ESL materials

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:


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, 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!

Story-based learning in the ESL classroom: the underrated treasure trove

 (Note to reader:  this blog post is a follow-up on the one I wrote previously, entitled “An alternative to textbooks“.  The previous blog gives general background ideas, while this one dives deeper into the concrete way I dealt with “Elmer in the Snow” with my ESL class)


Whenever I reached into my big blue bag during the English lesson, the question flashing through the children’s minds was always about what was going to come back out?  A puppet?  Some flashcards?  Some song cards?  Or… maybe… a new story?

A new story marked the beginning of a new adventure for the class.  Where would we be going this time?  Would we follow the very hungry caterpillar into its cocoon, or help the very busy spider make her web?

Once, we learned about Elmer and his friends as they traveled up the mountain, into the snow, and the fun they had there.  After the story, the fun began.  We built a paper-maché mountain on the tabletop, adding jungle trees, flowers, and animals.  We built rivers and bridges, so our toy cars could enter Elmer’s world.  Pine trees, snow, snowballs and icey ponds joined the landscape, and the children made their own finger-puppet elephants so they could re-enact the story.  Some, of course, just enjoyed the feeling of the gooey wallpaper paste we used to build the mountain, spending much of the lesson making circles in the paste with their hands flat on the table.

The entire time, the children were naming things, and talking about our construction.  What did we have to build, why, where would it go?  How would we reconstruct Elmer’s world on our tabletop?  Who could tell the story, while the others joined in?  Would the elephants hide in the cave we’d just built?  Would they slide down the mountainside?  What a rich, unexpected way to build their vocabulary and their language experience!

Of course, we took a few liberties with the original story while constructing our own, but that was half the fun for the children in my class.  They practiced saying things like “We go up the mountain,” or “We go down the mountain,” or “Where are you hiding?”  The more advanced children made up short stories while the others played along with their puppets.  After a month, however, the mountain and its jungle had grown quite tired after so much use.  It was time to tear it down, and start with a new story.

It is my experience that children learn many things from a good story.  Stories have so much to offer in ESL/EFL programs, and yet there has yet to be a single ESL/EFL textbook published in which the teacher is encouraged to get a book and read it aloud to the class.  Never have I found a course that requires teachers to step out of the textbook and into children’s literature, and that, in my opinion, is a challenge that needs to be picked up on by publishers of ESL/EFL materials.

There are so many reasons to use children’s literature in the ESL classroom.  Children’s literature is motivational, offers authentic language, fosters academic development, and offers a window through which children can view other cultures.  There is an excellent article written on this very topic, to be found here.  It’s concisely written and highly informational, so it’s well-worth the detour to read.

Besides re-enacting the story with puppets and scenery, there are other things one can do with children’s stories.  Here, I’ll try connecting stories to activities that activate the various intelligences:  (of course, this list is only a start, and I’m sure you’ll have more ideas of your own!)

  • Visual-spatial:  Draw pictures that match the story, make up your own pictures and re-create the scenery in the building corner
  • Logicalmathematical: ordering story cards
  • Musical: are there any songs you can think of, related to the topic?  Do you hear any rhyme or repetition in the story?
  • Natural: where does the story take place?  What kind of environment do you notice?  Is the environment like our own, or is it different?
  • Interpersonal:  Interview each other about the story, or  make up a new ending.
  • Intrapersonal:  What if you were one of the characters?  Which one would you be, and why?   How would you feel?  What would you do?
  • Verballinguistic: What rhymes do you hear in the story?  What new words can you find?  What language patterns do you hear?
  • Bodilykinesthetic:  re-enacting the story with puppets or with a role play

Of course, it’s important to choose children’s books wisely.  What are the kinds of things I kept in mind when choosing books?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Topic: does the topic match what you are trying to teach the children?  For instance, when teaching about clothing, The Very Hungry Caterpillar might not be such a good choice, while Aliens Love Underpants would fit better.  If you google the title of your book and “lesson activities”, you’ll find all sorts of interesting ideas.  Example:  aliens love underpants + lesson activities will get you here.
  • Topic (continued): of course, it’s always a good idea to make sure the story isn’t “babyish” for the older learners.
  • Level of language: for beginner learners, a simple story with lots of repetition is really useful.  I’ve also taken really easy books for older learners, and after I tell them their task, they’re quite gung-ho about listening to the story, so they can make an even better version on their own to read aloud to the little kids in their school.
  • Pictures: these have to be visually appealing, clear, and explain what the story is about.

There are other things to look at as well, but this is a good place to start.  I’m curious, what children’s books do you know about, that you might use in your own classroom?

for further reading:  “Four good reasons to use literature in primary school ELT” article:



But… where do you find this stuff?


At the end of my workshops, I always have tired teachers.  Happy, but also a bit frustrated, because they really like the stuff I teach them, but they also want to know where to find this stuff on their own once I’ve gone home.

I’ve decided to put a number of sites I’ve found into one space, so anyone who wants to can find them just as easily.  I’ve created a Symbaloo page (, free of charge and a great way to collect your favorite sites) and I’m sharing it here.

Of course, this selection is only a miniscule share of everything that is available on the internet these days.  The real question is, of course, how does one find these things on one’s own?  That is where the correct search terms come in handy.  I’ll list some important ones here:

ESL or EFL (English as a Second Language or English as a Foreign Language)

+ age group (kindergarteners, young learners, elementary school, young adult, adult)

+ topic (food, weather, transportation, etcetera)

+ activity (flashcards, worksheets, online games, song, video, speaking activities, lesson plan, etcetera)

This gets me pretty far in finding the material I need for my lessons.

Another useful item is an online picture dictionary.  I looked around, using the following search terms:

“online picture dictionary”

+ topic (math, science, history, gym)

+ kids

I found it was really necessary to add “kids” to the search terms, as there are dictionaries with all sorts of words most children wouldn’t need.

Recently, I got stumped when a Dutch teacher remarked that she didn’t know the English word for “turnkast”.  Really, I had no idea what such a thing was called.  I hadn’t ever worked with such a thing before in an American school, so my only experience with this object was while working in a Dutch school.  There, I got away with calling it “this thing here”.  Not terribly professional, I admit, but it got the job done with my pre-school classes.  It was time for an answer, so I rolled up my sleeves and started to work.


a “turnkast”

I searched for online dictionaries explaining gym material and was getting discouraged by the lack of school-related online dictionaries for gyms.  Instead, I found all sorts of other neat things: dumbbells, chest expanders, and sponge wedges.  I tried google translate, google image search, reverse search, until finally, I struck gold: an online catalogue for gym- and sports-related material.  A few clicks later, and I finally found the answer: the “turnkast” is called a “vaulting box”.

Sometimes you just have to think outside of the box.  wink

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  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:  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!


Sing-a-long song time!

In the English Corner, the kindergarteners sit, thinking about what they will do this time.  Will they work with a buddy on the computer?  Will they play a game in a small group?  Or…. will they color a song card for their song book?

The child chooses which picture he wants for his song book, and the songs go inside.

The child chooses which picture he wants for his song book, and the songs go inside.

A song card, as you can see here, is simply the lyrics for a song we have recently learned, along with (part of) a picture illustrating what the song is about.  We sing the song together, and the children identify what parts of the song are already on the song card.  They have to fill in whatever it is that they’re still missing.

In making a song card, I keep the following in mind:

1. the print is large and simple

2. the illustration is a black-and-white line drawing (thanks google images!)

3. the illustration clarifies the meaning of the song

4. the illustration is “incomplete”.  In other words, the children have to add something of their own to complete the picture and illustrate the song.

The song books are personalized with a cover picture of their choice.

Differentiation: less of the complete picture is provided for the older children, allowing them to draw the rest of the song themselves.

It’s not unusual for children to practice singing the song as they color, re-inforcing the song and its meaning as they go.  If they are ready, we play with the song, substituting words as we go, or using different voices.  Some children even start identifying the main words of the song and start “reading along” as we sing.

The children love having their work collected in a personal book like this, and when they leave kindergarten, their book goes with them as a special gift.


Flashcards are my best friends

Flashcards-L“Alright, guys, where is the sun now?”  Hands all around the circle shoot into the air, while others point to one of the flashcards we just turned face-down.  “There!  It’s there!” The little ones shout, unable to restrain from shouting out the answer.

We’re in the middle of a basic memory game I use for introducing new vocabulary.  We’ve already looked at the words one by one, saying the words with happy voices, robot voices, and big voices.  We’ve clapped out the beats in each word, and had a chance to find the word and turn it over.  Now the cards are on the carpet, face-down, and the children have to remember where everything was.

A child comes forward, and turns over the card.  “Is that a sun?” I ask the class.  They answer as one, “Yes, it is!”  Everyone is happy that their friend got it right.  The next child comes up, looking for the cloud.  “Is that the cloud?” I ask, and they answer, “No, it’s not!”  I continue, “What is it?”  “It’s rain!”

While the children are remembering their new vocabulary, they are placing them into short, simple question-and-answer structures.  Next, they combine the cards with sentences.  A child picks up a card, and says, “It’s sunny today,” or “It’s cloudy today.”  This exercise allows a child to practice short sentences using vocabulary he feels comfortable with.  After a card’s been used two or three times, I turn it over and they are no longer allowed to use that word.  For now, at least.

As the children get more confident with their speaking, I challenge them to combine cards: flashcards with colors, numbers, and clothing litter the carpet, and children receive points for each correctly used card.  The very young ones get a point for each correctly named card, while the older ones have to put the word in a sentence.  And yes, the children may help each other, but only when the child in question asks for it.

We start with a warming-up: children seated next to each other get one or two minutes to practice using the words on the cards.  The classroom starts buzzing as children point out cards to their neighbors, naming the words, helping each other with the correct pronunciation, and using them in simple sentences.  In the meatime, I pull out a box of blocks, our scorecard for the duration of the game.  I clap for silence, and ask who would like to give it a try.  Various answers follow, and every correct answer earns another block on the tower.  “There are two red shoes” counts for three points.  “Hat,” from a four-year-old, adds another block to the tower.  When a five-year-old gives a single word as an answer, I ask if he can put it in a sentence.  Classmates give him hints, and he tries again.  “It’s a hat,” earns another block on the tower.

Eventually, the tower gets quite high, and the stakes even higher: who can make the sentence that will cause the tower to fall over?  When it finally does collapse, we count the blocks and decide whether or not we want to try to break our record.

Sometimes, I’ll put the cards in order, and ask the children what it says.  “Two blue t-shirts,” they’ll read aloud.  I mix up the cards, and ask what it says now.  “T-shirts two blue,” they say.  “Is that good?” I ask.  They correct me, I fix the cards (silly me!), and we try again.  This way, the children learn basic reading (left to right) and put words into short phrases.

What kinds of games do other teachers play with flashcards, I wonder?