Summer Vacation!


I have decided to take the summer off from publishing on this blog.

The plan is to return in September when I start assistant teaching again, or possibly before.

Some links around this blog that may be helpful to you while I’m away:

Have a great summer!


Photo Credit: Carmine.shot on Flickr


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.

You’re reading Activity Corner: From Textbook to Gallery, originally posted at


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: 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.

You’re reading Activity Corner: Put It In Order, originally posted at

Reading in a Writing Class

After my semester-long professional development adventure as an assistant teacher, I had some thoughts about writing classes.

2972159953_59c0946f7dFrom the sidelines, I noticed that one element of struggle that the students faced in the writing class came from their reading.

They were by and large not fast readers. They were not effective at scanning for specific information and were not efficient at skimming for the main idea. They didn’t seem able to recognize citations at a glance.

I know I sound like I’m just repeating a generic reading textbook, but I observed that these skills seemed to really hinder some students’ efforts toward writing and citing an argumentative essay.

The Role of Reading in Writing an Essay

The lead teacher (rather brilliantly, I thought) gave the students two online articles to use in crafting their essays. They needed to use two quotes from the articles and do both in-text citations and a works cited page.

First, I observed some of the students shy away from the reading. I don’t know why.

I have three theories:

  1. They thought the reading would be quick and easy.
  2. They thought the reading would be incredibly difficult.
  3. They didn’t understand that the reading was fundamental to this writing assignment.

I’m leaning toward Theory #3, with a dash of Theory #2. I think the dependence of the writing on the reading was lost on them. I could be wrong here, it’s just a theory. I wasn’t in class yet when the teacher introduced the assignment. And I don’t know what kind of information literacy instruction or research assignments they’ve had.

Anyway, for whatever reason, several students skipped the reading and went ahead and wrote a thesis and got into their body paragraphs.

Eventually, several discovered that the two articles they had to use did not directly support any of their points. They essentially had to start over.

Ineffective Mining for Quotes

They eventually started looking through the articles for quotes. But several seemed to be confused about what was reported speech and what the author was saying, and so got confused when the article appeared to contradict itself. Others were stumped by vocabulary from a .org article.

In a similar vein, certain tag words that strongly tinged the tone of the whole paragraph (i.e. “allegedly”) escaped their notice. They didn’t seem to have the article’s title in mind to help them interpret any of the above. And they didn’t appear to be using the section titles strategically.

I ended up helping with a fair amount of reading comprehension in that class session.

Utter Confusion Over Citations

Once the students I was working with identified quotes and managed to integrate them into a body paragraph, an amazing number of questions came up about how to cite them. The teacher had gone over the format with them several times, and examples were on the board and on a handout.

Even after all of this, one student asked me to re-explain it to her from the beginning. Twice. I think it was one of those situations where she understood all our words but just didn’t get what we were saying.

I think that some students’ confusion over citations came in part from a deficiency in scanning. They didn’t seem to take in the tell-tale shapes of the in-text citations the way my practiced eye does. And if they don’t see that, it’s hard to see the purpose in having such a strict format, which makes it hard to internalize it.

And speaking of purpose, we have to realize that we’re asking them to produce academic writing before they’ve really read or used academic writing. I think that because of this, we really ought to go back to the purpose of the citations.

Separate Classes…

I’m not against running classes that work primarily on one skill. Yes, it’s an unnatural distinction, but by definition you can’t focus on everything at once.

That said, I think that the students didn’t understand that this reading was fundamental to this writing assignment. And I think that the simple fact of it being a “writing class” was a big factor in that confusion.

On the teacherly side of the coin, I think that when we’re focused on teaching writing, it’s easy to just assume that their other skills are at least as well developed as their writing. It’s easy to take it for granted that they can accurately and quickly read our instructions, identify parts of a news article at a glance, or appreciate the shape of a citation. I certainly took those skills for granted, and from my observations, I was wrong to do so.

Let’s keep our separate classes for now. They serve our purposes well enough. But let’s not let ourselves or our students get complacent. They’re artificial separations we use for our convenience – they don’t change the interconnected nature of learning.


Photo CreditCaitlin Regan on Flickr

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Activity Corner: Scaffolding Peer Review

(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.)

17166723465_aec07bcf7fPeer review can be very useful for the students as well as the teacher.

In my ideal peer review session, students swap papers, then give each other encouragement and gently point out each others’ more obvious errors. Based on that, they edit their own papers, and then hand them in to me.

Two challenges that I’ve faced with peer review are getting students’ buy-in and ensuring that the students who struggle are not way off the mark with their advice.

This activity is a suggestion for how to get a class started with peer review.

It’s also another nice way to use student-generated content during class (like snowballs, one-question interviews, and the grid activity).

In a nutshell, I suggest that you simply use the students’ essays as you’d use any other example writing from the textbook. Give them the reading and several (not too many!) targeted questions to answer as their review. Reviews and essays are handed in at the same time. When you grade Student A’s assignment, read and respond to the reviews on Student A’s assignment, too. Agree or disagree with them and explain why.

In this way, you assess and scaffold the students’ ability to review each other’s work. You can learn a lot about where a student is at by seeing their comments on another students’ work. And your feedback helps them improve.


  1. Think about what you want students to gain from reviewing each other’s work. Pick the two or three main points.
  2. Frame questions that help the reviewers focus on these points. Depending on the level, these might be yes/no questions, ask for an appropriate example from the essay, or ask for an explanation.
  3. Create a simple worksheet with these questions on it. At the top, be sure to have lines for the date, the writer’s name, the essay’s title, and the reviewer’s name. Leave room at the bottom for your feedback to the reviewer about their review. Only one review per piece of paper, for sorting’s sake. Make sure you have enough copies of the worksheet for students to review multiple assignments, as time will allow.
  4. Introduce peer review in class the day the writing is due. Ideally, peer review is good practice for the reviewer and good information for the writer. Today, you’re going to begin by just having everyone practice reviewing.
  5. Students should pass their completed essays two people to the left. They should read the essay that’s passed to them and then fill out the entire review worksheet. I recommend a time limit. As time allows, they can pass the essays left again (and again…) and review the next one that comes their way.
  6. Essays and reviews get handed in at the same time. If you have a class with more than about five people, I recommend that you sort the papers as they hand them in. Make a pile of Student A’s essay and all the reviews about that essay, a separate pile of Student B’s essay with all the reviews on his essay, and so on.


Let’s say I’m teaching an advanced academic writing ESL class and we are currently focusing on thesis statements. This topic had a rocky start but students appear to be much more comfortable with it now.

For homework, I assigned them each to write three direct thesis statements about any topics they wished.

For peer review, I decided that I wanted to be sure that the students understood the anatomy of a thesis statement, and I wanted them to practice evaluating the points.

I placed the following on a simple worksheet:

Peer Review

Date: ______
Your name: _______
Whose homework are you reviewing? _____

Thesis Statement 1:
A. What are the three points that will be raised in this essay?
B. Do you think that these points are all relevant to the topic?
C. Do you think that these points are different enough from each other?

[on actual worksheet, repeat A, B, and C for Thesis Statements 2 and 3]

I made enough copies that students could review three assignments. I figured that we would only have time for two each, though.

I explained that today we would be introducing peer review. What is a peer? What is review? Peer review means that you evaluate each other’s work. I asked, why would I have you look at each other’s work? Together, we made the points that they can learn from each other’s correct answers and from each other’s mistakes. Also, the process of evaluating is really useful.

I explained that we will be doing more peer reviews in the future, not only today.

I explained the process of passing the homework to the left. Then I handed out the peer review sheets and asked them to spend only about three minutes on each thesis statement. (I considered doing an example with them up on the document camera, but decided that at this level, we could skip this.)

After about eight minutes, I asked them to finish the one they were on so we could all pass the homework assignments to the left again. They did go a little slowly, so we only had time for two reviews each.

When it was time to hand in the papers, I asked them to hand me Sara’s homework first. Then I asked for the two reviews of Sara’s work and put them under it. Then I asked for the next person’s with the two reviews of their work, etc. It took an extra two minutes of class time but saved me a lot of awkward paper shuffling later!

I graded the homework and the reviews of it at the same time. I made sure to do this before I planned my next lesson so that their performance on this task could inform instruction.

Variations and Other Content Possibilities:

  • Instead of having students pass around their original work, collect it all and hand out a packet of all the work to each student. It’s like a student-generated mini-textbook that you can use for many assignments (i.e. jigsaw reading).
  • For lower level ESL, they can review one sentence and check off basics like 1. starts with a capital letter, 2. ends with a period, and 3. I can read their writing.
  • When students are giving presentations, have the students who are listening answer two or three questions about the presenter’s performance. Again, focus on skills you hope to reinforce. Did the presenter speak loudly enough? Were their slides easy to read?
  • Students can quickly check each other’s assignments for factors like completion, handwriting, etc. This is scanning practice for the reviewers and reinforces these elements of the assignments for everyone!
  • This would be great verb tense practice too. In a Present Continuous unit, reviewers can write down the helping verb that was used and the main verb that was used. They can also check off whether each of these elements was correct.

You’re reading Activity Corner: Scaffolding Peer Review, originally posted at

Activity Corner: Snowballs

(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.)

2946943615_c95e521e6aI went to MD TESOL earlier this month and came away with some great warm-up ideas.

What I like about this one is that the students provide the input, but it gets randomized so nobody has to be put on the spot. It’s a particularly great way to review examples of grammar, writing, etc. anonymously, but can also be used for get-to-know-you activities.


  • Write a prompt on the board. (A question, several questions, an instruction to write a type of grammar construction, etc.)
  • Students each write their answers on a piece of paper.
  • Students crumple up their paper (“snowball”) and toss it into the middle of the room.
  • Everyone takes half a minute or so to pick up the crumpled papers and toss them toward the center again, which really mixes them up.
  • Each student picks up a random crumpled paper and unfolds it.
  • The students complete the activity with the random paper (i.e. read the example on the paper and correct it)


Let’s say I want to review Present Continuous with a fairly advanced grammar class.

I might put a picture up on the projector that shows people doing several different activities. Perhaps children on a playground.

I’d write the prompt, “Write three sentences describing what the children are doing. Please use Present Continuous in each sentence.”

The students would write their sentences. Then I’d have them crumple their paper, toss it into the middle of the room, and we’d all randomize them.

The students would each take a random paper, check it for errors by themselves, then switch with a partner. I’d circulate and help. If there’s time, we could also share them all as a class, or we could just spot-check a few where the partners disagreed on the corrections.

Other Content Possibilities:

  • as a more personal activity, students could write down information about themselves. When students receive their random snowball, they have to try to figure out who their paper is describing. In Level 1, this could be visible information (i.e. “brown shirt, long hair, glasses”). In higher levels, it could be less visible information (i.e. “I play the piano. I love to read. I work in a hospital.”)
  • ask students to produce pretty much any grammar point
  • ask a few content questions (perhaps about the reading assignment?) and then “grade” each other’s papers. The point would be to learn the content better from the process of answering and correcting, not to receive the grade. You could ask them to report what grade they would have gotten, though, as an extremely informal formative assessment.
  • in academic writing, you can ask students to write two thesis statements or three example topic sentences. Then they can evaluate and improve upon each other’s examples.


Photo Credit: Turinboy on Flickr

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