using blanked out chunks for essay work

I really can’t take any credit for this. This was an idea given to me by Lindsay Shapiro, head of department of Herzog College.

It goes like this. The problem: kids don’t really read L2, preferring to scan and search for meaning, which is appropriate in some circumstances, but doesn’t help them actively absorb language for active use, such as essay writing.

Problem no. 2: both kids and teachers fail to relate to genuine and meaningful language learning when language is learned in chunks, not as individual words. Chunks are especially important in essay writing in order to communicate idiomatically and elegantly.

The solution: this activity involves multiple levels of thinking about language as it is embedded in a text and works on this premise.

  1. Take a short text (150 words or less). It should neither be too hard nor too easy, but must contain target language that you want your students to use. In my case, I took a sample bagrut essay.
  2. Students read the text carefully, look up words they don’t understand, and then flip the text over.essay1
  3. Students are now given a second text, the same as the first EXCEPT certain words (one or two in each sentence) have been blanked out. They FIRSTLY fill in the blanks with L1, then, if required, flip over the blanked words exercise and read the text from beginning to end again. Then they attempt to fill in the blanks in English. They can check their answers with the text afterwards.essay2
  4. Now they are ready for the next stage. They read the text again. With both pages flipped over, they are given stage 2. This exercise has more words, in forms of chunks, blanked out. Notice I have blanked out words that I wish them to use in future essay writing:essay3
  5. Now this is the hard bit. Once more, they read the original essay. Now the next page they get has almost half of the sentences blanked out: essay4
  6. This is when they really start thinking about how language works. Again, if in doubt they can either write their answers in L1 and translate or flip over, and go back to the original essay.
  7. As a follow up activity, I give them an essay to write using a list of the chunks of language and connectors used in the essay they studied.

What I really liked about this activity was that it was good for all levels and each student worked at their own pace- when they were done I simply gave them the next level to do. Nobody felt pressured and everyone was working. I looked at the essays they found creative ways to implement target language and idiom.

What I really liked about this activity was that it really forced them to examine the language they were using, it kept them very busy and quiet and equally challenged. I’m talking about a very heterogeneous class here. They have their bagrut coming up and all need practice in essay writing, in one way or another.

There is something kind of annoying about working from the same short text again and again, and I would therefore not choose to do this every week. But every now and then for sure.

For a link to the materials (sorry, the only lesson plan is the one here) go here


blog 26: The Atlantic: Videos and Articles for Great Classroom Activities



the atlanticThe Atlantic is a newspaper I’ve heard a lot about but haven’t found time to browse. I am fairly impressed by the online site and realized they have a collection of videos, mainly short documentaries (7mins or so) on poignant and often controversial topics. They are accompanied by short (don’t we love short) articles written in a style which is accessible to advanced ESL students.

I’ll give an example. I just watched a really touching film entitled ‘the chimp who thought she was human‘ about a chimp that had been raised from birth by psychologists as human as part of an experiment. Things become problematic and eventually she is sent to a sanctuary, where she is not equipped with the basic skills to survive. Eventually she does adapt but the process is painful. You could turn this into a very interesting lesson with all sorts of ethical discussions and a lot of predicting activities as to what happens next.

I’m always on the lookout for good quality  video clips and newsworthy materials, and you tube sadly isn’t as selective as I’d like it to be at times. It’s definitely worth a browse.

Blog 25: Online Dictionaries

I find it ironic or just plain stupid that ministry allows  allows students to use either a regular or electronic dictionary for their bagrut (Israeli matriculation) exams. The students ought to know by 12th grade how to find definitions online, and then when it comes to the exam they are faced with two options, neither of which will actually help them very much. The electronic dictionary gives very limited search results and is only as good as the word that is typed in. The actual real dictionary (that I was very fond of, back in the days) will give multiple definitions which students will find confusing. The main source of their confusion is the fact that they are used to finding word definitions at the touch of a button online.

So what do I, as an English teacher do? Well it goes back to the question of whether I am a bagrut trainer or an English teacher. The answer to me is clear. In fact, if I have provided my students with countless opportunities to enrich their vocabulary and improve their reading comprehension, their ability to find the word will not be the make or break of the exam.

Which brings me to my next point. Nowadays teachers are used to having students who search for definitions on their phones. But how? Well, two search tools that are commonly used and are translation tools such as morphix, google translate etc or online dictionaries such as Merriam Webster, Oxford etc.

Naturally, translation tools are the quick-fix solution to words our students can’t understand but the result might be that students move on very quickly to the next word and will not be able to use the word later on, and may even have issues recalling it. Teachers need to give students different examples and home in on words they have taught for there to be any vocabulary absorption at all.

Online dictionaries will break the word down into different definitions, providing synonyms if necessary (although synonym tools are better for that). They will give students a more comprehensive idea of what the word is about and thus increase the chances of the word actually being added to our student’s active or passive vocabulary.

Let’s take the word ‘pungent’. A student looks up the term in morphix and comes up with the following:

pungent morphix

I can tell you right now that the translations given will not help students understand how this word is used. The first translation means ‘spicy’, the second ‘burning’ and the third is ‘prickly’. Not really helpful at all.

I noticed the morphix does have a nice additional feature which is adding recently used examples of the word from the internet.

pungent examples

Sadly, these examples are erudite, esoteric and obtuse. Not useful to students at all. Let’s now take a look at Merriam Webster.

merriam webster

Sadly none of these definitions are helpful to English learners. ‘Acrid’ is just about as unusual a word as ‘pungent’. However the word is available in three uses, the last one is the one they are most likely to come across.

There is a cool online tool which might provide students with what they need to actually put some meaning and context into their word. It’s called Reverso. Here is what they came up with:


As you can see, Reverso has a lot of options. I found here a ‘simple definition’ which definitely gave us more tools than morphix and Merriam-Webster. It gives online examples plus antonyms, which are sometimes more helpful in understanding the word than definitions.

Reverso provides simple and advanced dictionary definitions, synonyms, antonyms, translations into many languages and online examples. Even more cool, reverso actually has an option for an image search- great for learning-disabled students.

I know I’ve just skimmed the surface of this complex topic but my bottom line is, teachers need to be involved not only with explanations of new words, but with the tools students use to find translations and definitions independently.

ciao for now


Day 24: Create your own Rubrics with Rubistar

Fair grading that includes constructive feedback is an art form in itself. I remember the days when I got a grade of what the teacher thought my work was worth (that got interesting in subjects like art) and, shockingly enough, I accepted the grades. It didn’t even occur to me to ASK what the basis of the essay grade was. Those days are well and truly over. Students demand to know what the grade will be based on and teachers must be answerable. In fact, the rubric for a final task might be the first thing you design even before you’ve thought out the task in its entirety.

Rubistar has been around for a while and it really makes rubrics more simple, especially when it comes to complex PBL or presentation rubrics.

Thankfully it is still free to use.

Filling in fields is very no-nonsense and doesn’t look particularly state of the art, but it works


There is a possibility to search for ready made rubrics, but I didn’t have much luck finding anything.

I don’t think you even need to actually set up an account to use this tool. Neat

BTW Teachers out there you can actually do a google search on the rubric you are looking for and adapt it from there, but I’m sure a lot of you knew that.

Ta-ta for now,


Blog 23: Using Google Forms for book reports

What did we do before google docs? I honestly can’t remember those days, or rather wouldn’t care to remember those days before we could share and collaborate using google docs.

Google docs is an essential part of my teaching toolbox, and I use them in equal measure as a means of administrating (I’m the high school coordinator) and as a means of teaching.

What I’ve most enjoyed using google forms for is for book reports. I find that if I ask students to submit a book report they may submit something which doesn’t exactly reflect what they’ve read. It also just gets plain boring. The good thing about google forms is that students actually like using it and can answer questions on their phone. I can pick the types of questions I want to ask them about what they’ve read and I get immediate feedback, no plagiarizations possible!

This year with my advanced English students I chose ‘themed’ book reports, and all three were to be written using google forms. The first was with a list of selected books about the individual and society:

book report, asking questions which demanded them to reflect how the individual and society  and their relationship with one another were represented in the book:

book report form, the second was historical fiction with questions about the setting of the book and what students learned about the time period and the last one was book to movie comparison.

I haven’t lost a single book report yet!!

Blog 22: Get your students to write their own books with Storyjumper

Well, there are a lot of services that cost money on the internet, but thank God there are some great ones that are kids can use for free. One of them is called ‘Storyjumper’, a site for creating storybooks. There are endless possibilities here for students and teachers alike, and the site allows students to use cutting edge online tools to produce creative written work.storyjumper

Students can record themselves reading the story, add photographs and other artwork.

For an example of a finished product go here.

storyjumper book

I can think off hand of a couple of great things you can do with students using storyjumper; students can create their own autobiography (there are actually online templates available for just that), or illustrate and read a poem out loud in sections for a post reading activity for the literature bagrut. It is here that I confess that one of my students from an online course suggested this site for exactly that.

The online versions of the books are free of charge, and the students can order a printed version for a pretty reasonable price. A nice idea for yearbooks etc.

Happy storytelling!



Blog 21: National Geographic: Not Just Pretty Pictures

I have used National Geographic in the past for lesson plans for many different ages and levels quite successfully. For example, there was a fascinating National Geographic issue devoted to the topic of gender, where various kids were interviewed from all over the world about their feelings about gender. It provided rich materials for class discussion, after we’d tried to match the pictures with what the children said.

What is great about National Geographic is that the topics are relevant, and the language isn’t too nuanced to be inaccessible to English learners.

I’m happy to hear that National Geographic continues to create content, lesson plans and resources for educators and students alike.

nat geographic

You can basically type in any search term and come up with pictures and explanations. What makes this better than wikipedia is it is created by experts in the field, guaranteed. Also the language is clear and specific.

I would love to hear feedback from anyone who has used National Geographic for research projects, debates and presentations.