We are under the tables!


Thinking back to past lessons, there is one moment I will never forget.  One morning, the school principal showed up at my door, together with about ten prospective parents.  I sat in the quiet classroom, alone in my circle of chairs.

“Miss Amy, what are you doing?” she asked.

“Teaching English,” I answered.  A few muffled giggles escaped from unseen corners.

In answer to her puzzled expression, I asked, “Boys and girls, are you under the tables?”

The giggles erupted into joyous shouts, “We are under the tables!”

“Are you ready, boys and girls?” I asked.  Silence ensued.  “Then quietly sit on your chairs.”

“Sit on the chairs!  Sit on the chairs!” the children whispered as they made their way back into the circle.  I counted back from five, and soon everyone was seated.  The parents, nodding their approval, continued their tour, and we carried on with our lesson: under the chairs, on the floor, behind the chairs, on the tables, no space was safe for these adventurous children led by their only slightly mischevious teacher.

One of the most important things we as teachers can do, is to have fun while teaching our children.  As I often tell my student teachers, if we have fun, they will have fun, and if they have fun, they will learn more than we could hope for.  When children play, they develop in so many ways: socially, emotionally, physically, and cognitively.  They are exploring and experimenting, noting the responses they get, re-fitting their thinking before sallying out again, to try new things or repeat their sucesses.  We teachers need to remember this, and make use of this in our own teaching, but how?

Total Physical Response (TPR) lends itself really well for play.  There are, of course,  different views on what TPR is, and how it can be used.  But at the base of it all, anytime one combines language with movement in order to learn a language, one is using TPR.  In the story above, I was combining a game of hide-and-seek with commands combining prepositions and classroom furniture.  The children were free to repeat what I said, and those who spoke up in Dutch were occasionally corrected by their peers, leaving me with the happy task of keeping a semblance of order in between commands.

A happy classroom is a learning classroom.  Happy teaching!



A new school year – getting started


In many countries, a new school year is getting started, and it’s important for teachers to take the time to give shape to their class, together with their children.  One important piece to begin with, is the class rules.  I’ve written about this earlier, in the blog “The happy classroom“.   Children feel safer in a classroom with simple, consistent boundaries, so it’s important that teachers have a simple set of rules they can easily explain and live by.

It’s also important that these rules be easily explained.  A visual aid, such as a poster, can be really useful for this.  This is where Sparklebox comes in.  This site has all sorts of free, downloadable materials for all sorts of classroom needs, it also has a page full of clearly-illustrated posters for classroom management.

Myself, I used my own cards to clarify my rules.  I had three simple flashcards illustrating expected behavior: “listening”, “raise your hand”, and “sit on your chair”.   I had these in a visible area – on the carpet during circle time, for instance – and when I needed to correct a child, all I needed to do was say “uh-oh, listening!” and point to the picture of “listening”.  For older children, I would write the word on the board, next to the flashcard, so they could learn to read the word as I used them in class.

Another thing I did was to visibly to structure the lessons.  I created cards that illustrated what would happen in the course of the lesson, such as a book (story time), a pawn (game), two children talking (speaking practice), and so on.  I put magnetic tape on the backs of the cards so they could stick to the white board.  At the start of the lesson, I would hang the cards in their proper order and name them, and as we proceeded through the lesson, the corresponding card would be highlighted by hanging it a bit higher on the board.  The autistic children appreciated having the structure of the lesson made visible, and others could see just where we were and what they could expect next.  As an aside, I was a “traveling” teacher, often teaching six to eight lessons a day in as many classrooms, and so this tactic also helped me keep track of where I was in each lesson.

Whatever we do, however, let’s remember three things: keep it simple, keep it clear, and keep it positive!



scaffolding the online task: step by step


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Rubrics: a basis for qualitative feedback


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.


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:

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


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!

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


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.

How’s the weather? CLIL in action


Dear readers:  For a change of pace, I’m not going to invent the wheel, but will simply share a good idea that’s been used in many classrooms all around the world.

I remember the first time I made my very own cardboard thermometer back in kindergarten.  I was only four at the time, but was fascinated by the fact that I could “make” the weather as warm or as cold as I wanted, simply by moving the yarn up and down.  In the rich world of make-believe, I would shiver as the “temperature” dropped to freezing, and fan myself off as the red yarn slowly crept up to the higher numbers.

Years later, I played the same game after making these with the children I taught.  The children loved combining counting with crafts.  They learned concepts such as “hotter” and “colder”.  They practiced sentences such as “It’s four degrees, that’s cold”, or “Ten degrees is hotter than four degrees.”  The more advanced learners moved on to temperatures below freezing, practicing basic addition and subtraction with positive and negative numbers.

Here’s a short explanation of how to make the thermometer:


Materials needed: a rectangular piece of cardboard, markers or pens, a ruler, scissors, and red and white yarn.


Use a ruler to draw a line on the cardboard.  Then, mark off spaces and write the numbers in order.  Here, I used red pen for the negative numbers.  (this cardboard has glue tears on it, but most children won’t mind that)


Cut two bits of yarn – one red and one white – slightly longer in length than the thermometer.


Poke a hole at the bottom and the top of the number line.  Tie the yarn together at one end, and poke the free ends through the holes.  Tie together on the back of the thermometer.


Here’s a variant of the cardboard thermometer I found on the internet.  A bit more complicated cutting work, but the concept of colors to indicate freezing, cool, warm, and hot is nice.

Another variant is to print a pre-made number line up to 100 and stick this on the thermometer.  This way, children can practice their numbers up to 100.  For those who like a real challenge, a blank number line is handy.  Handy search terms for pre-made number lines are “number line to ….”, “number line to 100 by 10s”, or “blank number line”.

This is a nice way to introduce various concepts in the ESL classroom:

  • numbers 1 – 10, or -10 through 10
  • simple measurement practice
  • connect to math with simple addition and subtraction
  • connect to weather words such as freezing, cool, warm, and hot
  • connection to self: how do we dress when it’s freezing, or when it’s warm?
  • a dash of drama: what do we do when it’s freezing, or when it’s warm?
  • simple use of comparatives with cooler and warmer
  • presentational speaking: the weather forecast

In other words, cardboard thermometers are a simple but effective way of getting children to talk during the ESL lesson.  Children can easily make these on their own, and help their classmates when needed.  They can personalize these by decorating (for instance, a sun or a snowflake), and use them in acting out their own weather reports.  Most importantly, children have fun during the ESL lesson.