Using a Portfolio for ELL/ELT

Aadesh Bhetwal

Portfolios are collections of learners’ work that demonstrates the learner’s progress and achievement in a program or course of study. A portfolio used for assessment purposes can include examples of learner’s work, assignments, projects, improvements, self-evaluations, reflections, journals and case studies, among others. Paulson, Paulson, and Meyer (1991) say that portfolio is ‘a purposeful collection of student’s work that exhibits the student’s effort, progress in one or more areas.’ They also stress that a portfolio provides a complex and comprehensive view of students’ participation in selecting contents, the criteria for selection, the criteria for judging merit, and evidence of students’ self-reflection.

There are different types of portfolios, such as assessment portfolios, showcase portfolios, and collections portfolios. And these portfolios are very useful teaching and learning tool in language learning classrooms. For instance, ‘assessment portfolios’ consist of items students choose to include according to certain assessment criteria. ‘Showcase portfolios’ contain students’ best pieces of work – their assignments, articles, journals, etc. Collections portfolios, often called working folders, are collections of all the pieces of work during a certain period of time.

Benefits of Using Portfolio

I have been managing portfolios of some subjects at my university for some years and my experience shows that having the portfolios has helped me understand the use of various language learning strategies. It has kept me motivated for further independent learning and has also encouraged me for collaborative learning. It has been very useful for me as it not only shows my learning process and progress, but also shows me the results of learning.

Here are some more benefits of using portfolios according to Shimo and Apple (2005):

  • Learners can reflect over their learning processes.
  • Portfolios make it possible to make a continuous assessment over a long time period.
  • Learners can make their original products and they can feel a sense of achievement more compared to traditional tests.
  • Learners can take control over their learning and feel more responsibility for it.
  • Learners can assess weaknesses and strengths, and progress in their ability, and (re-) set goals more effectively by looking over their work.

One of the main features of a portfolio is self-reflection, to which Schulman (1985) echoes that portfolio serves it the most significant purpose as scaffolding for reflective teacher learning. Similarly, Winzer (2002) asserts that portfolios create a context that contains multiple and diverse sources of information and perspectives in which students can examine, explore and construct meaning. He adds:
“One student chose the assignment in order to learn about the social and cultural biases that society may have toward people with disabilities. It was an opportunity to broaden my perspectives, and a chance to explore and gain a better understanding of disability. Finally, I believe that I will not be able to sincerely help any special needs children in my classroom without taking the time to study, research, and interview and open my awareness to the disabilities in society today.” (p. 4)

These findings show that portfolio is beneficial for the learning of students. It can cover all the aspects of languages such as the four language skills. For instance, one can collect and arrange written assignments in a chronological way, then self-evaluate and reflect on his/her improvement on writing skill. Similarly, a student can maintain a portfolio about different strategies he/she used over the time to develop speaking skills, and feel motivated seeing the progress made or understand the obstacles faced.
Few Challenges
When my teachers asked me to maintain portfolios for each subjects, initially I was very confused about what to keep in them and faced a lot of difficulties because I didn’t arrange and update my portfolios regularly. Hence, I want to share a few important questions which come with the use of portfolios – such as: What should be placed in the portfolio? How often should items be added to the portfolio? Who decides what goes into the portfolio? Who should be given responsibility for its safekeeping? What should be done with the portfolio at the end of the school year? In addition, a teacher has to decide if the assessment of portfolio will be graded as a part of the final examination and evaluation.

These are just a few of the “nuts and bolts” issues which surface while deciding to implement portfolio assessment in the classroom.

Students might take portfolios as an extra burden, and teachers might also feel the same way. Teachers have to teach and complete the course on time, check assignments, prepare and administer examinations, check and mark exam answer sheets – and portfolio might look like adding more to the work, demanding more time and effort. However, by implementing portfolio as a tool for continuous assessment and also a part of the final assessment, teachers practically reduce their work pressure and save time.

Portfolios do not have to be bulky, heavy and they certainly don’t have to be costly. For instance, a teacher can ask the students to write a short classroom reflection everyday and maintain a portfolio on a simple file. This can be done in pairs or groups as well which will lessen the ‘burden’ for both. The teacher can then check the portfolio every week or every month, and evaluate the students’ improvement in writing and give appropriate feedback.

For Further Reading

California Foreign Language Project
Kenji Nakamaya,
Etsuko Shimo, Matthew Apple
Winzer, M. (2002). Portfolio Use in Undergraduate Special Education Introductory Offerings. International Journal of Special Education .
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Aadesh Bhetwal
M.Ed. English Language Teaching
Kathmandu University, School of Education.


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