Identifying and Assessing Content-Specific Language

Creating Novel Assessments to Collect Accurate Student Data

In 2018, a high school practicing Project-Based Learning invited me into their halls as a composition tutor and seminar assistant. Working with scholars throughout the course of the semester as they proposed, planned, and presented their independent projects as a means to meet state standards allowed me to see the benefit of assessing students’ productive and receptive language abilities through novel tasks. As one learner explained to me, before enrolling in the school, he “fooled his teachers” about his reading comprehension abilities by memorizing phrases from the notes his teacher provided to him. His assessment measured his ability to regurgitate another’s knowledge, and therefore, would not provide accurate data to the teacher as to his language abilities. “I can’t trick these projects,” he told me, “because they ask me to solve new problems.”

Objective-Aligned Performance Tasks

Performance tasks allow teachers to collect accurate data on their learners’ productive and receptive language abilities because they challenge learners with applying their linguistic skills to novel situations. As performance tasks require the instructors to create a description of the task’s goal, role, audience, situation, purpose, product, and success criteria, instructors can evaluate their task critically for biases that may lead to inaccurate assessment data and plan mitigations. Below, I included a sample performance task that I created for a tenth-grade, PreAP English course.

Competency-Based Grading Rubrics

Competency-based grading rubrics allow instructors to ensure their summative assessments target skills and content students practiced in their formative assessments and learning activities. The formative assessments (ungraded or weighted at 20% of students’ grades depending on the learning context) leading to the summative evaluation below followed the same rubric. This alignment means the instructor can provide students with feedback on their level of mastery of each of the rubric’s competency areas throughout the unit, and that students can see their progress as they work toward their goals. For competencies measuring students’ abilities to produce or receive the English Language, instructors can align categories three, four, and five to the appropriate WIDA Can-Do Descriptors.

Performance Task Description
Language Objectives
Competency-Based Rubric
Context-Specific Supports
Performance Task Description

I am holding a vote to decide which texts from your Independent Reading Project next year’s students should read. I want to choose texts that help students challenge what the media tells them about themselves, others, and their world. Your goal is to persuade your classmates to vote the same way as you. This task involves reviewing your SOAPSTone, Elements of Argument, and Self-Evaluation Analysis Essay assignments to decide if students should read the text pair that you read. You will also gather statistics, stories, interviews, videos, and photographs that show what the mass media tells us about our world to support your claim. With your Independent Reading Group, you will create an oral presentation, and that includes:

  • A thesis statement that contains a claim about whether I should teach the texts and a summary of how you will make that claim.
  • An explanation (using quotes from the text) of what each text teaches us about the world and what you learned from reading them together.
  • Evidence from outside of the text that you collected about the worldviews that schools and popular media promote and its effect on people like and different from yourself. You should present this evidence in a way that appeals to your classmates’ ethics (ethos), logic (logos), and emotions (pathos).

After delivering your ten to fifteen-minute presentation, your classmates will have five minutes to ask you questions about the texts. You will also submit a Presentation Plan worksheet in which you explain your chosen evidence and presentation organization strategy.

Language Objectives

Primary Language Objective- Presentation (Spoken)

Students select and use a rhetorical communication strategy to persuade their audience with words that appeal to their logic (ex. data, studies, percentage, statistics), emotions (ex. uncovers, displaces, stereotypes, liberates), and ethics ( justified, experience, knowledge).

Additional Language Objective- Thesis (Written)

Students will use a thesis statement to summarize the argument with transitive verbs (ex. challenge, affirm, critique, support) and nouns that name rhetorical strategies (ex. allegory, narrative, syllogism).

Competency-Based Rubric

Students can describe an author’s rhetorical choices.


The students explain the author’s choices with general vocabulary. The students often use the proper rhetorical term to describe the author’s choices. The students use the proper term to describe the author’s rhetorical choices and explain what purpose the rhetorical device serves.
Students can interpret what an author’s rhetorical choices communicate about the world.


The students describe the formal qualities of the text. The students describe the formal qualities of the text and make inferences about what they persuade us to think about the world. The students use quotes to show the audience the formal qualities of the text and make logical inferences about what they persuade us to think about the world.
Students can write a thesis statement that summarizes their argument


The students state an opinion about the text. The students make a claim about the text but do not summarize the evidence they are using to support it. The students write a clear thesis statement that summarizes their argument. They use active, transitive verbs and descriptive adjectives to make a claim about how the texts respond to dominate worldviews.
Students can support their claim with evidence


The students support their claim with some evidence from the text or external sources. Students sometimes give credit to their sources. The students support their claim with evidence from the text and some external sources. Students credit their sources throughout the presentation. The students support their claim with relevant evidence from the text and a variety of external sources. Students credit their sources throughout the presentation and include a Works Cited slide that follows MLA formatting.
Students can select evidence that will persuade their audience. The students incorporate evidence that appeals to their audience through one mode of persuasion. The students incorporate evidence that appeals to a person’s logic (logos), ethics (ethos), and emotions (pathos). The students show an understanding of their audience’s values by incorporating evidence that specifically appeals to their audience’s logic (logos), ethics (ethos), and emotions (pathos).


Students can present information in a clear and logical manner


The students present information relevant to the topic. The students logically organize their presentation to aid the audience’s understanding of their argument. The students select a rhetorical strategy through which to organize their presentation that enhances and highlights its point. The audience can tell the speakers rehearsed their presentation.

Context-Specific Supports

Interactive Supports: 

  • The instructor will create Independent Reading Groups that contain students with varied linguistic strengths so each team member can assume responsibility for language tasks aligned with the WIDA (2017) Can-Do descriptors appropriate for their proficiency level. The teacher will conference with each group to ensure each group member is contributing to the project.
  • To collect evidence for their summative assessment, students may interact with and reference non-English sources. Students may also conduct interviews with community members in their native language.
  • Students can use translation tools and dictionaries throughout the unit.

Graphic Supports:

  • Students will receive a presentation preparation outline that contains section headers for the different parts of the presentation and provide sentence starters for each section.
  • Students will receive a thesis statement formula template

Sensory Supports:

  • The teacher will provide students with examples of successful presentations.
  • Throughout the unit, the students will create a vocabulary wall listing content and general academic terms related to the task.
  • Students will use assignments they completed throughout the unit (SOAPSTone analysis, Self-Evaluation, and the Elements of Argument worksheet) to complete their project. The teacher will give all students formative feedback on these assignments before students begin the summative task.