a sentence frame. The sentence starter simply supports students with starting their response, while the sentence frame prompts students to provide specific information at specific points in the sentence. Sentence starters and sentence frames help multilingual students produce more content-based responses without providing students with the answers.

For example, this sentence starter can prompt students to think of an appropriate answer:The most important symbol in this piece of art is… A sentence frame might sound like this:The artist, [name of the artist], chose to symbolize [a concept] with the [the object from the painting] because… Engineering an exam this way helps multilingual students communicate as mathematicians, architects, biologists, historians, etc.

Engineering Reports

Reports can also be engineered to be more equitable for multilingual learners without watering down the academic expectations.

If a report asks students to analyze a revolution, the instructions can be engineered to be comprehensible and to structure the output. The first step to engineering a report is to create a template that provides instructions and a place for students to write their ideas. In the template, teachers can clearly identify all of the required parts (e.g., introduction of revolution, power of the main leader, demands by the people, fight for power, effect).

After identifying all the required elements for the report, the teacher can sequence the parts logically, as the order of ideas makes students’ communication clearer.

For example, students have to write an introduction first because it provides the date that the revolution started, the place it occurred, and the groups involved. Then, they end with a thesis statement that explains what governments can learn from this revolution. This introduction is required before writing about the systems and policies that the leader put in place to maintain complete control.

For each part of the report, teachers can write guiding questions and prompts to help multilingual students know what content they have to communicate. In the section about the power of the leader, for example, the guiding questions and prompt might appear like these:
  • How did the leader make decisions?
  • What did the leader not allow citizens to do?
  • What systems did the leader use to control people?
  • What did the leader do when he faced criticism by others?
These prompts help make communicating ideas about the leader’s power more concrete and specific. With these prompts, multilingual students will more likely provide the appropriate details and stay focused on a specific topic instead of writing just to fit the word count.

Multilingual students who are developing their proficiency in English can first produce the answers in another language that they are more academically fluent in. They can then move these ideas into English once they have them established in another language.

To support multilingual students with developing English proficiency, teachers can also mirror the sentence starter and sentence frame strategy and apply it to engineering reports. Teachers can offer a template with sentence starters and frames to respond to each prompt. For example, they can engineer the report to have this sentence frame embedded in the instructions: The [#] ways that the leader maintained (kept) absolute (complete) power were to…

Creating Equity

Assessments do not need to be less rigorous for multilingual students. Actually, doing so would make learning inequitable. Being held to significantly lower standards would not develop grade-level skills or build content-based knowledge.

Instead, let’s continue to keep the standards high but change the appearance and formatting of exams and the instructions in reports. Assessments should not privilege those who understand more English. Assessments should be engineered to preemptively support multilingual students in successfully engaging with them. When this happens, assessment becomes an equitable, more reliable tool for learning and evaluation.

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