Using Formal and Informal Grades for English Language Learning Students

By Linda M. Rhinehart Neas

Grading English language learners through both informal and formal assessment gives the teacher a well-rounded picture of the students' abilities. Using informal assessment such as class projects and formal assessment with the use of a rubric enables students to set goals for mastering skills.


There are two different means to assess English language learners' grasp of the language – formal and informal assessment. Using a combination of both gives educators a clearer understanding of what a student's needs are and in which skill areas.

Formal assessment is done by testing students. The use of a rubric breaks down various components with the skill areas. This provides both teacher and student with a clear understanding of what has been mastered and what areas need work.

Informal assessment tools, such as class projects, individual presentations and group activities, demonstrate what skills students have mastered in their daily lives.

Formal Grading

Testing a student's ability to speak, write, read and listen to English has traditionally been done with standardize tests that offer a grade in an alpha or numerical equivalent. While this can sometimes give educators a fair assessment of abilities, it does not always take into consideration cultural differences that may influence the results, nor does it prove the ability of the student to use the skills in daily living. Many English language teachers use the Pass/Fail grading system instead.

Pass/Fail allows for errors made due to cultural differences. The teacher can recognize outstanding achievement with a "Pass +" or a "High Pass" grade; it keeps other subject area educators from jumping to conclusions regarding a student's ability to do the work in their classes simply because the student has a letter or numeric grade that is intermediate or low. In addition, students are less stressed because if they participate in class and do their work, they pass, even with mistakes. This keeps parents happy as well.

Note: Many cultures place extreme importance on alpha grades. Avoid substituting an alpha or numeric grade for a student, simply because a parent asks for one. Explain that the way students are assessed, there are no alpha or numeric grades in the English language class.

Informal Assessment

Students are better able to demonstrate what they know when given the opportunity to create and present projects. In this way, grading English language learners by informal assessment is effective as well as enjoyable. With careful planning, classroom projects, presentations and activities can cover all the language skills.

For instance, assign an end of the semester project to the students. They must write a proposal for their project (writing), research the project (reading and writing), present their project to their peers (speaking), answer questions posed by their peers (listening and speaking), and complete a self-assessment (reading and writing). Projects can be given on specific subject areas such as a student's country of origin or teachers can give the students a list of topics such as environmental activism, business ethics or scientific advances.

Allow students to design their own presentation. Give them choices based on the availability of technology. If student's have access to computers, video equipment, etc., allow them to give PowerPoint presentations or make videos. If technology is not available, have them create poster presentations or use overhead slides.

Another idea that students enjoy and are enthusiastic participants in is to have them write and perform a short play or skits. Students will need to research their characters, write the script and perform. Answering questions from the audience about the play gives this informal activity a well-rounded assessment.


The use of a rubric in grading both informally and formally helps the teacher stay focused on all the areas being assessed. This rubric covers all language skills. It can be modified for the various levels of competency. Note: while the rubric uses a scale from 1-5 to gauge ability, the final score is Pass/Fail.