When it comes to assessment, teachers can be
hesitant to give assistance to their students. In some instances, a “no help”
approach makes sense. The goal of any assessment is to determine what students
know and can do, and when a student completes an assessment on their own, this
tells us what knowledge and skills the student has already developed. But a “no
help” approach doesn’t tell the whole story. Specifically, it tells us little
about the knowledge and skills that a student is still in the process
of developing but hasn’t yet fully developed (Poehner, 2008).
“no help” approach can therefore be problematic with English learners (ELs) in
content classrooms (e.g., science, math, social studies), who are in the
process of developing both their content and English
language proficiency. In these contexts, ELs may be able to demonstrate their
learning more fully when provided some assistance than would be evident from
their independent performance alone.
article, I share three classroom-tested assessment probes that can help you get a more complete
picture of what your ELs know and can do in the content classroom.*
Specifically, these assessment probes enable you to clarify and dig deeper into
ELs’ developing ideas and language toward the goal of uncovering both their
content and English language learning. After introducing each probe, I
illustrate how the probes work together in an assessment moment from an
elementary science classroom.
3 Types of Assessment Probes
Each type of
assessment probe serves a different purpose with ELs in the content
of Assessment Probes
Target specific concepts or ideas being
taught in a lesson
- How does the animal get its energy?
- Why are you using multiplication?
- How does a
government ensure balance of power?
Invite ELs to elaborate on their ideas
using language and other meaning-making resources (e.g.,
- What do you mean?
- Show me what that looks like.
- Can you
say it again?
Clarify ELs’ intended meaning when a lack
of explicitness prevents them from communicating their
- What’s “it”?
- What does “them” refer to?
- Which do
targeted probes are discipline
specific (i.e., tailored to content concepts/ideas at a particular
grade level), open-ended probes and explicitness probes apply to multiple
content areas and grade levels (similar to some talk
moves). What the three probes have in common is that they are
intended to be used contingently by teachers—in other words, in response to
ELs’ needs as those needs arise in moment-to-moment interaction. This means
that using the assessment probes is as much about listening carefully to ELs as it is about responding to
Snapshot From a Fifth-Grade Science Classroom
assessment moment from a fifth-grade science classroom (see the NYU SAIL Research
Lab for a full science curriculum for ELs), Mariana, an EL, was
responding to a question posed by her teacher, Mr. Winter: “How is energy
transferred into and through the ecosystem to the tiger salamander?” Prior to
this moment, Mariana and her classmates had developed a model to represent a key
science idea in fifth grade: Energy transfers from the sun to plants
(tree) to animals that eat plants (earthworm) to animals that eat those animals
side of the following chart shows Mariana’s independent performance, in other
words, what she was able to express on her own. The right
side of the chart shows Mariana’s assisted performance, in other words, what
she was able to do with assistance from Mr. Winter. As we
will see, Mr. Winter used all three assessment probes (targeted, open-ended,
explicitness) to clarify and dig deeper into Mariana’s developing science ideas
Winter: How is energy transferred into and through the ecosystem to
the tiger salamander?
like the movement? Like the movement of the…in the whole
Winter: So, where does the energy start?
[points to sun in her model]. Then, the
Mr. Winter: What
do you mean by “movement”?
like, it’s moving. The sun gives energy to that [points to tree in
energy, it’s to each…to the red oak. And then it just, like, shares the
Mr. Winter: What
do you mean “shares the energy”?
it gives it to the earthworm and then tiger salamander.
Winter had relied on Mariana’s independent performance alone to assess her
science understanding, he would have likely concluded that Mariana had learned
very little in science. But through multiple rounds of probing on the part of
Mr. Winter and elaboration on the part of Mariana, the two were able to jointly
construct the correct path of energy transfer.
Specifically, Mr. Winter used a targeted probe (“So, where does the energy start?”) to
focus Mariana on the key science idea and help her begin constructing the path
of energy transfer. When Mariana used expressions such as “the movement” and
“shares the energy,” Mr. Winter responded with open-ended
probes (“What do you mean by ‘movement’?” and “What do you mean
‘shares the energy’?”) to dig deeper into her developing ideas. And when
Mariana used a pronoun without a clear referent (“it’s moving”), Mr. Winter responded contingently with an explicitness
probe (“What’s moving?”) to clarify her intended meaning.
Mariana’s independent performance told much less than the whole story of what
she had learned, and it was only with some assistance from Mr. Winter that
Mariana’s developing science ideas and language were revealed. Through careful
listening and persistent probing, Mr. Winter uncovered the science in Mariana’s
emerging efforts to express her ideas through multiple modalities of
communication (saying “gives energy to that” while gesturing
at the tree in her model) and everyday language (“shares the energy,” which was
an especially creative take on the predatory behavior of animals eating each
other!). Having uncovered that Mariana indeed understood the targeted science
idea, Mr. Winter might have followed up with Mariana by revoicing her
explanation to demonstrate the more conventional way of expressing the idea
(e.g., “So, it sounds like you’re saying that the tree gives energy
Leont’ev, a lesser known colleague of Lev Vygotsky of scaffolding fame, wrote
that the purpose of assessment should be not just “to discover how the child
came to be what he is but how he can become what he is not yet” (as cited in
Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 40). In the content classroom, assessment probes can
help ELs become what they are not yet in terms of both their content and
English language learning.
Though a “no
help” approach to assessment may be necessary at times, given constraints on
time and resources, this approach risks missing the knowledge and skills that
ELs are still developing but have not yet fully developed. By using the three
assessment probes in tandem to clarify and dig deeper into ELs’ ideas, teachers
can get a more complete picture of what their ELs can
do in the present as well as what they will be able to do tomorrow
given sufficient support today.
*The empirical research
study on which this article is based is Grapin, S. E., & Llosa, L.
(2021). Dynamic assessment of English learners in the content areas: An
exploratory study in fifth-grade science. TESOL Quarterly.
Advance online publication.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979).The ecology of human development. Cambridge University
E. (2008). Dynamic assessment: A Vygotskian approach to understanding
and promoting second language development. Springer.
E. Grapin is an assistant professor of
language, literacy, and learning at the University of Miami. His research
focuses on the equitable teaching and assessment of English learners in K–12
education, particularly in their content-area classes. Scott began his career
as a high school ESL and Spanish teacher.