Co-operative learning strategies

Mixed-ability dialogue cards (2.0)


Last time, I shared an idea about how to create dialogues that allowed learners of mixed abilities to talk together in a meaningful way. After that, I practiced using the dialogue cards, and soon discovered that while I had hit upon a great idea, I still needed to refine the process of creating these cards.  I went back – twice – until I finally figured out a better way to create interchangeable dialogue cards.  Here’s how to make your own differentiated dialogue cards:

  1. Create or find a basic dialogue you want your learners to practice.  Many textbooks have a ready-made dialogue for each unit, in which the new grammar and vocabulary is practiced.  Below is an example I plucked from a textbook from a Dutch Publisher.


    A sample conversation from the English textbook “The Team” (Noordhoff Uitgevers)

  2. The next step is very important: change each line in the conversation into a function.  Here is an example:


    Dialogue made of functions

  3. In the next step, you work back toward the original conversation.  Change the functions into sentences with a number of choices.


    Dialogue with some variable notions.  There is some space for choice, but not always.

  4. Check if your dialogue with “variable notions” matches up with the Original dialogue.  You may need to make a few changes here. 


    Moving backwards from “variable notions” to “fixed notions”, this dialogue is slightly different from the original.

  5. With some luck (and a few tries), you now have dialogues with various levels of difficulty.  Now you can print these out for your class.

Please note:  it’s important to check that the dialogues actually match up before making copies for your learners.  (I didn’t, and found out the hard way during a class)

Last step: have fun!


Mixing and matching in the mixed ability group

mix-and-match-puzzle-setOne of those things every language teacher has to learn to deal with is the broad ability range in any given class.  No matter how homogeneously (single-leveled) the class has been put together, there are always students who are far ahead of the group, and a number of learners who are far behind.  That’s just the way of things, it seems.  The trick is to keep every learner actively involved at his own level.

There are a number of things a teacher can do to help each learner unlock his own potential.  The first step, of course, is to create an overview of where the learners currently are, and where you’d like them to go next.  I described this process in an earlier blog (ESL and the long-term plan).

In this blog entry, I will continue along this path and work out an idea to allow children of different ability levels to work together in a meaningful way.  But first, a side trip along Inspiration Lane…

Years ago, I came across a site called  I’ve written a blog about that as well (Raz-kids review) in the past, in which my enthusiasm for this site is clear enough.  However, what I didn’t mention about this site was that it also allows for children of different ability levels to work together, using plays from their Readers Theater.

In this script, children are assigned roles based on their ability level.  The levels differ in vocabulary use, length of sentences, and how often that character has to speak.

I began to wonder if it was possible to achieve the same result, but with a bit more freedom.  I came up with a simple solution.  What would happen, I wondered, if we took the concept of different ability roles and mixed it with what we know about functions and notions?

We already know that functions are descriptions of things one can do with a language.  For instance, describe your pet, talk about your hobby, or list ten things you like about your job are all examples of functions.

We also know that notions are examples of how to fulfil those functions.  For instance, “My dog is big and brown,” is a notion that fulfils the function “describe your pet.”

Not only that, but there are fixed notions and variable notions.  In the example below, the words “This is a ….” is the fixed notion, because it doesn’t change.  The words chair, table, pencil, book, and teacher can vary, so they are variable notions.

But enough review.  Time to make the step from theory to practice: differentiating the dialogues.

In practice, Beginning learners need more support, so it’s generally a good idea to let them work with dialogues using fixed notions.

Intermediate learners still need some support, but they’re also able to make some choices.  It’s a good idea to let them work with dialogues using variable notions.

Advanced learners don’t need much support, but in order to have them work together with other learners, they can use dialogue cards with functions on them.

Working out this idea a bit further, I designed dialogue cards that reflect these three levels.  The blue card is for the beginning learner, and contains a fixed notion dialogue.  The yellow card is for the intermediate learner and has space for variable notions.  The advanced learners get the red card, and these dialogues are built of functions that are parallel to the fixed notions on the blue card.  The roles, A and B, remain the same for each card, so that roles are interchangeable.

Here is a simple example to illustrate this:



A simple example


No matter what color card a learner has, he or she can participate in a meaningful conversation with any other person in the class.  It’s important to note that when a learner indicates that his card is too easy or too difficult, he should be allowed to trade colors.  It’s important to realize that no child wants to be bored, and to give them space to decide for themselves what level he or she feels comfortable with.  Also, when you start a new topic, they may all need to start at beginner’s level, as they are dealing with new vocabulary and grammar.  Once they catch on, they may move on to the more difficult levels in the dialogue cards.


A dialogue with multiple steps


Hopefully, these examples will inspire you to experiment with the dialogues in your own lessons.  And – I hope to hear about your successful experiences!

Flow charts: visualizing the 20 questions game

4c3cb8e281f009140a83546b1bdd72b9“Does it have legs?” a child asked.  The child in front of the class answered quickly, “yes, it does.”

“Can it fly?” another asked.  “No, it can’t,” was the answer.

It took a little while and a number of yes/no questions, but soon the class knew the animal’s secret identity: a giraffe.

This guessing game is a favorite among many ESL teachers, including myself.  The question I found myself asking was how to make it more challenging for the older learners.  Also, how could I change the format of this game so that every learner could participate, even the shy ones?


It took a little searching, but I soon had a viable answer: flow charts.  In essence, a flow chart works just like the verbal version of the guessing game, but visualizes the process of elimination involved.

There are different ways a flow chart can be used in the lesson.


A sample visual flow chart for younger learners.

For younger learners, one can make up a poster-sized chart with pictograms on the question blocks and pictures of the vocabulary being sorted out.

For middle learners, one can make a flow chart with simple questions.

The older learners can make up their own flow charts to try out on classmates.


The same flow chart, but now with questions written out.

Flow charts allow children to visually sort information along the lines of simple questions.  The example provided here is about a few animals, but with a bit of creativity, one can help children make their own flow charts about any number of topics one teaches about, for instance modes of transportation, clothing, food, weather, hobbies, and jobs.  By having children sort the information in this fashion, they are also activating their logical-mathematical intelligence, broadening their learning.

Flow charts can also be used to assess a learner’s understanding of the concepts taught.  Can he or she ask questions effectively to find out what the secret word is?  Can he or she formulate the questions correctly?  Can he or she create a flow chart that includes all of the concepts learned during the last few lessons?  These are just a few possibilities that come to mind when connecting flow charts to assessment of our learners.

The examples provided here are, of course, rather straightforward and very simple.  I suppose children in high school or adult ESL learners could make more intricate examples, for example to describe their day or how they prepare a meal.  I wonder if others use flow charts in their ESL classrooms?  If so, how?  I’d like to hear your ideas.





Poetry jam


“Birdie, birdie in the sky, why’d you do that in my eye?

Looks like sugar, tastes like sap,

Oh my gosh it’s BIRDIE CRAP!”

Not all of the children dare read this one aloud; usually it’s the most rambunctious of the group who choose this one.  The rest listen and laugh loudly as the readers pretend to wipe the bird poo out of their eyes.  It’s time for the yearly poetry slam, and children have practiced reading their various poems in small groups.  Now, the groups take turns performing their poem, in the hopes of reaping heaps of applause and cheers from their classmates.


Normally, a poetry slam is done by poets sharing their own original work.  A jury decides which of the poets wins, based on a scale of 1 – 10.  In my ESL lessons, however, writing original works was a bit difficult for the children.  Instead, I found simple, funny poetry that they could use.  Using search terms like “funny poems for kids” and “ESL poems”, I found sites like Ken Nesbitt’s, where poetry of all sorts of child-friendly topics is listed.  Another excellent source is Shel Silverstein’s books “At the End of the Sidewalk” and “A Light in the Attic”.

In selecting poetry for my children, I ask myself several questions:

  1. topic: is it interesting to the children?
  2. length: is it short enough for children to practice several times over?  Alternatively, if it’s too long, can I use just a portion of it?
  3. vocabulary: is it understandable for the children?  And, where applicable, is it related to the topic we are covering in class?
  4. made-up vocabulary: can the children figure out what it “means” and how it’s pronounced?

Why is a poetry slam so useful for the ESL learner?  I’ve addressed the natural rhythm in spoken English in an earlier blog.  Reading poetry with a clear rhythm and rhyme takes this speaking activity to a higher level, combining speaking with reading.  It makes it easier for children to practice speaking and reading fluently, while giving children the space to showcase their abilities in a low-threshold activity.  Allowing them to work and perform in small groups makes it even easier for them to perform in English in front of a group.

Here I’ve listed a couple of sites that might be helpful in looking for poems one can use in the ESL classroom:

Ken Nesbitt’s poetry for children:

Shel Silverstein’s site:

Gareth Lancaster’s poetry for children:

Short poems for children:

I’m curious what other sites you might find.  Please share!



Please pass the salt – eh – question!


Instead of practicing table manners during the English lesson, I like to get all of my learners going by having them play “Pass the question”.  It’s quite straightforward, and works like this:

  1. We practice a simple question and answer structure as a class.
  2. A child and I demonstrate the same question and answer structure in which I ask the question, and the child answers.
  3. The child asks the question of his neighbor, and his neighbor answers the question.
  4. The children continue to pass the question to their neighbors until everyone has asked and answered the same question.

It sounds tedious, and if one actually does this activity with the entire class, it can be just that.  That’s why I generally split the class up into smaller groups.  I model the activity with one group, then assign the first “questioner” for each group.  If learners understand how it works, I also forego assigning “questioners”, since they can figure that much out for themselves.  Each group then passes the question amongst themselves.

What makes this an effective learning exercise?  There is a lot going on at once.  First of all, all of the children are getting multiple opportunities to practice taking part in simple, short, structured dialogues.  As we know, a common pitfall in the ESL lesson is getting everyone enough speaking practice time, and this exercise allows all learners to join in successfully.

It also gives learners space to practice without being put on the spot in front of the class when they make mistakes, as they most surely will.  Don’t worry about not being able to hear and correct every single mistake!  Making mistakes is normal for language learners, and if the communication really is unclear, the learners will be helped by their group members.

There’s also space for differentiation.  The stronger learners can “play” with the question, practicing different formulations, while still making themselves clear to their fellow group members.  The weaker learners already know what they have to say, so they can join in without any difficulty whatsoever.

Most importantly, each time learners listen to the dialogue, they are activating their mirror neurons.  When these neurons are activated, the mind practices doing exactly that what it sees and hears.  When we see someone fall down and get hurt, a part of us automatically recoils.  When we hear a learner say something in English, we automatically test it against our own English, checking it for correctness and matching it with our own language skills.  That’s what mirror neurons do.


In effect, by activating the mirror neurons, the learners are practicing the question-and-answer process not just once, but multiple times, allowing for even more practice and with it, better fluency in speaking.


Tell me a story!


Who is this man?  Where is he?  What is he doing?  Who knows his story?

One of my favorite speaking activities is called “Tell me a story”.  It’s simple enough, and allows every child the chance to speak for at least two or three  minutes during the lesson.  Here’s how it works:

  1. The children pair off, and each pair gets a picture.  This particular picture comes from an Oxfam Novib calendar, which I use because I enjoy exposing children to images from other cultures during my lessons.
  2. The children then spend about five minutes brainstorming a story.  I tell them, that only they know the entire story, including the stuff that’s not in the picture.  That’s an important piece of information, because it allows them to use their imagination to fill in the blanks.  In the case of the man above, we could say he’s listening to the radio with his camel friends, or we could enrich the story with tales of how that thing is really a camel-language-translator and how he and his camels talk with each other by having everything translated.
  3. The children practice telling their story to each other, making sure they have all of the words and phrases they need.
  4. Now for the mix-n-match part: of each pair of students, one of them becomes the story-teller, and the other one becomes the story-getter.  The story-getters all stand up, and find themselves a new story-teller.
  5. The story-tellers tell the story they practiced with their buddy.  They story-getter listens carefully, asking questions when needed, and repeats the story back to the story-teller.
  6. Time for unmix-and-rematch:  The story-getter takes the picture and the story back to the original buddy.
  7. The story-getter now becomes the story-teller, as he/she relates the new story to his/her buddy.

If you like, you can have the children repeat this process of story-telling and story-getting a few times, but I find that one round is usually enough.

To simplify the activity, you might use only one picture or poster for the class, and then start the activity by brainstorming as a class for various words and phrases that the children can use.  You can also simplify the activity by shortening the story: instead of a full minute, each child has to make up only two or three sentences about the picture.  You can also select a picture that is more familiar and therefore a bit easier, content-wise.

The process of mix-n-match may sound complicated, but, in all the times I’ve done this activity, it’s usually the adults who have more difficulty with the buddy exchange.  Children usually have no difficulty with it.  For us as teachers, it’s important to realise that even if they don’t get back to their original buddy, the point of the whole thing is to have all children speaking with each other for at least two or three minutes in the target language, using their imaginations to create stories all their own.  If they manage that, then the activity was a success.


What are you wearing today? … and the importance of speaking


How many of us will recognize the following scene:

  • Teacher: (points to picture) Children, what is this?
  • (hands fly into the air)
  • Teacher: Okay, J, please answer the question.
  • J: (answers the question)
  • Teacher:  Very good.  (points to picture) Now children, what is this?
  • (again, hands fly into the air)
  • Teacher:  Okay, S, please answer the question.
  • S:  (answers the question)
  • and so on…

Just how much time do these children actually speak during this English lesson?  If every child gets one turn during the lesson, and each turn takes two to five seconds, the children get two to five seconds of speaking time during that lesson.  Now imagine this happens during each lesson, all year long.  How long is the school year?  In the Netherlands, it’s forty weeks long, so if I multiply five seconds by forty lessons, each child has had 200 seconds of speaking time, or 3,3 minutes.  If I’m generous, I can even double that to 7 minutes of speaking time throughout the entire year.

In order to learn how to speak a language, children need to practice actually speaking, often and regularly, in various environments.  They need a chance to practice in small groups or in pairs, so they may make mistakes and learn from them, without being embarassed.  They need to use the language themselves.  This is where co-operative learning structures come in handy.

I’ve already discussed a few simple co-operative learning strategies in my blog before, so regular readers will recognize my mantra of “get the children to do the speaking”.  But for new readers, co-operative learning strategies allow learners the following advantages:

  • They can practice in a smaller, safer environment
  • They get more practice
  • They get more feedback within that smaller, safer environment
  • All of the children are guaranteed speaking time during the exercise.

No doubt there are more points to be made, but that is enough for now.

******************** and now for the fun part **********************

A few days ago, I was cleaning out an old closet and came across an “oldie but goodie” among all of my old material.  I decided it was too good to throw away, so I’m sharing it now with you.

This activity is meant to help learners talk about clothing in a half-open exercise.  It works like this:

Step 1: the chidren get four drawings of people wearing different kinds of clothing.  They color in the clothing and faces of the people on the page.DSCF5457

Step 2:  The children cut out the four pictures along the heavy lines.DSCF5458

Step 3:  the children place the four drawings one above the other, and staple them into a book cover.  They carefully cut along the light, dashed lines to make a flip-flap book.


Step 4:  the children can now begin short discussions about what they are wearing.  For instance, this person is wearing a red coat, orange shorts, and blue shoes.  Please note: all of the children will be speaking at the same time, so the classroom might get a bit noisy for a few minutes…

This is an example I made for talking about clothes, but one could also make a simple flip-flap book for numbers and fruit… (“What is in your fruit bowl?” “I have 2 bananas”)

  • What are you eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner…
  • What will you do in the morning, afternoon, and evening…
  • What time are you going to (read a book / go shopping / play football)…
  • How is the weather on (Monday / Tuesday / Wednesday)…
  • How many animals are at the farm…

With a little imagination, one can create all sorts of flip-flap books based on what concepts are being taught at the time.  When creating flip-flap books of your own, make sure to have the sections lined up carefully, so that when the pages are cut apart the dialogues make sense.  The most important thing when making this, though, is that you have fun.

What other kinds of dialogues can be made up using flip-flap books, I wonder?

Here is a document with blank pages for flip-flap booklets.  You can adapt these for your own classroom if you like.


There are three pages: one with two flip-flaps per page, one with three flip-flaps per page, and one with four flip-flaps per page.  Print the page you want to use, or copy-paste it into a new document for yourself, and insert the images you want to use for your lesson.

It’s important for you to decide who’s going to do the work: you or the children.  If, for instance, you want the children to create their own flip-flap booklets, then it’s important that they do the work.  You can pre-structure certain parts of the booklet yourself, or none of it at all, and let them do all of the work.

Or, you may decided that you really want them to practice specific vocabulary, in which case you will need to create the basis for the flip-flap booklet yourself before printing it.

Some suggestions for material you might use:

Images for things to do, daily tasks, modes of transportation, clothing, etcetera can be found on  If you want, print the handouts provided on this site, and the children can cut and paste the images they want to use into their own book.  Otherwise, you can copy the images from the power points provided and paste them digitally into the document before printing.

Images for blank clock faces can be found here:  If you use blank clock faces, the children can write in their own times.  If you want them to practice specific times, then you can draw them in on your own, of course.

If you are interested in more ideas and concrete assistance with implementing these booklets in your classroom, please let me know.  Good luck, and remember to have fun!