Research in brief: Alderfer ESL Program Assessment Tool

What might be optimal ESL provision in international schools?

Alderfer and Alderfer (2011) state that there is no unifying set of criteria to assess ESL programs in international school contexts. Their research sets out to provide one.

The authors outline four categories through which ESL programs can be assessed:

  • Program conditions
  • Student learning conditions
  • Teaching conditions
  • Home culture conditions

These were identified based on current research, although only limited references are provided in the summary article.

For program conditions, the authors stress the importance of an ESL program having a well-articulated philosophy, clear proficiency levels and benchmarks, clear procedures for learner entry and exit, and effective delivery. Student learning conditions focus mainly on affective factors such as student-school integration, student-peer relationships, and a nurturing learning environment. Optimal conditions for teachers included having positive perceptions of ESL students, active collaboration, and available CPD. Home culture conditions stress the importance of developing L1 competence across all skills, the need for parents to value and support the ESL program, and effective parent-teacher communication.

The assessment tool

With the above in mind, the authors outline a holistic rubric for assessing these four categories. You can find an example here. Each of the categories includes five descriptors, each scored from 5 (strong foundation) to 1 (building foundation) depending on how much each criteria is evidenced in a ESL program.


The assessment tool isn’t particularly good. Given there was no existing assessment tool for ESL programs prior to this article (according to the authors) I guess they could pretty much come up with anything and, to be fair, at least someone laid down a marker. Even so, this is far too general and allows too much for context to dictate the effectiveness of any program.

I know that sounds a bit dismissive. After all, context is key, right? Well look at this first criteria for the program conditions:

Okay, so I get that it would be useful to have a well-articulated ESL philosophy and guiding principles. What would be more interesting for me is to provide a bit more detail on that – i.e. what might constitute clear, evidence-informed guiding principles. There are some big considerations for any program such as, say, policy towards use of learner L1 in an EMI context. Surely there are some recommended principles that could be outlined within this framework? The authors could do a bit more of the hard work here I think.

I mean, look at these teacher conditions:

It’s just vague. And the second one… ‘effective ESL pedagogy’. At least give us a clue.

The home culture conditions are slightly more measurable, things like students being able to read to an age-appropriate level in their L1. Still, it’s not the most comprehensive rubric upon which to assess an ESL program.

Why does this rubric annoy me? Two reasons.

  1. In the conclusion the authors claim that this is a ‘revolutionary assessment tool’. Personally, I think it’s a bit… meh. It’s suitably vague enough for me to make up a load of ‘evidence’ for. This would be a good cheat sheet for a Head of EAL/ESL I reckon.
  2. The fact you could claim that this assessment is revolutionary just highlights how much of an afterthought ESL programs must be/have been at the time.

I’ve read this back. I sound very harsh. Not a direct attack on the authors, and credit to them for coming up with SOMETHING in the way of ESL program assessment. I doubt I could do better myself, so I’ll stop ranting. Still, I wonder how often this tool has actually been used.


Alderfer, D., & Alderfer, L. (2011). Optimizing ESL programs in international schools. International Schools Journal31(1).

Categories: General, reflections

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