Mixed-ability dialogue cards (2.0)


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

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


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

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


    Dialogue made of functions

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


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

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


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

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

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

Last step: have fun!


scaffolding the online task: step by step


One of the joys of the digital age is allowing children to work on the computer, playing games and doing web quests to further their language development.  Computer games allow children to work at their own level, and computers never tire of the endless repetition of drilling certain grammar patterns, something I cannot say of myself.  We often boast about how children are “so much more at home” with computer usage and how they just “pick it up so easily”.  Just as often, however, we teachers are faced with children who do not just “pick it up” and need step-by-step instruction on how to use a certain computer game or navigate a web quest successfully.  In our well-filled classrooms and even better-filled time, it would seem quite impossible to give these children the guidance they need.

During a course I once followed in order to become a Dalton-certified teacher, I learned about a wonderful solution to this conundrum: the how-to sheet.  A how-to sheet is, simply put, a means of scaffolding children’s work.  It provides a step-by-step guide of how to complete a task, complete with simple instructions and illustrations.  The goal of using these how-to sheets is to allow children to work independently on multi-step tasks or games with a minimum of extra effort from the teacher.


A sample of a step-by-step guide of how to navigate the cd-rom for Backpack 3, the textbook I once used for teaching.

The first few sheets took the most time, as I figured out what format was the most useful, and what illustrations the most helpful.  Eventually, I started making how-to sheets for all sorts of things, from computer games to language tasks, so that children could work independently on a range of activities during the lessons.  The first couple of times, the children needed some instruction: how did these how-to sheets work?  Once they figured that part out, they happily worked on their own, and all I had to do was make sure they did their work well and give them feedback once in a while.


A sample step-by-step of how to play a language game

The initial work of making these guides paid off: children could work independently, and my hands were kept free for the work of interacting with the children through the new language.

Here is a step-by-step instruction on how to make one of these sheets:

  1. Look at the activity through the eyes of the child.  What is his starting point?  That is step 1.
  2. Go through each step of the activity.  Every time the screen changes, or every new step in the game, take a picture or make a screen shot.  Crop the picture as needed.
  3. Number the steps, and give a short explanation for each one.  Use language the children can easily understand.
  4. Insert the pictures next to the directions.  I have found that using a table is an easy way to accomplish this.  Anchor the picture as a character, and it will stay in the table where you put it.
  5. Where needed, add an arrow to point out exactly where the child needs to click.  Or, insert thought and speech bubbles to illustrate thinking or speaking.
  6. Show children how the step-by-step plan works, so they can refer to it themselves, and refer back to it should they have questions.

Scaffolding towards independence takes on many forms, and this is only one of them.

But for now, the summer holiday calls, and so I shall take a short time off before resuming this blog.  Happy summer holidays, everyone!


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: http://www.assessmentforlearning.edu.au/professional_learning/modules/success_criteria_and_rubrics/success_criteria_landing_page.html

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

Van Gogh in the ESL classroom


Van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles

What do you see in this picture?  Tell me about it.  What words do you know?  What phrases do you need, to describe what you see in this picture?  What colors do you see?  How would you describe this painting?  Vibrant?  Muted?  Rough strokes?  Refined brushwork?  Who made this painting?  When?  Where?

Look at the painting below.  What do you see there?  What’s the weather like?  Who do you think lives there?  And again, who made this painting?  When, and where?

During lessons, it’s really important that we expose children to various modes of communication, such as music and games, but also the arts.  Paintings, sculptures, and drawings are all excellent means of developing vocabulary and eliciting speech.  It also frees us, as teachers, up from having to use what the textbook dictates.  Art is everywhere, and we can learn to talk about it, at any age.

For instance, young people can start by naming the colors and objects they see, or alternatively, point to things the teacher or other children name.  More advanced learners can talk about whether or not they like a certain piece of art, and more importantly, why they may or may not like it.  Young adults can dive into the more technical aspects of the artwork, discussing the artist, the type of art created, and maybe even the context which may have inspired the particular artwork.

An example of the history behind the painting is hidden behind the row houses in the painting above.  Who would have known that these five houses were once owned by Alfred Pope, a former slave who had once tried escaping, was caught, to be freed upon his master’s death two years later?

Art isn’t just for talking about, however.  It can be a source of inspiration for teachers and children alike, providing a means of working outside the textbook-driven box.  In an informative blog written by the British Council, several ideas for how to use art in the ESL classroom are explained.  Besides talking about art, children can make their own artwork to talk about.  In a blog written by the Oxford University Press, two more ideas are shared, expanding the idea of “art” to include doodles and poetry.

Another important reason for using a different mode of teaching is that different children are stimulated to participate in the lesson.  Oftentimes, the quiet learners will come out of their protective shells of silence to join in an arts and crafts activity, into a space that allows them to express themselves in ways outside of words.  It’s then on us, as teachers, to help them connect their work to the words and phrases they can use to talk about it.

I’ve often used pictures from the internet for use in my classes, putting them into power points as a means of getting children to look at the world in a different way.  Here are a few tips for finding usable images:

  • Search terms:  look on Google images for: painting + topic, for instance “painting + tiger”.  Sometimes I’ll use “watercolor” or “oil painting” if I’m looking for a certain kind of effect.  Other times, I’ll use “statue” or “abstract painting”.
  • Search settings: It’s important to choose the search settings carefully, by clicking on “search tools” and then “size”.  I’ve found that small images won’t reproduce well in a power point, so I often pick the “large” setting when looking for images I want to use.
  • Copyright settings: sometimes pictures have “watermarks” on them.  If you change your search setting on “usage rights” to any other setting than the default, you won’t have any watermarked images.

I wonder who else has used art in the English lesson?  Please let me know about your own experiences.


Bridging the generation gap


It’s something every teacher has to deal with, sooner or later: the generation gap.  Or more aptly put, bridging that gap every time one enters the classroom, be it filled with kindergarteners, adolescents, or older teens.  It’s the issue that arises every time the teacher looks a child in the eye and wonders what on earth compelled that child to take a scissors to her own hair.  Or purposely fail a test.  Or send text messages during class.  I remember those things, all of them, from my own childhood.  And it’s those memories that keep my sense of pedagogical balance in place when I address the issues at hand.

Keep your hands out of your pants and on your knees, please.

It’s okay to fail, try again later on so you can prove to yourself how well you know your stuff.

You may send your messages after the lesson, your friends will still be there…

Eaach time, I find myself suppressing a smile as I remember my own acts of development at that age.  I can never get mad at “my kids”, not really.   Who could, when faced with the facts of one’s own foibles “back in the day”?

My inner child keeps me constantly aware of these things.  So I take some time, every day, to look at the world through new eyes.  What makes this sky so beautiful?  What makes that tower of blocks so sturdy?  What is so amazing about the language I teach?  What makes that word sound so funny?


Even now, teaching at the teacher’s college, I recognize the struggles my students go through and find myself recognizing the steps they make.  These young adults-in-the-making are learning so many things at once: how to be a teacher, how to take care of themselves, how to take care of their room, how to cook, how to be social, how to create a balance between play, work, and school.  So much to learn, in so little time.  They are busy learning how to “adult”, as 9gag.com would put it.  “Adulting” as a verb, not as a noun.  Learning how to grow up, and take things seriously, they wish to be taken seriously.  No more kissing the boo-boos away, but serious let’s-deal-with-these-grownup-problems talks.  No more games and childishness in the classroom, but serious theory, work, and note-taking so they can sweat their way through multiple-choice exams and prove to the world that they are, really, adults who deserve to be taken seriously.

I remember being there, in those shoes, working hard to be taken seriously, so I respect that need with my students.  At the same time, I want them to remember their inner child, that part of them that makes it possible to make contact with the children they will be working with for the rest of their lives.  But how do children learn?

Inner Child

By playing, of course!

There are many of us who might agree that young people learn best by playing.  Four, five, perhaps even six year olds.  But when do we stop playing, really?  It is my view that people learn best by playing, no matter how old they are.  It’s just a matter of how we define “play”.  If we define “play” in the most narrow sense of the word, then we might see it as that “spontaneous activity of children” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary).  In that case, play is something only children can do, adults are excluded from this activity.  Another definition places play as something that is only done for amusement, or recreation (thefreedictionary.com).

I disagree with these readings.  My personal view of play is that it is something often done by (young) people as a serious means of learning.  Just think about playing house, playing school, jumping rope, climbing on the monkey bars.  Playing board games, role playing, telling ghost stories during slumber parties.  Practice teaching, playing sports, painting, moving out into the world,  It’s all part of the bigger game called “what happens when I do ….?”  All this learning takes place in practice situations where there is some form of back-up.  If it all goes wrong, there is somebody around to help clean up the mess, kiss away the boo-boos, and figure out how to fix the problem.

During all of these forms of practice/play, learners are exploring and conducting research, be it social, physical, emotional, or otherwise.  They are learning and their play is serious work.  It needs to be taken just as seriously as the learning taking place among their older counterparts, the students.

So I call upon my inner children – the kindergartner, the adolescent, the young adult-in-the-making – to help bridge the gap between my own, earlier experiences and the experiences of my students now, to understand where they are and give just enough information to help them help themselves, as Maria Montessori once put it.

As a teacher of future teachers, I try to keep their inner children well-fed.  We play games and have serious fun so they can use these games with their own children.  We sing, we dance, and we read books aloud.  Sometimes, the students understand what I’m doing, but occasionally they don’t.  And when they don’t, they get upset, claiming that I’m treating them like little children.  And that’s when I explain the concept of Multiple Hats.


Every student, every adult-in-the-making, wears two hats during class.  One of those hats is the Very Serious Student who is learning to be a teacher.  The other hat is the Teacher Hat, with which they apply their learning to their profession.  During my lessons, I talk about these hats very explicitly.  Which hat have you got on now, I ask.  And if you put on your Teacher Hat, how can you use this information in your classroom, with your own children?  How would you adapt this learning activity so that it would be easier for your children?  How would you change the content of the game?  How would you organize it so your class will understand it better?

That’s when the students understand.  Aha, they say, and I see the connection being made between their experiences now and the experiences of their children.  I see the bridges being built and know that we’re on the right road.  It’s not always clear to them, but they’re catching on, one game at a time.

As long as they remember how to play.


What are you wearing today? … and the importance of speaking


How many of us will recognize the following scene:

  • Teacher: (points to picture) Children, what is this?
  • (hands fly into the air)
  • Teacher: Okay, J, please answer the question.
  • J: (answers the question)
  • Teacher:  Very good.  (points to picture) Now children, what is this?
  • (again, hands fly into the air)
  • Teacher:  Okay, S, please answer the question.
  • S:  (answers the question)
  • and so on…

Just how much time do these children actually speak during this English lesson?  If every child gets one turn during the lesson, and each turn takes two to five seconds, the children get two to five seconds of speaking time during that lesson.  Now imagine this happens during each lesson, all year long.  How long is the school year?  In the Netherlands, it’s forty weeks long, so if I multiply five seconds by forty lessons, each child has had 200 seconds of speaking time, or 3,3 minutes.  If I’m generous, I can even double that to 7 minutes of speaking time throughout the entire year.

In order to learn how to speak a language, children need to practice actually speaking, often and regularly, in various environments.  They need a chance to practice in small groups or in pairs, so they may make mistakes and learn from them, without being embarassed.  They need to use the language themselves.  This is where co-operative learning structures come in handy.

I’ve already discussed a few simple co-operative learning strategies in my blog before, so regular readers will recognize my mantra of “get the children to do the speaking”.  But for new readers, co-operative learning strategies allow learners the following advantages:

  • They can practice in a smaller, safer environment
  • They get more practice
  • They get more feedback within that smaller, safer environment
  • All of the children are guaranteed speaking time during the exercise.

No doubt there are more points to be made, but that is enough for now.

******************** and now for the fun part **********************

A few days ago, I was cleaning out an old closet and came across an “oldie but goodie” among all of my old material.  I decided it was too good to throw away, so I’m sharing it now with you.

This activity is meant to help learners talk about clothing in a half-open exercise.  It works like this:

Step 1: the chidren get four drawings of people wearing different kinds of clothing.  They color in the clothing and faces of the people on the page.DSCF5457

Step 2:  The children cut out the four pictures along the heavy lines.DSCF5458

Step 3:  the children place the four drawings one above the other, and staple them into a book cover.  They carefully cut along the light, dashed lines to make a flip-flap book.


Step 4:  the children can now begin short discussions about what they are wearing.  For instance, this person is wearing a red coat, orange shorts, and blue shoes.  Please note: all of the children will be speaking at the same time, so the classroom might get a bit noisy for a few minutes…

This is an example I made for talking about clothes, but one could also make a simple flip-flap book for numbers and fruit… (“What is in your fruit bowl?” “I have 2 bananas”)

  • What are you eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner…
  • What will you do in the morning, afternoon, and evening…
  • What time are you going to (read a book / go shopping / play football)…
  • How is the weather on (Monday / Tuesday / Wednesday)…
  • How many animals are at the farm…

With a little imagination, one can create all sorts of flip-flap books based on what concepts are being taught at the time.  When creating flip-flap books of your own, make sure to have the sections lined up carefully, so that when the pages are cut apart the dialogues make sense.  The most important thing when making this, though, is that you have fun.

What other kinds of dialogues can be made up using flip-flap books, I wonder?

Here is a document with blank pages for flip-flap booklets.  You can adapt these for your own classroom if you like.


There are three pages: one with two flip-flaps per page, one with three flip-flaps per page, and one with four flip-flaps per page.  Print the page you want to use, or copy-paste it into a new document for yourself, and insert the images you want to use for your lesson.

It’s important for you to decide who’s going to do the work: you or the children.  If, for instance, you want the children to create their own flip-flap booklets, then it’s important that they do the work.  You can pre-structure certain parts of the booklet yourself, or none of it at all, and let them do all of the work.

Or, you may decided that you really want them to practice specific vocabulary, in which case you will need to create the basis for the flip-flap booklet yourself before printing it.

Some suggestions for material you might use:

Images for things to do, daily tasks, modes of transportation, clothing, etcetera can be found on www.mes-english.com.  If you want, print the handouts provided on this site, and the children can cut and paste the images they want to use into their own book.  Otherwise, you can copy the images from the power points provided and paste them digitally into the document before printing.

Images for blank clock faces can be found here: http://www.helpingwithmath.com/printables/worksheets/time/wor0301time05.htm.  If you use blank clock faces, the children can write in their own times.  If you want them to practice specific times, then you can draw them in on your own, of course.

If you are interested in more ideas and concrete assistance with implementing these booklets in your classroom, please let me know.  Good luck, and remember to have fun!


Musical intelligence in the ESL lesson – A chant a day keeps the blues away!

chantsTry saying this a few times:

When you speak English, you speak with a rhythm.

WHEN you speak ENglish, you SPEAK with a RHYthm.

Did you hear it?  Did you hear how the accents lined up so nicely?  Those accents are part of what makes English easier to understand.  Those accents also help the listener decide what words are really important: the accented words give the sentence its meaning, while the other words give the sentence its structure.  It’s such a simple thing, but it makes the classroom teacher easier to understand when giving simple classroom commands such as “Open your BOOKS,” and “PICK up your PENcils.”  What are the important words?  Open, books, pick, and pencils.

The learner learns to use this accented structure when speaking, and will often copy this structure when giving commands such as “Open books,” or “Pick pencils”.  The extra words “your” and “as” are added as the learner increases in fluency.

Besides increasing understandability in English, however, this innate rhythm can be used to increase learner fluency with longer passages of speaking.  For instance, by embedding the language to be learned in a chant, learners can practice using the new words in longer passages without worrying about correctness.  One woman, musician-teacher Carolyn Graham, realized that the natural rhythm found the English language could be used to help learners practice certain natural structures commonly found in daily conversation.  She subsequently wrote several volumes of “Jazz Chants” which are used in ESL/EFL classrooms around the world today.  Below is an example of one of her chants, called “John Brown”.

When using these chants in my own classroom, I make sure the children have a written copy of the words in front of them.  This way, they can read along quietly, while I read the chant aloud.  Next, they read along with me, giving the children time to process all of the information:  what are they seeing, what are they saying, what are they hearing, and how does what they say match what the teacher says.  Processing this information takes time, so we always start slowly.  After one or two choral read-throughs, it’s time to mix up the game.  I break the chant up into smaller chunks, and the class into equally many “chunks”.  The children read along quietly, and when it’s their turn, they get to show off how well they can read along with the chant.  For a few turns, different groups get different parts of the chant to read aloud.  By the third time we read the chant, everyone knows exactly how to read it aloud and the chant sounds perfect.

Incidentally, I almost never have a child read aloud on his own because this really puts the child on the spot: every mistake he makes is heard by everyone.  During choral reading, this effect is negated because the voices are heard in a group.  Errors can still be heard, but since no one knows who made a particular mistake, the children are less likely to be self-conscious about reading aloud.

Carolyn Graham’s Jazz Chants are a very structured way of offering speaking practice during the English lesson.  There is another, less structured way of practicing simple structures in the English language: embed the language to be learned in a simple call-and-answer mini-dialogue.

Here’s how it works:  let’s assume the children are learning to talk about their daily chores.  Words that might be learned are “washing the dishes”, “walking the dog”, “sweeping the floor”, or “making the bed”.  I find pictures on the internet that match each of these meanings, and put them either on flashcards or on a single slide of a power point.  Next, we study a simple call-and-answer mini-dialogue.  For instance:

“What is he doing?”   “He’s walking the dog.”

“What is he doing?”  “He’s sweeping the floor.”

“What is he doing?”  “He’s making the bed,”  etcetera, etcetera.

During the “chant” itself, I ask my question and point to one of the pictures.  The children respond with the correct answer.  Because of the call-and-answer structure, the children are forced to think quickly about their answers.  Again, because the entire group is participating, learner errors are only noted by the speakers themselves, and not by the entire class.  The children receive instant feedback on their answers in the form of mental notes to self:  Yes! I got it! or Oops, try again.  Of course, I start slowly, and speed up as I note their improvement.  Also, when I note that a certain word or phrase is causing difficulty, we can return to it as often as we need, until the entire class can use that particular word or phrase without hesitation.

This flexible structure can be used with many different kinds of words, with any age group.  Here are a few examples of some mini-dialogues:

(color) “What color is this?”  “It’s red.”  “What color is this?”  “It’s blue.”

(weather)  “How’s the weather?”  “It’s rainy.”  “How’s the weather?”  “It’s sunny.”

(animals and climate)  “What do you see?”  “A lion.”  “Where does it live?”  “The savanna.”  “What do you see?”  “A monkey.”  “Where does it live?”  “The jungle.”

Of course, it’s important to make sure that the words you use will fit, rhythmically, into the mini-dialogue.  This can be a bit tricky at first, but with a bit of practice, you can build these flexible call-and-answer games into any one of your own lessons.  Who knows, maybe some of your own learners can create chants of their own to share with the class!

I’m curious to hear if anyone else uses chants in their own lessons.  If you do, please feel free to share your experiences!

Note: one site that has many free downloadable power points, flashcards, and handouts is www.mes-english.com.  I often use the materials from this site to support my own lessons.  It’s worth checking out!