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Using Portfolios in the ESL Classroom

Education system is one of the cornerstones of healthy and prosperous nation development. It is one of the most conservative systems in every country. However, education system and educational institutions have to change according the changes in society to be effective. This essay will argue that an independent learner and communal process are two important aspects of university learning. The following points will be discussed: students’ diversity, students’ subjectivities, and students’ creativity in modern university – the influence of the above-mentioned factors on these features of a modern student in terms of applying new approaches to educational process.

The modern world has become very open and closed at the same time for the past decades. The advancements in technologies have provided numerous opportunities to eliminate the borders, make knowledge and wisdom of the world available to many people. At the same time, the differences between the rich and the poor, between smart and not very smart people became even more substantial. Therefore, the conservatism of the developed societies is still in place.

On the other hand, the above-mentioned state of things has provided more people with opportunities to affect their lives and change it. Education became more available and universities faced the need to consider students’ differences. The thing is in the changing paradigm of education – it became available to those who are capable but not only for those who can afford it as it was before. Now, educational facilities have to reconsider the approaches to educational processes because people they teach are different than they were even twenty years ago. The society elite were the predominant mass of the students before because university education is not cheap. Things have changed and now regular people go to universities.

Portfolio in ESL Defined

The portfolio concept was borrowed from the fine arts area where it is used as the example of work provided by an artist. The main idea of any portfolio is to provide interested parties with the examples of artist’s work that would demonstrate his/her qualification, depth of thought and its breadth (Moya & O’Malley, 1994; Solis, 1993). Education area can get the advantage of portfolios getting information to assess such as biographies, description of the experiences of the students in various forms, various literacy folders, writing materials, reports of different nature, and exhibitions of students’ work (Moya & O’Malley, 1994; Solis, 1993).

However, unlike arts field, educational area needs portfolios to be used as the standardized method for assessment that can be measured and evaluated. A portfolio for educational assessment has to be not only the demonstration of students’ abilities – it must such a procedure that has systematic approach to its implementation and evaluation. Thus, it is necessary to distinguish the difference between a portfolio and a portfolio assessment (Moya & O’Malley, 1994; Solis, 1993). A portfolio is usually some collection work, various experiences, and self-evaluations of students. On the other hand, portfolio assessment is about the planning, collecting, and analysis of various sources of information that are present in a portfolio. A professionally prepared portfolio assessment procedure is able to provide rather accurate data that evaluates the capabilities of a student in different fields.

Literature Review

Numerous empirical researches have been undertaken in order to study portfolio evaluation. Moya and O’Malley (1994) find strong sides of portfolio evaluation in their research. These are adaptability and multiple measures. Portfolios are constructed in such a way that they can show students’ ability of integrating skills better and their skills can be evaluated on a high level. The authors discuss a widely used method of interpretation known as non-referencing, they think of it as an uninformative method that gives low scores that mislead the teachers and show them what the students do not know and not their growth in language skills. They recommend portfolio evaluation of students’ knowledge every 4-6 weeks or after completion of important units.

Another researcher (Solis, 1993) states in her work that the evaluation of students’ knowledge should be done from the holistic approach. According to her, multidimensionality of the portfolio evaluation approach ensures its validity. While evaluating students’ knowledge teachers must look at how they perform in situations that occur in classroom and outside it, in the “real world” so to speak, what strategies they utilize when performing tasks, how they perform their academic task as well as non-academic ones, their diligence in learning and how they grow and improve in their language skills. According to Solis, “Only through authentic assessment is it possible to provide a clear picture of these student’s abilities and skills.”

Named the pioneers of portfolio evaluation Belanoff and Elbow (1986) created the first portfolio evaluation model in order to increase the cooperation between students and their teachers as well as administrators and instill the feeling of community. According to them, writing has a collaborative nature that is why portfolio evaluation is a lot closer to this nature than the proficiency exam where there is no revision and drafts are not shared among students in order to get feedback. In their model of portfolio evaluation teachers are not perceived as “enemies” to the students but more like coaches that guide them and help them improve their writing. The cooperation between students and teachers benefits both parties greatly. The written papers are not graded, instead teachers shift their focus to comments that help students improve their skills.

Ferris and Hedgcock (2005) in their research base the model of their portfolio evaluation on Belanoff and Elbow’s work but see that portfolio evaluation might have some potential problems such as: large scale, difficulty of implementing, authenticity, reliability of raters and difficulties in comparing portfolios with content that varies. In order to avoid potential problems they propose to carefully plan the portfolios and train not only teachers but students as well. This would enable students and teachers to understand the process of evaluation better.

Park in the conducted research (2004) insists that portfolio evaluation is longitudinal showing the students’ progress along the whole course of studies and changes in the students’ work. The open nature of portfolio and collective ownership are portfolio’s peculiarities, according to Park. With the student being the author contributions from teachers and other students are made into students’ work through comments and feedback.

Overall, all researchers conclude that portfolios do not solve all problem that prevail in the evaluation of knowledge of ESL students. They reasonably advise not to refuse using the traditional approaches to evaluation. Teachers should slowly integrate portfolios in their work; they do not have to do all at once.

Theoretical Background

Language skills are very multifaceted in their nature therefore it is not easy to measure them with a single measure. This versatility of language’s nature is shown via the following perspectives: 1) competency of communication that includes such competencies as strategic, linguistic and grammatical; 2) the ability to solve problems, knowledge that can be used, automatic and self-regulatory skills as well as degree of competency or, in other words, how coherent language knowledge is; 3) academic language skills (Gottlieb, 1995).

The modern theoretical views on reading comprehension show how complex the construct is. It is no longer considered that students manifest comprehension adequately if they choose one correct answer in tasks with multiple choices. The understanding of comprehension has changed treating it as the result of students’ understanding and interpretation of what text is about. Depending on what the students want to achieve by reading comprehension itself will vary. If students already know the material or concepts related to it their comprehension of the material will change (Gottlieb, 1995). The same will happen when students apply different strategies to reading.

Students read passages, process what they have read and understood, select interesting places, compare new information and what knowledge they already possess, figure out the meaning of  words with double meaning or those with unfamiliar meaning, and think how information they read in the passage relates to the purpose of reading the text (Gottlieb, 1995). Evaluation is interested in such complex variety of processes that occur when reading the text and what knowledge has been gained after reading. Teachers whose main concern is that their students develop skills of thorough assessment of read information and its comprehension want to outline and determine how students approach textual materials, their purposes in reading and interpretation (Gottlieb, 1995). The development of writing skills and listening comprehension have the same elements as those mentioned above as receptive skills in reading develop in the same manner as skills in writing and listening. This is what ESL teachers are interested in most of all.

It is obvious that different theorists give different conceptualization to language skills but all the above said can lead to one common conclusion: language proficiency should be looked at as a complex of multi-layered skills, abilities, and knowledge. Therefore, in order to determine what areas of language are weak and strong sides of students it is necessary to use a varied approach that would measure these sides. This can be achieved via test methods and non-test ones.

Procedure’s Adjustability

For the adjustability of the portfolio procedure in classroom assessment it is necessary to get results from the process of instructions as well as evaluation among ESL students.

First of all, if portfolio procedure is adjusted to fit informational needs as well as instructional goals it may turn out that its educational and curricular validity will be higher than in the usual standard tests. Second of all, when knowledge of language is assessed in a classroom, portfolio assessment will enable having information about student progress all the time. The usual standard tests play a summative role (Gottlieb, 1995).

Third of all, as it is possible to make individual portfolios, they can be used for assessing students with different cultural, educational and linguistic background in classrooms with ESL. Moreover, as questions with multiple choices are not the only thing available in portfolio assessment, it is possible to pay more attention to evaluating other students’ skills, for example, how students integrate information.

Finally, it is possible to follow how a student progresses in language learning as portfolio provides documentation. If a student’s progress in language is documented systematically such information can be used to help make different decisions regarding the process of learning, teacher-parent consultations, etc.

Those teachers that teach ESL students need to understand how to use portfolio (the theory and technical aspects of using it). It is necessary for them to understand the way portfolios improve students’ evaluations. Using portfolios when ESL students are evaluated brings effect if portfolios authentically reflect students’ social, linguistic and cultural realities. A portfolio can be called authentic when it contains not only usual worksheets, assignments and tests, but also other elements.

These elements reflect how students work during classes – how they read and write, not to mention what, how they communicate with each other and complete tasks (Moya & O’Malley, 1994; Solis, 1993). It is necessary to preserve social as well as linguistic realities of students because teachers will gather portfolio samples reflecting students’ work based on such contexts as: 1) in situations occurring in classrooms and outside them; 2) academic and non-academic assignments; 3) students’ native language and English (Moya & O’Malley, 1994; Solis, 1993).

What benefits the assessment of ESL students is the sensitivity with which portfolio samples are collected together with honest judgement that is made based solely on students’ performance, disregarding language and context. In other words, judgment is made disregarding facts and students’ skills but 1) the modes of students’ thinking in either language or how student build their strategy of work even if they are unusual; 2) students’ diligence in doing all tasks; 3) how students improve their knowledge and skills. Teachers who teach their ESL students attentively know that final result is more important, how students figure out their tasks, make comparisons of anything, see relationships and meanings that are not seen from the first sight, make smart and though through decisions (Moya & O’Malley, 1994; Solis, 1993).

Portfolio evaluation cannot solve all educational problems; it is more of an alternative procedure of evaluation that has its strong and weak sides and should be realized in full in order to be properly implemented (Moya & O’Malley, 1994; Solis, 1993). Its strong sides are: 1) it can potentially enhance professionalism of a teacher who evaluates students actively and meaningfully; 2) it makes evaluators feel like they belong in some community; 3) it promotes thoughtful work in class; 4) it makes instructional links for various grade levels; 5) evaluation gets linked closer to the activities in classrooms; 6) students are able to use skills learned in process-centered classes; 7) evaluation becomes an educational strategy that improves the learning process; 8) the focus is made on the strong sides of students’ instead of the weak ones; 9) students and their parents are involved in the evaluation; 10) the process of evaluation is fair (Moya & O’Malley, 1994; Solis, 1993).

Portfolio evaluation has its negative sides as well. First of all, it is not always possible to validate the procedure (Moya & O’Malley, 1994; Solis, 1993). The model of portfolio evaluation evaluates the students via qualitative approach and it makes it more difficult to prove that it is reliable and valid than when qualitative approaches are involved. In order to successfully validate the procedure there has to be careful planning, several judges are needed; besides, those who evaluate students must be properly trained. Some school districts cannot afford themselves to use portfolio procedure as it is costly, not to mention time-consuming (Moya & O’Malley, 1994; Solis, 1993).

Second of all, it is difficult to define the criteria that will be used in the process of performance evaluation. As the language develops as a whole this factor must be taken into account while determining standards for portfolio evaluation. Such factors as individual differences of each student and each student’s progress are essential for the evaluation as well. In order to determine standards that would reflect all above mentioned characteristics careful consideration is necessary. All involved in the portfolio planning should be make come to consensual decisions. Incredible level of commitment of all members of the planning committee is necessary.

The procedure of evaluation must be backed up on the district-level on the mandatory basis. In some districts the implementation of portfolio evaluation lacks funding and resources or the inclination to do so. In other school districts, the project does not get support from the school board or parents (Gottlieb, 1995). Failure of the committee to gain necessary support for portfolio evaluation on the district level, there is a possibility that the procedure will not be adequately implemented. All innovations, including portfolio evaluation, must be introduced carefully and thoughtfully if teachers want them to work properly.

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