ESL curriculum

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:


Broadening the ESL Experience – easy as 1-2-3!


“Okay guys, it’s time to make a graph.  You all have your blocks ready?” I ask.  The children hold their blocks up.  On the table in front of me, I have six circles, each a different color.  One by one, the children come forward.

“My favorite color is blue,” says one, placing the block on the blue circle.

“I like blue, too,” says the next, placing his block on top of the other.  Eventually, there are six piles of blocks, one on each color.  Time for the maths lesson.  We move the piles around, in order from highest to shortest, and find out which colors have equally many blocks.  We count how many blocks there are piled up on each color, and before carrying on to concepts like more than, less than, the most, and the least.  Which color do we like most of all?  Which colors do we like more than yellow?  Which colors do we like less than blue?  The children look, think, and discuss their answers with the neighbors before raising their hands and giving their answers.

We use this simple block graph more often:  favorite fruit, clothes we wear, pets at home, and so on.  Sometimes, we make them out of duplo or legos, and leave our bar graph on the topic table next to the door so the parents can join in the fun.

Graphs are one easy way of incorporating other subject areas into the English lesson.  Sometimes, the children would fill in their own graphs, based on the results of a walk and talk activity.


“What’s your favorite pet?”

Older children can go even deeper into the material, for instance first building paper airplanes, and then seeing how far each one flies.  Questions like “which one flew farther/farthest?” And “how far did it fly?” are simple examples of scientific inquiry. A line graph describing the results can be used to spark discussion and children can be encouraged to experiment with their paper planes to see how they can get even better results – all in the name of science, of course!  But also in the name of fun.


And that’s the important thing – have fun, while broadening the ESL experience.  If you have fun, the kids will have fun.  And when folks have fun, that’s when they learn best.

An alternative to the textbook


I’m an addict.  I cannot help it, and I’m not sorry about it either.  I can never just walk past a children’s book store.  I always have to go in.  And I never leave empty-handed.  There are just too many good books in the world, and I just have to share these with “my kids”.

For years, I taught English to preschoolers and kindergarteners, using children’s books as a basis for the unit.  Were we learning about food?  We’d read The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  Were we learning about colors?  We’d read What Color are Your Underpants.  Were we learning about the weather?  Maisy’s Weather Book was an all-time favorite.  I’d read the book out loud, once, twice, and by the third time, the children were reading the story aloud with me.  They knew every page, every detail of that story by heart.

But just reading the story was never enough.  We needed to take that story and make it our own.  We’d re-write the book, adding our own fruits and foods to a revised version of the The Very Hungry Caterpillar.   We’d use a picture-book version of Curious George and re-build the story in the building corner, so the children could tell and re-tell the tales of the adventures of a “good little monkey, who was always very curious”.  I found that by broadening the children’s experience with the story, their vocabulary development was enriched in ways that I could hardly have realized otherwise.

Just reading a story aloud is never enough, in my view.  The child’s experience with a story needs to be broadened, deepened, adapted, so that the child learns to own the tale, and make it his own.

In my lesson planning, I would always think of ways to expand the child experience with the story.  I always found that brainstorming along the lines of multiple intelligence was a great way to do this, and so I’ll place a few ideas here, as an inspiration to other ESL teachers looking for ways to broaden their children’s experience with children’s literature.  Mind you, this is just a start.  There are so many more things one can do with a good children’s book.


  • mathematical-logical: make picture story cards for the children to put in order as the story is read aloud.
  • verbal-linguistic: use picture story cards for the children to look at and predict what the story will be about.  What do the children think will happen?  Can they tell a story (before you’ve read it aloud?)
  • visual-spatial: children re-create the environment of the story, either with drawings,  with paper-mache, with blocks, or with puppets.
  • bodily-kinesthetic:  re-enact the story in the building corner, with puppets, or in the classroom.
  • natural:  what environment do you notice in the book?  Is it a jungle, or mountains, or something else?  Is the environment in the book the same or different from the environment you live it?  How so?
  • intrapersonal:  what if they were the main character of the story?  How would they feel?  What decisions did the main character make?  Would they have made the same decisions?  What would they have done differently?
  • interpersonal:  children re-create the story with each other, and change it to fit a new “plot twist” or interview each other as though they were characters in the story.
  • musical:  What songs do you know that match the theme of the story?

Children’s literature is an excellent way to expand children’s experience with the language to be learned.  When they are unable to read it on their own, the teacher can read the book aloud, exposing children to authentic language use in ways no one else can.  Once they start reading on their own, their vocabulary development will improve by leaps and bounds, as children find themselves confronted with words and contexts no textbook will ever be able to provide.

It’s a shame that textbook publishers make so little use of this fact.  Which textbook do we know of that actually says “now, go and read Maisy’s Weather Book to the class as an introduction to words about the weather”?  The answer to that is simple: not a single one.  So it’s up to us, the professionals, to spread the news.

Read to your children!  Children’s literature is an excellent way of developing vocabulary and grammar skills among young learners!

Which books do you like to read to your class

?  Please let me know!


Multiple Intelligences and ESL lesson planning

9_MIOnce upon a time, long, long ago, I was given an article to read by my art teacher.  It had been written by a man named Howard Gardner.  It was a difficult read, including all sorts of concepts I’d never heard of before: logical-mathematical intelligence, visual-spatial intelligence, and other such concepts.  After a few reads, I had an idea of what Mr. Gardner meant, and was ready to present the article to the rest of the class.  Back then, only seven intelligences had been identified.  Nowadays, there are nine.  I won’t go into detail about this theory here, but will encourage interested readers to look it up on wikipedia (

Gardner’s theory interested me greatly, so you can only imagine how pleased I was years later when I found out that the Dalton school I worked at also wished to apply this theory in its own teaching practice.  So off I went, figuring out how to include multiply intelligent activities in my own ESL lessons.


A portion of my blank lesson planner

I plan my lessons a theme at a time.  That way, the lessons build up in a logical fashion to a certain objective.  I start by picking objectives from my semi-annual planning.  Then I grab the objectives provided by the textbook I’m using, if that’s what I’m using.  After that, it’s time to dream.  The sky’s the limit.  What kinds of fun games can we do, while learning to speak, read, write and understand English?  This is where the multiple intelligences come in.  What can we do to stimulate children’s learning while activating their various intelligences?

Of course, it’s easy enough to fill in the Musical intelligence.  Songs, songs, and more songs… but also, rhythm!  English is a language full of rhythm, and it would be a shame not to put that to proper use every chance we get.  Clapping the words, stomping them out, until the children literally feel the words coming through their mouths.

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is also pretty easily filled in.  Charades, TPR exercises, and role plays are basic means of activating this intelligence.  I also employ sign language every so often, and children remember the words combined with the motions, placing their new vocabulary inside their bodies.

What could we do with our logical-mathematical intelligences?  Putting story cards in order, sorting words per theme, and “odd one out” topped my list most times.  We also made a flowchart describing animals and played a quiet game with hoops in the form of a Venn Diagram whenever I needed a lesson that started with some quiet.

The naturalist intelligence was a bit more difficult for me.  I often made do by connecting the theme-related words to weather, climate or culture.  It wasn’t perfect, but I comforted myself with the idea that as long as we activated most of the intelligences, we were helping every child learn via his or her various intelligences.

Interpersonal intelligence was often filled in with role plays, while intra-personal intelligence led to journal pages, family portraits, and presentations about ourselves.

We often drew pictures in our project notebooks, activating the children’s visual-spatial intelligence, or used posters, played memory games, drew mind maps, and used flashcards to activate their visual memories.

The linguistic intelligence was easiest of all, it seemed, as foreign language instruction was really all about language.  Even here, though, I made certain to put in special language-based activities: telling jokes and simple puns, making crossword puzzles for the older children, reading stories and poems to the younger ones.

I never worked with the existentialist intelligence, having only learned of its existence after I stopped working with young children.  A pity, perhaps, but also a space to be developed by other ESL teachers around the world, I hope.

As time went by, I ended up developing, finding, and implementing a wide array of tools to get children learning English in ways that worked best for them.  Over a decade later, I look at a cupboard full of good stuff, in the hope I can share it once again.

Practice makes perfect!

Working as a new college lecturer this past school year, I was grateful to the woman who had held the position before me, as she had carefully prepared nearly everything I would need to do in the course of the year.  Course outlines, test matrices, and student teaching assignments were all ready-made.  Finding myself jumping into in the deep end was made a lot easier due to her thorough preparation.  I later found out that in college, contrary to the grade schools I’d worked at previously, any changes in planning must go through a number of committees whose primary task is to ensure continuity and quality of the overall program of study.  Any changes I wished to put into action, therefore, would have to be carefully planned and documented months in advance.

As I began teaching, I started seeing things in a different light.  How would I like to change this lesson, or that test?  How could I adapt the program to create more space for the skills I wished the students to develop?  I talked about this with my supervisor, and she encouraged me to look at different ways of teaching and testing, so that the program could be optimized.  As a former developer of early ESL programs in The Netherlands, I was finally, truly, in my element.  It was time to roll up my sleeves and develop a program that would take students past the books and truly equip them to teach early ESL in their own schools.

The first question I thought about was, what do future ESL teachers need to be able to do?  I brainstormed, making a list of skills they would need: long-term planning, lesson planning, assessment skills, classroom management (in English), the ability to select appropriate material for their class… at the end of the day, the list was quite long. After that, I pared the list down to a few basic items, resulting in a basic kit of skills that would enable any teacher to teach ESL at beginner level.  Then I focused my attention on the perfect student teaching assignment.

I thought back to my own experience as a starting ESL teacher.  Where did I grow the most?  When did I develop the best?  I realized that I learned the most from my experience when I started teaching parallel groups.  It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the growth resulted from my teaching the exact same lesson three or four times in a row.  The first time, I was trying out new games, new stories, and new songs.  Each reaction from the children was new, and I had to keep up with them, instead of being able to anticipate what they might not understand and what they might find difficult or – on the other side of that coin – too easy.  By the time I did the lesson the third (or even fourth!) time, I was able to anticipate the children’s needs and reactions, making the lessons go much smoother.  No longer having to focus on the material, I was able to make better contact with the children, resulting in more effective learning.

By practicing the same lesson a few times, the students can effectively apply the PCDA cycle.

By practicing the same lesson a few times in a row and reflecting on their experiences, the students can effectively apply the PCDA cycle to their teaching practice.

How could I pass on this experience to my own students?  The answer came equally quickly:  instead of teaching one lesson to the entire class, I decided to require them to teach the same (short) lesson multiple times to smaller groups.  Between each round, the student will have to answer certain questions regarding the level of input, the children’s output, and the match between the two.  The student will also have to reflect briefly on the amount of interaction during the lesson and experiment to increase that interaction.  By giving the same lesson three times in a row, the learning experience will then be deeper and more effective.  The lessons pulled out of that mini-experience will be things that can be applied to the larger group, in a broader context.  Not only that, but the mini-experience will form the basis for the rest of their learning during the course.

With this plan in mind, I can honestly say that I am greatly looking forward to my student teachers’ experiences next year and hearing about what they learned.  Here’s to next year!

ESL and the long-term plan


Twice a year, I sit down to write out a semi-annual plan for my teaching.  My table is strewn with all sorts of documents: summaries of the results from the latest round of assessments, lists of children per class, the books I use for each class, and copies of the old semi-annual planning.  A cup of coffee and my laptop complete the picture, and I know I’m in for a long, but productive, sit.

Why would I put myself through this, I’ve wondered.  I could, of course, just follow the book.  Loads of teachers do that, every single day.  Why wouldn’t I just do the same?  And I must admit, it’s a bit tempting to do just that, sometimes.  But then I think about how valuable this plan will be, how it will inform my teaching, and point out the real goals of my teaching in ways no textbook can.

What do I put into each semi-annual planning?  The information is compacted into a table, and usually fits onto one or two pages.  First, I’ll briefly describe what goes into each column, before going into details.

Heading: basic information.  Which class, the period covered by this plan, name of the teacher, subject name, basic topics we’ll be covering, and which book(s) we’ll be using.

Column one: names of the children, listed in order from strongest to weakest.  In general, the strongest 25% of the children become the “talent” group, the middle 50% of the children become the “basic” group, and the weakest 25% of the children become the “intensive” group.  Each group has its own needs that I will need to meet via differentiation.

Column two: language goals for each group.  What listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills do I think the children should learn in the next few months?  I start with the basic group, and tack on a few extra goals for the talent and intensive groups.

Column three: didactic activities.  What activities will we undertake to insure that the children learn the skills listed in column two?  Will these activities be class-wide, small group, paired, or done individually?

Column four: time.  How much time will be available to complete the lessons?

Column five:  pedagogical measures I plan to take to insure that the children are participating – what kinds of feedback will I give and when, what kinds of questions will I ask and how will I stimulate the kind of language use I want the children to learn?

focusWhile I’m filling in this table, I find myself asking and answering hundreds of questions, the process of which informs and focuses my teaching for the months to come.  Another side-effect of this planning is that I find myself energized and inspired with exciting plans for great lessons for children involved in their learning.

One of the first questions I have to answer, of course, is how to group the children.  It’s never, ever, ever, a precise 25 – 50 – 25 split.  I take into consideration where the children were in the last plan: did that “talent” child really do well in that group?  Or did he do better when working with the “basic” group?  Will that “intensive” child do better if placed in the “basic” group?  Or did he really start learning because of the extra time and attention I gave him with the “intensive” group?  This is where the results from the latest assessments come in handy.  How much did each child actually learn during the last few months?  In other words, did that child flourish in the group he was in last time?  If so, and if not, what factors contributed to that?  Will keeping him in the same group help him, or will he need to be placed in a different group?

goalOnce the first column has been filled in, the rest, I find, is quite easy.  I then pull out the tables in which the assessment results for each child are summarized, and draw lines separating each group.  I look to see what skills the entire group is missing, and what might be a realistic next step.  Where can these children go next in their development?  In general, I choose 7 to 8 goals for the basic group, spread over the skills areas.  I add on 2 or 3 for the talent and intensive groups.  I have found that any more goals is simply too many for me to meet in my limited time, while any fewer isn’t ambitious enough.

fb-inspireThe third column, learning activities, is the funnest.  What kinds of activating, co-operative learning structures will we use?  What kinds of pages will we use in our project notebooks?  What kinds of role plays will we practice?  This is the part where I get the most inspiration.

The fourth column is the easiest, of course.  How much time do I actually get to teach each class, and that’s it.  Also, am I teaching the entire class for that time, or is there time for small-group work.

reflection-24The fifth column is where I get to spend time on self-reflection.  What kinds of concrete action should I undertake to insure that each child feels safe enough to try speaking in a language that isn’t his own.  How will I challenge the stronger children to strike out and learn even more English than they already know.  How will I encourage the weaker children to take part, even when they don’t know all of the words or feel uncertain about themselves?  These questions and more poke their heads up while I write.

In the end, I have a document that will guide my teaching for the next few months.  I share this planning with the classroom teacher, so that he or she knows what we will be doing for the next half-year, and keep a copy in my class binder so I can always refer to it whenever I feel the need or plan the next theme.

I wonder what other teachers do, for their planning?