Columbia University's American Language Program Winter Conference, 2016

Here is a lesson plan, which can be modified to suit your needs and context. This is based on the research and materials that Mary Ritter and I presented during our session, A Practical Framework for Teaching Critical Thinking, on February 27, 2016. 

Please contact me ( or Mary ( with any questions. 

Thank you for joining us!



For Advanced ESL Reading and Writing Students

Happy New Year guys! I hope that you had a fun time ringing in 2015 and you've gotten enough r & r (rest and relaxation.)  I know that you were very busy at the end of the fall semester.

Many of you are probably back in your home countries and you won't be returning to us at the IEI. We will definitely miss your intellect, hard work, and kind spirits. Before leaving for break, some of you asked me what you should do to continue to hone your writing and reading skills. So, here are a few suggestions that I've compiled with your level (500) and learning experience in mind:

Grace Kelly, a famous american actress, reading 

Grace Kelly, a famous american actress, reading 

1. To read faster 

All of your reported in your student feedback that you found speed reading to be very helpful. Well, the author and research behind the speed reading we did in class, Paul Nation, has several free books that you can read online to continue reading for fluency. You can select one that seems to be your level and time yourself as you read, just like we did in class. Go to the Free Graded Readers section of Nation's page. Choose a reader at the 4,000, 6,000, or 8,00 word level. If you need to test yourself, start with the 6,000 level. If you can read and know 98% of the words on the first page, great. Try the 8,000 level. Can you do the same? If you can't read 98% of the words, go down a level.

2. To write faster

Next, you'll want to keep up your Quick Writes. Are you wondering how to do that without a writing prompt from me? Have no fear! Here is a great resource written by the editors of for writings with a number of interesting prompts. There are 365 prompts, one to go with every day of the year. That means you can do a little bit of writing in English! Write as much as you can for ten minutes without worrying about grammar or spelling.

3. To expand your vocabulary

If you wish to continue working on the Academic Word List, here are a variety of vocabulary exercises to help. Remember, it's not enough to be able to recognize the word or say its definition. You need to be able to use these words in your writing.

Another option to continue to develop your vocabulary is to hear and see how words are used in the news.  The BBC's Learning English has a great section devoted to words in the news to help viewers learn more vocabulary.

4. To revise and edit your writing

 Now that you aren't always able to get teacher feedback on your drafts, you're going to need to be sure to do careful editing before you submit applications or send important emails. Two universities in Indiana (my home state!) have helpful resources so that you can review your writing carefully. Indiana University helps you to proofread for common surface errors and Purdue University has one of the most comprehensive guides on English grammar and writing for ESL students. The OWL website will be a place you'll want to visit again and again to look for information on how to document sources, extra grammar explanations, or business writing. 

5. Still thirsty for more?

Don't forget about the resources on the IEI's website. If you have any questions about other steps you can take to keep working on your English, let me know! I'd be very happy to hear from you.

Wishing you all the best!


Grading in IEPs

Bird by Bird is book about writing by one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott.  In it, Lamott tells a story that has resonated with me when I think about grading.

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
— Anne Lamott
Flickr User: moosejaw2

Flickr User: moosejaw2

As I've been reading more about writing, I'm finding advice that is useful to the dreaded task of grading.  Turns out, teachers and writers have a good deal in common: they need to carve out time to do their work.  I know that as a teacher, it's critical that I monitor student progress by providing timely feedback and grading, but it can feel incredibly tedious and mechanical.  As a more creative person who eschews schedules and routine, it can be challenging for me to keep up with all of the work that my students submit.  It's easy to procrastinate on grading, and then as the papers continue to pile up, it can seem overwhelming to dive into the mess.  Although taking it "bird by bird" is useful, another quip that seems even more relevant is:

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.
— Mary Heaton Vorse

That's it. I think this will be my secret to grading.  I'll just sit down. And, when I sit down, I'll sit down to do it. I will apply the seat of my pants to the seat of the chair and I will grade.  I'll set a time, keep myself from distractions, stay uncomfortable, and aim to do it  It's important, and I'll feel so much better knowing that I have a handle on it.

How do you stay on top of grading?  Any tips or tricks?  I'd love to hear them!

Icebreakers for ESL

Icebreakers for ESL

Each semester, as I think about breaking the ice with students, I get a rush of excitement mixed with panic.  It's time to pick out a new icebreaker, and so I start searching.  I have to say, each semester I diligently look for new ones to use.  Some that I find are attractive, and seem as if they will work in my given context, but without fail, I rely on my old favorite.

This ice breaker never lets me down, involves almost no prep, and always gets students engaged.  I first learned of it from Dave's ESL cafe when I was teaching IELTS test prep classes in New York.  As much as I sometimes think that I should change things up, I just can't tear myself away from using this one.

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Building rapport in the language classroom

Building rapport in the language classroom

Establishing rapport is something that we spend a good deal of time talking about in K-12, but it is less frequently discussed in higher education settings.  At the college level, it can be difficult to prioritize building rapport when there is so much content to deliver with few contact hours.  But, as we know, building rapport is critically important. In fact, Young and Shaw (1999) said that students and teachers agree that "empathy with students needs" is one of the important factors which contributes to effective teaching. 

According to the IDEA Report to Faculty Members, the following four items combine to demonstrate what instructors do to build rapport.

# 1. Show students that they have a personal interest in their learning
# 2. Identify steps students can take to help them answer their own questions
# 7. Elaborate on the feedback given to students to explain ideas behind their criticisms of student academic work
#20. Invited interaction with students outside of class (office visits, phone calls, e-mail, etc.)

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Gamification in the language classroom

Gamification in the language classroom

As I consider the start of new classes this summer, I am thinking of ways to gamify my class. Last year, Deborah Healey spoke to several ESL instructors at the University of Oregon and urged us to think of ways to incorporate gamification into our lessons.  While this idea is so compelling and intriguing, it can be a little overwhelming to think about overhauling a well-established grading system to take this step. Not to mention that teachers and instructors often need to adhere to current systems and syllabi for accreditation purposes.  

However, there are ways to incorporate some aspects of gamification into any class.  We can work to add games to regular activities.  For example in my classes, instead of asking students to answer comprehension questions, I often cut up the questions into strips of paper, put those strips in a cup, ask students to roll a dice or use a spinner to select who will go or what question they will answer, and then award points to students for answering these questions.  

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