Thursday, December 17, 2009

Checking for Comprehension Using Total Physical Response (TPR)

We all know what most learners will say if we ask, “Do you understand?” Here are some alternative ways to check for comprehension.

--Ask a learner to show you the action or the object that you name.

--Ask learners to actively listen to a story that you tell, draw, or act out. Then ask them specific questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no”. Each student must respond by holding up a color card, one color for “no”, a different color for “”yes”.

--Learners brainstorm a list of clothing items while you record them on the board. Working from the list, ask people to stand if they are wearing a particular item. Or use family relationships and ask students to raise their hands if they are sisters, brothers, husbands, etc.

--Act out commands as you speak them. Students copy the actions. The visual component assures comprehension and the body language reinforces memory. With beginners, use TPR to teach classroom commands, like “please sit down” or “open your books”. For more advanced learners, in work readiness classes, for example, demonstrate the use of a piece of equipment, naming each step as you perform the action. Eventually, give the commands without demonstrating. Student response will be a clear sign of comprehension! Now ask students to take turns giving and following the commands.

How do you check and see if your students understand? Share your ideas in a comment.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Best Practice: Minimizing Teacher Talk and Maximizing Comprehension

Minimizing teacher talk means not only limiting the number of words you use, but also thinking about which words you use. Here are some speaking tips to aid in communicating with your learners:

*Use gestures, mime and facial expressions to help clarify meaning.
*Use picture dictionaries, realia and visuals whenever possible.
*Slow down, but don’t talk down to your students.
*Enunciate, so learners are able to distinguish where one word ends and the next one begins.
*Use fewer reductions, especially with beginning level learners. Examples of reductions are: didja (did you), arentcha (aren’t you), gonna, wanna, etc.
*Avoid idioms. Have you ever realized how many idioms in American English come from sports?!
*Avoid slang. Monitor your choice of words. Is this something I’d say to my grandmother? If so, then it’s probably acceptable.
*Use simple words whenever possible, for example, “give me your papers” instead of “hand in your papers”. Multi-word verbs are more difficult for beginners to understand.
*Be prepared to repeat and rephrase what you just said. Use synonyms and/or define new words.

The above points come from a series of online presentations, designed to help native speakers of English communicate better with international students. To listen to them all, go to:
1. click Cybertower
2. click Go underneath Study Rooms
3. scroll down and click on Watch Your Language: Improving Communication with Non-Native Speakers
4. click on a video title on the left and enjoy (the video may not work, but the audio is clear and easy to follow).

Do you struggle with minimizing teacher talk? At what point in the lesson is it the most difficult to reduce your teacher talk time? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Borrowing Letters

Purpose: This activity provides practice in spelling clarification and requesting to borrow something.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Materials: a set of 5 word cards for each team of 3-4 people (each team should have different words, but the vocabulary should be familiar); one set of alphabet cards that contains all the letters used in the words given to the students (if each group has a word with “i” in it, then you need multiple “i”s in your set of cards).

Prep: see above


1. Divide the class into teams of no more than 3-4 people. Send each team to a separate area of the classroom.

2. Give one word card to each team.

3. The goal is for each team to collect the letters it needs in order to spell the word on its card.

4. Shuffle the alphabet cards and deal 5 alphabet cards to each group. Place the remainder of the cards face down in a pile in the center of the room.

5. Teams check to see if they have any of the letters they need for their first word. They put those aside and decide which letters they still need.

6. Then, one team sends a runner to one of the other teams. This student asks to borrow a letter that the team needs by asking, “Can I please borrow an ‘a’?”

7. The other team responds, “Sure. Here you are.” Or, “Sorry, we need our a’s” or “We don’t have any a’s.”

8. If the runner doesn’t get the card he/she needs, she picks a new card from the pile in the middle of the room and takes it back to the team.

9. Then it’s the next team’s turn.

10. When a team completes a word, it sends a runner to the teacher to get another word from the set of word cards. The first team to complete its word list wins.


More advanced students can use forms like, “Would you mind lending me…” or “Could I borrow…”
Ask students to clarify their request by asking, “May I please borrow an a as in apple?”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Involving All Students

Here are some ways to help ensure that all students are included in oral practice.

Many teachers tend to focus on one particular section of the classroom, without realizing it. Is it the area where the “good” students sit, or the front of the class, or the table by the window? Recognizing this tendency will help you adjust your focus and spread your attention more generally around the class.

Use the class list and call on every second or third student as you work your way down the list. Keep the list where you can refer to it easily.

To prevent students from “turning off” once they’ve responded to a question, ask several of them for a second answer later in the sequence. Ask the question first, pause, and then say a student’s name, instead of saying the name first. This way, everyone must listen to the question, in case they’ll be called on to answer it.

Look at the class as a set of lines or rows or groupings and address a question to a person from each row, line, or group.

If you have a few students who tend to shout out answers before anyone else has a chance to respond, make a rule that when a student has responded once, he or she must miss the next three chances before answering again.

After you ask the first question, invite the student who answers to name the student who will answer the next one.

If the student you ask is unable to respond, try repeating the question again. When it’s clear that the student isn’t able to respond, ask another student if he or she knows. If that student isn’t able to respond, open the question up to the group. Avoid asking, “Can anyone help Jamal?”

How do you help students participate in class? Share your ideas in a comment.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Using the Board to Practice Capitalization

Select a series of phrases or sentences that contain a number of different examples of capitalization.

Examples: Paris, France
the month of June
on Park Avenue
the United Nations
Rainbow Foods
Pierre’s wife, Marie
Rosita is from Colombia.
We went to Seattle, Washington, in July.
Why was Henry absent on Thursday?
Have you read the novel Pride and Prejudice?
May I help you?
George and Carla were married in December.
Have you been to the Mall of America in Bloomington?
Laurence was born in France but lives in Minnesota and speaks French and Italian.
Is the new Target store located on Cedar Avenue or Cedar Street?

1) Write the list of phrases and sentences on the board.
2) Ask students to find examples within the phrases in which similar words are capitalized and to formulate rules to cover those situations.
3) If students are literate in a first language that uses the Roman alphabet, ask them to compare capitalization rules in the two languages and note the differences.
4) The next day, write the same phrases and sentences on the board, but without capitalizations. Have students go to the board and make corrections.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Grocery Store Vocabulary Activity

Purpose: To recognize and practice container vocabulary associated with shopping for food (a can of tomatoes, a box of cereal, etc.)

Preparation time: None

Materials: Enough circulars from grocery stores for each learner to have one, paper, scissors; glue

Preparation: You will need to have taught the container vocabulary earlier in the lesson or in a previous lesson.

1. Go through one of the circulars with the students, asking them, “Is this a ______ of _____?” while pointing to various items in the circular. Example: Is this a box of cereal? Students answer yes or no and correct you if you identify an item incorrectly.
2. Give learners the circulars. Explain that they will be looking through the circulars, cutting out different items and grouping them together by container. They should choose four types of containers. For example, they might choose boxes, jars, bags and cans.
3. Learners cut out products from the circulars that come in the containers they have chosen.
4. Learners write the four container names in different areas on their paper and glue their pictures by the correct heading.
5. When all learners have finished, they can share their completed projects.

How do you use grocery circulars in your teaching? Share your ideas in a comment.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Encouraging Learners to Check their own Work

By providing opportunities for learners to correct their own work, tutors and teachers can create an environment that encourages students to take more responsibility for their own learning. Here are some examples of ways you can do this:

1) Snowballing
The tutor or teacher corrects the work of the first student to finish. That student then helps another student make corrections. Those two students continue to help others, and so forth. When a learner comes to you for corrections, you simply say, “Go ask Victor. He has the answers.”

2) After completing an assignment, ask students to write their answers on the board. Ask “Who wants to do #1?” and hold out a marker to the first volunteer. Since students seem to be more comfortable working at the board in small groups, call up 4 or 5 at a time. Then look at the answers together and ask everyone if they agree with what is written. Correct any errors together. This works well with student-led dictations, too, where students take turns reading the sentences to their classmates, then correcting their work by writing the sentences on the board.

3) If you’re running out of time, write the answers on the board yourself and ask students to correct their own work.

4) Collect students’ work and choose a few examples to write on the board. Correct them together. Pass the papers back out to the students and give them time to correct their own work.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Focused Error Correction

When thinking about error correction, consider the following: How can I help learners self-correct?

A good rule to follow is: Don’t do the corrections for your students!

Help learners notice the error. Once the learner notices, he or she may self-correct if the form is the focus of the lesson and the learner is ready for the correction. Remember that heavy correction is premature when you are just introducing new language. During activities that focus on accuracy, correction is helpful.

Example A: During an oral practice activity with the irregular past tense:

Student speaking: Yesterday I go to the store.

Teacher/tutor: Yesterday I…? (uses a nonverbal cue, like a questioning look, or a gesture to signify past tense).

S: Yesterday I no go to the store?

T: Try again. Yesterday I _____ to the store. (T emphasizes “yesterday” and hums where the word should be).
Note: If the learner continues to struggle, ask others if they can help. If someone knows the correct form, model it, ask the original learner to produce it. Then let them know they have it right. Ask them to produce it one more time. If a learner isn’t able to make the correction, then he or she probably isn’t ready for it. Let it go, but make a note that this is an area that needs more work for that student.

Example B: For recurrent errors, like the “S” in third person, hold up a big “S” or make a sign for the wall that you can point to. All you need to do is point to the sign or hold it up as a reminder. Repeat up to the point where the learner made the error and let them “fill in the blank.”

Example C: Write the student’s incorrect sentence on the board with a blank in place of the error. Give them a questioning look or ask them what’s missing. Or, if there are examples on the board, point to the correct form.

Example D: You are moving around the room, helping students individually as they complete a worksheet. Fadumo has finished, but 2 of her answers are wrong.

T: Fadumo, you did a great job. 10 of your answers are correct! Now look at numbers 7 and 12 again.

Note: Sometimes you can give a hint. “There are 2 words missing” or “Think about the tense. It says ‘yesterday’. Is that past tense or present tense?” You can also help by pointing out other key words that give clues.

Did you try these suggestions? Were they effective? Please share by making a comment below.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Rules of the Road

Purpose: To talk about rules using “can’t” and “have to” and to discuss cultural issues in driving laws

Preparation Time: None

Materials: Board and markers; pencils and paper

1. Ask students if they drive. Ask students “What are some of the laws you must follow if you drive in Minnesota/the United States?”
2. Write students’ ideas on the board using “can’t” and “have to”. Examples: You have to wear a seat belt. You can’t pass in a no-passing zone.
3. Put students in small groups. Ask them to compare the driving laws between here and the country they came from. They should speak and work together to find 2 differences.
4. Groups share the differences they found with the rest of the class.
Did you try this activity? Do you have an idea for a variation on the activity? Please share by making a comment below.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Getting to Know Your Dictionary

Purpose: To familiarize learners (low intermediate and above) with parts of a dictionary entry. This activity would work especially well if a weekly spelling/vocabulary list is part of your instruction.

Note: Dictionaries are a great resource for tutors as well as for learners. For example, the Longman Dictionary of American English defines words in simple language that students can understand. It also uses each word in a sentence to aid comprehension. Not sure how to explain a word to your students? Check the learner dictionary!

Prep time: 10 minutes

Materials: word list, class set of learners’ dictionaries

Prep: Prepare several dictionary entries to use as examples. Decide which features you’d like students to become familiar with. It would be ideal to project the examples on the white board or use a transparency for easy viewing.


I do it (Tutor):
Explain the purpose of the activity.
Have actual learners’ dictionaries on hand as visual aids.
Ask learners: When and why do you use a dictionary?
What information can be found in a learner’s dictionary?

definitions/meanings of words
grammar information
(other features may be discovered in next steps)

Put an example of an entry on the overhead projector. Initially, you might restrict yourself to 3-4 features. Underline, circle and label the features.
For example:
example of the word used in a sentence
grammar/part of speech

We do it (Tutor/learners together):
Do another example, this time asking learners to come up and label the different parts. Hand out the dictionaries and look together at the section in the front that explains abbreviations, short forms and codes. Highlight a few of these.

You do it (Learners working independently or in pairs):
Provide students with a list of vocabulary words or refer them to your word wall. Working with dictionaries, students look up each word, noting the definition, the grammar information, and one other piece of information about the word.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Best Practice: I do it, We do it, You do it!

Whether you are planning an activity or a whole lesson, here’s a simple and effective way to organize it.

I. I do it

“I” represents the teacher or tutor and includes any or all of the following:
-explaining why you are doing the activity/learning the skill
-creating context
-introducing new language or teaching key vocabulary
-activating learners’ prior knowledge
-giving examples and/or modeling to show learners what you want them to do
-using visuals and realia to aid comprehension
The teacher plays a major role in this step and the learners have a more passive role. We sometimes call these “controlled activities”

II. We do it

“We” means the teacher/tutor and learners are practicing together, or learners are working on structured (controlled) activities, with lots of teacher support, as they practice the new language or skill in multiple ways. Examples of “we do it” would be:
-speaking activities like role plays where tutor initially plays one of the roles
-cloze (fill in the blank) activities
-reading out loud as a class

III. You do it

“You” represents the learners. They are now practicing on their own, applying what they’ve just practiced, as the teacher moves among them, observing and providing assistance as needed. These are called free practice activities and tend to be more authentic or “real life” situations.
-dialogue journals
-role plays

Progression within lessons and activities generally follows this pattern, from more controlled to less controlled, so keep this formula in mind when you plan: I do it, we do it, you do it! You’ll see some tutor tips in the coming year that follow this format, too.

A quick example:
I. I do it: T models a short dialogue using a picture, props, gestures, etc.
II. We do it: Learners repeat after T, one line a time, with multiple opportunities to repeat
III. You do it: Learners practice dialogue in pairs, while T observes and assists

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Using Model Texts

Purpose: To help learners better understand features and language of a writing task they will be attempting

Some activities using model texts

  • Label the different parts of the model. For example, if you are working with business letters, learners would label the addresses of the sender and receiver, the date, the greeting, the closing, the signature, the name typed out and any abbreviations used at the bottom.
  • Match standard phrases used in the letter to their meanings, which you have written below the model text. An example of a standard phrase is “Please do not hesitate to contact me …”, for which you might write, “It is ok to write or phone the person who sent the letter.”
  • Compare a successful version of that writing task to an unsuccessful version. For example, you might choose a good business letter and compare it to one that is too informal or poorly organized.
  • Fill-in-the-blanks
  • Learners put paragraphs or sentences from the text in the correct order.
  • Learners discuss the purpose of paragraphs or sentences.
  • Learners highlight sentences or paragraphs with different colors to denote their function.
  • Learners copy the model (shorter text) into their notebooks, substituting their personal information for the given information in the text.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Welcome to this new blog from the Minnesota Literacy Council. In this blog you can read tips, activity ideas, strategies and advice for adult literacy volunteers who work with adult immigrants and refugees. Check back every week for new tips.

Feel free to comment on the tips, ask questions, make suggestions and share your ideas related to volunteering to help adult immigrants and refugees learn English.