Examining the 2019 PBLA Guidelines: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Instructors in the LINC program have been teaching within the framework of PBLA (portfolio-based language assessment) for a few years now with the most recent guidelines having been published in 2019. The 2019 PBLA Guidelines outline the history and rationale, address practical implementation, and conclude with a resource section. While some instructors have embraced its use and see its benefits, others continue to find that it impedes effective teaching and learning, consuming a lot of time both in and out of the classroom. Program costs, its impact on teachers’ time, and its accuracy in measuring student language proficiency are important elements when considering its effectiveness. In this blog, I consider “the good, the bad, and the ugly” in PBLA theory and practice.

Foundations: The Good

PBLA invokes principles of Assessment for Learning (AfL), which makes use of formative assessment, often informal, to diagnose learner needs and provide immediate feedback to students for improvement.  The PBLA Guidelines discuss five key strategies of AfL. The Guidelines recognize that how assessment is approached and implemented is “a key determiner of its impact. For example, [there is] “no evidence that increasing the amount of testing alone enhances learning. Instead, they found that the most effective assessment is planned for and goal driven, engaging both teachers and learners in reflection and dialogue” (Hattie, 2009; Bullock, Bishop, Martin, & Reid, 2002 as cited in PBLA).

 The key practice is the use of a portfolio to assess student work. Keeping a portfolio of work is an effective way for students and teachers to see language development over time which can be used to evaluate progress in a skill. The portfolio is a helpful tool for continuous improvement, using meta-cognitive skills to reflect on feedback (teacher, peer, or self-reflection).   

Implementation: The Bad

PBLA is called collaborative and learner centered, citing AfL principles, but in practice artefacts and assessments are prescriptive and hardly a collaborative process between learner and instructor. Rather than being a tool in improving student language skills and adaptation into Canadian society, PBLA is onerous for teacher workload and discouraging for students, even prohibitive for those with little formal education. Reports conducted by the IRCC in 2017 and 2018 showed that the time to complete a benchmark increased by 50%, and LINC students spent 20% less time using English outside the home than newcomers not in the program (Vanderveen, 2018). Some may suggest its failure may be in part due to teacher pushback affecting student engagement in the process, but with the heavy increase in unpaid workload, who can blame them? As Gouthro (2015) suggested, many people resist learning when it is uncalled for and in opposition to the learner’s values, preferences, understandings, and needs. In my opinion, PBLA takes away the joy of teaching/learning and the feeling of true accomplishment. It creates an environment in which giving and getting assessments becomes the aim.

PBLA Practice: The Ugly

A more insidious injustice lurks within the framework of neo-liberalism and immigrant integration into Canadian society. Learner success (or failure) using PBLA is critical because of the high stakes for students to achieve required language levels for citizenship, education, and employment. Unfortunately, PBLA perpetuates class division between haves and have-nots by creating a cumbersome assessment program that divides those who know how to learn in a Westernized context from those who have little schooling or non-Westernized learning backgrounds. As implemented, it uses a framework that perpetuates inequality of social position and reduces less educated learners to “a problem rather than people with agency… in different and often unequal positions [who] have different understandings and realities of a given context” (Alfred, 2015, p. 95).  Moreover, PBLA exacerbates neoliberalism exploitation of “the vulnerability of learners who lack resources or face significant systemic barriers that may impede their success” (Gouthro, 2019, p. 170). As implemented, PBLA robs teacher and class time that could be used to build a community of learning adults. Instead, the learning experience becomes a narrow measurement of outcomes and productivity and the value of education to support a democratic society diminishes (Gouthro, 2019).


Creating a collaborative class community where everyone is engaged and working towards their language and life goals would better serve newcomers.  However, by understanding PBLA Guidelines and critiquing my own practice, I can better justify my approach and argue for the structures and resources needed to be be effective.

Please share your thoughts below. How have you adjusted to the use of PBLA in your practice (especially during online instruction)? If you are not a LINC instructor, have you used portfolios as a tool in your classroom?


Alfred, M. V. (2015). Diaspora, migration, and globalization: Expanding the discourse of adult education. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, 2015(146), 87-97. https://search-ebscohost-com.libraryservices.yorkvilleu.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=url,cookie,ip,uid&db=ehh&AN=103266162

Gouthro, P. (2019). Taking time to learn: The importance of theory for adult education. Adult Education Quarterly, 69(1), 60-76. https://search-ebscohost-com.libraryservices.yorkvilleu.ca/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=url,cookie,ip,uid&db=ehh&AN=133898939

PBLA (2019). PBLA: practice guidelines. Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. https://pblapg.language.ca/toc/

Vanderveen, T. (2018). The nature and impact of portfolio-based learning assessment. Contact Magazine. TESL Ontario. http://contact.teslontario.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/03Vanderveen-PBLA.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3gEfYoVKG9gdNm74_y8Wx_KXOrlBhgjL2JIIJPwWyZKa1XpyLKpyT-BiA

Hello TESL O members. I'm Beth Beardall. I co-manage the Blog website alongside of Jessica Freitag. I truly enjoy working with the TESL Ontario Blog Administrator Team and have been volunteering with the TESL O Blog since 2017. I am OCELT certified and have a master's degree in Adult Education. I work in the LINC/ESL program with adult learners. I enjoy learning from others, teaching or tutoring ESL and getting to know people from around the world, and, of course, copy editing and proofreading. I've been doing all three both on a volunteer basis and professionally for more than 15 years.


4 thoughts on “Examining the 2019 PBLA Guidelines: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

  1. The article covers all important key points that can cause hurdles in the learning/teaching process. Well written.

  2. I agree with all points you outlined in the article, Beth. However, there are a couple more points that need to be considered – class size and continues intake. Unlike the LINC classes, the ESL classes have between 30 and 40 students. As you can imagine, with a class of this size, it is close to impossible to properly implement 8 to 10 assessments per skill. At the end of the day, teachers and students realize that there is more assessing done than learning.
    The second issue I mentioned is the continues intake. Having new students coming at any time throughout the term is challenging in a normal setting. Introducing PBLA and performing the needs assessment with each new student takes away valuable learning time.
    The idea of using a portfolio in the classroom is great, but in order to work, it needs to fit the format of our language classes, not the other way around.

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