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):

Picture Books and Older Learners

I love using picture books to teach! I use them to teach all subjects (even math!) and all skill/proficiency levels. I teach picture books that are old favorites, and some that are new to me. They make for fun lessons celebrating major holidays (and some holidays that are not so major). I am a passionate believer that picture books belong in every classroom and should be used with all ages. I used them when I (very briefly) taught kindergarten, I used them when I taught middle and high school, and I use them with my adults (I just assigned my advanced reading class of college students a cause and effect assignment using The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate The Wash). While it may seem strange, or even insulting, to use picture books with older learners, I have found it to be quite effective and that my older learners enjoy, and even at times beg, for me to incorporate them. Today I’d like to share with you the several of the reasons I use picture books with older learners.

First, they are fun. Everyone, regardless of age or stage of life, enjoys a good story and nice pictures. Some of my students were considered older because of the years they’d spent on this planet, others because of things they’d experienced and witnessed, but the vast majority of my students could be called “older,” and every single one of them has enjoyed picture books. I’ve had students that served in the most elite divisions of their country’s military, what would be equivalent to our special forces, who smiled, laughed, and even requested we read more picture books in class. If the strongest and toughest adults among us still enjoy a good picture book, I can’t think of someone who wouldn’t.

Second, picture books actually require one to be a quite proficient reader. We think of them as simple and easy because they are written for children, but they were written for children to understand–not read. Most picture books are not written with beginning, emergent, or even developing readers in mind; they are written for a fluent reader to read to a child who cannot yet read for him/herself, or is still learning to read for him/herself. For example, one of my favorite books of all time is Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (which I often read aloud when teaching synonyms and use in our compound word unit). With a Lexile level of AD840 (AD stands for adult directed), this book requires one to possess a 4th-5th grade reading level; it’s actually not that much of an easier read than the Harry Potter books, which have a Lexile average of somewhere around 900 (5th grade).

Third, picture books provide English language learners with a lot of visual support that isn’t present in a novel. At least every other page has an illustration of some kind, usually a quite large and colorful one, that corresponds directly to the text on those same two pages. To get anywhere near the same kind of support in a novel, one would have to focus solely on specially designed novels, such as the Great Illustrated Classics series. These added context clues are very helpful for understanding and acquiring new vocabulary.

Fourth, many classic picture books have been translated into multiple languages and are sold around the world. For example, the classic book The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, has been translated into more than 62 languages. It is not unusual for my English language learners to recognize a book because they’ve read it in their first language. All of that knowledge of the story line, characters, themes, etc. transfers, and students are able to draw on it to help them learn the English vocabulary and complete any comprehension or skill activities we do with the story.

Fifth, reading classic and popular picture books usually stimulates fond memories and pleasant emotions. For native English speaking students, this puts them in a mental state which enhances learning and retention. For English language learners, it gives them the opportunity to increase their cultural knowledge and experiences. This then translates into better connections between them and their English-speaking peers. It’s never fun to sit around listening to people reminisce about something you have no knowledge of, and reading classic picture books in class gives English language learners the knowledge and cultural experiences they need to join in discussions of favorite childhood books.

Sixth, and finally for today, using picture books with older learners, particularly adults, provides them the opportunity to connect with their own family. Many of my adult students have been parents and grandparents, even great grandparents, and they are constantly looking for ways to connect with the children in their lives. The parents want a way to help their children learn English. The grandparents are often hoping to connect with a grandchild who isn’t fluent in the adult’s first language. By reading picture books in class, these adults have the chance to practice pronouncing the words in the story, learn the meaning of any new vocabulary, and understand the basic plot line. They are then able to go home and read the book to their child/grandchild, creating fond memories and connections across languages.

I could go on much longer, but I think my point has been made: picture books are valuable learning tools for students of all ages. They have a lot to offer older learners, and I would encourage you to try using them with your own students. If you’re still nervous your older students will be offended or insulted in some way, try introducing picture books by starting with one of your personal favorites. My students are always more interested in books that I love, and it’s hard to believe your teacher thinks you’re stupid if he/she is telling you how much he/she enjoys a picture book. The other thing I have done at times is to preface a unit involving a picture book with an honest conversation. I tell students flat out that I do not think they are stupid, I am not using this book because I think they are childish, and I go on to explain one or two of the reasons I gave above for why I am using the book. Even my most skeptical students have come around quickly after these type of conversations. I’m not going to say that every student will fall in love (or even like) with every book, but since that isn’t true of small children and picture books, I think it wouldn’t be fair to expect it of older learners. Use a variety of books and every student will find at least one that he/she enjoys. Happy teaching, everyone!

Picture Books…In Math?

It’s National Reading Month and, as you know, I love using picture books in my teaching. I love it so much that I’ve even included picture books in my math lessons! There are books made specifically to teach math, such as Scholastic’s Math Mystery Mini-Books and the MathStart series, but there are so many others that are great to use as well. Today I’d like to share with you some of my favorite picture books to use when teaching math, both those written specifically for this purpose, and those which were written just for fun.

Among the Odds & Evens by Priscilla Turner

This book is a nice introduction to even and odd numbers, of course, but it is actually much more than that. The story starts out with two letters, X and Y, crashing into a town of numbers. They notice the many differences between the odd and even numbers and get a little judgmental about the way the numbers get together and reproduce. By the end of the story though the letters have learned an important lesson about accepting people for who they are and how different isn’t necessarily wrong or bad.

A Remainder of One by Elinor J. Pinczes

This delightful story about a group of soldier bugs putting on a parade for their queen explains how sometimes numbers can’t be divided evenly and one or more are left over, or remain. The group of 25 bugs starts out in two lines, but poor Joe is left out. Each day they try forming one more line, but Joe is consistently left standing alone. It is only when they reach five lines that Joe is able to be part of the group and all march happily together.

Sir Cumference books by Cindy Neushwander

I first found these books when I was searching for a literature tie-in for my geometry unit. Geometry is my worst math area and I was trying to find things to liven it up and explain the concepts in a different way for both me and my students. My students and I both loved Sir Cumference, and the way Neushwander explains the math concepts made them easier for us all to understand. There’s even a book of classroom activities to help you creatively integrate the books into your lesson plans.

Gator Pie by Louise Mathews

This book is an old one (copyright 1979), but a good one. In it two alligators, Alvin and Alice, find a pie and decide to share it. Each time they prepare to cut the pie (first in half, then thirds, then fourths…), more gators arrive wanting a slice as well. Poor Alvin and Alice have to continually figure out how to cut a new number of even slices from a single pie. It’s a great introduction to fractions, and the illustrations show how the size of the individual pieces actually gets smaller as the denominator of the fraction gets larger. My students always laugh and laugh as we read the story, and it makes a great start to our factions unit.

The Berenstain Bears’ Trouble With Money by Stan & Jan Berenstain, “Smart” by Shel Silverstein, Alexander Who Used to be Rich Last Sunday by Judith Viorst

American money, especially our coins, is not easy to learn. My English language learners and I spend a lot of time practicing our skills with money, and we love to read stories as we do. We talk about how “smart” the boy really is in Shel Silverstein’s poem, learn along with Brother and Sister Bear as they spend their money, talk about money idioms, and then earn their own money; and sympathize with poor Alexander who has only bus tokens in his pocket. The stories are all funny, totally relatable to my students, and they provide a welcome break from all of the math and vocabulary practice that goes with this unit.

The Five-Dog Night by Eileen Christelow

Writing algebraic expressions is a difficult skill to master for all students, but especially English language learners. Not only do they have to figure out how to translate words into numbers and symbols, they have to try and understand the words first! This last book is a great way to introduce the concept with a fun story about a lonely old bachelor named Ezra and his neighbor Betty. Betty can’t understand why Ezra always says he doesn’t need blankets, but the pictures reveal the answer Betty won’t discover until the end of the book. After reading the story, the students and I work together to write an equation that will help Ezra determine how many dogs he’ll need each night to stay warm. It’s a fun exercise and helps to lower their anxiety about the work to come.

The truth is I could list many other picture books to use when teaching math, but I won’t. I encourage you to give some of these a try, and seek out others you and your students can enjoy together as well. Be sure and let me know what your own favorites are, or become! Happy teaching, everyone.

Children’s Literature Based Activities for All Levels

It is no secret that I love using children’s literature, especially picture books, in my teaching. My students all love them too. It doesn’t matter if I’m teaching children, teens, or adults, they all enjoy being read to. If much time passes between my bringing a book to class, my older students will come up and ask me when we’re going to have “story time” again. This blog is more evidence of my obsession, with posts about The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash, The Giving Tree, Miss Nelson Is Missing, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, How I Became a Pirate, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, to name a few. Some day I’ll write a complete post on why I use so many picture books in class, but not today.

One of the most frequently featured authors in my class is Dr. Seuss. On the one hand, as an ESL teacher, his books drive me (and my students) a little crazy because of how many made-up words they contain. On the other hand, his tendency to write primarily with high frequency words makes the books very accessible for language learners. Dr. Seuss’ books have also been translated into 30 languages, which means most of my students are familiar with at least one of them in their first language. Being familiar with the characters and story allows them to more easily access the English content. For those few students who haven’t heard of Dr. Seuss, or those books they haven’t already read, reading them provides the opportunity for them to create common ground with their English-speaking peers, most of whom grew up reading Dr. Seuss.

As a teacher it seems I’m contractually obligated to, as one student put it, “ruin books” with work. While I love to read, and I do believe there is a need for more pleasure reading in education, I rarely have the luxury of just enjoying a book with my older students. Sadly, story time is not an accepted practice in most secondary and higher educational institutes, so there needs to be some objectifiable learning that takes place along with the enjoyment of a good story, and our times with Dr. Seuss are no exception.

When I’m working with beginning language learners, bringing in educational objectives is fairly easy. All I have to do is continue to teach the same things teachers have been using Dr. Seuss books to teach for decades. Green Eggs and Ham is one of our favorites, and we have three different sorting activities that we do. In the first we match picture word cards to form rhyming pairs (also a great way to reinforce vocabulary). The second has various words from the book on green eggs and hams that students sort into alphabetical order. The third requires students to match the contraction green hams to the green eggs that have the original two words. All three activities are available as a discounted bundle, or as a digital drag and drop set.

My more proficient students like Dr. Seuss as well, but it’s a little harder to fit him into their educational objectives. One year my students were really struggling with classifying sentences as either active or passive voice, and especially with rewriting them as the opposite voice. (Side question: why do we even require them to learn that? They can write in the passive voice, they can write in the active voice, they know when to use each. Why do they need to be able to convert between the two?) I had already run through all of my various teaching tools, practice activities, and games when they asked me for one more chance to practice. Not having any idea how I’d deliver, I promised to bring something to our next class. I decided to make a task card set and, to add a little bit of fun to a not-so-fun lesson, to write the sentences about famous Dr. Seuss characters and books. My students loved it! They not only received one more opportunity to practice with active and passive voice (and the conversion between the two), but they started talking, reminiscing about their favorite Dr. Seuss books and characters, introducing classmates to new-to-them books, and learning about books they’d missed out on themselves. It turned out to be one of those lessons that was full of authentic student talk, the kind we ESL teachers dream about. The trend continued the next semester with another group of students, and hasn’t stopped yet. Each time I use this activity the result is the same: happy students, good practice with the objective, and lots of authentic speaking practice as well.

When we went digital last year, I didn’t want to give up the activity and created a digital version of the task cards. In the digital version students move the X to indicate if a sentence is active or passive. They then use the adjacent text box to rewrite the sentence in the opposite voice. While still very effective for practicing active and passive voice, the digital version isn’t nearly as much fun because the spontaneous talk and interactive nature of being around a table, or set of desks, together is missing. A small portion of this activity is included in the writing section English Skillology, level 3, if you want to take a look at it.

While on the surface it may seem that picture books, and especially the silly picture books authors such as Dr. Seuss are famous for, are too “babyish” for older learners, my experience tells me differently. My older learners love them just as much as the younger ones, and sometimes even more so because of the memories associated with them, or the chance to create new memories with their own children. Happy teaching, everyone!

Cause and Effect, Part 2

The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate The Wash Cause and Effect Chain: Digital

On Monday I shared with you two of the activities my beginning and intermediate students like for practicing cause and effect. While cause and effect pictures (digital version) and Childhood Trouble Cover Up Game (digital version) are great for these students, they aren’t rigorous enough for my more advanced students. One thing I can count on every time I see cause and effect in an advanced textbook is a lot of rolling eyes and a chorus of, “This is so easy!” Of course that’s the standard response of middle schoolers to just about everything…but my college students have always had basically the same reaction to the topic of cause and effect, so at least some of the blame has fall to the topic and teaching methods. A few years ago I tired of my standard, “Ah, the sound of whining middle schoolers in the morning, better than coffee!” response, and tried something new. The results were amazing, and I’d like to share my lesson idea with you.

My new lesson plan revolved around one of my favorite children’s books of all time, The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash, by Trinka Hankes Noble. If you’re not familiar with the book, a little girl comes home from school and tells her mom all about the class field trip to a farm. The trip was quite the adventure because one student, Jimmy, brought his pet boa constrictor along and all kinds of trouble ensued. I’m not entirely sure what inspired me to use this book for my cause and effect lesson, but I suspect I was just looking for any excuse to share it with my students. I love sharing my favorite picture books with my older learners, and they love hearing them. As immigrants and English language learners, many of them have never read the books, and being familiar with childhood classics helps them connect with their English-speaking peers. My adult learners like reading the books in class and then going home and sharing them with their children. It gives them something proactive they can do to be part of their children’s English education.

The beginning of the lesson tends to go very similarly to every other lesson I’ve taught on cause and effect to advanced learners. I explain what we are going to be working on, they roll their eyes, and I wait for the whining sound to decrease to a reasonable level. Then I play my trump card. I tell them that there is only one activity for the class period, they can work in groups if they chose, and as soon as they are finished they can go (or have free time for middle school). Suddenly they are all sitting up straight, pencils in hand, and declaring, “I’ll be done in five minutes! Who wants to go for coffee?”

We begin the lesson with me reading the book aloud to them (this is their favorite part and they often ask me to read just for fun). Then we have a very brief discussion about how one cause’s effect often becomes the cause for another effect, which becomes the cause for another effect. I show them a cause and effect chain graphic organizer/flow chart, and explain how they work. Then I give them their assignment for the class period: create a cause and effect chain for the events in The Day Jimmy’s Boa Ate the Wash. Turn it in to me, and if it’s at least 90% correct, they will be finished for the day. I pass out copies of the book and a graphic organizer I use for this purpose (paper version is included in the comprehension activities packet and a digital version is also available), though you could allow students to create their own chain by drawing boxes and arrows on a piece of paper. The students get to work and, other than answering the occasional procedural or vocabulary question, I am able to observe and catch up on work around the room.

I’ve been doing this lesson for years, and I’ve never once had a group finish in less than twenty minutes. It’s one thing to identify cause and effect in a single sentence or short paragraph, it’s a far more difficult thing to diagram out a complete story. This book adds an extra challenge because, while the events are clearly described, they are told in a somewhat reverse order. Some of the events cause more than one effect, or happen simultaneously, and I encourage students to modify their chains as necessary to show these connections. As long as they are able to connect the various causes and effects in generally the right order, I give them credit. By the time I introduce the lesson, the students whine, we read the book, they work in groups, and we discuss our final chains as a class, a 45 minute period is filled.

While I can’t guarantee that your students will, like many of mine, leave saying, “Wow, that was so hard!” I do think they will leave with a new appreciation for how cause and effect can be used to tell a good story. Go ahead and give cause and effect chains a try, what do you have to lose? Happy teaching, everyone.

FYI: As of next week, I’ll be making a couple of small changes to my blog posting routine. I’m only going to be posting once a week, and those posts will be coming on Wednesdays.

Cause and Effect, Part 1

Cause and Effect Pictures: Slides (Free)
Cause and Effect Cover Up Game: Paper
Cause and Effect Cover Up Game: Digital

It seems as though every semester I have to teach cause and effect. It’s a recurring theme because it’s important, but all of the time spent on one skill can get a little boring for students. Over the years I’ve developed a few activities that are fun, and today I’d like to share two of them with you.

Teaching older learners, I don’t have to teach the concept of cause and effect as much as the vocabulary surrounding it. They generally already know what a cause and an effect are, and how they are related, these concepts don’t change from language to language. What my older learners struggle with is identifying which part of a sentence or story is the cause vs. the effect, because the language can be unfamiliar. It would be easier if there were set patterns, and while there are some clue words, there are no rules for when to state the cause or effect in your communication.

Cause and Effect Pictures

Similar to when I teach inferences, I like to start with pictures. As explained in the video, “Importance of Modeling and Guided Practice” by IRLe Instructional Solutions Team, giving students examples and opportunities to practice under controlled conditions is important. One way to do this with cause and effect is to give students pictures and have them come up with two possible causes and effects for each. (Once again, this activity practices more than one skill because students need to make inferences in order to do this.) In order to facilitate this activity, I’ve put together a set of pictures and provided students with boxes in which to place possible causes and effects. The picture set includes ten different images, and we’ll typically do one or two together as a class before students complete the others on their own or in small groups. The activity is available for free as either a Google Slides (easily downloads to PowerPoint) or PDF file.

Childhood Troubles Cover Up

As with nearly all skills, I have a game that we like to play to help us practice a little more. Cover Up is a popular game in my classes. The students like it because there are a variety of ways to play, and I like it because it is easy and cheap to create, set up, and use. The goal of the game can vary, but popular goals in my classroom include getting three in a row, covering up a group of four, four corners, and covering your entire board. Covering the entire board is the most popular goal by far, and students really like it when we play with the additional rule that allows them to remove their opponent’s covers under certain conditions (explained further in the game’s directions).

When I was developing this game, I was trying to think of a theme for the sentences, and about how effects are similar to consequences. That lead me to thinking about all of the effects/consequences in life, especially as a child, and how all children have some type of trouble in their life. I decided to theme the game around problems kids face as they grow up, such as not getting dessert because they didn’t eat their vegetables, or getting in trouble for not doing their chores. Having spent nearly two decades teaching in the inner-city, as well as having many refuge students in my ESL classes, I am well aware that some children face very serious problems in their lives, but I wanted this game to be fun, and so chose not to include such situations. Instead I focused on sentences that dealt with things that are relatable to children in many different countries, from all different backgrounds, and that seem like huge problems to kids who are experiencing them. My older learners (especially my adults) LOVE the sentences. They say it brings back a lot of memories, and it often prompts them to tell one another stories of the various “troubles” from their own lives (authentic speaking practice!).

The paper version of the game is played using some type of cover (popular covers in my class include: milk jug lids, counters, and mini erasers) and a twelve-sided die for each pair of students. I highly recommend laminating the game boards (I prefer cold lamination because it doesn’t peel, even after you cut through it.) so they last longer, and you can clean/disinfect them easily. The digital version includes and “infinite” pile of covers for students to use (created by drawing an X, copying and pasting it about 30 times, selecting all of the X’s, aligning them center and middle) and a modified dice script that randomly generates numbers between one and twelve. As with all of my digital activities, the only moveable or editable parts are the covers, everything else is part of the background image.

Of course one picture activity and one game are not nearly enough practice for cause and effect, but they are a place to start. We do many other activities, readings, and play several other games over the course of the semester, but these are the two I like to start with. On Thursday I’ll share with you an activity I like to use with my advanced students that always starts with them rolling their eyes and ends with them admitting that cause and effect may not be as easy as they’d assumed. Until then, happy teaching, everyone!

Inferences? For Sure!

For Sure! Board Game: Paper Version
Ambivalent Inferences Writing Activity: Slides–FREE!

On Monday I shared with you two of my students’ and my favorite activities for practicing making inferences: inference pictures and It Might Be… Today I’d like to share with you two more activities that we enjoy.

For Sure!

I am a big believer in activities that practice more than one skill (cross curricular activities are even better!), and just as the board game It Might Be… practices modal verbs, as well as inferences, the board game For Sure! is not just about making inferences. It also practices adverbs of degree and the future tense. Each square of the game board has a phrase of something that may or may not be possible in the future (i.e.: we will vacation on Mars). Students must make an inference as to the likelihood of this taking place using an adverb of degree and the future tense (i.e.: I believe we will definitely vacation on Mars someday.). The game is a quick, and fun, way to practice making silly inferences about the future. Since there are no right or wrong answers, the focus can remain on the grammar, and students have the freedom to be a little silly. When I play with more advanced students, I challenge them to go beyond a simple sentence and speak for at least 30 seconds, giving reasons to support their opinion.

There is, of course, a digital version of For Sure! The digital version features a specially coded script that adds a dice menu to the tool bar. This menu randomly generates a number between one and six, allowing students to “roll the dice” without ever leaving the game board. Other than this special addition, the game is played in the exact same manner. (You can see the blog post A Grinchy Christmas, Part 1, for suggestions on how we like to play digital board games.) See how to play the game for yourself in this video:

Ambivalent Inferences

The last activity I’d like to share with you is Ambivalent Inferences. This activity was inspired by a YouTube video by Tolentino Teaching called Ambivalent: Creative Writing Activity. In the video, Tolentino explains the word ambivalent, and then challenges students to write a paragraph as if they were a famous person. The paragraph should describe something the person was ambivalent about. I thought this would be the perfect addition to our lesson on inferences because other students would have to make an inference about who the paragraph was describing. I made a quick Slides / PowerPoint activity that included the video about ambivalent, as well as a video defining the word inference, added a short explanation of my own, repeated the directions about writing a short paragraph, placed squares for students to type their inferences into, and added a grid for students to insert pictures of the famous people they were representing through writing. The whole process was very quick, and it makes for a nice addition to our practice.

The activity takes place in multiple stages. First, students watch the videos and write their paragraphs. Later, after I’ve looked over the paragraphs and checked that all is ready, students go back, read what others have written, and type their inference onto each slide. The picture grid at the end can give students hints as to who the mystery person might be, or you can remove it before doing the second part of the assignment.

As I said on Monday, my students always look very nervous when I first start explaining what an inference is, and it gets worse when I tell them we’ll be making inferences of our own. After these four activities, they are much more confident, and many of them are smiling and laughing. I hope your students will enjoy them as much as mine. Happy teaching, everyone!

Reading & Writing for Academic Purposes

It was less than two weeks before the start of the school year when I received a call from the district office. The district-level supervisor for my department wanted to see me, and the ESL program head, in her office. I was nervous, but since I didn’t really have a choice, I went. Turns out I was right to be nervous, not because I was in trouble, but because I was about to be asked to do the seemingly impossible. 

My wonderful supervisor had, without consulting anyone in the department, applied for a grant to help improve long-term English language learner’s academic reading and writing skills. The grant had been approved, and now it was time to put the program into place. The problem was, no program actually existed. ​​I was handed a blank sheet of paper and told to develop a program that would improve student scores in reading and writing, specifically on the WIDA, NWEA, and P-SAT tests. The target student was a long-term, high intermediate to advanced EL. You know the students, we all have them, those who have an excellent grasp of English, but always miss exiting the program just just a few points, usually in one or two skill areas. The types of data needing to be tracked was listed out, counselor cooperation to redo student schedules was promised, and I was told to keep everyone in the loop.

With no idea of where to start, I headed to school and started digging through our supply closet, looking for inspiration. In the back, unopened, and just waiting to be discovered, I found Fountas and Pinnell’s LLI Teal System, and inspiration struck. I moved the boxes to my classroom, pulled out all of the nonfiction texts, and started trying to find the titles I thought would most interest students. I continued pulling in resources from places such as Reading A-Z, NewsELA, my own library at home, and our primary curriculum series, National Geographic Inside. I spent the year planning out units, staying one step ahead of students, and trying to explain the hoped for benefits of the class to administrators, parents, and students.

By the end of the year, the students and I had had a lot of fun. Since there was no set curriculum, we were able to explore topics and themes that we were interested in. Each unit was themed around a book from the LLI series, supplemented with other resources, and culminated in a written paper of some kind. We learned about bionics, artificial intelligence, chocolate, and even famous April Fool’s Day pranks. The final data was better than we had hoped for, with students achieving their highest scores ever on the WIDA reading and writing sections. My sixth and seventh graders improved an average of 209% on their NWEA reading test, and the eighth graders all passed their P-SAT (average score of 410). Many of the students were finally able to exit the ESL program, which made everyone very happy.

Unfortunately, I only had the opportunity to teach the class for one year. My position with the district was originally part time, but in January of that school year became full time. Full time work was not something I wanted to continue with, so at the end of the year I left the district. My successor did continue to use the materials, but I wanted to share them with a wider audience. The button above will link you to my Teachers Pay Teachers store, where you can download a zip file for free. In the file you will find a materials list with links for the various commercial resources (such as the LLI system) and a folder for each unit. Each unit’s folder contains a lesson plan and the materials I am able to disseminate for free. In the lesson plan I provide Word documents and links to other materials I used (most are free) and Google doc templates of the Word files. I’ve tried to be as clear as I can in the plans, but please feel free to contact me if you have any questions. Happy teaching, everyone.

English Skillology, Level 1

Level 1
Level 3

This past summer I decided to have an answer ready for the inevitable, “Can I do extra credit?” question. I created a choice menu of four activities for each of the five domains (reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar). I called my extra credit menu English Skillology, and it was a big hit. It was such a hit with my high intermediate students, that I decided to make one for my beginning students.  The level three English Skillology menu (available for free from the original blog post linked above) was based off of seventh grade Common Core Standards and the Core Competencies for the ESL department at the college where I teach. The level one English Skillology menu (also available for free by clicking the picture or this link) is also based off the Core Competencies of our department, but the Common Core Standards come from the third grade ELA set.

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. If a student were to complete all of the activities, he/she would earn 120 extra credit points.

​I designed this particular board for my beginning students. In creating the activities I consulted two different sets of objectives: third grade Common Core ELA and the Core Competencies for my department at the college where I teach. Here’s a quick overview of the 20 activities:

  • Main Idea and Details:  Students read a brief selection about the Statue of Liberty and answer five questions about the main idea and details.
  • Text Features Sort: This is a small part of a larger Text Features Sort activity (paper and digital versions available). Students match definitions and pictures to seven different text features by dragging and dropping them into the correct boxes.
  • Compare and Contrast: Students read the story of Little Red Riding Hood and watch a movie version of it. They then complete a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting the two versions.
  • Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement: One part of a larger pronoun activity pack (paper and digital versions available), students drag and drop the correct pronoun over the underlined noun(s) in each sentence.


  • Introduction: Students will use Screencastify, or another program of their choosing, to record a 1-2 minute introduction of themselves.
  • Informative: Students will use Screencastify, or another program of their choosing, to record a 1-2 minute informative speech about a topic of their choosing.
  • Narrative: Students will use OnlineVoiceRecorder, or another program of their choosing, to record a 1-2 minute story.
  • Tourist Advice: Students pretend their closest friend is going to visit their home country and give a 1-2 minute speech giving advice about what to see. This is a small part of a writing activity I have done many times.


  • Descriptive Writing: Similar to my Describe That Picture activity, students choose a beautiful picture and insert it on the slide. They then write a paragraph describing the picture.
  • Informative Writing: Students write at least one paragraph giving information on the topic of their choosing.
  • Myth or Legend: After reading the provided example, students retell a myth or legend from their home country.
  • Narrative: Students write a narrative, of at least one paragraph in length, on a topic of their choosing.


  • The Incredibles: Students watch a short clip from the movie and answer five questions about it.
  • The Blind Side: Students watch a short clip from the movie and answer five questions about it.
  • Pronoun Problem: Students watch a short clip from a Bugs Bunny episode and answer five questions about the pronouns used.
  • The Electoral College Explained: Students watch a TED Ed video and complete a graphic organizer about it.


  • Subject-Verb Agreement: A small piece of a larger activity Have or Has: School Supply Rush (paper and digital versions available), students drag the provided circles around the correct word (have/has) to complete each sentence.
  • Conjunctions: Another sample from a larger activity, Conjunctions: The Tie That Binds (paper activity and digital self-grading task card versions available), asks students to drag and drop the correct conjunction to combine the two sentences.
  • Possessive or Contraction: In this small piece of Possessive Noun or Contraction? It All Comes Out In The Wash (paper and digital versions available), students drag each t-shirt to the correct washing machine to indicate if the word/phrase on the shirt is possessive or a contraction.
  • Singular or Plural Nouns: Students drag and drop the nouns into the correct column, sorting them by singular or plural.

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. Under Slide, click Edit Master. 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.

I’m really excited about this particular project. It was a lot of work to put together but I believe it will be very valuable for my students. I especially like how it allows them to earn extra credit by participating in meaningful learning activities. Don’t forget to download your own copy of English Skillology from Teachers Pay Teachers today–it’s free!

Literary Elements

Literary Elements Foldable Notes: Paper
Literary Elements Digital Reference Book Template
Literary Elements Memory Game: Paper
Literary Elements Digital Sort

If text features have a lot of vocabulary, literary elements have legions of it. It seems as though every time my students start feeling confident in their understanding of text features, and comfortable with the terms, the very next thing in the scope and sequence is literary elements. Thankfully some are terms they are already familiar with, such as character, setting, genre, and author’s purpose (we have a genre and author’s purpose wall in our classroom), but so many of the terms are new.

​Similar to text features, we generally start our work with these terms by creating a reference for students to use. This time, instead of creating a book, we make foldable notes. The students cut on the solid lines and fold on the dotted (be sure to make extra copies, there’s always at least one student who cuts on the dotted lines). They then glue the top flap down and the back of the foldable to a page in their notebook. There are three different sets in all, for a total of 18 terms. To create the notes, students cut out the definition and example cards I provide, match them to the correct terms, and glue them with the definition on the back of the flap (term) and example under the flap. The final result is a fun set of notes, or glossary of sorts, that they can reference throughout the unit.

Once again, I created a digital version of this activity for our distance learning classroom this year. For this digital reference book (get the free template by clicking the link above or picture), I wanted something different than the text feature version. I realized that unless I had a slide with all of the definitions/examples, that students could cut and paste from, there would be no good way to provide them for students to sort. I decided instead that we would talk through the definitions and examples in class, and type them together. Since we didn’t need as much room for literary elements as text features (no pictures), I didn’t want to dedicate entire slides to just a couple of sentences. Instead, I made each slide resemble what it would look like if the student ​had folded the flap behind the page. I made the first page by listing all of the literary elements in their own boxes. I then copied and pasted that page, removed the first element, and replaced it with a white text box divided into two sections (definition/example). I repeated this process, copying and pasting the first slide, replacing the next element in turn, until all 18 terms had a slide. The final slide is where I put my answer key. Students click on each element and are jumped to the place where they can enter a definition and example for it. Each of the slides also have a “close element” button that will return them to the main slide, where they can select another element. To add the definitions and examples the slides must be in edit mode. After this, the slides can be used in present mode, or published to the web.

After we take notes, there are many other activities we do. The most popular of which is Literary Elements Memory Game. I print the literary elements terms on one color of card stock, and the definitions on a second color. For added durability, I laminate the pages before cutting the cards apart (cold lamination is great for this, it never peels). In groups of 2-4, students then mix up the terms and definitions, and lay them out face down on the table. Students take turns turning over one card of each color, and seeing if the term and definition match. If a match is made, the student takes the cards and repeats his/her actions. If a match is not made, the student turns both cards back over, and play proceeds to the next person. My students enjoy this game, and it gives them a lot of practice with the terms. Sometimes I add an extra layer to the game by saying each match is worth two points. If a match is not revealed, students can earn points by giving a definition for the term turned over, and/or giving the correct term for the definition showing. This way every turn has the potential of earning students two points.

This activity does have a digital replacement as well. I chose to make a literary elements drag and drop sort. The 18 terms are on the left side of open books. In a lower corner of the slide there is a pile of the right side of the open books. On the right side are the definitions for the terms. Students drag a definition off the pile and drop it next to the corresponding term, forming a complete book. As with all Slides drag and drop activities, this one is not self-checking, but the answer key is on the last slide.

Teaching vocabulary out of context is not my preferred method, but we don’t always get an option in these things. I hope these ideas will give you some inspiration for your own classes. Happy teaching, everyone!