ESL Placement for Adults

An important factor in being a successful adult education ESL teacher is student assessment and placement. It is critical that adult students be properly placed otherwise they will quickly lose interest and drop out. If the material you present in any level ESL class is too easy, students will become bored. If it is too hard, they will not return for the second class.

First impressions are important in establishing a positive relationship with your students. Adult students come to the ESL classroom with many fears. They feel they are too old to learn or in some cases their last experience with school was a negative one, e.g. they may have left school as teenage dropouts. Consequently, it is very important that the teacher establish a friendly, enthusiastic rapport free of any academic pretense. Even though their fear level is very high, it can be broken down by a friendly smile and pleasant small talk.

How do you place adult students according to oral ability?

The most common method of assessing adult students' oral proficiency in order to place them in appropriate classes is to engage them in a brief oral interview. For non-literate students this approach is particularly valuable. The following questions are appropriate for this interview:

  1. What is your name?
  2. Where do you live?
  3. Are you married?
  4. Do you have any children?
  5. Where were you born?
  6. What day is it today?
  7. Where do you work?
  8. What kind of work do you do?
  9. How long have you lived in this city?
  10. What do you need the most help in? Speaking, reading, or writing or listening?
  11. Why do you want to study English?
  12. What do you like to do for fun?
  13. Tell me something about you family.

At all times be relaxed and friendly with the students. Make them feel comfortable. Reassure them that this is for placement purposes only and it is not an examination. Repeat the question or statement if necessary. You may clarify a response or even prompt the student to help them feel more at ease. If they give a correct and clear answer in English, give them two points for each item. If they give an unclear, inappropriate answer give them one point. For no answer give them a zero. Add up their points for a total score.

Students with a total score of about 0-10 should probably be placed in a beginning class. Those with scores of about 10-20 should be in an intermediate class and those who score above 20 should be in an advanced class. These scores are only estimates and the examiner must use his judgment in determining the class which could be appropriate for each individual, especially those whose score fall near the breaking points.

ESL Placement Oral Assessment

Introduce yourself, engage your students in friendly conversation before you begin. Explain         That the purpose of the assessment is placement and not an examination. Score 2 for a correct answer, one for an incomplete answer and 0 for no answer.

1. What is your name?  _______________    

2. What is your address? _______________

3. Are you married?  _______________

4. How many children do you have?   _______________  

5. Where were you born? (country)   _______________    

6. What day is today? _______________    

7. How long have you lived in this city?   _______________    

8. Do you have a job? Where do you work? _______________  

9. What kind of work do you do? _______________ 

10. What do you need to study?   (Check the appropriate items)          

      Speaking English _______   Writing English ________          

      Reading English ________   Listening to English________    

11. Did you attend school in your native country?     ______How long? ________

12. Have you studied English?     _______________  How long? ___________________

13. Why do you want to study English?   _______________    

14. What do you do in your spare time? _______________ 

Literacy Assessment

In addition to oral assessment and placement, it is very important to assess the literacy skills of your adult students. There are two aspects to this assessment, first determining if the student is literate in his native language and second finding out if the student has some writing skills in English.

To assess the literacy skills of the individual you are interviewing, simply ask them to write the answers to the questions that appear on the reverse side of the placement instrument (see the samples in Appendix A.) Encourage the students to write their responses in either English or their native language whichever they find easiest. (You may need interpreters to assess the level of your students' native literacy.) Again, make your students feel comfortable. Repeat the fact that the purpose is only to place the student in an appropriate class. Encourage them to answer as many as possible. NOTE: Be sure that the students write their own answers to the questions on the page. Sometimes the relatives or friends may want to help the student. Obviously this totally defeats the object of the assessment process.

The literacy assessment instrument is not to be used as a diagnostic tool; rather its purpose is to distinguish the literate adult student from the totally non-literate student. ESL curricula for these two very distinct groups must be developed to meet their specific needs.

ESL Placement

Literacy Assessment

Encourage your student to write the answer to the questions in the space provided. Repeat that this is not a test, rather it is an assessment of their current level of proficiency.  

1. What is your name? ________________________________ 

2. What is your address? ______________________________ 

3. Are you married? ___________________________________

4. How many children do you have? __________________ 

5. Where were you born? (Write in Country) _________ 

6. What day is today? __________________________________ 

7. How long have you lived in this city? _______________ 

8. Do you have a job? Where do you work? ___________ 

9. What kind of work do you do? ______________________ 

10. What do you need to study? _______________________ 

11. Did you attend school in your native country? _____    How long?______ 

12. Have you studied English? ______   How long? _______

13. Why do you want to study English? _________________

14. What do you do in your spare time? ___________________________________ 

How do you place more literate students?

 Once you find out that you have a group of students somewhat literate in English, then you may need to evaluate their literacy level. There are a number of ways to do this. You may want to administer a cloze procedure, or a dictation test.



One test which has proven successful in determining written English ability is the cloze test. This test consists of a written passage which has missing words. The student is asked to supply the missing words.

Choose a passage of 100-150 words from the text which you commonly use for beginners in your classroom. Try to get a passage which does not use many uncommon words or many proper nouns (names of specific people, places, etc.). A paragraph from the Reader's Digest or a 7th or 8th grade textbook might be appropriate if you choose an article which deals with a subject most adults would be acquainted with. Leave the first sentence of the passage as it is, but eliminate every seventh word in the rest of the passage and put a blank of standard length wherever a word is eliminated. Put a number in each blank.

Have students read the entire passage silently without writing anything. Then have them read the passage again and write a word by each number on their paper which would be appropriate for the blank with that number. After they have done this, they read the passage again to themselves with the words they have chosen and then hand in their papers. When you correct these papers, give one point for every word which the student supplies that is identical to the missing word from the original passage. Other words may seem appropriate to you, but experiments have shown that your placement will be essentially the same if you only accept the original word. Scores should be computed and the students divided into groups according to scores. Those with low scores would form the beginning group. Those with perfect or nearly perfect scores should be screened out to form a more advanced class.



Choose a passage of about 100 words from a commonly used text in your classroom. Tell your students to listen carefully. Read the passage out loud to them at a normal speaking rate to give them an overview of the passage. After this first reading, let students ask questions about the passage and write one or two of the most unfamiliar words on the board. Now, tell your students to write what you read. Tell them that you will read slowly, but that you will not repeat anything. Read the passage again pausing every 5-9 words (at places for normal speech pauses, such as at the end of phrases) so the students have time to write. Do not repeat any phrases. finally, read the passage a third time at a normal speed and have the students make any corrections or additions they desire and then have them turn in their papers. To score the papers, simply put a check for every word left out, every error in grammar. Count the number of checks and give the paper that score. You can then divide the class according to scores. Those with the most checks would be in the beginning group. Those with fewer checks would be in the intermediate group. Any with very few or no errors would be in an advanced group. (Quite often you will discover that the students fall very naturally into groups.) If you are offering more than one class, you can divide the students into separate classes.


Cloze Procedure Samples


Instructions -- Choose a passage of about 100-150 words from the text you commonly use for Beginners in your classroom. Choose another passage of the same length from the text you commonly use for an Intermediate. Leave the first sentence of the passage intact, but eliminate every seventh word in the rest of the passage. Replace the omitted word with a standard length blank. Put numbers in each blank.

A short example of a Beginner cloze test is as follows:


Mrs. Lee lives in the city. She does not live in the ____1____. Every day she goes to the ____2____.

She buys milk and fresh bread ____3____ for the children. She does not go ____4____ the but.

She drives a car. Her ____5____ is a teacher. The school is ____6____ their house. He can walk

to ____7____. The Lees have three children. Their ____8____ is seven. He likes school.

He ____9____ with his father every morning. Their ____10________11____ is very small. She

stays home ____12____ her mother.

A short example of an Intermediate cloze test is as follows:


I have a friend who doesn't like advice. He's such an independent person ____1____ he is difficult to help. A ____2____ months ago, he felt sick for ____3____ days. I knew it because when

____4____ stopped by to see him, he ____5____ in bed. It was two o'clock ____6____ the

afternoon, and my friend never ____7____ down during the day. So I ____8____ something was

really wrong. I tried ____9____ get him to check his temperature ____10____ he refused. He

agreed, however, to ____11____ aspirin and drink several glasses of ____12____, but he wouldn't

listen to my ____13____ about calling a doctor.