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.

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.




Putting some hocus pocus into CLIL


“Abracadabra, hocus pocus, you will all form a quiet line!”  I wave my wand, close my eyes, and count back from five to one.  Then, I cautiously peek with one eye, then both eyes open in wonder as I look at the giggliest quiet line I have seen all day.  The children realize, of course, that they are as much of the magic as the wand I waved, and we make our way down the hallway to their classroom in silence.

Magic is a very real part of young children’s reality.  How often have I used that magic wand in my own ESL lessons?  I cannot even count the ways.  At a certain point, however, the children realize that the magic isn’t as real as it used to be.  Santa Claus becomes a person in a costume, and the tooth fairy is really Mom or Dad.  Does that mean that magic should leave the classroom?

Not in my opinion.  At that moment, I change the aspect of magic from something they experience, to something they can do.  In this case, I combine magic with maths and English in a card trick any 6-year-old can do, and it’s called “What’s my magic number?”  Here’s how it works:

Easy version:

  1. Remove all Kings, Queens, and Jacks from the deck.  Now, only the numbers are left (Aces count for ones).
  2. Shuffle the deck.
  3. A helper takes a single card from the deck and keeps it to himself (secretly!).
  4. Lay out the cards, one at a time.  When you find two cards that make sums of ten, for instance, 9 and 1, or 8 and 2, cover these with new cards.
  5. When all of the cards have been laid out, pick up matching piles.  “Matching piles” are piles in which the top cards make sums of ten.
  6. The remaining pile will be the “match” for the secret card.  For instance, if the helper has a 4, then the last pile will be topped with a 6.  If no piles are left, then the missing card is a 10.

Harder version:

  1. Shuffle the deck.
  2. A helper takes a single card from the deck and keeps it to himself (secretly!).
  3. Lay out the cards, one at a time.  When you find two cards that make sums of ten, for instance, 9 and 1, or 8 and 2, cover these with new cards. A set of King/Queen/Jack counts as a complete set, so cover these a set at a time.
  4. When all of the cards have been laid out, pick up matching piles.  “Matching piles” are piles in which the top cards make sums of ten.
  5. The remaining pile will be the “match” for the secret card.  For instance, if the helper has a 4, then the last pile will be topped with a 6.  If no piles are left, then the missing card is a 10.  If two face cards are left, then the missing face card is the missing card.  For instance, if you have only a Jack and a Queen left over, then the missing card is a King.

Challenge version (for instance, magic number is 13):


  • Note:  A Jack counts for 11, a Queen for 12, and a King for 13. Numbers count for their own value.
  1. Shuffle the deck.
  2. A helper takes a single card from the deck and keeps it to himself (secretly!).
  3. Lay out the cards, one at a time.  When you find two cards that make sums of thirteen, for instance, Queen and 1, or Jack and 2, cover these with new cards. A King, being “thirteen”, can be covered whenever it shows up.
  4. When all of the cards have been laid out, pick up matching piles.  “Matching piles” are piles in which the top cards make sums of thirteen.
  5. The remaining pile will be the “match” for the secret card.  For instance, if the helper has a 4, then the last pile will be topped with a 9.  If no piles are left, then the missing card is a King.

There are other possibilities of course, which you can figure out by playing around with the cards on your own.  For instance a magic number of 14 is easy enough (King and 1, Queen and 2, etc.), but it’s also possible to make magic numbers of 11 and 12 while using the entire deck.

And there you have it: a simple yet effective means of automating sums up to 10, in English, mixed with a spoonful of fun, and…its-magic-small

With this trick, you get children to practice their sums in English, making this the ideal CLIL lesson for young children who don’t yet speak lots of English.

Here’s an instruction video for the Easy version.


Story-based learning in the ESL classroom: the underrated treasure trove

 (Note to reader:  this blog post is a follow-up on the one I wrote previously, entitled “An alternative to textbooks“.  The previous blog gives general background ideas, while this one dives deeper into the concrete way I dealt with “Elmer in the Snow” with my ESL class)


Whenever I reached into my big blue bag during the English lesson, the question flashing through the children’s minds was always about what was going to come back out?  A puppet?  Some flashcards?  Some song cards?  Or… maybe… a new story?

A new story marked the beginning of a new adventure for the class.  Where would we be going this time?  Would we follow the very hungry caterpillar into its cocoon, or help the very busy spider make her web?

Once, we learned about Elmer and his friends as they traveled up the mountain, into the snow, and the fun they had there.  After the story, the fun began.  We built a paper-maché mountain on the tabletop, adding jungle trees, flowers, and animals.  We built rivers and bridges, so our toy cars could enter Elmer’s world.  Pine trees, snow, snowballs and icey ponds joined the landscape, and the children made their own finger-puppet elephants so they could re-enact the story.  Some, of course, just enjoyed the feeling of the gooey wallpaper paste we used to build the mountain, spending much of the lesson making circles in the paste with their hands flat on the table.

The entire time, the children were naming things, and talking about our construction.  What did we have to build, why, where would it go?  How would we reconstruct Elmer’s world on our tabletop?  Who could tell the story, while the others joined in?  Would the elephants hide in the cave we’d just built?  Would they slide down the mountainside?  What a rich, unexpected way to build their vocabulary and their language experience!

Of course, we took a few liberties with the original story while constructing our own, but that was half the fun for the children in my class.  They practiced saying things like “We go up the mountain,” or “We go down the mountain,” or “Where are you hiding?”  The more advanced children made up short stories while the others played along with their puppets.  After a month, however, the mountain and its jungle had grown quite tired after so much use.  It was time to tear it down, and start with a new story.

It is my experience that children learn many things from a good story.  Stories have so much to offer in ESL/EFL programs, and yet there has yet to be a single ESL/EFL textbook published in which the teacher is encouraged to get a book and read it aloud to the class.  Never have I found a course that requires teachers to step out of the textbook and into children’s literature, and that, in my opinion, is a challenge that needs to be picked up on by publishers of ESL/EFL materials.

There are so many reasons to use children’s literature in the ESL classroom.  Children’s literature is motivational, offers authentic language, fosters academic development, and offers a window through which children can view other cultures.  There is an excellent article written on this very topic, to be found here.  It’s concisely written and highly informational, so it’s well-worth the detour to read.

Besides re-enacting the story with puppets and scenery, there are other things one can do with children’s stories.  Here, I’ll try connecting stories to activities that activate the various intelligences:  (of course, this list is only a start, and I’m sure you’ll have more ideas of your own!)

  • Visual-spatial:  Draw pictures that match the story, make up your own pictures and re-create the scenery in the building corner
  • Logicalmathematical: ordering story cards
  • Musical: are there any songs you can think of, related to the topic?  Do you hear any rhyme or repetition in the story?
  • Natural: where does the story take place?  What kind of environment do you notice?  Is the environment like our own, or is it different?
  • Interpersonal:  Interview each other about the story, or  make up a new ending.
  • Intrapersonal:  What if you were one of the characters?  Which one would you be, and why?   How would you feel?  What would you do?
  • Verballinguistic: What rhymes do you hear in the story?  What new words can you find?  What language patterns do you hear?
  • Bodilykinesthetic:  re-enacting the story with puppets or with a role play

Of course, it’s important to choose children’s books wisely.  What are the kinds of things I kept in mind when choosing books?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Topic: does the topic match what you are trying to teach the children?  For instance, when teaching about clothing, The Very Hungry Caterpillar might not be such a good choice, while Aliens Love Underpants would fit better.  If you google the title of your book and “lesson activities”, you’ll find all sorts of interesting ideas.  Example:  aliens love underpants + lesson activities will get you here.
  • Topic (continued): of course, it’s always a good idea to make sure the story isn’t “babyish” for the older learners.
  • Level of language: for beginner learners, a simple story with lots of repetition is really useful.  I’ve also taken really easy books for older learners, and after I tell them their task, they’re quite gung-ho about listening to the story, so they can make an even better version on their own to read aloud to the little kids in their school.
  • Pictures: these have to be visually appealing, clear, and explain what the story is about.

There are other things to look at as well, but this is a good place to start.  I’m curious, what children’s books do you know about, that you might use in your own classroom?

for further reading:  “Four good reasons to use literature in primary school ELT” article: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=



Broadening the ESL Experience – easy as 1-2-3!


“Okay guys, it’s time to make a graph.  You all have your blocks ready?” I ask.  The children hold their blocks up.  On the table in front of me, I have six circles, each a different color.  One by one, the children come forward.

“My favorite color is blue,” says one, placing the block on the blue circle.

“I like blue, too,” says the next, placing his block on top of the other.  Eventually, there are six piles of blocks, one on each color.  Time for the maths lesson.  We move the piles around, in order from highest to shortest, and find out which colors have equally many blocks.  We count how many blocks there are piled up on each color, and before carrying on to concepts like more than, less than, the most, and the least.  Which color do we like most of all?  Which colors do we like more than yellow?  Which colors do we like less than blue?  The children look, think, and discuss their answers with the neighbors before raising their hands and giving their answers.

We use this simple block graph more often:  favorite fruit, clothes we wear, pets at home, and so on.  Sometimes, we make them out of duplo or legos, and leave our bar graph on the topic table next to the door so the parents can join in the fun.

Graphs are one easy way of incorporating other subject areas into the English lesson.  Sometimes, the children would fill in their own graphs, based on the results of a walk and talk activity.


“What’s your favorite pet?”

Older children can go even deeper into the material, for instance first building paper airplanes, and then seeing how far each one flies.  Questions like “which one flew farther/farthest?” And “how far did it fly?” are simple examples of scientific inquiry. A line graph describing the results can be used to spark discussion and children can be encouraged to experiment with their paper planes to see how they can get even better results – all in the name of science, of course!  But also in the name of fun.


And that’s the important thing – have fun, while broadening the ESL experience.  If you have fun, the kids will have fun.  And when folks have fun, that’s when they learn best.

Sorting it out: logical-mathematical intelligence in ESL


Once in a while, I’d start my preschool ESL lesson with two hoops and a box of attribute shapes.  I’d roll out a carpet in the middle of the circle, motioning that there was no talking allowed.  In complete silence, I placed the hoops on the carpet, side by side, like this: Venn-side2side

Then, I’d take a red shape from the attribute box, hold it up, then place it in a hoop.  I’d take a blue shape from the box, and place it in the other hoop.  A red shape, then a blue shape.  The pattern was established.  Then, I’d motion for children to point to the correct hoop.  Which one this time?  The blue hoop?  or the red hoop?  Then I’d pick up a yellow shape.  Where did this go?  I’d offer the shape to a child, so he could figure out where it belonged.  By now, I’d hear quiet whispers of “no, not red,” and “no, not blue,” telling me the children understood the yellow shape needed to go elsewhere.  But where?  I’d motion to a place outside of the hoops, and the children would nod excitedly.  Yes, that was just the place for the yellow shape.


We’d go through this a few times, using shapes, then size, until the children had this puzzle down pat.  Time to take the next step: mixing two different sets of attributes.

In the one hoop, I’d place a blue circle.  In the other, a red square.  Then, a blue triangle in the first, and a yellow square in the other.  The children were catching on, pointing first at the “blue” hoop for blue shapes, then at the “square” hoop for the square shapes, correctly.  Then came the blue square.  Where would this fit best?  How to solve this problem?  I would wait.  Child after child would try to solve it, putting the blue square by the blue shapes, then by the square, then outside both hoops.  Eventually, some child would balance the blue square on the edges of both hoops.  I would assent, moving the hoops so that they overlapped.  An audible sigh of relief invariably escaped as the children realized that this impossible puzzle did, indeed, have a solution.


After that, we would play the game one more time, to see if they really did understand the concept of the Venn diagram.  During the exercise, I would introduce simple words like big, small, triangle, circle, rectangle, square, red, blue, and yellow.  The group quietly practiced saying each of these words several times, so they could say “yes, a circle” and “no, not a circle” when explaining their rationale about why a shape belonged in a certain place.

This exercise is a simple, abstract way of introducing the concepts of comparing and contrasting two different objects.  Later, this exercise can be applied in a more verbal form, for instance when comparing and contrasting two people, different animals, or different foods, during an ESL lesson.  The possiblities are endless!

This exercise is an excellent way of increasing vocabulary of descriptors, at any level of working.  I’ve used this myself at all sorts of levels, and hope you enjoy using this as well.