Archive for the ‘Reading’ category

The Power of Polls

April 9, 2010

I’ve suggested use of polls and surveys in the past. Those ideas included activities to target:

The above activities were designed with intermediate and advanced students in mind. What about beginners? How can polls assist those with a limited amount of language, especially in terms of reading and writing? I began to think about this as I dropped my son off today at kindergarten.  I was struck by the delight he takes in participating in the daily poll. It’s a simple sheet of paper posted on the wall next to the door. The teacher updates it every morning.  As students arrive, they read and take the daily poll. Sometimes they assist one another with the reading, but each child does his or her own writing. Imagine if during one week the questions were all similar in format. Then unfamiliar words would likely be recognizable words (sight words) by the end of the week. The questions could make use of target vocabulary: colors, emotions, numbers, etc.

Model A: You can create two columns YES and NO and have students write their names in the appropriate column. This tests their ability to read target words, in this case the names of colors, and write their first names.

                Monday: Are you wearing RED today?

                Tuesday: Are you wearing BLUE today?

                Wednesday: Are you wearing GREEN today?

                Thursday: Are you wearing BLACK today?

                Friday:  Are you wearing YELLOW today?

Model B: You can create a list of the students’ names. The students must write their answer next to their name. This tests their ability to recognize their names, read target words, and rewrite those words.

                Monday: Are you TIRED or NOT TIRED today?

                Tuesday: Are you HAPPY or SAD today?

                Wednesday: Are you HUNGRY or NOT HUNGRY now?

                Thursday: Are you COLD, HOT, or OKAY now?

                Friday:  Are you THIRSTY or NOT THIRSTY now?

Second-hand Writing: Maximizing the usefulness of a writing activity

October 28, 2009

I hope the title caught your attention, but perhaps it’s also caused some confusion. Let me explain. I’d like to consider the possibility of using student compositions as the basis for other activities. It’s similar to a craftsman building something from recycled materials. Compositions that have been thoroughly revised and already graded could be used among the same group of students or with other groups at similar levels (assuming you have the authors’ permission) in the context of a new lesson. Here are two possible “second-hand” activities:

1. Solo reading and speaking to the class

Student compositions written by one group can be shared with a second. Students receiving the essays can be assigned questions to answer:

  • For essays expressing a point of view (problem-solution, cause-effect, etc.): What is the topic? What is the author’s opinion? Do you agree with the author? Why or why not? Be prepared to share your answers with the class.
  • For essays presenting information (narrative, definition, etc.): What is the topic? Can you summarize the essay? Did you learn anything new from the author? Can you provide any additional information on the topic? Be prepared to share your answers with the class.

2. Paired reading and problem-solving discussion

Students at one level should be able to comprehend not only the writings of their classmates but also of those one level head. This means a teacher could share the compositions of a high intermediate class with the students at the intermediate or low intermediate level. The number of unfamiliar words or grammatical structures shouldn’t be high enough to hinder comprehension. That said, try the following activity with a narrative essay or short story.

  • Story Scramble: You’re likely familiar with this game. I put a spin on it for a LEA-inspired activity (Language Experience Approach) back in March 2009. Now we’re taking a story or a description of events as related on paper by a student and dividing it up into 10-12 segments. This needs to be done by the teacher in advance. I recommend keeping sets of the story in envelopes. You’ll need about 5-6 sets so that the class can work either in pairs or small groups. Each group will assemble the story to the best of their ability.  One group can volunteer to read the assembled story to the class. Alternative sequences can be discussed.

VARIATION: You can have each group work with a different story. After an assigned amount of time (e.g., 10 minutes), you can present a copy of the original story to the group so they can check their work. Groups can hand back the original “whole” copies to the teacher and exchange sets so the activity is repeated. Finally, after all the materials have been collected, have volunteers recall and orally summarize the 5-6 stories. The class can listen and assist as necessary.

Mix and Match: An activity to develop reading skills

October 13, 2009

It’s helpful for language learners to understand the tone and the organization of any given text. These two factors are related to the writer’s purpose. Furthermore, recognizing a writer’s tone and means of organizing information is a skill that can aid students in composing their own texts since one must comprehend a model before trying to replicate it.

Try the following activity with upper level students. Use of authentic, unadapted materials will also develop their ability to skim. Some learners feel the need to understand every word during a first encounter with a reading passage. The following activity doesn’t allow this kind of slower, detail-oriented reading. Learners must skim to understand the general tone and approach to text organization and realize that comprehension of every new vocabulary word or complex grammatical structure isn’t necessary for this purpose.  Skimming itself is a useful skill, as anyone faced with large quantities of reading at school or work will tell you.

STEP 1 – Prepare four excerpts from different sources. Target a range of types: novel, news article/ report, textbook passage/ academic essay, business memo/ letter. Make copies without revealing titles or sources. On a separate sheet of paper, provide the titles/ headlines.

STEP 2 – Hand out the copies of the titles first. Ask students to guess the source and make predictions about the content. This can be done as a class.

STEP 3 – Hand out the copies of the excerpts.  Have students work in pairs to match each passage to its title. Tell them to note their reasons for making each match. Place a time limit that challenges students to complete this task quickly and without consulting a dictionary or reading for details (5-7 minutes).

 STEP 4 – Correct the matches as a class. Have pairs share their reasoning behind each match. Discuss the tone of each excerpt. Highlight different tones a writer can have (persuasive, informative, etc.) and Ask students to identify the organization used by each writer. Highlight different approaches to text organization (problem-solution, chronological, etc.)

STEP 5 – OPTIONAL. You can extend this activity with additional excerpts prepared before class. Select articles, essays, or letters that expose students to other tones and other means of organizing a text. Simply make one copy of each excerpt and number them. This time you may include the title and source for each passage. In pairs, students can have 1-2 minutes to skim a passage and make conclusions about its tone and organization. Then they switch copies with another pair. This continues until each pair has skimmed all reading passages. Again, their conclusions are shared with the class.

Fun for Everyone: An activity to practice comparatives and equatives

August 19, 2009

Level: Intermediate to advanced

Objective: To describe lesser-known sports and identify their appeal to people

Skills targeted: Reading for details, using graphic organizers, making conclusions, writing with comparatives and equatives

STEP 1 – Students receive a list of 4-6 lesser-known sports. For each sport, provide a recommended link that offers background information. Suggestions:

Students should work in pairs or small groups of 3 at computer stations. (Alternative: Use printouts of web pages.) They need to explain in 3-5 sentences how each sport is played. This information should be recorded. You can offer a chart to organize their findings:

Sports/ Games

How is the sport played?

What’s the object of the game?

Words to describe

this sport/ game:





STEP 2 – Students must then draw conclusions about whom each sport appeals to. They may also include their personal opinions of each sport. Again, notes should be taken. Encourage use of comparatives and equatives. Examples: Shuffleboard isn’t as exciting as zorbing, but shuffleboard is more competitive. Bocce is probably as physically demanding as shuffleboard. Orienteering is good for active people who like the outdoors. We think zorbing is more fun than any of the other sports.

STEP 3 – Have each pair or small group present information on one sport. The class may comment after each group finishes their brief presentation.


Other lesser-known sports: bog snorkeling, curling, street luge racing, bossaball.

Whole Group, Whole Language Activities

August 14, 2009

If your curriculum allows for flexibility, consider basing some lessons around group activities. The activities should be driven by themes that appeal to your students. A single theme and a set of clear procedures make for an enjoyable, constructive class. The following activities require small groups of students (approx. 4 per group) to use speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills to meet the objectives.


Objective: To plan a group trip for a budgeted amount of money.

Have students sit in groups at computer stations. Tell them they have 15 minutes to plan a group trip. They have a budget of $2,000. Together they must choose a destination, a means of travel, and lodging. They should also list options for food and entertainment. Groups will present their trip plans to the class. Notes should be taken by all members of the group for this purpose, and each member must present a portion of the group’s plans. After the presentations, students go back into their groups and compose a paragraph based on their notes. This trip summary will be submitted to the teacher for correction.

Possible language focus: Future tenses (especially be going to and will).



Objective: To plan a fundraiser as a small group.

Present the students with a dilemma. For example, tell them that some classmates are facing eviction from their apartment. They need rent money fast (say, $1,500).  Have students sit in groups at computer stations. Tell them they have 15 minutes to plan a group fundraiser. They may get ideas from websites such as Do-It-Yourself Fundraising Ideas or Fundraising Tips.Com. Together they must choose a fundraiser, a date, and a time. If a location is needed, they should specify the site. Each member should have an assigned role in the execution of the fundraiser. Groups will present their fundraising plans to the class. Notes should be taken by all members of the group for this purpose, and each member must present a portion of the group’s plans. After the final presentation, students go back into their groups and compose a paragraph based on their notes. This summary will be submitted to the teacher for correction.

Possible language focus: Modals for necessity, obligation, and/ or possibility.



Objective: To decide where to make a group donation.

This activity could be the logical follow-up to the group fundraiser. Tell students they must decide the best way to donate $2,000. They may research local charities online or look at recent news headlines to identify local residents in need of financial aid. Have students sit in groups at computer stations. Tell them they have 15 minutes to make their decision. Sites such as Charity Navigator may be used. Background information on the recipient(s) is needed to justify their donation and will be part of their presentation to the class. Notes should be taken by all members of the group, and each member must present a portion of the group’s plans. After the final presentation, students go back into their groups and compose a paragraph based on their notes. This summary will be submitted to the teacher for correction.

Possible language focus: Active and passive voice (e.g., donate/ be donated).



NOTE: Alternatives to online information include hard copies of web pages and brochures.


OTHER THEMES: Group Party, Group Business, Group Dinner

Finding a Cure: How to work practical skills into a lesson

April 29, 2009

ESL students are faced with two basic challenges: They must master English for communication, and they must learn to function within an English-only environment.  For example, a student must be able to ask a passerby which bus he should take to reach the city library. Then, after boarding the bus, he needs to pay the fare, read the bus route, listen for his destination to be announced, get off the bus, and follow signs to the main entrance of the library. In short, he must communicate and function in English to meet his daily goals. ESL teachers should bear this in mind when planning lessons.

Working practical skills into language lessons is particularly helpful for students in English-speaking countries. While their ultimate goals are academic or professional, they must also achieve everyday goals like navigating the local library, using a phone card, and making purchases at a pharmacy. This last task can be overwhelming even for a native speaker. Just think of the array of bottles and boxes that make up the stock of over-the-counter medicines (OTC) at any pharmacy. Choosing and then using OTCs is a practical skill we can help our students learn. Consider different ways you can incorporate label reading into your reading, grammar, and vocabulary lessons:

  • Teaching reading skills: scanning for information. Bring in several empty bottles and boxes from OTCs. Have the students pass the empty containers around, examining the labels of each one in turn. They must find the information to complete your chart:

                      What symptoms              What’s the dosage            Expiration date                                                               does it relieve?                       for an adult?

Name of                                                                                                                                                                                                                medicine:

1. _________      ____________       ___________       ___________

2. _________      ____________       ___________       ___________

3. _________      ____________       ___________       ___________


  • Teaching expressions of cause. Note how medications state causes of symptoms using due to.  Have students find examples on the containers.  Example: Benadryl – It relieves symptoms due to hay fever or other upper respiratory allergies.
  • Teaching conditionals. Have students find uses of if and in case of and restate the meaning. Examples:

Do not use if seal is broken or missing. = When a seal is broken or missing, you shouldn’t use this medicine.

In case of overdose, get medical help. = If you take too much of this medicine, get medical help.

  • Teaching imperatives. Have students find examples of directions and warnings. Examples:

Directions: Pepto-Bismol tablets – Chew or dissolve in mouth. Drink plenty of clear fluids.

Warnings: Benadryl – Do not use in a child under 2 years of age. Avoid alcoholic drinks.

  • Teaching vocabulary skills: recognizing the suffix “-er” and its meaning.  Have students find examples of the suffix “-er” on labels and restate the meaning. Examples:

Pain reliever = It relieves pain.

Upset stomach reliever = It relieves an upset stomach.

Or ask questions to elicit target vocabulary: What do we call a medicine that reduces a fever? – Fever reducer.

Discovering the Potential of Online Surveys for ESL Instruction

April 1, 2009

While attending the recent TESOL convention in Denver, Colorado, I was excited to see a strong emphasis on blending the latest technology with traditional teaching. Sessions on creative uses of digital media often had standing room only. At the Electronic Village Fair, I was fortunate to find intimate groups of two or three at each computer station. I joined one group led by Marianne Stipe and Lora Yasen of the Tokyo International University of America in Salem, OR. Their demonstration entitled “Teaching Techno-Savvy Students” detailed a project in which each student created and published a digital how-to presentation, from how to buy something on eBay to how to make an avatar.

It was this demonstration that introduced me to online surveys, and since then I have given some thought to their potential. I have taken online surveys myself, but I had never considered using them to aid instruction. Let me offer three possibilities:

  • Listening comprehension. As an initial activity, you can demonstrate how to make an online survey. I agree with Ms. Stipe and Ms. Yasen that SurveyMonkey is ideal in its ease of use. It’s also free. You can check comprehension of your demonstration by having students complete a list of instructions as a cloze exercise.
  • Speaking , writing, and reading skills. Begin a collaborative project by placing students in either pairs or small groups.

1.     Each group must create a survey on a topic. The students may either have complete freedom in choosing their topics, or you can have them draw slips of paper with topics that relate to earlier lessons (a great way to review vocabulary previously studied).

2.     Using SurveyMonkey, each group creates a survey of four or five questions.  You can correct their work on screen, or the students can print out a copy of the survey and submit it. Once corrected, the survey can be sent by e-mail to all class members.

3.     Either during class or as homework, students should complete one another’s surveys.

4.     Meeting back in their groups, students can collect and analyze survey results. (SurveyMonkey makes this very easy with a click of a button called “Analyze”.)

5.     Findings (conclusions and inferences) should be shared orally with the class. This final step provides a great exercise for critical-thinking skills. Discussion based on the survey results should be encouraged.

  • Classroom feedback. To find out how students valued a certain activity or lesson you can use an online survey. Create questions to elicit their opinions and comments.

I offer my thanks to Ms. Stipe, Ms. Yasen, and other TESOL attendees in the Electronic Village for inspiring this post.

Note: Before posting this entry, I ran a survey on favorite days of the week among friends and family. I used SurveyMonkey, and it was an easy and enjoyable experience from beginning to end.

Many Magazines, Many Benefits

March 18, 2009

I’ve noted before that magazines are great items to keep on hand. They can be used for a variety of communicative activities. Here’s one more to try out in your own classroom:

Activity: Magazine Reviews

Level: Intermediate to advanced

Skills Targeted: reading (scanning, skimming); academic skills/ critical-thinking skills (making predictions, making inferences)

STEP 1 – Collect a dozen or so magazines of various types, from GQ to National Geographic. Don’t subscribe to any? Ask your friends, neighbors, and even the receptionist at your doctor’s office for magazines that are no more than a few months old. Try to avoid copies of the same magazine (even if they are different issues).

STEP 2 – Bring your collection to class and initiate a short discussion about magazines to find out which ones the students read (if any). Hand out one magazine to each student (it should be done randomly unless a student regularly reads a certain magazine, in which case you can hand him/her something new). Ask the students to look at the cover, skim the index/ table of contents, and scan the whole magazine for article titles and advertisements. Prepare a sheet of questions to guide this process. Model:

  • What’s the title of your magazine?
  • How often is this magazine published?
  • What kind of articles are there?
  • What kind products are advertised?
  • Who do you think reads this magazine?
  • Would you read this magazine?
  • How much does this magazine cost?

STEP 3 – As a class review any necessary vocabulary. Suggestions: publish, issue, advertise(ment), cost, newsstand price, appeal to, topic, article, title/ be titled.

STEP 4 – Have students work in small groups of 3 or 4. Each student should present his/her findings to the group. (Students should not work with others who looked at the same magazine.) Prepare a sheet of phrases to guide this process. Model:

  • I looked at _______________________.
  • This is a magazine for _______________________ (whom). / I think this magazine mostly appeals to _______________________ (whom).
  • They write about topics such as _______________________. For example, I saw one article titled _______________________.
  • The advertisements are for _______________________ (name the kinds of products).
  • The newsstand price is _______________________, and I think that’s _______________________.
  • Personally, I would/ wouldn’t read this magazine because _______________________.

STEP 5 – Have students change groups so that they can work with other students. (Again, try not to place together those students who looked at the same magazine.) Repeat the process of sharing findings.

STEP 6 – Encourage students to read magazines on their own. Remind them that libraries have free copies for on-site reading. If you are not going to repeat this activity with another group, allow students to take copies home to read on their own.

Putting a Spin on LEA for Upper Level Students

March 17, 2009

For those who are not familiar with the Language Experience Approach (LEA), it was created as a way to develop literacy for native-English-speaking children. In time, the approach found application in the ESL classroom as well. The basic idea is for a teacher or aide to transcribe an oral account as told by the learner and turn it into a readable text. The process integrates speaking, listening, reading, and writing. It is characterized by a high degree of personalization: the content and the language are chosen by the learner. This ensures engagement. How can one’s own story not be of interest to the learner?

I am hardly the first to consider experimenting with the LEA in order to develop the language skills of more advanced adult learners. From one-on-one (as is the tradition) to a group format, and from oral readings to forms of publication, there are probably a dozen or so possible variations of the LEA. Let me offer this one:

ACTIVITY: Story Scramble and Retell

STEP 1 – Place students in groups of 3 (or 4 if necessary). Write two topics on the board and ask the group to initiate a conversation about ONE of them. Choose topics that have broad appeal but are specific enough to quickly inspire personal stories. Examples: (1) Pets I’ve Owned / (2) Bad Food Experience. Allow groups about 5 minutes to converse freely. Give them a 1-minute warning before you tell them to stop.

STEP 2 – After this initial period of conversation, ask each group to choose one student to retell a BRIEF story from his/ her past (less than a minute). If it’s difficult to choose one student, have them flip a coin or draw straws (slips of paper). Tell them each person will have a special role. Student A tells the story. Student B sits next to Student A and transcribes the account exactly as it is told. Student C (and D if there are four) listens and asks questions either for clarification or to prompt Student A.

STEP 3 – The roles change slightly. Students B and C now look at the transcribed text suggest corrections.  Student A must give his/ her approval for changes to be made. Student C rewrites the text starting each new sentence on a new line with wide spacing. Ideally, there should be about 8-10 lines. Model (based on a true story):

                My family had a cat while I was growing up.

                It was an outdoor cat, and it liked to hunt.

                It usually brought home whatever it killed.

                One day it brought a chipmunk.

                The problem was that the chipmunk wasn’t dead.

                It was hurt and scared.

                The cat chased it into our house.

It took my brother and his friend and two hockey sticks to get the chipmunk out of the dining room and back outside.

I stood screaming on a kitchen chair the whole time.

STEP 4 – The text is now cut out line by line to create strips of paper. Ask each group to shuffle the strips and hand them over to another group of students.

STEP 5 – With their set of strips, each group must assemble a story in what they believe is the correct order. Once they feel that the order is logical, they must rewrite the story in paragraph form. Editing and revision are allowed.

STEP 6 – Using the final drafts, the groups read their assembled stories to the class. The original story-teller may comment on the accuracy and quality of the final version. Final drafts can be handed to the teacher for additional corrections.

STEP 7 – (Optional) – Independently, each student may write a short account on the other topic that was not chosen by their group and submit it to the teacher. Once revisions are made, these stories may be shared orally in a later lesson.

While unique on its own, the above activity still respects the basic characteristics of the LEA. The content is student-generated. The language is chosen by the students. The level of skills integration is high: it embraces a whole language approach.

5 Basic Skills for Advanced Students

February 13, 2009

Advanced language learners often demonstrate relative ease in everyday conversation, so our interaction with them can blind us to more basic skills they have yet to master. Here are five such skills and suggestions for helping advanced students to acquire them:

  1. The alphabet. Ask your advanced students to recite the alphabet and you may be surprised how many find it difficult to do so, especially those whose native languages have completely different writing systems. In a previous posting, I encouraged practice with letter names. (Filed under “Pronunciation”.  Spell-it-Out Survey.) Equally important is knowing the sequence of the letters in the alphabet. Students will encounter items in alphabetical order in numerous resources, so to save time and avoid frustration they should know the alphabet from A to Z. You might consider posting the alphabet on a classroom wall and change its position from time to time so that students take notice of it. Have students do an online search for the English alphabet song. Encourage them to learn it.
  2. Numbers. Of course your advanced students can count from 0 to one million. But what about reading numbers with decimals and fractions? Try using statistics to spark conversation. Each student can have a turn reading from a collection of interesting statistics and the class may comment freely on each one.
  3. Proper greetings and closings in letters/ e-mail. It may be surprising to learn how many advanced students of English begin each e-mail message with Hello! and avoid any form of closing, opting simply to type their name at the end. Review the traditional way to start a letter and discuss variations used in e-mail. List and discuss various closings, from formal to informal. Have students write two short messages to practice writing appropriate greetings and closings: one message should be sent to another classmate (have them “Cc” you) and a second should be sent to you.
  4. Titles and forms of address. Be sure your advanced students can use titles appropriately in writing in speaking. Do they know what the abbreviations are for Doctor, Professor, and the like? Do they know when to say Miss and when to say Ma’am? My podcast on addressing strangers can supplement your instruction.
  5. Phone etiquette. Sometimes the lack of knowledge of common expressions takes me by surprise when I hear foreign friends and acquaintances speak because these people are otherwise so very fluent in English. Take for example, the phone response: “This is she.” Or “This is he.” Instead, I hear foreigners identify themselves to callers, saying: “That’s me.” Try creating some role play to practice phone etiquette such as how to identify oneself or how to state that another person is not able to take a call. My podcast on this topic can supplement your instruction.


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