Rubrics: a basis for qualitative feedback


This is one of those things I wished I’d learned about years ago, because it would have made my own life as a teacher so much easier.  I’ve learned about them now, however, so I’m shouting my joy from the rooftops.  Hurray for rubrics!

What is a rubric, one might ask.  A rubric is a means of giving detailed, qualitative feedback to students regarding a given product.  It contains concrete descriptions of the criteria for a well-completed product.

There are different sorts of rubrics.  I’ll explain two sorts of rubrics, using generic sample rubrics I wrote for this purpose.  The first one is a criterion-referenced rubric, and the second one lists success critera for different levels of ability.  I wrote these rubrics for a group project in which the children had to create posters demontrating what they’d learned during the last unit of learning.  They were to use the new words they’d learned in correct sentences.  For the sake of simplicity, I’ve omitted criteria for layout and presentation.  I’ve only included the very basic criteria of content, language, and process.

The first example here shows a criterion-referenced rubric of the sort most people might use.   For teachers, this is an easy form of marking, since the standard for the work remains the same, no matter the ability level of the child.  Also, the criteria for success are clearly described, so all children can know ahead of time what he needs to do in order to pass the assignment.  Another positive aspect is that children get differentiated feedback per criteria heading.  On the downside, it’s perfectly possible for a child to fail the given assignment, as the criteria for success are of the one-size-fits-all variety.  There is no way to allow for differences of ability when using this sort of rubric.Rubric01

That problem can be solved by using a different setup.  The example shown below demonstrates a way to differentiate feedback per ability level.  For instance, if you work in a classroom with a broad difference in language ability, then it might be nice to set up the assessment so everyone has the chance to succeed.  At the same time, this rubric also allows you to set up minimum success criteria per ability group that are just above the actual level of the children so that each child is pushed towards a higher level of ability.  This is called differentiating in output.

In this case, the children should know ahead of time what group they belong to, and they understand that they each have a choice: to succeed at his own level, or to work towards success at a higher level.  The term minimum success criteria is critical here: children should reach the minimum level indicated, but may also choose to work towards a higher level.  Sometimes, if a child needs, he may choose to work at a lower level, but that is a pedagogical decision that you and that child can discuss.  In this rubric, the indicators for ‘process’ are the same for all children, since it would be reasonable to expect all children to work on their social development irregardless of their language development.


Rubric for differentiating in output.  Note that success criteria for the ‘process’ are the same for all children, regardless of ability level.

Of course, no matter what kind of assessment format you use, it’s important that children be aware of the criteria for success so they know what they need to work toward.  As a teacher, I post my rubrics on their electronic bulletin board at school, so students know what they can expect.  It helps them focus their work and gives them the space to make informed decisions when it comes to their own learning.  It also means they have no surprises when they get their grades back, which makes a big difference for everyone involved.

For more information on the use of minimum success criteria and rubrics, feel free to have a look at this site:

What other topics would you like to see covered on this blog?  Please let me know!

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.




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.

The tower of Babel

Once upon a time, a group of people decided to get together and build something.  It was to be a tall tower, so tall that they could touch the sky.  Shake hands with God.  Reach into the heavens.  Or something like that.  Then God – or Allah – or however one might call that greater deity – decided to put an end to the building by creating confusion in the form of multiple languages.  So it came to be that the building stopped, and the people, unable to understand each other, went their separate ways.  At least, that’s how stories from certain world religions would explain things.

There are other explanations, of course, as historical linguists can tell us.  Language is a living tool, used to communicate about all things, and as such, is subject to change over the course of years.  It forms bridges, but just as easily forms barriers, as the tale of the Tower of Babel clearly illustrates.

It is this barrier that we teachers strive to overcome, day after day.  No matter what it is we teach, be that language, math, music, science, religion, physical education, or art, we work to help our pupils understand the world around them.  Teaching our children foreign languages gives them more than a new set of lexicon with matching syntax structures.  It gives them a new view on things as they pick up idioms and phrasal verbs.  With a new language, they gain cultural insights that they might have missed out on before.  That’s what makes our work so important.  The more understanding we can create, the better our world can be.

I like to start my new classes with the story of my husband, back when he was a small child.  When he was little, his parents took him to a campground, where he would play with a ball on a nearby field.  One day, a boy came to him and spoke.  My husband, not understanding him, said (in Dutch), “you talk crazy!” and hit the hapless boy on the nose.  Later, my future mother-in-law explained to my future husband that that child wasn’t speaking crazy, he just spoke French.  Fast-forward thirty years, when a mother at school came to me and told me a similar tale about her own child.  Instead of hitting the poor stranger on the nose, however, this young child reached out, asking in his very best English, “you want play ball?”

That’s why we teach languages: to help build bridges between children.  I tell my students that my ultimate goal is to create world peace, one word at a time. It sounds lofty, and it is, but just like every mountain, it can be reached if we just take things a step at a time.

In this new year, may this be a message of encouragement to all teachers out there working toward this goal, one child, one step, one lesson at a time.  The more we and our children understand, the harder it is for ignorance to feed its fear-filled grip, and the closer we come to creating a better world.

Happy New Year to each and every one of you!


Poetry jam


“Birdie, birdie in the sky, why’d you do that in my eye?

Looks like sugar, tastes like sap,

Oh my gosh it’s BIRDIE CRAP!”

Not all of the children dare read this one aloud; usually it’s the most rambunctious of the group who choose this one.  The rest listen and laugh loudly as the readers pretend to wipe the bird poo out of their eyes.  It’s time for the yearly poetry slam, and children have practiced reading their various poems in small groups.  Now, the groups take turns performing their poem, in the hopes of reaping heaps of applause and cheers from their classmates.


Normally, a poetry slam is done by poets sharing their own original work.  A jury decides which of the poets wins, based on a scale of 1 – 10.  In my ESL lessons, however, writing original works was a bit difficult for the children.  Instead, I found simple, funny poetry that they could use.  Using search terms like “funny poems for kids” and “ESL poems”, I found sites like Ken Nesbitt’s, where poetry of all sorts of child-friendly topics is listed.  Another excellent source is Shel Silverstein’s books “At the End of the Sidewalk” and “A Light in the Attic”.

In selecting poetry for my children, I ask myself several questions:

  1. topic: is it interesting to the children?
  2. length: is it short enough for children to practice several times over?  Alternatively, if it’s too long, can I use just a portion of it?
  3. vocabulary: is it understandable for the children?  And, where applicable, is it related to the topic we are covering in class?
  4. made-up vocabulary: can the children figure out what it “means” and how it’s pronounced?

Why is a poetry slam so useful for the ESL learner?  I’ve addressed the natural rhythm in spoken English in an earlier blog.  Reading poetry with a clear rhythm and rhyme takes this speaking activity to a higher level, combining speaking with reading.  It makes it easier for children to practice speaking and reading fluently, while giving children the space to showcase their abilities in a low-threshold activity.  Allowing them to work and perform in small groups makes it even easier for them to perform in English in front of a group.

Here I’ve listed a couple of sites that might be helpful in looking for poems one can use in the ESL classroom:

Ken Nesbitt’s poetry for children:

Shel Silverstein’s site:

Gareth Lancaster’s poetry for children:

Short poems for children:

I’m curious what other sites you might find.  Please share!


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: