The English Language Portfolio in Upper-secondary Classes

The article deals with a case study conducted in two Austrian upper-secondary classes to find out whether work on portfolio can be seen as a means of accompanying the learning process, of self evaluation and evaluation by the teacher and thus making students more independent as learners. Portfolio work might also support a trend in Austria to move from product-oriented to more process-oriented ways of assessing students.

Portfolios have always been a familiar part of professional life as a means of presenting competence especially in the fields of architecture, photography and art. In education portfolios are systematic, purposeful, and meaningful collections of students´ work over a period of time. They demonstrate to students and others their efforts, progress and achievements and can serve different purposes.

The Council of Europe, for example, recommends the ´European Language Portfolio´ as an initiative to promote multi-lingualism, mobility within Europe, and learner autonomy as a prerequisite for lifelong learning. This portfolio serves the more general purpose of presenting language competence and inter-cultural experience to encourage closer co-operation within a Europe of diverse cultures through direct communication. It also promotes personal development of the individuals enabling them to steer and control their own progress in language learning. Although students and teachers are encouraged to evaluate language competence according to the ´Common European Framework of Reference for Language Learning, Teaching and Assessment´, the European Language Portfolio cannot be seen as a means of assessing students at the end of a course, a semester or school year. Portfolio work is optional and should accompany and support learning by making students and teachers aware of progress and achievements in any foreign or minority language.

In the sector of secondary education in the state system the primary value of portfolios is the evaluation of student achievement to supplement more traditional forms of assessment like written tests and exams. Portfolio work is collected in a file that should ideally be kept in the classroom, so that it can be updated easily and shown to others. Portfolio work is reviewed by teachers and students routinely in portfolio conferences, tutorials or discussion forums to encourage students to express their views on the language learning process, their use of learning strategies, their goals and achievements. Thus portfolios become a powerful instrument to develop learner autonomy and self-directed learning. They promote student-centred work in the classroom as students become individually and collaboratively involved in selecting and evaluating work for the portfolio. The teacher will of course be an important participant in the portfolio by suggesting and debating with students which items should be included, by setting up evaluation criteria together with students and by reviewing and assessing students´ work. Otherwise portfolios might become random collections of everything the students want to add.

The work-in-progress-portfolio contains different drafts of a piece of written work, supplementary work on vocabulary and grammar, and - equally important - notes and comments by teachers and learners. The presentation portfolio is assembled at the end of a school year or for a job interview to show the best work. Language portfolios will mainly contain written work but also videos and tape-recordings or photo documentaries on projects. Every piece should be dated clearly and annotated with a short description of why it is included, a comment on the process of production, and an evaluation of the finished product done collaboratively by the learner and teacher.

Portfolios may have several compartments. In the European Language Portfolio they are the ´Language pass´ where students collect confirmations of language learning stays abroad, participation in exchange programmes, contacts with e-mail-partners or pen-friends, and participation in bi-lingual teaching. The personal ´Language Learning Biography´ gives a chronological overview of the language learning experience like particular language use on trips and a documentation of the learning progress. This is done with the help of self-assessment checklists, done by students and others, both based on the ´Common European Framework´, and a list of objectives for a certain period of time. It must contain reflections on the learning process to make clear whether the set goals have been reached. In the ´Dossier´ students collect samples of work. Here a core part contains work agreed on in collaboration with the teacher and is supplemented by personal choices of anything the student wants to be in. Many of the things teachers are already doing in their classroom can be incorporated in the portfolio, but the main aim is to make students aware of their own language learning process.

The case study

In secondary state education portfolios cannot replace written tests (Schularbeiten), but can be included in the mark for continuous assessment (Beurteilung der Mitarbeit) in accordance with the general guidelines for evaluation and assessment (Leistungsbeurteilungsverordnung) The aim of the case study conducted in two upper-secondary classes at the BAKIP Honauerstraße and the ORG Stifterstraße in Linz in 2001/02 can be seen as an attempt to find out how the new ideas are received by students and teachers, how the learners themselves react to the concepts developed and whether they accept or reject them. Portfolio work is mainly done in writing, therefore the focus is on the development of learning strategies concerning written work, but also on whether students think they have reached the goals set by themselves.

We introduced the ´English Language Portfolio´ in our classes in September 2001. As a framework we decided to use the concept of the European Language Portfolio as this offered a good opportunity for collecting information on the learning biography and for assessment by means of checklists based on the European Framework of Reference. Students in both classes demanded portfolio work to be included in their mark at the end of each semester. Otherwise they would not be motivated to set aside extra time for their portfolio. In open class discussions we agreed on the assignments for the core part and the optional part of the Dossier. Then we set about to collect information for the Language Pass and assess the level of competence for the Language Biography. Work on portfolios was mainly done at home with class time spent on discussions, writing reflections on learning, and tutorials with single students for feedback, setting of goals and defining achievements. Students handed in the portfolios at the end of the semester and towards the end of the school year to have them revised and assessed by us and to be incorporated in the final mark.

Data for our case study were collected systematically at the beginning and at the end of the case study by means of questionnaires. These focused on the areas of development of learning strategies concerning writing, on the learning purpose, and whether there was progress and development towards learner autonomy. Students were also asked to keep journals (SJ) for personal accounts of the learning experience to give useful first-hand information about the learning process, the social and psychological aspects of language development with the side effect of encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning. Journals were unstructured to provide maximum freedom to express opinions and to avoid tunnelling their thoughts. They were kept in German or English and sometimes supplemented by a list of prepared questions to assist those students who needed help. A teacher´s diary (TD) accompanied the whole research process and contained information obtained during unstructured observations in class, descriptions of the context of single lessons, and memos of feedback sessions (PF conferences) and class discussions.

The findings

General attitude towards the project (questionnaires 1 and 2, questions 1 - 3)

About two thirds of the students at both schools found work on the portfolio useful or quite useful for learning at school and later in life. This attitude did not change significantly at the BAKIP throughout the project, but the questionnaires at the ORG showed that students were less enthusiastic at the end of the year. However, this does not correspond with the answers given during the conferences. Some students did not realise until the very end of the project that work on the

portfolio does mean considerable personal effort and either expressed their frustration or their wish to get a second chance for PF-work the following school year. A second reason for that change of attitude given by students was that they felt tired of intense occupation with portfolio material at the end of the school year, which was due to their bad time management. (TD)

At the beginning of the project most of the students at both schools thought that the portfolio was a good way of presenting their special skills and personal interests during a presentation or job interview, at the BAKIP students managed to maintain their positive attitude throughout the project.

Students at a vocationally oriented school do have a more precise idea of what might help them to present their special skills outside school. (TD)

How appropriate is the portfolio in developing learning strategies for writing longer texts (questions 4 - 9)

At the BAKIP the time used for writing longer texts was less than an hour per week. This did not change throughout the project, at the ORG portfolio work meant that the work-load slightly increased, most students spent a maximum of 2 hours per week on writing assignments.

Writing longer texts was regarded positive by more than half of the students of the ORG at the beginning and at the end of the study. At the BAKIP students were not so enthusiastic at the beginning but rather confident at the end of the study.

I really like English and I like writing about the topic I am interested in. (SJ)

There is an interesting difference about what they find discouraging about writing in English. When the project started at both schools more than half of the students thought that making too many mistakes is the main reason, whereas at the end the number dropped to less than half. This change becomes also obvious in the students journals:

"Obwohl ich meine 4. Schularbeit noch nicht zurückbekommen habe, weiß ich, dass mein Stil von Aufsatz zu Aufsatz immer besser wird. Leider konnte ich die Fehler, die ich am meisten mache nicht abstellen, trotzdem bin ich mit meiner Leistung glücklich.ö (SJ)

"Bei meinen Aufsätzen wurde das Letztere (Aufsatz und Schreibstil wurden besser) besonders gut sichtbar, da ich von Aufsatz zu Aufsatz in der Grammatik und im Schreibstil besser wurde. .... , denn wenn man viele Aufsätze schreibt, lernt man auch sehr viel mehr dazu.ö (SJ)

As far as writing strategies are concerned, most students say that they revise topics before tests or exams by writing about them, however they mostly only write texts needed for school. When asked in the PF - conference about how they prepare for their tests and exams, some students said that they had become aware of the benefit of revising topics. Throughout the study they preferred to work on their own.

The questions about how they self-assessed their ability of writing longer texts seem to hint at a new confidence: At the beginning 7 students called themselves "bad ", whereas at the end the number decreased to 3.

"Durch dieses Projekt kann man seine Lernfortschritte erkennen und natürlich auch weiter ausbauen. Ich habe mich selbst besser einschätzen gelernt und bin stolz auf die vielen Aufsätze, die ich geschrieben habe.ö (SJ)

"Das PF half mir dabei (Verbesserung der Fehler) sehr, denn ich musste meine Fehler schriftliche analysieren. Darum bin ich sicher etwas besser geworden."(SJ)

"I think that I write better texts now and know a lot of new things, like vocabs." (SJ)

How important is the portfolio in terms of learning purpose ? (questions 10 - 12)

As one of our assumptions was that portfolio work helps setting goals, we deliberately asked about the students´ mistake management. The most common strategies were asking somebody to explain, writing a corrected version of the sentence, looking up grammar rules and doing some extra exercises to get more practice, looking up words in the dictionary and noting them down. Students maintained this attitude throughout the project. This, however, does not correspond to answers that were given in the conferences, when 1/3 of the students claimed that they had changed their way of dealing with mistakes:

7 out of 12 said that they were forced to analyse their mistakes because of the detailed feedback after each written assignment and 4 out of those 7 started to correct them or to "think about them ". 3 even claim that they "don´t make the same mistakes any moreö.

3 out of 12 said that they had improved their vocabulary and their style by deliberately checking words and phrases and by using them in their texts. (TD)

I think correcting these essays was more work but I also think that it was good for learning. It is time worth spent. (SJ)

Becoming aware of their own learning process obviously takes time and answering a questionnaire seems to narrow their thoughts so that changes do not show as significantly as during a feedback session.

Concerning other strategies for writing longer texts, most students were writing a draft version and a final text, some of them wrote one version only, very few hand in a draft for correction. At the BAKIP these strategies did not change, however results from the ORG showed a change. When the project started none of the students said they´d write a draft to hand in for correction and a final version afterwards, at the end of the study 16 students said they would do that. This new strategy could be explained by the fact that students slowly grew fond of their portfolios and felt proud of them and therefore tried to really present their best work. Some might also have realised that a first draft is a chance to improve the final version.

I am proud of my portfolio. (SJ)

I am happy to see what I have produced during the school year (SJ).

I didn´t realise until the very last week that taking such a second chance could really help me to improve my English. I would like to get another chance next school year. (PF conference)

Is there progress and development towards learner autonomy ? (questions 13 - 16)

Literature on portfolio work suggests that it supports students on their way to autonomy. The findings seem to prove that. Students at the BAKIP felt fairly confident about their independence as learners at the beginning of the case study. This attitude did not change during the project. This can be explained by the fact that they had been introduced to independent learning in the two years before the study was conducted. They showed a rather realistic perception of their capacity towards becoming autonomous learners.

At the ORG however, students felt confident about their independence at the beginning of the study. This attitude changed considerably towards the end. Twelve students thought they were "very independentö and eight said they were "independentö at the beginning, later only 10 claimed to be "very independentö, and two even called themselves "not independent at allö. A similar result could be found in the conferences. Five students said that they really enjoyed this new idea of independent work and five more said that finding your individual style and strategy and changing approaches was a great experience. The others stressed the work-load and the difficulty of working autonomously.

A possible interpretation of these results could be that while working on the portfolio students realised that becoming independent as learners means putting a lot of effort, good thinking and time into your learning.

Although the number of students who enjoyed working on the portfolio "very muchö dropped at the ORG, the students´ diaries clearly show what students think about it:

".. I think the PF is a light in the future which helps me to make English experiences.ö

"I hope that I have learned my English and that I have improved my English.ö

"I´ve learned to work on my own interests.ö

"Für mich war es kein Zwang an dieser Mappe zu arbeiten, denn ich mag es selbstständig an etwas zu arbeiten.ö

At the BAKIP there was a slight shift to a more positive attitude. This seems to confirm the previously made assumption that at vocationally oriented schools students are much more aware of the benefits of using the portfolio when applying for a job.

Reflections on the learning process ( questions 17 - 19) were introduced to students through the portfolio. Questions 17 and 18 were only asked in Questionnaire 2, as they aim at the final product and result. Students at the BAKIP generally had a positive attitude towards writing reflection. This can be explained by the fact that writing reflections is part of the practical training for becoming nursery teachers. They are accustomed to it and confident when using it. At the ORG the finings are quite different. Only a third of the students find writing reflections and comments about their learning "very usefulö, another third "usefulö and the last third even "not useful at allö. The difficulty of such a reflective approach is also mirrored in the students´ diaries:

"Ich sehe es (das PF) ehrlich gesagt als nichts anderes als ein normales Schul - beziehungsweise Hausübungsheft, und ich denke ich habe mich nicht mehr mit Englisch beschäftigt als letztes Jahr. Für alle die aber auch Übungsaufsätze, etc. sammeln, stellt es sicher eine Bereicherung dar, ..., weil es einen zwingt sich mit seinen Fehlern auseinander zu setzen. (SD)

In the conferences it became very clear that this part is the most difficult one. Students are not used to reflecting on their own learning process and were reluctant to change their approach. Some just didn´t want to take the responsibility, thought it too much trouble and did not do the reflective part or did not take it seriously enough. As a teacher it takes a lot of patience and sensitivity to motivate students to try and have a go at it. One student did not realise until the very end of the school year what chance he had missed and said in the conference that he had understood the rules and the benefit in the end and that he wanted to try the portfolio again. During a period of doing a cross-curricular project in English and Physics, when students worked in groups and were responsible for their entire learning process and presentation of the final product, self-reflections were more easily accepted. They even enjoyed describing the process of their learning.

Conclusions and recommendations

Good students profit. Those who took work seriously improved their competence and developed towards learner autonomy. They were proud of the final product and (principle of ownership) and were eager to present it. Students who were sceptical about the portfolio did not want to do the extra work, did not see any development, and thought that it was a waste of time. The most challenging parts were self assessment, self-reflection, self-organization and time-management. Students who were already confident in these areas seemed to enjoy and profit more than the others. Students need a lot of guidance and encouragement to self-assess their level of competence and to define the aims they want to achieve. It takes a lot of time for teachers to revise portfolios and give detailed individual feedback.

Teachers profit because portfolio work encourages reflection on your teaching and assessing. We think it takes much time to explain the principles and get them started. Only after two or three months they realize what portfolio work is all about. It has a positive effect on developing social skills as all rules are negotiated in class on a democratic basis. Portfolio work should be introduced at an earlier stage of education and become an integral part of assessment in other subjects as well. In our school system students are accustomed to translate their efforts into marks for their school reports, the portfolio seems to challenge these restrictive regulations. There is no limit to your own and your students´ creativity.


Mabry, Linda. 1999. Portfolios Plus. A Critical Guide to Alternative Assessment. Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, California.

Hamp-Lyons, Liz and W. Condon. 1999. Assessing the Portfolio. Hampton Press, Inc. Cresskill, New Jersey.

Genesee, F. and J.A. Upshur. 1996. Classroom-based Evaluation in Second Language Education. CUP, Cambridge.

Smith, Kari. 2002. Learner Portfolios. In: English Teaching Professional, nr. 22, pp 39-42.

De Fina, Allan A. 1992. Portfolio Assessment. Getting Started. Scholastic, Jefferson City.

Altrichter, H., P.Posch and B. Somekh. 1993. Teachers Investigate their Work: An Introduction to the Methods of Action Research. Routledge, London and New York.

Wallace, M. 1998. Action Research for Language Teachers, CUP, Cambridge.

For further information on our English Portfolio and questionnaires (detailed results) please contact the "Pädagogische Institut des Bundes in OÖ in Linz: or e-mail: If you would like information about the European Language Portfolio which is being implemented in Austrian schools at the moment, please contact the "Österreichische Sprachen-Kompetenz-Zentrumö in Graz:

Professional profiles

Isolde Mayer-Tauschitz has been teaching English and German at higher secondary vocational schools since 1979. She is currently at the Bildungsanstalt für Kindergartenpädagogik, a school for nursery teachers in Linz. Since 1999 she has been a member of the project group Neue Lehr- und Lernformen at the Pedagogical Institute in Upper Austria. In 2000 she took her MA in TESOL from Edinburgh University. Her particular interests are innovative teaching, assessment (especially portfolio), action research, teacher development work for nursery teachers and self-directed learning in the upper forms of secondary school.

Elisabeth Steininger has been teaching English and geography in Linz since 1981. She is also a school counsellor at her school, the Adalbert Stifter Gymnasium, ORG der Diözese Linz. She has been responsible for the organisation and co-ordination of teachers in their probational year at the Pedagogical Institute in Upper Austria since 1999, and is also a member of the Neue Lehr- und Lernformen project group. Among her many interests are innovative teaching methods, learning styles, co-operative learning and new forms of assessment.