Teaching from the top-down: flipping Bloom’s taxonomy


How many of us have learned about Bloom’s taxonomy, back in the days we went to college?  Very likely, one learned to start teaching at the base: knowledge and comprehension, before moving on to the higher levels of application and analysis.  And maybe, just maybe the children would be clever enough to move on to the highest levels of thinking: evaluation and creation.

And oftentimes, that’s how it works.  We teachers design lessons along this bottom-up line: first words, then phrases, followed by sentences, finally ending in some form of cumulative project such as short dialogues or stories.  Then we start over in the next unit or theme.

Then comes the “what-if?” In this case: what if we started from the top?

What if we first presented our children with a problem to be solved, before giving them all of the building blocks needed to complete the cumulative project?

What if we tickled their imaginations with a product that needed to be created,  allowing them to provide input where they could, asking questions when they came to an obstacle?


What would happen?

First of all, I suppose some children might feel intrepid or even anxious.  Often unused to the risk-taking involved in exploration, they would find themselves faced with an open field of possibilities in this new learning experience.

Secondly, I suppose we teachers might first feel a bit guilty for allowing children fall flat on their learner’s faces, sometimes more than once.  We might feel frustrated because our learners might be less efficient than we’re used to.  Especially the first time around, when everything is new, and everyone is getting used to the process of learning from the top-down.

But what else might happen?

Some children have been chomping at the bit for a chance like this, and will happily move into the space you created.  They will discover a new zeal for learning and might even propose some projects of their own to work on.  Instead of writing a letter to a pen pal in Europe, they might wish to write that same letter to an alien on Mars.  And what’s to stop them?

We teachers might discover that lesson planning changes to a more flexible set-up, so that we have space to address questions that pop up in the middle of the lesson.  We will need to plan more towards what the children need, and less towards our own desires.  We will have to ask ourselves, how to play into that field, so everyone is productively busy?  More importantly, we will need to know what the children already know.  Which children will need support when going into a new project, and what sort of support will they need?  Will they need didactic scaffolding during the lesson?  Or will they need more pedagogical support in the form of encouragement and coaching?

We also might find out that some children don’t do well with a flipped task at all.  Some cihldren really do thrive on a bottom-up approach.  However, we might find that once certain children get the hang of a top-down, problem-based approach, their learning takes off in ways we could only imagine before, allowing us to give our attention to those needing the extra support offered by the bottom-up approach to learning.  We might also find out that there are multiple ways to solve a problem, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Something else we might find out is that children start taking ownership of their learning.  But also that they need guidance from us, their teachers.  They need to learn to think about their own learning, to self-reflect.  They need to learn how to answer questions such as:

  1. What is the problem all about?
  2. What makes this an interesting problem?  What does it have to do with me, and my own life?
  3. What do I already know about this problem?
  4. What do I need to learn so I can solve this problem?
  5. What can I use to help myself?  Who can help me?
  6. How will I know when I’ve solved this problem successfully?  (what are the success criteria?)
  7. kwlimage

    K-W-L is one way to help structure children’s knowledge about a topic or problem.  It focuses on the lower-level thinking skills.  Blank forms can be found by googling “KWL form” (images).

This K-W-L chart can be expanded on a bit, with another example of the K-W-L form:


Recently, I tried out this sort of teaching with my own students.  I gave them a rather large, complicated problem for them to work on.  Each class had to make its own book of English lessons for the children they were teaching.  At first, they had no idea what they needed to do, but as the course developed, they started to make the connections between what I was offering them in class and the problem they had been given to solve.  Piece by piece, they each solved their part of the puzzle, resulting in some very interesting, challenging, out-of-the-box solutions.  At the end of the course, each class had its own book of lessons.  In the meantime, the students had developed a wonderful sense of professional creativity while creating their lessons, a wonderful side-effect of flipping the taxonomy.

For further reading, here are a couple of articles I found that deal with this idea in more depth:



Feel free to have a read and find out more!


Not all equal, but moving forward all the same

Standardized-testingAt one time or another, we teachers are confronted with the need to assess our children’s learning.  Many of us have thought long and hard about the use of a single, standard test to find out what our children have learned.  There are, of course, things to be said in favor of standardized testing: one gets a view of how children perform compared to other children their age.  That can be very valuable information, providing a basis for differentiated instruction.

However, children who are the weaker learners in the class also need a moment of success, of being “good enough” without always being last in line.  When will these children be allowed to feel like they have learned enough, that they are making progress?  Earlier, I wrote a blog entry about writing group plans for long-term planning.  Based on these semi-annual plans, the language goals for a given theme can be determined.  After that, though, how does one determine when each child has actually made progress at his or her own level?  This is when differentiated outcome rubrics come in handy.

Part of what I do when designing a new theme, is determine which words must be learned by everyone, which words most children should learn, and what words are challenge words.

  • Basic vocabulary: Words everyone should learn.  These generally transfer easily from the mother tongue, are shorter, and used relatively often.
  • Extended vocabulary: Words most children should learn.  These may transfer easily, but may also be longer and used less often than the basic vocabulary.
  • Challenge words: Words some children should learn.  These words may be difficult for a number of reasons, they may be spelled unusually, be seldom used, or longer in length.

Next, I determine some form of end product that the children should work toward in the course of the theme.  In the example below, I want them to do some kind of oral presentation about something we’ve learned.  The weakest children are the the group “Cat”, the strongest are in the group “Chipmunk”, and everyone else are in the group “Bird”  (no particular reason for those names, incidentally, I’ve used “skateboarders”, “snowboarders”, and “kite-surfers” in the past as well).

Finally, I determine what concrete language they should be able to produce for this product, based on the semi-annual plan.  In this differentiated outcome rubric, I show what the minimum expectations are for a presentation that is “good enough.”  Each child knows what group he or she belongs to, and therefore what kind of output is considered “good enough” in order to be considered successful.

In this example, the “Cats” work towards a short presentation in which they use short sentences correctly applying the basic vocabulary.  There is space for some hesitation during the presentation.  “Birds” need to use the extended vocabulary correctly, in longer sentences,with better pronunciation, and so on.

Cat (intensive) Bird (basic)

Chipmunk (talent)

Vocabulary Uses basic vocabulary correctly Uses extended vocabulary correctly Uses challenge vocabulary correctly
Sentence length 3 to 4 words 4 – 7 words 5 – 10 words
Speaking Some errors in pronunciation

Some hesitation

Few errors in pronunciation

No hesitation

Clear diction


No hesitation

Of course, it is perfectly fine if children decide to try out a more difficult level of work.  Some children get a real “kick” out of performing at a higher level than expected.  Some, however, might wish to try out a lower level, and that’s fine too.  There are plenty of children suffering from performance anxiety who might feel more comfortable operating at a lower, more easily-achieved level.  Others might try out a lower level for fun, find it too easy (and therefore boring), and return to a more challenging level of work.  The important thing is, however, that each child be allowed to succeed at a level appropriate to his or her own level, and a differentiated outcome rubric is good for just that.

How’s the weather? CLIL in action


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Update: Can-do descriptors of language development

One of the questions I often wrestled with as a starting teacher was how to build a logical and developmentally sound curriculum.  I’ve written a blog about it before, but return to this topic as I have since found new descriptors for language development that I thought would be interesting to share.

One set of new documents that I’ve found is a series of grade-leveled booklets in which various levels of language development are described for speaking, listening, reading and writing.  An example of one such chart is shown here:

wida_can_do_1-2_rwAs you can see, these descriptors are still quite general, allowing the teacher to decide what vocabulary to teach in order to help their learners develop towards the next level.

Here, I’ve included links to the booklets with descriptors that the WIDA  (World-class Instructional Design and Assessment) developed.





Besides this, WIDA also provides ready-made Can-do descriptor name charts, so teachers can fill in the names of their own children at the appropriate level, thus creating an overview of language goals to work towards.  I’ve included links to these ready-made name lists here:

Key Use Can Dos Kindergarten

Key Use Can Dos Gr 1

Key Use Can Dos Gr 2-3

Key Use Can Dos Gr 4-5

Key Use Can Dos Gr 6-8

actfl-logo-2011Some teachers may find it a bit daunting, however, to deal with these general descriptors.  Is it possible to connect these descriptors with more concrete language behaviors?  The answer is: yes.  The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has put together just such a list of concrete language behaviors in their booklet “Can-do statements: Performance indicators for language learners” (2015)

In this booklet, one finds checklists of behaviors such as “I can say hello and goodbye,” or “I can ask who, what, when, and where questions.”  This booklet is meant to be a self-assessment checklist, but can just as easily be used by teachers to assess their learners and decide what benchmark their learners have achieved.  Besides this, the language skills are divided up into five categories: conversing (interacting), presenting (speaking), listening, reading, and writing.  These categories correspond with the five categories employed by the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), making it easier for teachers in Europe to use this document in their own work.

Moreover, the ACTFL has collaborated with sixteen language organizations around the world to define “world-readiness standards” for learning languages, and aligned their own benchmark levels with those of the CEFR.  This alignment makes it easier for teachers around the world to use these documents in informing their own teaching.

So now my question remains, what do other teachers use in designing their curricula?  What checklists, language level descriptors, or other standards do you use?  Please let me know!

Important update to this blog entry: I have recently had my Digital Record of Pupil Progress (DRoPP) program updated.  I have re-written it to include the descriptors from the ACTFL booklet, and the levels are divided up into A0 (pre-A1), A1, A2, and B1 levels for the five language skills areas: listening, presenting, conversing, reading, and writing.  I am including the booklet of instruction here so you can look it through.


If you are interested in a trial use of DRoPP, please contact me here:


Links to the ACTFL documents cited:





Deaf and Multilingual


Available for purchase from http://www.lulu.com/shop/judith-mole/deaf-and-multilingual/paperback/product-3327972.html

A couple of years ago, I found myself confronted with something I’d never met up with before: a student who was hard-of-hearing, who needed to learn about teaching English as a foreign language.  I spoke with her translator, and soon found out that during my lessons the translator would be working in three languages simultaneously: English, Dutch, and Dutch Sign Language.  I determined to find out more about dealing with this student and her needs so that I might be able to support her in her journey through the world of teacher education.

Once started on this journey, I found a whole new world of communication I had never really thought about before, and made some interesting discoveries.  For instance, something that had never occurred to me before was the fact that sign language and spoken language are two separate languages.  Children who use spoken and sign language are actually bilingual.  Also, sign language differs from language to language (even between British and American English), complete with dialectal differences.  What an amazing discovery!

I searched the internet, and soon found the book pictured above: Deaf and Multilingual, an informative book written by authors with first-hand experience in the field.  It is a very practical guide for teaching a foreign language to deaf or the hard-of-hearing, and can be ordered via this site.  I ordered it and the minute it arrived, settled on my sofa with a cup of tea for what I hoped would be a useful read.  Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

The book starts by describing why deaf and hard-of-hearing learners might want to learn foreign languages.  Apparently, since communication with the “hearing world” in the mother tongue is often quite difficult, many make the assumption that teaching these learners foreign languages would be a waste of time.  However, these people have just as much a need to learn how to communicate as those who can hear, and foreign language learning helps meet that need.  There are, however, very real issues that these people have to deal with, and teachers can help meet those needs.

For instance, learners cannot just “lip-read” a new language, since the new sounds are created using unfamiliar lip patterns that need to be learned.  Also, they need to be able to see what they need to hear.  Every time the teacher turns to the board to write something down, the deaf learner can no longer see the teacher’s face, and so the communication comes to an abrupt halt.  Also, in classrooms where “smart boards” are in use, it is common practice to turn off the classroom lights so that the board is easier to see.  For the learner, the result is that the teacher’s face, again, becomes hard to see, making understanding that much more difficult.

Then there’s the challenge of divided attention.  Since these learners take everything in visually, they cannot read a handout and listen to the teacher at the same time.  They  have to choose what to do at that moment – read the handout or look at (listen to) the teacher in turns.

Taking part in group discussions is also quite the challenge for these learners, since it’s not always clear who is talking, and by the time they’ve located the speaker, they’ve already missed part of what was said.

There are simple things teachers can do to support these learners.   Here is a short list of things that can be easily implemented:

  1. Face the learner when speaking.  Speak clearly, but don’t exaggerate the sounds.  When writing on the board, stop talking.
  2. Allow for reaction time.  When giving directions, leave some time in between the various steps, as background noise (such as opening books) can make it more difficult for the hard-of-hearing to hear the instructions.
  3. Use visual support such as power points, posters, and handouts.  Make certain to allow time for reading these before carrying on with instruction.
  4. Make sure there is sufficient lighting.
  5. Cue the learner by pointing at the speaker during question-and-answer sessions or other group conversations.  This way, the learner can follow the communication easier.
  6. During group projects, allow the learner to work in pairs or in smaller group.

There are other things teachers can do as well, such as allowing the learner a copy of the teacher’s notes ahead of time, along with a detailed syllabus, so that the learner can come to class well-prepared for the lesson.

This book was an eye-opener for me, and I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one with questions about how to best support the hard-of-hearing or deaf learner in the English lessons.   However, it’s important to find ways to allow all learners to participate in an increasingly globalist society, now more than ever, and this book is a good step in the right direction.




The ZPD, not just for kids


How many of us have learned about the Zone of Proximal Developent (the ZPD) when learning how to teach our young learners?  I’ve written about this in earlier blog posts, in relation to how we teachers can best decide on what material to teach our young learners.  However, as a college teacher, I’m realizing more and more that the ZPD is just as applicable to our older learners.  For instance, I spend a good part of my lessons convincing my students that they don’t really have to follow the English textbook (in Dutch fittingly called the “method”) when they teach their classes. In fact, I often encourage them to write lessons of their own, based on the interests and language level of their classes.  The game of Minecraft, Disney’s Frozen, dinosaurs, it’s all fair play in the world of ESL as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve gotten used to the incredulous reactions of my students when I tell them to “try it, they’ll like it,” feeling every bit the Sam I Am in Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham.  “Will you try this here or there?” I ask, and slowly but surely the students start to catch on to the excitement of trying out something they’ve never done before.  When needed, I scaffold their learning by giving ideas, working them out and providing search terms.  I encourage them to play, experiment, make mistakes, learn from them, and most importantly to try again.  I remind them of the rule of three: the first time one tries anything new, it’s a mess as the children struggle to learn the content and the new game at the same time.  The second time, the children have a better idea of how the game works, and the third time, the children know the way of the road and can concentrate on the content.

As stud3f26d2d4355d1d01edc2769a921a276dents start to navigate the roads of experimenting and teaching, they start to grow in confidence, and I follow along, ready to encourage them to move into the next zone of development, be that CLIL, using children’s literature in the lessons, or incorporating yet another new game into their teaching.

For myself, I realize that the ZPD is an ongoing development.  Not just for the young learners, and not just for my students, but also for me, an experienced ESL teacher.  New levels of development continue to reveal themselves to me a step at a time as I develop in my own teaching.  I keep that in mind while coaching my students, remembering that learning new things requires learners to let something else go.  They need to make a leap of faith, and I need to be there to catch them.  That’s what learning is all about: letting go, making that jump, trusting that one will be caught before the landing goes wrong.  It’s about making space for a certain amount of play: practicing something “for pretend,” before having to go out there and do it “for real.”   Sometimes, it’s a bit of a trick, getting students to understand the parallel between the lessons they follow and the lessons they teach, but on occassion I see one of them light up and I know they “get” it and how they can apply that learning in their own teaching.

It’s a humbling realization, I think, that we’re all learners, with our own ZPD to move into from time to time.  May we never stop growing and learning!


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.