Pre-Assessment in the ESL Classroom

Beginning a new unit of an EAL/ESL class with a pre-assessment is an effective method to determine each student’s prior knowledge or skills. This data can then be used to inform future instruction such as how to differentiate instruction and how to group students based on their different abilities. It allows teachers to make data-driven decisions rather than just relying on assumptions (Pendergass, 2014). Pre-assessments are particularly useful when teaching English in international contexts as students have already been exposed to a variety of different vocabulary, grammar structures, and skills in different schools. Pre-assessing helps teachers quickly determine what students know and need to know and therefore avoids wasting precious class time teaching what students already know.

Types of Pre-Assessments

There are a number of types of pre-assessment, both traditional and more innovative. One of my preferred types is the pre-quiz. Ideally, this quiz should cover the same language or content objectives as the end of unit test (Johnson, 2011) but it shouldn’t be counted for grades.  Pre-quizzes allow you to easily compare a student’s progress from this initial assessment to the end of the unit assessment. It is also has the advantage of clearly showing students the learning goal – the knowledge or skill they are expected to master by the end of the unit.

Image Credit:  Genius Hour

Another option for a pre-assessment is starting a new topic with a KWL or KWHLAQ. In this graphic organizer, students write what they already know (K) and want they want to learn (W). In the KWHLAQ, a 21st century adaptation of the KWL, students also have to write how they will find out (H). While KWLs may reduce anxiety compared to a pre-quiz, students might find it hard to write down what they already know or reluctant teenagers might need some prompting by the teacher.

If you are bored of pre-quizzes or KWLs, you can also use graffiti. In this activity, students use color markers to jot down or draw anything they already know about an upcoming unit of study or write down any questions about the topic. It is useful for starting a new thematic unit in an EAL class, but it is less useful for checking

Image Credit:  Facing History

understanding of a grammatical structure. The students use large poster size paper so that multiple students can be writing at one time. This poster can be displayed during the whole unit, so students can compare what they knew before with what they know at the end of the unit. The advantages of using this type of pre-assessment is that it is easy to prepare, allows students to be creative, and also gets the students moving around the classroom. It also gives students who are shy more opportunities to express ideas that they might not want to share in a whole class discussion.

Differentiation Strategy

At the beginning of a unit on comparison and contrast writing in my Grade 10 EAL class, I will get students to do a quick pre-quiz on comparison and contrast vocabulary. This, in addition to paragragh organization and city vocabulary, is the main learning objective for this unit. This unit builds toward the final assessment which is a paragraph comparing two famous cities.

The pre-assessment for this learning objective will be a simple 10 minute gap fill to see if students can use a variety of vocabulary to express similarity and difference. An alternative option could be to ask students to write a paragraph comparing two countries. Providing a word bank of key vocabulary can ensure students use the target language otherwise the pre-assessment may not provide any useful data to measure students use of this particular language objective. While I’m checking the pre-assessment, students will watch this video comparing New York and Paris and make a Venn diagram comparing the main differences.

I will then divide the students into 3 groups based on my rubric:

  • Group 1 are those who can use a wide variety of comparison structures accurately (Good or Outstanding on the rubric)
  • Group 2 are those who demonstrate some variety of structures accurately (Satisfactory on the rubric); and
  • Group 3 are those who cannot use a variety of structures accurately (Needs Improvement on the rubric)

Each group will be given a different task sheet that has their instructions.

Group 1

After watching the video, this group will use their Venn diagrams to discuss the differences between Paris and New York. The students will also look up new vocabulary on their dictionaries and be asked to conisder other differences not shown in the video. Students will then draft a paragraph comparing New York and London. In the following lesson, students will peer review another member of this group’s paragraph using the same rubric as the final assessment paragraph. They will then discuss improvements with their partner, before submitting to the teacher as a formative assessment. The teacher can follow up or further extend students in student-teacher conferences or through written feedback.

Group 2

Likewise, Group 2 will use their Venn diagrams to discuss the differences between Paris and New York. However, this group will be given the key vocabulary from the video such as ‘neon lights’, or ‘architecture’ as well as comparison and contrast words such as ‘likewise’, ‘whereas’ and ‘however’. These students will use the vocabulary words and comparison signal words to discuss the differences first, before drafting the paragraph.

Group 3

Group 3 will be given sentence frames to scaffold the use of comparison and contrast vocabulary. For example, students might be given strips of paper with example sentences such as:

“Paris has ______________ whereas New York _____________.”

“New York has lots of ____________. However, Paris doesn’t have ______________.”

“New York’s architecture is ____________ than __________________.

This group will first use the sentence frames and then use the same structure to create their own sentences about Paris and New York. I will usually spend the majority of my time with this group. Once students have created lots of sentences using a variety of comparison and contrast, I will give them a paragraph template with a topic sentence and a comparison and contrast word bank containing the target vocabulary.  While students in group 1 or 2 can do peer evaluations, I will have conferences with students in this group to help them evaluate their own paragraph. Within this group, I can give extra support to low proficiency ELLs and students with special needs. These students can also use a computer to type their paragraph and I can provide feedback using the track changes feature on MS Word.

Another option to divide students into groups is by dividing them into surface, deep, and transfer groups as has been done in this flowchart.Pre-Assessment to Groupings

Tracking Student Progress

Between the pre-assessment and the end of unit test, it is necessary to check student progress and ensure they are extending their learning.

Depending on the length of the unit, this can be done through regular formative assessments such as exit tickets, journals, or questioning where students can show their understanding against the unit goals. To check students’ ability to use a range of comparison and contrast vocabulary accurately, I will have them do another gap fill with different vocabulary (as an exit ticket), get students to peer evaluate their New York vs. Paris paragraphs, self-evaluate a new paragraph comparing two new cities, and then finally publish the final paragraph comparing two cities of the students’ choosing.

One way I would like to track student learning is by charting student scores on a graph for the pre-assessment (see image below) and then for each of the formative assessments above using the same rubric (Marzano, 2010). For each learning goal, there will be four different levels of understanding such as ‘Needs Improvement’ (1 point), ‘Satisfactory’ (2 points). ‘Good’ (3 points) and ‘Outstanding’ (4 points). In the pre-assessment, many students will get ‘Needs Improvement’, but after more scaffolding in ability based groups and more feedback from formative assessments, students will hopefully progress to a demonstrate a higher proficiency of using the comparison and contrast vocabulary. This is very motivating for students and also provides excellent data to discuss progress with students or parents (Marzano, 2010).

Marzano Charting Progress image
Image Credit: Marzano (2010)


Donaghy, K. (2014). Paris and New York. Retrieved June, 11, 2018 from

Johnson, B. (2011, June 2). Pretesting Students and the KWL Strategy. Retrieved June 9, 2018, from

Marzano, R. J. (2010). The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for effective instruction. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Pendergrass, E. (2014). Differentiation: It Starts with Pre-Assessment. Retrieved June 9, 2018, from


PBL for Grade 10 Marketing

In this blog post, I will consider how to provide effective feedback to students completing a marketing project as part of my Grade 10 Business Studies class. Project Based Learning (PBL) provides a perfect vehicle for teaching business and especially the topic of marketing as it allows students to learn the content and then apply it to a real-life situation. In this project, students will demonstrate their knowledge of marketing by making recommendations to a struggling local business about how to use marketing to attract more customers. The project aims to meet content standards in the Ontario Curriculum including “identify the four Ps of marketing and apply the strategy to market a product”. It also aims to address a number of key cross-curricula competencies such as oral and written communication, problem solving, and critical and creative thinking. Here is the project description and below is the rubric that I provided the students.

Marketing Project Rubric

Assessing PBL

I would like to use a range of assessment strategies for this project including self-, peer-, and teacher feedback. After giving students the rubric and the key problem, I would initially like students to create their own individual learning goal. This could be to further investigate an aspect of marketing or improve their ability in a key competency such as group work or written/oral communication. This could be scaffolded by having a series of prompts to help students identify these personal learning objectives. I could then schedule individual conferences with students during the length of the project to monitor and help them achieve these goals.

Another key element of the assessment for this project is to for students to write metacognitive reflections in a project learning journal for each week of the project. I would provide them with prompts and I would especially focus on 21st century skills such as asking questions to assess the effectiveness of group work. I could also ask students to discuss their individual contribution to the group in their learning journal in order to increase individual accountability.

Individual student content knowledge can still be assessed through more traditional assessments such as exit tickets, quizzes, and small tests. For each part of the assignment, I will provide a small ‘chunk’ of input (like a lecture or readings) that is directly relevant to completing the assignment. Afterwards, I will do a quick check using one of the above strategies to ensure that each student understands the content. Students who cannot demonstrate an understanding of the particular chunk can have a follow up mini-lesson or teacher conference.

A type of formative assessment I would like to include within the first week of the project is a “need to know list” (Weyers, 2013). In this type of formative assessment, students make a list of what they feel like they need to know or what problems they might face in order to complete the project. In my classroom, I could place a big poster with the project name and the main task (driving question) on the back wall. Then students could put up post-it notes with questions or concerns about how to do the assignment. I could decide how many students have the same question by doing a thumbs up, thumbs down check for understanding. Student needs can be addressed in subsequent classes either on a individual basis, in groups or with the whole class if the concern is widespread.

Students will also evaluate their peers by doing a gallery walk. In this assignment, I would have students put up their SWOT analysis on the wall and then get other groups to give feedback using sticky notes. Students who received feedback could then evaluate the quality of that feedback in their project learning journals. Additionally, I would evaluate students on their comments as part of their grade for

I will evaluate students by getting students to send drafts of small parts of the assignment each week for feedback. I could also have weekly team meetings with each group. This would be a chance to ask some questions about how they are managing their time, how each member is contributing, and see what challenges they are facing.

Previously I have made project grades overly-focused on the finished product, but in this project I have balanced grades for the process and for the final product. For the process part, students are graded on the quality of their self-reflections (based on a rubric), the quality of the peer evaluations they give, how groups use peer evaluation to modify their product, and on a teacher evaluation of the process. The teacher evaluation could include an evaluation on how they met milestones, how they collaborated and how they dealt with any challenges rather than just be based on an evaluation of the finished product.


Formative Assessment in My Classroom

Research clearly shows that frequent formative assessments such as exit tickets or observations are one of the most effective strategies for increasing student achievement (Marzano, 2007). Planning these assessments after each learning experience is an effective way to monitor student progress against learning objectives. It can also guide teachers on how to move forward with the content or skills that students can already demonstrate or to review content or skils for which students are struggling. Another benefit is the data obtained from these assessments can provide authentic feedback on the effectiveness of my own teaching.

Tech tools

One way to make the inclusion of formative assessment easier for busy teachers is to use the vast array of technology to collect and evaluate data obtained from formative assessments. Using websites such as Kahoot, Edpuzzle, Quizziz and Google Forms and Google Classroom take the hassle out of giving and then collating formative assessments. Another big advantage of using technology to check student understanding is that students get real-time feedback. Research shows that achievement increases when students get feedback they can immediately put into practice (Finley, 2014). One particularly useful piece of technology that one of my colleagues has suggested using is Google tools such as Google Polls or Google Forms. These polls can be done quickly as pre-quizzes, exit tickets, or student surveys on individual devices and then the website automatically analyzes the data. One of the best functions of these tools is to automatically send extra material to individual students based on what questions they answered incorrectly. This offers personalized learning that truly meets specific individual student needs and is incredibly convenient for the teacher.

Low tech Classrooms

However, as my colleagues have reminded me, paper and pen collection and recording Collating Exit Ticketsof formative assessment can be equally useful in low-technology contexts. After collecting data using an exit ticket or a pre-quiz, I evaluate students’ ability to demonstrate the learning goal by using a simple Microsoft Excel spreadsheet such as the one I used here for Business Studies. While this is more time-consuming than using online tools, I feel that it really helps me understand how students are doing in relation to specific goals.


My Favorites

My favorite type of formative assessment are exit tickets. These require students to answer a question directly related to the lesson’s learning objective. The exit ticket should be done in the last 2-3 minutes of class or alternately done as a bell ringer in the following class. I would also like to use the 3-2-1 exit ticket as an alternative to the content based exit ticket.

3-2-1 Exit Ticket
Image Credit: https://readingstrategiesm 1

My other favorite formative assessment is the pre-quiz. This is very useful when teaching English language learners in an international context as most students in middle or high school have already been exposed to a substantial range of different grammar structures and vocabulary. Using pre-quizzes effectively avoids teaching students something they already know and prevents teachers assuming knowledge of a language point that students simply don’t have.

I would like to try some different types of formative assessments including using observation more effectively. This type of formative assessment involves having a systematic plan or checklist when observing and evaluating students based on a specific content, language, or social learning objective. The teacher can observe behavior such as body language or peer/ group discussions and then use these observations to provide specific strategies to address observed weaknesses. I would also like to try getting students to write 1 minute sentences as a summary of class content, get quick feedback by using the 1-5 hand and use the ‘share’ part of Think-Pair-Share to check understanding and give real-time oral feedback.

Plan for future instruction

One specific area I would like to improve is to improve how I use data from formative assessments to inform future instruction. Effective teachers use this data to constantly adjust their teaching (Davis, 2015 ). I would like to use the data on formative assessments to provide additional support for students such as breaking them into a small group for additional instruction while students who have demonstrated mastery can move on to a productive task.


Davis, V. (2015, January 15). Fantastic, Fast Formative Assessment Tools. Retrieved May 20, 2018, from

Finley, T. (2014, July 30). Dipsticks: Efficient Ways to Check for Understanding. Retrieved May 20, 2018, from

Marzano, R. J. (2010). The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for effective instruction. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Strategies for Reinforcing Classroom Rules and Procedures

After building positive relationships with your students and clearly establishing rules and procedures, teachers need to ensure effective classroom management through using a series of consequences. These consequences include positive reinforcement when students meet behavioral expectations and punishments when students fall short of your expectations. In this post, I would like to consider a range of classroom strategies to promote a positive learning environment with minimal disruptive behavior.

Positive Reinforcement

In order to maintain a positive and safe environment for English Language Learners, I try to make positive reinforcement the centerpiece of my approach to classroom management. Positive reinforcement provides recognition that the student followed the rules or procedures. The first reinforcement strategy is to verbally praise the students such as by saying “thank you Mike for your contribution”, “that’s a fantastic question Michelle” or “thanks for sharing Jason”. This form of recognition is overt, public and efficient and is a powerful motivator for students. It also has the advantage of reviewing the rule or procedure for other students who might not be following the rule or procedure so well (Marzano, 2007). While some have argued that overly praising can turn students into praise junkies who lack intrinsic motivation, giving too much praise is not a problem if the praise is specific and genuine. An alternative option is to make the praise private by talking to the student outside the classroom or as a quick aside during class. I often ask students to step outside of the classroom for a minute and then give them some positive feedback about the way they are participating or for outstanding homework. At first students are apprehensive about meeting me outside, but I often see them smiling at their friends as they return to the classroom. Praise can also be provided non-verbally through a simple gesture such as a thumbs up. Making the positive reinforcement private might avoid embarrassing a student by drawing everyone’s attention to their behavior.

Another powerful strategy that is often overlooked by busy teachers is a positive phone call home. Praising a student’s effort or improved study habits to parents will mean that the student gets positive reinforcement from both the teacher and their parents and this will motivate them to continue the positive behavior. As a high school teacher, I generally prefer providing reinforcement by praising students or discussing positive behavior with the parents rather than using a more tangible form of recognition such as a whole class reward system. I think that the former are more powerful forms of recognition and foster students’ intrinsic motivation.

Responding to Misbehavior

 Unfortunately, students do not always meet your expectations and sometimes they might slip into the habit of breaking classroom rules and procedures. However, I believe the best way to reduce disruptive behavior in the classroom is trying to prevent potential behavioral problems before they become disruptive. This strategy is often referred to as ‘withitness’ (Marzano, 2007). One of the key parts of this strategy is for teachers to be aware of what is happening outside of the classroom as this will probably have an impact on student behavior. For example, if a student got in trouble from another teacher, did badly on a test, or is fighting with their closest friends, the student’s behavior will probably be affected. Teachers can address this directly by having a quick conversation with the students to show understanding and also be mindful of the student’s emotional needs while teaching the class. During class teachers should also pay close attention to unusual student behavior such as students with aggressive body language or a dejected facial expressions. Being aware of these potential problems can help prevent poor behavior before it actually occurs. Another way a teacher can demonstrate withitness is by frequently and systematically moving around the class even when the teacher is lecturing. Standing close to students who you think might misbehave is a simple, but effective way for preventing poor behavior.

However, before punishing students for not following classroom rules and procedures, teachers should try to work out the underlying causes of the misbehavior (Degeling, 2012). It could be that the class is too difficult or easy, that the students are bored, or that the student is having some personal or family problems that make it hard for the student to focus. Rarely is it that students want to disrupt class. Trying to be empathetic and making an effort to understand the misbehaving student rather than just immediately punishing them will show that you really care.

Another key piece of advice for classroom management is to always have a plan about how to handle students who break the rules. This will stop teachers being reactive when dealing with problems and potentially being inconsistent (Wong & Wong, 2009). This plan should have a number of graduated steps where the punishment increases as the offending behavior continues or becomes more severe (Marzano, 2007). Below is a flowchart I developed to show how I will respond to misbehavior.

The first step is a stare and this can be followed by a gesture such as a ‘put it away’ gesture or a ‘be quiet’ gesture. These steps can be done while continuing to teach, so valuable class instructional time isn’t wasted on discipline. If the misbehavior continues the teacher can move closer to the student again while continuing to teach. The teacher might also privately reprimand the student if appropriate or possible. Degeling (2012) suggests that this can be done in a non-confrontational way by approaching the student from the side rather than the front, crouching down and using a soft, but firm voice when reprimanding the student. If the student continues to misbehave then the reprimand should be public and direct including which specific rule or procedure the student is continuing to break.

If the negative behavior persists, teachers can start using direct-cost consequences which are explicit and concrete punishments for breaking classroom rules and procedures (Marzano, 2007). My preferred option here is to move the student to a quiet place in the classroom to continue their work. The aim is to separate the disruptive student until they have demonstrated a willingness to rejoin the classroom activity. Separating students is preferable to sending students outside as the student can continue to learn. Another step here is to involve the parents. This could involve a meeting with parents and the student to identify and agree about the negative behavior and then make a plan to try to reduce the negative behavior. Having parents and the student involved in developing a plan that includes rewards for improved behavior and punishments could help to reduce the inappropriate behavior.

Behavior Flowchart

Ultimately, effective classroom management is one of the most important traits of a successful teacher. A successful strategy is dependent on firstly building the foundation of a positive classroom learning environment where students feel individually respected. Additionally having clear learning objectives and engaging activities are also crucial in reducing disruptive behavior. However, the nature of teaching teenagers means that there will be times when the teacher needs to use a range of classroom management strategies to reinforce positive behavior and address negative behavior. When using these strategies, teacher should be aware that every student is unique, so it might be necessary to try a range of strategies to see which one works for the particular student.


Degeling, J. (2012). Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom. Retrieved on May 2, 2018 from \

Marzano, R. J. (2007). The Art and Science of Teaching: a Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Wong, H. K., & Wong, R. T. (2009). The first days of school: How to be an effective teacher. Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications.


Contrasting Approaches to Creating High Performance Learning Environments

Today I will consider two entirely different approaches to establishing a high-achievement learning environment. In the first video ‘Roller Coaster Physics’, the teacher uses a learner-centered approach using project based learning (PBL) whereas in the second video’, the teacher adopts the whole brain teaching approach. Both approaches are extremely effective in engaging the students in high level content while effectively managing the learning environment.

 Video 1: Roller Coaster Physics: STEM in Action

In the video ‘Roller Coaster Physics’, Grade 5 teacher Donna Migdol uses a range of teaching strategies to create an engaging and high level lesson (Roller Coaster Physics). In the beginning of the lesson, Migdol clearly explains the objective is to “design an optimal roller coaster with the longest ride” (Roller Coaster Physics). Establishing and communicating a clear goal helps increase student achievement (Marzano, 2007). This goal uses the highest order thinking skill, create, according to Bloom’s taxonomy of learning (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) and this communicates to students that the teacher believes the students can apply the content to real-life novel situation.

The activity to design a roller coaster also adopts a number of features from the PBL) teaching strategy. The lesson begins with an essential design question or task, which is to design the longest roller coaster. This is engaging because it has real world application.

Another feature of PBL that Midgol uses in this lesson is practicing cross-curricula skills in addition to physics content (Roller Coaster Physics). One example of this is how she requires students to use math to make a budget and track expenditure when designing their roller coaster. The design of the lesson also requires students to use key 21st century learning skills such as collaborating and problem solving. The former is evident by requiring students to share their individual roller coaster design features with their group and then, through a process of consensus building, find the best combination of each roller coaster design features. I like how student-centred this approach is, as students discussed the benefits and drawbacks of different design features while the teacher facilitated the classroom discussion.

Successfully achieving the goal also requires students to solve real world problems. I particularly liked the idea of adding a financial constraint into the task so students have to decide as a group which materials they will use in their roller coaster. The addition of this financial constraint makes the task more realistic problem rather than just providing them unlimited resources.

Another feature of the lesson was the teacher’s expectation that students use physics specific vocabulary such as ‘clothoid loops’ and ‘centripedal force’ when sketching their roller coaster. This further extends students. Also during teacher-student interactions, students usually answer teacher questions by using topic specific vocabulary such as ‘kinetic’ and ‘potential energy’. Ensuring the students use precise vocabulary to get an answer completely correct is a characteristic of a highly effective teacher (Lemov, 2010).

The success of the lesson is also due to effective classroom management. It is clear that the teacher has already established classroom rules and procedures for working in groups. During the lesson, the students seem familiar sharing opinions, turn taking, actively listening to their peers, and assigning different responsibilities themselves when working in a group. This suggests the teacher has previously established these routines, so they have become norms. Additionally, the fact that students are clearly highly engaged in the task means that the teacher does not have to reinforce rules or control students during the lesson.

Video 2: Whole-brain Teaching

In this video, a 9th Grade Geography, Ms Mackens, teacher uses whole brain teaching (WBT) to teach about finding exact location using latitude and longitude (roxishay, 2011). The teacher effectively uses the WBT approach to effectively manage classroom behaviour and engage the students.

The use of WBT for classroom management is quite effective. In particular the teacher uses a number of elements of WBT to ensure smooth transitions. To get the class’s attention when they are doing individual or group work, she uses the “class-yes” technique to quickly get them focused so that she can give some further instructions (roxishay, 2011). Another example of an effective transition is the move from direct instruction to peer teaching. This is extremely efficient with the teacher just clapping twice and saying “teach”. It is clear from the speed of the student responses to different WBT prompts that the students have practiced these routines many times and they have become almost automatic.

The teacher also manages behaviour by referring to the rules when she needs to reinforce classroom rules or procedures. However instead of giving a lecture or reprimanding the students, she prompts students by saying the number of the rule and then the students chorally state the rule with its accompanying gestures. Another feature of the classroom management that can be seen in the video is the use of a scoreboard to reward good behaviour. Ms. Mackens reward the students for good behaviour by giving them a point on the scoreboard and then everyone celebrates with a “woo-hoo” (roxishay, 2011). This positive encouragement motivates students to follow the classroom rules and procedures.

The use of physical gestures to demonstrate latitude and longitude is an effective way to make learning physical as well as auditory. This technique in WBT is called mirror hands (beginner – whole brain teaching, n.d.). Students then mimic these gestures to explain to their peers. In the video, the teacher provides the content in small chunks through direct instruction and then has students reinforce their learning through teaching the person next to them. This could be a good time for the teacher to observe students using the gestures and explaining the content to check understanding.

The emphasis on peers teaching each other is one way in which the teacher establishes high expectations for her learners. She trust them to teach each other the content as well as realizing the teaching this content to a peer is one of the most effective ways to learn.

Setting high performance Expectations in my classroom

After watching these two quite different videos, I thought about how I could use some of the approaches and techniques to enhance my middle and high school ESL classes here in China.

The most important improvement I would like to make is to make my classes more learner-centred by doing more authentic tasks. The use of a task that requires students to apply knowledge to solve real-life problems is highly engaging and this makes maintaining classroom discipline much easier. Poor student behaviour is often a result of classes that do not engage learners, and therefore when presenting content, teachers should ensure the students will find it interesting and relevant. I preferred the more learner-centred approach of Ms. Migdol than the WBT approach of Ms. Mackens, which was still quite teacher-centred.

One element from the WBT approach that I liked was the use of key words for transitions to quickly get the students’ attention. The call-response pattern of ‘class-yes’ is very efficient and when it is practiced numerous times it becomes a routine which saves countless class hours. While I felt like some of the call-response patterns of WBT might be a little patronizing for high school students in my learning context, I do think that having clear signal words to efficiently signal a change in activity is a more efficient use of class time. I also like how when a rule or procedure is broken, the teacher just prompts the students with the number of the rule and then the students explain the rule. I think this will help students internalize the rules and help students to get clear feedback when their behaviour does not adhere to the rules.


Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.

Beginner – Whole Brain Teaching. (n.d.). Retrieved April 22, 2018, from

Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a Champion. San Francisco, Jossey Bass

Marzano, R. J. (2007). The Art and Science of Teaching: a Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

RoxiShay. (2011, May 31). Whole Brain Teaching Richwood High – the basics. Retrieved April 23, 2018, from

Teacher Channel (n.d.). Roller Coaster Physics. (n.d.). Retrieved April 23, 2018, from



Building a Positive Classroom Environment

Sometimes it is easy to get caught up as a teacher in the curriculum, in meeting standards, in grading paperwork or in professional development and then somehow overlook the most important goal – meeting the students’ needs. In addition to their developing their cognitive skills, teachers should create an environment where students can also develop their social and emotional skills. In fact, it is probably necessary to provide this environment before students can really start to achieve (Cohn-Vargas & Steele, 2015). Therefore in this blog post, I will consider how teachers can create a learning environment that is conducive to meeting students’ social and cognitive needs.

Strong teacher-student relationships

Hattie (2012) argues that creating a positive, caring, and respectful classroom atmosphere is a precondition for learning. The first step is building strong teacher-student relationships by knowing something extra-curricular about each one of your students (Marzano, 2007). This information can then be collated and printed, so it becomes an easily accessible inventory for the teacher (Gonzalez, 2014). Teachers can use this information to link class content to student experiences or interests or for having informal conversations. However, more importantly, students’ diverse interests, backgrounds and experiences can be used to enrich the curriculum, making it more relevant to student lives and thus more engaging. Marzano (2007) also suggests being familiar with the local culture of students. This is particularly important in an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) setting when the teacher is from a different culture than the students. By taking an active interest in the students’ culture and out-of-school interests, teachers can start breaking down the barriers between themselves and students. Sharing culture and interests will also provide a powerful motivator for students to use the target language to communicate. More knowledge about your students’ hobbies and interests will also help with the choice of appropriate classroom texts in which students can more easily identify with the protagonists and thus more motivated to participate in classroom discussions.

A Safe Learning Environment

Not only do teachers have to build effective relationships with each individual student, but they need to create a learning environment where students feel safe to share their thoughts and feelings in front of their peers. This begins on day one with ice breakers and continues through engaging collaborative and team-building activities. Teachers also need to establish rules and procedures with clear expectations for the classroom. This can begin with a class discussion on how to respect each other and how people would like to be treated and lead to developing a class contract. Teachers then need to enforce these agreed rules consistently and fairly.

Explicitly teach Social and Emotional Skills

 The creation of a positive class climate should also be addressed through a curriculum that integrates social and emotional skills with cognitive ones. These skills include how to manage emotions, set and achieve goals, feel and express empathy, build and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions that consider personal and group consequences (Durlack et al, 2011). Research shows that promoting social and emotional skills in school can improve academic achievement, class behavior (Durlack et al, 2011) as well as a sense of belonging.

One of the most important skills that should be taught and then regularly practiced is active listening. This involves students really listening to each other’s ideas, drawing out key ideas, asking relevant questions and respecting diverse opinions. Developing effective listening skills can then lead to high quality classroom discussions.

Anti-bias curriculum

Teachers should also include lessons that specifically address the issues of bullying and sexual harassment in the curriculum. These include lessons that focus on the serious physical and psychological impacts that homophobic, sexist or discriminatory remarks can have on others. Lessons can also examine the issue of bullying, build empathy for victims, and encourage students to intervene to stop bullying or report it to a responsible adult. Teachers should also act as role models by immediately stopping any forms of bullying or discriminatory comments as well as directly challenging gender, ethnic and racial stereotypes that occur in discussions or in class materials. Of course there will be slips or mistakes when students disrespect each other or make hurtful comments, but teachers should see these as teachable moments that can be used to further develop their social skills. When teachers allow these behaviors to continue unchecked, they are reinforcing bias which is a key barrier to creating an inclusive classroom.

Appreciation of cultural diversity

Another key part of creating an inclusive learning environment is ensuring there is a genuine appreciation and celebration of student diversity. This can be demonstrated in the curriculum by supplementing class materials with examples, role models, and protagonists from students’ own culture(s).

Linking students’ culture, background and prior experiences to new knowledge and skills will increase engagement as students identify with characters and the issues they face. Teachers also need to be culturally aware when teaching students of different backgrounds as culture can have subtle impacts on behavior. It is important for teachers to learn about how students’ culture affects their verbal and non-verbal behavior and teachers should be careful not to misinterpret this behavior.

For teachers, shaping a learning environment where students can develop both their academic and social skills involves a significant investment of time at the beginning of the year. However, once the foundations of an inclusive, safe, and positive learning environment have been created, there will be significant dividends in terms of increased engagement, high quality discussions, and increased academic achievement.



Cohn-Vargas, B., & Steele, D. (2015, October 21). Creating an Identity-Safe Classroom. Retrieved April 09, 2018, from

Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., & Schellinger, K.B. (2011). “The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions.” Child Development, 82, pp.405-432.

Gonzalez, J. (2014, May 01). Know Your Terms: Holistic, Analytic, and Single-Point Rubrics. Retrieved March 25, 2018, from

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.

Marzano, R. J. (2010). The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for effective instruction. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Making Group Work More Effective

stock-vector-hands-putting-puzzle-pieces-together-teamwork-or-group-work-logo-concept-logotype-template-399028690Group work has always been a major part of my English language classes. However, upon meeting new students in an entirely new context, I realized I needed to rethink my use of group work to ensure it leads to the achievement of the lesson’s objectives and does not just become busy work. One particular problem was that not all students were contributing to the task and many were using their L1. Other teachers also lamented this issue and many of us felt discouraged to use group activities in the class. Therefore, I decided to reflect on the key aspects of how to make group work more successful and beneficial to my students.

Importance of group work

Group work is a fundamental aspect of my English language class because it maximizes student talk time by getting more people talking simultaneously. This is crucial in an EFL context such as mine where the students lack opportunities to practice speaking outside the English classroom. Group work also has the advantage of giving more opportunities to shyer or more introverted students and can add variety to lessons. Even more importantly is building lifelong interactional and social skills. This can also build class cohesiveness, which may reduce the potential for bullying at school. While whole class interactional patterns have many benefits, I believe the advantages of group work for my students make it necessary to include in most of my English classes.

Planning Group Work

To maximise the benefits of group work, it is essential that the group work has a specific aim (not just “doing group work”). After deciding this aim, teachers can clearly explain this aim to the students, so they also understand the role the activity plays in the learning sequence. Another important issue is ensuring students know how to work in a group. This includes practicing the basic interactional patterns to help them work together in a meaningful way. Students who lack this functional ability in the L2 will find it hard to contribute to the group work. This means that it may be necessary to teach how to manage interactions and turn taking near the beginning of the semester.

A specific problem I have been having is getting students’ attention for additional instruction or feedback during a group activity. This is often not a bad sign as it may show the students are really enjoying the activity, but it slows down the activity and is quite frustrating. Thus, it is important the students know the time-out sign (oral or mimed) before beginning the activity.

Choosing groups

Every teacher who has heard the melodramatic moans of students grouped with students they are not friends with knows that choosing groups is a key issue. Here I think variety is important. Teenage students get bored working with the same students all the time and this can affect the success of the group activity. Therefore, I am going to try a variety of ways to group students. These include grouping students by giving students a random number between 1 and 4 or a random colour. Alternately, you could ask the student to line up in order of height, or the time they went to bed last night or how many siblings they have and then group them this way. The students often enjoy discovering who their team will be for today’s activity. This method of grouping could also double as a fun warmer to begin a class.

Another idea for grouping students is to give half the students the independent part of a complex sentence and the other half the dependent part and make them go around trying to find the correct match. This could equally be done with synonyms and antonyms; recent new vocabulary and its definitions; major historical events and dates or countries with capitals. This will add some TPR into the class and ensure that the choosing of the pairs can also be an opportunity for reviewing previous language or vocabulary.

Keeping students on task

This is one of my biggest challenges with group work. Without careful design of the activity and careful monitoring, some students will do the majority of the work while the others use the group work as a time to relax. Unfortunately, it often the students who are relaxing who could benefit most from the peer-to-peer teaching. A key issue is trying to ensure that each student has a stake in the group’s success. One way I have tried to ensure this is by getting each student in the group to allocate each other a number corresponding to how many students are in the group. For example, a group of four would allocate numbers 1 to 4 to each group member. These numbers are kept secret from the teacher. When the teacher calls out a number, the student allocated that number has the responsibility for answering the question or giving feedback about the group’s progress. If the student can answer there is a bonus for the group and if they cannot the group will lose a point. This aims to ensure everyone in the group understands what the group is doing and encourage the stronger students will teach the weaker students in the group.

Additionally, the teacher could get the students to allocate roles to each member of the group, to encourage everyone to contribute to the completion of the group’s task. For example, there could be a facilitator (who organizes the group), note-taker, reporter (who reports the findings to the class), English monitor (who puts their hands on their head whenever someone in the group speaks in the students’ L1), time-keeper, devil’s advocate etc. Students could get individual grades or a bonus if they do their job well. Another way to encourage every member to contribute getting each student in the group to use a different colour pen, so the teacher can see how each individual student has contributed to the group writing or set questions.

Post group work

An important conclusion to a group work activity is to hold a feedback session at the end. This can allow the teacher to discuss any common language problems that observed during the activity. Feedback can also involve students demonstrating some the language they used during the group activity. The feedback session will also help to demonstrate that the group work activity was not a waste of time.


Group work is a key part of an English language lesson, but to ensure the achievement of the learning objectives, it is necessary to carefully plan the goals, organize the groups and keep the students on task.