9 Self Assessment Activities for ESL Learners

Ever feel like your ESL classroom is trapped in the same old routine?

You spend all day covering topics like grammar, expressions, idioms and phrasal verbs, only to slap your students with quizzes, monthly assessments and the big, bad, end-of-course examination.

Of course, all of this seems necessary in order to prepare students for that fatal, super-final official exam that’ll tell them and the world at large just how well they’ve learned English.

This routine where students study and teachers evaluate might seem standard for a traditional learning experience, but for an ESL class, it leaves out a very important part of language learning: self assessment.

9 Self Assessment Activities for ESL Learners

Self assessment gives students that moment when they stop what they’re doing and ask themselves: “What am I getting out of this?” or “Have I really learned anything from this class?”

Unfortunately, this reflection isn’t something that’s always programmed into the class work. You might get through a whole academic year and never pause to reflect. Even if you do, you might not know how to maximize the benefits of self-evaluations in the ESL classroom. If you don’t do it well, it’s almost the same as not doing it at all.

So, in this post, we’ll look at nine ESL activities that combine ESL lessons with self assessment.

The Objectives: What Are We Here For?

Setting the broad objectives

If you haven’t already, make a list of teaching objectives for your ESL class based upon the textbook you’re using and the desired outcome assigned by your school administration.

When setting up your objects, you need to figure out the following things:

  • Why you’re introducing self assessment as part of class structure
  • How often it’ll take place
  • The kinds of things you want students to assess about themselves

Students will need to come up with their own list of objectives as well, and these objectives will probably be slightly different than your own. Give them the freedom to do this themselves, providing guidance only as needed.

Some common broad objectives include:

  • Motivations for studying English
  • Classroom environment and attitude
  • General grammar and structural assimilation
  • Fluidity in speech and pronunciation
  • Communication in English
  • Cultural understanding

Effective self assessment creates itemized goals towards gradual, attainable ends.

Breaking objectives down into bite-sized pieces: the goals

Once you’ve determined your broad objectives, break them down into measurable goals that can be reached over the timeline.

For example, the broad objective of understanding general grammar can be broken down into smaller steps, like:

  • Presenting the main verb forms
  • Presenting present simple verbs in third person
  • Presenting the past and past participle forms of regular verbs
  • Combining verb forms with auxiliaries

For students, those goals may be more like:

  • Use the auxiliary “do” when making a question in present simple
  • Understand the difference between the three pronunciations of the suffix “-ed”
  • Make contractions with pronouns using auxiliary verbs
  • Practice switching subjects in sentences to strengthen correct auxiliary use

Making goals flashcards

Flashcards are useful for teaching and reminding your students of their goals. They also act as triggers for any self assessment activity you do during the course.

You can use flashcards as part of your self assessment activity by making a large poster with columns that represent any broad objective categories that you have in mind. Some examples of these categories include: attitude, classroom behavior, grammar and communication skills.

For each of these categories, make a dozen or so smaller goals flashcards, one goal per card. For example, under “communication skills” you may want to have goals like “practice the exercise 10 times at home.”

You can use flashcards for self assessment after any class activity. Simply pass them out to your students and ask them if they’ve reached the objective on the card. Students who think they’ve met their objectives can stick their card under the appropriate column header on the poster.

Also, try mixing flashcards from different categories to show students how their goals can overlap. A learner who receives a goal card on grammar during a communication activity may discover that he or she mastered a grammar point as well.

The recording rubric

Every now and then, our evaluations can seem overly subjective or inconsistent. As teachers, knowing beforehand what we want to look for during assessment makes rating student performance easier and more effective–which is why every well-organized ESL teacher should use grading rubrics when evaluating their students.

The same is true for student self assessment. Learners must be aware of their goals, and the best way to achieve that is to have them come up with a rubric that lists the goals and objectives they should work towards achieving.

Creating a rubric template will go a long way on saving time, in addition bringing structure to your self assessments. You can do this by printing a table from your word processor or spreadsheet program that lets students write in their goals in the first column and use the following columns to evaluate their performance.

Instead of having your students use letter grades or percentages to evaluate themselves. I recommend using adjectives like:

  • Excellent
  • Very good
  • Good
  • Satisfactory
  • Needs work

These adjectives help to keep the rubric more language oriented, and can be more specific depending on the goal in question.

For example, goals under “classroom behavior” can have more relevant adjectives like “disruptive” or “cooperative.” If you’re teaching students who’re less formal, you can even add creative and use slang terms like “cool!” or “boooorrrrring!”

Demonstrate the use of the rubric

There’s little mystery to showing students how to use the recording rubric as long as you’re clear from the outset what a rubric is and what the terms mean. Since you’ve already made them familiar with objectives and goals, handing out and having students fill in a rubric will become a regular class habit.

After any activity, hand out a blank rubric to each student then ask them what goals they think were relevant to their activity. If need be, you can use the goals flashcards to give students ideas of what they should list in the goal space.

Students choose the adjective that they think best assesses their level of achievement. You can even have students exchange rubrics in pairs so that they can assess each other.

Preparing Students for Self Assessment

These two basic activities will help you to demonstrate basic ESL learner motivation and knowledge self assessment.

1. The “Why am I studying English?” survey

All students are in the ESL classroom for a reason. Some know why they’re there and are working towards a clear-cut goal, while others might be studying English to satisfy a professional or educational requirement. Either way, identifying the “why” that motivates students helps you to better understand your students’ needs.

Objective: Identify reasons for studying English.

Who it’s for: Best with intermediate to advanced students, but can be used for beginners able to make short answers.

What you need:

  • Flashcards with various reasons for studying English written on them (for example: “for work,” “for travel,” “for university,” “my boyfriend is American,” etc.)

How to proceed: 

Pass flashcards to your students and then ask the class whether they’re familiar with reason listed on their cards. Make sure to teach any reasons that students don’t understand.

Collect and shuffle the cards, then repeat the process a couple more times.

When finished, pass out the “Why am I studying English” survey and have your students walk around the classroom questioning each other on why they’re learning English.

2. The self assessment passport

The European Language Portfolio (ELP) is an active tool used to promote language learning in multicultural societies, such as countries in Europe.

One aspect of the ELP was the development of a type of “passport” reflecting not only the knowledge a student has upon beginning to learn a new language (including their native language), but also the process and achievements involved in acquiring one or more new languages.

Objective: Record initial knowledge of native and target language; provide a framework for continued evaluation

Who it’s for: Just about any level, though best used for beginners of the CEFR A2 proficiency level.

What you need:

  • A passport template with fill-in sections about native language proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing
  • Target language proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing
  • Extra pages for regular recording of achievement

How to proceed:

Hand out the template and have students fill in the initial information, like their name, address and age, as well as their proficiency in their native language.

Ask them to fill in the target language proficiency section with their own self-evaluation of their current level. The CEFR rubric comes in handy here!

Students will be periodically updating the information in the passport, recording their progress throughout the class as they continue to learn and understand new concepts.

Starting Your First Self Assessment Exercises

These three activities are meant to get your students actively involved in the self assessment process by creating easy-to-follow frameworks and practicing using those frameworks.

3. The mind map

Mind maps are a creative way of building a to-do list and then reviewing progress made on the list at a later time.

For this exercise, you won’t be making a list. Instead, you’ll be creating a pin-up board with lines connecting different goals proposed within a broader objective.

Objective: Interlace different types of goals among different language learning activities.

Who it’s for: All proficiency levels.

What you need:

  • A large empty wall or bulletin board
  • Header cards representing broad ESL objectives: grammar, listening, homework, exams, etc.
  • Smaller cards for goals found in each of the objectives
  • Blank cards for student-generated goals
  • Many different colors of yarn (one color per broad objective) and tacks

How to proceed:

In the middle of the wall, stick a big card with the main objective of your ESL class. Examples of these objectives include “speaking fluently” or “passing the official exam.”

When first introducing a broad objective, stick the header card for that goal somewhere on the wall. Then connect that objective header to the main objective with yarn. For best results, use different colors of yarn for each objective so that your mind map is easy to read.

Pass out all of your goal cards to the class and then have students match them to the relevant objectives. Using your yarn, connect these goals to their assigned objectives. For example, if an objective is “job interview language,” relevant goals could be “not be nervous,” “sit up straight” and “smile while talking.” Each of these goals should be connected to the objective using the same color yarn.

Note: When introducing a new broad objective to the map, ask students if any of the goals already on the wall can be applied. If so, connect those goals to the new objective with the corresponding yarn color. That way, you can bring your students’ attention to any overlapping goals between objectives.

You can also make this activity more interactive by having students help you make objective headers and goal cards.

4. “I can / I can’t” game

Many standardized self assessment worksheets are based upon “I can statements” that help teach your students to express their capabilities.

Objective: Use the “I can statement” as a framework for self assessment.

Who it’s for: All proficiency levels.

What you need:

  • Active verb flashcards (can be pictures, words or a mixture of both)
  • Blank rubric worksheet

How to proceed:

Start by handing out all your active verb flashcards. Once you’ve passed out the flashcards, have each student show their card to the class and ask a question based on the verb given. For example, if the card is a picture of a person riding a bicycle, the student would ask, “How many of you can ride a bike?”

Students who can perform the action then raise their hand.

After everyone has asked a question, arrange your students into pairs and have them ask each other questions. This time, the student being asked a question will have to respond by making a “Yes, I can ____ / No, I can’t ____” sentence.

When a language marker flashcard comes up, the student with the first question asks, “Can you use the simple past tense?”

If the answer is, “Yes, I can,” the student with the question then asks, “How well can you use it?”

The answering student then responds based on their proficiency level (very well, okay, not so great, etc.) and then writes their response into their personal rubric sheet.

At the end of the lesson, rubric sheets should be kept in a student portfolio and used to compare progress later down the road.

5. The “bad day” role play

Everyone has a bad day from time to time. Sometimes, we even like to complain about that bad day in the hopes of getting sympathetic or encouraging words from a friend.

This activity takes bad experiences and turns them into self assessment exercises, so that students can truly learn from their mistakes!

Objective: Explain language learning difficulties and give language advice.

Who it’s for: Intermediate to advanced students.

What you need:

  • Bad day situational flashcards (ask your students create their own bad day situations note cards to build the event deck)
  • Language difficulties flashcards
  • Blank cards for student input of language issues

How to proceed:

Place your students in pairs and have them read from the following script:

S1: Boy, did I have a bad day!

S2: What happened?

S1: A car splashed muddy water all over my new shoes. (situational flash card of a car splashing muddy water)

S2: That’s too bad!

S1: What would you have done?

S2: I wouldn’t have worn my new shoes on a rainy day!

On the first play, hand out bad day situational cards. Student 1 will use this bad day card to determine how to respond to “What happened?” and “What would you have done?”

After every student has practiced both roles, start a second play using language problem cards. Now that students should be familiar with the exchange, the pair must improvise on the spot the conversation.

S1: Boy, did I have a bad day!

S2: What happened?

S1: I couldn’t remember the rules about the passive voice for the exam. (language problem card of the passive voice)

S2: That’s too bad!

S1: What would you have done?

S2: I would’ve remembered to use “be” and put the main verb in the past participle form!

You can then open the question to the entire class for additional advice, such as “remember to put the object first in the sentence!”

Continue this activity until all students get the opportunity to improvise.

Making Self Assessment Integral to Class Work

Often, day-to-day classwork gets done but doesn’t get assessed. Using self assessment after certain types of assignments or lessons can work both as a review of the material as well as a recognition of assimilation.

6. Creating the rubric from scratch

This activity can be done at the outset of each new theme you introduce, such as the beginning of a new chapter in the textbook.

You can also make it part of the introduction to any particular practice activity you’re going to do outside the regular curriculum.

Objective: Student creation of theme-specific rubrics for current learning goals.

Who it’s for: Intermediate to advanced students.

What you need:

  • Blank rubric worksheets

How to proceed:

Introduce a theme you’ll be working with for the next several classes.

Making reference to the mind map you created, work with students to list the possible goals involved with the theme.

The rubric should also include assessment adjectives like: great, okay, average or poor. Students will place a “1” under the adjective they feel best represents their goal assessment at the moment.

About halfway through the theme, ask your students to review their original marks and add a “2” for any areas they’ve noticed improvement in.

At the end of the theme, have students take one more look and add a “3” in the column that best represents their assessment of their command of the theme goals.

7. Write the test yourself

I couldn’t get enough of French class when I was in high school.

I convinced my French teacher to let me study during the summer months so I could skip a level. I ended up spending my entire summer working on a farm, where I talked to animals in French so I could remember everything I learned.

To demonstrate just how well I learned French, I wrote my own “final exam” and presented the results to my teacher. She liked it so much that she used it in future classes long after I graduated.

Objective: Create a basic evaluation tool, the test, to organize and assess specific information learned.

Who it’s for: Intermediate and advanced students.

What you need:

  • A textbook
  • Students’ class notes

How to proceed:

At the beginning of a particular theme, maybe halfway through your course, tell your students that you’re sick and tired of having to write the test yourself. Tell them they’re going to create their own test.

Outline how many questions you want, how many categories, how many total points, etc.

Put your students in pairs and have each pair begin the basic design of the end-of-theme test.

While you’re teaching the theme, make sure to point out any information that’ll be on the test. Students should make note to include these topics in their tests.

Once the theme has been taught, give your students a full class period to work with their partner in writing the test and answer keys.

Collect their tests and give everyone a big, fat “A+.” Surprise your students by telling them that, this time around, writing the test was the actual assessment.

Make sure to go over the tests yourself, highlighting any issues and exceptional work in the next class. Also, keep those tests on file, as you’ll probably find a lot of stuff you can use yourself!

8. What’s your favorite series?

This is course-long video activity is an adaptation of a self assessment listening activity created by Steve Muir and Tom Spain, which you can read more about on the British Council Teaching English blog.

The activity is geared towards animating students to do goal work at home, then sharing their experiences in class through oral self assessment.

Objective: Improve out-of-class study habits while sharing learning experiences in class.

Who it’s for: Intermediate to advanced students.

What you need:

  • Video usage goals: “used subtitles,” “learned new words/expressions,” “can explain an episode in class” and so on (you can brainstorm these goals with your class)
  • Long rubric worksheet to record weekly progress with students’ goals

Instead of using columns to represent achievement in your rubric worksheet, assess your students’ performance using numbers: 1 = poorly, 5 = excellently.

Also, when developing a list of series with your students, keep in mind that you’re looking for series that help students reach their language goals. Series that best serve for this type of homework include:

  • 1950s / 1960s TV programs
  • Family drama
  • Crime drama
  • Situational comedy (But be careful with comedy with lots of wordplay and puns, they can be pretty challenging!)

The focus should be on series with excellent dialogue and established characters that spark interest in your students. Series that focus on action or special effects may distract them from their objectives.

A great place to start looking for ranked lists across genres is Ranker. Here’s their list of family dramas to check out.

How to proceed:

Have your students choose an English television series that they’ll follow every week. Assign one night of the week where students watch an episode at home with their goals in mind.

The following week, have one or two students talk about the series, covering key points in the story and mentioning the goals involved with their activity.

Continue this activity throughout the course, giving each student at least one opportunity to share with the class.

You can even make this into a fun conversational exercise by asking students to give general commentary: if they recommend it to others, how they’d rate it and so on.

9. Student portfolio presentation

The essential language-learning tool for ESL students is their learning portfolios.

If you’ve decided to use this incredible resource in your class, you’ll find that it’s the best method for keeping track of self assessment exercises.

One way to instill pride in your students is to have them present their portfolios at the end of the course. On this day, students can share their own self-designed portfolios with the rest of their class. You can even have a signing ceremony, like people do with yearbooks!

Though the presenting student will self assessing their oral skills, their results should include a peer assessment of each student’s presentation skills.

Objective: Orally present an end-of-course self assessment based upon material collected in a portfolio.

Who it’s for: All proficiency levels that use a portfolio to record study progress.

What you need:

  • Student’s language study portfolios
  • Rubric for peer assessment

How to proceed:

Brainstorm a list of goals involved in an oral presentation with your students. These can be goals like: speaking clearly, having an organized outline, using note cards, demonstrating with examples from the portfolio and practicing before the presentation.

Once you’ve come up with a list of goals, create a rubric template that students will fill in as they listen to the presentations. While each student presents, listeners will use the rubric to grade their peers.

When everyone has finished presenting, collect the rubrics and share all the positive results with the class.

Then, have the class punch holes in their rubrics and add them to their portfolios. Once everyone has had a chance to present and receive their peer assessment rubrics, let your students walk around the class asking their peers to sign the “classmate page” in their portfolio.


Self assessment gets ESL students to analyze how and why they’re studying English. It helps them identify what they need to do to improve, and also gives them important, personalized feedback about their progress.

Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into teacher training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.

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