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!

Describe That Picture!

Describe That Picture! Free Digital Activity
Describe It! Free Poster

While Mr. Potato Head may be the most popular descriptive writing activity I do with my students, he is far from the only one. The second most popular lesson is probably Describe That Picture! I think the reason the students like this one so much is because they don’t have to do all the thinking on their own. The brainstorming part of the assignment is a group effort. Allow me to explain further…

The set up of this activity is slightly more involved than Mr. Potato Head, but not much, and the storage is a lot easier! You will need 4-6 pictures (depending on how many students you want in a group) of different subjects. I have a set of about 12 that I’ve found over the years, printed on full-size sheets of paper, and laminated. I found most of them by looking at the results of various Google image searches and saving what caught my eye. Since I wasn’t selling or distributing them in any way I wasn’t too concerned about copyright (I told students the images weren’t mine), but if you’re looking to find royalty free images that are marked for reuse, Pixaby is always my go-to option. I’ve also used postcards at times, but find they are a little smaller than students like, and more difficult to see. You will also need several large sheets of paper, one for each image in each group. In the past I’ve varied between using pieces of bulletin board paper taped to the wall, and sheets of ledger size paper placed on tables. I think easel pads would also work well, but never had one to try it out. The final thing you’ll need is a different color marker for each student in the group. Once you have your supplies, create your stations by placing a large piece of paper and an image at various locations around the room. You want to give students enough room to work, but not spread out too much because you’ll have more than one group working at a time. 

Students complete the activity by choosing a marker and a photo to start with. A timer is set (I always used one on my smart board or my phone) and students are given 60 seconds to write down as many descriptive words and phrases as possible for their photos. Once time is called, students all move one photo over (taking their markers with them), and start again. For the second, and all following rounds, I give students 90 seconds because they first have to read what those before them wrote. They are told to not repeat what other students have said. I encourage students to try to write at least 3-5 things for each photo. We continue rotating and writing until students have viewed and wrote notes about each photo.

Students then return to their original photo and read over the descriptive words and phrases their classmates wrote. If there are any questions, or words they don’t know/can’t read, they are given time to consult with their group members. They then use the words and phrases from the brainstorming paper to help them compose a descriptive paragraph for the photo. I tell students that they don’t have to use all of the suggestions, but to try and use as many as possible. I also encourage them to make inferences about the events of, before, and after the picture in order to create a descriptive narrative, rather than just a paragraph about what they can see.

Since remote learning and social distancing have become the norm for this year, I needed to tweak this activity. I chose to make it digital by creating a Google Slides deck for each group. I chose Slides because it is familiar to my students, but I can easily see this working with Jamboard, Padlet, and a host of other apps as well. The first slide of the deck has directions for the students (basically the same as described above, but I give 90 seconds for all rounds to keep things even and give students time to remember how to work the digital components). Slides 2-6 are the brainstorming slides. On each slide is a photo (most from Pixaby), “infinite” piles of digital sticky notes in five different colors, a 90 second timer (YouTube video), and a button that links to the paragraph slide for later. To make the “infinite” piles I used the shape tool to draw my sticky note, changed its color, formatted the text, copied and pasted it about 30 times, selected all of the shapes, aligned them to the middle, and then aligned them to the center. I then dragged the entire pile to the location I wanted it, copied and pasted the entire pile, changed the color of the new pile, and dragged it to where I wanted the second pile to be. I continued pasting, changing the color, and dragging the piles until I had five. Slides 7-11 have the pictures repeated, a text box for the paragraphs, and a button that links back to the corresponding brainstorming page. The hyperlinked “Paragraph” and “Notes” buttons allow students to quickly jump between the brainstorming and corresponding paragraph slides as they write. 

Once I had my slides set up, all that was left to do was share it with the students. I made a copy for each group, and shared the appropriate copy with all group members receiving editing rights. Students were then able to complete the activity in real time from wherever they were. I can also assign them the activity in stages, giving brainstorming an earlier due date than the paragraph, for asynchronous learning.

Describe That Picture! really is a fun activity, and I always enjoy seeing what the students come up with! You can get the Google Slides deck for free by using one of the links in this blog, or the button below. You can also get the free five senses poster I hang in my classroom, and more descriptive writing activity ideas via the same methods. Happy teaching, everyone!

Descriptive Writing with Mr. Potato Head

I am partial to hands-on activities and have quite the collection of various manipulatives. Some (or many) of my manipulatives may, to the untrained eye, seem more like toys, but they are actually valuable educational tools. One of these valuable, though potentially deceiving, educational tools is my set of Mr. Potato Heads with bags of accoutrements. Mr. Potato Head may seem like a toy, but he’s actually the basis for one of the only descriptive writing lessons to be actually declared “fun” by my students.

The best news is that this is about as close to a no-prep lesson plan as you’re going to find. Once you have the Mr. Potato Head sets, all you need are some pencils and pieces of paper. Each student is given a Mr. Potato Head with accessories, a single piece of paper, and a pencil. Students then build Mr. Potato Head in any manner they choose. Some make very traditional looking spuds, others have tongues sticking out of heads and ears where noses should be. As long as they have something other than a basic potato when they are finished, it’s all good in the end. After building their potatoes, students then write a paragraph describing him in as much detail as possible. These two steps generally take the entire class period and so we end the day’s lesson by taking apart our Mr. Potato Heads and turning in our papers.

The next day, as students walk in, they are again given a Mr. Potato Head bag and a piece of paper, but this time the paper has writing on it. I pass out the previous day’s descriptive paragraphs and students have to, using what is written on the paper and nothing else, reproduce their classmates’ Mr. Potato Head creations from the day before. Some are able to do this fairly well, but most struggle due to lack of descriptive detail. After they’ve made their best attempts we discuss as a class what went well, what didn’t go so well, and why the task was more difficult than initially anticipated. They then get out a new piece of paper and start the entire process over again. Their second attempts are always far more descriptive, and almost everyone is able to perfectly reproduce a classmate’s creation. 

A few years ago, when standardized tests were moved fully online, my students’ writing scores took a nose dive. I realized the problem was their typing skills, not their writing abilities. They had spent so little time actually producing writing on a computer that they were unable to do so in the time-pressured environment of a standardized test. I resolved to change that and added a technological component to our Mr. Potato Head project. Now, instead of writing on paper, students build their potato, use a camera (either the one built into the Chromebook or their phone) to take a picture of it, and then insert the picture to a Google Slide and type their descriptive paragraph next to it. I then take all of the slides and create a Mr. Potato Head matching activity by placing all of the pictures, in random order, on the first slide, and the descriptive paragraphs on the following slides. I make a copy for each student, and they cut and paste the photos onto the slides with the corresponding descriptions. To add an extra layer of fun I also send the matching activity to our principal and vice principal. If both administrators are able to correctly pair a student’s photo to its description, the student receives extra credit points on the assignment. The students loved it, and our administrators were quite happy to participate as well.

While toys such as Mr. Potato Head may seem juvenile and beneath older students, they really aren’t. I’ve done this lesson with all ages, from upper elementary to adults, and they all love it. It really is one of the few writing lessons that students will actually ask if they can do again and again. Yes, obtaining all of the Mr. Potato Head sets was a bit of a pain (check Ebay for used sets or try to get a Donor’s Choose project funded). Yes, storing them does take up more room than most of my other materials. But it’s totally worth it and I love teaching this lesson every time I get the chance.

Check out the buttons below to get the five senses descriptions poster I use in my classroom and more descriptive writing activity ideas for free!