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!

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.

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!


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.

Differentiation, why bother?

For the ESL teacher, it’s a rare thing to have a class in which all of the children operate at exactly the same level.  Very often, there’s the child who doesn’t speak, the near-native speaker, and a whole bunch of other levels of ability in-between.  Writing a single lesson that will engage all of these children all of the time is, for most of us, the thought that keeps us up at night.  How often do we see a book in the shop and think how perfect it would be for the stronger children, or hear a song and think how that is just what the weaker children need.  We teachers cannot help ourselves, it’s just how we are.  We spend countless hours wondering how we can create an even better learning environment than we already have.  We cannot stand seeing children bored silly because the material is too easy, or disengaging out of sheer frustration.  We understand that in differentiating our lessons,  each child can connect with the material in a way and level that is meaningful for him or her.

Personally, I’ve tried all sorts of things out in my lessons in order to meet the needs of my pupils.  Some things worked, and some things, well, some things still need improving.  Here, I’ll share some of the things that worked, in the hope that others can use my experiences in their own teaching.  But before we move on to my own experiences, it’s important to give a little background information so we all know we’re on the same page.


Thanks to Google search terms, it’s easy to find the definition for differentiation.

Putting that theory into practice, however, is another kettle of fish entirely.

There are different ways to differentiate in the ESL lessons, but first, it’s important to look at the difference between convergent and divergent differentiation.  There is an essential difference between these two forms.  In divergent differentiation, the child forms the starting point.  Each child starts at his own level, with his own goals, and may use various materials to get there.  In this case, the individuality of each child is accentuated, and the teacher strives to meet the needs of each child.

In convergent differentiation, the starting point is the common lesson objective that the children need to meet.  The children all begin together with the basic instruction, and as they understand the material and the task at hand, they “drop off” to work on their own.  Those children needing the most instruction stay on the longest, while those needing little to no instruction are free to work on their own.

I’ve tried both forms of differentiation, and experience tells me that while divergent differentiation can be a lot of fun, it’s also a load of work.  For years, I created tasks at different levels, applied various styles of learning, assessed for different levels, all to help children realize a modicum of success, but at the end of the day, it was a lot to keep track of.  I found it rewarding but oh so tiring, and was really pleased when I – finally – learned about convergent differentiation.  (oh!  The things I wished I’d learned earlier!)  Of course, I still allowed children to choose different language tasks to work on, but with convergent differentiation, I decided on easier ways to provide instruction and scaffolding so that everyone could profit from the lessons.

Part of differentiating successfully was getting a handle on what the children could already do, and where they needed to go next.  I’ve already written a blog in which I explained this process of writing semi-annual plans, so I won’t go into that again here.


Incidentally, www.mes-english.com is an excellent site for free power points, handouts and games!  TIP: power points can be printed as PDF files, nine slides to a page, making a very easy, personalized handout. 

Click here for a simple how-to sheet on changing a power point into a pdf handout:  how-to-pdf-handout-from-ppt

After creating my semi-annual plans, I decided to create some simple scaffolding material for my weaker learners.  I started by making handouts related to the power points I already used in my lessons.  I printed enough copies for the weaker children, so they would have the words at hand during the lessons, always keeping a few extra copies around in case other children felt the need for a “cheat sheet” during the lesson.  I figured, using a “cheat sheet” would be slow going for those who already knew the words, so children would only use it if they really needed it.  In the end, I was proven right – children who needed the support were glad of the handout, and those who didn’t really need it, soon left the handouts untouched.

Another way I applied differentiation was to sort out the words we would be learning into three categories: need to know, really ought to know, and challenge words.  The words that everyone needed to know were put on the handouts.  These were the words that I expected everyone in the class to recognize and correctly apply in whatever exercises they had to complete.  The words I hoped most children would learn were put on the handout as well, but only if they fit.  These were the words that the weakest children didn’t need to have, but that most children in the class were expected to learn.  And lastly, I always had a few extra challenge words up my sleeve, so that even the strongest speakers had something to learn.

There’s more, of course.  I applied multiple intelligences to my lesson planning, and had children reading at their own level, all of which contributed to a varied palette of teaching and learning.  I’m curious what techniques others have applied in their ESL teaching?  Please share!