Monday, January 10, 2022

Using Realia in the Classroom: Teaching about Africa with Artifacts

A little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog post about gifts from various charitable organizations that teachers can use when teaching Social Studies.  One of the organizations I described was Postcards from Timbuktu and I mentioned that I was going to buy a few items from them.  I’m pleased to share in this blog post what I got and then I’d like to explain one way I used realia such as these in my classroom.  At the end, I’ll mention a few of my TpT resources that are based on African artifacts.



Picture of a postcard from Mali with a butterfly design
Source: The ESL Nexus

I received 3 of the items a few months later but not the postcard from Timbuktu.  I chose the option to have a student draw a picture on my postcard and I suspect because I placed my order just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to impact everything, that was partly the reason.  So I waited several months and then contacted the organization (which they ask customers to do if the postcard doesn’t arrive).  They promptly mailed another postcard which I received a few months afterwards.  It *was* coming from Timbuktu after all! 


Picture of mudcloth from Mali and poster of Arabic calligraphy on top
Source: The ESL Nexus

The Postcards from Timbuktu website offers you the opportunity to get a word written in Arabic calligraphy by a master calligrapher.  It comes as an A4 sized poster.  You can read more about it HERE.  Since I already have a piece or art with my name written in a special kind of Chinese calligraphy, I decided to get my name written in Arabic.  But then the problem was figuring out how to say my name in Arabic.  Fortunately, a friend of mine is a native Arabic speaker and he helped me choose the word that I felt was best.  I love this artwork!

After looking around the Postcards From Timbuktu website, I also decided to get a piece of mudcloth.  This is a particular type of West African textile that Mali is famous for.  The website suggests using the mudcloth as a matte for the calligraphy poster but I’m not sure I want to use it that way because I think it hides too much of the design.


Picture of leather box containing salt from the Sahara Desert
Source: The ESL Nexus

The last thing I purchased was a container of salt.  The small round box my salt came in measures about 3.5” in diameter.  It’s made a camel leather but feels solid like wood.  It’s in a teal color which, it turns out, is made from indigo – so cool.  There’s a little card inside the box explaining where the salt comes from.  The website says the salt isn’t food grade but I couldn’t resist tasting a loose flake: Yup, it’s definitely salt!


When I taught my ESL World Geography class, among other things I used artifacts I acquired when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone.  But if you aren’t fortunate enough to have had such an experience, you can use these materials from Postcards from Timbuktu or other items you may have from Africa.  These ideas are also applicable when teaching about other regions, though of course you will need to use realia from there instead.  (I have no financial connection to Postcards From Timbuktu; I just really like their products and their mission to support local craftspeople and a school.)
Display an artifact.  When I did this, I set out several items on a couple desks and students walked around looking at them.  (Not only did that get them up and moving around, it also let them see each thing up close.)  If you have English language Learners at lower proficiency levels of English, you may want to tell your students to talk about each artifact with a partner after they’ve had time to examine each one.  Then tell students to pick an artifact and write about it.  I instructed my students to use sensory words and to be as descriptive as possible.
Depending on their language proficiency, you can have beginners just write words or phrases in a list; intermediate level ELLs can write a paragraph or two; advanced ELLs and native English speakers can write a short composition.  Allow however much time you feel is sufficient for this – it can be the bulk of your class time or just a short quick-write to introduce a lesson.
When they were finished writing, I asked for volunteers to read what they wrote.  Then I asked the class to guess which artifact was being described.  Often, but not always, they guessed correctly.
As a follow-up, you can ask your students to peer edit their work and then rewrite it for homework.


Cover of TpT resource of photographs of 12 artifacts from Sierra Leone
Source: The ESL Nexus

If you aren’t able to find actual realia from Africa, you might find this resource a suitable alternative.  It includes 12 photographs of artifacts I bought in Sierra Leone.  Background information about each image is included, along with a map of Africa and a picture of the Sierra Leonean flag.  You can also use the clipart to create a bulletin board display or use the images for your own classroom materials.

Quotation about Africa by Mary Bethune
Source: The ESL Nexus
There are lots more ways to use realia in the classroom and in future blog posts, I will offer some more ideas.


Monday, December 20, 2021

7 Ways to Make Learning Fun

Making learning fun is more than just playing games in your classroom.  Although, playing games has its place and there are many educational games that teach content.  At the end of this blog post, I’ll share some of the games I especially like.  But what I am primarily focusing on in this blog post is how to teach content knowledge in ways that make it easier and more fun for them to learn.  Because when students are engaged in what they are learning, they will learn it better.  I’ll start off with some easy-to-implement ideas and examples, then offer some suggestions that are more involved or take more time to implement.

Image of game pieces with title of blog post overlaid on top
Learning and fun are not mutually exclusive! source: The ESL Nexus

 1) Create Lessons that Use a Combination of Multiple Intelligences

This is based on Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences.  (, which at its simplest says that students have different strengths and to optimize all students’ learning, teachers should include more than one mode in their lessons to reach every student.  You can do this by introducing a lesson, then giving your students a task that utilizes one intelligence, followed by a related task that uses another intelligence.  Ways to do this are to have students small group read a text, which addresses Language.  Then have students create a presentation about the information in the text.  It could include a song, which addresses Music.  It could be a poster drawn by students, which addresses Art.  It could be a podcast or video, which addresses Technology.

Example 1: 

When teaching my World Geography class, I liked to play music from the region students were learning about.  I had the music on as they walked into the classroom and also when they were working on their own at their desks on various tasks.

Example 2: 

When I was supplementing a Language Arts teacher’s lessons about the novel The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I reviewed each chapter with my ELLs to make sure they understood the plot.  For one chapter, I brought in Turkish Delight candy and had my students do a writing and podcast project.  (To find out more about this lesson, click HERE for more details.)

2) Mix Up Who Students Work With

Working with the same students all the time can get boring.  So vary how you form your small groups.  You can pull sticks from a can with students’ names, ask students to count off, put students of the same ability together, put students with mixed abilities together, put ELLs and native English speakers together, put ELLs at the same language proficiency level together, put students of different language proficiency levels together, put students who share the second (or third) language together, put students who speak different languages together.  If you have multi-grade level classes, you can put students in the same grade together or you can mix up the grade levels in a small group, depending on the task.  You can also divide your class into small groups to start a task, and then have them finish it with another group of different students.


I had ELLs with different levels of language proficiency and in different grade levels in many of my classes.  Sometimes I grouped them by proficiency level, so the intermediate-level students wouldn’t feel intimidated by the advanced-level students. But on other occasions, I mixed the levels together, especially if a reading task was involved and the purpose of the lesson was to use the info in the reading to do something rather than to spend time on the reading itself.

3) Get Students Moving

We all know that sitting for an extended period of time is difficult.  Especially on the hard chairs typically found in classrooms.  This Edutopia article explains how movement enhances learning and offers several ways to do that.  Below are a couple examples of things I did with my students.

Example 1: 

Write 4 questions about a topic on 4 pieces of flipchart paper or erasable posterboard, numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4, and post them in each corner of your classroom.  After introducing the lesson, divide the class into 4 groups – and tell them who is Group 1, Group 2 etc. -- and tell them to go to the corner with that flipchart or posterboard.  Tell students to discuss their answers and write them on the flipchart/posterboard.  You can have each group respond to all the questions, a couple questions, or just one question.  Even if students aren’t going to respond to all the questions, have them move around to each corner to read the responses to all the questions.  Then bring everyone back and as a whole class, discuss the responses on all the flipcharts/posterboards.

Example 2: 

When I taught a unit on Ancient China, I created a mini Silk Road in my classroom.  I had postcards from several cities that were on the Silk Road in China and I laid them out in a winding trail that students followed from one end to the other.  At each stop, they had to answer questions about what they saw on the postcards.  Then as a whole class, we discussed their responses.  You can do something like this with many Social Studies topics, and even Science topics that involve cycles.  I had postcards from when I’d traveled to the Silk Road cities in China but if you’re not as fortunate as I was, you can just find images online and use those instead.

4) Let Students Be Comfortable When Working

It sounds obvious, right: If you feel relaxed and aren’t thinking about your physical environment, you will learn better and learning will be more fun.  These are 2 ways I helped my students feel more comfortable in my classroom.

Example 1: 

For some students, this means standing by their desk or table when listening to the teacher.  I had a student with ADHD who could focus better on what I was saying if he could stand up and walk around the perimeter of the room while I was talking.  As long as he didn’t disturb or distract the other students, I was fine with that because it helped him concentrate and do his work.  This had the added advantage of getting him to move around, too.

Example 2: 

Providing flexible seating is another way to help students feel comfortable. I provided yoga balls and cushions for my students.  I didn’t have enough yoga balls for every student in some of my classes so I had a schedule worked out for who could sit on them when.  With the cushions, there was often a scramble to grab cushions in the colors they preferred (I had green, red, and blue-colored cushions).  Students used them when sitting on their chairs at their desks. They sat on the cushions on the floor when doing independent reading or small group work or if I wanted students to sit in a circle at the front of my classroom.  If I directed students to do some independent reading or small group work after I had introduced the lesson, that that let them get up and move around the room to get the yoga balls or cushions.

5) Take Students Outside

Research studies have shown that being outdoors helps students learn and makes learning fun.  When they are surrounded by nature, students’ stress levels decrease, their ability to concentrate increases, their social skills improve, and they develop an appreciation of the natural world.  Teaching a lesson outside provides a break to the typical classroom day and can help your students better remember what you are teaching them.


When I was teaching about the 13 Colonies, I designed a lesson that challenged my students to survive the season.  I took them to a tree-covered area on the school grounds, gave them a list of materials they had available to them, and told them they had to figure out how they would get through the winter.

6) Do Projects

I liked to give my students the opportunity for hands-on learning.  But that didn’t always mean sitting in front of a computer and creating something.  No, I wanted my students to actually build things as well.  Most of the time I supplied the materials but if someone wanted to use something special or out of the ordinary, then it was up to them to obtain it.


When learning about Mesopotamia, I did 2 projects.  Students created cuneiform tablets out of clay and they built ziggurats.  The ziggurat project was also multi-disciplinary because they had to figure out the dimensions of the pieces so they had to use some math skills, too.

7) Gamify Your Classroom

There are many ways to incorporate games in your teaching.  You can use store-bought games and online games.  You can introduce an element of friendly competition to make learning more fun by spelling and math bees, charades, and similar activities.  You can also have your students create games based on material they have learned.

Example 1: 

After teaching a geography unit about Sub-Saharan Africa, I had my students design board games that included elements about natural resources and features, culture and society, government, and other information.  Students had to design the playing board on posterboards, write the directions to the game, and create game pieces.  Then they played the games to see how well they worked and to reinforce their learning.

Example 2: 

Word searches and crossword puzzles are a great way to make learning fun! I have a bundle of resources that teaches students vocabulary about U.S. American holidays for the whole year, which you can find HERE.  This is also available in a modified version as Boom Cards decks.  These materials are especially helpful right before holidays when students are not always totally focused on what’s being taught in their classes.

Example 3: 

Here are a few of the games that I liked to use with my students:

Boggle (for building vocabulary and practicing spelling) 

Senet (to supplement teaching about Ancient Egypt)

Punctuation Bingo (to teach about different types of punctuation)

Quotation about when learning is fun, you don't forget what you learned.
Students are having fun, they will learn better; source: The ESL Nexus

Although these suggestions are geared to in-person teaching, all of them except for taking students outside and using store-bought games can be adapted to virtual/remote teaching.  The past couple years have been so hard for students (and teachers) that anything that makes learning content fun is sure to be appreciated and welcomed.


Monday, November 22, 2021

How to Encourage English Language Learners to Speak in Class

How can you get your English language Learners to talk more in your classes?  While that may seem counterproductive since it’s more common for teachers to want their students to talk less, with ELLs it’s often the opposite. ELLs frequently sit silently in mainstream classes, rarely raising their hands to answer questions or volunteering comments during discussions.  In this blog post, I’ll share 4 reasons why that may be happening, 4 things you can do if you’re a regular education teacher to encourage your ELLs to more actively participate orally in your classes, and 4 strategies for English Language Learners that you can incorporate into your lessons to help your ELL students talk more.

Reasons English Language Learners don't speak in class and teaching strategies that encourage them to talk
Source: The ESL Nexus

Why English Language Learners Don’t Talk in Mainstream Classes

When my regular ed colleagues visited my classroom, they were always amazed at how noisy my room was.  That’s because my ELLs were talking all the time – even when they weren’t supposed to be!  That was in stark contrast to their classes, where the same students just sat there without saying anything the whole period.  Here are some reasons why there was such a difference between my class and theirs.

* Some ELLs might be in a stage of language learning called the Silent Period.  My blog post explains this in more detail but essentially it means that students who are just beginning to learn English do not yet feel ready to communicate in the language.  If you have ELLs at beginning levels of proficiency in your classroom, this could be why they are not participating.

* Many ELLs may be more proficient but have a challenge understanding the concepts being taught in English.  They are trying to understand the material being taught in a language they are still learning.  This is frequently the case with ELLs at intermediate levels of language proficiency.

* Many ELLs are self-conscious about making errors when speaking.  This is especially true if other people have made fun of them – or if they just think they were laughed at – in the past when they were talking.  They may be unsure of the correct grammar or vocabulary to use, or struggle to keep up with native English speakers’ conversations, and feel it’s better to not say anything than to say something incorrectly or say something that other people don’t understand.

* Some ELLs are introverts.  These students may well understand what is going on in the class but they just don’t feel comfortable participating in an active way.  They aren’t extroverted even when communicating in their first language.

Why English Language Learners don't talk in mainstream classes
Source: The ESL Nexus

What Teachers Can Do to Overcome Barriers to English Language Learners Speaking in Class

* The most important thing is to create a welcoming and nurturing classroom environment.  When students – not just ELLs but all students – feel comfortable in your class, they will feel more encouraged to take the risk of speaking. Displaying multicultural posters of people from diverse backgrounds, displaying multilingual posters (such as these from my TpT store) on a bulletin board, having books in languages other than English in your class library, and recognizing holidays celebrated in other cultures are a few ways to create a positive atmosphere in your classroom.

* It’s also very helpful to share your own language learning experiences. For example, I told my students about my attempts to learn Mandarin Chinese when I went to China the first time to teach.  I explained how I was scared to go out shopping by myself because I was afraid a) I’d get lost and b) I wouldn’t be able to buy what I needed because my Chinese wasn’t good enough yet and no one would understand me.  But, I told my students, I realized that if I never tried to speak, there was no way I would ever improve my Chinese.  I related that back to how they also had to take the risk of speaking and being wrong in order to learn and develop their skills.  And if you’ve created a socially and emotionally supportive classroom environment, your students will be more likely to take those risks.

* Emphasizing that it’s okay to make mistakes goes in tandem with taking risks.  I always told my students that it’s by making mistakes that we learn.  Because when we say something grammatically incorrect, or use the wrong word, or have difficulty making ourselves understood, that’s how we’ll know the correct thing to say in the future.  

* I also always stressed that it was important for my students to ask questions.  Because asking questions shows an interest in what’s being said and that they want to learn.  It doesn’t matter if students ask questions using incorrect grammar, or if it takes them a few tries before they manage to ask their questions.  The point is that they want to know something and overcame their fear of speaking to ask.  So when that happens, ELLs should be praised and you should take the time to respond thoughtfully because that will encourage them to ask more questions in the future.

4 teaching strategies for getting ELLs to talk more in class
Source: The ESL Nexus

Teaching Strategies for English Language Learners that Encourage Oral Participation

* Working in small groups works great for ELLs!  With fewer people listening to what they say, ELLs will feel less nervous about talking.  But just putting students in small groups isn’t enough since some students can dominate the group and leave others out of participating.  Assigning a job to each student in the group will ensure that every student has to contribute something.  ELLs at a beginning level of language proficiency can be asked to draw something but make sure to include an oral component to the task, such as describing the picture in a few words.  ELLs at higher levels of language proficiency can be asked to do more challenging tasks.

* Turn and talk is a tried and true strategy.  But after telling your students the topic to discuss, give them some time to put their ideas on paper first before they share their ideas.  That way, ELLs can just read their thoughts out loud instead of trying to speak extemporaneously, which puts them on the spot.

* When asking students questions and during whole-class discussions, make sure to allow for sufficient wait time.  ELLs need even longer than the 3-5 seconds commonly recommended because they are not only processing the question or comment in English, they are also trying to figure out how to formulate their response in English.  If you don’t wait long enough and call on another student before your ELL has time to respond, then your ELL is not going to feel encouraged to try and speak the next time they’re called on.  So although you may think you’re waiting long enough, and although the silence may feel uncomfortable, wait even longer and you’ll probably be surprised that your ELLs will begin to speak more often in your class.

* But don’t cold call ELLs to answer questions or offer comments.  That puts them on the spot and they might be having a hard time keeping up with the pace of the lesson.  Instead, tell the class that you’re going to call on someone (use the student’s name) and after that, you’re going to call on the ELL (use the student’s name).  Doing this signals your ELLs that they’ll be called on soon and gives them time to prepare and figure out what they want to say.


These are just some ways to get your English Language Learners to talk more in your classes.  You may even find that after encouraging your ELLs to speak more in your classes, you have a hard time getting them to stop talking, but that’s a good problem to have!


Monday, October 4, 2021

How to Help Your English Language Learners Make Friends in School

"Since there is nothing so well worth having as friends,
never lose a chance to make them."
-- Francesco Guicciardini

Making friends isn’t easy.  I know – I attended a different high school every year for 10th, 11th, and 12 grade.  Making friends is even harder when you’re trying to communicate in a foreign language.  I know – I was an exchange student to Sweden my senior year and went to a Swedish-language high school, and had to learn the language from scratch.

So I totally understand how hard it can be for English Language Learners who are new to a school and/or do not know a lot of English.  What can teachers and other school staff do to make the adjustment easier and help the ELLs make friends?  Let’s look at some challenges that make it difficult for ELLs to make friends and then at some solutions to them.  But please note that the ideas I'm going to present are focused on when you're teaching in-person classes at school, not when you're teaching remotely.

A group of students in a classroom looking at a desktop computer monitor with a map on the wall behind them
Source: The ESL Nexus

a) Perhaps the biggest challenge is when ELLs are in pull-out ESL classes during the school day.  That reduces the chances ELLs have to mix with their peers because an ESL class will, by definition, be comprised only of students for whom English is not their first language.  That can make it harder to get to know native English-speaking students, especially if ELLs are nervous about speaking English, which many are.

b) Another challenge is that it’s hard to talk when you don’t have the vocabulary to communicate easily.  A lot of native English-speaking kids don’t know what’s involved in learning another language and may not have the patience needed to get to know English Language Learners.  But recess and other non-academic times at school are excellent ways to get students to mix together.

c) The last challenge I want to mention is that of time.  ELLs typically need more time when interacting with people because they are often processing what they hear in English and translating it into their native language.  Or they are searching for the English words to convey their thoughts.  However, during the school day, time is at a premium.

A group of young students playing soccer in a field at recess
Source: The ESL Nexus

a) Usually when ELLs are in pull-out classes, they do not spend their entire day in ESL classes.  At the very least, they have gym, music, art, and other “specials” with native English-speaking students.  There are a few things regular ed teachers can do to foster friendships among the ELLs and the other students in a class:
* Seat an ELL and a native English speaker next to each other so when there is pair work to do, they can work together.  (Of course, during the pandemic, they can’t be too close.)
* When doing group work, assign the members of the groups to ensure there’s an ELL in every group.  If students are allowed to pick who their group will be, they might not select an ELL, but working in a small group is a great way to get students talking to each other.
* When assigning homework assignments, have students in pairs or small groups comprised of a mix of ELLs and other students explain the work to each other to ensure they understand the task.  That not only will get kids talking to each other, it’ll also help you see if everyone knows what they are supposed to do.
* If you are given advance notice that an ELL will be arriving in your class, let your students know and ask them to be extra friendly.  They can do that by, for example: Making sure to say hello to the new student and introducing themselves, walking next to the ELL in the hallway when going to and from classes, offering to show the ELL where the bathroom is, how to use a locker (if that is a new thing), explaining what intercom announcements mean, and so on.
* When you learn that you’ll be getting an ELL in your class, inform your students and let them know what country the student is from (if they’re an immigrant or refugee) or what their native language is (if they were born in the US but speak another language at home).  Generate a list of questions about the country that your students can ask the new ELL, but emphasize that they shouldn’t bombard the ELL all at once.  Also let your students know that the ELL’s level of English proficiency may make it hard for them to understand what’s going on all the time, so they should be patient and know that they may need to repeat themselves sometimes.  Make sure your students know that the ELL is just as smart as they are but just needs some extra help in learning how to show that in English.

b) Even when ELLs do not have a large English vocabulary, there are still ways they can communicate.  Lunch and recess are great opportunities for kids to practice social language.  Mix It Up Day, sponsored by Learning for Justice, is a great way to help not just ELLs but all students get to know new people.  Here are a few things adults on lunch and recess duty can do to create opportunities for ELLs and other students to interact with each other:
* At lunchtime, arrange for a few students to sit and eat with the ELL.  They may even need to show the ELL how to go through the lunchline, if there is one.  If the native English speakers don’t know what to talk about it, here are a few suggestions: Ask the ELL what their favorite subject is, ask the ELL what they like to do for fun after school, ask the ELL if they have a favorite singer or movie.  It’s probably not a good idea to ask the ELL about their family in case they are coming from a traumatic situation.  If the ELL brings lunch from home, the other students could possibly ask about the food but only if done in a positive way that celebrates the food rather than denigrates it.
* Organize structured activities for the students instead of letting them just do whatever they want and hang out with whomever they want.  There could be a different activity each day or on just a few days, or an activity could last for just part of recess time, depending on the length of recess.  You could have either all students participate or just some take part, depending on the activity.  But including the ELLs in these activities, and creating times when the other students have to explain the activity or talk to the ELL in order to do it, can help the ELLs feel more comfortable with their fellow students.
* You could also ask a small group of students to invite the ELL to join them.  If you do this, it’s best to talk to the native English speakers first about it.  They should know that they will probably need to speak a little more slowly than usual and wait a little longer for a response when talking with the ELL since it may take them longer to understand what they’re saying.
* If you’re on recess duty and you see an ELL by themself, ask them if everything is okay.  They may be fine but they may also be shy and not feel comfortable approaching the other kids.  You can probably sense if that’s the case.   If it is, find a student that you know is friendly and kind and ask them to help you out by playing with the ELL; you can give them ideas for simple activities to do together.  Introduce the students to each other and tell the ELL that this other student has a game (or whatever) they’d like the ELL to do with them.

c) Take advantage of any interludes you may find in the day’s schedule.  Before and after school, as well as homeroom, are good examples.
* If feasible, set up a before-school program that helps kids with their homework.  Focus on the ELLs but also allow other students to participate.  Such a program helps the ELLs with their schoolwork and, with the inclusion of native English-speakers, helps foster interaction between students.  My blog post about the program I set up will give you some ideas about how to implement this.
* During homeroom in the morning, you can design quick and easy speaking activities for your class.  For example, put a question on a whiteboard or send it to students’ devices, and tell them to discuss it with a classmate.  You can structure it more by specifying that students have to talk to someone they don’t know very well or haven’t talked to yet that day, to increase the chance of different students talking to the ELL each day.
* If it is practical, you can also try to implement an after-school program that is open to all students.  It could be a homework help program or some sort of social activity.  Encourage the ELLs to participate by sending home information to their families.  However, an after-school program only makes sense if transportation home is provided for the students.

It can take a long time to make friends if no one makes an effort to help ELLs do that.  Eventually I made some friends in each of the schools I attended but if my teachers had done any of the suggestions recommended above, I probably would’ve made friends more quickly.  I hope these suggestions help your ELLs make friends in their schools!