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Queen's University
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Literacy Test Leaves English Language Learners Vulnerable

In her study on the impact of the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test on English Language Learners, Liying Cheng found Canadian-born English Language Learners most vulnerable.

Students writing a literacy test.

In the past twenty years, the proportion of new immigrants entering Canadian educational systems with little or no experience in English has increased. English Language Learners are estimated to be 20-50% of the student population in urban systems across Canada.

Ontario schools have seen the greatest increase in English Language Learners, but the program support for those learners has declined. At the same time, large-scale achievement testing such as the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test has increasingly been used to measure student competency and ensure system accountability. The confluence of both the increased number of English Language Learners and the expanding testing framework has created a new and largely unanticipated educational problem – alarmingly high failure rates for these students.

Cheng’s study found that English Language Learners performed significantly lower and differentially, compared with the general student population, on the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test reading and writing tasks. English Language Learners experienced unique reading and writing processes while taking the test - both in term of their literacy development and affective factors such as motivation and test anxiety in taking the test. English Language Learners who speak their first language at home performed better than those who speak a combination of English and their first language and those who speak only English at home. In this sense, Canadian-born English Language Learners were the most vulnerable, i.e., they had the lowest test performance compared with the other two groups of English Language Learners. Overall, the more reading and writing activities students did outside school and the more frequent their use of computers for school work, the better their test performance.

Cheng’s findings have policy implications for the relationship between test performance and literacy instruction in schools, the use of students' first language in their learning in and outside school, and test validation and accommodation for English Language Learners.

Key Findings

  1. English Language Learners perform significantly lower and differentially and they also experience unique reading and writing processes compared with the general student population
  2. Students who read and write outside of school and students who use computers for school work perform better on the test
  3. Students who use their first language at home perform better on the test than those who speak English only or a combination of English and their first language

Further Information: Liying Cheng