Let’s Assess: 8 Tips for Creating the Perfect ESL Needs Assessment

Teachers may be known for their quirks and faults in the media.

Ben Stein’s “Bueller? Bueller?” from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” has become the classic trope for the apathetic teacher.

Señor Chang spends all his class time harassing students in “Community.”

And don’t even get me started on Professor Umbridge from “Harry Potter!”

But that’s all fiction. In real life, most teachers work very hard to be the best that they can be and to inspire their students.

Part of being a successful teacher is teaching students what they need to know.

That’s why ESL needs assessments are crucial tools for any ESL teacher’s classroom.

What’s an ESL Needs Assessment?

A needs assessment is pretty much what it sounds like: a document that tracks students’ needs in the classroom. A good needs assessment looks at both a students’ strengths and areas where they need to improve.

An ESL needs assessment is different from a placement test. A placement test categorizes students into what level English they speak, which class they should be in or which book they should use.

A needs assessment looks a little more closely to find gaps, or in other words, identify areas where a student may be lacking in their skills or knowledge.

Let’s say you have five intermediate ESL students. After conducting a needs assessment, you find one lacking in their productive vocabulary, another struggling with conditional structures and a third that needs pronunciation practice, all appropriately placed in your middle-level class.

A needs assessment can be for an entire class, as well. While the beginning of a semester is a good time for individual assessments (more on that later), the end of the semester is a good time to assess your class as a group. These assessments help you prepare your review materials before the end-of-year exams or standardized tests.

You’ll get the most from your ESL needs assessment if you tailor it to your specific students, but here are some ready-made ones to get you started:

Why Are ESL Needs Assessments Important?

Needs assessments are important for many reasons. First, they help you provide appropriate instruction and support. You want your students to be proficient at a, b and c, and a needs assessment can show you where they need additional instruction or assistance.

Assessments increase student satisfaction. When students see that you care about them and not just about checking things off a curriculum list, they feel valued. It also shows students that you care about their success, and that’s sure to bring you positive feedback for your role as teacher.

They also serve as an alert of students who may have been misplaced. Even the best placement tests and interviews still can lead to students being misplaced in ESL classes. An assessment could show you that a student in your class belongs in a different level—higher or lower—and give you data you can show your supervisor when asking to switch them to a different class.

Finally, ESL needs assessments help you plan. They show you what you still need to teach, what you may need to review and where you need to look for supplemental materials to use in class.


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ESL Needs Assessments: Find out What Your Students Need with These 8 Tips

Every class and every student is different. How do you put together an ESL needs assessment that fits your audience?

Here are eight tips:

1. Focus on the Positive

First, focus on a student’s strengths, not deficiencies. No one likes to be picked apart for what they do poorly, so when you assess your students, pay closer attention to what they do well.

2. Take Your Time

Spread the ESL needs assessment over several days. Even NHL players get multiple chances to prove they’re the best team on the ice. Grant your students that same benefit of the doubt. Everyone has a rough day and may not perform their best on day one.

3. Conduct an Assessment Early

Give students their assessment at the beginning of the semester. While there are reasons to do a needs assessment at the end of the year, you and your students will gain the most benefits from ones held early in the year.

This gives you a good baseline understanding of where your students are, and you can plan and decide which lessons you’ll need to spend more time on during the year. As a result, your planning will be easier and your students will receive the most instruction in the areas where they need the most work.

4. Pay Attention to Student Goals

When you hold an ESL needs assessment, be sure to ask your students about their goals.

Why are they taking your class? Is it to gain entrance into a college program? Is it because they want to expand their business in the international market?

Every student has a personal reason for studying English. As a result, each will excel in different areas and benefit from different teaching methods. When you know why your students are in class, you can be sure they learn what they need to. This information can inform the types of activities you use in class.

5. Keep It Practical

Focus on information that will be the most helpful to you as you plan your classes.

What are you expected to teach this year? Which area will you need to emphasize or spend the most time on?

Targeting your assessment on what you’ll plan for the year helps you stay focused and ensures that your needs assessment has practical value.

6. Don’t Forget About Learning Styles

Include questions about learning styles and preferences in your assessment. Most teachers are well versed in learning styles and even the types of activities that pair best with each one. Still, when we plan our class periods, we tend to choose activities that most resonate with our own learning style, whether we mean to or not.

Asking your students what their learning style is—or gathering that same information through focused, intentional questions—is another reminder for you to plan your lessons with your students’ learning styles in mind.

7. Keep the Most Important Thing the Most Important Thing

Ultimately, the reason you’re doing an ESL needs assessment is to gather information about your students’ language skills, so stay focused on that throughout the process.

Look at the whole picture of your students’ language skills, including their previous experience learning English as well as areas where they’ve struggled before.

8. Don’t Stop

While the most important assessment you do will probably be at the beginning of the year, don’t stop there.

As you go through your semester or year, pay attention to students who don’t perform as well as their classmates. It’s almost guaranteed that some students will struggle with one thing or another throughout your year. Pay attention, and don’t be afraid to hold another needs assessment for them as you move through your curriculum.

They may not need as thorough an assessment as you gave them at the beginning of the year, but it’s still good to check in and evaluate struggling students. This way, you can refer them to additional resources as necessary and perhaps even adjust your future lessons for them.


An ESL needs assessment isn’t another scary test to point out students’ failures. It’s a tool to help both you and your students thrive.

By giving an assessment, you don’t have to worry about becoming like Señor Chang. Instead, you can think of yourself more as a Mr. Feeny.

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