teaching ESL

A tale of how a bunny inspires my teaching

There are days when I don’t know what to do with my teaching.  Uninspired, paging through teacher’s manuals and clicking through Pinterest, looking for something that will feed the creative spirit.  That’s where I was, when I saw my rabbit chewing greedily on my yellow roses.  Did you know rabbits like roses?  I did, but hadn’t realized to what extent she was willing to go to grab this tasty morsel: on top of her hutch, pushing her head through a hole in the netting – meant to keep cats out and rabbits in – and grabbing the nearest rose to nibble on.  I showed my guy this picture, and for the rest of the day, he went around making up variants of “Roses are red”.

Here are a couple of examples:

Roses are red, violets are blue,

I’m here outside, enjoying the view.

Roses are red, violets are blue,

Time for a walk, I’ll get my shoes.

And one last verse:

Roses are red, violets are blue,

I’m ready to go, just waiting for you.

This is when I realized that this rhyming game is a perfectly fine activity for young EFL / ESL learners.  It’s a short, simple enough rhyme for children to tackle, with plenty of possible rhymes so every child can be successful in creating a rhyme, silly or otherwise.

If your students are new to writing poetry, it’s always a good idea to start by making up a list of rhyming words with the class.  This is an excellent moment to help them understand that words that look similar don’t always sound similar, for instance trough and through (“trof” and “throo”).  Other words that look quite different can, however, rhyme quite well, for instance through and blue (“throo” and “bloo”).

The “oo” (long u sound) has many spellings:

“oo” = too, moon

“ue” = blue, glue

“oe” = shoe (but not in “toe”!)

“o” = to, who

“ou” = you

“ough” = through (but not in “cough” or “bough”!)

“u – e” = tune

It’s handy to keep this in mind while making up a list of rhyming words.

When writing a poem, it’s also good to look at the meter of the poem.  The meter is how the accents are spread across the lines.  For instance,

ROses are RED, VIOlets are BLUE,

I’m REAdy to GO, just WAIting for YOU.

English is a language with a very strong speaking rhythm.  I’ve written about this aspect of the language earlier.  This rhythm helps make English more understandable as a language.  The important parts of the spoken text are automatically highlighted for the listener, and the bits in-between contain grammatical aspects such as tense, place, and connectors.  When children are creating a new ending for their poem, silly or otherwise, this rhythm will help them create fitting grammatical structures.

When your children are done writing their poem endings, it’s always fun to share their work.  A poetry jam might be a good way to show off their skills, as children encourage each other while practicing, fine-tuning, and reading their work aloud.

Whatever you do, remember what’s important: children playing with the language, feeling comfortable while communicating, and challenging themselves to go a step further in their language development.


Encouraging teacher development

We teachers might like to think we know it all…… or we’re really uncertain about how to further our own development… or we’re looking for a way to improve our performance, but uncertain of how to go about it.  At the end of the day, there’s always a way to improve our teaching, and usually reason enough to do so, no matter how good one might already be in the teaching profession.

One way to direct our professional development as teachers is through the use of specialized teacher portfolios.  After an internet search, I found two different portfolios, each with a slightly different focus.

Portfolio for Student Teachers of Languages:

This European Portfolio for Student Teachers of Languages (EPOSTL) focuses on concrete issues related to teaching, such as Context, Methodology, Resources and Lesson planning.  Below is a mind map of the topics covered in this portfolio.  There is the occasional  reference to cultural sensitivity, but most of the indicators refer to general teaching skills for a beginning teacher, with the emphasis on language teaching.


Download here:  Teacher-portfolio EPOSTL-EN  

Portfolio for (Pre-) Primary Teachers of Languages

For more experienced teachers wishing to have a deeper look at their plurilingual and intercultural competences, there is another portfolio developed by the European Centre for Modern Languages.  The Pepolino portfolio was developed for teachers of pre-primary education, but it could be used for teachers in primary education as well, depending on your own starting situation.  There are a few indicators for general teaching skills, but also quite a few related to cultural sensitivity and diversity.  For teachers working in multicultural schools, this is an excellent way to test your own development in this area.


Download here:  Teacher-portfolio pepelino-EN-web

Both of these portfolios look really large – and therefore a bit daunting – as they are documents with no less than ninety pages each.  When embarking on using a pre-designed portfolio like this, therefore, it’s important to realize you don’t have to fill in all ninety pages, just the few that focus on the competences you wish to work on.  So look through it carefully, check what areas are going well already, and then decide what areas need your immediate attention.

Online possibilities:

The British Council has on online teacher’s skills assessment you can fill in to get a general idea of what you might work on, to improve your teacher skills.  Of course, this online assessment is linked to an online course (also offered by the British Council), which you can follow if you like.

The nice thing about portfolios is that they allow you to work on at your own pace, on areas that you’ve decided are relevant to your daily practice.  There’s a certain measure of self-evaluation involved, which means you need to look at yourself honestly: not too generously, but not too harshly either.  Whatever you do, be willing to confront yourself with the good, the bad, and the ugly, and realize that a good teacher is a growing teacher.

And have fun!  Because that’s what makes learning work well: a dose of enjoyment while working on our teacher skills.



Policy planning part 3: a plan of action

Now that you’ve created a complete picture of the language curriculum, it’s time to make a list of “Points of Action” for each section of the language policy.  Points of Action are things that need to be done, in order to realize the ideal English program.  These actions may be big or small, as long as they contribute to the end goal.  When you write a Point of Action, write it using the “SMART” method.  Make it Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-based.  If the Point of Action is rather large, you may wish to break it up into smaller, realistic steps.

For instance, a sample point of action might be “Teachers need more information on how to make better lessons.” When you write this, ask yourself: “What is better?  What kind of information do they need?  Why do they need this?” Clearly, this point of action is not SMART.  To make it SMART, make it more Specific: if the teachers want their lessons to be more interactive, for instance, with more student talking time, then the point of action can be adjusted like this: “Teachers need means to adapt their lessons to allow for more student talking time.”

This is still a very big point of action, which can be sub-divided into smaller, easily-attained tasks.  Think about steps like the following:

  1. Orientation:  what kinds of lesson adaptations are there?
  2. Examination:  trying out various lesson adaptations
  3. Evaluation:  talking about the effectiveness of the various adaptations
  4. Determination:  deciding which lesson adaptations to keep and which to let go
  5. Safeguarding:  making sure the new adaptations remain in place

Once you’ve checked (and double-checked!) your points of action, it’s time to put it all together into one, final Plan of Action.  Start by bringing the points from each chapter together into one summary, per heading (see illustration below).  Talk with your director and find out which points need to be an absolute priority, and decide on a logical order of steps to be taken.  Also, have a good look at the timeline.  How many years will be needed to realize the goals put forth in the policy plan?  Perhaps three is sufficient, but it’s also likely that more may be needed.

After that, set the points of action into the year-by-year overview.  Make sure that each point of action is attainable (not too big!), and part of the bigger plan.  Decide who will be responsible for each point of action, and plan a reasonable deadline for each point.  If money is needed, look at possibilities for subsidies from local and national agencies.  This will be different from place to place, of course.


Putting it all together: take the points of action from each list and put them in a single, simplified summary.  Then, sort the points into a year-by-year plan according to need.

Another important point of action that must be remembered is to evaluate the plan at some point every year.  Have a look at what goals were reached, which need to be amended, and congratulate everyone for any progress made.  After all, when it comes to curriculum improvement, it’s all hands on deck!  Everyone contributes in his own way, according to his own talents.


Everyone contributes to curriculum improvement, according to his own abilities and talents.  (image borrowed from https://influencemagazine.com/practice/all-hands-on-deck)


Whatever you do while writing your policy plan, be aware that for some, simply opening up the conversation about the English program is already a big step.  For others, making space for each teacher to contribute to an improved program will be the challenge.  Each school has its own road to take in writing and carrying out a language policy plan.  So yes, please talk with other people who have written a plan and carried it out, but realize that each road is unique, with its own twists and turns.

So take a deep breath and …. good luck!

Policy planning part 2, continued:

Last time, we looked at a few basic elements that pertain to the English curriculum at your school, such as materials, time, and history of the program at your school.  This time, we are going to look at something even more important: the teachers themselves.

Teachers are fundamental to the entire curriculum, regardless of time and material available to them, so it’s really important to open up the dialogue about what they think, what they do, and what they need.

One way of opening up this dialogue is by using a questionnaire. In creating your questionnaire, think about aspects relating to didactics, knowledge, lesson organization, and assessment. Also, think about aspects that relate to the school’s vision and ambition. For instance, if the school is a Montessori or Dalton school, aspects relating to how well children can work independently or cooperatively might be included on your list. Below is an example of a questionnaire.


A quick sample of a questionnaire

This sample is meant as a start, to help you get inspired for writing your own questions.  Each school has its own points of focus, so you’ll need to create questions that reflect that.  Handy hint: if you want more inspiration in this area, handy search terms are “checklist good EFL lesson” or “what makes a good EFL lesson”.  Once there, you’ll find all sorts of blogs and sites offering questions worth thinking about.

In designing your questionnaire, it’s important to allow for degrees of opinion and anonymity in supplying answers to these questions.  Remember, you’re looking for points to improve upon, so it’s really important that people feel the space to be honest instead of only providing socially acceptable answers.  Allowing for an anonymous response is a good way to achieve this.

Also, allow space for open answers.  That way, your fellow teachers will be able to explain why they gave certain answers.  For instance, when a teacher says “I disagree with ….” perhaps he would like to explain why he says that.

Once you’ve designed your questionnaire, put it aside for a day or two, and come back to it later with a fresh pair of eyes.  Put it along this checklist, and be critical!  Take the time to refine your questions, add one or two when needed, but also to remove questions that don’t work well.

  1. Does each question only cover one topic?  (question 3 of the sample given clearly does not do this)
  2. Is each question concrete and clear, or is there space for ambiguity?
  3. Is the questionnaire too long?  It is too short?
  4. Do the questions relate to teacher skills, knowledge, and school vision?
  5. Is there space for open input?

Tip:  for more information about writing a good questionnaire, you might have a look at this blog: “Good survey questions” or infographic.

Once you’ve gotten everyone’s anonymous responses, it’s time to tally up the numbers.  In order to do this, you simply tally, per question, the number of responses per possibility.  Here is an illustration of a quick tally:


Tallying up the answers shows general tendencies.


As you can see, this tally only shows general tendencies among the teachers, highlighting points that might make for some interesting follow-up discussions.  In looking at the data like this, it allows any follow-up dialogue to be open and non-personal, and everyone can have a role in addressing the issues at a team level without feeling personally called out.

Begin by describing what you see.  For instance, no-one claims to (re-)design lessons to make the learning tasks more authentic.  Few use extra materials for the weaker or stronger children.  The group plan is not always used as the basis for the lessons.  These are simply factual descriptions of what you see, without labelling anything as “good” or “bad”.  Your observations will form the basis for any follow-up discussion with your colleagues.

In thinking about these points, it’s important to find out why this is the way it is.  For instance, teachers do not (re-)design lessons to make the learning tasks more authentic.  Does the material used already makes the learning tasks authentic?  Or is this perhaps something that teachers didn’t think about before?  Do they want more authentic tasks?  Also, is authenticity of learning tasks considered important?  Also important, did they understand the question correctly?

Again, it must be stressed that any dialogue about the outcomes of the questionnaire must take place in an open and safe manner.

Talk about these questions with others at your school and make a note of your findings.  As you do this, also note any problems that need to be addressed, along with any ideas that people give for tackling these issues.

Next time, we will look at the issues of assessment of learning, and how to move towards the next step of creating points of action.

Policy planning part 1: vision and ambition


How do you see education?  What is the goal of education?  What are important aspects of education?  What do you think?

At your school: How are children viewed, in their role as learners?  What aspects of learning are important?

What kind of education does your school provide?  What is the role of the teacher, of the child, the material to be used, and material to be learned, in this view?

What kind of pedagogical climate does the school wish to achieve?

When I look through various school guides, I see certain recurring phrases: “We stimulate each child’s independence in learning…”, “We use the (explicit) direct instruction model”, “We value children’s creative, musical, and cultural development…”, “We think children should develop and employ their various talents in education…” and so on.

Very often, one reads something about the high expectations that the school has of the children, or how the child forms the heart of the educational plan, and how the school hopes to educate children so that they can function as autonomous adults in modern society.

When writing a policy plan, it is essential to start at this point: what is your own school’s vision regarding education?  How does your school see the learning child?  What is your school’s goal in educating children?  How does your school want to achieve those goals?

Take a moment to think about these questions for yourself, and then look for the school’s vision.  It might be found on the school’s webpage, or in the school guide.  It might be posted on the school walls, or maybe even something that is brought to attention on a regular basis during school meetings.

Wherever you find the school’s vision of education described, make a note of it.  Then, decide what the core concepts are described in the school’s vision.  Make sure to note these clearly for yourself, as you’ll be referring back to these as you write the rest of the policy plan.

For example: if your school endorses “independent learning”, it will be important to hold the various aspects of the English program up to this light.  To what degree do teachers allow space for “independent learning” during their lessons?  Does the material used, including textbooks and digital material, provide space for “independent learning”?  Do the children actually get the time to work independently during or outside of the lessons?


Also, look for the ambition of the school.  What does the school hope to achieve with its English program?  What language skills does the school consider important in the program?  For instance, is it the goal that children are confident with conversing in English with strangers, or should they be able to read and write in the language as well?  Are the goals described in terms of the Common European Framework of Reference, or in other terms?  Is there any information about ambitions related to internationalisation or international projects?

However the goals are defined, it’s important to make a note of these, so that when you’re writing the policy plan, you can keep these goals in mind.  Again, in terms of teacher- and material-related variables, but also in terms of planning for and tracking achievement.

In conclusion, start with the basics.  Describe the school vision regarding learning in general, and where possible regarding the English program.  Decide what the core concepts of this vision are and highlight these.  Then, define the ambition of the school, including levels for the various skills areas and internationalisation where applicable.  You’ll be referring back to this in the rest of your writing.

Next time, we’ll focus on describing the present-day situation of the school

Following the “method”

English-bookYesterday, I was playing a game with my students called “stand in line”.  I asked questions, they had to figure out what place in the line was theirs, and then they had to give their answers.  Questions such as “How old are you” and “How long does it take you to get to school?” were answered easily enough.  They could order themselves from youngest to oldest, from longest to shortest commute without any problem.

Then I asked a harder question: “How confident are you in teaching English to young children?”  After spending half a semester helping them learn to teach and play with their young pupils, I was hoping that they would feel at least somewhat confident in this aspect of their work.

And indeed, a few students stood near the front of the line, indicating that they felt pretty confident about teaching English to young people, and a number placed themselves a bit further back along the line.  I then asked them the next question: why they had chosen that particular place along the line.

As I expected, the students up front said that they felt good about their own abilities, they’d paid good attention during the lessons and had gotten some good ideas, while others mentioned that they’d had good experiences teaching English to young children and indeed, were looking forward to teaching English again.  Further back along the line, students talked about how they felt about their own English, and how they wished they could speak English more fluently and confidently so that they could pass this on to their own class.  This touched me, and I asked what more I could do to help them in this area.

One student, however, said something quite different.  He hadn’t been coming to the lessons, so I was surprised to see him standing near the front of the line.  I asked him why he’d chosen that spot for himself.  He told the class that he’d chosen that spot because he figured, that if he just “followed the method”, then he’d do just fine.

I need to explain something here.  In the Netherlands, the word for “textbook” is “method”.  A complete misnomer, but one I cannot seem to purge from my student’s understanding.  There is a tendency for teachers and students alike to put their blind trust in those who wrote the textbooks, and this leads to all sorts of strange situations in the world of Dutch education.

Back to my story.  I looked at this student, mouth agape, wondering if I’d really taught them that badly.  I soon remembered that it wasn’t my fault – after all, he hadn’t been coming to class – but was too taken aback by this answer to give a proper response.  Something clicked.  And it wasn’t a happy click.  This student was willingly walking into the trap of becoming a “method slave”, as we call it here; a teacher who simply follows the textbook in the misguided trust that it will lead him and his class to wherever they should go.

Why is it, I asked myself, that I have such a complete aversion to this sort of thinking?  Why can I not just “trust the ‘method'” like so many others?  My answer to that is manifold.  But the long and short of it is, the ‘method’ doesn’t always match the child.  On the one hand, sometimes the ‘method’ is too hard.  On the other hand, many classes have “native speakers” of English, for whom the level of English offered in the ‘method’ is too easy.  Other times, the ‘method’ becomes repetitive, with the same activities offered unit after unit.  Oftentimes, the ‘method’ is flawed, offering too little opportunity for children to practice speaking English with each other, instead focusing on the skills of listening and reading – also necessary, but only half of any situation in which actual communication is involved.

Worst of all are the situations in which a school head decides to implement a new, school-wide, program of English, all in one go.  Materials are bought, in a series of textbooks that assume that the children working out of the highest levels have already tackled the previous levels with some measure of success.  Which, of course, they haven’t.  The teacher is faced with an immense gap between that which the book intends to cover (and teach), and that which the children can actually grasp.  This problem goes far beyond the Zone of Proximity, and children in this situation will be left with feelings of incapability that might even reach into adulthood.

Blindly “following the method” is an unacceptable way of teaching.  That is why it is so important for future teachers to learn to see and observe their children.  Teachers must make note of their children’s needs and know what the next logical step is, in regards to their further development as learners.  They must really take a critical look at what their textbooks and materials have to offer, and decide to what extent these match up with their learners’ needs.  They must understand that when these two parties don’t match, it is up to them, the teachers, to make the necessary adaptations and bridge the gap between the two.  That is what teacher training is all about.

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!