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:






Feeding growth with feedback


Trial and error.  That’s how we learn best, it would seem.  Get on the bike, try to ride, fall down, then get up and try again.  It’s the same way when learning to speak a new language.  Try to say something, get it wrong, regather one’s thoughts, then try again.

The question is, of course, how do learners figure out how to speak in sentences?  How do they make that jump from one-word utterances to entire stories?

One possible answer to this is the concept of ‘chunking’.  Once learners figure out how to name something, for instance ‘elephant’, they then figure out to describe that elephant.  Which elephant?  The big elephant, the grey elephant, the hungry elephant, the big, grey, hungry elephant.    In this way, learners start to string words together like beads on a string, in a process called ‘chunking’.


In language, it’s possible to ‘chunk’ words together in a myriad of ways, such as:

  • noun phrases (The big bad wolf)
  • verb phrases (had been reading)
  • adverb phrases (all day long)
  • prepositional phrases (in the library)
  • clauses (when the wind suddenly blew the building down.) – and of course –
  • conjunctions (if, and, but)

Once learners figure these tricks out, they can create longer and longer sentences.  As a teacher, it’s important for us to be able to give our children the words and tools they need to apply these tricks to their own output, as well as applying it in breaking down the input they get.  Just as they can put the beads on the string, it’s important for them to realize they can take those beads back off in order to make better sense of input.

We teachers take advantage of this ‘chunking’ process.  We break up our spoken language into logical chunks to support their understanding.  We speak at a level just above what they themselves can produce, keep our tempo in check and use vocabulary just within their grasp.

We also encourage our learners to make the next step in their development.  There are different ways of doing this, but this time I want to focus on a method called ‘corrective feedback’.  For years, I’d been instinctively giving children feedback on their language output by simply giving them the correct form of output back, and expecting them to repeat the correction.  You can only imagine how pleased I was when I recently found out about research that had been done in this very area of teaching.  Of course, the research had been conducted a decade or two before, but the information given is nonetheless relevant to our work as ESL educators today.  Later, I also found a youtube link in which these different forms of feedback are clearly demonstrated.

In short, there are six basic forms of corrective feedback (from ‘Research on Error Correction and Implications for Classroom Teaching’, Tedick and de Gortari, 1998):

  1. explicit correction: the teacher indicates that the output is incorrect and gives the learner the correct form (‘Oops, let’s try again.  It’s the red coat.’)
  2. recast: without indicating that the learner made an error, the teacher reformulates the learner’s output in correct language use (‘The red coat.’)
  3. clarification request: the teacher asks the learner to re-phrase the output so that it is easier to understand (‘Excuse me?  Can you repeat that, please?’)
  4. metalinguistic clues: the teacher poses questions or gives information to the learner so that the learner can repair his/her own errors (‘Remember, we’re talking about the past.’ or ‘We start questions with “Do you…”‘)
  5. elicitation: the teacher asks questions to cue the student that he/she needs to try again (‘Do you…?’)
  6. repetition: the teacher repeats the output, placing the accent on the error, so the learner gets the chance to repair the error in output (‘Bike you to school?’)

Not all of these are useful for the young ESL learner, of course.  Most often, I applied recasting, clarification requests, elicitation, and repetition in my feedback to children’s output.  My feedback was focused on a couple of things: error correction, but also language development in the form of chunking.


simple line of language development using ‘chunking’ as a base

For instance, when a child could give yes or no as an answer to questions, I would start to elicit one-word answers from him or her by modelling the correct answer.  Once the child felt at home giving one-word answers, I would recast the output into two- or three-word answers, encouraging that child to repeat after me.  Eventually, children would start to move up the line of development and be able to speak in simple sentences.

In order to work like this, I had to have a clear vision of what kind of output I could expect from the children, and how I could encourage them to continue in their language development.  This kind of knowledge allowed me to work outside of the ESL textbook, adapting the input to the children’s needs.

It’s important for ESL teachers to understand where their children are at, and how to correct their output without putting them on the spot.  The kind of feedback we teachers provide depends on a number of variables, such as the children’s general knowledge of the language, their meta-understanding of the language, and their level of self-confidence in expressing themselves.

An example of feedback gone wrong is “That’s incorrect, try again”.  Of course, we mean well when saying such things, but it’s hardly what the learner needs.  In my experience, children always try to give as correct an answer as possible, and to simply say “try again” without providing a clue as to the correct answer only results in embarassing the child, who will probably decide never to raise his hand in class again.  It’s far better to give the correct answer to the beginning learner, so he can learn from his mistakes without embarassment.  More advanced, self-confident learners can deal with elicitation and repetition, as they already have a number of strategies to deal with various linguistic situations and will appreciate the chance to fix their errors without being ‘babied’.

For now, I will conclude this chapter on chunking and feedback, but will probably return to it again at some later date.   Until then, please let me know what you think!

Music in the ESL class – (not) child’s play


These days, publishers are putting out loads of new, internet-based material.  One such publisher has recently started creating internet-based material called “Groove Me,” which bases its lessons on the music of popular artists such as One Direction, Shakira, and Katy Perry.  Its users are enthusiastic because the children enjoy singing popular songs, they learn what the songs mean, and it’s easy for teachers to use.

The growing popularity of this music-based material indicates that there is a desperate need for new, modern material that connects with the children’s life experience.  Popular music is hot, and therefore a logical means of connecting language lessons with the children’s own experiences.

Not all popular music is useful for the classroom, however.  When selecting music for the ESL lesson, it’s important to keep a few things in mind, such as appropriate language use and topic.  Unfortunately, numerous songs out there make sexual references that many teachers don’t catch on to – but their pupils might, and many do.  Other songs – which shall remain unnamed – employ a notably scant breadth of vocabulary, constricting how much they contribute to the language development of the listener.  Yet other songs are too fast or too slow, again, making them less than ideal for use in the class.

The ideal song for the ESL lesson meets certain qualifications, including but certainly not limited to the list below:

  1. the topic and the vocabulary used is appropriate for the children – not too childish, but also not too adult
  2. breadth of vocabulary – not too little, but also not too many new words at one go
  3. tempo – not so slow as to make everyone fall asleep, but certainly not too fast for young ears still learning the sounds of the language

Over the years, I’ve collected a number of favorite songs, some of which I’ve collected on this symbaloo page.  There is a range of songs, and I’ve used a number of strategies to find them.  I’ll share these strategies with you, so you can find (and share, please!) songs you enjoy using.

Strategy #1: youtube.com  Search terms ESL + song + topic got me pretty far.  Most often, however, I’ll find many songs for the very young learners, leaving the older grade schoolers out in the cold.  (young learners being about 4 – 8 years old, and the older learners 9 and above)

Strategy #2: find a useful channel on youtube, for instance Sesame Street.  The American version of Sesame Street has a lovely knack for picking up on the latest pop music, and getting the actual artist to come in and sing a child-friendly version of their music.  One such example is Katy Perry singing “Hot and Cold” with Elmo.  It’s amazing how many artists have found their way to Sesame Street, happily adapting their sometimes questionable lyrics for the younger audience targeted by Sesame Street.  Sesame Street also has, incidentally, a way of turning their songs into social lessons, a nice side-effect many teachers can appreciate.

Another useful channel is Super Simple Songs, good for the younger learner.  What I’v done in the past is had older children listen to a song, then ask them to create another verse that they can teach the younger learners.  That way, they get the pleasure of listening to something easy without getting the feeling of being babied.

Strategy #3: try out this site:  Songs for Teaching.  It’s got links through to various subject areas, listing topics and finally songs that you can listen to and order online.

Other music worth finding out about:

Hap Palmer: very old-fashioned, slow, and therefore perfect for the young ESL learner.

Tumble Tots: hipper, space for moving to the music, and therefore perfect for young ESL learner.  With a bit of enthusiasm, you can push this into the older grades, but don’t overdo it.

Alain Le Lait (It’s so good): simple, funny songs with just enough repetition to allow children to sing along and even make up their own verses.

Jim Cosgrove (Stinky Feet): funny stuff that any child can relate to and sing along with.  Good for the somewhat older ESL learner.

I’m sure there’s more out there, so feel free to share your favorites!

Click here for my symbaloo page full of super children’s music!

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 www.mes-english.com.  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: http://www.helpingwithmath.com/printables/worksheets/time/wor0301time05.htm.  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!


Teaching is like a quilt


Looking at the strips of cloth on the makeshift table, planning which ones to use for the next piece of sky, I was reminded of the work I had been doing the years before. It occurred to me that setting up an early ESL program from scratch was simply another form of quilting – other material, but the same process of planning, thinking, and creating a unified work of art.

I recalled the first months of the program, when I first started designing plans and writing lessons, entirely in my element as a pioneer in the Dutch education system. There was no curriculum yet, no means of assessment, and no way of telling if I was even going the right direction. I had only my inner sense of direction and general plan of action. 

For months, I made materials to fit the needs of this new program, procuring material “by hook or by crook”, judging its fit to the need based on color, texture, and pattern. Cutting where needed, pinning and sewing, fitting line to line, watching the picture grow under the needle of my sewing machine, just as the ESL program developed in my hands, step by step.

Curricula developed as time went on, as did assessments, records and reports.  The development of child portfolios was an ongoing process that took years to refine, along with the means to record each child’s progress.  Group plans and cycles of action grew before me, and now I look back and realize that the quilt of early ESL at my school is nearing its completion.

Of course, it wasn’t always easy!  Many are the days I felt alone, lost in the fog of the unknown.  Others, I was inspired in inventing the wheel of early ESL at this Dutch grade school.  And other times I sat on the couch at the end of the day, uncertain of my work and wondering if what I was doing was ever going to be good enough.

Sewing down the edges of the quilt and spreading it out for the world to see, I note details in texture that are unique to the program I built.  I see how it fits seamlessly into the school’s Dalton vision and extra-curricular program, and I am pleased.  I also see where I learned the hard way, and feel the years of experience flowing through my veins.  In the blogs to follow, I look forward to sharing this process with other teachers, in the hope that they will be able to profit from my work and find inspiration for their own.