Using Children’s Literature to Teach U.S. Money

As most, if not all, of us know, March is National Reading Month in the United States. Of course every day is reading day in our classrooms, but this month we get to put an extra bit of emphasis on the skill. Anyone who’s been around my site much knows that I love to be as cross-curricular as possible and always strive to include multiple skills in my lessons. This year I’d like to put a special spotlight on how I combine reading practice with money vocabulary and skills.

It used to be obvious, if someone moves to a new country, that person will need to learn the currency of that country as quickly as possible. The fact that we use credit/debit cards for virtually everything these days may have lessened the urgency of acquiring this skill, but it is still an important one to master. We do a lot of different activities to practice the names and values of different U.S.A. coins and bills (such as Eggcellent Activities: Coin Eggs), but today I’d like to specifically focus in on some of our favorite pieces of literature about the subject. The first two books were part of my post entitled Picture Books…In Math? but are so good they deserve a second look. The last, a Shel Silverstein poem, is a nice quick activity that can be slotted in when you have an extra few minutes.

Alexander Who Used to be Rich Last Sunday

The Alexander books by Judith Voirst are some of my all-time favorites! When we work with this book, I usually read straight through it, showing the pictures, and allowing students to simply enjoy the story the first time. After that, we do various activities including using play money to follow along with Alexander’s adventures, keeping a running total as we read, and even writing our own word problems based on the story.

The Berenstain Bears’ Trouble with Money

The Berenstain Bears is a classic series I remember my parents reading me as a child. Stan and Jan Berenstain’s stories always impart good lessons in a fun way. When using children’s literature with my older learners, especially my adults, I always encourage them to learn from the book themselves but also to go home and read the books to their children as well. It empowers my students to be part of their children’s English education, which is important as many of my students feel guilty about not being able to help their children in this way. This particular book doesn’t have specific amounts of money to follow along with, so I use it for general comprehension and discussion of idioms and common phrases related to money.

“Smart” from Where the Sidewalk Ends

Who doesn’t love a good Shel Silverstein poem? My students love them, they even make the final exam in pronunciation class a little more fun! This particular poem is another good opportunity to practice the names and values of different U.S.A. coins and keep a running total as you read. It’s also a great way to compare and contrast, seeing how a larger number of coins doesn’t necessarily result in a larger value of coins. The text is short enough that we can complete the activity in just a few minutes, making it a perfect way to start or end a larger lesson on the topic.

One thing I try to always do when using literature to teach anything is make sure every student has his/her own copy of the book/text. I do use my document camera to display it on the screen, but I like students being able to hold the book themselves. Sometimes it’s not possible to have enough copies for every student, but I strive to have no fewer than one copy for every two students. I find this enhances the lessons and makes it easier for students to complete activities. Happy teaching, everyone!

Here are some of our favorite U.S.A Coin practice activities that don’t involve specific texts:

Or you can save by purchasing a bundle of resources:

Alphabet Pizza Pan

I am a middle school teacher turned adjunct professor, but when I returned to the USA after teaching overseas for multiple years, the only job I could find was teaching K-2 ESL. It was, to say the least, a long year. Now don’t get me wrong, I think little people are cute and I love playing with them–in small numbers. But they are scary in larger groups! Thankfully, the next year I was made head of program and the my first official act was to move myself to middle school and hire a phenomenal lower elementary teacher for the K-2 position.

While no one was mourning my leaving the lower elementary world, the year was not a complete disaster. I did get to know some great teachers, interact with some amazing students, and have some unforgettable experiences (ask me about the men’s bathroom at the Detroit Zoo sometime!). I also had the opportunity to learn some different teaching techniques (some of which I used when developing materials, such as Phonics Based Vocabulary Acquisition, for my older learners) and develop some fun materials and activities. Today I’d like to share with you Alphabet Pizza Pan, an activity for practicing upper and lower case letter recognition/matching.


You won’t need much for this activity, I was able to purchase everything at my local Dollar Tree, and the total cost to make 10 sets was under $20. You will need:

The color of the stickers and pins doesn’t matter. I chose to make all of the consonant upper case letters one color and vowels a second color to help students begin to remember which letters were which.


To create the Alphabet Pizza Pans, I first stuck the capital letter stickers around the inside edge of the pans. Then I placed a lower case sticker on the closed (pincher) end of the clothes pins. I put the clothes pins into sandwich Ziploc bags, one alphabet set per bag, and I was finished. The entire process took me less than an hour, with placing the capital letter stickers taking up the bulk of the time.


At school, I gave each student a pizza pan and a bag of letters. They then worked to clip each pin to the edge of the pan next to its corresponding capital letter. The kids had a blast! It was a great opportunity for them to practice matching upper and lower case letters, and there was the added benefit of some fine motor skills practice (something many of my students needed).

Since the students could be quite independent with this particular activity, it gave me the chance to do some individual tests for progress monitoring purposes. It was also a great activity to pull out when we had some extra time to fill, a student finished his/her work early, or a para/substitute needed something to do with some students.


I usually store my materials in gallon Ziploc bags and plastic containers, but Alphabet Pizza Pans is too large. I experimented with different options but the one that ended up working the best was an old magazine storage box I found in the back of my closet. It was the perfect size to hold both the pans and the bags of clips, and it was easy to carry back and forth to school.

When I left my lower elementary teaching role behind I quite happily donated my Alphabet Pizza Pans to another teacher, but it still remains one of the most fun activities to come out of my time in K-2. If your students are working on the alphabet, particularly if they are still struggling to reconcile the upper and lower cases of each letter, give this activity a try. Happy teaching, everyone, and I’ll see you in the new year!

Whatchamacallit Context Clues

I think we can all agree that teaching students how to use context clues is important. I spend a lot of time on context clues with all of my classes, especially my lower proficiency level classes, but I have long had two recurring frustrations. The majority of context clues practice activities are made for young learners, and they almost always use nonsense words. Those two things are show stoppers for me and my older language learners, particularly my beginning level students.

Over the years, I’ve developed several different activities for my older students (middle school and up) that practice context clues that use actual English words:

These games are all wonderful in their own right, and we play them quite often, but I wanted something even more fun. Inspired by a game of Balderdash, I decided to make a context clues board game in which players would define real words that even native speakers weren’t likely to know.

I started by searching for names of objects that few, if any people, knew had names at all. Once I had compiled a list of them, I checked each word by looking it up in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Not surprisingly, a few of the words had to be eliminated from my list because they have either been removed from our modern dictionary or were never recognized in the first place. You can download a free copy of my final list via the Whatchamacallit Glossary below.

The hardest part of the game creation process was the same as it always is: writing an example sentence for each of the 32 words remaining on my list. This time it wasn’t that I had to use the same word(s) over and over again, but that I needed sentences that would give enough clues about the meaning of the words so students could guess it without actually giving the definition. I wanted the sentences to be challenging enough to keep the game interesting, but not so challenging that my students became discouraged. Consequently, the sentences ended up being a bit longer than I would normally write for this type of activity.

After creating my playing cards with the sentences, I made sure to number them. This allows me to use the cards, along with the recording sheet I created, as a scoot activity and not just a board game. Game/activity versatility is important to me because the composition of my classes changes so frequently. I don’t want to be locked into a specific format or type of activity if it won’t be the most effective for a particular group of students.

I added in a copy of my standard zig zag game board, some place markers, and six sided dice, and we were ready to play. I tested the game with several different groups of students and found it worked with all of them, though my lowest proficiency students really struggled with it. The sentences were a little too linguistically complex for them and a few became frustrated. I wasn’t surprised when my intermediate students gave their approval to the game, but I was a bit concerned about my advanced students. I was afraid it would be too easy and they would be bored. I was wrong. The game was easier for them, but they still had to think about many of the words and thought it was fun to learn vocabulary their native English speaking friends wouldn’t know.

My students’ final assessment of the game was it is fun and something they’d like to play again. My advanced students asked if I’d make them copies of the glossary and came back the next week with stories of impressing friends with their extensive vocabulary knowledge. Hopefully your students will like the game just as much. Happy teaching, everyone!

Here’s the glossary download I mentioned:

If you don’t have time to make your own context clues game, try out one of mine:

Need digital versions of the games? I have those, too:

Or get a bundle with all of the games at a 20% discount:

World Poetry Day: Shel Silverstein

Monday is World Poetry Day, and one of my all time favorite poets is Shel Silverstein! My students, whether they are 5 or 88 (I actually had a student who was 88 once!), love his poetry as well. Whether it be an anthology such as Falling Up, or a stand alone book such as The Missing Piece, Shel Silverstein’s books never fail to put a smile on everyone’s face, and often make us think a little deeper as well. Here are just a few of the ways I use Mr. Silverstein’s poems in my classrooms.

Giraffe and a Half

Rhyming Card Match

To be honest, the rhyming word that I most associate with giraffe is laugh, which I always do when I read Giraffe and a Half. Sometimes I will read this with my students just for the fun of it, but the school day has become so packed that we hardly have time to do that anymore, so more often then not this book gets read when we are working on rhyming words. Most, but not all, of the rhyming pairs in this book match in spelling as well as sound. This makes it a little easier for my students, but there are still a few that cannot be paired by spelling alone which, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago in my post about There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly, is an important skill to practice (my older learners are especially prone to match based on spelling, rather than sound, for rhyming words). Since I don’t want to, “ruin the book” (to quote a former student), I keep this particular exercise short and sweet. I have cards with the various rhyming words on them (with a picture for each word to help with vocabulary acquisition for my ELLs and reading for my pre-literate and early literacy students). The students match up the rhyming pairs by putting the cards next to one another. I have a digital version as well where they drag and drop the words next to one another to form rhyming pairs.

The Giving Tree

Sentence Sequencing Activity

One of my favorite Shel Silverstein stand alone books to use with older students is The Giving Tree. There are so many different things to focus on with this book, but my two main go-to’s tend to be sequencing and personification. Teaching older beginner ELLs, it’s always a challenge to find texts they can comprehend but aren’t too “babyish” when practicing foundational skills. Out of the various sentence sequencing activities we do, this one is always a favorite of my older learners, especially my adult students. They appreciate the mature messages of the book regarding changes we go through in life, sacrifice for people we love, and gratitude (or lack thereof). We often read picture books together, and they enjoy them, but this particular picture book feels as though it was written for adults. The other major skill I typically try to tackle with this book is personification, something that is often difficult for my students to truly grasp. The personification of the tree is very clear and my students are really able to understand what it is and how to identify it. After seeing it in this book, they are much better at identifying it in other texts and using it in their own writing.

Pronunciation Practice

Next semester I’m going to use Shel Silverstein’s poems in a new way (at least for me). For the first time ever I am teaching a class that is 100% focused on pronunciation. One of the ways we’ll be practicing our pronunciation, and evaluating one another’s efforts, is through the reading of poetry. I knew I wanted fun, short poems that my adult students would enjoy. I also wanted poems with strong a rhythm and a clear stress pattern for them to read. All of the poems we’ll be using, both for practice and evaluation, are going to be from Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. I’m hoping next semester’s students will enjoy them as much as I, and my previous students, have.


Whether or not Mr. Silverstein’s poems are part of your celebrations, I hope you will do something fun with your students for World Poetry Day on Monday! I know I’ll be sharing at least a couple of Shel Silverstein’s poems with my level 1 grammar and speaking classes; I’m just having a hard time choosing which ones! Happy teaching, everyone.

There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly

It’s National Reading Month in the USA! My students and I love reading books together, especially picture books. I’ve shared several posts about how we use children’s literature in our classes in the past; here’s a quick list if you missed any:

These books are all great, but today I’d like to focus on one of our all time favorites (I know, I say that every time), There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly. This is one of my favorite books to use, especially with beginning proficiency students, and it is always a hit–whether with elementary, middle school, high school, or adults. There’s just something about this book that tickles everyone’s funny bone and even the most stoic of students are smiling and chuckling by the end. There are several different ways we interact with this book, and I’ll try to give you a quick run down of them all.

Trash Can Old Lady

I first saw this activity on The Thoughtful Spot Day Care blog in a 2012 post. It is a great whole class review activity using a flip lid trash can as the old lady. The pieces were easy to gather and put together, but it is one of the more expensive activities that I have (hence I use it whole class rather than small group). To make your own trash can old lady, you’ll need a few supplies:

Remove the mop from the handle and glue it on top of the trash can. Be careful not to impede the movement of the lid any more than absolutely necessary. Trim the “hair” the way you like it (I trimmed the front to form bangs). Then glue the hat on top to cover up the mess of the glue and “hair.” Finally, attach a couple of eyes to the moving part of the flip lid. Your old lady is now ready for action, and all that remains is to gather toy versions of each animal (the fly is the hardest). It’s been a few years since I made mine, but here are some links to help you out:

After reading the story (or watching the Scholastic movie version), students work together to retell the story, taking turns “feeding” the old lady the animals by pushing them into her flip lid mouth.

While this activity represents one of the larger investments I’ve made in a single activity, it is one I don’t use very often. While my older students do truly enjoy this book, this particular activity is not one that I think they’d enjoy, so I keep it for my lower elementary students only.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Rosenblad Davids, Facebook, December, 2021

Cheaper Version

I have seen cheaper versions of this activity around the internet. One of my favorite is probably this one from Laly Mom, using a baby wipe container, milk jug lids, and stickers. I shared the link with another teacher on Facebook last year and, in an effort to recreate it now that you no longer purchase baby wipes in hard-sided containers, she in turn asked a crafty parent at her school if she could make her an old lady that was portable. The mother went home and crocheted the old lady you see pictured around what I think is a disinfectant wipe container (but I’m not 100% on that). My only wish is this talented parent had created a pattern (yes, she did this completely off the top of her head) so I could convince someone to make me a few!

Syrup Bottle Old Lady

As with the previous activity, this one did not originate with me. I first saw it in a 2013 post on Housing A Forest. It’s a very clever, and fun, way for students to practice spelling, and it is also very cheap to make–so cheap that every student could have his/her own old lady, but I still only give them one per group. To make this activity you’ll need three things: old Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup bottles (other versions could be used, but these are made to look like a woman, so they’re extra fun) that have been washed very well, pipe cleaners cut into short pieces, and letter beads.

Other than cleaning the syrup bottles (I tossed mine in the dishwasher), and cutting the pipe cleaners, there’s no prep work for this activity. You simply pass out one syrup bottle per group along with a supply of pipe cleaners and letter beads. Students then string the beads on the pipe cleaner to spell out the names of the various animals and “feed” them to the old woman by placing them in the top of the bottle. Since there are only seven animals this doesn’t take long. I then challenged my students to also spell out the words that rhymed with each animal and “feed” them to the old woman as well. The students often ask me if they can spell other words and soon the poor old woman is eating names, vocabulary words, and a plethora of other things. It’s great vocabulary and spelling practice for all students, and excellent letter recognition practice for my students coming from non-Latin based alphabets.

I’ve also made some activities of my own to practice vocabulary, rhyming words, and sequencing.

Vocabulary Sort Cards

Since I primarily use this book with beginning level students, I wanted to have some focus on vocabulary. Besides the seven animals, I chose six other words (pictured to the left) for a total of fourteen vocabulary words. We talk about the words, find them in the book, and use our sort cards to match the words to pictures representing each one.

Rhyming Sort Cards

One of the things that I really like about this book is how not all of the rhyming words have the same spelling pattern. My older learners are especially adept at knowing which words rhyme based on the spelling, rather than the sound. There are some words in this set that allow them to match them in this manner (i.e.: dog-hog), but there are others that force them to focus on the sound instead (i.e.: fly-die). It’s great practice in phonics/reading and not just pattern matching.

Sequencing Sentences

Putting sentences in order to retell a story is not a new activity for my students (hence the previous blog post on the subject). On this particular set of sentences, I provide students with a picture to help them. As I’ve shared in past posts, I’ve had quite a few older learners who were not yet literate in any language and reading was a big struggle for them. The pictures, and adapted sentences

using similar words as the book, helped them to independently sequence the sentences to retell the story. These strips, along with the vocabulary and rhyming sort cards, were also good references for them as they fed our syrup bottle old lady in the previous activity.

Digital Version

While teaching digitally I still wanted to be able to use this book and activities. I was never able to find a digital way to complete the first couple activities, but I did create drag-and-drop versions of the vocabulary, rhyming, and sequencing activities. In the vocabulary activity, students drag and drop the twelve vocabulary words to match them to their pictures. In the sequencing activity, students drag and drop the animal names next to their pictures (more vocabulary practice) and then drag and drop ordinal words to indicate which order the woman swallowed them in (yet more vocabulary). Finally, in the rhyming activity, students create houses by dragging the blue roofs over the pink houses to match the words that rhyme.

Both sets of activities, paper and digital, are available separately or as a bundle for a 25% discount. The paper version of the activities is also included in my Children’s Literature Super Bundle, which includes 23 different activities for various children’s literature.

There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly is truly a classic and will always be a favorite of mine! If you’re still thinking over which books to enjoy with your students for National Reading Month, I highly encourage you to include this one. Happy teaching, everyone!

English Skillology, Level 2

English Skillology, Level 2–Low Intermediate

About a year and a half ago, in the summer of 2020, I dreamed up this idea for a game board choice menu I could assign as extra credit. The next semester I was teaching a level three class, so I started with one for that level. Since then I’ve completed one menu for each level of courses our school offers (four).

Each of the menus has five sections: reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar. Each section has four activities, for a total of 20 activities. I post a template link to the menu on my class Blackboard or Padlet and give the students the entire semester to work on it. Students can earn up to five points for each activity they correctly complete, for a total of 100 possible extra credit points.

I also aligned each menu to Common Core State Standards. While we don’t use these standards at our school, it did provide a good way to organize the different levels. Level 1 uses third grade standards, level 2 features fifth grade standards, level 3 continues with seventh grade standards, and level four finishes things out with ninth-tenth grade standards. (If you do use CCSS, and WIDA, see this blog post for a free alignment between the K-8 ELA CCSS and old WIDA I Can Statements.)

Each menu features practice with different activities and skills, and I encourage you to get all of the details from my previous blog posts (level 1-beginner, level 3-high intermediate, level 4-advanced). Many of the activities are smaller versions of larger activities my students and I enjoy in class. Probably the best part about them though, at least from a teacher’s perspective, is that they are all free and provide extra practice that is not just “fluff.” Here is what one reviewer had to say about them:

 “I used Skillology 1 and 3 this week (ELLs at different language proficiency levels). I explained everything on Monday. I was out Tuesday – Friday due to proctoring tests. I was able to review between each day. Students focused on the tasks. Each student had to complete 5 tasks – one from each of the 5 skills. Thank you so much for these. I feel like I can use these again if I need to be out – definitely NOT busywork.”

H. Prashker, 10-9-21

Now that you’ve heard the background, and been given links to catch up with previous Skillologies you might have missed, here are all of the details for level 2 (low intermediate):


  • Proverbs: Words to Live By–This is a small sample of a board game I developed in response to my students wanting more speaking & reading comprehension practice, Proverbs from Around the World. Students read a proverb and explain in their own words what the proverb means/teaches. The full game is available in both paper and digital formats.
  • Contranym Context Clues–The full game was featured in this November blog post, but this small taste asks students to use context clues to determine which opposite meaning should be applied to the underlined word in the sentence. Again, the full game is available in both paper and digital formats.
  • Main Idea & Details– Students are asked to read an article, “What Are Clouds?,” from CommonLit, and complete a graphic organizer with the main idea and supporting details.
  • Claim, Evidence, Reasoning– We spend a lot of time practicing this skill in all levels of my classes. In this activity, students are asked to read another article from CommonLit, “Play, Play Again,” and identify the author’s claim, evidence, and reasoning. It is a simplified digital version of the CER graphic organizer we often use in class.


  • Sixty Second Summary– Also known as SSS in my class, this is a challenging activity in which students must read or listen to a text and then summarize it in sixty seconds or less. In this instance, students read another CommonLit article, “Fly High, Bessie Coleman,” and summarize it orally using Online Voice Recorder.
  • Procedural– Taking an idea from one of our favorite preposition practice activities, Lego Preposition Build (the third activity in the post), students use the pictorial directions to help them orally describe how to use Legos to build an ice cream cone.
  • In My Opinion– Students use Online Voice Recorder to record their presentation to a school board regarding whether or not a uniform policy should be adopted for their school.
  • Persuasive– Again practicing using claim, evidence, and reasoning, students choose one of three statements to support and persuade others to agree with them on in a 2-3 minute speech. The statements are all taken from the larger game, Claim, Evidence, Reasoning: The CER Board Game (available in both paper and digital formats).


  • Opinion Writing– Practicing claim, evidence, and reasoning once again, students will write a paragraph or more stating (and supporting) their opinion on a topic of their choosing.
  • Informative Writing– Given free reign to choose their topic again, students will this time form an informative paragraph (or more). They are also encouraged to “cite” any sources by at least stating the name of them in the paragraph.
  • Narrative Writing– This story can be fiction or nonfiction, but it must be at least one paragraph long and use correct grammar and punctuation.
  • Dialogue Writing– Practicing both making inferences and the proper use of quotation marks, this is the only writing activity that is not in paragraph form. Students are given four pictures and they must provide a possible dialogue for the people in them.


  • Similes and Metaphors– This is a tiny, three-part piece of a larger activity I describe in this December, 2020 blog post. Students watch three different movie/TV clips, identify which figurative language they hear, and explain what it means. The original activity is, like this Skillology, free.

The other three listening activities are all shortened versions of TED Talk comprehension activities. As I explain in this blog post, I believe listening practice should be as authentic as possible and find TED Talks to be an excellent source for texts. In each of the activities, students listen to the linked TED Talk and then answer four comprehension questions about what they heard. The full comprehension activities involve more questions.


  • Compounding Conjunctions– The full board game is described in this November, 2021 post, but in this quick version students are asked to take one sentence and expand it into four compound sentences using four different conjunctions. The board game version is available in paper and digital formats.
  • Past Perfect Travel Adventure– Another miniature version of a full board game, students write sentences in the past perfect about experiences from various places around the globe. The original board game is available in both paper and digital formats.
  • Prefixes and Suffixes– There are two levels of these puzzles, and this activity features a small piece of the second level. Students match the affix, root word, new word (root word + affix), affix meaning, new word meaning, and picture to form a rectangle. The full set of puzzles is available in both paper and digital formats.
  • Synonym Puzzles– In a second puzzle activity, students match three synonyms to form a rectangle. The complete set of puzzles is available in both paper and digital formats.

Creating these four English Skillology choice menus has been quite an experience. It was challenging at times, but I had a lot of fun. I love how I now have a way to deal with the ever present, “Can I do extra credit?” question that is effective and requires some real practice of important skills. While I don’t see more Skillology menus in my future at this point, anything is possible. Happy teaching, everyone!

Morning Reading Club

Every school I’ve ever worked at wanted to encourage students to read more. Some of the schools tried various programs including using reading logs as homework, Pizza Hut’s Book It! program, Accelerated Reader, and many others. Some worked better than others, but none were as effective as we had hoped, especially for our English language learners.

I’m sure there were many reasons why these programs weren’t as effective for our ELLs, but the two I heard the most (at least from students and parents) were location/economics and language barrier. Our school was located in a low socio-economic area, mere blocks from the Detroit city line. Many of our families did not own vehicles, some did not possess a single household member with a driving license, and public transport was basically non-existent. This made accessing rewards (such as free pizza) nearly impossible, and even getting to the public library (a couple miles away from the school) was difficult. Nearly 80% of our students were classified as ELLs, or former ELLs, and many of our parents and students were first generation immigrants. Many of our families didn’t have a single person at home who was fluent in English, and quite a few of our parents were not literate in their first language either. This made the prospect of having to supervise and help their children read anything, let alone something in English as books in their native language were not readily available, very daunting for our parents.

One of my colleagues and I were discussing this over lunch during summer school one year, trying to think of a way to encourage our students, especially our ELLs, to read for pleasure more. The school day had already been extended and packed full of regular learning, interventions, and remediation, so we knew we’d have to look outside of it. Most of our students walked to school and the older ones often needed to be available to help the family financially, or to watch preschool aged siblings so their parent could work, after escorting younger siblings home from school, so after school was not a viable option either. It was later that week, as we were dealing with the post-breakfast, pre-school-start chaos that it dawned on us–nearly every student in our school arrived at least 30 minutes early in order to eat breakfast, an activity that took them approximately 5 minutes. If we provided them with the location, and some rewards they did not have to travel to claim, they might be willing to use that extra time to read. Thus, the idea for the Morning Reading Club was conceived.

The ESL “classroom” at that time was a storage closet just off the gym/cafeteria, so it was the perfect location. It was a very small area, but our students were used to squeezing into it. We quickly worked out a point system for rewards. Students would earn one point (tracked with stickers on a chart in the room) for each day they came and read for at least 15 minutes. Students could bring their own book, or choose one from the very small library in the classroom, and the book could be anything that interested them: fiction, nonfiction, graphic novel, etc.

Their points were used in two ways. Students could use them to “purchase” various school supplies: pencils, notebooks, erasers, etc. All of them were fun designs and colors but things the students needed to be successful in class. They could also choose to save up their points and “purchase” books. The rewards were purchased with title funds and a small grant we received for helping our immigrant families. The second use of the points was cumulative (including the points they used on supplies and books). We figured out how many days a student would have to participate to have read for 80% of the mornings and this became the ultimate goal. For an ultimate goal we needed an ultimate prize.

We knew we wanted the ultimate prize to be something that was fun but still educationally valuable in some way. Most of our students’ families did not have much in the way of finances before immigrating to the USA, and none of them had money to spare here in the USA. This meant things such as trips to the zoo, museums, and other learning experiences were not part of their lives. The summer we were planning all of this was also the summer we did our week of Cricket vs. Baseball themed learning. This got us got us thinking, the professional baseball season is underway at the end of the school year, none of our students had ever been to a professional baseball game (only a few had been to any professional sporting event at all). Taking in a professional baseball game would be a lot of fun, connect back to their academic learning, and be a cultural experience. Our principal agreed and said she would find the money for the tickets to send two teachers and whatever students earned the opportunity to a Detroit Tigers game.

That fall we launched the program and it met with great success. Our only problem was finding enough space for all of the students who wanted to read! They didn’t mind crowding in, sitting on the floor and in the hall, or even under tables though. Only a few came every morning, but most were there at least three mornings a week.

By the end of the year we’d passed out countless school supplies (which their classroom teachers were thankful for) and quite a few books as well. Only a few earned the trip to the baseball game, all middle schoolers, but we had a great time (my colleague and I watched them more than the game) and it’s something they talked about for years after. The classroom teachers also got behind the program and allowed the ESL teacher in charge of monitoring the room (usually me) to sign students’ reading logs for homework credit.

Beyond the space issue I can’t think of a single downside. Students developed a love of reading and got in some sustained reading time. Discipline issues in the cafeteria went down because students had something to do when they finished eating. Teachers had a fewer students wandering into the classroom early (we sent them up to classrooms about five minutes before the first bell), giving them a few extra minutes to prepare for the day. And I, as room monitor and example to follow, had time to do some fun reading myself! Did it take extra work on my part to track everyone’s participation and reward redemption? Yes. Was a fair amount of classroom management necessary to keep that many students on task before school even started? Yes. Were the results worth it? Absolutely!

I know such a program is not always possible, but it was a wonderful success for us and I feel privileged to have been a part of it. Even if you can’t do the exact same program, I encourage you to brainstorm with your colleagues and come up with something that will work for your specific situation. Happy teaching, everyone!

Contranym Context Clues

Knowing how to use context clues is an important thing for everyone, but it is especially important for language learners. After the present tense of the verb to be, what a context clue is, and how to use one to help understand unfamiliar vocabulary, is one of the first skills I begin working on with students. Fortunately, the use of context clues is a skill that transfers between languages, and since most of my students are literate in at least one language, the skill itself is something they already possess. They need only apply the skill to English, which is where my frustration usually begins—especially for my lower proficiency students.

There is a myriad of resources available to teach and practice context clues, but those designed for beginning level students tend to have one very frustrating thing in common: they use nonsense words as the word you need to “guess” via context clues. While I can appreciate this method for native speakers, it is extremely frustrating for language learners. The other struggle I have with beginning level context clue activities is one I face quite often, the resources are designed for young children and not at all relatable to my older students. Over the years I’ve designed several different context clue activities (you can read about a couple of them in these blog posts: National Talk Like a Pirate Day, Context Clues Connect Four), but they’ve primarily been for intermediate and advanced students. Last year I was practicing context clues with high beginners again and decided enough was enough, it was past time to make a game my older beginners would actually enjoy playing. The result: Contranym Context Clues.


A contranym, if you don’t already know, is a word with contradictory definitions (i.e.: the verb seed can mean to add seeds, as in plant them, or remove them, as one might do when cooking). The only way to know which definition is correct is from the context. As these are real words and definitions, they provide perfect context clue practice.

The Game

The game board is a standard board I’ve used frequently in the past for games such as Alphabet Adjective Zig-Zag. It consists of five rows of six squares, a blank row lies between them and they are connected by a single square at alternating ends. The easiest way to create this is to make a table that is nine rows by six columns and then merge all but the end cell on every other row. Add in your borders and you are ready to go. I like to place the game title in the empty areas between rows and often include directions or other information in these areas as well. For this game, I put the title in the first three empty sections and a definition for contranym, as well as brief turn directions, in the last section. Add the words start and finish to the first and last box, and the game board is complete.

To create the cards, I first chose 24 contranyms (lists of them are easy to find on the internet) and wrote example sentences for each. I underlined the contranym and added the two opposing definitions under each sentence as choice A and B. I numbered each of the cards for two reasons: it allows students to check one another’s answers with the key I give them, and I can use them as task cards, rather than a board game, if I so choose.

Game play is relatively straight forward. The student chooses a card, reads the sentence, and decides which definition is correct. If he/she chooses the correct definition (I provide each group with an answer key), he/she rolls and moves his/her piece. I’ve mentioned it before, but popular game pieces in my classroom include plastic counters, mini erasers, and milk jug lids. Since the definitions are provided, and there are only two choices, the game is a little too easy for higher proficiency students but it has some nice support for beginning and low intermediate learners.

The Digital Version

Since all classes were online last year I needed a digital version of the game. Converting it wasn’t too difficult, and the game play remained basically the same.

I placed the game board and directions for play as the background of the first slide. Each question was given its own slide and was also placed as the background (to prevent accidental changes). To provide an answer key, I use a “magic reveal” technique that’s been quite successful in the past. You can read a full description of how to do this yourself in this blog post, but the short version is you place the answer on the slide but make it the same color as the background (for this game I put a black square on the background and made the answer black). You then add another “magic” shape (I like to use a magnifying glass) that is dragged over the answer area. The shape is ordered so it is behind the answer on the slide. Thus it “reveals” the answer by allowing it to be seen when it is placed between the answer and the background. Since the answer is on the slide, students are on the honor system as far as cheating goes, but since this is a practice game I don’t worry about that.

In order to “draw” a card and “roll” the dice, I use the “Game Play” script my husband wrote for me. This script adds a menu item entitled “Game Play” to the existing menu list. Within the drop down menu students have the choice between “Roll Dice” and “Draw Card.” The “Roll Dice” option generates a pop up window that says “You rolled a __” and generates a random number between one and six. The “Draw Card” option randomly jumps the student to one of the question slides (where there is a hyperlinked button to return them to the game board). The “Draw Card” option requires permission to run the first time it is clicked, but I provide directions for the students to follow on the game board and they’ve never had a problem. The only issue I’ve ever run into is when a student didn’t listen to my directions regarding leaving the file in edit mode, as placing it into present mode removes access to the menu items and makes the game pieces unmovable.


I’ve played the game a few times with a couple of different groups this year and the results were about what I expected. All groups found the game to be fun. My advanced students thought it was too easy (which I expected) and my beginning students found it to be more challenging than other context clue activities but still doable (also as I expected). Their final opinion was the game is a good way to practice context clues and worth playing again. I still like the fact that all of the words are real words and am admittedly a little fascinated by contranyms (which I vaguely knew about but had never consciously considered). Give a lesson on contranyms a try and see how your students respond. Happy teaching, everyone!

Don’t have time to make your own game? Interested in other context clue activities? Try one of these:

Or get a bundle of all the context clue activities at a 20% discount:

English Skillology, Level 4

Level 4: Advanced
Level 3: High Intermediate
Level 1: Beginner

I am now 3/4 of the way to my goal of creating an extra credit choice menu for each level I teach. At the most basic level, English Skillology is a choice menu. It includes four activities for each of the five skill areas in ESL: reading, writing, speaking, listening, and grammar. Inspired by a Monopoly-style choice menu of someone else’s, I decided to use a game board format for my own. Each skill is a side (grammar is in the corners), and has its own color. Students are then free to choose the number and type of activities they want to complete by the end of the semester. In creating the activities for each board I considered two different sets of standards and learning outcomes: those of the college where I teach and the Common Core. Level one (beginners) is aligned to the third grade Common Core, level three (high intermediate) is aligned to the seventh grade Common Core, and level four (advanced) is aligned to the ninth-tenth grade Common Core. Level two is in the works and will be aligned to the fifth grade Common core. You can read the previous posts (linked above) for details on the level one and three English Skillologies, here are the details about the activities in level four:


  • Contranym Context Clues: A contranym is a word that has opposing definitions. This activity, a small piece of a larger board game, asks students to read nine sentences and choose the correct definition for the underlined word.
  • Oxymorons: Understanding figurative language is difficult for English learners and oxymorons can be especially confusing. This activity asks students to define each of the two words forming the nine oxymorons and then define the oxymoron itself.
  • CER & CRAAP Check: This is a one slide version of the free graphic organizer based assignment I often use with my reading class. Students choose an article from a major news outlet and make notes about the claim, evidence, and reasoning present. They then examine the article to find information regarding the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose of it.
  • Main Idea & Detail: Identifying the main idea and details of entire texts can be a difficult task. This task asks students to read the text from Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech (taken from CommonLit) and then summarize the main idea and details in a manner of their own choosing (paragraph, graphic organizer, outline…).


  • Sixty Second Summary (SSS): It’s relatively easy to summarize something when it can be as long as you want, there’s no need to make decisions regarding what to include and what to leave out. It is far more difficult to create a succinct summary, but that is what students are asked to do in this task. They have to read an article from NewsELA and, in sixty seconds or less, summarize the main idea and important details.
  • Informative Speech: Students are asked to use Online Voice Recorder to create a one to two minute informative speech about a topic of their choosing.
  • Pronunciation Challenge: Reading homophones is a big challenge, the only way to know which pronunciation to use is by the context. This activity asks students to record themselves reading ten sentences with homophone pairs in them. The challenge is to correctly pronounce all of the words.
  • One of a Kind: Everyone has something that is unique about them, something that makes them one of a kind. In this final speaking activity, students are asked to record a one to two minute speech explaining why they are one of a kind.


  • Narrative: Students write a narrative of at least two paragraphs long using correct grammar and punctuation.
  • Acyrologia Proofreading: Acyrologia is an incorrect or inappropriate use of words. Students are asked to retype a paragraph containing many examples of acyrologia using correct vocabulary and spelling. The paragraph is taken from a meme that has been floating around the internet and I do not know the original source.
  • Informative: Students are asked to write an informative essay of at least two paragraphs using correct grammar and punctuation.
  • Inferring Cause and Effect: Taken from my free Cause and Effect Pictures activity, students are asked to infer the cause and effect of each picture.


  • How to Tie Your Shoes: Students watch a short TED Talk and complete a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting the two ways of tying your shoes.
  • Word Stress Makes A Difference: The sentence, “I never said she stole my money” has a different meaning depending on the stressed word. Students are asked to write the meaning of each sentence based on the stressed word.
  • CER & CRAAP: Students are asked to listen to a TED Talk and read the speaker’s biography before completing a one slide version of the CER and CRAAP graphic organizer again.
  • Have a Meeting? Take a Walk: Students again watch a TED Talk, this time completing a graphic organizer about the main idea, details, things they learned, and questions they still have.


  • Relative Pronouns and Adjective Clauses: In a shortened drag-and-drop version of my Relative Clause Memory / Relative Clause Digital Task Cards activity, students drag the correct relative pronoun to connect each noun to the adjective clause.
  • Academic Vocabulary Context Clues: This activity is also a small portion of a much larger game, Academic Vocabulary Connect Four, a supplemental activity to my 30 Weeks of Academic Vocabulary Units. Students read a sentence and use context clues to write their own definition for the underlined vocabulary word.
  • Idiomatic Figurative Language: These five sentences from my Idiom Jeopardy game each contain a baseball-themed idiom (the idioms can also be found in my Play Ball, Ameila Bedila Idioms sort activity). Students are asked to read the sentence and write a sentence that explains the meaning of the underlined idiom.
  • Ranking Synonyms: This final activity combines my French Fry Synonyms sort with our Shades of Meaning activity. Students are asked to drag-and-drop five synonyms for each overused word and place them in order from weakest to strongest.

So how did I create this extra credit menu? In the most general terms, here are the steps I took:

  1. I designed the choice menu and each activity slide in PowerPoint.
  2. I then saved those slides as images that I uploaded as backgrounds for the various slides (I use the add-on Slides Toolbox for this). This was to prevent any accidental (or not-so-accidental) deletions or edits by students.
  3. I added text boxes. Once again, in order to prevent unwanted deletions and edits I took steps. This time I made use of the master slide (now called theme builder). Under Slide, click Edit Theme. This will allow you to add and edit various slide layouts. I simply created master slides that included text boxes in the locations I needed them.
  4. I added videos for the students. The listening assignments, and a few others, required students to listen to a talk, or watch a short video. I inserted theses on the proper slides by clicking Insert and Video. This allowed me to find the video on YouTube and put it directly on the slide. Having the video on the slide has many benefits but the three most important to me are: no need to go to an outside site (less chance of clicking our way to distraction), advertisements are eliminated from the video, as well as watch next suggestions (again, less chance of distraction), I can choose when the video starts and ends (so if the beginning or ending is not relevant I can tell it to skip those parts).
  5. I set up the hyperlinks so when students choose an activity (by clicking on it in the menu) they will be automatically taken to the correct slide to complete it. I did this by drawing a square over each of the boxes in my menu. I then made the square and its border clear (tip: don’t make the square clear until after you’ve done the hyperlink so you can remember which links are finished and which aren’t). To make the shape a hyperlink, I click on it, clicked Insert Link in the menu bar (looks like a link in a chain), chose “Slides in this Presentation,” the number of the slide I wanted, and apply. 
  6. Finally, I added a “Game Board” button to each of the activity slides so students could quickly return to the choice menu from anywhere in the document. To do this I inserted a rectangle, put the text “Game Board” in it, and then used the Insert Link tool to link to the first slide. Once I did the fist one, I was able to copy and paste it onto all of the other slides.

English Skillology levels one and three were very popular the last couple of semesters and I’m hoping level four will be as well. As I mentioned before, level two is in process and I’m hoping to have it for next semester (especially since I’m teaching two level one classes so I’ll probably use it for extra credit in one of the classes). You can download all three levels of English Skillology for free in my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Happy teaching, everyone!

Need some of those links again? Try these buttons for quick access to the free English Skillology Choice Menus:

Phonics Based Vocabulary Acquisition

Set 1
Set 2
Bundle: sets 1 & 2

One year, soon after returning to the USA and K-12 ESL, the intervention dean at my school told me to, “do whatever it takes to improve our ELL’s reading scores.” We had a large number of beginning and low intermediate English language learners in upper elementary and middle school who were reading at a kindergarten or first grade level. Most of these students were classified as having limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) and fewer than half of the students (and their parents) could read or write in their first languages (primarily Bengali and Arabic). Many different research-based curriculums and interventions had been tried, none produced significant results. Our students were falling further and further behind. Since I was taking an action research course as part of my second master’s degree studies at the time, I decided to make this problem the focus of my research. The question I finally settled on was, “Will intensive and direct phonics instruction help English language learners become better readers more quickly than the general English language development that has been provided to them in the past?” I then spent the next year developing a word family based phonics program and implementing it. I tracked student data for a total of three years and the results were staggering.

The year before I began using my phonics based vocabulary acquisition program, the students’ average growth on the NWEA reading test was 82% (100% is equal to one school year). At the end of the first year, students showed an average growth rate of 245%. The second year of implementation yielded an average growth rate of 336%, and the final year I tracked scores had an average growth rate of 268%. Needless to say, my dean was very happy with the results! After leaving that particular school, I used the same program quite successfully (average growth rate of 123%) with my primarily Spanish-speaking middle schoolers in a different district. While this second population of students were also classified as SLIFE, most could read and write in their first language, as could their parents. I believe the students’ first language literacy, and familiarity with the grapheme system, explain why the average rate of growth was lower.

Enough about the data, let’s talk about the program! The two levels consist of ten units each and begin with a focus on vowels. Set one covers the word families AT, AN/AD, AP/AG, OG/OP/OT, EG/EN/ET, UG/UN/UT, IG/ILL/IP, R-controlled vowels, and VCe (ake, ore, ine). Set two deals more with blends and diagraphs and includes the word families SH, CH, TH, WH, ST, QU, OI/OY, AW/AU, KN, and TION. I typically did a unit, or word family, each week, though I’d stretch it to two weeks for the longer units (those that include 20 words, rather than 12). We typically spent between 20 and 30 minutes a day on the different activities, and we met five days a week. Our typical daily lesson included a review of the sound we were focusing on (particularly the difference between short and long vowels), a read aloud (students would signal when they heard a word with the target sound), a student-read book (list of suggested books for teacher read aloud and students read times is included in the units), a word work game or activity, and a worksheet. Each Friday we’d do an assessment, testing students’ spelling and use of the words.

Some of the word work activities we did included:

  • Sort Cards- students would match a picture care with the corresponding word card. These cards were also used as prompts in other games, as a Memory-style game, and as flashcards.
  • Magnet Spelling– it was during the development of these units that I first discovered my middle schoolers enjoyed using magnets to practice their spelling. I eventually made picture strips for each unit and it became a regular part of our word work routine. You can read all of the details, and get a free digital template version, in the blog post from June, 2021.
  • Match Up Cards– these are cards I designed to go with the match up boards my father designed and built for me (get the free building plans in my TpT store). Students slide the picture cards into the left slot and the word list into the right slot. They then use rubber bands to match the picture to the correct word. (A blog post describing this activity in more detail is planned for May, 2022.)
  • Clip Cards- students use clothes pins to indicate the correct word for the picture in the center of the card. This is another activity I was surprised my middle schoolers enjoyed, but they did and so it too became part of our regular rotation.
  • Scrambled Words– described in the “Trash” section of Toys, Trash, or Teaching Treasures?, this activity involves students choosing a plastic egg and then using the Scrabble tiles inside it to spell a word. Students then record the word next to the correct picture on their recording sheet.
  • Spin, Spell, Sentence– this game was a favorite the students asked to play whenever we had five minutes left at the end of a class. As I explain in a previous blog post, I print CD labels with pictures from our list of target words. I then affix these labels to old CDs and DVDs, and use the CD Spinner my dad designed and built for me (free building plans in my shop). The student spins the spinner, states the word represented by the picture, spells the word, and uses it in a sentence.
  • Body Boggle– it was this set of units that also inspired Body Boggle and its many variations. It was my second group of middle schoolers (almost entirely boys) who came up with the team version–where each person on the team would take turns jumping to the next letter, sometimes running into one another in the process.

The worksheets we did each week were always the same.

  • Cut and Paste: students cut out pictures and glued them next to the target words.
  • Alphabetical Order: since most of the students were still working on mastering the English alphabet, this was an excellent way for them to practice writing their words and an important skill at the same time.
  • Crossword
  • Word search
  • Cloze (complete the sentences with the target words)
  • Journal: though not technically a worksheet, each student had his/her own journal with 1-2 pages for each word family. Each week the students used each of their words in a sentence. It didn’t take long before my middle schoolers began competing to see who could create a sentence with the most target words in it and still have it make sense.

Every Friday was assessment day. I always started by reading the words in random order, as one would when giving a spelling test. The students would write the words next to the appropriate picture in the table at the top of their test papers. This allowed me to asses their understanding of the vocabulary, as well as their ability to spell the word (they received one point for spelling it correctly and one point for placing it next to the correct picture). The second half of the test was a cloze, requiring students to write the words to complete the sentences.

When I first began this adventure I never could have imagined where it would end up. My dean and I were simply desperate to help our students improve and so decided to try something different. Ending up with a complete curriculum involving spinning CDs, plastic eggs, muffin tins (another review game), and jumping middle schoolers is definitely not what I expected! This past summer I spent some time updating this program. I added more links to supplemental resources and reading books, updated all of the images, and included a few extras (like the Jeopardy review games). I hope the program is helpful to many more students and teachers. Happy teaching, everyone!

Need the links again? Try these buttons, one for each set and one for the bundle (a 20% savings):