ESL teaching methodology

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!

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!

Mirror, mirror… why bother with self-reflection?


I sat across the table from a young student while perusing his semester reflection.  “I don’t understand why we have to do this,” he said, “it’s just a waste of time, when I could be using the same time to write lesson plans or study for my classes.”  Why bother, indeed, I thought.  What was the point of the whole exercise?

Of course, I knew what the point of the exercise was, but how to get it across to my student, so he might learn to value the experience as much as he valued studying for his upcoming exams.  I started by asking questions.  What, in his experience, stuck out as a real success?  What made that particular experience so successful?  What did he do to create that experience?  Were there other factors contributing to that experience?  We continued to explore these and more questions in a short discussion.  He came out of this armed with resolutions and plans, without even realizing that we had just completed an entire cycle of reflection.  When I pointed this out to him, he began to understand that reflection is a tool, a means of improving his style teaching so that he can knowingly re-create successful experiences and be less dependent on coincidence.

There are many models one can use for self-reflection.  At the university I teach at, the model our second-year students use is called Korthagen’s Circle of Reflection.  Korthagen is a Dutch educational specialist who developed different models for reflection.  Using the Korthagen’s Circle of Reflection, students systematically explore their actions in a given situation.  This tool allows students to inform themselves about their own practice and make decisions about their future dealings.

korthagens-spiralKorthagen’s Circle of Reflection has five steps, as illustrated here.  Each step has specific questions that should be answered as part of the reflection exercise.

1.  Action:  What did I want to attain?  What was I trying out?  What was I paying extra attention to?

2.  Looking back:  What actually happened (from the teacher’s perspective and from the perspective of the pupils)?  What did we want?  What did we do?  What did we think?  What did we feel?

3.  Awareness:  How are the answers (from the previous step) interconnected?  How does the context (school) influence the whole?  What does this mean for me?  What is now the actual problem?

4.  Alternatives: What alternatives do I see?  What pros and cons are there to each one?  What will I take with me for the next time?

5.  Trial (step 1, but as a step into a new cycle):  What did I want to attain?  What was I trying out?  What was I paying extra attention to?

When coaching my students, I tell them to choose one specific incident that occurred during the lesson or in the course of the day, and to focus on that.  It can be something that went well, or something they want to improve, but it has to be one specific incident.  I look at their reflection and check that each step has been taken.  Sometimes, students skip a step or two, or stop when they are only halfway through.  In order to achieve improvement in their teaching, however, I insist they complete the entire cycle of reflection.  They groan, but they also grow, and they see that, too.

As a lecturer, I try to set an example for my students.  I hadn’t thought a lot about how to set an example in the area of self-reflection, however, until I received a box of notebooks from my own dad, who had worked in the field of education for decades before changing careers.  There were journals for each of the various positions he had held: as a teacher, a principal, a superintendent and later as a doctorate student.  His journals are a collection of practical items (what needs to happen this week), reflections on incidents, personal goals and business strategies, among other things.  Upon seeing his collection of journals, I decided that the best way to be a role model would be to start my own reflection journal.

When talking with my students, I teach self-reflection as a skill for life-long development.  Sometimes, I show them my own journal, (briefly!) to depict self-reflection as a healthy habit.  It’s not just something one does to appease the teachers that be, but it is also as a tool for steering their own growth.  This revelation often comes as a surprise to them, and helps them understand how important it is to not just think about their teaching, but also to record it in some fashion, so they can refer back to it at a later time.  They begin to view self-reflection as a valuable use of their time, and I, in turn, see their teaching improve as they move into greater awareness of their dealings.

Note:  Factual information for this blog entry was retrieved from:

Screencasts: the teacher’s tool for long-distance instruction?Last week, I learned about a new tool for long-distance instruction: screencasts.  Actually, I don’t do any long-distance instruction, yet.  But I do give certain instructions time and again, and to avoid getting into the rut of (yawn) repetition, I decided to give this new tool a whirl.grabilla-iconI started by searching for free, easily downloadable software that would be compatible with my computer.  A quick search through wikipedia (screencast software) brought me to Grabilla’s doorstep.  I don’t consider myself to be terribly ict-skilled, but I managed to download the program and give it a try.  After serveral botched attempts, I figured it out.  My day was made!

After that, I had to think of something I could make a screencast about.  Having spent hours and hours of my life making pretty much every mistake possible using Windows movie maker, I decided to make an informative screencast about “how to make a movie”.  Here is the final draft… and it “only” took two hours to make.

Of course, it’s got the regular glitches and issues, but for a first-time screencast, I can safely say I’m quite pleased with the result.

My next question is, of course, how can I apply this new technology in a useful fashion to my own teaching?  What do you think?

But they don’t understand! (part 2)
One of my very first classes consisted of Japanese, Chinese, Israeli, and Dutch children.  Only one of them was American, and so the great challenge of communication with these children was immediately apparent.  How to talk with children who hardly spoke any English?  Obviously, translation was not one of the possibilities, so I quickly put together a bag of tricks that I ended up using, again and again in the years that followed.What follows is a few of those tricks, together with some pros and cons of each method.  It’s hardly a comprehensible list, so if you have other ideas you’d like to share, please do so!Trick #1: charadesThis one doesn’t need any preparation, but on occasion it does require me to set my dignity aside as I act out what a monkey, elephant, or leaping kangaroo is.  The good news, however, is if I’m leaping around the classroom, the children often join in the fun.  Then we are all leaping kangaroos for a minute or two.Trick #2: flashcards or power pointsObviously, this requires some forward thinking.  What words will we be introducing during this lesson?  What pictures will most clearly explain the concept to the children?  Flashcards are quite versatile and can be used for a load of games during circle lessons, but their visibility range is limited, depending on the size of the cards used.  Power points are less versatile, but are large enough to be visibe even at the back of the classroom.

Creating explanatory flashcards or power points is not nearly as easy as it sounds.  When I create (or occasionally receive) flashcards, I test-drive them on my own children to see how they react.  They have seen scary squirrels, mothers with vacuum cleaners in hand (how stereotypical!), and “dirt” that looked more like a pile of doggy doo (Yuck!).  Other pictures can have double meanings, or are so funny that they detract from the learning process.


Trick #3: labels with pictures

In my classroom, everything is labeled in English, often with accompanying pictures, so that everyone understands what they will find in each drawer or on each shelf.  It does take a couple of hours to do this, but once hung, the labels will last quite a while (maybe even a few years, depending on the quality of the labels).  I also have flashcards with basic classroom rules on them, to remind children of what behavior I expect from them.

So much for the easy stuff.  What to do when the concepts get more difficult?

Trick #4: the pupil translator

In every class I’ve had so far, there has always been one pupil who understands the word(s) in question, who is more than happy to translate everything I say into L1 for the rest of the class.   This quick and easy solution, however, can lead to a case of “lazy ears”, which I referred to last time.  It also puts the child in question into the role of the living dictionary.  For some, this leadership role is novel and exciting, but as the teacher, I warn the others that each has to think for himself, and that this child may only be asked for help as a last resort.

Trick #5: the picture or bilingual dictionary

For the younger classes – with children between 7 and 10 years of age – I allow use of picture dictionaries.  These dictionaries group words according to theme, and children enjoy spotting the words they already know, while picking up words they didn’t have yet.  At this point, most of the new words are easy, concrete things like nouns, verbs, and a few simple adjectives – concepts easily encompassed by picture dictionaries.

Older children, however, start needing more difficult words.  At this point, I introduce the bilingual dictionary.  This always requires a certain amount of guidance, as even the best bilingual dictionaries can offer some rather odd answers.  I’ll never forget the time a Yugoslavian man found that a “wallet” was actually a “suitcase”, thanks to his Yugoslavian-English dictionary.  Like I said, a certain amount of caution is always useful.  Google images also can also be of help.

Do the children always understand you?

The answer to that is simple: no, they don’t.  And it’s perfectly alright for children to not understand every word I say, just as it’s okay for babies and young children to not understand everything they hear, either.  I always ask myself, what is the worst thing that can happen if they don’t understand me?  Usually, it means that the first time we play a new game, the class has a difficult time playing by the rules.  So we stop the game, explain again, and try again, until it works the way it’s supposed to.  This takes time, but it’s part of the learning process.

Or perhaps, the children will miss a bit of the instruction.  This in turn leads to new learning experiences.  The children learn that it’s okay to not understand everything, to be patient with themselves as learners, and to see what they do know and understand.

It’s also important that I, the teacher, aim my teaching and speech to the class’ zone of proximal development (ZPD) – that bit between what they can do on their own and what they can’t do – that bit that they can understand with help.  In this case, the bit they can understand given visual support, clear demonstrations, and my own body language.  There is no point in giving children a learning activity about, for instance, world climate change if the entire range of vocabulary needed is outside their ZPD.  Just as there is no point in expecting children to understand a game with 10 different, difficult rules.  The trick is to make the learning activity interesting, challenging, yet reachable, given that what the children understand.

For the very young learners, that may mean that I will ask “where is red?”  Then while they sit there looking mystified, I go off in search of something red in the classroom.  When I’ve found that red object, obviously happy with this red block, that’s when the first faces will light up with understanding.  Once we’ve mastered the concept of finding red things, we can move on to other colors.

For older learners, that may mean pulling out the picture dictionary, and demonstrating its use.  Showing the table of contents, finding the correct page, then looking for new words, as though discovering this book for the very first time.  I do the same with bilingual dictionaries as well.  It also means allowing time for rough drafts of their work, sharing examples of success with the rest of the class, so that others learn from those experiences.

Most importantly, it means allowing space for failure,

using mistakes as a learning opportunity,

and allowing children to start over

in order to reach that success.

Useful internet sites:

Here are a few sites I’ve found with free visual materials for the classroom:

Here are a few sites with online picture dictionaries:

And some for classroom management:

But they don’t understand! (part 1)

Many an ESL teacher has thought the above, at one time or another.  The question is, what does one do when faced with a class that – apparently – does not understand what one is trying to communicate?  The easiest solution, of course, is simply to translate whatever it was that the class didn’t understand into the general language of instruction (L1), before returning to the lesson in the target language (L2).

As understandable as this solution may be, I strongly disagree with this “solution”.  In my decade of teaching ESL, I have never once needed to speak in L1 with the pupils.  That doesn’t mean it’s always beeneasy to use only English, but I have two good reasons to stick to my guns and use only English whenever I speak with the children, which I’ll explain here.

Reason number one: “lazy ears”

When a teacher translates new material from L2 into L1, that means the children themselves don’t have to do the work of understanding the material.  In general, I have found that once a teacher starts translating, the ease of translation feeds itself.  The next time the children appear not to understand, the teacher and children remember how well that went last time, and the teacher will resort to translation again and again.  As this pattern continues, the children quickly learn that they don’t have to listen to the target language, or wrestle with the meaning thereof, as the teacher will simply translate things into L1 for them.  Hence, the children run the risk of developing a serious case of “lazy ears”.

Besides this, once a teacher starts translating, he or she will underestimate how often translation occurs during the lesson.  I remember how one teacher I observed resorted to translating during her lesson.  When I asked her afterward how much she thought she’d spoken in each language, she was convinced that she’d only spoken a few words in L1.  When, in fact, she had translated every single thing she’d said, the entire lesson long.

The important word here is that children appear not to understand.  Children often understand a lot more than we teachers give them credit for.  Allowing children to wrestle with the material gives them space to develop their self-confidence in grappling with a foreign language.

Remember: it’s perfectly okay if children don’t understand every single word we say.  Babies don’t understand every word they hear, either, and yet they get along just fine.

Reason number two:  One Person, One Language

When immersing children in a foreign language, it’s very important that their minds be geared toward that foreign language whenever they are in contact with their foreign-language teacher.  That is when the One Person, One Language (OPOL) theory of multilingualism comes into play.  There is loads of research done into multilingual families, and the parallel between familial multilingualism and multilingualism at school is quite simple: the ESL teacher speaks only English with the children, the French teacher speaks only French with the children, and so forth.

The children at my school are so trained to the fact that I only speak English with them, that they begin to believe I really don’t understand a word of Dutch when they speak with them.  After a while, they realise that’s not really true, but they go along with the game anyway, knowing that when they get their diploma, they can speak Dutch with me.  Because then I’m not their English teacher any more.  Until then, however, we always greet each other in English, and they know to expect only English from me.  Always.

The tricky part, then, is how do I manage to make myself clear, using only L2 during my lessons?  This is something I will address in a later post.

In the meantime, please tell me what you do in these situations?  What kinds of tactics do you find useful when children don’t understand?

Let's talk!
Co-operative learning structures: the Walk-n-talk
Let’s talk!

Overheard during an English lesson:

– Good morning, how are you?

– I’m fine, thank you.  What do you want to do today?

– I want to go skating.  And you?

– I want to read a book.

– Let’s skate, then read.

– Good idea!

How does one build up to these short dialogues with young ESL learners?  The answer is simple: start with easy pieces, and build up from there.  Give the children small chunks of language that they can deal with.  Once that bit has been automated, expand the circle of language and experience a piece at a time.

One of my favorite ways of doing this is what I call the “walk-n-talk” game.  I can’t claim to have invented this one – but it’s one of those games that work, every single time.  This game can be done with any age group, for any grammar or vocabulary you may be covering.  I work in several steps, which I’ll explain below.

  1. prepare the vocabulary: for the whole-group instruction, either large cards or a power point, and for the exercise, smaller versions of the same.  Make enough copies so that each child can have a card.  (for instance, if you have 30 children in the class and you’re learning 6 words, make 5 copies in total.)  For new vocabulary, keep the list of words short – no more than 4 or 6 words.  For review, this list can be a bit longer.
  2. introduce the vocabulary: keep this straighforward and short!  Show the picture, say the word, and the children repeat it.  If they don’t understand the word, give a brief explanation.
  3. embed the vocabulary in a chunk: practice the question and answer of the day, once for each word.  (for instance: “What is this?” “It’s a horse.”)  Again, the idea is to keep this short and sweet.  Listen and repeat.
  4. practice the dialogue as a group: split the group in half.  One half asks the question (“What is this?”), while the other half answers (“It’s a horse.”).  Practice again, switching roles for the two halves.  Only do this two or three times.
  5. demontrate the dialogue with a helper: using the word cards, demonstrate the entire dialogue.  With very young learners, demonstrate the dialogue at least three times.  Remember that while the children are listening to the dialogue, they are mentally practicing their parts before heading into the real thing.
  6. walk-n-talk:  hand out the cards, one to each child.  Now, the children walk quietly and freely through the classroom, using the dialogue they have been practicing.  After each dialogue, the speakers switch cards with each other*.  When they are finished, the children sit down.  Sometimes, I just let the children practice for 3 minutes, other times, I give them a number limit (3 times and then sit down).

* By switching word cards with each other, the children practice a variety of vocabulary words.

After the walk-n-talk, I have a quick go-round: which new words do you remember?  Which ones were easy?  Which ones were harder?

I like this exercise because it is easy to do, and once the children have figured out how it works, they can easily build on it to make longer and more interesting dialogues.  I never worry about whether or not the children learned all of the new words the first time around as the game can be played again and again, removing cards as the words are learned and adding others (surprise!).

This game is an easy way to activate all of the learners – even the shyest of children – and allow everyone a chance to practice the new vocabulary one-on-one without worrying about making mistakes in front of the class.  During the game, I walk around and listen.  I hear new learners joining in with simple answers, while more advanced children aid them in their learning, modelling correct answers for their partners.

With this game, everyone wins!

The silent class

I stood at the door, surveying the classroom and the circle of children inside.  The classroom teacher had just finished snacktime, and now 16 pairs of eyes turned towards me, the English teacher.

For weeks, I had been teaching these children English, reading them stories, singing songs, playing peek-a-boo with the puppet.  And all this time, the children sat.  And stared.  And said nothing.  It was unnerving, teaching this group of silent children who never even cracked a smile.  This was it, I decided.  Time for some vocalization.

“Good morning, boys and girls,” I greeted them, grabbing some plastic farm animals from a table as I passed.  “It’s time for English.”  The eyes blinked, the children said nothing.  The classroom teacher smiled wanly, hoping against hope that maybe, just maybe, the children would join in a bit more actively today.  I knew better.  These kids were joining in, like it or not.  I silently and happily declared war on the silence, and willed them to speak.

After the Good Morning song, I put the animals on the table, one at a time, counting as I went.  Then I picked up the sheep.  “This is a sheep,” I said.  “Sheep.  The sheep says… meow.  Meow, meow, meow!”  A few snickers, then a voice: “nee, juf, het zegt meeeeh!”  (no, Miss, it says baaa!) “What?” I asked, not understanding only the one child.  More children chimed in:  “Meeh!”

My inner voice started cheering.  Hurrah!  A response!  “Aha!”  I replied, “Baaaaa!  A sheep says baaa!  Well done!”

Now other children joined in.  “Baa!  Baa!”

Then I picked up the horse.  “This is a horse.  A horse says… woof!  Woof!”

This time, the children knew what to do.  “Nee, juf!  Dat zegt hiiii!”  We continued, the class correcting my mistakes as I showed them the cat, the cow, and the pig.  Then it was time for the magic.  First, we counted the animals.  The children joined in.  One… two… three… four… five.  I lay a cloth over the animals, and pulled out my magic wand.  (yes, I have a real wand, it works wonders)

“Abracadabra, hocus pocus, make an animal disappear!” and palming the cow in the cloth, I lifted it.  “Uh-oh,” I wondered.  “How many animals now?”  We counted four.  Fingers flew into the air, and children practically shouted “de koe!  De koe!”  (the cow, the cow!)  “What?”  I asked, “The cow?”  Heads nodded.  “Uh-oh, time for some more magic!” I said, carefully laying the cloth back over the animals.  This time, the cow returned, but the horse disappeared.  Then the cat.  And the pig.

Thirty minutes later, I knew we had won.  That was the end of the quiet class… and the start of many noisy, speech-filled lessons.


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