Co-operative learning strategies

The name of the game: language learning at its best!


“Max the Cat” boardgame

“Okay, guys, whose turn is it?”

“Roll the dice.  What colors did you get?”

“Green and black!” 

“Black is for the cat…. here comes the cat!  Here comes the cat!” 

“Okay, so who are we going to help?  The bird, the mouse, or the chipmunk!” 

…just a few bits of dialogue, typical for a round of “Max the Cat”.   Children love this game, and find it terribly exciting to make decisions about which animals to help, when to feed the cat, and counting out spaces as they move their counters around the board.  With this particular game, children work together to move the parent animals – a chipmunk, a mouse, and a bird – to the tree, so they can feed their babies.  Each time a green dot is rolled, the group decides which parent animal to move forward.  In the meantime, there is also a hungry cat on the prowl.  Each time the child rolls a black dot, the cat moves forward one step.  When he gets too close, the children can “feed” the cat one of his favorite treats: milk, cat food, cheese, or catnip.  That means the cat has to go all the way back to start, giving the smaller animals a temporary reprieve in their quest to feed their babies.  Children identify with the various animals, often saying things like “I’m the bird!  I want to fly!”

As they play, the children discuss various decisions and work together to reach a common goal, making this a very effective way to work on their social skills.  At the same time, they are developing language skills, making this activity doubly effective.

Games are a wonderful way of learning language in a natural environment.  As teachers, we need to be aware of the different kinds of language we can teach with games: game-specific language, and general language of play.  In the case of “Max the Cat”, game-specific language would for instance include the names of the players: cat, bird, mouse, chipmunk, and babies.  It could also include short utterances like “here, kitty kitty,” when the children feed the cat and call it back home.  This is the language that is tied to this specific game, due to the types of players and kinds of moves in the game itself.  General game language would include things like “it’s your turn”, “roll the dice”, and counting the spaces as the players move.  This is language that is applicable in different kinds of games, no matter the game.  This worksheet  (borrowed from provides excellent examples of general game language.

When designing a lesson using games, we can look at these types of language use and plan the kind of language we want our learners to pick up on, including examples of chunking and phrase-building.  Keeping with the example of Max the Cat, game-specific language we can employ, including levels of chunking, might include cat, the cat, the black cat, or the hungry cat.  It could also include the question “who do we help?

If we look at another game, like “Guess Who?” game-specific language would include facial characteristics, and learning how to ask and answer questions.  “Does he have a big nose?” or “Does she have brown hair?” are examples of fitting game-specific language.


Another excellent game for language learning: “Guess Who?” 

When we play games with our language learners, we need to be constantly aware of the fact that we are, in fact, doing several things at once.  We are giving our learners a space to acquire language in a natural, enjoyable fashion.  At the same time, we provide them space to practice that language and provide them feedback with every set of the game.  And of course, we are simply having fun – as we well should!



Story table: elements and introduction

Story-table (2)

Many teachers around the world have discovered the joys of a story table in the class for their developing language learners.  As I explained in a previous blog, a story table is an excellent way to activate the narrative skills of the young learner.  For those of you just stepping into this new adventure, it may be a good idea to take a moment to orient yourself to this phenomenon and have a look a two important questions, namely: how does one make a story table?  And how does one introduce this into the classroom?

The first question is the easiest.  A story table is based on a story that you have read aloud to the class, and must contain the following elements: the setting, the characters, and any necessary props that are found in the story.

The setting:  In the picture above, Max’ bedroom, the jungle, and the ocean are pictured, which form the setting of the story Where the Wild Things Are (by Maurice Sendak).  In this case, I used a shoebox for the standing sections, and a piece of cloth for the ocean.  There are many different ways of creating the setting.  A quick search for images of “story tables” reveals many excellent examples, where branches, rocks, wooden boxes, and popsicle-stick bridges form an excellent basis for the story table.  I’ve added a few examples at the end of this blog entry to help get you inspired.

The characters:  Sometimes, one might have dolls or toys that are similar to the characters in the book one is reading.  Other times, one might have to improvise and make the characters from scratch.  In my case, I found a set of printable characters when I looked up “stick puppets ‘Where the Wild Things Are'”.

Props: These are any items that can be manipulated to help re-create the story.   For instance, in the picture above, Max’ bed, a boat, a tent, and a moon/sun are shown.  These items are all an important part of the story and can be moved around while the children re-enact the story.  I made these items using simple things like a milk carton or some leftover cloth.  Some people prefer to use “non-representational props” (like a block for an oven), because this stimulates the use of the child’s imagination.  The use of non-representational props also has the pleasant side-effect of saving the teacher precious time.

It should be noted, that children can also learn to help create story tables.  In working with the children, many different things happen.  First of all, this allows children to experience the story outside of the formal lesson, simply because they have to think about what they saw in the story, and what techniques do they know that they can use in re-creating that story?  Secondly, it empowers children to create a meaningful item for real use in the class.  Thirdly, creating a story table with the children gives them a sense of real ownership of their learning, which is known to act as a powerful motivator for participation.

However, how does one introduce a story table to the class, if it’s never been done before?  Simply putting a fully-furnished story table in the class may be asking for trouble, or children may simply do nothing with it, mystified by its presence.

I would suggest that a first-time introduction would include reading the story to the class more than once.  During the second (or third) reading, one points out important elements of the story, for instance the bedroom, the bed, the boat, or the water.

After that, it is useful to have a starting example for the story table, for instance: a bed, a boat, and a couple of puppets.  Then it’s time to start re-enacting the story, using the elements already in place.  Re-tell the story, and use the puppets to show what is happening.  Do this a few times, until the children start joining in.  When possible, invite children to start “adopting” roles, moving the puppets and re-enacting the speech and actions as the story develops.

Of course, the story table is incomplete.  That’s when one asks the children about what’s missing:  What do we still need?  Who can make the jungle / the ocean / the monsters?  As children volunteer to make the missing elements, make a note of this and help them get started.  When their pieces are ready for use, help them introduce their work to the story table (an excellent moment to talk with children about using the story table, and how to be careful with the various elements).  Then it’s time to let the story table bloom on its own.

Examples of beautiful story tables:

The Story Table

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.