Taking Notes in Class


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 Find the answer and supporting research in this article from the Boston Globe!


Using the Native Language in the ESL Classroom: Stepping-stone or Roadblock?

The ESL maxim has always been English only in the classroom, but our practice is rarely so pure or so indiscriminate.  Over my years of teaching and reading research, I’ve come to understand why being an English-only purist in the classroom is not always the most effective approach.

The Research

Let’s begin with the research.  Studies have found that:

“In mixed-level classes, less advanced students might fall behind if only the second language is used (Schmidt, 1995).

When possible, teachers may use learners’ native language to clarify instructions so that all students remain engaged. Additionally, teachers may ask one student to help another student who speaks the same language so that students can negotiate meaning together (Condelli, Wrigley, Yoon, Cronen, & Seburn, 2003; Wrigley, 2003).”


In an interview with NCSALL Basics, Heide Spruck Wrigley elaborated on this second point.

“The classes where the teacher used the native language here and there had higher gains. This makes sense, particularly for literacy students who had little English, because their brains are busy trying to speak, to figure out print, to understand what the teacher wants, all while dealing with a new language and a new culture. Many of the students had not been in a classroom since they were small children, so school tasks were new to them as well. In these cases, where you are cognitively taxed to your fullest extent, if someone comes in and explains it to you, it really frees up mental space to focus on the task itself. In ESOL classes that are all in English, so much of students’ time and energy is spent trying to figure out what it is the teacher wants them to do. Once the instructions are clear, the task becomes manageable.”



Over the years I have arrived at the following teaching principle: The native language is an asset when it is used to learn English.  For example: when a student asks his classmate in Spanish about the meaning of a word, he is still learning English, but when he with his classmate chat in Spanish about weekend plans, they spoil an opportunity to learn English. When two students converse in Chinese to clarify the teacher’s directions they enhance their performance of the task, but when they together translate the whole of a text so they may answer comprehension question more easily, they are impeding their learning.


Getting Students to Speak English in Class

As a teacher, you can pay attention to how students are using their native language and try to channel those activities into English by providing language support and structured learning opportunities.  The two guiding questions are: Why are the students speaking in their native language?  How can I get them to channel that communication into English?

Small Talk

It’s natural to use a native language with your compatriots; the common language is a sign of membership, but speaking the native language socially in class defeats the purpose of the English class.  So how do you get students to use English to connect socially?   Encourage and structure social interaction in class.  Here are some ideas.

Encourage Mingling

Cliques based on language background form quickly.  Make sure everyone in your class knows everyone’s name and has spoken in English with everyone. Use name cards to mix up the usual seating arrangements or just pass out the name cards willy-nilly and have students find the person to whom the name card belongs.

Conversation Cards

At the beginning of class, give students a few moments to connect with one another socially in English.  Provide small-talk questions on cards or on the board and have students in pairs take turns asking /answering the questions.  Some example questions:

  • How are you today?  How is your family?
  • How was your weekend?  Did you do anything special?
  • What are your plans for next weekend?  Are you doing anything special?

Develop an Inventory of Small-talk Gambits

Keep a running list on the wall of small-talk vocabulary, phrases, and gambits.  During class, if you hear students speaking their native language for small talk, just ask “How would you say that in English?” If the student doesn’t know, engage more speakers of the same language to get to the meaning and add that sentence to the list of small-talk gambits.  Then invite everyone to use the new phrase in conversation with a partner. This reminds everyone to try to speak English and provides a learning moment for all.

Role Plays

Have students choose 3-5 gambits or phrases from the Classroom English list and write a conversation incorporating those gambits.  Students can perform their exchange for the class or hand it in for your feedback.

Classroom English

Often students use L1 because they do not have the language they need in English to perform the learning task.  They don’t know “classroom English”.  Teach this special kind of English explicitly and encourage students to practice it every class.

Classroom English Placards

Identify common classroom questions and gambits and write them on large cards (placards).  Practice the phrases chorally with the class.  Hand out the placards and tell students they must use the language on the placard sometime during class.  Once a student has uttered the phrase on the card, she can hand the card back to you.  Big cards (placards) are more effective because their size and awkwardness force students to pay attention to the language and use it.  Students are motivated to complete the task. Classroom language:

Homework:  Did you do the homework?  What page is it?   What is your answer for number 3? I have a different answer.

Group work:  What do we need to do?  Who goes first?  It’s your turn.   See my list of language for working in teams https://teachertwoteacher.wordpress.com/2011/06/14/language-for-working-in-teams/

Develop an Inventory of Classroom English

Keep a running list on the wall of classroom English.  During class, if you hear students speaking their native language for logistics, just ask “How would you say that in English?” If the student doesn’t know, engage more speakers of the same language to get to the meaning and add that sentence to your list of Classroom English.  Then invite everyone to chorally repeat the new phrase.

Role Plays

Have students choose 3-5 gambits or phrases from the Classroom English list and write a conversation incorporating those gambits.  Students can perform their exchange for the class or hand it in for your feedback.


Occasionally dictate your directions to the class so students come to know directional language well.

Audio Record and Take Notes

Have students record themselves briefly while they are working in groups and then listen to the recording to identify and transcribe all the “Classroom English”.  They can submit this list to you for your corrections.


Teaching Critical Thinking with Very Short Videos

How can we teach English and also develop these critical thinking skills?  A technique I’ve found to be effective is using video vignettes in the classroom. You can exploit a short (1-2 minute) video vignette of a social or workplace encounter for many levels of learning and skill development.

The Key to Using Video Vignettes:  Multiple Viewings
Once you have chosen an appropriate video, you can show the video multiple times for different outcomes.  Each time, focus on a particular aspect of the video and follow the viewing with classroom activities to develop students’ language and critical thinking skills.

1.  Focus on Content     Slide1

Develop these skills: comprehending language in context; summarizing; reporting information; and evaluating information.

Classroom activities:

  • Answer comprehension questions, wh-questions, and true/false statements based on the video content.
  • Listen for details to identify who says what or complete closes.
  • Create activities around disappearing dialogs, retelling the information in the conversation, and reenacting or reconstructing the conversation.

2.  Focus on Language    Slide2

Develop these skills: grammar, vocabulary, intonation, and pronunciation.

Classroom activities:

  • Identify the language point (listen for it or highlight it in the video script).
  • Practice the language point (with cloze activities; substitution drills; pair read-alouds; dictations; audio-recording of student work).
  • Apply the language point to new contexts (practice new conversations using  conversation frameworks and using language point in discussions).

3.  Focus on Pragmatics  Slide3

Develop these skills: making inferences; analyzing language usage; supporting generalizations with evidence; identifying conflict; and solving problems

Classroom activities:

  • Listen for or highlight language in the video script.
  • Generate and practice alternative language to accomplish same purpose.
  • Perform role plays and problem solving scenarios.

4.  Focus on Social Communication Slide4

Develop these skills: recognizing and using body language, register, and conversation cues to effectively communicate

Classroom activities:

  • Perform and video-record role-plays.
  • Analyze student videos for social communication.
  • Write conversation exchanges.
  • Apply similar communication styles to other contexts.

5.  Focus on Culture Slide5

Develop these skills: recognizing workplace and social expectations and standards; making evidence-based generalizations using details; identifying cultural values and assumptions; and communicating on diverse teams

Classroom activities:

  • Do Quick Writes to uncover cultural assumptions.
  • Analyze language in video to support generalizations.
  • Write formal paragraphs supporting a claim with evidence.
  • Explain values in oral or poster-board presentations.
  • Perform role plays and problem solving scenarios.

Hold Your Hats!

Recently I attended an excellent Colorado Adult Education conference (CAEPA) in Colorado Springs. There I learned two compelling facts in a session led by Frank Waterous of the Bell Policy Center



By 2025, 2/3 of all jobs in the U.S. will require some level of post-secondary education or career /technical skills training. 


Fact 2F

2/3 of all people who will be in our workforce in 2025 are already working age adults today. 


What does this mean?

It means that adult education is essential now, and the demand for adult education will only increase in the next 12 years.

Semester Start Up: Time to Study!


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Many of our adult learners haven’t developed effective study habits, and yet, we know a student’s ability to study largely determines his or her educational success. So how do we get our students to develop effective study habits?


The Class Conversation

Start by asking students about their study habits.   You may be surprised by their answers.  I often find out that students don’t study at all outside of class.


·         What do you study?

·         Where do you study?

·         When do you study? How long do you study? How often do you study?



Incorporate Effective Study Techniques in Your Class

Over the course of the first few weeks, address these study essentials in class.


Know Your Resources

Class is the best place for our students to learn how to use their study resources.  Take some time to engage students in the following activities:

·         Using flashcards

·         Maintaining a vocabulary list

·         Locating and using the audio scripts and answer keys

·         Cueing and playing audio segments

·         Reviewing class notes


I do. We do. You do.

Often students don’t understand their homework assignments. Spend a few minutes on the assignment. Model it and then do one or two items together before they leave class to do it on their own.


Get Organized

Make sure every student has a study kit – otherwise known as a book bag.  Reusable grocery bags (99 cents) are great for carrying a textbook, note-book, translator, flashcards, pencils, and erasers: everything a student needs to seize the moment and study.


Timing is Everything

Acknowledge the extraordinary demands of your students’ lives.  They may never secure an uninterrupted hour to sit and study.  Remind them:

·         Frequency is more important than duration.

·         Study every day.

·         20 minutes a day is better than two hours once a week.


Location!  Location!

Not everyone needs quiet to study, but everyone needs good lighting, a study kit, and a little protection from interruption.  Ask students to identify places they can be free from interruption for 20 minutes.  Maybe it is in the classroom before class, or in a break room after the shift ends, or on a bus on the way to work; or in a parked car. 


Love Your Brain

There are three essentials to a functioning mind: water, glucose, and blood flow. 

·         The 3-Minute Stretch:  In the middle of class, take 3 minutes for everyone to stretch and move a bit. When students settle back into their chairs they usually notice how much more alert they feel.

·         Drink water and encourage students to bring water to class. 

·         Provide snacks now and then.  Point out which what kinds of snacks help the brain (complex carbs and nuts).

Informing Practice with Research: Brain Science and Learning



We have recently learned a lot about how memory works. These research findings can inform our teaching in many wonderful ways.


The research says :

In your classroom:

When we begin by asking questions, we are more likely to remember the answers.

ü  Ask questions throughout a lesson, not just at the end.

ü  Make sure you are not the only one asking questions. Students need practice asking questions.

When we connect new information to what we already know, we remember it better.

ü  Ask students what they know about a topic and what they want to learn about the topic before you present the new lesson.

ü  At the end of the lesson, have students pause briefly to summarize what they learned.

It takes several encounters with new information to commit it to long term memory.


ü  Recycle, recycle, and recycle again. 

ü  Make sure students get between 5 and 10 opportunities to work with new information before you expect mastery.  

ü  Pause often so student can review material and identify the salient points.

The more modalities we use in learning, the more reliable our memory is.  Fire those neurons until they wire.

ü  Use all modalities as you recycle material: Make sure students attend to the new language aurally, orally, in print, in different contexts, in controlled practice and in self-expression.

The more we think about something, the more likely we are to remember it.

ü  Give your students time to process new information. 

ü  Have students reconstruct what they learned by retelling or writing what they remember.


Checklists for Teaching Writing in Low-Level ESOL Classes



Teacher’s Checklist                  

PRE-WRITE                                                                                                          ü

a.  Have students practiced the language necessary to complete the writing task?



b.  Have students thought/talked about what they are going to write?




WRITE                                                                                                                   ü

c.  Is there a model of the format?  (letter, paragraph, sentences)



d.  Is there model language students can refer while writing?




REVISE and EDIT                                                                                                 ü

e.  Do students review their writing by reading it aloud – alone or together?



f.   Do students use a checklist to review their writing?



g.  Does the teacher check if the writing task is complete?



h.  Does the teacher give feedback on content?



i.   Does the teacher give feedback on language?



j.   Do students correct their writing?



Key to Teacher’s Checklist                  


a.  Students need practice with the target vocabulary and grammar before they can control it in writing.  The easiest way to ensure this is to do writing as the culminating activity for any language learning lesson (i.e. grammar, vocabulary, listening/speaking).

b.  Low-level students need time to develop their responses before they write.  Talk things out first as a class or in pairs.


c.   Present a model. Check student comprehension of the model.  Ask students to identify features in the format (i.e. title, indentation, double spaces,).  Ask comprehension questions to confirm student comprehension of content too.

 d.  To become independent writers, students need to know how to use reference material (in this case, the model language).  If they are using newvocabulary, have them locate their vocabulary list.  If they are using a particular grammar structure, have them locate the corresponding grammar chart. 


e.   Revising is essential to the writing process.  Make sure students have a review routine such as reading their writing aloud to themselves and then a partner. 

f.    Focus the editing process.  You can supply an editing checklist, or students can keep a running checklist of the types of errors they make.  See the example below. 

      Show students how to use an editing checklist. Present an incorrect model and go through the checklist to find the errors. 

g.   Writers can always say more.   Read student writing and orally ask (or write questions) to get them to flesh out their writing.  With training, students can also do this questions-asking as they read their writing aloud to one another in pairs (see e above).

h.   Writing is meaningful.  Write a personal comment or orally give a personal response (i.e. That sounds like a fun!  or You have a big family!).

i.    Give focused feedback but don’t do all the work.  Circle the errors and let students figure them out.  If you indicate the number of each type of error in the editing checklist, students can understand the nature of their errors  (see example below). 

      I do not code errors on the page (i.e. indicate sp. for spelling error and wc for word choice) because low-level students get so easily overwhelmed by too many markings and too much print on a page.

j.    Correcting writing is a step in the writing process.  Have students work individually or in pairs to correct their writing and then hand in their final draft.


Student’s Checklist 


Check for:






  Capital letters






  1 subject + 1 verb






*  You can indicate the number of each type of error in the students writing, so they can understand where they need to focus their efforts. 


The Multilevel Teacher: Creating a Common Classroom Experience



As educators, we know how to differentiate instruction one student at a time, but how do we differentiate instruction for a whole classroom of students at once?  And how do we maintain cohesion in a classroom with so many moving parts? 

A Common Classroom Experience

In our digital age, the classroom presents a unique opportunity for students to learn together and develop face-to-face social communication skills.  For this reason, I strive to use common materials , but I differentiate the tasks I give the students.  

We start each activity as a class, we break out into groups, and then we return to the class to debrief and summarize.  The class is the beginning and end of every learning activity.  

Grouping Students by Level

One way to manage break out groups in a multi-level classroom is by sorting students by level.  In this arrangement, students work with others at a similar level.  

Multilevel Tips for Low-Level Groups

·        Keep the numbers down.  Keep low-level groups small.  Communication and collaboration is always easier when fewer people are involved.

·        Provide model language.  Make sure students have the language they need to complete the assignment. Often that means writing some key phrases on the board or getting students to locate a reference page in their book. 

·        Limit the assignment.  Limit the number of items the group needs to complete.  When groups return to the whole class debriefing, make sure you call on this group early, so they can contribute the work they were able to complete.

Multilevel Tips for High Level Groups

·        Grow the group. The more people in a group, the more challenging the communication and collaboration.

·        Step away from model language.   Encourage students to work independently from the model language. If the model is on the board, encourage the students to turn their seats away from it.  If the model is in the book, encourage them to keep it closed as much as possible.

·        Assign an additional task.   These tasks should be familiar learning routines to students, so you don’t need to interrupt for long to explain the next step.  Some additional activities are: 

o   After a role play:  Students write their dialogue out and read it aloud, making language adjustments as needed.  Or students record their role play (with voice note on their cell phones), transcribe their speech, and identify errors.  Students submit their writing to you at the end of class.

o   After a reading activity:  Students identify key words in the text, or students write additional comprehension questions.  They write their additional information/questions on the board for the whole class debriefing.

o   After a discussion activity:  Students write their responses, and then review their written work by reading their responses aloud to group members.  Students submit their writing to you at the end of class. 

More of My Posts about Multilevel Teaching

Differentiating Instruction in a Multi-level Classroom  http://wp.me/pMYto-14

Multilevel Dictation Handout  http://wp.me/pMYto-8z

Conversation Cards:  A Warm-up Activity  http://wp.me/pMYto-8d

Mixing It Up!    http://wp.me/pMYto-3w

Building Better Learners:  The Teacher’s Worksheet  http://wp.me/pMYto-a8