Rethinking Literacy (and All) Assessment

In this post, Paul Thomas shares some practical school and classroom level recommendations for upending how we think about literacy assessment: Rethinking Literacy (and All) Assessment


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Learning languages isn’t rocket science…

… but it does take a lot of work! I suppose there are adults who can pick up new languages without putting in much effort, the way kids do naturally, but for most of us, learning a new language or improving on one we already know (even our L1 or home language) requires some time and brainpower. Nevertheless, it is possible, and the rewards are great.

I just read this short article and agree with all its advice: “Tips for Learning a New Language”

The author doesn’t shortchange the effort it takes, but she also reminds readers that it’s completely do-able, even for those who aren’t able to travel to countries where their goal language is spoken. Nothing in this article is revolutionary, but it’s a good reminder that routine practice, with communicative goals, is the key. Listening, reading, and speaking as much as possible on a regular basis are the core recommendations.

I also like that the author makes it clear that what it means to be “fluent” depends on the learner’s goals. She quotes a source: ‘As Nagel says, “For some, [fluency is] being able to order a coffee. For others, it’s being able to discuss economic policies.”’

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(Reads, reading, has read): 5 smart tips for teaching grammar through extensive reading

My TESOL buddy Nigel Caplan offers some very practical and important ideas for helping language learners develop their grammar knowledge through extensive reading.

Oxford University Press

extensive reading teenagersNigel A. Caplan, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute in the United States and the co-author of Q: Skills for Success and Inside Writing. In this post he provides some useful tips for teaching grammar skills through your reading program.

We often encourage language learners to read for pleasure, read for comprehension, and read for vocabulary. But reading is also an excellent way to learn and practice grammar. It is important for teachers and learners to recognise that grammar is not a separate skill divided into discrete chunks (or textbook chapters!), but rather the resources which make meaning in a language. In other words, grammar is everywhere, and everything a learner does with the language is an opportunity to improve their grammar.

Here are some activities you can suggest to your students to help them discover the grammar of their reading beyond…

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Reading to Eat

One of the strongest motivations I have to learn Thai is so that I can expand my diet while I’m here. (Two years ago I subsisted mainly on fried rice and pad Thai.) Hence, I have bought flash cards that will teach me all the vegetables and fruits (to complement my coloring book of fruits). I am also working on reading menus on food stalls and ingredients lists on packages.

The flash cards are meant for Thai kids to learn English, hence the English name writ larger than the Thai. But it’s also useful for me, since I don’t actually know what all these fruits are called in English, let alone Thai.

A bonus I hadn’t expected is that a lot of Thai words for non-traditional foods are direct transliterations of English words. The coffee stand outside my office has a menu that is mostly translated (the proprietor knows a bit more English than most food vendors). One line at the end of the menu wasn’t translated, however, so I started sounding out the word I saw there: อิตาเลียนโซดา. By the time I got about halfway through, I realized it meant Italian soda, exactly what it sounds like. Some of the flavors I could have were กีวี่ (“gee-wee” aka kiwi) and แอปเปิ้ล (apple).

Since I have had some digestion issues that have prompted me to seek out simple carbohydrates, I am also reading packages of things like honeycomb-like cereal. A new word from that delicious snack is น้ำผึ้ง, which I guessed correctly means honey. How did I guess it? I know that น้ำ means water and ผึ้ง means bee… so honey is literally “bee-water.” I’ve been confirming my guesses with Google Translate, which also helped me learn that the word after honey is แท้, meaning genuine.

Across the top it reads “Copp Sky Flavor Honey.”

I was also in search of something like Gatorade since I knew I should be replenishing my electrolytes. I selected this beverage mainly because of its color. Then I started sounding out words on the label and realized (thanks to the help of some Facebook friends) that I had actually picked up a drink that has guarana in it (the words over the little beans to the left of Zaa) and is naturally caffeinated (the words under the beans). Apparently it does still work to keep me hydrated, but I should probably lay off it close to bed time.

The unnatural yellow color contrasts with the natural caffeine from the guarana beans. (Also comes in very unnatural purple color.)

The next challenge is to decipher this menu, from a roadside restaurant near the university. I think I should be able to read most of it, but the font makes some of the letters different from what I learned in class, making it a lot harder than it might otherwise be. I am very pleased I was able to spot pad Thai (top left of the first board) quickly, since that was what I actually wanted to eat today at lunch. But I know there are some delicacies that I could learn about, and since I’m vegetarian, I need to know which are straight up meat and which are mostly veg, noodles, or rice and could be easily modified with a request to not put in the meat.

There’s pad Thai at the top! Very delicious it was, too. Actually, I think the header indicates that this restaurant’s name has something to do with pad Thai, although I don’t know what the rest of it is.

This one starts with fried rice and gets more complicated. Lots of fried things (พ้ด) on this board.


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Teaching myself Thai

Since the last post on this blog, I have given up on taking Thai classes at UH (I did pass Thai 101 in the fall thanks to a cram session the night before the final exam), but don’t want to give up on learning Thai. I arrived in Thailand yesterday and have already settled into my dorm/hotel room at the university where my grad students will be teaching English. I do have to get to work planning the two seminar classes they will also be taking with me, but first, I wanted to get to work on my own language learning.

We took the song taew (pickup truck-base fixed route taxi) out to Big C, the Walmart of Thailand, for supplies. I bought a pile of children’s books, including an alphabet book (with space to practice writing letters), a numbers book (with space to practice making the shapes of Thai numbers), a book about Thailand, a children’s English-Thai dictionary with the words in categorical lists (including a list of shellfish and one of insects), and a bunch of bilingual English-Thai story books.

My haul from the children’s books section of Big C today.

IMG_0563I wonder what kind of shellfish a hippopotamus is.

Since the rainy season has already started with a vengeance, I anticipate there will be a lot of time where I am confined indoors and need to entertain myself. Here’s my language-learning plan:

  1. Review the consonants that I already know and then make sure I know the sounds made by the ones I don’t know.
  2. Make sure I remember all the vowels.
  3. Start reading! The bilingual books should be useful because I can also work on deducing grammar and word order by comparing the sentences in Thai and English. One of my books is called “Fruity Sports Day” and tells the story of a group of anthropomorphic fruits (grouped by color) who like to wrestle and take breaks to eat vegetables.
    There’s something just a bit disconcerting about this group of fruits getting excited about eating vegetables. Does this count as cannibalism?
  4. The book about Thailand does not have any English connected to it, so I imagine it will be a bit harder. I will be very happy if I can read it by the end of this summer.
    An added reward will be getting to read about elephants, which are awesome.
  5. And as an added bonus, I also bought a book that will teach me how to draw tropical fruits as well as how to write their names. This should come in handy when I go to the fruit stand and want to order some chopped fruit without resorting to pointing.
    I must confess that I will probably do better at learning to read Thai than I will at drawing bananas.

I’ll try to post some updates on my progress. In the meantime, now I need to start thinking about what I will teach my grad students next week.


I also bought some cute penguin office supplies (plastic folders and a notebook) in which to keep my research and teaching materials.

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Quick and easy teaching tips for beginning language learners

I’m taking Thai 101 this semester and am keeping a private language learner diary. What I’ve realized through writing is that the class is essentially following a grammar-translation syllabus. We are learning random words and using them almost entirely to complete grammar exercises (in the half of the class that is meant for oral communication) and written translations (in the half of the class that is meant for literacy). I know nothing about Thai. That’s why I’m taking the class. But I do know quite a lot about language teaching, and I know this approach is not helping most of us progress towards a goal of being able to communicate in the language.

Last week I got so frustrated with how the class was going that I started brainstorming simple ways that the teachers could make the class more interactive and more productive for us as learners. I looked through several language teacher resource books I have collected over the years and found even more great activities. I wrote up a list and sent it to my teachers. One teacher wrote back and essentially told me that we would do these things next semester because this semester she can’t allow us to talk with each other for fear of making a mistake. (I intend to write more–a lot more–about this later. Stay tuned!)

Since my Thai teachers weren’t receptive to my ideas, I hope someone out there in the interwebs will appreciate this list.

For reading and writing

  1. Manipulatives. Give us cards with the words that we have covered so far (maybe color coded by part of speech–verb, noun, question word, etc.) and let us play around making sentences. We can start by making simple sentences (2-3 cards) and then add to it.
  2. Writing on the board. One student writes a couple words on the board in a sentence. then another student comes up and adds a word to the sentence where it fits. We keep building the sentence (even if it is silly) until we can’t add more.
  3. Which doesn’t belong? Give us four cards, where three of the words are related (for example, uncle, grandchild, child) and the fourth is not (maybe a food word). We have to read all the words and choose the one that doesn’t fit.
  4. Spelling race. Two groups of students each get a complete set of letter cards. The teacher calls out a word and the teams race to see who can find the right letters to make the word faster. Or the teams could write on the board.
  5. Strip story. The teacher prepares a story of 5-10 sentences and prints the story so that each sentence is on a separate line. Cut the strips apart and mix them up. Students have to read the sentences and put them in the appropriate order. This would be good to do with partners so the partners can discuss what the best order is.

For oral language

  1. Review families of vocabulary words. As a class, we can brainstorm (and write on the board) all the words we have learned for a group of related words, such as office supplies, stores, places, etc. Then we can practice asking and answering questions specifically about a single family of words.
  2. Dialogues substitution drills. For a single structure, we can practice a short conversation (two students asking and answering questions). Then we can substitute just a few words and practice the same dialogue with the new words. Let pairs of students practice together instead of going around the room so we get more chance to practice speaking.
  3. Draw a picture. For listening comprehension, the teacher reads a short description or dialog and the students draw a picture of what they hear. Or one student could describe a person or a scene to a partner who draws what he hears.
  4. Role play. Have pairs of students play roles (store clerk and customer, waiter and diner) and make up dialogues to act out.
  5. Opinion polls. Each student asks a different question of all the other students (for ex, What food do you like? Where do you come from? Do you go to the beach often?) and keeps a record of their answers. Then the person who asked the question gives a report to the class (2 students like Chinese food. 4 like Mexican food.).
  6. Guessing game. The teacher has a picture of an object or activity that she keeps hidden from the class. Students ask questions (What color is it? Do you eat it?); the teacher answers. Students then try to guess what the object is with yes/no questions. Then a student can choose a picture and others can ask him/her questions.
  7. Same or different? Students sit facing a partner. Each person gets a picture card with a scene (a picture of students sitting in the classroom; people eating at a restaurant–pictures that have a lot of detail). Some pairs have the same picture and other pairs have different pictures. The students have to ask each other yes/no questions about their pictures to figure out if they have the same picture.
  8. Planning a weekend trip. Students work in pairs or groups of three to make plans for a vacation for the whole class. They need to choose where they will go and what they will do there. Then each group presents their ideas to the class and tries to convince the other students to choose their plan. The class can vote on the best proposal.
  9. Question and answer cards. The teacher prepares a set of cards with questions and another set of cards with answers to those questions (could have more than one answer to the same question). Students get one question card and at least one answer card. They have to ask their classmates their question and try to find who has the answer to their card, while also answering questions from other students.
  10. Telephone messages. Give each student a telephone number. Students act out calling another student and leaving a voice message with the phone number to call back.

In case you’re wondering what these great books are, here’s a bibliography:

Adams, N., & Childs, L. (1981). Word sponges: Enriching ways to soak up spare moments. Palo Alto, CA: Dale Seymour Publications.

Klippel, F. (1984). Keep talking: Communicative fluency activities for language teaching. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ur, P. (1988). Grammar practice activities: A practical guide for teachers. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ur, P., & Wright, A. (1992). Five-minute activities: A resource book of short activities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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Language Teacher Learning Through Classroom Action Research

The following is a proposal I am drafting to get funds for some summer research. Even though the course I will be teaching is face-to-face, I think it will give me some ideas for how I could craft a similar course online. We’ve been talking about making it possible for our MA students to do a teaching practicum anywhere in the world and take their courses via online means. The practicum course and the action research course could be part of this future distance learning option.

The purpose of this project is to document and analyze new language teachers’ learning to teach through conducting classroom action research projects. Action research involves a reflective cycle in which researchers (classroom teachers) identify areas of concern in their own students’ learning, “intervene in a deliberate way… in order to bring about changes” in those issues, and reflect critically on the outcomes in order to further improve the teaching and learning situation (Burns, 2010, p. 2). The proposed study is in essence a classroom action research study of teachers’ learning to conduct classroom action research.

I will be leading a group of 12-15 UH graduate students from my department (Second Language Studies) on a two-month teaching practicum during the summer of 2014. The students will be enrolled in two courses that I will teach during the summer, SLS 690 (Teaching Practicum) and SLS 680R (Classroom Action Research). Throughout the two months, the students will be individually teaching English as a Foreign Language or English for Specific Purposes classes to undergraduate students at Ubon Ratchathani University (UBU) in Thailand. The UH students will meet weekly for the two graduate courses to discuss their teaching and to design and conduct their own classroom action research projects. As the professor of the two courses, I will be observing their teaching and mentoring them as they conduct their own research.

Some of the questions that drive my interest in learning about these new teachers’ learning to conduct research are as follows:

  • How do teachers initially conceptualize their goals for teaching and their students’ learning needs? How do those goals change over the course of the practicum?
  • How do reflective practices (journals, discussion sessions, responses to peer observations) support new teachers’ learning about their teaching and their students’ learning?
  • How do teachers’ perspectives on teaching and their students’ learning change over the course of an 8-week practicum while conducting action research in their own classrooms?
  • What forms of data do new teachers consider relevant and useful to their analysis of their students’ learning?
  • How do new teachers analyze classroom data?
  • What implications for their future practice do new teachers derive from participating in classroom action research?

Because I will be conducting my research as classroom action research, the exact questions that I end up pursuing may change as I recognize new challenges in my own teaching and in my students’ learning. Adler (2003) found that in conducting action research on her own student teachers’ action research work, she learned as much about her own research practices as she did about the student teachers’ processes. I am open to discovering such opportunities in my own pedagogical practices as well.

Data collection will include a reflective journal documenting reflections on my students’ learning, video and audio recordings and observational field notes of my students’ teaching in their own classrooms and their discussions during our practicum and research classes, documents including teaching materials I create for my courses, those my students create for their classes, and their written products from the two courses, and interviews I will conduct with students during the practicum and after it has ended. I will analyze these data recursively, identifying themes that emerge from the data and triangulating various forms of data.

Data source How collected Comments
Reflective journal Daily comments in personal journal; kept as electronic document Focus on student teachers’ actions and comments during practicum course, Action Research course, and teaching observations
Teaching materials Electronic copies (Word or pdf documents) Syllabus, powerpoint slides, and other handouts from my teaching of both the action research course and the practicum
Student-created teaching materials Electronic copies (scans of materials and lesson plans) Practicum course requirements include submission of lesson plans and materials created for teaching; action research will include creation of teaching materials
Students’ reflective writing Electronic copies submitted on Laulima or via individual blogs Students will be encouraged to keep a private reflective journal that will only be shared with me (via Laulima), but they will also be encouraged to create a public blog that can be shared with teachers around the world
Interviews Audio recording Interview questions will be developed based on emergent themes from observations and course discussion
Teaching observations Video recording Video recording will be made as part of practicum course, so students can view their own teaching practice and reflect on successes and challenges

This study offers benefits both to my own practice teaching language teachers and to their development as teachers. Through the reflective inquiry cycle, the new teachers and I will all document our work and investigate ways to improve how we improve our students’ learning, whether they are English as a Foreign Language learners or English language teachers. Furthermore, I will be able to make recommendations through publication and conference presentations for how faculty supervise and support new language teachers learning to conduct research in their own classrooms.


Adler, S. A. (2003). Dilemmas of action research. Action in Teacher Education, 25(1), 76-82. doi: 10.1080/01626620.2003.10463295

Burns, A. (2010). Doing action research in English language teaching: A guide for practitioners. New York: Routledge.

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