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Assessing and Placing the Preliterate ESL Learner

Written by: D. Magrath
Published on: Feb 6, 2023

Asian group of students
Photo credit: tuiphotoengineer/Adobe Stock


This activity comes from New Ways of Classroom Assessment, Revised, edited by James Dean Brown (TESOL, 2013). Purchase the book in the TESOL Bookstore, and check out the other books in the New Ways series.


Levels: Pre-beginning/preliterate
Aims: Assess pre-reading skills before starting instruction
Class Time: 20–30 minutes
Preparation: Time 60 minutes

Pre-beginning or preliterate learners present a unique challenge for assessment. Students may speak a language that uses a non-Latin alphabet such as Arabic, Chinese, or Japanese. Some learners may speak a language with no written alphabet, or they may be nonliterate in their own language. An oral interview can determine speaking proficiency, but how can literacy readiness be assessed? Student levels of proficiency may range from none, to some word and letter recognition skills.

Basic literacy is essential to the learning process. Both reading and writing are active skills that aid language acquisition and reinforce speaking skills. Preliterate students will vary in their ability to use and recognize the written word. The following suggestions will help ESL instructors find a starting point for ESL literacy instruction. Can the reader see the differences between symbols and recognize the concepts of same-and-different and left-to-right visual sequencing? Does the reader look to the number on the left and track to the right?


  1. Because of the nature of this diagnostics assessment, it should be done individually, giving instructions orally in language the student can understand.

  2. Give students a copy of the assessment activities in the Appendix.

  3. Walk each student through the tasks.

  4. If a student gets 2 of the 4 nonexample items correct in a task, continue to the next task until the student falls below that score. Note the last letter the student successfully identified.

  5. When the student is finished, thank him, and tell him when you will provide feedback.

Feedback and Scoring

  1. Each subtest in the sequenced assessment activities indicates a higher level of pre-reading ability. From symbols, the test moves on to letters, and then to words. Some students may recognize familiar words.

  2. Use this information diagnostically to form groups of students or to place students into levels of literacy study as follows:

  • A and B = Beginning
  • C and D = Letter recognition
  • E and F = Word recognition
  • G = Basic word knowledge

Caveats and Options

  1. This test assumes that students have mastered left–right visual sequencing. If they have not, then the instruction can begin at the level of left–right orientation. Some students will recognize sight words, especially if they have lived in an English-speaking country for a while.

  2. Content and background knowledge or content schemata are an important consideration (Grabe, 1991, p. 381). For example, one would not use tropical words (e.g., frog, palm) in a program based in Alaska. Cultural knowledge is another factor that must be considered; pig or pork would not be good words for an ESOL program with Middle Eastern students. A phone icon would not work with a learner only familiar with cell phones.

References and Further Reading

Grabe, W. (1991). Current developments in second language reading research. TESOL Quarterly, 25(3), 375–406.

Magrath, D. (1988). Teaching non-Latin alphabets through communication. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 26(3), 244–247.

This article first appeared in TESOL Connections. Reprinted with permission.