teaching ESL

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!


Mixing and matching in the mixed ability group

mix-and-match-puzzle-setOne of those things every language teacher has to learn to deal with is the broad ability range in any given class.  No matter how homogeneously (single-leveled) the class has been put together, there are always students who are far ahead of the group, and a number of learners who are far behind.  That’s just the way of things, it seems.  The trick is to keep every learner actively involved at his own level.

There are a number of things a teacher can do to help each learner unlock his own potential.  The first step, of course, is to create an overview of where the learners currently are, and where you’d like them to go next.  I described this process in an earlier blog (ESL and the long-term plan).

In this blog entry, I will continue along this path and work out an idea to allow children of different ability levels to work together in a meaningful way.  But first, a side trip along Inspiration Lane…

Years ago, I came across a site called raz-kids.com.  I’ve written a blog about that as well (Raz-kids review) in the past, in which my enthusiasm for this site is clear enough.  However, what I didn’t mention about this site was that it also allows for children of different ability levels to work together, using plays from their Readers Theater.

In this script, children are assigned roles based on their ability level.  The levels differ in vocabulary use, length of sentences, and how often that character has to speak.

I began to wonder if it was possible to achieve the same result, but with a bit more freedom.  I came up with a simple solution.  What would happen, I wondered, if we took the concept of different ability roles and mixed it with what we know about functions and notions?

We already know that functions are descriptions of things one can do with a language.  For instance, describe your pet, talk about your hobby, or list ten things you like about your job are all examples of functions.

We also know that notions are examples of how to fulfil those functions.  For instance, “My dog is big and brown,” is a notion that fulfils the function “describe your pet.”

Not only that, but there are fixed notions and variable notions.  In the example below, the words “This is a ….” is the fixed notion, because it doesn’t change.  The words chair, table, pencil, book, and teacher can vary, so they are variable notions.

But enough review.  Time to make the step from theory to practice: differentiating the dialogues.

In practice, Beginning learners need more support, so it’s generally a good idea to let them work with dialogues using fixed notions.

Intermediate learners still need some support, but they’re also able to make some choices.  It’s a good idea to let them work with dialogues using variable notions.

Advanced learners don’t need much support, but in order to have them work together with other learners, they can use dialogue cards with functions on them.

Working out this idea a bit further, I designed dialogue cards that reflect these three levels.  The blue card is for the beginning learner, and contains a fixed notion dialogue.  The yellow card is for the intermediate learner and has space for variable notions.  The advanced learners get the red card, and these dialogues are built of functions that are parallel to the fixed notions on the blue card.  The roles, A and B, remain the same for each card, so that roles are interchangeable.

Here is a simple example to illustrate this:



A simple example


No matter what color card a learner has, he or she can participate in a meaningful conversation with any other person in the class.  It’s important to note that when a learner indicates that his card is too easy or too difficult, he should be allowed to trade colors.  It’s important to realize that no child wants to be bored, and to give them space to decide for themselves what level he or she feels comfortable with.  Also, when you start a new topic, they may all need to start at beginner’s level, as they are dealing with new vocabulary and grammar.  Once they catch on, they may move on to the more difficult levels in the dialogue cards.


A dialogue with multiple steps


Hopefully, these examples will inspire you to experiment with the dialogues in your own lessons.  And – I hope to hear about your successful experiences!


A new school year – getting started


In many countries, a new school year is getting started, and it’s important for teachers to take the time to give shape to their class, together with their children.  One important piece to begin with, is the class rules.  I’ve written about this earlier, in the blog “The happy classroom“.   Children feel safer in a classroom with simple, consistent boundaries, so it’s important that teachers have a simple set of rules they can easily explain and live by.

It’s also important that these rules be easily explained.  A visual aid, such as a poster, can be really useful for this.  This is where Sparklebox comes in.  This site has all sorts of free, downloadable materials for all sorts of classroom needs, it also has a page full of clearly-illustrated posters for classroom management.

Myself, I used my own cards to clarify my rules.  I had three simple flashcards illustrating expected behavior: “listening”, “raise your hand”, and “sit on your chair”.   I had these in a visible area – on the carpet during circle time, for instance – and when I needed to correct a child, all I needed to do was say “uh-oh, listening!” and point to the picture of “listening”.  For older children, I would write the word on the board, next to the flashcard, so they could learn to read the word as I used them in class.

Another thing I did was to visibly to structure the lessons.  I created cards that illustrated what would happen in the course of the lesson, such as a book (story time), a pawn (game), two children talking (speaking practice), and so on.  I put magnetic tape on the backs of the cards so they could stick to the white board.  At the start of the lesson, I would hang the cards in their proper order and name them, and as we proceeded through the lesson, the corresponding card would be highlighted by hanging it a bit higher on the board.  The autistic children appreciated having the structure of the lesson made visible, and others could see just where we were and what they could expect next.  As an aside, I was a “traveling” teacher, often teaching six to eight lessons a day in as many classrooms, and so this tactic also helped me keep track of where I was in each lesson.

Whatever we do, however, let’s remember three things: keep it simple, keep it clear, and keep it positive!




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!