Frequent, Low-Stakes Quizzing

5533236567_6f29870f4b_zStill thinking a lot about student feedback around here, and one great way to get a feel for how students are doing and what they are learning is to frequently ask them to show you: quiz them at least once a week.

Depending on your style and level, that might sound like a lot. But the quizzes are routine (i.e. not surprises), generally not long, and have point-values more on par with homework than with exams. And they can be incredibly informative about students’ progress.

Quizzes can take many forms, but just frequently quizzing isn’t enough. Quizzes don’t just generate grades to record: teachers and students need to respond to the results.

Formative Assessment

Did a lot of the class completely bomb the quiz? Take a moment to listen to what their errors tell you about how you taught the material!

What patterns do you see in who did poorly on the quiz? Did your teaching reach mostly your book-learners but notsomuch your auditory learners? Did only your star pupil (who should’ve placed into the next class up) pass?

How many opportunities did your students have to practice the material and check for accuracy during the lesson?

Do you know that the students understood the material immediately after the lesson, via exit tickets or something similar?

Did students know to study this material?

How did the homework support retention or distract from that particular topic?

How new and/or advanced and/or complicated is the material? Do the students just need a bit more time and exposure?

Most importantly, the purpose of asking these questions is to move forward more effectively, not to feel guilty about a less-than-perfect lesson. We don’t get re-dos, but we do get tomorrows.


Helping Students Adjust

Low quiz grades do not always trigger a constructive response in our students. They may conclude that the teacher is mean and/or terrible, that the course is too difficult, or that they themselves are somehow inherently inadequate.

It doesn’t occur to everyone in the thick of the stress of the semester that poor quiz grades might be helpful indicators pointing toward specific actions they can take to improve their mastery of the material.

The call to action needs to come from the teacher.

Explicit Call to Study – include studying and/or correcting quiz errors as an ongoing homework assignment. Consider offering back a percentage of points for corrections.

Early Warning – remind students that the quiz material will also be on major exams and/or assignments. This was just a first warning that they don’t understand it well enough yet. There is still time to master the information/skill.

Study Skills? – use multiple poor quiz grades as a trigger to speak to students privately about their strategies for taking notes and studying. You can gently point out that what they’re doing isn’t working. You can refer them to various college services, internet and YouTube resources that will help them beef up their skills.

I think especially in ESOL, it can be very surprising to teachers to find out what the students learned well and what they missed.

Quizzing a lot might sound harsh, but if you keep the grades low-stakes and the feedback front-and-center, the results can be eye-opening and useful.


Photo Credit: Paige Powers on Flickr

You’re reading Frequent Low-Stakes Quizzing, originally posted at

Chain Drill, Then What?

824790108_cfa46756ed_nOne super fun grammar activity to use in class is called the Chain Drill. Basically, students take turns in order asking and responding to the same formulaic prompt. Each student’s turn connects to the next, like links in a chain. Read more about chain drills here.

I love chain drills. I love how they get students up out of their seats, and how they are accuracy practice that also engage students’ speaking and listening.

After a chain drill, we’re all smiling, we’re all energized, we’re usually all feeling a step closer to mastery… and then I sometimes lose that momentum.

So… here are three ideas for how to follow a chain drill in class.

1. Another Chain Drill

…but let the students construct it! This might be a good choice if the class is accustomed to chain drills already. It also might fit well in a session that had several grammar points, such as a review day. Have the students decide what point to practice, what the structured piece of grammar is (i.e. were/was, is/am/are, forming Present Continuous, etc.), what the context is (i.e. “How old _______?”), etc.

2. Structured Dialogs

Have some related scenarios ready. Have students pair off and practice some dialogs that are closely related to the point you practiced in the chain drill. It’s similar, but with more opportunities to speak.

3. Fluency Practice

If it went well, why not let the students build upon their high energy and success and practice using the grammar in a less structured way?

This is a fairly general idea, and the details depend heavily on what you’re studying. For example, if you’re in a jobs unit and practicing questions like, “What do you do?,” you can have students interview each other about their own jobs. Perhaps record short answers in a grid?


A chain drill is a great activity, and I recommend seeing it as one step toward additional communicative practice.


Photo Credit: rachaelvoorhees on Flickr

You’re reading Chain Drill, Then What?, originally posted at

Activity Corner: Chain Drill

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

The purpose of a chain drill is for students to practice accuracy with a very targeted language point through speaking and listening.  It is usually interactive in a very prescriptive way.  It also usually involves sitting or standing in a circle, which means that it changes students’ locations a bit, which is always good.

The title “Chain Drill” sounds extremely serious and perhaps a little sinister, but it usually feels more like a game.

On Tuesday 10/26 we used a chain drill to practice asking and answering the question, “How old ___ _____ _____?” or for example, “How old are your parents?”

We sat in our chairs in a circle.  I told them that we would be practicing asking “How old is “  someone in their family and answering, “(s)he is 40.”

I turned to the student to my right.  I asked, “How old is your mother?”  She answered, “She’s 70.”  Great!  Now the student who answered me asked the student to her right, “How old is your [father]?”.  The questions and answers continued around the whole circle.

Then we changed the task a little.  This time, we asked and answered using “How old are” questions about multiple people in the family.  For example, “How old are your siblings?”

That’s it!

This is a great activity for practicing verb tenses and verb declinations, simple scripted questions and answers (Hi, how are you?  Fine, and you?), and simple genuine questions and answers (What was your major in college?  Biology.)

One modification is to also use a “random relevant word generator”, A.K.A. a hat that you’ve put some appropriate words into.

For example, when I wanted my summer Intermediate class to practice asking questions in Present Continuous, I used a hat full of verbs.  On a student’s turn, he picked a verb from the hat and asked the student to his right a question using it in Present Continuous.

Related Article: Chain Drill, Then What?

Related Article: Activity Corner Round-Up


You’re reading Activity Corner: Chain Drill, originally posted at

Activity Corner: Grid Activity

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I took some time to describe some of my favorite activities from time to time.)

I use The Grid Activity for several reasons.  The most obvious is that it’s great fluency practice – it requires that they talk to each other and gets the teacher out of the middle of it.  I also use it as a pre-writing activity, having students gather information that they’ll use to write full sentences later in class.  The activity also serves as practice reading a grid.

What you need: a piece of paper for each student with a large grid drawn on it (for Intermediate I often used one that had three columns and eight rows).

Here’s an example of how I used the Grid Activity to practice Present Continuous grammar.

I drew my own 3×8 grid on the board.  On the top row, I wrote in one question per box:  What’s your name?  |  What are you doing after class today?  |  What are you cooking for dinner tonight?

I then proceeded to have a conversation with my coffee mug (I named it Michael for the purposes of this activity) in which I asked it the three questions on the board and wrote all its answers in the same row.

Then I asked a student the three questions and wrote all their answers on the same row.

Then I told the students it was their turn.  They needed to interview each other.  Just like I did, ask other students these three questions.  Write the answers.

It was interesting because for some students, it was very easy.  A few students had trouble remembering how a grid worked each time.  And a couple other students (the students who had high speaking ability and much lower reading ability) would make up their own questions, usually completely unrelated to the grammar and/or content I wanted to focus on.

The point is that even after both modeling and explaining, you need to watch them very carefully each time you do the activity.  You can’t just assume that because they’re talking and writing that they’re practicing the language you want them to practice and that they use the grid correctly.  Not that it’s a disaster if they’re not doing it perfectly, but some gentle guidance can make it a richer learning experience than general conversation.

After the interview time (it can easily take 30 minutes), I asked them questions about their classmates’ answers.  This made them read their grids for specific information.

I also had them write full sentences based on the information they gathered.  The concept of taking the information from the grid and putting it into sentences is not necessarily obvious.  Even in Intermediate, you have to model this a lot.

Other content possibilities:

  • alphabetics – just have students write down each other’s names.  They’ll have to spell their name out for their classmates.
  • grammar review – use questions that use the target grammar.
    For example, “Where did you grow up?”  “Where would you like to live when you are old?”
  • vocabulary review – use questions that call upon target vocabulary.  For example, in a food unit, have them ask, “What are three foods you like?”  “What are three foods you don’t like?”
  • advanced – you can use more questions with more complex grammar and vocabulary.  This will take the interview process up to their level.  Definitely have them work with the information they gather, writing sentences, paragraphs, or even making graphs.

Practice and the 5WC

Memorial Day Practice by Sister72 on Flickr
Memorial Day Practice by Sister72 on Flickr

Mary Jane left a comment that I didn’t have time to properly reply to this morning.  I don’t really feel I have the brainpower to properly reply right now either, but I should at least try.

Basically, she encouraged me to not forget about actually practicing what I learned from Renner.  And, despite all my reading about experiential learning, I’m wondering whether practicing things I’ve learned fits into this project.

It all comes down to this:

  • I wrote learning objectives while I was unlearned (they focus on gaining a broader awareness of the field).
  • MJ’s advice is in line with the reading I’ve done so far, but would divert me from my stated objectives (by pursuing more depth than I’d planned to).
  • I still like my objectives, but I’m only marginally more learned than when I wrote them.

My current compromise:

I think that right now, or rather tomorrow, I can go back through what I learned from Renner and select a few promising tidbits that might be particularly useful to me in the near future.  I’m looking to go beyond activity ideas to other points I might work with less directly.  It would start a short-list for what to put into practice when the opportune moment arrives.  Maybe that moment will be this Thursday, or maybe not for a month or two.  Either way, I’ll be ready.

Future considerations:

I would like to build intentional practice into future 5WCs, and I think it would be well-suited to a relatively narrow topic.

I’d also like to learn more from books and other teachers before deciding what to subject my students to.

Also, after a slightly strange conversation with a long-time business manager today, I realized that I do act upon very clear  priorities: students first; volunteers second; administration/accountability/curriculum third; everything else if I have time.  5WCs would end up being in the “everything else” category at work because they’re not directly and immediately focused on the students.  I’d have to be strategic about when I decided to implement a practice-based 5WC or else it would just be another good idea I didn’t have time for.

Other ideas for what to do are welcome!  I won’t necessarily act upon them, but I would enjoy the chance to consider them.