Search This Blog

28 June 2013

Pairing Up Students

Cambridge Publishers has a great newsletter, and in the latest, there was an article about different ways to pair up students for partner activities. You can find it here.  The author (Alice Savage) mentions line ups, but her "line ups" are different from mine (which you can find here: Line-ups). She asks students a question, and their answer puts them in different lines. After that, she counts them off to put them in groups. 

She also mentions using "split" sentences: she takes sentences, cuts them in half, distributes them to students, and they have to find the other half to their sentence. I use this idea quite often to teach grammar and for partnering students, and it's really quick efficient and uses the target language of the course of that day. It could also be used to teach expressions and certain target language being focused on at that time. It's also more exciting than asking the students to count off by however many groups you want. 

Confession: this is my go-to method. It's fast and easy, especially because I devote time at the beginning of the semester teaching them this partnering method. It's not as creative, but in my day-to-day teaching, partnering students happens so often that I'm often more interested in getting them into groups quickly, rather than creatively. 

For more ideas about partnering students creatively, see my post called Dictionary Entries

Have a wonderful weekend!

25 June 2013

Creating and Challenging Arguments

As I've mentioned before, my intermediate integrated skills class (listening/speaking/note-taking; ELI 071) is using Mosaic 1 this semester. One of the speaking strategies learned is "Asking for Confirmation to Challenge Excuses. You can see a photo of the "Strategy" from the book. Basically, the book teaches students to summarize what they speaker is saying and than challenges that excuse. I don't always use the suggested activities in the book, as I usually add multiple elements to practicing strategies; however, their suggested activity turned out so superbly that I had to share with you!

From Mosaic 1: Listening/Speaking

The book suggested a role play: one person be the student and one be the teacher. Here's the pattern they suggest:

Student: Make an excuse for something you don't want to do. *
Teacher: Ask for confirmation, questioning the truth of the excuse.
Student: Make another excuse.
Teacher: Ask for confirmation again, questioning the truth of the excuse.

*I told the students it could be any excuse students make... And they make a lot!

Some of the students excuses were spot on... exactly what they say in class and in office hours. For example, one student had an excuse for being late; another had an excuse about not finishing his homework. The surprising part of this for me was the fabulous challenges the students had for the excuses! Some of them were better than anything I could have ever come up with. For example, one "teacher," whose student had an excuse for being late because her sister took her shoes, challenged her about not having another pair and putting fashion before class! Another "teacher," whose student couldn't do his homework because he was homesick and couldn't connect with his family on Skype, asked whether or not his family did his homework for him and if all ELI students could skip doing homework because they missed their families! Some students took words right out of my mouth, such as "I don't want to hear any excuses" and "What were you doing all day after class that you couldn't complete your assignment." Not only were the students' excuses spot on (they have a lot of practice, trust me :-), but their challenges were as well. I have decided that I am going to start asking them to challenge their own excuses so that I don't have to!

I think this was a valuable interactive lesson because it got students communicating with each other. They had to negotiate meaning with somebody else and create excuses or challeges for those excuses. This activity really helped them understand this strategy, as they all did very well on this portion of their chapter test. Now to get them to stop making excuses in real life... 

Do you have any interactive role-play activities that have helped students improve their communication skills? I would love to hear (and implement) them! 

24 June 2013

Special Olympics, Part 2

I promised a second (and third) post on my class' Special Olympics Experience, and here is the second. So sorry for the delay. I hope you've enjoyed some of the other posts in the mean time. Here is the first post about the students' pre-volunteering reflections if you haven't read it yet. 

My students and I met at the Special Olympics event in Mt. Pleasant at nine in then morning. We had a few students who ran late, but we all found each other and got on our way. First, the students signed in (they even got t-shirts!) at the volunteer tent, and they scattered. 

Some students worked in the gym and worked as volleyball assistants. They chased balls and returned them to the athletes competing. A few even got the chance to be line judges! One, who is a basketball and workout fanatic, was very proud of himself. He said that the referee praised him for how quickly he learned the rules and applied them to the games. Another admitted he made many mistakes; however, the athletes and coaches encouraged him despite his mistakes. He said that his helped encourage his self-confidence, especially in speaking English. 

Image via the Special Olympics
Another student helped stuff "gift bags" for the athletes. She aided another worker put water bottles, fruit, and goodies into bags for the athletes to enjoy. Her position allowed her to communicate with volunteers and athletes. She also got to share about her culture and country, which made her extremely proud of herself.  A few other students escorted athletes to their events and to watch other events. This activity allowed them to get to know the other volunteers and the Special Olympics athletes. They also gained self-confidence in their English speaking skills.

Everybody was required to volunteer for at least 3 hours, but many of them stayed even longer! I will write another post about the students' reflection, but I want to emphasize how much the students interacted with other people and how much they enjoyed it. They all recommended that I give this assignment again to my other classes, and that they would volunteer at the Special Olympics again. 

Please stay tuned for my next post about the students' reflections on their experiences. 

P.S. Follow me on Twitter @Caitlin_ESL

23 June 2013

Mobile Learning

How can we utilize students' phones effectively in the classroom?
Image via
Mobile learning is a new-ish phenomenon; I have been reading about them everywhere recently. Alexandra Lowe recently posted about using smartphones and tablets on the TESOL blog, and I just found a great video from the British Council on using cell (mobile) phones in the classroom: They provide three different ways to use smart phones: pictures, voice recording, and apps. Bonus: the first two can be used with "dumb" phones and don't need an internet connection. 

No smartphone? No problem!
My students always bring their phones to class, so I like the idea of integrating the use of phones into my lessons. My beginning-level reading/writing course is using the Oshima and Hogue series for writing, and one of the chapters is about describing a picture. The book provides a picture with a sample description; however, rather than having students describe a random picture from the book or internet, I can have them describe a picture on their phone. Then they can read their paragraph to their classmates (this would work in pairs or small groups) and show the picture that they're describing. This would be much more meaningful to have them describe and write about an actual person in their lives, and they wouldn't have to "make stuff up from their head" (a common complaint about non-context-based writing). 

How do you (or could you) utilize smart phones in your classroom? What are other ways we can incorporate students' interests in the classroom to maintain engagement?

P.S. More with Alexandra Lowe: Secrets for Adult ELLs Part 1 and Part 2

22 June 2013

Teacher Echo

Here's a great post about the negative aspects of teacher recasting. I find that I automatically "echo," or recast what my students say. Half to say it correctly  and half so that the other students hear the thought. The articles points out that not all communication needs (nor should) go through the teacher. This is neither authentic nor useful. I have always wondered why some students complain that they can't understand their classmates, and this may be one of the reasons. The students rely on me to negotiate for them, rather than negotiate for meaning themselves.

Do you recast what students say? Why or why not? If you're a student, would you prefer if you teacher didn't always repeat what you and your classmates say?

21 June 2013

The English We Speak

The BBC has a great section of their website dedicated to learning English. I think they have great stuff; if you haven't, you should check it out. They also have a wonderful section called "The English We Speak." Here you can find audio files and scripts for common English phrases. The speakers are British, but I think this is a good thing for students studying in the US. They often complain that they can't understand other "accents," and exposing them to these various dialects will help them improve their listening comprehension. 

A leopard
Can a leopard change it's spots?
Image via BBC
However, the main reason I like these is because they teach very common expressions. For example, A Leopard Can't Change It's Spots would be perfect for my 052 (beginning reading/writing) class because our unit theme is animals (the speakers are at the zoo in this audio file) and one of their vocabulary words is spots. I will now require them to write a little skit of their own using this expression. I also plan to teach Haven't Slept a Wink because all of my students are always lacking in sleep. 

A tired man
Are you as tired as Neil or FeiFei today?
Image via BBC
These can be used for quick and engaging lessons, which we always need, right? 

20 June 2013


Do you have a Twitter account? Upon request, I have created a new Twitter account focusing on ESL, teaching and learning. Please follow me @Caitlin_ESL. I would love to follow you, too!

Tweet, tweet!

09 June 2013

21st Century Teacher!

I am happy to announce that I have officially joined the 21st century! I am now using spreadsheets for my grade book. I have been clinging to the paper version for my whole career, and now I am utilizing the power of technology to help make calculating grades much easier! 
Comic with teacher explaining to student that "There aren't any icons to click. It's a chalk board."

I still have my paper book for attendance and daily homework, but it all goes into the spreadsheet at the end of the day. It's a big step for me, but I'm liking it so far. 

What do you use to record grades? Paper grade book? Excel? Google Docs? Blackboard? Any suggestions for using spreadsheets? 

07 June 2013

Interesting or Interested?

I'm just loving Vicki Hollet's videos. Have you checked them out yet? I posted about the difference between American and British English here

Here's a great video on the difference between interesting and interested. It's a great example for the difference between adjectives ending in -ing and those ending in -ed. Who hasn't had a student write/say "I am very interesting" or "I am very boring"?? Of course we English teachers understand what they mean, but we definitely want to make sure students don't say "I'm boring" to new friends! How do you teach the difference?

Image via

Confession: I didn't know how to explain the difference between adjectives which ended in -ing and those ending in -ed until I went to grad school (Thanks, Dr. Spruiell)! Of course I now know -ing is used for describing other items and -ed describes how people feel. I don't think native English speakers can automatically understand this any better than non-native speakers. What do you think? Was I just behind the curve??

06 June 2013

A Few Differences Between American and British English

Vicki Hollett, blogger of Learning to Speak 'Merican, has a great site called Simple English Videos. There are tons of great (and short videos) for learning English. These are wonderful mini-lessons and are a great addition to day's objective(s).

In one video, entitled How to Confuse an Americanprovides five differences between American and British English. Some of the ways include: zed, saying double plus a letter, and saying the day before the month in a date. I think this would be a great addition to a lesson on the differences between the two dialects students often learn. Many of my students learn British English in their home countries and get surprised by the differences when they arrive in the US.

Additionally, these videos have transcripts, so students can watch on their own and follow along by reading. Have you ever used these videos? What is the best way to incorporate videos in the classroom?

05 June 2013

Special Olympics: Before Volunteering

As I mentioned in a previous post, my high-intermediate speaking and listening class volunteered at the Michigan Special Olympics. This was an assigned volunteer opportunity, and it was the first service learning component I have applied to my courses. I realize now that this was a huge undertaking for my first time implementing service learning. Most teachers usually start out with the soup kitchen or animal shelter; however, the Special Olympics were coming to town at the beginning of our summer term, and I couldn't let that learning opportunity pass me (and my students) by.

I will go into more detail about the actual day of volunteering in the second of this three part series; in this part, I would like to focus on what I did to prepare students for this experience. First, I asked students general questions about volunteering and their experience volunteering. Then I asked them if they've ever had experience with people with special needs. I had some questions written out for students to respond to in writing, then they shared them with a partner, and finally with the class (think, pair, share). Here are the questions I asked them, along with a few of their responses:
(1) Why do people volunteer?
-I think that it is a very active method to help others, but also can increase your self-confidence, social experience, and benefiting your English.
-To help other people and get experience
-People have the ability to help people in need
(2) Who does volunteering benefit?
-everybody can benefit from volunteering
-The volunteer might learn something different from volunteering, and some people can get help to get out of trouble.
-make a good community
(3) How could volunteering help international students?
-to offer them a job or to make them get to know the culture
-The volunteering can help international students to learn English, know new culture
-it can help them to practice their language
Next, I had the students watch a couple of videos and go to the Special Olympics website for homework. I asked them to watch these three videos:Champions Together, Different, and Unleashing the Human Spirit. Here are a few sample questions they were asked to consider, along with a few responses:
(1) What are the Special Olympics?
-Big event in sports for people with special needs
-In my opinion, the reason we organize special game is that we believe the people who is intellectual disabilities also need to be respected, they are a special group of people who need more special care
-health, education, sports
(2) Who participates?
-Everyone who is special needs who is over 8 years old
-People with intellectual disabilities, more than 4 million per year
(3) Who volunteers?
-Everyone can volunteer
(4) What do you think the goal of the Special Olympics is?
-Everyone want to make the people with special needs have happiness in their life because they need anybody to care for them
-Because it does a great job with disability people. "I like help people."They make them feel different.
-Because it benefits for every people in the word. Keep going.
As you can see, the students' responses about volunteering and the Special Olympics were thoughtful and reflective. They really took this assignment seriously and wanted to know how they could best help other people. It was also clear that they were interested in improving and practice their language skills in addition to helping others.  

I will post later in the week about the actual event itself and what students' responsibilities were. My final post about the Special Olympics will consider how to help students make the most of their volunteer experience through reflection.

Image via

If you have any experience with ESL and service learning, I would love to hear your experiences and advice. I know many of my colleagues have implemented this into their courses, as well as many other instructors around the state of Michigan and around the US. Please share what you have done and any suggestions you have for making service learning a valuable experience for English Language Learners. 
P.S. What did you think about the videos? I'll admit I got a little teary-eyed! How inspiring the athletes are!

04 June 2013

Summer Term

Sorry for the lack of posts over the last month. I finished up our Spring Term, and we're in full Summer Term-mode here at the CMU ELI. That means 4 hour classes and starting at 8 am. It also means field trips, great discussions, and getting to know each student very well. While sometimes I don't think I'll ever get the grading done, I'm mostly excited to hear and read my students' ideas about our themes this semester.
Image via
I am teaching advanced beginning reading and writing and intermediate speaking and listening. Any advice or activity ideas for these skills and language levels? My speaking and listening class volunteered at the Michigan Special Olympics last week (more on that soon, I promise!), and I already have my reading and writing class on their second extensive reading book (we use these, and the students really enjoy them).

Here are a few great links I'd like to share:

Reading-Based Freewriting for English Language Learners --I'm going to try this on Thursday with my class!

This post on culturally appropriate writing is spot on!

Etymological Origins of Insults  is awesome. Which is your favorite? Chump and Schmuck are a couple of mine. Thanks Jeanine!

Flashcards online and on your smart phone is just brilliant. I recommend it for my students, and I use it for my Spanish learning.

Emperor Penguins in Antarctica and Summer in Antarctica-- to go along with Mosaic 1 Listening and Speaking textbook (Chapter 2)

And finally, Nouns and Verbs by School House rock for those beginning classes that always need a little spice!