Tracking The Progress Of English Language Learners

Written by: Larry Walder



Time to read 5 min

As EFL teachers we all need to know what our students are really learning and what they are struggling with. There are many ways to track the progress of our English Language Learners and sometimes we will need to fall back on standard tests required by the particular curriculum we are teaching. However, we know that some students flounder whenever they are required to do a test. Other students are good at revising whatever is necessary for a specific test but may not understand very deeply or remember what they have learned for very long. We need more effective and less threatening strategies to realistically track the progress of our EFL learners. More importantly the learners need to see the benefits of the activities and exercises they are doing.

Top Tips ABCD

There is no one size fits all way to track progress, but we should Always Be Collecting Data and organising it in a way that works for our needs. For most of the following suggestions it is useful to have a notebook and pen permanently located somewhere on the teacher’s desk with which to make quick notes.

Regular Concept Checking

Ideally CCQs (Concept Checking Questions) should be a regular and routine part of every EFL lesson and should be used at every stage of the lesson. In reality, many of us fall back on questions such as ‘Do you understand?’ or, ‘Is that clear?’ We need to build up our own list of CCQs and use them regularly. Perhaps the simplest form of CCQs involve giving the students two or more alternatives. “Simon, are we talking about the past or the present in this exercise?” “Hannah, do you think the man in the video was excited, frightened or confused when he got the news?” Alternatively, we can ask students to reformulate ideas in their own words. “Sarah, could you explain what I have just said again in your own words?” These questions and activities should be so routine that the students are not surprised or intimidated by them and should be addressed to different students each time.

Review EFL Lesson Objectives and ‘Can Do’ statements

“I can keep track of my student’s progress.” Use simple positive statements in learner friendly language to highlight and reinforce the objectives of every lesson you teach. Write them on the board and refer to them frequently. Check the student’s confidence and competence in the structure being taught with a simple thumbs up or thumbs down vote at the beginning, middle and end of the lesson. At the end of a week or at the end of a project ask students to compose five ‘Can Do’ statements of their own to highlight new things they have learned.

Paper and technology

For CCQs and reviewing ‘Can Do’ statements you could also ask students to hold up and display their answers on paper or tablets, so that you can visually check.

Mind Maps and Brainstorming

Brainstorming to generate mind maps or flow charts is a useful activity to start EFL learners thinking about a new topic and to generate new vocabulary. Pedagogically and psychologically mind maps are very good for linking ideas and helping learners to form connections and remember new words. They are worth revisiting at the end of a section of work. Do they remember the mind map we wrote on the board or in their books? Could they draw it again? What would they like to add now? Is there anything they have all forgotten or missed out?

Disguise EFL Tests as Quizzes

If you tell your students they are going to have a test some of them will become anxious but if you rephrase ‘test’ as ‘quiz’ there is less anxiety and a more competitive spirit. Moreover, quizzes can be organised in many different fun ways using pictures, music or internet apps such as Kahoot, Quizlet or even with the help of ESL-specific teaching games. Quizzes can be done in groups which enable EFL learners to support and encourage each other. This could make it more difficult to track the progress of individual learners. One solution might be to ask a follow-up question for a bonus point to the group that got the correct answer. That way you can more easily identify the most confident and able student(s) in relation to specific questions.

Checklists for EFL Drama and Role-playing

Drama and Role-plays are an excellent way for EFL learners to activate the language they know, and it is an opportunity for teachers to listen carefully to the student’s spoken English. However, it can be all too easy to get caught up in the subject matter and themes that the students are engaging with and miss individual problems with pronunciation and spoken grammar. It is useful therefore to set up a checklist of specific language points you want to focus on and tick them off while the students are performing. Areas where ticks fail to appear will soon become scarily apparent!

Short Written Tasks

Written tasks often expose lexical and grammatical problems that are not obvious when the learner is speaking. Sometimes those who seem most confident when speaking English demonstrate significant problems when converting their English into the written form. However, students are seldom keen on writing long compositions and teachers are probably no more enthusiastic about marking them! However, a paragraph no longer than this one is probably enough to identify any significant problem areas. Why not ask your learners to submit a short paragraph such as a summary or description once a week? These can be marked fairly quickly, and any significant problems or progress can be quickly noted in your records.

Join In

Whenever the opportunity arises join in with small groups of students as a participant in whatever activity they are doing. They might be playing a card game such as Word Blitz, or they could be designing a poster or writing dialogue for a sketch. Whatever they are doing, participate on their level at least for a few minutes, watching and listening carefully as you do. Then go back to your desk and quietly jot down a few notes. “Yann can’t say ‘th’.” “Lisa is now using the third person correctly.”

Get learners to track their own progress.

Getting EFL learners to participate in tracking their own progress helps them to feel more empowered and invested in their own learning. Encourage them to record themselves speaking from time to time and then play back and analyse their own mistakes or strong points. Get them to write new vocabulary on cards or in a notebook and test themselves. Urge them to revisit old vocabulary to check if they remember it. Suggest films to watch, blogs to read and podcasts that will stretch their abilities. Persuade them to keep a log of their own progress in all aspects of English and set aside regular times to review their logbooks in one-to-one conversations that needn’t be more than a few minutes long. When necessary transfer any new insights to your own records. Of course, these individualised conversations in themselves allow you to assess progress. Most importantly demonstrate and praise the learner's progress where it occurs so they see the benefit of pro-actively monitoring their own progress in learning English.