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4 Simple Steps to Determine your ESL Students' Language Level

If you are new to the field of ESL teaching, you will eventually come to realize (hopefully before your first lesson!), that although your TEFL, or CELTA certification course has prepared you to design lessons around different learning task, such as reading, listening, speaking, and writing, most TEFL programs forget to do one thing......teach you how to identify your students' stage of language development.

Why do I need to know my students' stage of development?

In order to help your students determine and meet their language goals, you will need to have some idea of what English language knowledge does the student already have, and what English language knowledge are they still working to acquire? This information will help guide you on where to begin your lessons. One way you can do this is through error analysis.

What is error analysis?

Until the late 1960's, the contrastive analysis hypothesis (CAH) that errors made by second language learners were made because second language learners would incorrectly apply the grammatical rules of their native language to the second language they are learning, was largely believed.

However, further studies showed that CAH could not account for all the errors that language learners make. During the 1970s, in a quest to find a better research method to analyze learner mistakes, researchers developed error analysis.

Error analysis, answered the question of "what do learners really know about the language they are learning?" by hypothesizing that language spoken when one is speaking in a second language is it's own system, that it has rules and is predictable.

In this way, error analysis gives teachers the tool to assess and determine which development stage of English a student is on.

Larry Selinker (1972,) called that second language system interlanguage, or the language of a second language learner before they have become fluent in their target language.

How to conduct an error analysis?

True to its name, error analysis is conducted by examining the mistakes of second language learners. When trying to figure out where to begin lessons with a new student, it is helpful to have a starting point based on the student's strengths and weaknesses.

Let's list out the steps.

Step 1

To get an idea of your student strengths and weaknesses using error analysis, you must first assign your student a speaking or writing task in order to collect a sample of their English language abilities.

Step 2

After you've collected your language sample, you must identify all of the obligatory contexts, that is, places in the sentence that require grammatical morphemes (ex. -s at the end of a plural noun, or -ed on regular past verbs), in order for the sentence to be grammatically correct.

Be sure to keep count of the obligatory contexts for each category separately.

For example, in the sentence:

I wanted 3 eggs yesterday. But today, I want 1 egg.

The obligatory context for -s plural would be 1. As only the reference to "3 eggs" requires the plural morpheme. There would be a separate column to indicate the number of obligatory context for the regular past morpheme -ed, which would also be 1 in this case.

At this step, you are counting all the situations that a grammatical morpheme should be applied, even if in those places the student may not have correctly applied the morpheme.

Step 3

Once you have determined how many obligatory contexts there are within your language sample, you must then count how many morphemes did your student correctly apply.

For example, the previous sentence made to resemble second language learner speech:

"I want 3 eggs yesterday. But today, I want 1 egg"

In this example, the student would get a score of 1/1 for correctly supplying the -s morpheme but would receive a score of 0/1 for correctly supplying the regular past -ed morpheme.

Step 4

The next step would be to divide the number of correctly applied morphemes by the number of obligatory text to calculate the accuracy percentage. However, if the sample you take is small enough, then it may be enough for you to simply set up your fractions in a score chart like the one illustrated in step 3.

How to interpret the results of your error analysis?

Once the percentage accuracy for each morpheme is calculated, you can use the scores to rank the morphemes by percentage from highest to lowest to create an order of accuracy. The order of accuracy ranks morphemes from highest (highest % score) with the highest scores being the morphemes that your student has most successfully acquired, to the lowest (lowest % score) with the lowest being the morphemes that your student needs the most work on.

A flexible approach

Error analysis is a flexible approach to assessing your ESL student language knowledge. While I have detailed the steps to determine your student's knowledge of English grammatical morphemes, after you have done sufficient work in this area, you may want to move on to other features of the language such as forming question words, or negation.

To do that, just repeat steps 1 through 4. Make sure that when you are creating a task to sample your student's language that the task is not too simple or you may get false results. The task should also be aligned with the language feature that you are trying to assess.

TEFL training is a must in order to be prepared to work with students, by providing ESL teachers with the skills necessary to create tasks in the different language areas, combine that with error analysis, and you'll be ready to get into the classroom.


Sources: Lightbown, P., & Spada, N. (2019). How languages are learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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