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.





BINGO! …activating those speakers


“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.


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.

Tell me a story!


Who is this man?  Where is he?  What is he doing?  Who knows his story?

One of my favorite speaking activities is called “Tell me a story”.  It’s simple enough, and allows every child the chance to speak for at least two or three  minutes during the lesson.  Here’s how it works:

  1. The children pair off, and each pair gets a picture.  This particular picture comes from an Oxfam Novib calendar, which I use because I enjoy exposing children to images from other cultures during my lessons.
  2. The children then spend about five minutes brainstorming a story.  I tell them, that only they know the entire story, including the stuff that’s not in the picture.  That’s an important piece of information, because it allows them to use their imagination to fill in the blanks.  In the case of the man above, we could say he’s listening to the radio with his camel friends, or we could enrich the story with tales of how that thing is really a camel-language-translator and how he and his camels talk with each other by having everything translated.
  3. The children practice telling their story to each other, making sure they have all of the words and phrases they need.
  4. Now for the mix-n-match part: of each pair of students, one of them becomes the story-teller, and the other one becomes the story-getter.  The story-getters all stand up, and find themselves a new story-teller.
  5. The story-tellers tell the story they practiced with their buddy.  They story-getter listens carefully, asking questions when needed, and repeats the story back to the story-teller.
  6. Time for unmix-and-rematch:  The story-getter takes the picture and the story back to the original buddy.
  7. The story-getter now becomes the story-teller, as he/she relates the new story to his/her buddy.

If you like, you can have the children repeat this process of story-telling and story-getting a few times, but I find that one round is usually enough.

To simplify the activity, you might use only one picture or poster for the class, and then start the activity by brainstorming as a class for various words and phrases that the children can use.  You can also simplify the activity by shortening the story: instead of a full minute, each child has to make up only two or three sentences about the picture.  You can also select a picture that is more familiar and therefore a bit easier, content-wise.

The process of mix-n-match may sound complicated, but, in all the times I’ve done this activity, it’s usually the adults who have more difficulty with the buddy exchange.  Children usually have no difficulty with it.  For us as teachers, it’s important to realise that even if they don’t get back to their original buddy, the point of the whole thing is to have all children speaking with each other for at least two or three minutes in the target language, using their imaginations to create stories all their own.  If they manage that, then the activity was a success.

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.

Feeding growth with feedback


Trial and error.  That’s how we learn best, it would seem.  Get on the bike, try to ride, fall down, then get up and try again.  It’s the same way when learning to speak a new language.  Try to say something, get it wrong, regather one’s thoughts, then try again.

The question is, of course, how do learners figure out how to speak in sentences?  How do they make that jump from one-word utterances to entire stories?

One possible answer to this is the concept of ‘chunking’.  Once learners figure out how to name something, for instance ‘elephant’, they then figure out to describe that elephant.  Which elephant?  The big elephant, the grey elephant, the hungry elephant, the big, grey, hungry elephant.    In this way, learners start to string words together like beads on a string, in a process called ‘chunking’.


In language, it’s possible to ‘chunk’ words together in a myriad of ways, such as:

  • noun phrases (The big bad wolf)
  • verb phrases (had been reading)
  • adverb phrases (all day long)
  • prepositional phrases (in the library)
  • clauses (when the wind suddenly blew the building down.) – and of course –
  • conjunctions (if, and, but)

Once learners figure these tricks out, they can create longer and longer sentences.  As a teacher, it’s important for us to be able to give our children the words and tools they need to apply these tricks to their own output, as well as applying it in breaking down the input they get.  Just as they can put the beads on the string, it’s important for them to realize they can take those beads back off in order to make better sense of input.

We teachers take advantage of this ‘chunking’ process.  We break up our spoken language into logical chunks to support their understanding.  We speak at a level just above what they themselves can produce, keep our tempo in check and use vocabulary just within their grasp.

We also encourage our learners to make the next step in their development.  There are different ways of doing this, but this time I want to focus on a method called ‘corrective feedback’.  For years, I’d been instinctively giving children feedback on their language output by simply giving them the correct form of output back, and expecting them to repeat the correction.  You can only imagine how pleased I was when I recently found out about research that had been done in this very area of teaching.  Of course, the research had been conducted a decade or two before, but the information given is nonetheless relevant to our work as ESL educators today.  Later, I also found a youtube link in which these different forms of feedback are clearly demonstrated.

In short, there are six basic forms of corrective feedback (from ‘Research on Error Correction and Implications for Classroom Teaching’, Tedick and de Gortari, 1998):

  1. explicit correction: the teacher indicates that the output is incorrect and gives the learner the correct form (‘Oops, let’s try again.  It’s the red coat.’)
  2. recast: without indicating that the learner made an error, the teacher reformulates the learner’s output in correct language use (‘The red coat.’)
  3. clarification request: the teacher asks the learner to re-phrase the output so that it is easier to understand (‘Excuse me?  Can you repeat that, please?’)
  4. metalinguistic clues: the teacher poses questions or gives information to the learner so that the learner can repair his/her own errors (‘Remember, we’re talking about the past.’ or ‘We start questions with “Do you…”‘)
  5. elicitation: the teacher asks questions to cue the student that he/she needs to try again (‘Do you…?’)
  6. repetition: the teacher repeats the output, placing the accent on the error, so the learner gets the chance to repair the error in output (‘Bike you to school?’)

Not all of these are useful for the young ESL learner, of course.  Most often, I applied recasting, clarification requests, elicitation, and repetition in my feedback to children’s output.  My feedback was focused on a couple of things: error correction, but also language development in the form of chunking.


simple line of language development using ‘chunking’ as a base

For instance, when a child could give yes or no as an answer to questions, I would start to elicit one-word answers from him or her by modelling the correct answer.  Once the child felt at home giving one-word answers, I would recast the output into two- or three-word answers, encouraging that child to repeat after me.  Eventually, children would start to move up the line of development and be able to speak in simple sentences.

In order to work like this, I had to have a clear vision of what kind of output I could expect from the children, and how I could encourage them to continue in their language development.  This kind of knowledge allowed me to work outside of the ESL textbook, adapting the input to the children’s needs.

It’s important for ESL teachers to understand where their children are at, and how to correct their output without putting them on the spot.  The kind of feedback we teachers provide depends on a number of variables, such as the children’s general knowledge of the language, their meta-understanding of the language, and their level of self-confidence in expressing themselves.

An example of feedback gone wrong is “That’s incorrect, try again”.  Of course, we mean well when saying such things, but it’s hardly what the learner needs.  In my experience, children always try to give as correct an answer as possible, and to simply say “try again” without providing a clue as to the correct answer only results in embarassing the child, who will probably decide never to raise his hand in class again.  It’s far better to give the correct answer to the beginning learner, so he can learn from his mistakes without embarassment.  More advanced, self-confident learners can deal with elicitation and repetition, as they already have a number of strategies to deal with various linguistic situations and will appreciate the chance to fix their errors without being ‘babied’.

For now, I will conclude this chapter on chunking and feedback, but will probably return to it again at some later date.   Until then, please let me know what you think!

Music in the ESL class – (not) child’s play


These days, publishers are putting out loads of new, internet-based material.  One such publisher has recently started creating internet-based material called “Groove Me,” which bases its lessons on the music of popular artists such as One Direction, Shakira, and Katy Perry.  Its users are enthusiastic because the children enjoy singing popular songs, they learn what the songs mean, and it’s easy for teachers to use.

The growing popularity of this music-based material indicates that there is a desperate need for new, modern material that connects with the children’s life experience.  Popular music is hot, and therefore a logical means of connecting language lessons with the children’s own experiences.

Not all popular music is useful for the classroom, however.  When selecting music for the ESL lesson, it’s important to keep a few things in mind, such as appropriate language use and topic.  Unfortunately, numerous songs out there make sexual references that many teachers don’t catch on to – but their pupils might, and many do.  Other songs – which shall remain unnamed – employ a notably scant breadth of vocabulary, constricting how much they contribute to the language development of the listener.  Yet other songs are too fast or too slow, again, making them less than ideal for use in the class.

The ideal song for the ESL lesson meets certain qualifications, including but certainly not limited to the list below:

  1. the topic and the vocabulary used is appropriate for the children – not too childish, but also not too adult
  2. breadth of vocabulary – not too little, but also not too many new words at one go
  3. tempo – not so slow as to make everyone fall asleep, but certainly not too fast for young ears still learning the sounds of the language

Over the years, I’ve collected a number of favorite songs, some of which I’ve collected on this symbaloo page.  There is a range of songs, and I’ve used a number of strategies to find them.  I’ll share these strategies with you, so you can find (and share, please!) songs you enjoy using.

Strategy #1: youtube.com  Search terms ESL + song + topic got me pretty far.  Most often, however, I’ll find many songs for the very young learners, leaving the older grade schoolers out in the cold.  (young learners being about 4 – 8 years old, and the older learners 9 and above)

Strategy #2: find a useful channel on youtube, for instance Sesame Street.  The American version of Sesame Street has a lovely knack for picking up on the latest pop music, and getting the actual artist to come in and sing a child-friendly version of their music.  One such example is Katy Perry singing “Hot and Cold” with Elmo.  It’s amazing how many artists have found their way to Sesame Street, happily adapting their sometimes questionable lyrics for the younger audience targeted by Sesame Street.  Sesame Street also has, incidentally, a way of turning their songs into social lessons, a nice side-effect many teachers can appreciate.

Another useful channel is Super Simple Songs, good for the younger learner.  What I’v done in the past is had older children listen to a song, then ask them to create another verse that they can teach the younger learners.  That way, they get the pleasure of listening to something easy without getting the feeling of being babied.

Strategy #3: try out this site:  Songs for Teaching.  It’s got links through to various subject areas, listing topics and finally songs that you can listen to and order online.

Other music worth finding out about:

Hap Palmer: very old-fashioned, slow, and therefore perfect for the young ESL learner.

Tumble Tots: hipper, space for moving to the music, and therefore perfect for young ESL learner.  With a bit of enthusiasm, you can push this into the older grades, but don’t overdo it.

Alain Le Lait (It’s so good): simple, funny songs with just enough repetition to allow children to sing along and even make up their own verses.

Jim Cosgrove (Stinky Feet): funny stuff that any child can relate to and sing along with.  Good for the somewhat older ESL learner.

I’m sure there’s more out there, so feel free to share your favorites!

Click here for my symbaloo page full of super children’s music!