ESL content

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!

Links to the ACTFL documents cited:

ESL and the long-term plan


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder what other teachers do, for their planning?


What to teach?  The zone of proximal development as a tool.

One of the first problems I came across as a budding early ESL teacher was the question: what do I teach? Of course, I needed to teach them numbers, colors, food, animals, and classroom vocabulary, but – what exactly did these children need to know? What was going to be the curriculum?

I decided that there would be a dual basis for the curriculum. Of course, the children needed a lexicon: words, words, and more words. Equally important, however, was what the children could do with those words. So I needed a wholistic means of looking at the children’s learning and of focusing my teaching to their zone of proximal development.


It was time to look around with the help of my favorite search engine and (practically) best friend: google. Search terms like “language development,” “ESL curriculum”, and “wholistic ESL” crossed the screen until I finally found a language proficiency handbook, written by the Illinois State Board of Education. Finding this handbook was one of my first Eureka-moments: herein was a clearly described continuum of development for ESL learners, outlining exactly how a speaker of a foreign language would develop, which I immediately adopted as a basis for my curriculum.

The stages of language acquisition easily lent themselves to a checklist format. Once I decided how far each child had developed along this continuum – and in the early days that was more of a “touch wind” method than I really care to admit – I then had a clearer idea of where I could lead the class towards.

For instance, if I noticed that some children were able to focus on the main idea of things – “Point to the picture, very good” – then I could cue the other (by now quite lost) children in: “Look, Johnny is pointing. Very good.” I also knew that at this level, it woud be appropriate to get children to repeat simple words. Two- and three-word phrases would come later. Conversely, if a child could already express himself in short phrases, I knew I no longer needed to accept simply pointing to an object as an answer to a question. I could expect that child to answer a question verbally.

I also used – and still use – this continuum to inform my own language use in teaching. If children only understand the main point, I avoid complicated sentences. I keep my own speech limited to their zone of proximal development. If children understand one word at a time, my own speech is therefore usually sentences of 3 or 4 words, accompanied by supportive body language. As the children’s language develops, I drop the body cues and lengthen my own sentences appropriately.

There are, of course, pros and cons to working with a wholistic scale of development. On the one hand, it doesn’t really matter what kinds of words the children learn, as wholistic development is applicable to any theme. On the other hand, it’s far more difficult to develop a standardized test for this, as the content of any test will be dependent on the vocabulary and grammar that was taught previously.

As the years passed, I spent time developing an adaptive assessment that allowed for this, as well as a system of recording this. I won’t go into it this time around, but in the near future, the topic of assessment will certainly be addressed.

I wonder how others have attacked the problem of curriculum building?

A link for the aformentioned language policy handbook can be found here.

And a link for more information about the zone of proximal development can be found here.


Teaching is like making 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.

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