March 2013
Self-Assessment and the Process of ESL Writing
by Nehal Sadek

Teaching writing in the ESL classroom has undergone dramatic changes over the past decades. Traditionally, writing instruction focused on the final written product. With the advent of the Process Approach to writing in the seventies, however, ESL teachers started to respond to writing as work in progress rather than a final product (Murray, 1985). In other words, writing is no longer viewed as a one-shot activity starting with the assignment of a certain topic and ending with the submission of the final product (Hafez, 1996).

The process of writing, as defined by Murray (1985), consists of three main stages: prewriting, writing, and rewriting. The prewriting stage includes everything that takes place before writing happens, including brainstorming and research for the purpose of generating ideas. Writing is the act of producing the first draft, during which learners focus on ideas and the organization of these ideas. The final stage in the process of writing is rewriting, which is concerned with the revision of content, organization, and language.

A problematic area for many ESL learners, the revision stage of the process of writing has received particular attention in ESL-writing pedagogy over the last three decades. The reason for this increasing interest is that many learners complain about not knowing what to consider while revising their essays. A possible reason behind this complaint is that they lack the criteria employed by teachers in evaluating their writing performance, whether assignments or achievement tests. One technique that can guide ESL learners while revising their draft is that of self-assessment. That is, ESL learners could use a set of criteria covering the different aspects of writing to revise their own writing.

Defining Self-Assessment
Self-assessment is defined by Claxton (1995) as “the ability to recognize good work as such and to correct one’s performance so that better work is produced” (p. 339). In the revision stage of the writing process, if teachers give students their own list of assessment criteria, self-assessment can provide students with the foundations for informed writing evaluation.

Self-Assessment and Process Writing
The integration of self-assessment in the ESL learning context was introduced by Oskarrson (1980). Oskarrson encouraged self-assessment in ESL classrooms because it has multiple advantages. First, it promotes learning by training learners in evaluation, which results in benefits to the learning process. Second, it raises all parties’ awareness of the different levels of abilities. Oskarrson differentiates between two forms of self-assessment:  1) Global self-assessment, which is the learner’s ability to make an overall impressionistic evaluation of his or her performance; and 2) Criteria-based self-assessment, in which learners evaluate specific language components that build up to give an overall evaluation of a certain ability using writing rubrics.

The Advantages of Using Self-Assessment as a Revision Technique
Exploiting self-assessment as a revision technique relieves teachers of feeling the need to correct every single writing mistake, and it helps learners understand the basis of their writing evaluations. In addition, self-assessment can help learners identify their own writing mistakes rather than viewing mistakes through a teacher’s marks, which can sometimes be vague and discouraging.

Self-assessment can also be seen as a technique that may help in enhancing learner autonomy, a major component of learner-centered classrooms, through allowing ESL learners to participate in their own learning process. In other words, the ESL learner can be an active participant in the learning process rather than a passive recipient of information provided by the teacher.

Despite the numerous advantages reported by research on the effectiveness of both types of self-assessment, global and criteria-based, a number of criticisms are leveled to it. Much self-assessment debate, for example, focuses on the issue of reliability and feasibility factors. However, if self-assessment is employed as a form of “assessment-for-learning” rather than “assessment-of-learning,” as many researchers like Stiggens (2005) advocate, the issue of reliability should not be of concern because the objective of self-assessment would then be to promote learning rather than simply measure it.

Implementing Self-Assessment in the ESL Writing Class
Although some may believe that self-assessment might only be suitable for advanced proficiency levels, I believe that a rubric can be modified to suit any proficiency level. In fact, the key to a successful implementation of self-assessment is not which proficiency level it is used with but rather careful planning, practice, and, most important, patience.

Many ESL and EFL students around the world are not used to the idea of evaluating their own work; therefore, teachers should not be discouraged if students initially resist evaluating their own writing. One way to overcome this potential problem is by carefully designing a self-assessment instrument with clear guidelines that students can follow. Download a sample self-assessment rubric here: (PDF) (.docx).  The rubric includes three main sections: content, language, and organization. Because many students have problems judging the effectiveness of the content and organization of their essays, the content and organization sections of the rubric were designed in the form of a checklist to facilitate the process. As for the language section, it was designed in the form of a table where students count the number of errors they made and assign a score accordingly.

Final Guidelines

  1. Make sure the rubric and the directions are clear; students need to know exactly what they are expected to do.
  2. Go over the different sections of the rubric with the students before asking them to apply it.
  3. Model the use of the self-assessment rubric with two sample essays; one weak and one strong.
  4. Introduce the self-assessment rubric gradually into your class and integrate it with your other teaching writing techniques. Remember, not many ESL students are comfortable evaluating their own writing.
  5. After students become familiar with the notion of self-assessment and applying the self-assessment rubric, make sure to use it frequently in your class to reinforce learner autonomy.
  6. Require students to rewrite their essays after they apply the rubric.
  7. Provide constructive feedback on students’ drafts and completed  self-assessment rubrics
  8. Have patience and faith that it will eventually work!

Claxton, G. (1995). What kind of learning does self-assessment drive? Assessment in Education, 2, 339–43.

Hafez, O. (1996). Peer and teacher response to student writing. Proceedings of the first EFL-skills Conference: New Directions in Writing, 159–65. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.

Murray, D. (1985). A writer teaches writing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Oskarrson, M. (1980). Approaches to self-assessment language learning. Oxford: Pergamon.                           

Stiggens, R. (2005). Assessment for learning defined.  Retrieved from http://www.assessmentinst.com/wpcontent/uploads/2009/05/afldefined.pdf

Nehal Sadek earned her PhD in composition and TESOL from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and has taught numerous ESL courses in a number of universities including the American University in Cairo and Columbia University in the United States. She is currently working as an assessment specialist at Educational Testing Service (ETS).