TESOL Connections

Quick Tip: PRIME: 5 Guidelines for Integrating Appropriate Technology

by Baburhan Uzum

Educators today are expected to integrate technology into their lessons, but it can be difficult to select and design effective instructional technologies for language learning purposes. Use the PRIME framework, presented here with an example, to assess whether the computer-assisted language learning activity you have in mind will be meaningful and effective. 

Audience/Level: ESL/EFL teachers and teacher trainers of all levels

Technology has become an integral part of our personal and professional lives. Although we use computers and the Internet on a daily basis to read emails, tweets, Facebook newsfeeds, news, articles, books, and so on, we may still find it difficult to select and design effective instructional technologies for language learning purposes. In this Quick Tip, I will showcase the PRIME framework, through which teachers can design Productive, Real, Interactive, Meaningful, and Engaging computer-assisted language learning (CALL) activities.

Today’s students, what are commonly called digital natives (Prensky, 2001), were born into the digital age and grew up with the technology that many of us had to teach ourselves later in life. It is likely that there are vast differences between our students and ourselves in terms of how we approach and experience technology. Those of us who were born before the time of the common personal computer are identified as “digital immigrants.” We were not born into the digital age, “but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology” (pp. 1–2).

Being a digital immigrant can come with its challenges. We may feel hesitant to experiment with new technologies, hoping to avoid the frustration of the unfamiliar. Even so, teachers at all levels today are expected to integrate technology into their lessons to some extent and design and implement CALL activities. Schools continue to invest in smartboards, computers, tablets, and edutainment software. Some teachers feel that they are being digitally left behind, and are in need of immediate assistance.

There is no shortage of webpages and products dedicated to language learning. However, as the options increase, so does the confusion about how to tell if an activity is worthwhile. Teachers can shop around for CALL activities to teach a variety of language skills. These may include

Experimenting with a variety of new technologies might promote a feeling of novelty and excitement, but it is important to choose activities that are meaningful for students’ learning and worth teachers’ and students’ time and effort.

In order to integrate appropriate technology products into ESL/EFL lessons, an easy-to-remember framework is introduced below.

PRIME Qualities  Questions Response 
Productive  Does the CALL activity help produce targeted learning outcomes? (e.g., reading, writing, listening, speaking)  YES/NO: HOW 
Real  Does the CALL activity reflect/replicate a real life task?  YES/NO: HOW 
Interactive  Does the CALL activity allow students to communicate with others?  YES/NO: HOW 
Meaningful  Is the integration of the technology meaningful? Is the activity performed more effectively with the technology?  YES/NO: HOW 
Engaging  Is the CALL activity engaging to individuals, pairs, or groups of students?  YES/NO: HOW 

The PRIME framework provides a method for teachers to quickly, yet thoroughly, evaluate a potential CALL activity. They may find that an activity meets all, or some of the criteria, and can use that information to select and design activities that address the needs and interests of their digital native students.

See the Appendix (PDF) for an example CALL activity review.


Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6.


Baburhan Uzum is an assistant professor in the Department of Language, Literacy, and Special Populations at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas. His research interests include language teacher education and instructional technologies.


Free TESOL Quarterly Article:
"That Sounds So Cooool": Entanglements of Children, Digital Tools, and Literacy Practices

September 2015: Volume 49, Issue 3

In this free article from TESOL Quarterly, the authors share results from a study in which researchers examine the diverse literacy practices and activities involved when a group of ELLs created short videos about sustainability and social justice. Authors Kelleen Toohey, Diane Dagenais, Andreea Fodor, Linda Hof, Omar Nuñez, Angelpreet Singh, and Liz Schulze. 

This article first appeared in TESOL Quarterly, Volume 49, Number 3, pgs. 461–485. Subscribers can access issues here. Only TESOL members may subscribe. To become a member of TESOL, please click here, and to purchase articles, please visit Wiley-Blackwell. © TESOL International Association.

Many observers have argued that minority language speakers often have difficulty with school-based literacy and that the poorer school achievement of such learners occurs at least partly as a result of these difficulties. At the same time, many have argued for a recognition of the multiple literacies required for citizens in a 21st century world. In this study the researchers examined a specific case in which English language learners (ELLs) made short videos about sustainability and social justice, to determine the diverse literacy practices such activities entailed. The researchers found that children produced storyboards and scripts, and videos with titles, and engaged in several other literacy activities, discussing what “made sense” in sequencing in a documentary story, what sustainability and social justice meant, how to report on information they had gathered, and so on. They also examined how new materiality theories might assist us in analyzing how ELLs engage in digital literacy activities. These theories encourage us to think about how human beings interact with other kinds of materials to accomplish perhaps novel tasks. With respect to language learning, such a view might challenge our conceptions of language and literacy learning. For new materiality theorists, language and literacy cannot be an “out-there” kind of “thing” that learners put “inside” themselves. Rather, languages and literacies and people and their activities and other materials accompany one another, and are entangled in sociomaterial assemblages that rub up against one another in complex and as yet unpredictable ways. 

Minority-language-speaking children who are schooled in majority languages generally do not achieve as well in school as their majority-language-speaking peers. In Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, observers have noted this gap in achievement (Benzie, 2010; Bourne, 2007; Gunderson, 2007; Gutiérrez, Zepeda, & Castro, 2010; Toohey & Derwing, 2008). Such is also the case in countries in Latin America and Asia (López-Gopar, 2009; Wintachai, 2013). Another gap often noted is that between the majority-language oral interactional skills that minority-language-speaking children seem to acquire quickly and well, and their documented difficulties with school print literacies in the majority language (Cummins, 2009). Many observers have argued that both receptive and productive difficulties with printed language continue to handicap minority-language speakers throughout their school careers, and that the poorer school achievement of such learners is at least partly a result of these difficulties (August & Shanahan, 2006).

At the same time that difficulties in print literacy practices for majority language learners have been noted, many have argued for a recognition of the multiple literacies required for citizens in a 21st century world. Learners of today are surrounded by media that provide meanings through the use of language, but also through a variety of modes: visual, aural, gestural, musical, and so on. Many have argued that educational institutions need to focus on these multiple modes to prepare learners for a world in which messages are increasingly available through multimodal means (Carrington & Robinson, 2009, Gee, 2013; Kress, 2003; Lankshear & Knobel, 2011; Lotherington & Jenson, 2011; Rogers, Winters, LaMonde, & Perry, 2010; Sheridan & Rowsell, 2010).

Bringing together interests in language learning and in multimodal multiliteracies, we have over the past few years observed English language learners (ELLs) in a variety of settings making videos, and have been intrigued by how the activity not only engages learners in a great deal of oral production, but also entails many literate practices. There is a small literature on videomaking with language learners (Li, Gromik, & Edwards, 2012; Lotherington, 2011), which often concentrates on the products of students’ activities, their digital creations. We have also written about the products learners complete (Dagenais, Fodor, Schulze, & Toohey, 2013; Toohey, Dagenais, & Schulze, 2012), but we have become increasingly interested in the processes by which learners come to create videos. We have also become interested in how what is often called new materialities theory, in concert with theory about multimodality, might provide amplified ways to understand the videomaking processes we have observed. In this article we propose, through examination of a specific case, to address the following questions:

  1. What literacy practices do ELLs and their peers employ in the creation of digital video texts?
  2. How might theories of the material assist us in analyzing how ELLs engage in digital literacy activities?

Before presenting our data and discussion, we review those aspects of multimodality theory and theories of the material that we see as relevant in answering our research questions.

Download the full article and references for free (PDF)


This article first appeared in TESOL Quarterly, 49, 461–485. For permission to use text from this article, please go to Wiley-Blackwell and click on "Request Permissions" under "Article Tools."
doi: 10.1002/tesq.236

Engaging Strategies for Academic Writing

by Marietta Bradinova and Claire Gimble
Teaching academic writing doesn't have to be boring. Try these interactive activities with your ELLs to develop academic writing while integrating all four skills. 

Building academic writing skills is essential for English language learners planning to pursue higher education, but students sometimes dread writing classes. Is it possible to make academic writing interactive and engrossing? As ESL instructors, we continually seek new approaches and strategies to strengthen our students’ writing. An approach described by Gibbons (2009) is a valuable way of integrating the development of academic knowledge with explicit language teaching and lends itself well to a variety of writing activities.

 In this approach (Gibbons, 2009), a particular genre of writing is selected, introduced, modeled, and practiced. In this article, we outline the goals of each stage in this writing process and provide some suggested learning activities that can integrate listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Developing Knowledge of the Topic

Before students engage in the writing task, they are introduced to a topic and engage in activities that build information to support the content of their writing. The following are some suggested activities to foster development of topic knowledge:

1. Brain Writing: “Brain writing” can be used as a prewriting tool. Place students in small groups and assign a topic. Each student writes for a few minutes, and then all students put their papers in the middle of the table. Each student reads another’s paper and adds on to it until all the papers have been read and added to by each group member. Each group develops a master list of ideas from all the papers to be used for drafting.

2. Mind Mapping: Let students share what they already know about the topic through a semantic map, wallpapering, or a progressive brainstorm.

3. Discussion Continuum: Use a discussion continuum as a prewriting tool. Write two statements on opposite ends of the board—one for a position and one against—and have students write their initials along the continuum to show where they stand and then explain their positions, often using references from reading to support their ideas. (Note: all students must have a chance to speak before others have a second chance.) The ideas presented broaden students’ perspectives on issues, give them ideas for their writing, and connect talking to writing.

4. Create Shared Experiences: Have students interview an expert about the topic or organize excursions to relevant sites or to museums at the beginning of the topic, so that there is shared experience on which to build new language.

Modeling the Genre

The purpose of modeling the genre is to increase students’ awareness of the form and function of the particular genre they will be writing about. At this stage, students need to become familiar with the purpose, organization, and language features of that genre. For example, if students write an argumentative essay, they need to become familiar with the purpose of an argumentative essay. Next, they need to master the typical organization of this essay genre. Finally, students need to learn typical connectives to sequence the arguments (e.g., first, second, in conclusion, therefore) and typical language features of that genre (e.g., nominalizations used to name arguments, “the proposal that”). The following are some suggested activities to increase awareness of genre features:

1. Model and Reconstruct: Display a model and read it to the students. Discuss the purpose of the genre with them. Draw attention to the way the text is organized or, alternatively, have students do a text reconstruction in pairs. In text reconstruction, students sequence jumbled sentences into a coherent text. Ask them to explain the sequence they chose.

2. Dictogloss: Give groups of students several different examples of the focus genre, and ask them to decide how they are alike. Use a dictogloss taken from an example of the focus genre. This will provide a model of text type, and can also be used to revisit subject content. (A dictogloss is a classroom dictation activity where learners listen to a dictation of a short text and then reconstruct it by listening and noting down key words).

Joint Construction

The goal of joint construction is for the teacher and students to write together, collaboratively constructing a piece of writing in the chosen genre. At this point, the students are equipped with background knowledge of the topic and the writing genre, and are ready to begin the task of writing. The following are some suggested activities for teacher/student writing:

1. Teacher as Scribe: Ask students to contribute ideas about what to write, while you act as scribe and guide, suggesting to or discussing with students how the writing might be improved. “Think aloud” during this process: That is not very clear, is it? Could we use another word in place of ______ here? Throughout the process, together with your students, constantly reread what has been written; reorganize ideas; improve wording; or make corrections to grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Discuss language and how it is used while students are actually engaged in composing the text.

2. Fact Storming: To help writers clarify the organization of information, they can use “fact storming” as a way to record students’ knowledge after they have had a chance to become familiar with a topic. Students organize their facts by producing data charts in small groups. Then, students can draft paragraphs by directly translating the information contained in the data charts. Student then draft the introduction and conclusions as a teacher-guided, group writing activity, and finally return to their drafts to complete and revise them.

3. Looped Freewriting: Students begin writing their ideas for a draft nonstop for 10 minutes. Students or teachers read over their peers’ writing and circle one aspect to explore further. Students write for another 10 minutes about the selected ideas. Again, characteristics or details from the second draft are circled and students write for another 10 minutes. When students finish looping, they have more and more ideas in their drafts and can begin the revising stage of the process.

Independent Writing

Students should have developed knowledge about the topic, become familiar with the major features of the genre, and participated in joint construction with you as their guide. Students should now be able to write with confidence, incorporating their experiences and their learning. The following are some suggested activities for independent writing:

1. Editing Sheets: Encourage reflection and autonomy by providing students with an editing sheet to remind them of the key features of the focus genre.

2. Provide Opportunities for Feedback: Confer with students individually as necessary and/or have them show their writing to a partner for feedback. Moreover, support sharing their final versions publicly, encouraging correctness and good presentation.

Once the four writing stages have been completed, consider displaying students’ writing on bulletin boards, school showcases, or on the school’s Facebook page. Students can share their writing in informal settings, much like “coffee house readings,” or through formal settings as in writing contests or in publications. Displaying the final writing product gives students a sense of pride in their work and may motivate them to reach a higher standard.


Gibbons, P. (2009). English learners academic literacies and thinking: Learning in the challenge zone. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann


Sejnost, R., & Thiese, S. (2001). Reading and writing across content areas. Skylight.

Stephens, E. C., & Brown, J. E. (2005). A handbook of content literacy strategies: 125 practical reading and writing ideas. (2nd ed.). Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers.

Strong, R. W., Silver, H. F., Perini, M. J., & Tuculescu, G. M. (2002). Reading for academic success: Powerful strategies for struggling, average, and advanced readers grades 7-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Urquhart, V., & McIver, M. (2005). Teaching writing in the content areas. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Download this article (PDF)


Dr. Marietta Bradinova is an adjunct professor in the MA in TESOL program at Virginia International University. She received her PhD in English rhetoric and linguistics from Indiana University of PA in 2006. He research interests are broad-based and include cultural and linguistic diversity, teacher education, ESL methodology, differentiated instruction, and learning styles. She regularly offers professional development workshops regarding the instruction of ELLs to school districts as well as at state and national conferences.

Claire Gimble is the associate director, School of Language Studies, at Virginia International University. She has taught all levels of ESL in a variety of different educational settings including government, private sector, universities, and public schools from K–12. She will complete her MA in TESOL in Fall 2015. She has presented at a number of regional and international conferences and delivered professional development sessions. Her areas of particular interest are service learning, curriculum development, and language acquisition.


Balanced Listening Instruction

by Beth Sheppard
Listening is a challenging skill to learn and to teach; be sure to offer your students opportunities for both independent and explicit instruction, extensive and focused listening. 

Listening is one of the most important skills for second language learners, and also one of the most challenging skills. It is also challenging for instructors, because listening is a “hidden” skill, and most of us received little training in listening instruction.

In order to provide balanced listening instruction to our students, we need to focus on the process of listening rather than just the product, and we need to offer our students opportunities for both independent practice and explicit instruction, both extensive and focused listening, and both challenges and motivating experiences of success. In this brief article, I hope to provide some basic guidance for each of these areas, and references for further information on balanced listening instruction.

Process vs Product

Too often, we confuse the assessment of listening comprehension with instruction in listening. Thus, we provide background and vocabulary, have students listen and answer comprehension questions, then correct and explain the answers, and repeat the same procedure in our next lesson. Does this sound familiar to you?

In fact, while the ability to understand spoken texts is a valid end-goal for listening instruction and perhaps the product of our instruction, we need to focus more on the process. We should make sure we teach students how to listen rather than focusing so much on their comprehension of the specific texts we use in class.

Vandergrift (2004) describes a process approach to listening instruction:

  • Predict and listen: Students work in small groups to make predictions about the contents, key words, and appropriate strategies for the listening text, then they listen to check their predictions and note additional information.
  • Discuss and listen: The small groups meet again to discuss what they heard, what they still don’t understand, and how they will listen for this information when the listening text is played again. After this second listening, the whole class works together to outline the key contents of the listening text, with help from the teacher.
  • Listen and reflect: With a good idea of the meaning, now the students listen again, to note information that they missed the first two times. Finally, students reflect on their listening, considering the strategies they used and setting goals for future listening.

In this approach, most of the responsibility for developing listening skills rests with the students, guided by the teacher. It is truly student centered, and these activities can be very helpful for students, but I believe they need to be balanced out by more explicit instruction as well.

Independence vs Explicit Instruction

You are probably familiar with the division of listening into top-down and bottom-up skills, where top-down skills refer to the use of context and background knowledge to build expectations that assist comprehension and bottom-up skills refer to the use of listening subskills such as phoneme recognition and grammatical parsing to decode the message of a text directly from the sound stream. We always use both processes simultaneously.

One point that’s not often mentioned, though, is how these processes are used differently by student listeners than by expert listeners. Bottom-up processes are automatized for expert listeners—they require no attention and very little mental energy, and we get very complete information from them, unless there is noise or some other problem. This means that expert listeners use top-down processes mostly to amplify and extend the message, making inferences about what the speaker has left unstated. For student listeners, on the other hand, bottom-up processes are not automatized, so they require a good deal of the student’s attention and result in incomplete decoding of the message (see Field, 2011). Thus, student listeners need to use the top-down processes to compensate for this missed information (see Field, 2008).

A balanced approach to listening instruction will include explicit instruction and focused practice in both bottom-up subskills and metacognitive strategies.

Metacognitive Strategies

Metacognitive strategy instruction can include

  • strategy checklists such as MALQ, from Vandergrift, Goh, Mareschal, and Tafaghodtari (2006);
  • guided reflections in listening diaries; and
  • the use of “curiosity questions” (turning comprehension questions on their head by having students ask curiosity questions before and during listening).

The process approach I described above (from Vandergrift, 2004) is also closely connected to metacognitive strategy instruction. I recommend that you read more from Vandergrift and Goh (2012).

Bottom-Up Skills

Instruction in bottom-up skills should be guided by knowledge of students’ specific weaknesses. Field (2008) describes a diagnostic approach to listening instruction in which the teacher uses students’ comprehension errors as well as students’ answers when asked “why?” to understand exactly what is giving them trouble. The teacher then creates very brief, focused activities to practice these areas.

For example, if students are having trouble distinguishing two English phonemes, say /p/ and /f/, the teacher can create dictations, using many words with those sounds, or have students listen to a short text and raise their hand every time they hear /f/, or say sentences with p/f but stop right before the key sound and have students predict which sound is coming. Or if students are having trouble recognizing unstressed function words, dictations using these function words are a good choice (dictations as a listening exercise should be short sentences spoken at a natural pace, and spelling and other writing features should not be assessed), or the teacher could insert function word errors into a transcript of a brief text and have students listen to correct it.

Extensive vs Focused Listening

Think about the listening texts that you offer your students. Are they all about the same length? Students need a balanced variety of different text types so they can practice different types of listening. In the paragraph above, I described several focused listening tasks best completed using texts well under 1 minute in length.

Selective listening practice: Students also need midlength texts, generally for selective listening practice (to catch the main ideas or to find specific information). It’s also useful to focus on interactive listening by introducing an explicit listening task to what otherwise might be considered speaking tasks in an integrated skills classroom. For example, if students are giving a presentation, you might assign the rest of the class to take notes on the content in preparation for your oral comprehension questions, or if students are interviewing each other, you might insist that the questioner listen closely to their partner in order to formulate one or two follow-up questions per interview question. 

Extensive listening practice: Finally, students need a chance to practice extensive listening, so they can increase the fluency and automaticity of their bottom-up skills. This means listening to relatively long, interesting, and easy passages, for enjoyment and general understanding. The extensive listening strand can often be completed at home, allowing every student to choose their preferred topic.

For more information about different types of listening texts and practice types, see Rost (2011) or Nation and Newton (2009). Renandya and Farrell (2010) provide an excellent short article on extensive listening. See the Appendix for listening resources.

Challenges vs Motivation

My last topic is by no means the least important. Students need sustained motivation to succeed in the long and challenging task of becoming expert listeners. Strong motivation likely will also make students more willing to try out new listening strategies and approaches.

Student motivation is a complex subject, but we can be sure to support our students’ motivation by choosing appropriate listening texts and tasks, and by being sure to consider our learners’ levels, interests, and learning goals. We also need to provide a supportive learning environment that recognizes students’ efforts, applauds their successes, and builds classroom community and collaboration. Rost and Wilson (2013) provide a summary of research related to student motivation for listening.

Finally, I believe that a balanced and process-oriented approach to listening instruction will contribute to students’ motivation, as they see their listening proficiency grow. Happy teaching!


Field, J. (2008). Listening in the language classroom. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Field, J. (2011). Into the mind of the academic listener. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 10, 102–112.

Nation, I. S. P., & Newton, J. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL listening and speaking. New York, NY: Routledge.

Renandya, W., & Farrell, T. (2010). “Teacher, the tape is too fast!” Extensive listening in ELT. ELT Journal, 65(1), 52–59. 

Rost, M. (2011). Teaching and researching listening. Harlow, England: Pearson.

Rost, M., & Wilson, J. J. (2013). Active listening (Research and resources in language teaching). New York, NY: Routledge

Vandergrift, L. (2004). Listening to learn or learning to listen? Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 3–25. 

Vandergrift, L., Goh, C., Mareschal, C., & Tafaghodtari, M. (2006). The metacognitive awareness and listening questionnaire: Development and validation. Language Learning, 56(3), 431–462.

Vandergrift, L., & Goh, C. (2012). Teaching and learning second language listening: Metacognition in action. New York, NY: Routledge.

Appendix: Listening Resources

The teacher’s voice can be a great resource for listening practice, and so can recorded materials available for purchase, such as textbook audio and recordings of graded readers. There are also a variety of excellent listening materials freely available online. Here are a few:

ESL materials for extensive listening

Authentic materials for extensive listening

Materials for focused listening

Materials for selective listening and note-taking


Download this article (PDF)


Beth Sheppard teaches speaking and listening skills to international students at the University of Oregon. In the past, she has taught English in California, Mexico, and Peru.

Test Yourself: A Lesson Plan on Student-Created Quizzes

by Lauren Rein
Help your university students develop critical thinking skills and improve recall of materials for assessments.

University students today are not asked to be mere sponges; they are expected to do more than memorize information to repeat back on assessments. Students require a variety of effective study techniques as well as well-developed critical thinking skills in order to achieve academic success. One effective study technique involves self-testing: creating study questions based on class materials. Rohrer and Pashler (2010) cite research that supports self-testing methods of study as far more effective at improving recall of materials than only rereading materials, even if surveys show students prefer the latter.

In addition to possessing strong study skills, university students are expected to analyze information critically and objectively. They should be able to raise essential questions and problems with materials, gather relevant information, recognize their own assumptions, and communicate these ideas effectively (Paul & Elder, 2014).

The purpose of an intensive English program (IEP) is to set students up for academic success and prepare them for study by teaching various topics and study skills, all in the English language. Through valuable practice, they can go beyond mere comprehension of course material and learn to deeply analyze what they are learning. This lesson plan is for a content-based and/or test-taking skills course in an academic English program, such as an IEP. Students will learn a new method to study class material and think critically about test questions. 

Materials: For students: Content materials, such as a textbook; paper; small whiteboards (optional). For teacher: Chalkboard/whiteboard or document camera and projector.
Audience: High-intermediate to advanced level university or IEP students.
Objectives: Students will create and take student-created quizzes, participate in appropriate classroom discussions, and critically analyze quiz items.
Outcome: Students will review and study course content, practice appropriate discussion behavior, and learn to critically analyze study materials.
Duration: Approximately 30 minutes of student preparation outside class and 45–60 minutes of in-class work

Preclass Preparation

Step 1

Weeks beforehand, the instructor should assess students with instruments that utilize the same tasks the teacher plans to use for this lesson, such as true-or-false statements. The student-created quiz should be assigned after several assessments are given by the instructor, so students have a model of appropriate question tasks, types, and forms.

Step 2

Instruct students to create their own “mini-quizzes” on their own paper using content materials, outside of class. Students should not put their names on these quizzes. Set a specific type and number of items, such as three true-or-false statements and two short answer questions. Emphasize that students will give these mini-quizzes to their peers.

Production: Individual Work (15–20 minutes)

Step 3

In class, pass out the quizzes students have made. Have students trade their quizzes with each other, or you can collect them and redistribute the quizzes to students to complete in order to review and study course content.

Step 4

Move around class to explain or clarify quiz items if needed. In the quizzes they’re reviewing, students should look for test items with:

  • inaccurate or unclear grammar
  • poor word choice
  • generally vague structures
  • unclear or incomplete scope of the task
  • a task scope that is too broad or too narrow

Depending on the level of your students, you may want to model these issues beforehand. For example, in a class where the carrier content is geography, a strong short answer prompt would be “Define the concepts of relative and absolute location in geography.” The writer is expected to provide definitions for the two types of geographic location named in the statement, a topic presumably covered in the class.

A prompt with inaccurate grammatical structure might be “Definition location absolute and relative location.” The statement “Explain the absolute geography of Brooklyn, New York City” might be too narrow and have poor word choice. The precise longitude and latitude of a neighborhood is difficult to remember. It is also difficult to “explain” geographic coordinates—provide or state are better direction verbs here.

Production: Group Work (15–20 minutes)

Step 5

Organize students into small groups, keeping the quizzes they completed. Groups should compare answers and check their knowledge. This reinforces the review and enables students to collaborate on selecting relevant information to answer questions.

Step 6

If available, distribute small whiteboards to each group. Instruct groups to compile lists of “good” quiz items and “bad” quiz items on the whiteboard or a separate sheet of paper. Students should go through each quiz and discuss positive and negative aspects of each question. This is both communicative and pragmatic practice and allows students to negotiate meaning from quiz items as well as debate the quality of quiz items.

Students will often identify “bad” items as those that are too easy, too obvious, or too general. They will also analyze “bad” items that are unclear due to inaccurate word choice or grammar. Again, bring these lapses in clarity to students’ attention. Unclear answers due to structure errors impact the clarity of their answers during a testing situation, which may impact their grades.


Debriefing (15–20 minutes)

Step 7: Share lists of “good” and “bad” questions with the entire class: The instructor can lead the debriefing, or students can present. The small whiteboards or projector can be used to display answers. Ask students a variety of questions to engage critical thinking:

  • Ask them to describe for the class the positive or negative aspects of the quiz items they critiqued.
  • Ask them to explain why certain quiz questions are better than others.
  • Ask what items they would prefer to have on an assessment and why they prefer those questions.

Also, bring attention to the presentation of items—in grammar, vocabulary, and clarity. These all matter, most especially in students’ questions and answers on graded assessments.

Additional Study (optional)

The instructor can collect “good” questions and compile a class list of study questions for a forthcoming assessment and provide this to students.


Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2014). Critical thinking: Concepts and tools (7th ed.). Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

Rohrer, D., & Pashler, H. (2010). Recent research on human learning challenges conventional instructional strategies. Educational Researcher, 39(5), 406–412.


Lauren Rein has taught at the Culture and Intensive English Program at the University of Northern Iowa since 2010. The focus of her instruction is academic speaking and pronunciation skills at the advanced levels. She received her Master of Arts degree in applied linguistics and ESL from Georgia State University in 2008.