The Guide to Using Portfolio Assessment in Language Teaching: 6 Tips for Success

Pop quiz, unit test, final exam.

Multiple choice, fill in the blanks, match items, short answer.

Hand it out. Set the timer. Proctor the students. Collect their papers.

Correct the exams. Ponder the essay. Assign the score. Record the grades.

For teachers, this is a familiar tune. We know the rhythm of evaluating our students’ progress in the language class by heart.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit of help from the students themselves in giving that final grade? If this is appealing to you, how about using the portfolio as an assessment in your language classroom?

We’re going to explore the ins and outs of portfolio assessments, so you walk away with a clear understanding of its purpose and how to implement it in your classroom.

What Is Portfolio Assessment?

We teachers get our information from a number of sources. Tests give us a general idea about progress, but gradually gathering evidence helps fill in where a test might fall short.

Portfolio assessment is the creation of a kind of yearbook that keeps a daily record of class activity. Creating a student class portfolio brings with it the following benefits:

  • It’s an easy and creative way to track and record all that classroom activity information.
  • It helps get the students involved in recognizing their own progress.
  • It can make your job giving final grades a lot more accurate.

Portfolios can also more accurately reflect real foreign language usage. Teachers know that the language presented in tests and in textbooks may not always be the way native speakers actually talk, so a portfolio give students the opportunity to use the language more naturally.

Before doing a belly flop into the waters of portfolio assessment, let’s dip our toes in and take a look at what assessment itself is. Understanding and utilizing the two different types is crucial in getting a holistic view of students’ abilities.

What Are the 2 General Assessment Types?

Assessment refers to the ongoing collection of information from many different sources, all relative to the course objectives. That information is then processed to give us an accurate depiction of progress in the language classroom.

Assessment takes into account almost everything that happens in the classroom, including the indirect evidence gleaned from quizzes and tests, as well as evaluations of activities and materials used by the teacher.

Both of these assessment “styles” should be included in the portfolio.

Indirect assessment

Indirect assessment generally refers to the gathering of selective information that represents a larger bank of material. The quiz, test or exam are all examples of indirect assessment.

Used throughout the course, tests and quizzes help us draw conclusions about student progress. A test will be a construct of questions or exercises which, through a sampling of larger concepts, helps us to identify whether or not students have “learned.”

Though sometimes criticized as being too selective, open to random guessing and focused more on recall and recognition (and let’s not forget the “final exam stress” factor that can contribute to the final grade!), indirect assessment remains a valuable tool.

It’s reliable and valid, and should be included in the portfolio. These results can be filed into a “quiz/test/exam” section in a student’s portfolio.

Direct assessment

Language teaching has become more communicative. Direct assessment provides another approach to analyzing students’ budding language abilities. Instead of asking for selected answers, students are asked to perform tasks that resemble authentic language in use.

Some examples:

  • An interview
  • A situational role-play
  • A critical essay
  • A discussion of a video or podcast

This type of assessment, evaluated using rubrics, allows for feedback for improvement. It may also involve self and peer assessment.

Because it tries to mimic “reality,” direct assessment is wide open. It’s only limited by the teacher’s ability to create activities similar to real-life language use.

No matter what kind of assessment tools you’re using, you’ll probably find that most of the portfolio will be made up of these direct assessment ideas. Because they’re much more slippery to grade, the portfolio will help you get a global look at progress.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start

Now let’s take a look at some questions that are important to ask yourself when considering the portfolio.

Why are you assessing?

In many teaching situations, regular testing and evaluation is included in the overall scheduling, so you might overlook the reasons why it’s a good idea to collect items in a portfolio.

Here are some questions you might ask to determine whether or not a portfolio is best for you and your students:

  • Do you provide a report at the end of a semester/year with detailed information on student achievement/progress?
  • Is assessment a part of an ongoing teacher improvement program?
  • Are you assessing individual and group achievement of objectives on authentic tasks?
  • Can you showcase students’ portfolio work to support your final evaluations to parents and administrators?

The answers to these questions will help you clarify how much a portfolio can help you.

What are you assessing?

This “what,” will be based upon the class objectives. While objectives are usually worded in general terms, assessing those objectives will require dealing with specifics.

When listing items for assessment, delve into the specifics that underlie those more sweeping objectives. You’ll be using both the objectives and details in organizing your portfolio.

Who are you assessing?

The “who” behind assessment will naturally be the demographics of your class. Note who will be in the class, what types of challenges they may have and what contributions they can offer to the class dynamics.

This information will become valuable as you choose activities and specific portfolio materials.

How are you going to assess?

Tools for assessment are wide and varied. You’ll want to appropriately choose tools that get you information you want to collect.

A quiz may give you a sampling of student recognition and recollection of information.

On the other hand, a role-play activity will give you the chance to observe whether your students have caught onto certain communicative concepts.

Each tool you use should produce something physical that you can include in the portfolio.

Okay, now that you have a strong grasp of the portfolio, the types of assessment it includes and some important questions to keep in mind, it’s time for the fun part: creating the portfolio!

Portfolio Assessment in Language Teaching: 6 Tips for Gathering Gradual Evidence of Progress

1. Design the Portfolio

Gather materials you’ll need

Make a “wish list” of everything you’ll need to create the portfolio:

  • A sturdy ring binder for each student, large enough to hold around 200 folios
  • Multi-colored sub dividers
  • Plastic binder envelopes
  • Colored stickers and labels
  • A hole punch
  • A paper cutter or plenty of scissors
  • Rulers, glue sticks, scotch tape, a box of colored pencils (a nice full box!), sharpeners, etc.

Some of these materials can be the responsibility of the students. However, it’s always good practice to have a healthy supply of the basics available for standardizing aspects, such as types of dividers within the portfolio.

Main divisions: Define your tasks

A portfolio may be divided into types of tasks that will be done in class:

  • Role-play
  • Writing
  • Regular quizzes and tests
  • Self assessment

Divide your own portfolio by tasks so that you can find the activity and instructions in a flash for the next class. Students’ portfolios should mimic yours. This will help you to concentrate on each type of task when reviewing their progress.

Organizational divisions

In addition to task sections, you’ll want to include a section at the front for reference documents that apply to the entire course:

  • Objectives chart
  • Course calendar
  • Classroom “rules”
  • Portfolio guidelines

Close the portfolio with a “glossary” section, with blank pages for students to note new vocabulary for quick and easy reference.

You now have the sections divided and materials ready, but we’re not done with the planning stage yet. Let’s get those reference materials ready before displaying the portfolio to the students. These documents will be the go-to place for students to review course objectives, calendar and expectations.

2. Prepare Reference Materials

Unveil course objectives

Students like to know what they’re going to get out of your language classroom. Display your objectives with a chart:

  • Basic objectives are the headers that show students where you’ll be taking them (you’ll typically find these in your curriculum).
  • Under each heading goes a specific language item they’ll learn (i.e., communicate in complete sentences, circumlocution).
  • Color-coded cells indicate what tasks will be involved (role-play, interview, etc.).

Be ready to hand out a copy of this same chart to students to include in the index section of the portfolio.

Identifying the milestones: the course calendar

Calendars are the clearest way to share progressive information. They get everyone looking at the same spot and marking off the same milestones.

Turn a word document sideways into landscape mode and create a calendar that covers each block of time in your course, be it a week, month, trimester or semester.

  • Fill in this calendar with main objectives, sub-objectives and tasks and activities.
  • Include evaluation dates, due dates and the like.
  • Leave space for your students to note any additions or changes made to this schedule.

Each cell in this chart represents a milestone. Begin each class by checking out what is up today, what was done yesterday and what’s expected for tomorrow.

Create the rubrics

In any type of assessment, you’ll need rubrics that ensure validity, reliability and fairness across individual student assessment. Check out this example of a task-oriented reading rubric.

Although this might seem premature (you haven’t even met your students yet!), rubrics require a bit of planning. You’ll want to get these created to be able to explain your expectations of each task to students.

Consider the direct tasks/assessments (i.e., role-play, writing assignments, interviews) that will be included in the portfolio and set up specific expectations for each one.

If students meet those expectations, they earn the points. If not, lower points are assigned. Assess students individually in each task using that rubric.

You’ll need to choose between detailed rubrics that look at individual aspects or more holistic rubrics that group concepts and involve more general judgement calls. If this is new to you and you’d like some inspiration, search or create your own rubrics with RubiStar.

Assigning the points on a rubric

To give you an example of things you might include on a rubric. Let’s take a quick look at a detailed rubric for essay writing:

  • Instructions were followed
  • Organizational techniques (paragraphs, topic sentences, lists, introductions and conclusions,) were used
  • Capitalization, spelling, punctuation and neat handwriting were correctly used
  • Grammar was appropriately used (appropriate verb tense, conjugation, word order, etc.)
  • Ideas were expressed “in their own words” with appropriate vocabulary use

You’ll assign points for each of these five expectations. While some teachers prefer to use general word markers like “excellent” or “very good” or “needs improvement,” all methods of assigning value will somehow or other end up being numerical.

Give each detail a numerical value that can be calculated when combining aspects and assigning a global evaluation.

For example, if you’re categorizing in three levels, “excellent,” “very good” and “passable,” you might assign a point value to each category. You might assign three points for “excellent,” two points for “very good” and one point for “passable.”

When you first discuss this with the students, you might have a confused student or two. It seems like so much work! But don’t worry, after more exposure, students will get the hang of it.

Now that you have a shelf full of crafty items and done some basic teacher toil, transformed your objectives into tasks and rubrics, it’s time to face your class and let them in on the game.

3. Model and Explain the Project to Students

Introduce the portfolio to the class

First day of class. Your students settle into their seats, everyone wants to know what lies ahead in this new language course.

Pull out your teacher portfolio. Show them how you’ve divided the sections and how each section has pages that guide you throughout the course.

Now drop the bomb: they’ll be creating the same portfolio for themselves.

  • They’ll work on this portfolio every single day of class.
  • Every project, every essay, every quiz and test will be recorded in their portfolio.
  • This is going to go on from the first day to the last.

This portfolio will not only be a record of their work, it will be part of the final grade. It will be an ongoing tool for both you as a teacher and them as learners. They’ll stay up-to-date on progress, on what works and what needs improvement.

Each class begins with everyone getting out their pencil case, their class textbook, their homework and their portfolio.

Show how tasks are added to the portfolio

Sit in the middle of the room and have your students gather behind you looking over your shoulder. Have a number of loose items that you want to include in your portfolio.

Show them how you’ve labeled the dividers. Take that first activity rubric, pass it out to them, slip it into your portfolio and have them do the same.

This demonstration, simple as it seems, allows students to visually understand how a portfolio becomes an organizational tool that keeps materials neat and readily available for study or evaluation.

Introduce them to the types of tasks

Students appreciate knowing ahead of time that there will be games, role-plays, quizzes, tests, essay writing, oral presentations, video and the like.

This gives them something to look forward to (and sometimes to dread!). Spend the first week or so actually doing each of the activities, while setting up each portfolio section.

  • Hand out the rubric for role-play and have students slip it into the “role-play”section. Do a quick role-play.
  • Repeat with the rubric for essay writing and have them write a quick essay and register it as well.

Be agile in presenting tasks, perhaps presenting three or four in each of the first classes. Show your students what the activity is, the assessment standards involved and what all will end up represented in that portfolio. Remind students that the purpose is so that they’re familiar with the task and clear about the expectations.

At this point, the class has a clear understanding of each section, the tasks that will be included, your expectations and has had practice with individual tasks. Now it’s time to discuss maintenance and individualization.

4. Keep Maintenance of the Portfolio Simple

Explain your expectations of portfolio upkeep

Stress the importance of keeping the portfolio neat and up-to-date. You might want to draw up some very simple “rules” about the overall presentation. For example:

  • The portfolio shows a well-organized mind and work method.
  • The portfolio needs to be neat and clean, well-cared-for and attractive to the eye.
  • All handwritten material in the portfolio needs to be legible and fairly free of mistakes.

Highlight the room for student creativity

Despite the “strict rules” concerning the physical appearance, let your students know that they’re free to express their own creativity.

While most books are printed on paper and bound with thread or paste, many have wonderfully creative covers, interesting fonts or inner illustrations. Encourage your students to decorate their portfolios with stickers, drawings, colorful headings and the like.

Structure doesn’t limit creativity, it helps organize the basics while leaving the mind free to be creative.

Those portfolios will slowly get fatter and fatter with papers, notes, drawings, score cards. Be ready for this by being prepared for how you (and your students!) are going to gradually judge the portfolio.

Keep up with grading

If you don’t keep up with student scores on individual assignments, maintaining students’ grades can quickly get overwhelming.

Create master scoring sheets for yourself and your students. These charts should have columns and lines that represent dates and different tasks.

When you have assessed a task, immediately record the result in your chart and on your students’ master lists so that they have the same record.

Get into the habit of spending a couple of minutes at the end of each class to record any numbers produced through assessment. The great thing about keeping a portfolio is that the final grade shouldn’t be a surprise for the students. They’ve been able to keep track of their grade throughout the course!

5. Include Students in the Assessment Process

We don’t want this resource to become a big paper weight. To reinforce its purpose and utility, it’s important to set aside time for students to engage with the content and give feedback on their progress.

Student self-assessment

Portfolios not only give learners the opportunity to stay current with their grades, they’re powerful tools that promote self-reflection. Having students reflect on their own progress increases self confidence and goal-setting and is a skill they can use for the rest of their lives.

Be sure to take advantage of this and allow time to let students evaluate their own progress. A great way to do this is by encouraging student journals.

Be proactive with the journal. Mark goals, such as one entry every week or two weeks (if need be, put these on the class calendar). Give them one or two specific questions to address in each entry:

  • Why do you think learning this target language is important?
  • What was the most difficult thing you had to learn this past week?
  • How did you study for the semester test this time?
  • Do you think pop quizzes are a good way to evaluate progress?
  • Which task/activity was the most (or least) beneficial to increasing your understanding? Why?
  • List three goals you’d like to achieve before the next test/quiz/activity. What do you need to do to achieve those goals?

Creating a rubric for this task will ensure they take it seriously. Make the rubric simple and record the score on the master scoring sheet. Students should also record the score on their individual charts.

Peer assessment

Along with allowing students to score their own portfolios, allow them to see and score others.

Create blank score cards based on rubrics. Students will use these to score different aspects of their peers’ work and ensure they stay objective. Collect these, average them out and share the results.

In the case of student rubrics, using words instead of numbers is probably the better take. From simple yes/no questions to using words like “stupendous” or “satisfactory” will be more meaningful to students and can be readily agreed upon by all. For example, students might come to the conclusion during the discussion that “stupendous” means that all the requirements of the rubric were met, “good” means that most of the requirements were met, etc.

Word labels makes it easier to explain to your students how they should assess their peers. However, if you want to keep the information consistent, you can have your own system that translates these to numbers (stupendous—four points, satisfactory—three points, etc.) after receiving students’ scores.

We’re almost there, let’s move onto the “stupendous” task of sharing students’ achievement with them periodically and summing everything up. This final stretch will discuss those final days of each milestone and the course when you need to let your students know just how well they’ve done in their language class.

6. Provide Feedback on Progress Throughout the Year

In a language course, we’re not just focused on the end-of-year results. The course is typically divided into units, six-week periods, trimesters or semesters. Be sure you’re taking time at the end of each of these for students to take stock of what they’ve done and what they need to accomplish.

Give meaningful feedback periodically

At the conclusion of each marked milestone period in your class (each month, trimester, semester, etc.), have a group evaluation session. This is a dedicated time for students to look at their strengths/challenges and see their growth from the previous milestone.

Make a fun “grade card” based on tasks and their rubrics. Include a box where you write your encouraging words. I had a cheat-sheet of dozens of useful phrases to use, categorized by using the actual language of my rubrics.

So, if a student was particularly good at working with a partner in a role-play activity, I could cut and paste “you worked really well with your scene partners, being helpful and listening to critiques. This could be seen especially in the scene about….” filling in the blank with a specific example of when such occurred.

When you use “you” instead of “he” or “she,” you give the students that personal touch of evaluating them directly.

Having these sessions periodically (and not just at the end of the course) enables students to see what they’ve done and encourages them to perform well on future tasks. It also gives them time to look over their grades and ask questions, ensuring they’re kept up-to-date on their progress at all times.

Weigh importance of tasks to get final grade

Now the end of the course is here, and students want to know how they did overall.

When tallying the final grade, remember that not all tasks will carry the same weight. For example, you might decide that pop quizzes will have less impact on a student’s overall grade than the role-play activities. So those quizzes might only make up 10% of a student’s final grade, while role-play activities makes up 15% of the grade. Make sure these expectations are clear to students.

As a way to close out the end of the year, have students review their grading chart and teacher feedback to remind themselves of what they’ve accomplished and their respective grades on the tasks. Have them complete one more activity where they look back at their work and address the following prompts:

  • My strengths for this year were ___.
  • Some challenges I experienced were ___.
  • My best activity/task/project was ___ because ___.
  • If I could do one activity over again, it would be ___ because ___.
  • My final grade will be ___ because ___.

In the end, not only will they have a numerical value or letter grade associated with the course (which won’t be a surprise), they’ll also have a collection of evidence and meaningful feedback that demonstrates their personal mastery of the subject.


There’s no denying it. A portfolio assessment system requires organizational skills on your part. You’ll be preparing a lot before the course begins, convincing administrators to purchase materials, having your objectives, tasks, informational sheets, rubrics, calendars, score cards and master score recording ahead of time.

If you prepare your course in a portfolio format, you’ll find that a lot of day-to-day tasks become easier. You’ll know well ahead of time what you’ll need for the next class and will have adequate information available when grinding through the final grading process.

Your students will have a physical representation of all the work they’ve done throughout the course, a self-made language text, a tangible piece of work that they can refer to in the future or look back upon as a reminder of how far they came from day one to the final day in your language class.

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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