Teaching from the top-down: flipping Bloom’s taxonomy


How many of us have learned about Bloom’s taxonomy, back in the days we went to college?  Very likely, one learned to start teaching at the base: knowledge and comprehension, before moving on to the higher levels of application and analysis.  And maybe, just maybe the children would be clever enough to move on to the highest levels of thinking: evaluation and creation.

And oftentimes, that’s how it works.  We teachers design lessons along this bottom-up line: first words, then phrases, followed by sentences, finally ending in some form of cumulative project such as short dialogues or stories.  Then we start over in the next unit or theme.

Then comes the “what-if?” In this case: what if we started from the top?

What if we first presented our children with a problem to be solved, before giving them all of the building blocks needed to complete the cumulative project?

What if we tickled their imaginations with a product that needed to be created,  allowing them to provide input where they could, asking questions when they came to an obstacle?


What would happen?

First of all, I suppose some children might feel intrepid or even anxious.  Often unused to the risk-taking involved in exploration, they would find themselves faced with an open field of possibilities in this new learning experience.

Secondly, I suppose we teachers might first feel a bit guilty for allowing children fall flat on their learner’s faces, sometimes more than once.  We might feel frustrated because our learners might be less efficient than we’re used to.  Especially the first time around, when everything is new, and everyone is getting used to the process of learning from the top-down.

But what else might happen?

Some children have been chomping at the bit for a chance like this, and will happily move into the space you created.  They will discover a new zeal for learning and might even propose some projects of their own to work on.  Instead of writing a letter to a pen pal in Europe, they might wish to write that same letter to an alien on Mars.  And what’s to stop them?

We teachers might discover that lesson planning changes to a more flexible set-up, so that we have space to address questions that pop up in the middle of the lesson.  We will need to plan more towards what the children need, and less towards our own desires.  We will have to ask ourselves, how to play into that field, so everyone is productively busy?  More importantly, we will need to know what the children already know.  Which children will need support when going into a new project, and what sort of support will they need?  Will they need didactic scaffolding during the lesson?  Or will they need more pedagogical support in the form of encouragement and coaching?

We also might find out that some children don’t do well with a flipped task at all.  Some cihldren really do thrive on a bottom-up approach.  However, we might find that once certain children get the hang of a top-down, problem-based approach, their learning takes off in ways we could only imagine before, allowing us to give our attention to those needing the extra support offered by the bottom-up approach to learning.  We might also find out that there are multiple ways to solve a problem, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Something else we might find out is that children start taking ownership of their learning.  But also that they need guidance from us, their teachers.  They need to learn to think about their own learning, to self-reflect.  They need to learn how to answer questions such as:

  1. What is the problem all about?
  2. What makes this an interesting problem?  What does it have to do with me, and my own life?
  3. What do I already know about this problem?
  4. What do I need to learn so I can solve this problem?
  5. What can I use to help myself?  Who can help me?
  6. How will I know when I’ve solved this problem successfully?  (what are the success criteria?)
  7. kwlimage

    K-W-L is one way to help structure children’s knowledge about a topic or problem.  It focuses on the lower-level thinking skills.  Blank forms can be found by googling “KWL form” (images).

This K-W-L chart can be expanded on a bit, with another example of the K-W-L form:


Recently, I tried out this sort of teaching with my own students.  I gave them a rather large, complicated problem for them to work on.  Each class had to make its own book of English lessons for the children they were teaching.  At first, they had no idea what they needed to do, but as the course developed, they started to make the connections between what I was offering them in class and the problem they had been given to solve.  Piece by piece, they each solved their part of the puzzle, resulting in some very interesting, challenging, out-of-the-box solutions.  At the end of the course, each class had its own book of lessons.  In the meantime, the students had developed a wonderful sense of professional creativity while creating their lessons, a wonderful side-effect of flipping the taxonomy.

For further reading, here are a couple of articles I found that deal with this idea in more depth:

Feel free to have a read and find out more!

Update: Can-do descriptors of language development

One of the questions I often wrestled with as a starting teacher was how to build a logical and developmentally sound curriculum.  I’ve written a blog about it before, but return to this topic as I have since found new descriptors for language development that I thought would be interesting to share.

One set of new documents that I’ve found is a series of grade-leveled booklets in which various levels of language development are described for speaking, listening, reading and writing.  An example of one such chart is shown here:

wida_can_do_1-2_rwAs you can see, these descriptors are still quite general, allowing the teacher to decide what vocabulary to teach in order to help their learners develop towards the next level.

Here, I’ve included links to the booklets with descriptors that the WIDA  (World-class Instructional Design and Assessment) developed.





Besides this, WIDA also provides ready-made Can-do descriptor name charts, so teachers can fill in the names of their own children at the appropriate level, thus creating an overview of language goals to work towards.  I’ve included links to these ready-made name lists here:

Key Use Can Dos Kindergarten

Key Use Can Dos Gr 1

Key Use Can Dos Gr 2-3

Key Use Can Dos Gr 4-5

Key Use Can Dos Gr 6-8

actfl-logo-2011Some teachers may find it a bit daunting, however, to deal with these general descriptors.  Is it possible to connect these descriptors with more concrete language behaviors?  The answer is: yes.  The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has put together just such a list of concrete language behaviors in their booklet “Can-do statements: Performance indicators for language learners” (2015)

In this booklet, one finds checklists of behaviors such as “I can say hello and goodbye,” or “I can ask who, what, when, and where questions.”  This booklet is meant to be a self-assessment checklist, but can just as easily be used by teachers to assess their learners and decide what benchmark their learners have achieved.  Besides this, the language skills are divided up into five categories: conversing (interacting), presenting (speaking), listening, reading, and writing.  These categories correspond with the five categories employed by the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), making it easier for teachers in Europe to use this document in their own work.

Moreover, the ACTFL has collaborated with sixteen language organizations around the world to define “world-readiness standards” for learning languages, and aligned their own benchmark levels with those of the CEFR.  This alignment makes it easier for teachers around the world to use these documents in informing their own teaching.

So now my question remains, what do other teachers use in designing their curricula?  What checklists, language level descriptors, or other standards do you use?  Please let me know!

Important update to this blog entry: I have recently had my Digital Record of Pupil Progress (DRoPP) program updated.  I have re-written it to include the descriptors from the ACTFL booklet, and the levels are divided up into A0 (pre-A1), A1, A2, and B1 levels for the five language skills areas: listening, presenting, conversing, reading, and writing.  I am including the booklet of instruction here so you can look it through.


If you are interested in a trial use of DRoPP, please contact me here:


Links to the ACTFL documents cited:


An alternative to the textbook


I’m an addict.  I cannot help it, and I’m not sorry about it either.  I can never just walk past a children’s book store.  I always have to go in.  And I never leave empty-handed.  There are just too many good books in the world, and I just have to share these with “my kids”.

For years, I taught English to preschoolers and kindergarteners, using children’s books as a basis for the unit.  Were we learning about food?  We’d read The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  Were we learning about colors?  We’d read What Color are Your Underpants.  Were we learning about the weather?  Maisy’s Weather Book was an all-time favorite.  I’d read the book out loud, once, twice, and by the third time, the children were reading the story aloud with me.  They knew every page, every detail of that story by heart.

But just reading the story was never enough.  We needed to take that story and make it our own.  We’d re-write the book, adding our own fruits and foods to a revised version of the The Very Hungry Caterpillar.   We’d use a picture-book version of Curious George and re-build the story in the building corner, so the children could tell and re-tell the tales of the adventures of a “good little monkey, who was always very curious”.  I found that by broadening the children’s experience with the story, their vocabulary development was enriched in ways that I could hardly have realized otherwise.

Just reading a story aloud is never enough, in my view.  The child’s experience with a story needs to be broadened, deepened, adapted, so that the child learns to own the tale, and make it his own.

In my lesson planning, I would always think of ways to expand the child experience with the story.  I always found that brainstorming along the lines of multiple intelligence was a great way to do this, and so I’ll place a few ideas here, as an inspiration to other ESL teachers looking for ways to broaden their children’s experience with children’s literature.  Mind you, this is just a start.  There are so many more things one can do with a good children’s book.


  • mathematical-logical: make picture story cards for the children to put in order as the story is read aloud.
  • verbal-linguistic: use picture story cards for the children to look at and predict what the story will be about.  What do the children think will happen?  Can they tell a story (before you’ve read it aloud?)
  • visual-spatial: children re-create the environment of the story, either with drawings,  with paper-mache, with blocks, or with puppets.
  • bodily-kinesthetic:  re-enact the story in the building corner, with puppets, or in the classroom.
  • natural:  what environment do you notice in the book?  Is it a jungle, or mountains, or something else?  Is the environment in the book the same or different from the environment you live it?  How so?
  • intrapersonal:  what if they were the main character of the story?  How would they feel?  What decisions did the main character make?  Would they have made the same decisions?  What would they have done differently?
  • interpersonal:  children re-create the story with each other, and change it to fit a new “plot twist” or interview each other as though they were characters in the story.
  • musical:  What songs do you know that match the theme of the story?

Children’s literature is an excellent way to expand children’s experience with the language to be learned.  When they are unable to read it on their own, the teacher can read the book aloud, exposing children to authentic language use in ways no one else can.  Once they start reading on their own, their vocabulary development will improve by leaps and bounds, as children find themselves confronted with words and contexts no textbook will ever be able to provide.

It’s a shame that textbook publishers make so little use of this fact.  Which textbook do we know of that actually says “now, go and read Maisy’s Weather Book to the class as an introduction to words about the weather”?  The answer to that is simple: not a single one.  So it’s up to us, the professionals, to spread the news.

Read to your children!  Children’s literature is an excellent way of developing vocabulary and grammar skills among young learners!

Which books do you like to read to your class

?  Please let me know!


Multiple Intelligences and ESL lesson planning

9_MIOnce upon a time, long, long ago, I was given an article to read by my art teacher.  It had been written by a man named Howard Gardner.  It was a difficult read, including all sorts of concepts I’d never heard of before: logical-mathematical intelligence, visual-spatial intelligence, and other such concepts.  After a few reads, I had an idea of what Mr. Gardner meant, and was ready to present the article to the rest of the class.  Back then, only seven intelligences had been identified.  Nowadays, there are nine.  I won’t go into detail about this theory here, but will encourage interested readers to look it up on wikipedia (

Gardner’s theory interested me greatly, so you can only imagine how pleased I was years later when I found out that the Dalton school I worked at also wished to apply this theory in its own teaching practice.  So off I went, figuring out how to include multiply intelligent activities in my own ESL lessons.


A portion of my blank lesson planner

I plan my lessons a theme at a time.  That way, the lessons build up in a logical fashion to a certain objective.  I start by picking objectives from my semi-annual planning.  Then I grab the objectives provided by the textbook I’m using, if that’s what I’m using.  After that, it’s time to dream.  The sky’s the limit.  What kinds of fun games can we do, while learning to speak, read, write and understand English?  This is where the multiple intelligences come in.  What can we do to stimulate children’s learning while activating their various intelligences?

Of course, it’s easy enough to fill in the Musical intelligence.  Songs, songs, and more songs… but also, rhythm!  English is a language full of rhythm, and it would be a shame not to put that to proper use every chance we get.  Clapping the words, stomping them out, until the children literally feel the words coming through their mouths.

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is also pretty easily filled in.  Charades, TPR exercises, and role plays are basic means of activating this intelligence.  I also employ sign language every so often, and children remember the words combined with the motions, placing their new vocabulary inside their bodies.

What could we do with our logical-mathematical intelligences?  Putting story cards in order, sorting words per theme, and “odd one out” topped my list most times.  We also made a flowchart describing animals and played a quiet game with hoops in the form of a Venn Diagram whenever I needed a lesson that started with some quiet.

The naturalist intelligence was a bit more difficult for me.  I often made do by connecting the theme-related words to weather, climate or culture.  It wasn’t perfect, but I comforted myself with the idea that as long as we activated most of the intelligences, we were helping every child learn via his or her various intelligences.

Interpersonal intelligence was often filled in with role plays, while intra-personal intelligence led to journal pages, family portraits, and presentations about ourselves.

We often drew pictures in our project notebooks, activating the children’s visual-spatial intelligence, or used posters, played memory games, drew mind maps, and used flashcards to activate their visual memories.

The linguistic intelligence was easiest of all, it seemed, as foreign language instruction was really all about language.  Even here, though, I made certain to put in special language-based activities: telling jokes and simple puns, making crossword puzzles for the older children, reading stories and poems to the younger ones.

I never worked with the existentialist intelligence, having only learned of its existence after I stopped working with young children.  A pity, perhaps, but also a space to be developed by other ESL teachers around the world, I hope.

As time went by, I ended up developing, finding, and implementing a wide array of tools to get children learning English in ways that worked best for them.  Over a decade later, I look at a cupboard full of good stuff, in the hope I can share it once again.

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?

The cardboard curriculum

On the very first day with my new ESL kindergarten class, we had 9 tables, 9 chairs, and a cardboard box.  Not just any old box, mind you, but a refrigerator box.  A child or two could easily fit inside.  I put the box in the middle of the circle, and the children stared, wondering.  What were we going to do?

I took a marker out of the holder, and drew a large rectangle on one side, and smaller squares on the three other sides.  I left the top and bottom as they were.

I pulled out a knife, and carefully cut out each of the squares.  I proceeded to the rectangle, and cut it so that it could swing open.  I stood the box upright, holding open the rectangle.  Suddenly, the rectangle became a door.  “Hajime, look!  Sit here!” I said, pointing inside.  Hajime sat in the box.  “Look!  A house!” I said.  Hajime was delighted.  Eight other fingers pricked into the air, held aloft by arms stiff with excitement.  Everyone wanted a turn in the house.  They soon found out the magic words: “I want house!”  Any child who said these magic words got a turn.  In the end, everyone got a turn.

Soon we were exploring other words: door, wall, window, floor, roof, in, and out.  The rest of the day, we made curtains, wallpaper, flowers, bricks, a chimney, and a beautiful floor.  We found that two children could fit in the house, and in the days that followed, we also found that four could also fit, walls bulging as children giggled, waiting to see when Miss Amy would discover the children in the house so they could be counted yet again.

A fellow teacher passed by, and one of the boys shouted to her excitedly, “Look!  Two children are in the house!”  She was quite impressed with this child, as no-one had ever heard him speak before.

When the house finally gave in, the children discovered the wonders of duct tape, and we repaired the house again and again.  Until one day, when it finally collapsed for the very last time.  It was time to learn a new word: recycling.  The entire class carried our precious house down the hallway to the caretaker, who brought us to the big blue paper bin outside.  We stomped on our house and smashed it up before carefully tipping it into the bin.  Saying our good-byes to the house, I promised to bring in a new box.  Tomorrow.

Periscope up!


The next day, a new box appeared in the classroom.  And this time, we built a submarine, complete with periscope.

In the submarine

What to teach? Making a plan of action

One of the first problems I came across as a budding early ESL teacher was the question: what do I teach? Of course, I needed to teach them numbers, colors, food, animals, and classroom vocabulary, but – what exactly did these children need to know? What was going to be the curriculum?

I decided that there would be a dual basis for the curriculum. Of course, the children needed a lexicon: words, words, and more words. Equally important, however, was what the children could do with those words. So I needed a wholistic means of looking at the children’s learning and of focusing my teaching to their zone of proximal development.


It was time to look around with the help of my favorite search engine and (practically) best friend: google. Search terms like “language development,” “ESL curriculum”, and “wholistic ESL” crossed the screen until I finally found a language proficiency handbook, written by the Illinois State Board of Education. Finding this handbook was one of my first Eureka-moments: herein was a clearly described continuum of development for ESL learners, outlining exactly how a speaker of a foreign language would develop, which I immediately adopted as a basis for my curriculum.

The stages of language acquisition easily lent themselves to a checklist format. Once I decided how far each child had developed along this continuum – and in the early days that was more of a “touch wind” method than I really care to admit – I then had a clearer idea of where I could lead the class towards.

For instance, if I noticed that some children were able to focus on the main idea of things – “Point to the picture, very good” – then I could cue the other (by now quite lost) children in: “Look, Johnny is pointing. Very good.” I also knew that at this level, it woud be appropriate to get children to repeat simple words. Two- and three-word phrases would come later. Conversely, if a child could already express himself in short phrases, I knew I no longer needed to accept simply pointing to an object as an answer to a question. I could expect that child to answer a question verbally.

I also used – and still use – this continuum to inform my own language use in teaching. If children only understand the main point, I avoid complicated sentences. I keep my own speech limited to their zone of proximal development. If children understand one word at a time, my own speech is therefore usually sentences of 3 or 4 words, accompanied by supportive body language. As the children’s language develops, I drop the body cues and lengthen my own sentences appropriately.

There are, of course, pros and cons to working with a wholistic scale of development. On the one hand, it doesn’t really matter what kinds of words the children learn, as wholistic development is applicable to any theme. On the other hand, it’s far more difficult to develop a standardized test for this, as the content of any test will be dependent on the vocabulary and grammar that was taught previously.

As the years passed, I spent time developing an adaptive assessment that allowed for this, as well as a system of recording this. I won’t go into it this time around, but in the near future, the topic of assessment will certainly be addressed.

I wonder how others have attacked the problem of curriculum building?

A link for the aformentioned language policy handbook can be found here.

And a link for more information about the zone of proximal development can be found here