Activity Corner: Quizzing Styles

33272595691_0d0b0037cdQuizzing students is a pretty common classroom activity that deserves at least one slot in the activity corner.

It doesn’t really fit my usual template though.

Instead, here are the primary ways that four different teachers I know use quizzes in their own classrooms. I’ve changed a few minor details to make these folks anonymous. Over the years they’ve shared with me what they do, but I did not ask them for permission to star in my blog.

I’m sharing these four styles of quizzing because I think they’re all very strong. I hope you find them useful too!

Four Quiz Methods

Low-Beginning Content and Test Prep

One teacher I know gives very short quizzes (2-3 questions) every day at the end of her community ESL classes. She uses it as a formal formative assessment – to make sure they learned what she thinks they learned. She deliberately formats them in the same style as the standardized tests her students need to take from time to time. When someone commented that this all sounded pretty intense for low-beginning ESL, she replied mildly, “If you set the expectation, they learn to meet it.”

Take-Home Review

Another teacher I know gives take-home quizzes after every session of his ESL classes, no matter what level he is teaching. They tend to be 5 – 10 questions. He uses these quizzes to review the main points from class and from the homework. He deliberately makes them as straightforward as possible. They count as a small percentage of the students’ grades, so they’re not high-stakes, but they’re not a joke. He asks students to try to complete them closed book. Whatever they can’t remember, they can then do open book. And they can come to class early to collaborate on the questions they struggled with right before handing it in. It’s due first thing the next class session.

Dictations, Modified

Yet another teacher gives dictation quizzes at the beginning of every grammar session, usually 5 or 6 questions. She uses these as both review and formative assessment. Plus if students are late or absent, they miss the quiz. The questions are always connected to the previous class session and/or homework. Sometimes they questions are straight dictations, and sometimes the students must transform/correct what she says (i.e. she reads a statement, the students write that statement as a question).

Traditional, With Corrections

A fourth teacher I know only gives periodic quizzes. She deliberately makes them difficult and on the long side (at least 12 questions). She uses them to encourage her students to study hard and really learn the material in order to pass the quizzes. She makes sure to allocate class time for going over answers, and allows students to earn back a small number of additional points if they submit corrections with explanations. In this way her quizzes are also great review.


How do you use quizzing?


Photo Credit: Animated Heaven on Flickr

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Activity Corner: From Textbook to Gallery

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

This is a really flexible activity kind of like jigsaw and grid activities.

This is a great one for making the textbook fun and getting students out of their seats. It’s also a great way to have students tackle particularly difficult questions because there is a lot of thinking out loud, explaining to each other, etc.


  • Copy five or so relevant questions from the textbook so that you can print them out and tape them individually to the board. (Maximum is number of students divided by 2) Tape them horizontally with as much room between as you can.
  • Students work in groups of 2 or 3. Give each group a stack of sticky notes.
  • Each group begins at a different example. They should read it and write down their answer(s) on sticky notes, one per group. They should stick their notes under the question.
  • The groups rotate to the next question. They should consider the question and the previous group’s answer, then stick their own answers on the bottom.
  • Repeat until time is up or until all students have answered all questions.
  • When going over answers, ask students to justify their answers, look up answers, etc. A lot of critical thinking happens here!
  • Take note of the ones that many groups were confused about!
  • Point out what page in the textbook the activity was taken from so they can refer back to it.


In our academic writing class, my lead teacher noticed the class seemed confused about restrictive vs. non-restrictive commas, so she did this activity with several textbook examples.

She posted the examples, and then each group had to use two notes: one to indicate whether the example had restrictive or non-restrictive commas, and the other to indicate if the information was necessary or extra.

The students and she had a great group discussion while going over the answers, and she used their answers to inform the homework and the next quiz.


  • the sticky notes can either be one color per group, or all the same color so their answers are anonymous.
  • if students disagree with the answer immediately before theirs, you can require them to post an additional sticky note explaining why they disagree.
  • you could have students hide their posted answers, either posting them backwards or placing them under the question paper. This way each group would see each question afresh.
  • this could be modified for low-literacy classes to use pictures as questions and one-word answers on post-its
  • in case of low mobility and/or longer answers, the different questions could be placed in numbered folders and passed from seated group to seated group.
  • this activity could be used for grammar, content classes, and all levels of ESL.

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Scaffolding Editing

2750551146_1d22ab2e84Last week, I described several factors that make editing a particularly difficult task for ESL students.

Today, I’m going to offer some ideas for scaffolding editing in an academic writing setting. They’re based on my own experiences (including some from this semester in my lead teacher’s classroom), advice that’s been given to me, and my own ideas.

This is sort of a mini Activity Corner of its own, all about editing!

Strategies for Scaffolding Editing


Strategies to incorporate into your writing class routine

  • Practice writing the same information in several ways. Juggle clauses, use synonyms, use short sentences and long ones, etc.
  • Hand out example work that needs editing side by side with how you would change it. You’ll need to emphasize that this is not The Answer Key – just a pretty good answer. This could be a good information gap activity for small groups.
  • Practice editing a sentence or two together as a class each day as a warm-up. You could focus on grammar, word choice, style, hook/thesis/topic sentence effectiveness, etc.

Teacher Edits

Strategies for marking written assignments at home

  • Don’t fix things that you want your students to learn when you edit their writing. Identify errors for them, but let the fixing be the students’ job.
  • With minor errors, either let them go or quick write in that missing “the.”
  • Use codes (i.e. WW = wrong word) and/or color codes (i.e. yellow = I don’t understand, pink = This is great!!) in-line to help them identify specific errors and give them a clue as to what’s wrong. Be consistent with your code all semester.

Peer Review

Strategies for students to help edit each other’s writing

  • Prep the class for peer review and support their skills as reviewers with this Peer Review Scaffolding activity. You can do this to review each other’s homework, example thesis statements, etc.
  • Set students up to give and receive both positive and negative feedback. Make it the expectation and build it into the task itself.
  • If you use a code when you edit student work, consider having the student use that code (or part of it) to mark each other’s work.
  • Consider using a short checklist or yes/no questions to keep students focused.

Student Corrections

Strategies for having students correct their own writing, after teacher edits and/or peer review

  • Offer bonus points or a few “points back” if students choose to submit corrections. Set an upper limit on how many points they can earn.
  • Identify each student’s most common (or serious) error types and assign corrections on these. Corrections should be on separate paper and include a short explanation of why the change is correct. Note: this is really difficult and time-consuming for students. From what I hear though, it really pays off.

In The Moment

Strategies for when you’re circulating in class and a student is stuck on an editing task: 

  • Ask the student to read it out loud. This can be especially helpful with punctuation. Note: this will probably help auditory learners and Global English speakers more than it will help your book learners and hesitant speakers.
  • Target the basic organization: paragraph level, then sentence order. Ask the student if the organization is strong and every sentence is where it needs to be.
  • Target the shortest sentences. They’re the easiest to get right.
  • Target the longest sentences. They’re the easiest to garble. There is likely a problem.
  • When targeting long sentences, have the student break it into multiple short sentences on scratch paper. This can help them see the structure and fix the errors in the longer sentence.

What do you have to add?

Would it be useful if I spelled out details and examples of any of these strategies? Let me know in the comments!


Photo Credit: julian on Flickr

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Activity Corner: Language Experience Approach

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

4856159509_b5e34f2735The Language Experience Approach (LEA) is one of those “activities” that can actually just replace the curriculum.

It’s typically used with students with low writing ability. This usually means they have low (English) speaking ability also, but not necessarily. The genius of it is that accommodates students’ language ability because the students generate the text.

16559888601_0d74dc9defIt works with children and adults. It works with students from pre-literate cultures, “regular” ESL students, and low literacy students who are fluent in English. It’s always interesting and always fresh and new.

So what is it?!


First, you do something as a class. Take a walk, go on a field trip, do something real in the classroom. Everybody attends, everybody participates.

Then, the students dictate a true story about what they just did.

This text (based on the original experience) can then be used as a springboard for vocabulary building, grammar study, cloze activities, reading practice, conversation practice, memorization, etc.

This is probably the shortest procedure I’ve written so far in the ESL Activity Corner! This is also probably the richest activity I’ve included here.


Back in a lesson journal post from 2011 (almost a full 6 years ago?!), I mentioned a slight modification of LEA for my intermediate level class. I’m going to re-explain it, but this time through the lens of LEA.

First, our classroom was switched on us in the middle of our term. We went from a spacious square room with an entire wall of windows to a small irregularly trapezoidal room with literally no windows. I thought of to myself as The Cave. This was the “real” thing that formed the basis of the LEA activity.

Now, my students were not a bunch of complainers. They kept attending, they kept studying… but they were clear that they did not like this room. I had spoken to the building manager, who told me they were going to be renovating that wing of the building. But we kept an eye on it, and the renovation did not seem to be happening.

It came up in class one day that they were still not pleased with the classroom, and that the old room was still untouched and unused. So we did a group writing assignment.

I set up a really simple chart on the board to compare the old room and the new room. I asked them for examples of what was better in the old classroom and worse in the new one. They came up with many examples!

Then together we chose the top three or four strongest points from the brainstorm. I set up some flip chart paper and began a letter to my boss, “Dear ___,” Students took turns suggesting sentences, and the group talked about them and made changes or agreed, and then I wrote down their thoughts on the giant letter.

They outlined why their old room was better and pointed out that it was sitting empty. They insisted on ending the letter with something like “Thank you for free English classes,” which I thought spoke volumes. All of us signed the letter.

I folded it up and hand-delivered it to my boss, and the next week we were back in our beautiful old classroom.


It was a really worthwhile activity as it was, and I could have easily extended it more by recycling the text into sentence-scrambles, cloze activities, and a conversation circle topic.


  • interesting demos are another option, though full-participation experiences are generally better, especially at the lower levels.
  • as students’ abilities increase, they can write the story rather than dictating.
  • in a multi-level class, the lower level students can dictate to the higher level students.
  • it works well one-on-one
  • for students who have a fairly solid vocabulary and some workable grammar, it works well even with activities that are not shared. The story-telling process becomes an even more authentic communication, conveying new information to the reader.
  • using the text – cloze, students or teacher write comprehension questions, change the verb tenses, re-imagine the ending, create a vocabulary list, scramble the sentences…
  • extending the topic – have the general topic of the experience be the topic for a conversation circle session, or ask students if they’ve had a similar experience before and work with them to generate texts about those experiences.
  • keep the LEA texts the students generate as a class portfolio. It’s like the students are writing their own textbook!

This is just a wonderful activity to do with students at and below the Intermediate level. I hope you will try it!

Photo Credit 1: jelm6 on Flickr

Photo Credit 2: COD Newsroom on Flickr

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Activity Corner: Information Gap

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

13981256424_9658f31715Information Gap is a classic type of flexible communicative activity. It’s a close cousin of the Jigsaw Reading, in which students provide each other with information.

The teacher does not have the answers. Instead, the students are divided into two groups that each have answers for the other. The students communicate to give and receive the information they need.


Here is a simple information gap activity example. Each student is given a slip of paper with one of these sentences.

Group A: Ann is traveling to Brazil on a _______. It leaves at 3:10 Tuesday afternoon.

Group B: Ann is traveling to Brazil on a boat. It leaves at _______ Tuesday afternoon.

Students partner up across groups. They are not supposed to look at each other’s papers.

Group A would ask a question to fill in their blank. For example, “How is Ann getting to Brazil?” Group B would do the same, asking something like, “What time is the boat departing?”

That’s it!


  1. Decide what you want your students to practice. See below for some suggestions.
  2. Choose or create your materials. Note that materials can be reading passages, lists, maps, nutrition labels, and so on. The more material, the longer the activity can be.
  3. Prepare the information for Group A and Group B. The more blanks, the more time the students will need. This can be as low-tech as using white-out. It’s very handy to number each blank. Different colored paper can also be handy to prevent confusion.
  4. In class, prepare students for the content and language to be used in the information gap task.
  5. Explain the activity: each group is missing some information and they need to talk to each other to fill in the blanks. They will work with a partner who is missing different information.
  6. Be sure to emphasize on what the purpose is. For example, if you primarily want them to practice forming and asking questions, be clear about this so they don’t gloss over their helping verbs and intonation.
  7. Form partnerships however you see fit. Make sure each partnership has one student with the Group A paper, and the other has the Group B paper.
  8. As the students begin, circulate to observe, provide help, etc.
  9. Check answers. This can be done as a class, in pairs of partnerships, with all the Group As and all the Group Bs… Depending on your objectives, you might also choose to have students model how they asked for the information.

Content Possibilities:

  • reading any level of informational text in any subject
  • in academic writing class, could be sample paragraphs or essays
  • conversation/intonation practice – the content is just a vehicle for communicating verbally
  • spelling out loud – content just a vehicle for spelling words out loud
  • skimming and scanning
  • map reading and/or prepositions of place
  • forming questions
  • vocabulary practice
  • introducing the syllabus or other “boring” policy information


  • Regular grammar exercises – the students check each other’s work. Group A does the odds and Group B does the evens. Each group is provided with the answer key for the other group. I recommend checking answers verbally – so much of our grammar practice skews toward written instead of spoken!
  • Multilevel classes – Group A could be the lower level and Group B be the higher level. Group B would have more blanks. Group A could practice spelling them out loud if they didn’t know the word.
  • Metacognition – students guess the information in the blank first. (You’ll want to at least triple-space these ones.) This could be especially useful with content in an ESP class.
  • Editing practice – create an info-gap of level-appropriate writing that needed editing, but leave a gap instead. Students can write in their answer. You can then provide the original and Ss can discuss their different answers and compare them to the original. (You might want to provide suggested answers as well, especially at lower levels.)

This is a super flexible type of activity – I hope you’ll give it a try!

Photo Credit: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung on Flickr

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Activity Corner: Quick-Switch Conversations

Callanish Stone Circle(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

This activity works best with at least ten participants. It’s a great communicative activity, and makes use of a lot of speaking and listening.

Its logistics are inspired by speed dating, but it’s classroom-appropriate.

In this set-up, students are organized in such a way that with very efficient movement, students can switch conversation partners quickly. If you have enough space, students will form two concentric circles. If you have limited space,  they’ll form two lines instead.

It really lends itself well to fluency practice, because it’s very high-energy, fast, and noisy – not conducive to careful concentration!

Since partners are switched so quickly, it also lends itself to repetitious practice.


  1. Decide what you want the students to practice. See below for ideas. This is a flexible exercise – make it work for you!
  2. Write prompts on cards if needed. For repetitious practice, just write the one prompt on the board.
  3. In class, describe what students will be practicing. “We are going to do an activity to practice ____.” Maybe even write the purpose on the board.
  4. Explain that in this activity, you will have many fast conversations with many people. When you hear the signal, you will get a new conversation partner.
  5. Model, especially less advanced classrooms. (see below)
  6. Help students get into formation! This will be two concentric circles or two lines. Either way, the students in one circle/line will face the students in the other circle/line.
  7. Remind them of the purpose. Remind them of the signal sound. Remind them which circle/line moves.
  8. Sound the signal and have everyone start!
  9. Stay nearby to watch, listen, and prompt.
  10. Keep signaling the partners to switch as appropriate.


Click for an example where we practiced a verb tense and adverbs of frequency. We had 23 students in Intermediate community English and we used prompt cards.

Below is an example of how to use this for repetitious practice, plus how to model the activity.

In a beginner class, I wanted students to practice introducing themselves again and again. We had already practiced dialogs and vocabulary from the textbook – we just needed to get more comfortable now.

For this class, I definitely had to model the activity. After I explained the purpose and what we’d be doing, I brought four volunteer students to the front of the room and had them stand along the board. I wrote “Hello! My name is ____” on the board and then introduced myself to the first student until my signal went off (I set my cell phone alarm for 15 seconds for this example). As soon as it went off, I stepped sideways to the next person and began again with the prompt. I repeated this with each of the four students up front.

Next, we needed the students to be in formation. I helped six form the inner circle. Then I asked the other six students one by one to stand in facing a specific student. I told them specifically, “Ahmed is your first partner,” “Amal is your first partner,” to try to make the abstract concrete.

Since this was a beginner class, I also had them practice changing partners. We were in a smallish space so I had only the inner circle move. I had my signal go off and the inner circle students all stepped to their left. I had the signal go again and the inner students stepped to the left again.

Then I reminded them that we were practicing introducing ourselves. The outer students would begin. “Hello, my name is ___. What’s your name? Nice to meet you!”

“One, two, three, talk!”

When they went all the way around, we switched to having the inner students initiate the conversation.

This was a lot of set-up time! It was also a lot of repeating the same thing, but the interesting format made it pretty fun and less like a drill.

Content Possibilities:

  • a grammar form
  • general get-to-know-you conversation
  • a specific piece of conversation (i.e. introduce yourself, ask where mens’ shoes are at the store, etc.)
  • vocabulary words
  • prompts can be pictures or objects (or words, of course)

Photo Credit: Andrew Bennett on Flickr

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Activity Corner: Put It In Order

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

My lead teacher used one of these activities to introduce essay structure in our Advanced Academic Writing class last week. She gave each student an element of an academic essay (i.e. “thesis statement,” “topic sentence 2,” etc.), and as a class they had to tape them to the board in the correct order.

I’ve used it in the past to teach sequence signal words (first, then, etc.) and to review several different verb tenses all at once. I’ve also used a variation where students put words in an appropriate order to form a sentence.

One of my Russian teachers used it on us to teach… well, I’m not sure what she was trying to teach. It was the first week of class and she gave us two stanzas worth of separate lines of a Russian poem. We had to put them in order. It was waaaay over my head.

This is a great activity for students to do in small groups or as one big group. They’ll be negotiating meaning together and the conversations will be authentic because of that. It can be individually done as well, but there’s less conversation and lots more cutting out that way.


  1. Decide what you want your students to put in order. Some kind of chronological or other objective sequence (i.e. introduction, body, conclusion) is the most clear-cut way to do this.
  2. Decide how many students to a group, and how many groups.
  3. Decide where the students will be working – at their tables, on the board, etc.
  4. Cut out the pieces onto separate strips of paper.
  5. In class, introduce the activity. Explain that you’ll be putting the papers in order. Explain what the students will be looking for to determine the order.
  6. Give the students time to figure it out.
  7. Go over the students’ results. Highlight the clues that pointed us to the right answer (i.e. “last” would go at the end; a thesis statement always goes at the end of the intro). Go over what is correct and be sure to answer questions about it.


Other prep ideas:

  • Bring several pairs of scissors and have students help you cut strips.
  • Write on index cards or sentence strip card stock.
  • Assign students to each write on each card, then they can put the cards in order. Example: ask each student to write one sentence that told one activity they did last week and when they did it. (This element can be practice of Simple Past.) Then they can put all their sentences in order on the board.

Levels of focus:

  • word building (i.e. prefix, root, suffixes)
  • sentence building (each strip is just one word)
  • paragraph building
  • narrative building / timeline

Other uses:

  • Conversation starter – have students put things in a more subjective order, such as importance, preference, fairness, etc. This sets up the class for meaningful conversations: students can discuss why they put things where they did, ask each other questions, and practice politely disagreeing. Examples: best food, most important belongings, spouse traits, etc.
  • Syllabus study – the first day of class, when going over the syllabus, have students put their major assignments in order so they for sure know what’s coming up in the semester.
  • Grammar study – include sentences in various past, present, and future tenses and aspects that the students are familiar with.
  • Content – put a step in a process on each strip, then have the students put those in order. Examples: photosynthesis, blood transfusions, rebuilding a carburetor, etc.

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