Month: May 2014

Flashcards are my best friends

Flashcards-L“Alright, guys, where is the sun now?”  Hands all around the circle shoot into the air, while others point to one of the flashcards we just turned face-down.  “There!  It’s there!” The little ones shout, unable to restrain from shouting out the answer.

We’re in the middle of a basic memory game I use for introducing new vocabulary.  We’ve already looked at the words one by one, saying the words with happy voices, robot voices, and big voices.  We’ve clapped out the beats in each word, and had a chance to find the word and turn it over.  Now the cards are on the carpet, face-down, and the children have to remember where everything was.

A child comes forward, and turns over the card.  “Is that a sun?” I ask the class.  They answer as one, “Yes, it is!”  Everyone is happy that their friend got it right.  The next child comes up, looking for the cloud.  “Is that the cloud?” I ask, and they answer, “No, it’s not!”  I continue, “What is it?”  “It’s rain!”

While the children are remembering their new vocabulary, they are placing them into short, simple question-and-answer structures.  Next, they combine the cards with sentences.  A child picks up a card, and says, “It’s sunny today,” or “It’s cloudy today.”  This exercise allows a child to practice short sentences using vocabulary he feels comfortable with.  After a card’s been used two or three times, I turn it over and they are no longer allowed to use that word.  For now, at least.

As the children get more confident with their speaking, I challenge them to combine cards: flashcards with colors, numbers, and clothing litter the carpet, and children receive points for each correctly used card.  The very young ones get a point for each correctly named card, while the older ones have to put the word in a sentence.  And yes, the children may help each other, but only when the child in question asks for it.

We start with a warming-up: children seated next to each other get one or two minutes to practice using the words on the cards.  The classroom starts buzzing as children point out cards to their neighbors, naming the words, helping each other with the correct pronunciation, and using them in simple sentences.  In the meatime, I pull out a box of blocks, our scorecard for the duration of the game.  I clap for silence, and ask who would like to give it a try.  Various answers follow, and every correct answer earns another block on the tower.  “There are two red shoes” counts for three points.  “Hat,” from a four-year-old, adds another block to the tower.  When a five-year-old gives a single word as an answer, I ask if he can put it in a sentence.  Classmates give him hints, and he tries again.  “It’s a hat,” earns another block on the tower.

Eventually, the tower gets quite high, and the stakes even higher: who can make the sentence that will cause the tower to fall over?  When it finally does collapse, we count the blocks and decide whether or not we want to try to break our record.

Sometimes, I’ll put the cards in order, and ask the children what it says.  “Two blue t-shirts,” they’ll read aloud.  I mix up the cards, and ask what it says now.  “T-shirts two blue,” they say.  “Is that good?” I ask.  They correct me, I fix the cards (silly me!), and we try again.  This way, the children learn basic reading (left to right) and put words into short phrases.

What kinds of games do other teachers play with flashcards, I wonder?


ESL and the long-term plan


Twice a year, I sit down to write out a semi-annual plan for my teaching.  My table is strewn with all sorts of documents: summaries of the results from the latest round of assessments, lists of children per class, the books I use for each class, and copies of the old semi-annual planning.  A cup of coffee and my laptop complete the picture, and I know I’m in for a long, but productive, sit.

Why would I put myself through this, I’ve wondered.  I could, of course, just follow the book.  Loads of teachers do that, every single day.  Why wouldn’t I just do the same?  And I must admit, it’s a bit tempting to do just that, sometimes.  But then I think about how valuable this plan will be, how it will inform my teaching, and point out the real goals of my teaching in ways no textbook can.

What do I put into each semi-annual planning?  The information is compacted into a table, and usually fits onto one or two pages.  First, I’ll briefly describe what goes into each column, before going into details.

Heading: basic information.  Which class, the period covered by this plan, name of the teacher, subject name, basic topics we’ll be covering, and which book(s) we’ll be using.

Column one: names of the children, listed in order from strongest to weakest.  In general, the strongest 25% of the children become the “talent” group, the middle 50% of the children become the “basic” group, and the weakest 25% of the children become the “intensive” group.  Each group has its own needs that I will need to meet via differentiation.

Column two: language goals for each group.  What listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills do I think the children should learn in the next few months?  I start with the basic group, and tack on a few extra goals for the talent and intensive groups.

Column three: didactic activities.  What activities will we undertake to insure that the children learn the skills listed in column two?  Will these activities be class-wide, small group, paired, or done individually?

Column four: time.  How much time will be available to complete the lessons?

Column five:  pedagogical measures I plan to take to insure that the children are participating – what kinds of feedback will I give and when, what kinds of questions will I ask and how will I stimulate the kind of language use I want the children to learn?

focusWhile I’m filling in this table, I find myself asking and answering hundreds of questions, the process of which informs and focuses my teaching for the months to come.  Another side-effect of this planning is that I find myself energized and inspired with exciting plans for great lessons for children involved in their learning.

One of the first questions I have to answer, of course, is how to group the children.  It’s never, ever, ever, a precise 25 – 50 – 25 split.  I take into consideration where the children were in the last plan: did that “talent” child really do well in that group?  Or did he do better when working with the “basic” group?  Will that “intensive” child do better if placed in the “basic” group?  Or did he really start learning because of the extra time and attention I gave him with the “intensive” group?  This is where the results from the latest assessments come in handy.  How much did each child actually learn during the last few months?  In other words, did that child flourish in the group he was in last time?  If so, and if not, what factors contributed to that?  Will keeping him in the same group help him, or will he need to be placed in a different group?

goalOnce the first column has been filled in, the rest, I find, is quite easy.  I then pull out the tables in which the assessment results for each child are summarized, and draw lines separating each group.  I look to see what skills the entire group is missing, and what might be a realistic next step.  Where can these children go next in their development?  In general, I choose 7 to 8 goals for the basic group, spread over the skills areas.  I add on 2 or 3 for the talent and intensive groups.  I have found that any more goals is simply too many for me to meet in my limited time, while any fewer isn’t ambitious enough.

fb-inspireThe third column, learning activities, is the funnest.  What kinds of activating, co-operative learning structures will we use?  What kinds of pages will we use in our project notebooks?  What kinds of role plays will we practice?  This is the part where I get the most inspiration.

The fourth column is the easiest, of course.  How much time do I actually get to teach each class, and that’s it.  Also, am I teaching the entire class for that time, or is there time for small-group work.

reflection-24The fifth column is where I get to spend time on self-reflection.  What kinds of concrete action should I undertake to insure that each child feels safe enough to try speaking in a language that isn’t his own.  How will I challenge the stronger children to strike out and learn even more English than they already know.  How will I encourage the weaker children to take part, even when they don’t know all of the words or feel uncertain about themselves?  These questions and more poke their heads up while I write.

In the end, I have a document that will guide my teaching for the next few months.  I share this planning with the classroom teacher, so that he or she knows what we will be doing for the next half-year, and keep a copy in my class binder so I can always refer to it whenever I feel the need or plan the next theme.

I wonder what other teachers do, for their planning?

Hurricane Andrew


In 1992, Hurricane Andrew raced through Florida, flattening towns and destroying everything unlucky enough to be in its path.  Weeks later, the Girl Scout councils sent  out a cry for help: all of their materials had been washed away, and they needed supplies.


I, a fellow Girl Scout leader, wanted to help, but as a college student I was also quite broke. What to do?  It took some thought, but finally it struck me: design some easy, low-to-no material activities, and package it in a useful, compact manner.  And so they were born: the pop-can-games and pop-can-songs.  The “pop can” I refer to is the tube-shaped can one buys Pringles chips and tennis balls in.  I don’t remember why this shape seemed so important, but I have kept to this format ever since.

What did I make?  In essence, it was quite simple: I made a number of tagboard strips that fit into the pop-can, about 2 inches (6 cm) wide, and 8 inches (20 cm) long.  For the games can, I wrote the directions a low- to no-material game or activity on each strip, and put it in the can.  For the songs, I wrote out the words for well-known Girl Scout songs in my very best handwriting on one side, the title on the other, and put the cards into the song can.  Then I sent them off to Florida, where I never heard from them again.  No matter – I also made a set for myself, typing out the words this time and making them look that much more professional.  I used them for years, not only as a Girl Scout leader, but also as a starting classroom teacher in The Netherlands.

Years later, I taught at a Dutch grade school, and found myself wanting to find a way to structure the music lessons with my children so that they could have some choice in which songs they wanted to sing, while giving me the chance to stop singing St. Nick songs once January had come and gone.  Also, I didn’t know that many Dutch children’s songs, so I needed a way to remember the words while teaching the children.  I decided it was time to pull a good idea back out of the hat.  I made a few changes, however.  This time, instead of writing a title on the back of the card, I drew a picture, depicting what the song was about.  On the reverse side, I had the words to the song.  This way, the children could choose the song based on the picture, and I could use the back of the card to remember the words.  The cards were a great success, needless to say.  Later  on, when I made the change back to ESL, I gave my old Dutch song cards to a fellow teacher, where they are still in use.

The song cards I make these days are a far cry from the first edition, over 20 years ago.

The song cards I make these days are a far cry from the first edition over 20 years old.

Nowadays, I still use song cards, and the design has only gotten better and more professional-looking.  I still have the picture on one side, and the lyrics on the other.  I now mount the stips of paper to a strip of colored paper, color-coded to match the theme: animal songs are often on brown paper, St. Nick and Christmas songs are often on red, and so on.  The reason for this is because I now have so many, it’s easier to sort them quickly based on color.  Another change is that instead of drawing my own pictures, I find  pictures on the internet and paste them into my own document.  It saves me time and the children like them just as well.

The lyrics are on the back of the cards.

The lyrics are on the back of the cards.

When I do music with the children, I share a number of cards with them – usually between 2 and 4 songs at at time.  I review the titles, and for new songs I sing a little bit of it, so that the children can remember what the song was about.  A child – often a non-speaker – gets to choose the song, and we sing it.  If it’s a new song, I’ll show them the back of the card, so they get an idea of how long the song is going to be.  They are often quite impressed when there are lots of words!  They also tend to choose the prettiest / most colorful cards first.  Once we’ve sung it through a few times, the children get to choose a different song.

With these cards, the music lessons allow the children to choose which songs they want to sing and in which order (The new one first?  Or the one we already know?), while allowing me the chance to remove the ones I’ve gotten a bit tired of, or introduce new songs to the class.

Note:  I’ve put a number of my song cards on (seller’s name is MissAmyK), if you’re interested in having a closer look at a number of the cards I’ve made.

I wonder what other teachers do to introduce new songs to the class?


Testing, testing… (continued)

Three children sat at the table, sorting through six laminated cards.  “All right, everybody,” I started.  “Where is frog hopping?”  This is a toughie, since “hopping” in English and “happing” in Dutch sound similar, but the meaning is quite different.  I demonstrate with the frog puppet.  “Look!  Hopping!”  The children catch on, and hold up the picture of frog hopping across the yard.  We continue on, looking at frog eating a fly, frog eating a stick, and frog eating a flower.  “What will happen in the story,” I ask.  The children look at the pictures and start to tell me a story.  I encourage them to use all of the English words they know, resulting in a mix of words one might call “Dinglish,” Dutch and English mixed together.  Then I set up the “walls” – some large books – and pull out my storybook.  It’s time to read aloud so that the children can put the pictures in order.

In this task, I look for language behaviors as they are described in the teacher’s handbook for the ESL program I work with (Note 1).  For instance, can the children understand simple, short sentences?  Can they predict what might happen, by looking at the stories?  Can they put the pictures in the correct order?  And after hearing the story, can they answer questions about the story?

With this task, I assess four separate language behaviors with a group of 2 or 3 children.  Within 10 minutes, I have quite a bit of information already, and we still have time for more fun and games, as I call my tests.

I developed my test after extensive work with the Reynell and Anglia tests.  I noticed that while each test had a number of good points, each also had its weak points which made it unsuitable for my purposes.  Here, I list a few of my considerations regarding each of the tests:

Reynell test, pros:

  1. interesting tasks – the children enjoyed each of the tasks given, the tasks are appropriate for the target age group
  2. norm-referenced – no child can fail, although he can perform above or below the norm for his age

Reynell test, cons:

  1. time-consuming – each test is given individually, so a lot of time is spent introducing each task, and the test can take up to 45 minutes
  2. age limit – the test may only be used for children up to 7 years of age

Anglia test, pros:

  1. efficient use of time – the test is given classically, so the entire class is finished with the listening/reading/writing section within an hour or two
  2. structure – the test is well-structured and easily administered

Anglia test, cons:

  1. criterion-referenced – the test may be passed or failed, but in the case of failing (or superbly passing) it doesn’t give any information about what would have been a more appropriate level for testing
  2. level of testing – all sections tested are tested at the same level, there is no differentiation possible between the levels

I decided I needed a test that combined the good aspects of these two tests, while dealing with the negative aspects.  I ended up with my own system, which I call DRoPP (Digital Record of Pupil Progress).

While testing, I use a paper checklist per child.

While testing, I use a paper checklist per child.

How do I test children?  Step-by-step…

  1. I list the children in order of their ability.  The reason I do this is because I test children in small groups of 2 or 3, and it’s easier to test them if I have similar tasks for all of the children in the group.
  2. I pull out the children’s individual checklists of language behaviors.  The tasks on these checklists are based on the Early Bird curriculum.
  3. I give the group a number of language tasks to complete.  I don’t repeat the stuff they’ve already proven they can do, I only look for new information.  If the children attempt a task and cannot complete it, I put a dot in the space next to that task.  If the child completes it successfully, I put a dash.  I use one color for each assessment period.
  4. After each assessment – 10 to 15 minutes later – I give each child a well-earned compliment.
  5. I input the information from the paper form into each child’s DRoPP file, noting the date of the assessment was.  I often input the information directly into the summary screen, but I may also use a more detailed screen if I like.
The summary screen for a child, indicating name, group, and general development.

The summary screen for a child’s DRoPP file

A detailed list of the language behaviors.

A detailed list of language behaviors

Once the input has been done for all of the children, I run the output program to see just how well the children have done – as individuals, but also as a group.  I use the results to write my group plan for the coming semester.

I will write more about group plans another time…

The program I developed to keep track of pupil progress is now available online, free of charge:

Note 1:  for further reading on the ESL Program I work with:  The Early Bird Curriculum for Primary Schools (

Testing, testing, 1-2-3…

For what must have been the hundredth time, I pulled out the apple, the fish, the key, and a dozen other toy-like attributes.  The kindergartener eyeballed the objects, eager to play.  I pulled out my checklist and pencil, and started: “where is the fish?”  “Where is the chair?”  “Where is the key?”  Each time, the child would point at the object, sometimes uncertain, other times rejoicing in the right answer, gaining in self-confidence each time I nodded at him. So began yet another of one of hundreds of Reynell tests I administered as part of a research project being carried out by my employer.

The Reynell test uses a mixture of attributes that children may handle and colorful pictures.

The Reynell test uses a mixture of attributes that children may handle and colorful pictures.

The Reynell test

The Reynell test itself is well-designed, including practical and interesting tasks for young children in order to assess their listening and speaking skills in English.  The test begins with groups of similar, easy tasks, which become increasinly difficult as the test progresses.  When a child begins to fail at a particular sort of task, the assessor ends that task and moves on to the next set.  If the child fails at that set as well, the test is done.  It is easy, standardized, and informative. The point of the test is to see what developmental age a child has reached in his language abilities; even though a child can perform poorly, he can never fail this norm-referenced test.

This test is, however, also very time-consuming.  Depending on how well a child does, the test may take only 10 minutes, or a full three-quarter hour per child.  After administering the Reynell test a hundred times, I found myself quite ready to throw rabbit and bear out of the window and move on to something – anything – besides rabbit putting the knife under the bed and bear pushing the bed.

One of the dangers of administering the same test a hundred times: the examiner (in this case, me) might start getting bored and make things up, which isn’t allowed, of course, as that would affect the standardized scoring.

Later that year, I administered another sort of test to the older ESL pupils.  This time, there was no teddy or rabbit, but instead, paper, pencil, and a cd with spoken texts.  It was time for the Anglia exam.  

The Anglia exam

The Anglia exam isn’t a single exam; instead, it is a series of exams that begin at a very basic level (A1) and graduate to higher levels of skill (C2)*.  The basic Anglia exam includes listening, reading, and writing skills.  Speaking assessments are separate and cost extra, depending on who scores the test.  The Anglia exam is a criterion-referenced test, which means that a child may fail.  If he fails, then the attempted level was too difficult, but if he passes, then perhaps the attempted level was too easy.  Therefore with this test, it is necessary for the examiner to know two things ahead of time:

1) what exactly is tested at each level (described in detail in the Teacher’s Manual on the Anglia website)

2) what each examinee’s general level of English is (for instance, by using the Placement Test on the Anglia website)

The Anglia exam is a series of leveled exams, starting at pre-A1 and building up to C2.

The Anglia exam is a series of leveled exams, starting at pre-A1 and building up to C2.

Besides that, all of the sections are tested at the same level, regardless of possible differences between a child’s skills in listening, reading, and writing.  The tests are costly, and since children want to pass this exam, the teacher must make a careful estimation of the highest possible test the child will be able to pass, even if much of the examination might be too easy for the child.  

Administering the test itself is simple enough, since that is done classically. The feedback from the assessment is a diploma in which the child (barely) passes, passes well, or passes exceptionally well.  If a child fails, it receives a referral to try again at an easier level.  Personally, I found this feedback to be as effective as measuring the depth of the North Sea with a meter stick:  reliable, but not terribly informative.

A new test

A few years ago, my employee decided it was time to create a new sort of test, an informative assessment that would cover the broad range of ability found at our schools, while being time- and cost-effective.  We spent hours analyzing existing tests, discussing questions like “do we really need to count spelling as part of a listening test?” and “how can we differentiate the material so that we can find a child’s level in each language skills area?”

After that, the test was administered to hundreds of children, as part of the process of creating a normative score.  Basic feedback was given to the teachers, and the children all got certificates stating that they helped in creating this test.  Unfortunately, this test is still not available for regular use, so I am – still – left to my own devices.  Fortunately, I had already been developing my own devices for nearly ten years.

My own assessment

I have been creating my own means of assessing children’s progress in English.  Not only that, but I have developed a system of recording their progress so that I have a long-term picture of children’s development in the ESL program.  I used my experiences with both the Anglia and the Reynell tests to form something more useable for my school.  But more about that in another blog…

* The levels A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2 are part of the Common European Framework of Reference.  More information about the CEFR can be found here:

More information about Reynell tests:

More information about Anglia tests: