Two-step test completion

Differentiation is a hot item in current teaching contexts. We should try to meet every learner’s needs. Lots of teachers struggle with this, especially when it comes to assessment. I recently (re)read the book “Mixed-Ability Teaching” by E. Dudley and E. Osvath (OUP, 2016). In the chapter on evaluation, they give the example of “two-step test completion”.

It boils down to splitting the test into three equal parts.

In the first part, the students individually complete the test questions for a first time. At the end of this part, they hand in their copy to the teacher.

Then, in the second part, the teacher ticks off the correct answers on the individual test sheets, while the students can look for help talking to each other or they can consult their coursebooks for answers they did not know. However, they are not allowed to jot anything down at this stage. So, in fact, this results in very powerful learning.

In the third and final part, the students get their original test sheets back to have a second try, using what they have learnt in the second part.

Some teachers have a problem with accrediting marks for this type of test. Here is a possible solution: the marks of the first (e.g. 4/10) and the second attempt (e.g. 9/10) could be added up and constitute the final test outcome (e.g. 13/20).

Worth a try! A teacher who did this, told me that his students were very keen on it.

Using story dice

A couple of years ago, at the London Language Live Show, I bought myself these lovely little “story dice”. The meaning of the word is, in my opinion, quite obvious. Story dice are sets of dice, not with numbers on the faces, but with all kinds of pictograms on them. These images can be completely random, but very often they are grouped into themed sets. The ones I bought e.g. deal with the weather, sports, hobbies, parts of the body, means of transport, food, people, daily activities, clothes etc. The original idea behind these story dice, as you can probably guess, is to inspire your students’ creative writing. They throw the (usually nine) dice, look at the images, brainstorm, and hopefully an idea or even a complete story pops up, ready to be written down.

Now, why do I feel the urge to write about these story dice? It’s quite simple: in a Facebook group for teachers of English, my attention was drawn to a virtual version by Dave Birss. You can choose to play with 5 or 9 dice with illustrations of everyday objects. This Facebook post stimulated my interest in these dice again, and I have even found a good smartphone app. I also want to share a couple ideas on how you can use the story dice, real or virtual, in the language classroom, apart from story telling.

Vocabulary drilling seems like a first evident activity to do. This is in my opinion the most basic use of these dice. Let the students roll them and simply call out what they see. This game can be played individually or in groups, as a starter or a filler. When you are using the real dice, you could even add a “real” number dice, deciding the number of points they will get for every correct word. Taking this a step further, you could turn it into a memory game. The dice are thrown and the students can look at them for 20 seconds. The dice are then covered up (or minimized in case of the virtual ones) and the students have to see how many they can remember.

You can also use the story dice for fun grammar practice. Let them combine different pictograms to practise grammatical structures or verb tenses. For the first conditional you could then get combinations like “If it stops raining, I’ll play tennis”, or when practising the use of the past continuous, the students would need to combine a longer and a shorter activity. You could take this sentence building to a higher level by not just focussing on one grammar aspect, but by just having the students combine two or more of the dice to make up proper complex sentences. This then brings you closer to what these cubes were originally designed for.

Reading and listening outside the coursebook

In most EFL textbooks, reading and listening texts are mainly used as a starting point for inductive teaching of vocabulary and/or grammar in a meaningful context. As Penny Ur describes it, these texts are “milked for vocabulary and grammar” (Ur, 2016).

Perhaps we should therefore have the guts to look for texts that are not in the coursebook. These texts need to meet at least two conditions. The subject should be interesting for our students and relate to their world. It ought to motivate and encourage them to read or listen carefully. Moreover, the text should have an appropriate language level. A tool like VocabKitchen can be very useful to determine the latter. You simply paste your text (for reading) or transcript (for listening) into the tool’s window and you immediately have a scientifically correct idea of its level. You can read more about the tool in this blogpost.

For listening, video is obviously a lot better (and more motivating) than audio only. In real life, it will happen quite rarely that we have to listen “blindly” to someone, except in a telephone conversation, a podcast or a radio broadcast. It is however generally more natural and real to look at the speaker in a context. “Video brings context which makes it fairer for listening” (Hughes, 2014). Facial expressions, the movement of lips, body language help students to understand the message better.

For listening and reading, there is a lot of English material available on the Internet. Just think of newspapers and magazines that publish free articles online or podcasts about almost any subject. The following sites are some of my favourites: BBC Learn English, Elllo, esl-lab, Breaking News English, News in Levels and ReadWorks. Working with TED Talks in the classroom also offers a lot of possibilities. Check this post about it.

Five senses haiku

In my country, we are developing new curricula. I have had the privilege of being part of two committees responsible for TEFL in the first and second stage of secondary education (equivalent to years 8 to 11 in Britain). Of course, communication is key in these curricula, but we also try to integrate literature and creativity in them, much to my liking. Officially it says that “the students create their own artistic-literary expressions and exchange their appreciation for each other’s work.” A format that I really like to use for this, is the “five senses haiku”, a combination of a “five senses poem” and a haiku. I asked my teacher trainee to prepare a lesson about it.

Sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell are the five senses that help us taking in information from the world around us. These senses are also a powerful tool to use when you are writing poetry: you can paint a strong image with words. In a normal “five senses poem”, you describe a striking photo using a verse for every sense.

A haiku is a well-known Japanese poetic form consisting of 17 syllables arranged in 3 lines: 5-7-5. It is a concise form, much like a telegram. Haikus are usually written in the present, so doable at any level. These poems normally deal with nature and present a clear sensory image. And exactly this is why it is so appropriate to combine them with the five senses poem.


How do you plan a lesson in which you want your students to create a five senses haiku? After explaining the goal of the lesson (writing a poem), you can show them a photo you want to use as a source of inspiration. You might consider using a picture that is linked to the theme you are working on.

Show the photo and ask your students to brainstorm about each sense separately for approx. two minutes. In this thinking phase, guide the students and have them write down any words that describe the image for all five senses. An online dictionary (on their phones) might be helpful at this point. My teacher trainee used e.g. a picture of grapes and these are some of the words that popped up:

  • sight: grapes, green, purple, summer
  • hearing: birds, leaves, wind
  • taste: sweet, wine, explosion, fresh, yummy
  • touch: small, round, soft, cold
  • smell: summer, sea

Next, explain how a haiku is built. Point out that syllables are about spoken language, not written. In English, we very often only have one syllable where you might expect more by just looking at the word. In my teacher trainee’s lesson e.g. words like “wine” or “grapes” only have one syllable! Then, have the students write a draft of a haiku in pairs. Walk around the classroom and guide them, especially with those syllable problems.

When the draft is finished, you can ask the students to type them on an online notice board and project this. Everyone can then read the haikus. My teacher trainee used Padlet for this. It is a good idea to do this anonymously, since the last stage of this lesson is expressing appreciation. If you have names added to the poems, students might appreciate people more than their creation.

This is a fine example from my trainee’s lesson:

Grapes are sweet and fresh

When you bite they will explode

They are so yummy

Tailored feedback with a “rubric of one”

English teachers who know me, will confirm that I have always been a huge fan of rubrics when it comes to marking and giving feedback on communicative or creative tasks, especially when written or oral language production and interaction is involved. Up to a few months ago, I always used analytic rubrics, but I recently discovered the “rubric of one”.

A traditional analytic rubric

I am quite sure that most of you are familiar with analytic rubrics, those grids with a limited number of parameters – in my opinion, maximum five. These criteria articulate what the teacher expects from the student and are linked to the learning goals. Each one comes with its own marking scale and corresponding clear descriptors, stating to which extent each criterion is (not) met. For an oral presentation for instance, your parameters could focus on posture and eye-contact, fluency, range of vocabulary, etcetera.

If you provide such a rubric for your students, you kill three birds with one stone. They know quite clearly beforehand what they should pay attention to and what the objectives of the task are, you can easily evaluate by circling the appropriate descriptors for each student and the feedback is instantly given. I mostly create these analytic rubrics online with the tool on the Rubistar website. For a number of tasks, the tool provides a wide choice of criteria, both language-focused and performance-focused, and the descriptors are ready-made for you, but still adaptable.

A “rubric of one” (credits: S. Vandenberghe)

Just like the analytic rubrics, the “rubric of one” (also called “single-point rubric”) uses a number of parameters in order to assess the task. However, there is only one descriptor for each category: the proper expectation. The criteria are listed in one column, in the middle of the sheet. Next to this column, there are two more, one on the left and one on the right. One column provides space where the teacher can write down how the task meets or even exceeds the expectations; in the other one the teacher can note down how the student can still improve. In this way, with this kind of rubric, the teacher can give more personalized feedback. As a teacher, you can tell the students individually what is going right, while at the same time specifying some problem areas they need to work on. This will definitely make the feedback more effective.

The “rubric of one” also meets a criticism I often hear from teachers when talking about analytic rubrics. Their final mark is sometimes not in line with their professional “gut feeling” about the task performance; the student should get more or less marks, but the cells are circled. Moreover, the “rubric of one” is easier for the students to read and understand. Instead of having to read a grid with some 20 different cells (5 criteria and four scales), they only have to focus on  four or five expectations. This makes it more likely they actually read them before preparing the task.

VocabKitchen determines reading text level

EFL teachers often ask me how they can be certain that a reading text they use in class or for an assessment has the right level for their pupils. Until a few months ago, I was also looking for a website or a tool that could help me out with this. But then, I discovered VocabKitchen, a tool I would like to share with you. It was developed by Jeremy Garner, former teacher and examiner, and now a developer in the USA.

Part of the VocabKitchen website is a so-called “vocabulary profiler”. You can access it on the right side of the site’s homepage, the blue part. Vocabulary profilers are tools that check if a text (or a part of it) contains words from a vocabulary list. VocabKitchen uses two different lists: the Academic Word List (AWL) and the  Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR – check post). The latter seems like the most interesting one to us teachers, since most curricula draw on the levels of the CEFR to define a language learner’s proficiency.

How does it work? Once you have clicked the CEFR-button, you get to a new page with a rectangular space. To determine your reading text level, you simply have to copy and paste it into that rectangle. By clicking the “profile” button you ask the tool to match the words in your text with the six main levels (A1 to C2) of the Common European Framework of Reference. You will get the result of this matching in two ways. Words in the original text are given a different colour-code according to their level, from blue for A1, green for A2, orange for B1, red for B2 to pink for C1 & 2.  You also get a list of all the words in some kind of table, organized by level. The picture shows an analysis of the first part of this blogpost. As you can see, most of the words fall in the A1 to B2 range, but you can also notice that some words are off-list. 

You can save the results of your text by pressing the Word icon on top of the web page. A dictionary is also at your disposal. If you doubleclick on a word, you will get a definition. This can be very handy, if you want to create a gloss for your reading text with all the words from the highest levels. This means VocabKitchen is not only suitable to check the level of a reading text. It can also help to identify which words in a text should be given more attention.

Oh, and before I forget, there is no need to register in order to use the CEFR profiler.

Dictogloss – a dictation with a twist

When I talk to EFL teachers and ask them whether they regularly use dictations in their courses, very often the answer is negative. They seem out-of-date and not really appealing to them and their pupils. However, there are some enjoyable variations to the old-style dictation. One of my favourites is the so-called “dictogloss” and it can be done at any age or language level.

The principle is easy: the teacher reads a text twice at a normal speed and the pupils are asked to reconstruct it. With the first listening, they are not allowed to jot anything down. While listening for a second time, they should note down a few keywords that will help them to rebuild the story. Afterwards, the pupils work together in pairs or small groups to produce their version of the text, as close to the original one as possible.

An essential thing with dictogloss is picking the right text. At first, it should not be more than just a paragraph, until the pupils become more accustomed to the activity or have developed their listening skills. The ideal transcript is at a language level slightly above that of the pupils and it could also be used to introduce or revise some vocabulary or grammatical items.

I find jokes to be first-rate dictogloss material. This is an example I have used in my teaching practice: “Eleven people were hanging under a helicopter on a rope. There were ten men and one woman. The rope wasn’t strong enough to carry them all, one person would have to let go. They were unable to decide, until the woman made a touching speech. She said she was used to give up everything for her husband, her children, her family. As soon as she had finished her speech, all the men started clapping.”

Now, why do I like dictogloss that much? First of all, it is easy for the teacher to prepare and set up. Moreover, it is a very effective language learning task: it requires pupils to listen, take notes, collaborate and talk (by working in pairs or groups), write and read (if they present their result orally). Next, dictogloss is the kind of mixed-ability activity that I like best. You can do it with the whole class, but by grouping less strong pupils with more confident peers, you are differentiating. Finally, pupils like this activity. They listen very attentively, like working together and are eager to check in how far their reconstructed version differs from the original one.

English initiation in a Flemish primary school

No, at this moment there is not really a lot of English language teaching and learning in the Flemish primary schools. And yet, since 1 September 2017, schools are allowed to introduce English (and even German, btw) as a formal subject to their pupils, at least if they master the L1, Dutch, rather well. To my knowledge, there aren’t any schools that do this. The same decree also provides the possibility to set up English language initiation programmes, even from a very early age. There is definitely one school that does this: VBS Duinen in the coastal town of Bredene.

I have recently had the chance to visit VBS Duinen and attend an English lesson in a mixed-level class; the pupils were aged 10 to 12 and they had very diverse backgrounds. Providing the English language initiation programme is part of the school’s policy to offer kids every possible chance to discover and develop their talents. In this respect, they also have a French language initiation programme in nursery school, cooking classes, STEM projects, etc.

The language initiation is taught by an MA in foreign languages, who was especially recruited for three periods a week. She is not really a primary teacher of the school; she normally works in a secondary school and does this initiation as an extra. The school board pays her with its own resources, quite an investment. This has of course to do with the fact that primary teacher trainees in Flanders don’t get any formal English classes (yet).

I have really enjoyed the lesson that I could attend. It was about “Father’s Day” and the ultimate goal was to create a paper tie for daddy, with all his good characteristics written on it in English. Pictures were used to present the adjectives, a memory game was played to practise them and, finally, the pupils could make their tie in the colour they had chosen (in English). The lesson was finished with an English YouTube song about dads and why we love them. What a great, fun and activating English initiation lesson this was. Pupils using English without being afraid to make mistakes, pupils using the Past Simple correctly without knowing what it is (“We made a flower for Mother’s Day”), if only formal English lessons in secondary schools could be like this.

The CEFR Companion Volume: beyond the four skills

At the IATEFL Conference in Brighton last April, I attended a session about the new Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) Companion Volume. This session was given by Tim Goodier, one of its authors. The work will be officially presented at a special conference in Strasbourg in the upcoming days and will surely have an influence on new language courses and curricula. One of the most striking things about this Companion Volume: it gets rid of the very traditional division of language into the so-called four skills.

The Common European Framework for Languages: Learning, teaching, assessment (CEFR) was first released in 2001 after extended research that started in the 1960s and 70s. As a framework of reference, it was intended to guide people in language teaching and learning and help them qualify what “language proficiency” really meant. To do this, the framework used various levels (from A1 to C2) and described what people should be able to do with the language at one of these stages (the so-called “can do”-descriptor scales) for any of the four skills (listening, reading, writing, speaking). This common outline made it easier to set up standards (e.g. for assessment, course books, curricula) across Europe and even beyond.

Because the world has changed a lot since 2001, an update to the CEFR has now been released. So, what’s new? Well, in the Companion Volume some of the key aspects of the original CEFR have been updated to suit our current multicultural and technological society. In this respect some new descriptor scales have been written as well. Moreover, extra proficiency levels have been added to the original ones. The new scales start at a “pre-A1” level and also have A2+, B1+ and B2+ scales included now.

Most importantly, the Companion Volume replaces the “four skills model” (dating from 1961, by the way) with four modes of communication: reception, production, interaction and mediation, all of these four in both spoken and written form. Especially, the term “mediation” is quite new. As the term suggests, with mediation the language user is sort of “in the middle”. He is not concerned with expressing his own thoughts or meanings, he is some kind of “intermediary” between people who are not able to understand each other directly. So, the focus is on facilitating collaboration and interaction with others; it is about building bridges across an understanding gap that other people have. An example of this could be spoken translation of a written text (e.g. explaining the contents of a L1 poster to an L2 speaker).

This is where the concept of plurilingualism (or pluricultural competences) comes in, another new notion in the Companion Volume. For a long time, it was thought that using different languages together was confusing for the human brain. New research however has proven the opposite: it is highly beneficial for people to use different languages together to construct meaning. The fusing or blending of the different languages you know, can help you when communicating. Here is an example of a new CEFR descriptor in this field: “Can exploit creatively his limited repertoire in different languages for everyday contexts, in order to cope with an unexpected situation.”

Finally, the Companion Volume also explicitly includes “online interaction” in its scales. Attention is paid to multimodal online conversation and discussion on the one hand, and goal-oriented online transactions and collaboration on the other hand.

Using TED Talks in the EFL Classroom

In April, I had the privilege of taking part in my first IATEFL Conference in Glasgow, together with about 2,500 other teachers of English from around the globe. I attended i.a. two workshops on using TED talks in the EFL classroom. Lots of teachers already use them with their learners. Those workshops have convinced me of their effectiveness, hence this blog post. If you have never used TED talks, you might do so after reading it; if you have already spiced up your English lessons with them, you could get inspired to try new things.

TED is short for Technology, Entertainment, Design; TED talks are video presentations of 3 to 18 minutes about a number of subjects. The talks can be found on Because of the excellent speakers and/or the interesting topics, these clips really appeal to the learners. Moreover most talks can be viewed with subtitles, either in English or in the mother tongue.

When you are thinking of using a TED talk in the lesson, it is very important to choose the “proper” video for your learners. You might consider its topic (maybe with a link to the current one in the course book), the language level or the duration; with stronger and/or older students you might want to look for a talk that makes them think critically about the subject. A fine example was used by the Russian Svitlana Kurochkina in her workshop at the IATEFL Conference: a talk by fire fighter Mark Bezos. A TED talk lesson has the various step stones of an ordinary video lesson, with pre-watching, while-watching en post-watching activities. You could also use the ideas on with nearly a quarter of a million (!) ready-made lessons.

If you want to tackle things in a different way, these suggestions might be helpful. You could e.g. download the TED talk’s transcript. With a short talk you could do this at home and cut up the text into short excerpts. After a short introductory conversation about the subject, you then ask the learners in small groups of two or three to try and reconstruct the transcript. When finished, they watch the video and check if they were right. Very strong language students could be asked to watch a TED talk with subtitles in their mother tongue. You could then ask them if they think the translation is accurate and/or what they would like to change about it. A challenging task!

Anyway, in my opinion, TED talks are an excellent way to develop and practise watching and listening skills in a motivating and authentic way.