Mixed-ability dialogue cards (2.0)


Last time, I shared an idea about how to create dialogues that allowed learners of mixed abilities to talk together in a meaningful way. After that, I practiced using the dialogue cards, and soon discovered that while I had hit upon a great idea, I still needed to refine the process of creating these cards.  I went back – twice – until I finally figured out a better way to create interchangeable dialogue cards.  Here’s how to make your own differentiated dialogue cards:

  1. Create or find a basic dialogue you want your learners to practice.  Many textbooks have a ready-made dialogue for each unit, in which the new grammar and vocabulary is practiced.  Below is an example I plucked from a textbook from a Dutch Publisher.


    A sample conversation from the English textbook “The Team” (Noordhoff Uitgevers)

  2. The next step is very important: change each line in the conversation into a function.  Here is an example:


    Dialogue made of functions

  3. In the next step, you work back toward the original conversation.  Change the functions into sentences with a number of choices.


    Dialogue with some variable notions.  There is some space for choice, but not always.

  4. Check if your dialogue with “variable notions” matches up with the Original dialogue.  You may need to make a few changes here. 


    Moving backwards from “variable notions” to “fixed notions”, this dialogue is slightly different from the original.

  5. With some luck (and a few tries), you now have dialogues with various levels of difficulty.  Now you can print these out for your class.

Please note:  it’s important to check that the dialogues actually match up before making copies for your learners.  (I didn’t, and found out the hard way during a class)

Last step: have fun!


Mixing and matching in the mixed ability group

mix-and-match-puzzle-setOne of those things every language teacher has to learn to deal with is the broad ability range in any given class.  No matter how homogeneously (single-leveled) the class has been put together, there are always students who are far ahead of the group, and a number of learners who are far behind.  That’s just the way of things, it seems.  The trick is to keep every learner actively involved at his own level.

There are a number of things a teacher can do to help each learner unlock his own potential.  The first step, of course, is to create an overview of where the learners currently are, and where you’d like them to go next.  I described this process in an earlier blog (ESL and the long-term plan).

In this blog entry, I will continue along this path and work out an idea to allow children of different ability levels to work together in a meaningful way.  But first, a side trip along Inspiration Lane…

Years ago, I came across a site called  I’ve written a blog about that as well (Raz-kids review) in the past, in which my enthusiasm for this site is clear enough.  However, what I didn’t mention about this site was that it also allows for children of different ability levels to work together, using plays from their Readers Theater.

In this script, children are assigned roles based on their ability level.  The levels differ in vocabulary use, length of sentences, and how often that character has to speak.

I began to wonder if it was possible to achieve the same result, but with a bit more freedom.  I came up with a simple solution.  What would happen, I wondered, if we took the concept of different ability roles and mixed it with what we know about functions and notions?

We already know that functions are descriptions of things one can do with a language.  For instance, describe your pet, talk about your hobby, or list ten things you like about your job are all examples of functions.

We also know that notions are examples of how to fulfil those functions.  For instance, “My dog is big and brown,” is a notion that fulfils the function “describe your pet.”

Not only that, but there are fixed notions and variable notions.  In the example below, the words “This is a ….” is the fixed notion, because it doesn’t change.  The words chair, table, pencil, book, and teacher can vary, so they are variable notions.

But enough review.  Time to make the step from theory to practice: differentiating the dialogues.

In practice, Beginning learners need more support, so it’s generally a good idea to let them work with dialogues using fixed notions.

Intermediate learners still need some support, but they’re also able to make some choices.  It’s a good idea to let them work with dialogues using variable notions.

Advanced learners don’t need much support, but in order to have them work together with other learners, they can use dialogue cards with functions on them.

Working out this idea a bit further, I designed dialogue cards that reflect these three levels.  The blue card is for the beginning learner, and contains a fixed notion dialogue.  The yellow card is for the intermediate learner and has space for variable notions.  The advanced learners get the red card, and these dialogues are built of functions that are parallel to the fixed notions on the blue card.  The roles, A and B, remain the same for each card, so that roles are interchangeable.

Here is a simple example to illustrate this:



A simple example


No matter what color card a learner has, he or she can participate in a meaningful conversation with any other person in the class.  It’s important to note that when a learner indicates that his card is too easy or too difficult, he should be allowed to trade colors.  It’s important to realize that no child wants to be bored, and to give them space to decide for themselves what level he or she feels comfortable with.  Also, when you start a new topic, they may all need to start at beginner’s level, as they are dealing with new vocabulary and grammar.  Once they catch on, they may move on to the more difficult levels in the dialogue cards.


A dialogue with multiple steps


Hopefully, these examples will inspire you to experiment with the dialogues in your own lessons.  And – I hope to hear about your successful experiences!

Hit and sink ’em: Battleship in the ESL classroom


As a child, I remember playing Battleship time and again with my three younger brothers.  It was always the sport to figure out where they’d hide their boats, while trying to hide my own in “fresh,” new places each time.  And all that without cheating, not even once.  Well, maybe once… or even twice… but enough about me.  Time for talking about the very serious business of playing.

You can only imagine my surprise when I found a lovely variant of this game on, only a few years back.  I’m sure I’ve mentioned this site before, but this game has turned into one of my absolute favorites.  Each time I introduce this game to my students, their disbelief makes way for fun, and then… time for the teacher hat.  How can they adapt this game for their own classes?  What other topics can they use for this game?  The ideas start rolling out as the students start matching up sets of words and phrases.

Here’s how my simplified version of the game works:

  1. think up two sets of words or phrases that are easily combined into a simple sentence, for instance color and clothes, time and activities, number and fruits.
  2. draw out two grids of rows and columns (one for the player, one for his counterpart).  The exact number of rows and columns doesn’t really matter, but it will affect how much time your pupils need for playing the game.  The more columns and rows, the more time you will need (but the more practice your pupils will get!).
  3. write words or phrases along each axis of the grid.  For instance, clothes along the tops of the columns, and colors at the front of each row.
  4. pupils put “secret smileys” on their grids.  Again, it doesn’t really matter how many smileys they draw, but the more smileys they draw, the longer the game may take.
  5. pupils take turns asking each other simple questions, for instance: Do you have a red shirt? If the opponent has a “secret smiley” on the space where red and shirt cross, then he says “Yes, I have.”  If not, then he says, “No, I haven’t.”
  6. The pupils keep playing until all of the “secret smileys” have been found.

Of course, there are loads of variations on this theme.  With the very young people, I use flaschards and laminated smileys.  When the child makes a combination, for instance, “2 dogs,” then I turn the matching card and we all applaud.  When the child makes another combination, for instance “3 cows,” I turn the card over and we all say “oh no, try again.” Children can take turns being the card-turner, so I have my hands free.


Children can play in pairs (two against two), so that they can help each other create proper sentences.

The boards can have pictures instead of words.

There’s a lot more that can be done with this game, and now I’m curious what your experiences are with this game.  Feel free to let me know!

For your reference, the site that inspired this blog entry:

The big bad wolf of ESL: grammar


As a child, I remember outlining sentence after sentence in a hopeless mess of adjective phrases and adverbial clauses, finding myself placing words on random lines in the hope of maybe, just maybe, getting this one sentence correctly dissected.  At the same time, I remember believing that to dissect a sentence was to commit an injustice, taking the balanced beauty and meaning out of its wholeness by cutting it up into bits.  It wasn’t until my last year at the university when I learned about a whole new way of describing the sentence structure, using a structure more like trees – or roots of trees, depending on how one looks at the picture.


Suddenly, phrases and sentence structures became logically interconnected.  The inner balance of each sentence remained intact as I explored the finesses of phrases, clauses, and verb tenses.  And just for fun, I even took another grammar course to follow up.  Here is where I learned the difference between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar.

Prescriptive grammar, in a manner of speaking, is first the rules, then the language.  Descriptive grammar works the other way around: first the language, then the rules.  To put it bluntly, if a native speaker of a language applies a certain structure to his sentences when speaking, then it’s correct, according to the linguist.  According to the grammarian, grammar is meant to teach “correct” language use, hence the jungle of grammatical rules often found in textbooks meant to teach people proper English.

When I start a new English course for teachers, I ask them what they remember about their own English lessons.  They often come up with one of two things: conjugating irregular verbs, or the nightmarish grammar, both of which they hated.  Fortunately, the method of teaching we focus on at my teacher college is the “Communicative approach”, a.k.a. the “Functional notional approach“.  The students still have to learn grammar, and learn how to teach it, but we focus on it differently: implicitly instead of explicitly.

With the functional notional approach, children are given example after example of how to use given vocabulary in a certain sentence structure.  An easy example might be: I walk to school.  I bike to school.  I fly to school.  (for that last example, the grammatical structure is correct even if the sentence isn’t entirely truthful)  With this series of examples, children learn to apply the simple present tense in a short sentence and will soon figure out how to say “I …. to school”, using verbs of their own choosing.

A more complicated example might be “On Wednesday, we have maths.” or “On Tuesday, we have gym.”  In this case, the child is learning to talk about when they have various subjects.  Once this sample structure has been learned, it won’t be long before the child can extrapolate this sentence to say things like “On Saturday, I play football” and the like.

The basis of the Functional notional approach is the concept of functions and notions.  Functions are language tasks, examples of things we might have to say in order to get things done.  Notions are concrete examples of how we might fulfill those functions. Notions can be further divided into fixed notions and variable notions.

For example, a function might be “order something at a restaurant.”  A sample notion might be “Excuse me, I’d like to order a pizza / some chips / a bowl of soup.”  Or easier: “I want pizza / chips / soup.”  The choice of notion depends, of course, on the level of the learners and what they can realistically handle.  The pizza, chips, and soup, are examples of variable notions because they are interchangeable within the sentence.  The rest of the sentence (e.g. “I’d like to order…”, “I want…”) is the fixed notion, and therein lies the implicit grammatical structure the learners are to figure out.

Is “I’d like to order…” always a fixed notion?  Of course not!  Each language lesson focuses on a given grammatical structure that is chosen based on the vocabulary being taught.  Vocabulary and grammar are interlinked.  This is most easily seen when learning about prepositions, as words such as “in, on, under, towards” only have meaning in relation to the nouns contained within its phrase (in the box, on the table, under the chair, towards the exit), but it just as true for many other parts of language.

By embedding the grammar into the way vocabulary is used, pupils learn to “feel” when a sentence is correct.  They learn to understand the rules of grammar even when they cannot explain them, but apply them instead without thinking.

Do pupils have to learn grammar?  By all means, yes!  BUT… do they have to learn it explicitly, and prescriptively?  I don’t think so.  Pupils have a natural way of picking up grammar and are perfectly capable of creating their own understanding of a language, given enough input.