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Using Portfolios as a Tool for Assessment in ESL Classes

Updated on June 5, 2014

What are the different kinds of portfolios?

There are three different kinds of portfolios (according to O'Malley and Pierce). They are showcase portfolios, collections portfolios, and assessment portfolios.

Showcase Portfolios - These are portfolios that show the student's best work. These types of portfolios could be used in parent-teacher conferences, school showcases, or even an end of the year assignment.

Collections Portfolios - These portfolios contain all of the student's work, they don't leave anything out. These could also be used in conferences or for an end of the year assignment. I will be honest, these are not my favorite kind of portfolios. However, that might be due to the fact that I am not sure when I would want to use it. That might not be the case with you.

Assessment Portfolios - These portfolios involve gathering specific materials based on certain criteria and also include student self-assessment and teacher assessment. These are perfect for final projects. This is the type of portfolio I have the most experience with and, therefore, will be the focus of my discussion.

What are portfolios?

There are many different definitions which explain what portfolios are, but my favorite (and the one I rely on) is the one given by O'Malley and Pierce in their book Authentic Assessment for English Language Learner: Practical Approaches for Teachers. They say that "portfolio assessment is a systematic collection of student work that is analyzed to show progress over time with regard to instructional objectives" (p. 5). Basically, portfolios can be designed by teachers in such a way that the students gather specific materials over a period of time with certain goals or objectives in mind.

That is the overall definition. However, you might still be wondering, but what is it exactly? In order to determine if an assessment is a portfolio or not, simply ask yourself if it has the following characteristics: it must contain samples of student work, it must have some form of student self-assessment, and it must have clearly stated criteria. These characteristics are what make an assessment a portfolio.

A Useful Resource

The book that first inspired me to use portfolios in my classroom.
The book that first inspired me to use portfolios in my classroom. | Source

How do I create the portfolio assessment?

To begin with, you need to ask yourself the following questions: What are you assessing? What assignments will the students complete that will already reflect that assessment? How will you have them bring it all together? How will you have them assess themselves? How will assess the portfolio?

What are you assessing? What are your specific goals for this assessment? For example, when I am designing a portfolio project, I look at the goals that I have for the semester. I then choose one or two that will be the focus of my assessment. Another option is to categorize your goals into two or three overall objectives (essentially creating two or three new goals that encompass all of your goals for the semester). These overarching goals can then become what you are assessing in with the portfolio. That is one of the things that I like about this kind of assessment. You can assess a lot of different things with one project and not have to hand out any bubble sheets.

What assignments will the students complete that will already reflect that assessment? During the semester, you might have assignments that already assess your objectives. What are they and can you incorporate them into the portfolio?

How will have them bring it all together? This is one of the most important parts of this process. By now you have decided to do a portfolio assessment and what you want to assess, but how are you going to bring it all together? Think back to the different kinds of assessments. I like to borrow elements from those and incorporate them into the assessment. For example, do you want to include all of the assignments from the semester? You can do that, just add some extra elements. You can have them divided into categories, determined by you or your students. Perhaps you only want their best work (again, ask yourself if you will determine what is their best work or if they will). Another option is to include the best, the worst, the easiest, or the most difficult. You have a lot of options and I'm sure that, as you think about it, you will be able to come up with even more. Think of it as a menu and it is up to you to determine what you want.

How will you have them assess themselves? This is one of my favorite parts of the portfolio assessment. This is when the students are given a voice. They have a chance to give their opinion. Self-assessment or self-reflection is one of the key differences between portfolios and other forms of assessment. You need to decide how they will do that. In order to determine that you need to take into consideration your students' proficiency levels. What are they able to do? Can they write a short paragraph? Maybe a worksheet is a more feasible option. Again, use your imagination and see what you can come up with.

Finally, how will you assess them? You already have the specific objectives, now you need to determine how you will actually grade the students. This is my least favorite part. I rely heavily on rubrics as they help me to organize my thoughts and they also clearly show what I expect from my students.

How have I used portfolio assessments?

I have used portfolio assessments in many different classes, but I am going to focus on how I have used it for my ESL writing classes. I have used it in Level 1 and Level 2 writing classes. For this explanation, though, I will use my Level 2 class as an example.

When I looked at my objectives, I chose I would use the portfolio to evaluate the following:
- How well can my students organize their ideas?
- Are they able to write using simple sentences, topic sentences, transitions, compound sentences, and coordinating conjunctions correctly?
- Are they able to proofread their own work?

Next, I determined what assessments my students would complete during the semester that would already address these objectives. As it is a writing class, the students will write several short essays through the course of the semester. Therefore, the criteria of the portfolio will be very similar to the criteria of the paragraphs. At this point I decided that I would use the portfolio as an opportunity to see how well the students had learned from their mistakes on previous assignments.

This leads me to the next step, bring it all together. I determined that the portfolio would be a collection of paragraphs. However, the students would choose what paragraphs would be included. I decided that there would be two categories - their favorite essays and their most difficult essays. The number would be determined by how many essays would be written throughout the whole semester. I didn't want them to include every essay, only a good sample. In this instance, it ended up being two favorite essays and two difficult essays. Now, in order to address the first two points in my evaluation, I wanted to see how well they could write without the guidance they usually received in class. Therefore, I decided that they should write an extra paragraph. Also, they would be required to rewrite all of the essays they include in their portfolio. The students would have had the essays graded, with my notes. Rewriting them would give them an opportunity to perfect them and address the comments I had made. In addition, I decided to include conferences with my students. The purpose of these conferences would be to make sure the students are on the right track (pre-portfolio conferences) and then to give the students my feedback (post-portfolio conferences). I considered including this as part of the grading process for the portfolio, however, I decided to simply include it in the participation portion of the course grade instead.

Then comes the big question, how will the students assess themselves? This is where I decided to use the extra paragraph to my advantage. The topic of the paragraph was "what did I learn this semester?" The students were to share different things that they had learned and what they liked about the class. In addition, I provided a short form for them to complete for their favorite and difficult paragraphs. The different parts of the form included answering the questions such as why are these your favorite/difficult paragraphs, what new words did you use, etc? This allowed the students to look back at their work and really reflect on what they had learned.

Finally, my least favorite part, how will I assess it? I decided to break it down into parts - the rewritten paragraphs, the new paragraph, and the portfolio as a whole. I would evaluate the rewritten paragraphs and the new paragraph using the exact same criteria I used the whole semester. The portfolio as a whole I would grade based more on completion - did the students include all the required essays? Did they complete the forms? Did they write a new essay? Then, using a straight forward point system, I would compile the points from the rewritten paragraphs, the new paragraph, and the whole portfolio and that would be the whole grade.

Preferred Assessments

What is your favorite form of assessment?

See results

And there it is!

And that is portfolio assessment. Remember, my example is simply one way you can use the portfolio in you classroom. Take this format and run wild with it! It can easily be used as a springboard into developing other forms of assessment. I have used it to help me create more authentic assessments for reading classes and even a Spanish 1010 class.

Just remember, when you are developing your assessment, do not forget the voice of the students. The students are what make the portfolio assessment more authentic than other forms of assessment. If they lose their voice, then it is simply another assignment. Now, is this method perfect? No. It has imperfections, but as you work with it and determine what you want your students to do, how you want it to work in your classes, then you will be better able to weed out the imperfections.


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