differentiation

Policy planning part 3: a plan of action

Now that you’ve created a complete picture of the language curriculum, it’s time to make a list of “Points of Action” for each section of the language policy.  Points of Action are things that need to be done, in order to realize the ideal English program.  These actions may be big or small, as long as they contribute to the end goal.  When you write a Point of Action, write it using the “SMART” method.  Make it Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-based.  If the Point of Action is rather large, you may wish to break it up into smaller, realistic steps.

For instance, a sample point of action might be “Teachers need more information on how to make better lessons.” When you write this, ask yourself: “What is better?  What kind of information do they need?  Why do they need this?” Clearly, this point of action is not SMART.  To make it SMART, make it more Specific: if the teachers want their lessons to be more interactive, for instance, with more student talking time, then the point of action can be adjusted like this: “Teachers need means to adapt their lessons to allow for more student talking time.”

This is still a very big point of action, which can be sub-divided into smaller, easily-attained tasks.  Think about steps like the following:

  1. Orientation:  what kinds of lesson adaptations are there?
  2. Examination:  trying out various lesson adaptations
  3. Evaluation:  talking about the effectiveness of the various adaptations
  4. Determination:  deciding which lesson adaptations to keep and which to let go
  5. Safeguarding:  making sure the new adaptations remain in place

Once you’ve checked (and double-checked!) your points of action, it’s time to put it all together into one, final Plan of Action.  Start by bringing the points from each chapter together into one summary, per heading (see illustration below).  Talk with your director and find out which points need to be an absolute priority, and decide on a logical order of steps to be taken.  Also, have a good look at the timeline.  How many years will be needed to realize the goals put forth in the policy plan?  Perhaps three is sufficient, but it’s also likely that more may be needed.

After that, set the points of action into the year-by-year overview.  Make sure that each point of action is attainable (not too big!), and part of the bigger plan.  Decide who will be responsible for each point of action, and plan a reasonable deadline for each point.  If money is needed, look at possibilities for subsidies from local and national agencies.  This will be different from place to place, of course.

steps-for-plan-of-action

Putting it all together: take the points of action from each list and put them in a single, simplified summary.  Then, sort the points into a year-by-year plan according to need.

Another important point of action that must be remembered is to evaluate the plan at some point every year.  Have a look at what goals were reached, which need to be amended, and congratulate everyone for any progress made.  After all, when it comes to curriculum improvement, it’s all hands on deck!  Everyone contributes in his own way, according to his own talents.

AllHands

Everyone contributes to curriculum improvement, according to his own abilities and talents.  (image borrowed from https://influencemagazine.com/practice/all-hands-on-deck)

 

Whatever you do while writing your policy plan, be aware that for some, simply opening up the conversation about the English program is already a big step.  For others, making space for each teacher to contribute to an improved program will be the challenge.  Each school has its own road to take in writing and carrying out a language policy plan.  So yes, please talk with other people who have written a plan and carried it out, but realize that each road is unique, with its own twists and turns.

So take a deep breath and …. good luck!

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Mixed-ability dialogue cards (2.0)

feedback

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.

    Sample-dialogue

    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-functions

    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-var-notions

    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. 

    Dialogue-fix-notions

    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 raz-kids.com.  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:

 

Role-play-easy

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.

Role-play-expanded

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!

Rubrics: a basis for qualitative feedback

Rubric-1

This is one of those things I wished I’d learned about years ago, because it would have made my own life as a teacher so much easier.  I’ve learned about them now, however, so I’m shouting my joy from the rooftops.  Hurray for rubrics!

What is a rubric, one might ask.  A rubric is a means of giving detailed, qualitative feedback to students regarding a given product.  It contains concrete descriptions of the criteria for a well-completed product.

There are different sorts of rubrics.  I’ll explain two sorts of rubrics, using generic sample rubrics I wrote for this purpose.  The first one is a criterion-referenced rubric, and the second one lists success critera for different levels of ability.  I wrote these rubrics for a group project in which the children had to create posters demontrating what they’d learned during the last unit of learning.  They were to use the new words they’d learned in correct sentences.  For the sake of simplicity, I’ve omitted criteria for layout and presentation.  I’ve only included the very basic criteria of content, language, and process.

The first example here shows a criterion-referenced rubric of the sort most people might use.   For teachers, this is an easy form of marking, since the standard for the work remains the same, no matter the ability level of the child.  Also, the criteria for success are clearly described, so all children can know ahead of time what he needs to do in order to pass the assignment.  Another positive aspect is that children get differentiated feedback per criteria heading.  On the downside, it’s perfectly possible for a child to fail the given assignment, as the criteria for success are of the one-size-fits-all variety.  There is no way to allow for differences of ability when using this sort of rubric.Rubric01

That problem can be solved by using a different setup.  The example shown below demonstrates a way to differentiate feedback per ability level.  For instance, if you work in a classroom with a broad difference in language ability, then it might be nice to set up the assessment so everyone has the chance to succeed.  At the same time, this rubric also allows you to set up minimum success criteria per ability group that are just above the actual level of the children so that each child is pushed towards a higher level of ability.  This is called differentiating in output.

In this case, the children should know ahead of time what group they belong to, and they understand that they each have a choice: to succeed at his own level, or to work towards success at a higher level.  The term minimum success criteria is critical here: children should reach the minimum level indicated, but may also choose to work towards a higher level.  Sometimes, if a child needs, he may choose to work at a lower level, but that is a pedagogical decision that you and that child can discuss.  In this rubric, the indicators for ‘process’ are the same for all children, since it would be reasonable to expect all children to work on their social development irregardless of their language development.

Rubric2

Rubric for differentiating in output.  Note that success criteria for the ‘process’ are the same for all children, regardless of ability level.

Of course, no matter what kind of assessment format you use, it’s important that children be aware of the criteria for success so they know what they need to work toward.  As a teacher, I post my rubrics on their electronic bulletin board at school, so students know what they can expect.  It helps them focus their work and gives them the space to make informed decisions when it comes to their own learning.  It also means they have no surprises when they get their grades back, which makes a big difference for everyone involved.

For more information on the use of minimum success criteria and rubrics, feel free to have a look at this site: http://www.assessmentforlearning.edu.au/professional_learning/modules/success_criteria_and_rubrics/success_criteria_landing_page.html

What other topics would you like to see covered on this blog?  Please let me know!

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

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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?

bloom_pyramid-2

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:

KWHLAQ-v2-tolisano

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:

http://plpnetwork.com/2012/05/15/flipping-blooms-taxonomy/

https://www.learning-theories.com/problem-based-learning-pbl.html

Feel free to have a read and find out more!

Not all equal, but moving forward all the same

Standardized-testingAt one time or another, we teachers are confronted with the need to assess our children’s learning.  Many of us have thought long and hard about the use of a single, standard test to find out what our children have learned.  There are, of course, things to be said in favor of standardized testing: one gets a view of how children perform compared to other children their age.  That can be very valuable information, providing a basis for differentiated instruction.

However, children who are the weaker learners in the class also need a moment of success, of being “good enough” without always being last in line.  When will these children be allowed to feel like they have learned enough, that they are making progress?  Earlier, I wrote a blog entry about writing group plans for long-term planning.  Based on these semi-annual plans, the language goals for a given theme can be determined.  After that, though, how does one determine when each child has actually made progress at his or her own level?  This is when differentiated outcome rubrics come in handy.

Part of what I do when designing a new theme, is determine which words must be learned by everyone, which words most children should learn, and what words are challenge words.

  • Basic vocabulary: Words everyone should learn.  These generally transfer easily from the mother tongue, are shorter, and used relatively often.
  • Extended vocabulary: Words most children should learn.  These may transfer easily, but may also be longer and used less often than the basic vocabulary.
  • Challenge words: Words some children should learn.  These words may be difficult for a number of reasons, they may be spelled unusually, be seldom used, or longer in length.

Next, I determine some form of end product that the children should work toward in the course of the theme.  In the example below, I want them to do some kind of oral presentation about something we’ve learned.  The weakest children are the the group “Cat”, the strongest are in the group “Chipmunk”, and everyone else are in the group “Bird”  (no particular reason for those names, incidentally, I’ve used “skateboarders”, “snowboarders”, and “kite-surfers” in the past as well).

Finally, I determine what concrete language they should be able to produce for this product, based on the semi-annual plan.  In this differentiated outcome rubric, I show what the minimum expectations are for a presentation that is “good enough.”  Each child knows what group he or she belongs to, and therefore what kind of output is considered “good enough” in order to be considered successful.

In this example, the “Cats” work towards a short presentation in which they use short sentences correctly applying the basic vocabulary.  There is space for some hesitation during the presentation.  “Birds” need to use the extended vocabulary correctly, in longer sentences,with better pronunciation, and so on.

Cat (intensive) Bird (basic)

Chipmunk (talent)

Vocabulary Uses basic vocabulary correctly Uses extended vocabulary correctly Uses challenge vocabulary correctly
Sentence length 3 to 4 words 4 – 7 words 5 – 10 words
Speaking Some errors in pronunciation

Some hesitation

Few errors in pronunciation

No hesitation

Clear diction

Confident

No hesitation

Of course, it is perfectly fine if children decide to try out a more difficult level of work.  Some children get a real “kick” out of performing at a higher level than expected.  Some, however, might wish to try out a lower level, and that’s fine too.  There are plenty of children suffering from performance anxiety who might feel more comfortable operating at a lower, more easily-achieved level.  Others might try out a lower level for fun, find it too easy (and therefore boring), and return to a more challenging level of work.  The important thing is, however, that each child be allowed to succeed at a level appropriate to his or her own level, and a differentiated outcome rubric is good for just that.

BINGO! …activating those speakers

bingo-graphic21

“B-6, O-68, G-55…”  How many of us have ever played this form of Bingo in the ESL class?  It is an excellent and well-known way to review the numbers we’ve learned.  Some of us have already discovered the joys of downloadable bingo cards covering clock-reading, animals, fruits, and a whole host of other topics.  Often, when this game is played, the teacher names the word, the children scan their card for the corresponding picture or number, and they cross it off.  When they get a row (or column, or diagonal), they win the game.

This is a fine way of reviewing passive knowledge of a given set of vocabulary.  Children enjoy playing, and quite frankly, we teachers enjoy the occasional break from the drudgery of textbook lessons, so there is much to be said in favor of bingo games in the classroom.  What I’d like to talk about here, therefore, is how to build this game into a more flexible form, with less work for the teacher and more space for the children to actively practice using the language.

When my student teachers use this game in their lessons, they oftentimes will have spent hours and hours creating a dozen different bingo cards, only to spend a half an hour playing the game with their class.  As any experienced teacher can attest, this is a heavily imbalanced use of precious time.  The question is, how to spend less time to achieve the same result.  There are different possibilities.

One way to solve that problem is to find ready-made bingo cards.  There are various sites on the internet that provide these, either for sale or free of charge.  If this is what you want, a simple tip is to use the search terms “free download ‘bingo cards’ + topic”.   The only thing you need to look out for, however, is whether or not the words on the bingo cards actually match the words you’re teaching.  This is not always the case.  However, what these ready-made boards lack in vocabulary matching, they make up for in time savings.

Another way to solve this problem is to have the children make their own cards.  This way, you can make sure that the words on the bingo boards match what you’ve been teaching.  I’ve done this in different ways, depending on the children I was working with.  With the very young children, for instance, I made handouts with simple pictures of the words we were learning.  They had to choose a set number of those pictures (usually 6 or 9), cut them out, and then stick them to an empty bingo board.  I usually had two of them choosing from the same handout in order to save on paper and also to insure that everyone had different bingo boards.

Another solution I’ve successfully used was to create a simple bingo board using line-drawn pictures (tip: google search tools: type ==> line drawing).  Then, the children used one of a given four colors to color each picture.  Each picture could only have one color.  Then I’d call – for example – “yellow mouse” or “green snake”.  If a child had colored his mouse yellow, then he could mark that picture.  If his mouse was orange, however, then he couldn’t mark it.

pet-bingo

Older children, can recall what words they’ve been learning, and write them on the board.  When they’ve listed what they know, I added a few words of my own as challenge words.  Then, they wrote a number of words on their own papers as a rudimentary bingo board.  I let them write them in a row, since they only won when they’d got all the words on their board.

Having the children make their own boards is a bit of a time investment, especially the first time around while they figure out what to do.  Practice does make perfect, however, and soon enough they learn to create their own bingo boards quickly.

One way of making the bingo game more active is to get the children to call out the words.  It is perfectly okay to have the children take turns pulling the words out of a hat and naming them.  We can take it a step further, and make the game more challenging by having the children spell out the words, or put the word in a correct sentence, or even describe the word without naming it.  All of these are ways to make the game easier or harder, depending on what your children can handle.  When the children are taking turns calling out the words, we teachers can lean back and enjoy the process, making sure everyone is joining in, understanding the game, and that everything is going smoothly.

In this way, the children become the active owners of the game.  In requiring them to create their own material, and their own descriptions of the concepts involved, we empower the children.  We free ourselves up from a lot of work and get to step back from the role of ‘source of all knowledge.’  And – last but not least – we get to have more fun, which is a very good thing indeed.