Graphic organisers

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll probably know I’m a huge fan of graphic organisers. These visual displays of ideas, facts or concepts help to organise, clarify or even simplify complex information, ideally improving comprehension and allowing for deeper understanding. They are a great way to encourage active learning, too!

But as a secondary school EFL teacher working in a CLIL programme for several years, I’d say the way in which graphic organisers make content accessible to language learners is their most powerful characteristic. Actually, if I had to choose the one thing every CLIL school needs to focus on for it to work well, that would be the effective use of graphic organisers across all content areas. It is certainly one of the best ways in which we can guarantee that the students learn the concepts being taught despite their proficiency limitations, without the content being watered down. And if the use of graphic organisers is initiated and widely used in the English classroom, then the rest of the areas will automatically benefit from it.

With such a scaffold that is not difficult to use, and which allows students to interact actively with both oral and written texts to demonstrate comprehension, or to make connections, even to plan a presentation or a piece of writing, I’ve always missed it in the course books I’ve used. It’s funny to see the same evaluation activities all over again to check comprehension of the selected texts, and then attempts at incorporating critical thinking skills, communication or creativity on the following page, usually in rather artificial ways.

Graphic organisers can be designed for specific texts and tasks without much preparation, but there are also a series of great resources with ready-to-use organisers that can be used with any type of text. Here are some of my favourite ones:

An excellent collection of editable graphic organisers and templates:

What are the best graphic organizers for promoting critical thinking?

Google Drawings graphics organizers:

Graphic organisers for text structure:

End product ideas for language projects or tasks

With the gradual implementation of a new education law here in Spain about to start, which includes a competency-based and project-based approach to learning, teaching will revolve around “learning situations” which will typically result in an end product. Nothing we hadn’t been doing in EFL for years, I suppose even more so those of us working in CLIL schools, but it’s now an approach that will be used across the content areas and no matter the type of school you work in.

Whenever I plan a project, I usually start by thinking of the topic first (sometimes following the curriculum itself, sometimes “imposed” by the textbook *sigh*) and an end product that could go with it. It is also true that the final choice is often marked by the interests a particular group of students may have and their specific learning needs. Of course, it is the objectives, and especially the process, that count here, but I think it helps to start with these ideas and build the lesson, task or project around them.

In the document below, I’ve collected a few end product ideas and arranged them in alphabetical order to have a handy reference we can use for inspirational purposes when planning. These are all intended for secondary school students learning English as a foreign language. Some end products are digital in nature, and I believe the rest can all be easily carried out using different types of technology, so I haven’t specified the type of format.

This is a first draft, however, and I’m sure I’m missing loads of ideas. Could you please share any other ideas for end products you’ve tried in the past or you’ve read about? I’ll add them to the document and update it so we can all use it! Please leave a comment below or email me at

Thanks for your help with this!


UPDATE 3/9/22

Please check the updated document here.

15 post-reading activities

The following board contains a series of activities that the students can choose to do after reading a novel or a short story. Students take on a number of roles, such as detective, journalist, designer or disc jockey, to work on a particular area. When used as a whole group, with the teacher assigning all the roles to different students in the group, the result will be a creative, in-depth study that analyses the narrative text from multiple perspectives.


Post-Reading Activities.pdf

The task board presents the main idea for each role, and details will be needed depending on the teaching context and the level of the students, including the amount of scaffolding that may be needed. The board does allow for differentiation, taking different interests and levels of difficulty into account. While some tasks can be carried out independently, others may require structured cooperative work in pairs or larger teams. In more homogeneous settings, roles could also be assigned numbers or colours according to their level of difficulty so that students can choose to focus on one task or engage in two or three to get the same points.

Combine these activities with this book report to check comprehension right after reading!


A book report


Developing learner autonomy: a homework choice board


Narrative beginnings


Developing learner autonomy: a homework choice board

Apart from traditional homework tasks based on lessons delivered in the classroom, there is still a myriad of activities students can do by themselves to practise their English, learn to work independently, and take responsibility for their own learning. Learner autonomy is in fact one of the most important things we can promote if we really want to get our students ready for the ongoing, life-long language learning endeavour.

The following homework choice board, intended for students at B1 level and above, suggests 16 tasks to practise all four skills as well as grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation:

  • Students can choose the tasks based on their personal interests, or areas they feel they need more work on, which should result in extra motivation.
  • In the process of choosing an activity, students will be taking into account the skills and language items that are being practised in class, but also what is relevant to them, especially when they can connect the task with their own life.
  • The activities in the board are also flexible as far as proficiency level is concerned, which means that students can work at their own performance level.
  • A few tasks have been designed so that they can be used later in class, resulting in excellent materials based on students’ interests which can be introduced in different lessons later in the year.




Although the tasks here have been selected so they are easy to keep track of, holding students accountable for their work, this should ideally be another step in helping students develop their learner independence skills. How would you use this board in your own student tracking system? How would you assess each of these tasks?

This post won the British Council’s TeachingEnglish Blog of the Month Award for October 2018.


Holding students accountable

When working in teams, holding students accountable for their contributions and their own learning is especially crucial. In fact, lack of student accountability is most of the times the reason why some group activities just don’t work, sometimes with some students ending up doing most of the work or talking, others having very few opportunities to say anything or simply have the time to think, and occasionally a few students that may decide to coast on the efforts of others.

Making sure every team member participates equally, no matter their proficiency level or, say, prior knowledge on a given topic, is the first step to make students responsible for their own learning. Cooperative structures such as Think-Pair-Share or Numbered Heads Together are step-by-step interactional strategies that effectively introduce think time with an element of randomness: no one knows who is going to be called on, so everyone working in pairs or in a team needs to make sure they all know what is going on (which may involve giving a specific answer to a question or a series of exercises, explaining what their views are regarding a topic, or sharing ideas based on the background knowledge each student in a team has about a topic.) By providing think time, all the students are given an opportunity to contribute at their own pace and in an equal manner, but it is this positive peer pressure that is established, where students learn to respect, wait, negotiate, listen and share, that will help us hold each and every one of our students accountable and encourage on-task collaborative behaviours.

The first activity in Unit 2 from “Gateway C1” (MacMillan) asks the students to guess the meaning of a series of highlighted words related to trends and fashion, and then decide what their opinion about each statement is. If I’d asked the class, I know there would have been a small group of students doing most of the talking in an orderly fashion, others still following the discussion but not really willing to participate for various reasons, and perhaps a few others completely off-task — a scenario we don’t like to think about. This is how the students worked on that activity instead:

  • Each team was given a sentence to be discussed.
  • Each team member wrote their personal opinion independently on a post-it note.
  • An appointed secretary in each team collected the post-its, read them, and then led a short team discussion.
  • The team wrote a short summary of the opinions to be shared later with the rest of the class.
  • Teams handed in their papers at the end of the activity.


When the time was up, everyone in the room had thought about their sentence, had shared and listened to their classmates’ opinions, and were ready to explain them to the rest of the students in the room after working on a summary.

Structuring tasks in this way can be time-consuming at the beginning, but as the year goes by, and as the students understand what is expected from them, the steps can be simplified. And it really pays off. With larger projects, each team member can be assigned a role (time keeper, materials manager, leader, and so on) or students can be asked to complete a log or a reflection form at the end of the project that shows how the group and each team member worked by analysing the quality of their contributions. All of these can also help to keep our students accountable for what they do. Even more interestingly, this positive peer pressure built within team work will very soon affect not only the rest of the group but the overall classroom management and an atmosphere that is conducive to learning.



Cooperative Learning and the Language Classroom


Avoid Randomness: Three Other Ways of Grouping Students


Three Content-Based Teaching Strategies

Content-based strategies



Question charts

Question charts are excellent tools to help both teachers and students to generate a wide range of questions. You first choose one of the question words on the left column, then a word from the top row, and finally finish the question with a phrase related to the passage you’re reading or the discussion being held.

Question chart 1

Most interestingly, the types of questions will be more and more complex the farther down and to the right you move. The blue colour in the chart below, for instance, would belong to questions that ask students to remember factual information from a text; questions in the yellow boxes demand that students analyse the information, draw their own conclusions, or use their prior knowledge; the green boxes invite students to apply the information from the text to new situations and make predictions; and the brown ones, the most demanding, get them to compare and contrast, classify, express an opinion or create something new based on the information provided.

Question chart 2

For teachers, a question chart like this can help us to make sure we are asking all types of questions, but starting at B1/B1+ levels students can also use it to generate their own questions when working on reading and listening comprehension, or to plan an oral discussion in class by writing a variety of questions related to the topic beforehand or as the speaking task progresses. We would, of course, be selecting just a few combinations out of the ones available. Once it has been modelled by the teacher and the differences between the questions have been pointed out and practised, students can simply be asked to write at least one question for each area in the grid.

One way to make students aware of the differences between the questions in terms of difficulty is to use a point system and gamify the activity at the same time. The students writing the questions , and even the students answering them, would get those points if they get them right (although we really want them to write all sorts of questions and so certain rules need to be established if we don’t want them to be writing the same types of questions just to get the most points!):

Question chart 3

What I really like about charts like this, however, is that it is the students themselves that get to generate the questions, demonstrating comprehension of the written or oral text as they write them, interacting with the text at different levels, or planning a speaking task with all sorts of questions to make it the most engaging. Not only does this improve their comprehension skills and proficiency in English but it develops learner autonomy and it helps to boost their critical thinking skills.

Question Chart.pdf

UPDATE 30/05/21

Svetlana Kandybovich from ELT-CATION has turned this question chart into a really useful digital tool in which students play to earn the most points by writing a wide variety of higher-order questions.

Click the picture below to read the full description!

Avoid randomness: 3 other ways of grouping students.

A few weeks ago I wrote this summary about what an ideal cooperative language classroom would look like and the strengths of adopting such a model. Even if you’re already working within a cooperative learning framework, however, there are times when we may want to change the types of interactions for specific tasks and offer the students more opportunities to communicate with other peers. This applies to other settings, too, where we often need to group students yet randomness does not just seem to be the most effective way to go about it if we want to make sure the students will be working in a rich, diverse environment that enhances learning. Besides, it is tasks like these that help to build rapport among students — and we all know how important this is to create a unique, positive classroom culture.

The following are three grouping strategies that work well and are mainly based on the students’ interests and motivations, but also on their level of proficiency. They can all be used at any point in the lesson to brainstorm ideas or encourage discussion about a topic, work on specific concepts that will be practised later independently, as a response to a reading passage, or even for assessment purposes at the end of a lesson or project.

1. Value Line

After presenting an issue or topic to the whole class, each student decides how they feel about it and stand up to form a rank-ordered line. You can make a scale from 0 to 10, or from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree”. As they form the line, the students explain their choices and talk to their partners about their decision so that they know what the best place in the line is for them. Groups are then formed by pulling one student from each side of the line and two students from the middle of the group, who will work together on that specific taskcaptura-de-pantalla-2017-02-21-a-las-19-53-15

There are several types of issues or topics that can be used to form these groups through a value line:

  • A topic for debate: “School uniforms should be compulsory in public schools.”
  • To complete the KNOW step of a K-W-L chart and have the students share background information.
  • A reaction to some text you’ve read or a video you’ve watched. In the short story “All Summer in a Day”, for example, the students made a value line expressing their opinion about whether the main character should become friends with the rest of her schoolmates or not. The members of each of the groups formed with a value line had different opinions about the problem, which maximised the learning opportunities with highly relevant interactions.
  • If you’re revising for an exam, a more personal prompt such as “I am concerned about the exam next…” is also a good option. Groups will then be made up of students with different attitudes and feelings towards it.
  • Even if you want to revise the difference between, say, the present perfect and the past simple, the students can form a value line based on statements such as “I know the difference between the present perfect and the past simple and I can use these tenses with few errors.” And after revising, you may even want to use this to present some new content and practise it in the same groups.

2. Corners

The same types of topics, statements and activities can be used in Corners. Here the teacher plans four different corners in the classroom which could typically belong to “Strongly Agree” – “Agree” – “Disagree” – “Strongly Disagree”, but they could also be content-specific: “Which is your favourite film genre?” (thriller, comedy, drama, action), or “Which sport do you like most?” (baseball, basketball, tennis, cycling). The students go to the corner they feel most comfortable with after the teacher presents the problem, they take some time to discuss the reasons why they are there with the rest of the students that chose the same corner, and finally provide some feedback to the rest of the class as a starting point. Groups are then formed by pulling one student from each corner.captura-de-pantalla-2017-02-21-a-las-19-53-12

3. Inside-Outside Circles

In Inside-Outside Circles the class is split in two halves: one group makes a circle that faces outwards towards the other students, and the other group stands outside in a wider circle so that the students end up facing each other. Once a topic or issue is presented, the students are given a set amount of time to discuss it with the student facing them; when the time is up, the students rotate clockwise and continue the discussion with the rest of the classmates.


This is a much more flexible grouping strategy and can be used for short exchanges of ideas or more guided interviews or questionnaires. For instance, the students working on this project on habits and routines first gathered information using this technique before reporting the data collected back to their teams and finally writing a report based on this.

I like using Inside-Outside Circles for students to discuss ideas before writing an expository or persuasive essay so that they can collect different ideas and perspectives about a particular topic and have them ready when they get down to writing. By lowering the pressure and providing the students with sufficient tools and information to get started, both the writing process and the final product are bound to result in a far more engaging and meaningful experience!


Cooperative Learning and the Language Classroom


Three Content-Based Teaching Strategies

Content-based strategies

Cooperative learning and the language classroom

I admit I sometimes feel jealous when I read other language teaching blogs I follow (most of them, actually): one-to-one settings, diligent adult students who choose to be in the classroom, or small groups at language schools where grouping students for a variety of tasks does not seem to be a problem and language appears to flow naturally and simultaneously. Yes, I know – those teachers have many years of teaching under their belt and with a good repertoire of classroom management strategies! I don’t even know if I could succeed in any of those settings, to be honest.

I belong to the large mixed-ability classroom, where a group of 26 students is considered a luxury one gets to see once in a blue moon and 30 is the norm. I belong to compulsory education and the teenage years, motivating the all too often unmotivated, transforming the infectious energy into meaningful learning, teaching after a tough Maths exam or a long passive lecture. And when it comes to language teaching, beyond basic classroom management, it is the type and quality of interactions and contributions in my classes that I’m most concerned about.

One of the challenges in mixed-ability and/or multi-level groups, for example, is that some students sometimes become over-dominant at the expense of quieter or weaker students who are only occasionally given the chance to participate equally and at their own performance level. Adopting a cooperative learning framework can help to respond to some of these problems by structuring the teaching-learning process through flexible groupings with the aim of boosting language learning through well-defined dynamic classroom interactions.

The first step consists of designing effective cooperative teams. Based on the students’ proficiency level, heterogeneous groups of four are formed at the beginning of the school year including, to the extent possible, high, middle and low achievers, both sexes, and students with different interests and motivations. Once the teams are set up, both the cooperative setting and the specific strategies we use will be characterised by all or most of the following:

1. Everybody working at the same time!

When working cooperatively, every single student in the class is working at the same time, which means more on-task time for them and more interaction going on. There is no one student doing most of the talking, or no quieter student struggling with participation. Take, for instance, a popular cooperative learning strategy such as Numbered Heads Together:

Numbered Heads Together

  • Students count off 4s (or they may be assigned a number for the whole term or year.)
  • Teams discuss a teacher-generated question or work on an activity until all members can answer it.
  • The teacher calls a number 1-4: only those students with the number called can answer.

Because the students do not know who is going to be called, they all need to make sure they can all answer the question or activity, and that they have listened to each other.


2. Less teacher talk, more student talk.

Who has not struggled to some extent with limiting teacher talk or allowing for sufficient thinking time at some point in their career? Cooperative learning strategies put the students at the very centre of the learning process and provide opportunities for quality thinking time while practising the target language.

3. Individual accountability.

Unlike informally assigned groups, where very often some students do all the work while others do little or even none for various reasons, the strategies used in the cooperative classroom are structured so that no student can coast on the efforts of others. Every student in a cooperative team is responsible for his/her own contributions to the group and learning gains. The students engaged in Think-Pair-Share, for example, need to rely on each other to carry out the task:


  • The students work individually on a question or activity before pairing up.
  • Pair shares responses and reaches a consensus.
  • Pairs share with the class.
    (Think-Pair-Square is an alternative strategy in which pairs check with the group of 4 before reporting back to the rest of the class.)

4. Equal participation.

All the students become involved in the learning process no matter their language level. Indeed, each student is encouraged to make unique contributions based on their interests and motivations, which will at the same time assist in developing interpersonal skills that can benefit communication with others. In Roundtable, it is the addition of the students’ contributions that will be reported to the whole class:


  • The teacher poses a question/activity.
  • The students take turns to write answers down.
  • It may be sequential, with one paper being passed over, or simultaneous, with four papers going around at the same time.
  • Teacher calls a number 1-4.

5. Sink or swim!

In cooperative teams the success of each member of the group depends on the success of the whole team. Apart from making sure each student does well, this positive interdependence also requires that the students make sure they can understand each other during the task, so communication strategies that allow them to speak and listen for understanding become the most relevant.

Of course, our ultimate goal is to improve the linguistic competence of each and every one of our students, who should be able to read, write, listen and speak independently in a variety of contexts and for multiple purposes. Devoting classroom time to cooperative work, though, will certainly help to promote a rich, communicative and interactive environment based on differentiation and equal participation, an environment in which the students are assessed both individually and as a team as they work together towards the same goal.

It takes time to set up a cooperative classroom that works, and strategies should be introduced little by little, but in my experience it’s not only worth it but a much better way to respond to so many of the challenges we face in the language classroom on a daily basis.

JOHNSON, D.W., JOHNSON, R.T. & HOLUBEC, E.J. (1994): Cooperative Learning in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

KAGAN, S. & KAGAN, M. (1994): The Structural Approach: Six keys to cooperative. In S. Sashran (Ed.) Handbook of Cooperative Learning Methods, pp. 115-133. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press

SLAVIN, R.E. (1992): When and why does Cooperative Learning increase achievement? Theoretical and empirical perspective. In R. Hertz-Lazarowitz and N. Miller (Eds.). Interaction in cooperative groups. The theoretical anatomy of group learning, pp. 145-173. New York: Cambridge University Press

individual -v- group by Sean MacEntee, on Flickr

individual -v- group” (CC BY 2.0) by Sean MacEntee


Avoid Randomness: Three Other Ways of Grouping Students

Team building and collaboration: Up for a challenge?