Classroom management

scaffolding the online task: step by step


One of the joys of the digital age is allowing children to work on the computer, playing games and doing web quests to further their language development.  Computer games allow children to work at their own level, and computers never tire of the endless repetition of drilling certain grammar patterns, something I cannot say of myself.  We often boast about how children are “so much more at home” with computer usage and how they just “pick it up so easily”.  Just as often, however, we teachers are faced with children who do not just “pick it up” and need step-by-step instruction on how to use a certain computer game or navigate a web quest successfully.  In our well-filled classrooms and even better-filled time, it would seem quite impossible to give these children the guidance they need.

During a course I once followed in order to become a Dalton-certified teacher, I learned about a wonderful solution to this conundrum: the how-to sheet.  A how-to sheet is, simply put, a means of scaffolding children’s work.  It provides a step-by-step guide of how to complete a task, complete with simple instructions and illustrations.  The goal of using these how-to sheets is to allow children to work independently on multi-step tasks or games with a minimum of extra effort from the teacher.


A sample of a step-by-step guide of how to navigate the cd-rom for Backpack 3, the textbook I once used for teaching.

The first few sheets took the most time, as I figured out what format was the most useful, and what illustrations the most helpful.  Eventually, I started making how-to sheets for all sorts of things, from computer games to language tasks, so that children could work independently on a range of activities during the lessons.  The first couple of times, the children needed some instruction: how did these how-to sheets work?  Once they figured that part out, they happily worked on their own, and all I had to do was make sure they did their work well and give them feedback once in a while.


A sample step-by-step of how to play a language game

The initial work of making these guides paid off: children could work independently, and my hands were kept free for the work of interacting with the children through the new language.

Here is a step-by-step instruction on how to make one of these sheets:

  1. Look at the activity through the eyes of the child.  What is his starting point?  That is step 1.
  2. Go through each step of the activity.  Every time the screen changes, or every new step in the game, take a picture or make a screen shot.  Crop the picture as needed.
  3. Number the steps, and give a short explanation for each one.  Use language the children can easily understand.
  4. Insert the pictures next to the directions.  I have found that using a table is an easy way to accomplish this.  Anchor the picture as a character, and it will stay in the table where you put it.
  5. Where needed, add an arrow to point out exactly where the child needs to click.  Or, insert thought and speech bubbles to illustrate thinking or speaking.
  6. Show children how the step-by-step plan works, so they can refer to it themselves, and refer back to it should they have questions.

Scaffolding towards independence takes on many forms, and this is only one of them.

But for now, the summer holiday calls, and so I shall take a short time off before resuming this blog.  Happy summer holidays, everyone!


Bridging the generation gap


It’s something every teacher has to deal with, sooner or later: the generation gap.  Or more aptly put, bridging that gap every time one enters the classroom, be it filled with kindergarteners, adolescents, or older teens.  It’s the issue that arises every time the teacher looks a child in the eye and wonders what on earth compelled that child to take a scissors to her own hair.  Or purposely fail a test.  Or send text messages during class.  I remember those things, all of them, from my own childhood.  And it’s those memories that keep my sense of pedagogical balance in place when I address the issues at hand.

Keep your hands out of your pants and on your knees, please.

It’s okay to fail, try again later on so you can prove to yourself how well you know your stuff.

You may send your messages after the lesson, your friends will still be there…

Eaach time, I find myself suppressing a smile as I remember my own acts of development at that age.  I can never get mad at “my kids”, not really.   Who could, when faced with the facts of one’s own foibles “back in the day”?

My inner child keeps me constantly aware of these things.  So I take some time, every day, to look at the world through new eyes.  What makes this sky so beautiful?  What makes that tower of blocks so sturdy?  What is so amazing about the language I teach?  What makes that word sound so funny?


Even now, teaching at the teacher’s college, I recognize the struggles my students go through and find myself recognizing the steps they make.  These young adults-in-the-making are learning so many things at once: how to be a teacher, how to take care of themselves, how to take care of their room, how to cook, how to be social, how to create a balance between play, work, and school.  So much to learn, in so little time.  They are busy learning how to “adult”, as would put it.  “Adulting” as a verb, not as a noun.  Learning how to grow up, and take things seriously, they wish to be taken seriously.  No more kissing the boo-boos away, but serious let’s-deal-with-these-grownup-problems talks.  No more games and childishness in the classroom, but serious theory, work, and note-taking so they can sweat their way through multiple-choice exams and prove to the world that they are, really, adults who deserve to be taken seriously.

I remember being there, in those shoes, working hard to be taken seriously, so I respect that need with my students.  At the same time, I want them to remember their inner child, that part of them that makes it possible to make contact with the children they will be working with for the rest of their lives.  But how do children learn?

Inner Child

By playing, of course!

There are many of us who might agree that young people learn best by playing.  Four, five, perhaps even six year olds.  But when do we stop playing, really?  It is my view that people learn best by playing, no matter how old they are.  It’s just a matter of how we define “play”.  If we define “play” in the most narrow sense of the word, then we might see it as that “spontaneous activity of children” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary).  In that case, play is something only children can do, adults are excluded from this activity.  Another definition places play as something that is only done for amusement, or recreation (

I disagree with these readings.  My personal view of play is that it is something often done by (young) people as a serious means of learning.  Just think about playing house, playing school, jumping rope, climbing on the monkey bars.  Playing board games, role playing, telling ghost stories during slumber parties.  Practice teaching, playing sports, painting, moving out into the world,  It’s all part of the bigger game called “what happens when I do ….?”  All this learning takes place in practice situations where there is some form of back-up.  If it all goes wrong, there is somebody around to help clean up the mess, kiss away the boo-boos, and figure out how to fix the problem.

During all of these forms of practice/play, learners are exploring and conducting research, be it social, physical, emotional, or otherwise.  They are learning and their play is serious work.  It needs to be taken just as seriously as the learning taking place among their older counterparts, the students.

So I call upon my inner children – the kindergartner, the adolescent, the young adult-in-the-making – to help bridge the gap between my own, earlier experiences and the experiences of my students now, to understand where they are and give just enough information to help them help themselves, as Maria Montessori once put it.

As a teacher of future teachers, I try to keep their inner children well-fed.  We play games and have serious fun so they can use these games with their own children.  We sing, we dance, and we read books aloud.  Sometimes, the students understand what I’m doing, but occasionally they don’t.  And when they don’t, they get upset, claiming that I’m treating them like little children.  And that’s when I explain the concept of Multiple Hats.


Every student, every adult-in-the-making, wears two hats during class.  One of those hats is the Very Serious Student who is learning to be a teacher.  The other hat is the Teacher Hat, with which they apply their learning to their profession.  During my lessons, I talk about these hats very explicitly.  Which hat have you got on now, I ask.  And if you put on your Teacher Hat, how can you use this information in your classroom, with your own children?  How would you adapt this learning activity so that it would be easier for your children?  How would you change the content of the game?  How would you organize it so your class will understand it better?

That’s when the students understand.  Aha, they say, and I see the connection being made between their experiences now and the experiences of their children.  I see the bridges being built and know that we’re on the right road.  It’s not always clear to them, but they’re catching on, one game at a time.

As long as they remember how to play.


Mission Impossible

It was quite some time ago – about 5 years, to be more exact – but I remember the class like it was yesterday: the class that really, honestly, didn’t want to co-operate.  It wasn’t the easiest class, of course: at least three of the children had ADHD, another four had Dyslexia, quite a few of them had emotional disorders, there was an autistic child, and those who remained kept their heads down, out of the melee of insults and retorts constantly thrown behind the teacher’s back.  This class had worn down three teachers already, and here I stood, again, in a mad attempt to teach these children to communicate in English.

The crisis = the turning point

Nobody listened; they were too busy paying attention to each other. “Eyes on me,” I’d try, while comforting a girl who clearly had just been teased by one of her tormentors.  “Ears this way, please, no more throwing notes.”  Nothing worked.  I even raised my voice.  “Listen here, now, it’s time for English,” while setting a smart-mouthed child in the hallway.  I was getting desperate.

That night, it came to me.  These children were too busy with each other to pay attention to me, and I wasn’t going to fight for their attention any more.  From now on, they would pay attention to each other whether they liked it or not.  It was time for some group work.  Every lesson, every day.

Making the groups

I started by asking the children to write down the names of three other children in the class with whom they would like to work.  The results were astounding.  I’d made sociograms before, and found that most classes have one child that no one else wants to work with.  We all know about these children – the stinky boy, the class reject, or the bully.  The picture that emerged of this class was harsher: there wasn’t one class reject – there were four children that no one else wanted to work with.  I  was shocked.

These four children, I decided, were going to be group captains.  I made groups of four, and in each group I placed at least one of the children that the captains wanted to work with.  Further, I balanced the groups as hetergeneously as possible, with strong and weak children in each group.  That done, I turned to the book.

The children are playing a game of Lotto together.  The orange booklet is the "group booklet".

The children are playing a game of Lotto together. The orange booklet is the “group booklet”.

Structuring the assignments

It was time to create assignments that the children could do with their group.  I looked through the book and the workbook, and searched the internet for activities that met my requirements for learning activities.  For me, real learning activities must meet at least these basic requirements:

  1. contribute towards attaining the language objectives for the unit
  2. be language- and age-appropriate
  3. can be completed independently, in pairs, or in a small group
  4. must be self-checking
  5. must be varied, appealing to the children’s intelligences

After that, I set about making checklists for the class, so we could see which groups had already done which activities, and made a “group booklet”.  This booklet contained a checklist of the assignments, plus all of the worksheets and materials they would need to complete each assignment.  In short, all of the material we would need for the next four to six weeks was ready before the new unit started.

Ready, steady, go!

I decided to start each lesson with a short, classical instruction ten to fifteen minutes long.  After that,  I briefly explained what the assignments were and noted which assignment they decided to do, and the children got into their groups.  The group was allowed to check off an assignment once they proved they had completed it successfully.  Each lesson ended with a short evaluation of how everyone worked.

While the children were working, I had my hands free to monitor the processes.

While the children were working, I had my hands free to monitor the processes taking place.

Was it an immediate success?  Most certainly not!  The first lesson went horribly!  The children were noisy, the room was a mess, and I had serious doubts about this new manner of teaching.

The rule of three

But, as with any new process, I kept to the rule of three.

According to the rule of three:

the first time is a mess,

the second time is for fine-tuning,

and the third time is the charm.  

And so it was with this class.  After the first lesson, we discussed the problems, and I explained the process again.  After the second lesson, we remembered what went better and discussed how to improve the way we worked.  After the third lesson, the children understood the process and the groups were learning to get along, whether they liked it or not.  They were learning, and I was happy.

Success factors

Structure:  the overall structure of the lesson was simple and clear.  The children knew what to expect in terms of lesson order, even though the contents would vary.

Groups:  the children didn’t always get along well in their groups, but while the groups were busy working, we were able to take time to talk out their differences and help them to get along with each other.

Activities:  these were structured so that everyone was able to experience success.  They fit into the Dalton method of working, which they were used to in their other subject areas, and were interesting and varied.

Two children check if they completed their work correctly.

Two children check if they completed their work correctly.

For the units that followed, I created new groups, and was pleased to see that the new groups got along better than the ones before, as children learned to work together in positive ways.

This means of working was born of necessity, but evolved into a way of teaching that I continued to use in the years that followed.  It allowed me to use the book freely, while pulling other, more contemporary, material into the classroom as I deemed fit.

In the end, we all began to enjoy the lessons, and the children started to focus more on their learning.  Mission Impossible?  Mission accomplished!

“But they don’t understand!” part two

One of my very first classes consisted of Japanese, Chinese, Israeli, and Dutch children.  Only one of them was American, and so the great challenge of communication with these children was immediately apparent.  How to talk with children who hardly spoke any English?  Obviously, translation was not one of the possibilities, so I quickly put together a bag of tricks that I ended up using, again and again in the years that followed.

What follows is a few of those tricks, together with some pros and cons of each method.  It’s hardly a comprehensible list, so if you have other ideas you’d like to share, please do so!

Trick #1: charades

This one doesn’t need any preparation, but on occasion it does require me to set my dignity aside as I act out what a monkey, elephant, or leaping kangaroo is.  The good news, however, is if I’m leaping around the classroom, the children often join in the fun.  Then we are all leaping kangaroos for a minute or two.

Trick #2: flashcards or power points

Obviously, this requires some forward thinking.  What words will we be introducing during this lesson?  What pictures will most clearly explain the concept to the children?  Flashcards are quite versatile and can be used for a load of games during circle lessons, but their visibility range is limited, depending on the size of the cards used.  Power points are less versatile, but are large enough to be visibe even at the back of the classroom.

Creating explanatory flashcards or power points is not nearly as easy as it sounds.  When I create (or occasionally receive) flashcards, I test-drive them on my own children to see how they react.  They have seen scary squirrels, mothers with vacuum cleaners in hand (how stereotypical!), and “dirt” that looked more like a pile of doggy doo (Yuck!).  Other pictures can have double meanings, or are so funny that they detract from the learning process.


Trick #3: labels with pictures

In my classroom, everything is labeled in English, often with accompanying pictures, so that everyone understands what they will find in each drawer or on each shelf.  It does take a couple of hours to do this, but once hung, the labels will last quite a while (maybe even a few years, depending on the quality of the labels).  I also have flashcards with basic classroom rules on them, to remind children of what behavior I expect from them.

So much for the easy stuff.  What to do when the concepts get more difficult?

Trick #4: the pupil translator

In every class I’ve had so far, there has always been one pupil who understands the word(s) in question, who is more than happy to translate everything I say into L1 for the rest of the class.   This quick and easy solution, however, can lead to a case of “lazy ears”, which I referred to last time.  It also puts the child in question into the role of the living dictionary.  For some, this leadership role is novel and exciting, but as the teacher, I warn the others that each has to think for himself, and that this child may only be asked for help as a last resort.

Trick #5: the picture or bilingual dictionary

For the younger classes – with children between 7 and 10 years of age – I allow use of picture dictionaries.  These dictionaries group words according to theme, and children enjoy spotting the words they already know, while picking up words they didn’t have yet.  At this point, most of the new words are easy, concrete things like nouns, verbs, and a few simple adjectives – concepts easily encompassed by picture dictionaries.

Older children, however, start needing more difficult words.  At this point, I introduce the bilingual dictionary.  This always requires a certain amount of guidance, as even the best bilingual dictionaries can offer some rather odd answers.  I’ll never forget the time a Yugoslavian man found that a “wallet” was actually a “suitcase”, thanks to his Yugoslavian-English dictionary.  Like I said, a certain amount of caution is always useful.  Google images also can also be of help.

Do the children always understand you?

The answer to that is simple: no, they don’t.  And it’s perfectly alright for children to not understand every word I say, just as it’s okay for babies and young children to not understand everything they hear, either.  I always ask myself, what is the worst thing that can happen if they don’t understand me?  Usually, it means that the first time we play a new game, the class has a difficult time playing by the rules.  So we stop the game, explain again, and try again, until it works the way it’s supposed to.  This takes time, but it’s part of the learning process.

Or perhaps, the children will miss a bit of the instruction.  This in turn leads to new learning experiences.  The children learn that it’s okay to not understand everything, to be patient with themselves as learners, and to see what they do know and understand.

It’s also important that I, the teacher, aim my teaching and speech to the class’ zone of proximal development (ZPD) – that bit between what they can do on their own and what they can’t do – that bit that they can understand with help.  In this case, the bit they can understand given visual support, clear demonstrations, and my own body language.  There is no point in giving children a learning activity about, for instance, world climate change if the entire range of vocabulary needed is outside their ZPD.  Just as there is no point in expecting children to understand a game with 10 different, difficult rules.  The trick is to make the learning activity interesting, challenging, yet reachable, given that what the children understand.

For the very young learners, that may mean that I will ask “where is red?”  Then while they sit there looking mystified, I go off in search of something red in the classroom.  When I’ve found that red object, obviously happy with this red block, that’s when the first faces will light up with understanding.  Once we’ve mastered the concept of finding red things, we can move on to other colors.

For older learners, that may mean pulling out the picture dictionary, and demonstrating its use.  Showing the table of contents, finding the correct page, then looking for new words, as though discovering this book for the very first time.  I do the same with bilingual dictionaries as well.  It also means allowing time for rough drafts of their work, sharing examples of success with the rest of the class, so that others learn from those experiences.

Most importantly, it means allowing space for failure,

using mistakes as a learning opportunity,

and allowing children to start over

in order to reach that success.

Useful internet sites:

Here are a few sites I’ve found with free visual materials for the classroom:

Here are a few sites with online picture dictionaries:

And some for classroom management:

“But they don’t understand!”

Many an ESL teacher has thought the above, at one time or another.  The question is, what does one do when faced with a class that – apparently – does not understand what one is trying to communicate?  The easiest solution, of course, is simply to translate whatever it was that the class didn’t understand into the general language of instruction (L1), before returning to the lesson in the target language (L2).

As understandable as this solution may be, I strongly disagree with this “solution”.  In my decade of teaching ESL, I have never once needed to speak in L1 with the pupils.  That doesn’t mean it’s always been easy to use only English, but I have two good reasons to stick to my guns and use only English whenever I speak with the children, which I’ll explain here.

Reason number one: “lazy ears”

When a teacher translates new material from L2 into L1, that means the children themselves don’t have to do the work of understanding the material.  In general, I have found that once a teacher starts translating, the ease of translation feeds itself.  The next time the children appear not to understand, the teacher and children remember how well that went last time, and the teacher will resort to translation again and again.  As this pattern continues, the children quickly learn that they don’t have to listen to the target language, or wrestle with the meaning thereof, as the teacher will simply translate things into L1 for them.  Hence, the children run the risk of developing a serious case of “lazy ears”.

Besides this, once a teacher starts translating, he or she will underestimate how often translation occurs during the lesson.  I remember how one teacher I observed resorted to translating during her lesson.  When I asked her afterward how much she thought she’d spoken in each language, she was convinced that she’d only spoken a few words in L1.  When, in fact, she had translated every single thing she’d said, the entire lesson long.

The important word here is that children appear not to understand.  Children often understand a lot more than we teachers give them credit for.  Allowing children to wrestle with the material gives them space to develop their self-confidence in grappling with a foreign language.

Remember: it’s perfectly okay if children don’t understand every single word we say.  Babies don’t understand every word they hear, either, and yet they get along just fine.

Reason number two:  One Person, One Language

When immersing children in a foreign language, it’s very important that their minds be geared toward that foreign language whenever they are in contact with their foreign-language teacher.  That is when the One Person, One Language (OPOL) theory of multilingualism comes into play.  There is loads of research done into multilingual families, and the parallel between familial multilingualism and multilingualism at school is quite simple: the ESL teacher speaks only English with the children, the French teacher speaks only French with the children, and so forth.

The children at my school are so trained to the fact that I only speak English with them, that they begin to believe I really don’t understand a word of Dutch when they speak with them.  After a while, they realise that’s not really true, but they go along with the game anyway, knowing that when they get their diploma, they can speak Dutch with me.  Because then I’m not their English teacher any more.  Until then, however, we always greet each other in English, and they know to expect only English from me.  Always.

The tricky part, then, is how do I manage to make myself clear, using only L2 during my lessons?  This is something I will address in a later post.

In the meantime, please tell me what you do in these situations?  What kinds of tactics do you find useful when children don’t understand?

Classroom management and the happy class

Children test their boundaries. It’s their job, it’s how they learn. I, on the other hand, get the inglorious task of pointing out those boundaries while keeping the lesson going at a productive clip. How do I do this in L2 (the target language), when the children are used to being taught in L1 (their mother tongue)? This is a challenge I’ve been faced with time and again. Armed with years of experience under my belt, I can now tell you how to be just as successful as I am (cough).

Let me correct myself: let me give you a few tips that work for me, and who knows? Maybe they’ll work for you, too.

Tip #1: rapport with the classroom teacher

The classroom teacher is the boss. Very often, the children will work very nicely and quietly for the classroom teacher, only to prove quite disruptive the minute another teacher (like me) shows up. It’s important for the class to understand that we teachers are always on the same page, especially when it comes to the rules. So when I enter the classroom, we greet each other and have a short, simple conversation the children can follow. How are you, what a nice shirt you have on today, how are the children today, is there anything special going on, that sort of thing. At the start of the lesson, the teacher may even take one or two children aside and give them special instructions on how to behave, especially if they have proven repetitively disruptive.  At the end of the lesson, we have another short conversation:  what did we learn, how did we work, who gets a special compliment.  The classroom teacher compliments the class for a job well done and I thank the teacher for having such a clever, wonderful class.

This may sound like too much sunshine and compliments. The point is, however, what the children are taking away from these short conversations. First of all, they see that we are in agreement as to what is considered acceptable behavior. They also see that we communicate about them and expect good behavior, no matter who the teacher is at that moment.

Tip #2: keep it simple

For any of my lessons, I have three rules.  No more than that. I have found that three rules cover pretty much whatever I need the children to do.  In all other cases, I refer to the classroom rules, which are often posted somewhere in the class.  Not that I read it aloud, but I can point to it and ask someone to explain what that rule is.

For instance, for my pre-schoolers:

  1. sit and listen quietly
  2. raise your hand
  3. no copy-catting

For an older class, the rules are different:

  1. speak English
  2. raise your hand
  3. have fun!

I have these rules illustrated on laminated card, and when I find children are having a hard time following a rule, I simply hold up the card and state “we’re forgetting rule number …” No need for long discussions that disrupt the pace of the lesson. On very rare occassion, I will actually pull out three blocks and put them next to the picture.  Every time the rule is forgotten, I simply snap my fingers, point at the child, then the rule, and take away a block. I don’t say a word, there’s no need to. When there is still a block left at the end of the lesson, I praise the child for learning to remember that particular rule. A simple “I know you were having a hard time (sitting on your chair/keeping your hands to yourself/etc), but you remembered later on. Well done,” is sufficient.

Tip #3: keep it positive

Children love compliments. When an entire class is being noisy, I point to the picture of a child sitting quietly (yes, I have this on the whiteboard), and when I notice one other child sitting just like that, I give him or her a thumbs-up. And then the next child, and the next. Until entire rows or tables full of children are sitting quietly, ready for the lesson.  A simple “Wow, look at Johnny, he’s sitting nicely” works wonders among kindergarteners. They may not understand what I’m saying, but they do get the fact that I’m quite pleased with Johnny and now they all want to be just like him and get compliments.

Children like to be noticed.  When I notice a child catching himself and correcting his behavior, I say so. “I saw how you stopped laughing at your neighbor and helped him, instead. Very good.” Compliments inform them of what I want to see.

Remember, “don’t do that, darling” is not concrete. Tell children what you do want to see. “Oh, Julie is sitting quietly. Can you sit quietly, too?”

That’s enough of my soapbox for today. Do you have any methods that work for you? Let me know!