TESOL Connections

From TESOL International Association: Lessons Learned From a Mistake

by Dudley Reynolds, TESOL President, and Rosa Aronson, TESOL Executive Director
Recently, TESOL International Association made a grave mistake, caused by technological and human error, that affected several hundred of its global members. After a thorough investigation, we have learned several hard lessons from this mistake and have designed internal guidelines to prevent such a mistake from happening again. We remain committed to the association's mission and core values. 

“How much you can learn when you fail determines how far you will go into achieving your goals.”

These words by Roy Bennett, public figure from Zimbabwe, never rang as true for TESOL International Association when a few weeks ago, we realized we made a grave mistake that affected several hundred of our global members. 

Due to a technological and human error, many of our international members received a notification from us that erroneously stated that their Convention proposals had been accepted.  Unfortunately, we discovered the mistake much too late. By the time we sent a correction email, members had already shared their joyous news with their colleagues, friends, and families, thus crushing their happiness and sense of professional accomplishments.

As many TESOL members can confirm, having a proposal accepted for the TESOL International Convention is not only a significant step in the careers of TESOL professionals, but may also be a determining factor of whether someone is able to get institutional support to attend the Convention. We acknowledge that this is especially true for our members outside the U.S. and Canada, for whom attending the Convention comes at no small expense.

Knowing that we failed the very professionals for whom we are working, has left an indelible mark on us.  We are deeply sorry for breaking the bond of trust and assure you that we will work hard to earn this trust back. While we realize we cannot turn the clock back, we can learn the hard lessons from our mistake. We want to assure you that we remain committed to our mission and our core values.

We thoroughly investigated the situation and are designing internal guidelines to prevent this mistake from happening again.  And, more importantly, we are reaffirming our commitment to our members and their needs. We realize that we cannot allow expediency to supersede service to our members. We remain committed to individualized and timely communication whenever possible, to examining our programs and actions from varied perspectives, and to transparency before our members, who are our Association.


Quick Tip: 5 Ways to More Vibrant Lessons

by Elizabeth Mosaidis
As educators, we're continually looking for new ways to liven up our lessons. Here are five simple ideas using paint chip samples, free at any home improvement store, to immediately add color to existing lessons or give you completely new activities to try in your English language classroom today. 

As educators, we’re continually looking for new ways to liven up our lessons and make them “pop.” One way to do this is through the use of paint chip samples that you can pick up in any home improvement store. Paint chip samples are a teaching tool that can help you organize your lessons while also making them more engaging for your students. Here are five simple ideas that you can try out immediately in your classroom.

1. Expand Student Vocabulary

I like to introduce the idea of using paint chip samples for vocabulary expansion to the students by writing one of my favorite sayings on the board—“Make every day colorful”—and then eliciting responses from the students about what this means to them. I relate this idea to vocabulary and how we can make our speech more colorful by using new words.  To make vocabulary expansion more student centered, have students choose four words that they would like to use in class that day. Instruct them to write down the words and definitions on their paint chip sample. By having the reminder right in front of them, they will be more inclined to use the words, and you can hold them accountable for using the words while speaking or writing, as you are interacting with each group. You can also encourage students sitting in groups to motivate each other to use their words and even quiz each other on the words at the end of class by exchanging cards.

2. Assign Group Roles

Choose a different color for each group and write down and number the main roles within the group, such as leader, writer, speaker, and timekeeper. Spend a few minutes going over the responsibilities of each role and instruct each student from each group to choose a number between 1 and 4. Then it’s time to hand out the group role cards, while also stressing the importance of not changing roles after seeing them.

3. Shades of Meaning

Students can write down phrases for group discussion for agreeing and disagreeing from strongest to weakest, utilizing the shades to indicate the strength of the statements. This can help students to respond quickly in a group discussion setting by associating the statement with a lighter or darker shade and then responding with the appropriate phrase. Alternatively, students could use the shades on the paint chip samples to correspond with degrees of meaning for vocabulary words.  For instance, for the word funny, students could write down synonyms, such as amusing, humorous, and hilarious.  This would aid students in remembering the degrees of meaning for different words, while also encouraging them to expand their vocabulary.   

4. Generate Ideas for a KWL Chart

Instead of having students fill out a worksheet or write in their notebooks, to energize your students, you can have them keep track of what they know (K), want to know (W), and learned (L) on a paint chip sample with 3 shades. By having a smaller space to write on, students can be more concise as they are writing their ideas down.

5. Organize Ideas for a Speech

Before giving speeches, students can write down key words to remind them of the main ideas in their speech. Paint chip samples are bigger than a notecard, making them perfect for writing down key ideas to touch upon. You can even hand out cards with colors that might calm the students down if they are nervous about speaking, such as blue, known for its calming properties.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for how you can use paint chip samples to invigorate your students and make your lessons memorable. How will you use them in your classroom?

Elizabeth Mosaidis is a senior international educator at Arizona State University and a teacher-consultant for the Central Arizona Writing Project.

TESOL to Host 2017 Summit on the Future of the ELT Profession in Athens, Greece

TESOL International Association is revising its P–12 Professional Teaching Standards, which are used by the Commission for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) to assess programs that will prepare and license P–12 ESL educators across the United States. Learn about the revision process and what it will mean for your teacher education program. 

What does the future hold for the TESOL profession? As the demand for English language teaching and learning continues to grow globally, many questions must be answered: What are the qualities of a competent English language teacher? What role should English play in a multilingual global society? What policies should be in place to prepare the future generation of second language speakers? What are the myths currently driving those policies? What role should research play in this new environment? These are some of the key questions that will be addressed at the Summit on the Future of the TESOL Profession.

Hosted by TESOL International Association, this groundbreaking event will take place on 9–10 February 2017 in Athens, Greece. The summit will showcase 12 respected and innovative thought leaders from six continents, whose ideas will challenge common misconceptions and will help reenvision a future grounded in the summit’s guiding principles of equity, inquiry, and professionalism. The summit is intended to generate a strategic conversation around four major themes.



Futurists, who work to plan scenarios for the years ahead, often use PELT (political, economic, social, and technological) or SPELIT (social, political, economic, legal, intercultural, and technological) models when considering the same dimensions of the changes likely to be encountered. This broad, holistic perspective is essential for understanding the TESOL profession both today and in the future. Changes in these dimensions coalesce around four major issues, and each affects the TESOL profession. Population mobility results from competing ideologies, political and economic power shifts, economic inequality, and climate change. Governance structures and processes of traditional institutions are too inflexible and sclerotic for current rapid change. Decision-making is therefore caught between immediate responses without full knowledge and thought and stasis or immobility while processes take their time. Thus, nontraditional actors such as for-profit institutions and independent foundations move in to fill the gaps. The globalization of English has led to multiple Englishes. Instant, social technology amplifies these issues.

Futurology Speakers

  • Sue Garton will address these concerns through the lens of inquiry. 
  • Asmaa Abu Mezied will address these concerns through the lens of equity.
  • Greg Kessler will address these concerns through the lens of professionalism.

English in Multilingualism

Fears of English as the ruling language that will eradicate all other linguistic diversity abound. But globalization and technology invite and compel the TESOL profession to educate for English while at the same time supporting linguistic diversity. New technologies, for example, have supported the use of English but also the use of all other languages, and new social media, particularly, have enabled and encouraged the playful combining and styling of English and vernaculars. Moreover, being bi/multilingual should be a right for all, as multilingualism contributes to people’s psychological, academic, social, economic, and personal well-being. Hence, it is vital that the TESOL profession, in its mission to teach English, embraces the opportunity to support multilingualism.

English in Multilingualism Speakers

  • Li Wei will address these concerns though the lens of inquiry.
  • Joseph Lo Bianco will address these concerns though the lens of equity.
  • Robinah Kyeyune will address these concerns though the lens of professionalism.

Reimaging English Competence

English competence has been traditionally defined in reference to “a native or ideal speaker” norm and in terms of the grammar of the language. Curricula, learning outcomes, and large-scale tests in use today are designed based on this norm. In light of the multiple Englishes used by different groups, the different purposes for learning English, and the awareness that there is no one “correct” version of English, this definition has been challenged. This has led to an ongoing debate between the need for establishing local English norms and the need for expanding the construct of English and setting an English norm that can be used across a variety of contexts in a global world. The question facing the TESOL field is whether English competence can be defined in such a way that it recognizes the diversity of English and can also be used for decision-making purposes.

Reimagining English Competence Speakers

  • Anne Katz will address these concerns though the lens of inquiry. 
  • Aya Matsuda will address these concerns though the lens of equity. 
  • Ahmar Mahboob will address these concerns though the lens of professionalism.

The Profession as a Change Agent

TESOL-related policy making should mirror successful (traditional, virtual, and self-study) classroom practices: The notion of a learning-focused classroom should translate into practice-driven policy making, and the idea of encouraging students to take risks with their language learning should carry over to less risk-averse policy-shaping, especially in the public sphere. However, for this mirroring to happen, innovation, application, and reflection need to be encouraged among practitioners and practitioners need to be better positioned to influence research and policy. Currently, more flexible, nontraditional actors (i.e., for-profit institutions and some well-heeled foundations) are able to fill gaps left by less flexible public entities, shifting goals from achieving stronger student results to serving personal gain.

The Profession as a Change Agent Speakers

  • Constant Leung will address these concerns though the lens of inquiry. 
  • Franklin Téllez will address these concerns though the lens of equity. 
  • Misty Adoniou will address these concerns though the lens of professionalism.

Shaping the Summit

In order to help construct this complex, strategic conversation around the profession’s future, TESOL brought together nine prominent leaders to form the TESOL Summit Steering Committee. Representing five continents, this prestigious and diverse group shouldered the responsibility of shaping the summit while also representing multiple aspects of the multifaceted TESOL profession. For additional guidance, the committee solicited advice and feedback from the TESOL Summit Reference Group. Representing key stakeholders in the TESOL profession, this group of 17 organizations was instrumental in helping to define the summit.

The chair of the TESOL summit is Professor Emeritus Denise Murray of Macquarie University. "The use of English around the world has increased dramatically, bringing both opportunities and challenges for individuals, governments, and English language educators,” said Professor Murray.

To meet the challenges and broaden opportunities, the TESOL profession needs to examine its knowledge base, values, and the diverse contexts of English language teaching. Through this examination the profession can ensure a more inclusive, collaborative approach for English language education in the 21st century.

The summit will feature an invited in-person audience of more than 200 industry leaders from around the world who influence English language education policy and practice. These summit delegates will hold high-level strategic discussions on what the future holds for an English language professional and take part in creating a roadmap for countries seeking to update or enhance their English language education policies.

The summit will ultimately produce a framework for the future of the TESOL profession that will guide policy, practice, and research. Soon after the summit in Athens, TESOL will post a summation of its initial findings. By the 2018 TESOL International Convention & English Language Expo, TESOL will release a comprehensive "call to action" that will outline how summit delegates and participants can contribute to the improvement of the TESOL profession. TESOL will be asking key stakeholders to work with TESOL in achieving its vision.

TESOL President Dudley Reynolds of Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar highlights the importance of an event of this nature:

At a time when educational decision-makers everywhere need a principled understanding of the language competencies required for both global and local success, the TESOL summit promises to provide significant insights into both the content and delivery of effective language teaching. This understanding can be best developed through a deep-dive conversation with people who have their finger on the pulse of education around the world. For me, this is what the summit offers, and why I’m excited to participate with other thought leaders from across the educational spectrum.

Join the Conversation

In an effort to make this landmark event truly global, TESOL professionals and stakeholders from around the world will be able to participate as online summit participants. Through the guided online discussions, online summit participants will provide relative local and regional information pertaining to each theme. Both TESOL members and nonmembers are strongly encouraged to participate in the online discussions before, during, and after the summit, as well as during the live-stream the event. Online discussions will open on 1 December 2016 and will continue through May 2017. Registration to become an online summit participant is free, and space is unlimited.

In Athens, our featured speakers will situate the contextual examples extracted from online discussions and current research to paint a global picture of the current English language landscape. In order to present this information in an organized fashion, each theme will be presented in 15-minute segments through the lenses of the three guiding principles. Then, delegates will participate in facilitated round-table discussions to share their experiences and understandings of each theme, followed by a question-and-answer segment. Online summit participants will have the ability to live-stream all of these face-to-face events in Athens as well as interact with delegates and speakers during the question-and-answer portion of the summit.

TESOL gratefully acknowledges the following organizations that have lent their support to this initiative: British Council, U.S. Department of State, National Geographic Learning, Oxford University Press, Center for Language Learning at the University of Missouri, and Carnegie-Mellon University-Qatar.

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Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) for Flipped Learning

by Amy Roither
Hesitant to flip your class? Try starting small: Flip your classroom assessment techniques using this toolkit.

Classroom assessment techniques (CATs) are “relatively quick and easy formative evaluation methods that help you check student understanding in ‘real time’” (Iowa State University, n.d.). CATs provide a valuable tool in the feedback loop between instructor and students. These techniques show instructors where there are gaps in learner comprehension, yet unlike formal quizzes or assignments, they are meant to be low-stakes assessments and activities. (See examples of eight CATs on the Indiana University Bloomington Center for Innovation Teaching and Learning website.)

One way for teachers to introduce flipped content into their classrooms is to flip the CATs they employ. The fact that many of the guides to these techniques, including the seminal text, Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (Angelo & Cross, 1993), were written in the late 1980s or early 1990s suggests that it is time to update them to the current technological resources available. Traditional CATs were designed based on face-to-face classroom time with the instructor delivering content and students providing feedback during class, and then the instructor responding to their feedback in a subsequent class. The increasing adoption of online and flipped classrooms indicates that traditional practices such as CATs are due for revision.

Using a flipped approach to CATs serves several purposes: first, replacing the need to use face-to-face class time; second, providing more time to give answers to common questions; and third, giving an introduction to the technological resources used in flipped lessons. Because the time and effort needed to create a fully flipped classroom can be intimidating to many teachers, especially those who are new to the classroom or teach part time, partial flipping or even just flipping a specific type of lesson provides an alternative to making more intensive curriculum adjustments. Flipping even just one activity, such as CATs, allows both teachers and students an introduction to flipped content.

Toolkit for Updating Classroom Assessment Techniques

The two technological resources that I rely on the most when using CATs in my courses are Spreaker and Google Drive. Spreaker, a podcasting app and online program, is user friendly. Teachers can record podcasts on their smartphones and their students can access them via the app itself or a URL link that can be posted on a course website or in an email. Spreaker is free to use for up to 5 hours of recordings. Because my podcasts tend to be fewer than 3 minutes in length, I have not found this time limit to be a problem.

The platforms that I use most often in Google Drive are Google Docs and Google Forms. Both of these can also be accessed via smartphone. Teachers can share the documents or forms with students through Google Drive itself or a link that can be posted anywhere. The ease of use, adaptability, and potential for creativity make Spreaker and Google Drive excellent resources for flipping CATs.

Example 1: The Muddiest Point

One traditional CAT that teachers can easily flip is the “muddiest point” (Angelo, 1993, pp.154–158). The traditional “muddiest point” simply asks students to briefly describe the most difficult or confusing part of a lesson, task, or assignment. The teacher then collects their responses and makes adjustments or provides feedback to the students in the subsequent class.

I have used this CAT for many years in my university ESL classes. For the past few years, as I have created more flipped lessons, I have modified this CAT by recording my responses to students’ muddiest points in the form of a podcast. Whereas I used to address their responses with a brief in-class lecture, I now use Spreaker so my students can access the information individually via a link embedded in our course webpage, listen to it on their own time, and save it for future reminders. This saves us class time for other activities, and—for recurring muddy points—it saves me the time of having to repeat myself.

Example 2: Student-Generated Test Questions

Another traditional CAT that teachers can update is the “student-generated test questions” technique (Angelo, 1993, pp. 240–243). As its name suggests, this technique focuses on having students write test questions and answers in order to show how well they understand a topic or perform a skill. The questions that the students create may or may not be used in actual quizzes or tests. In fact, they are better as review materials before a test. This activity has traditionally been conducted during class time, but with Google Forms, it is easy to shift it away from the classroom.

Google Forms facilitates collaboration between students as they work together to create and edit test questions. It has templates for several types of assessments, including multiple choice and short answers. Flipping this CAT through the use of Google Forms benefits instructors because it is easier to give comments and feedback to students outside of the time constraints and distractions that can occur in a classroom. Students who may be reluctant to contribute ideas for test questions during class also benefit.

Example 3: Double-Entry Journals

Double-entry journals are a commonly used CAT in reading and writing courses (Angelo, 1993, p. 263–266). The original technique requires students to read an assignment, then divide a paper in half and write quotes from the reading on the left side and reactions or paraphrases of the quotes on the right side. The technique works very well for determining reading comprehension and engaging students in the reading material. However, the traditional method requires a lot of time between reading the assignment and writing the journal and the feedback the teacher gets and gives. By shifting the technique to an online platform, the cycle of feedback is faster and more efficient.

Google Docs is my preferred platform when using this CAT, although any cloud-based program will work. The most important feature for this adaptation is the ability for the teacher to type comments on the students’ online journals.


CATs provide vital feedback on students’ abilities and comprehension. They were originally designed to be used in classes that relied on face-to-face instruction and content delivery. The advent of flipped classrooms provides an opportunity to reshape aspects of these techniques and adapt them to changes in technology and instruction, benefiting both student and teacher.


Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Iowa State University. (n.d.). Classroom assessment techniques: Quick strategies to check student learning in class. Retrieved from http://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching/assessment-and-evaluation/classroom-assessment-techniques-quick-strategies-to-check-student-learning-in-class

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Amy Roither has been an ESL instructor at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri since 2007. Her workshops and presentations on how to use technology in ESL courses have been given at regional and international conferences. She aspires to know the entire Hamilton libretto by heart and travel as often as possible. You can find her on Twitter at @aeroither.

Humor in the Language Classroom: 3 Ways to Let Them Laugh

by Jolene Jaquays and Sara Okello
Incorporating humor in the ELT classroom can empower students to overcome frustration and develop their language. 

Humor is crucial in learning and understanding a second language. Students often feel frustrated with learning new grammar or vocabulary and incorporating these items in their language use. Incorporating humor in the classroom can empower students to overcome their frustration and develop the syntax and semantics of a language (Berwald, 1992).

At the TESOL convention in Baltimore in April 2016, we presented a teaching tip entitled “Going Beyond the Borders of Language With Humor.” This teaching tip described humorous activities that can enliven the classroom and motivate students to learn, several of which are included in the new TESOL Press book, New Ways in Teaching with Humor (John Rucynski, editor). Here, we’ll share with you how to use humorous pictures, family tree construction, and commercials and videos in your English language classroom.

1. Picture Activities

Pictures can be a powerful medium to help students describe experiences because pictures represent people, places, and things (Wright, 1989). One way to incorporate pictures in the class is through humorous advertisements that contain cultural and pragmatic information; these are “an interesting way to teach language and culture to students of all levels of instruction” (Deneire, 1995, p. 93). In fact, using pictures that are strange, funny, or contain people help students to remember the image better (Bond, 2011).

Writing Prompts

Picture activities that can be used in class include writing and speaking prompts, “Caption This!”, cause and effect, and “What’s wrong/unusual with this picture?” In these picture activities, students describe photos or advertisements that are humorous, are unusual, or have people in them (see Appendix 1 [.docx]). These picture activities enable students to utilize target vocabulary or grammar points to communicate a humorous, meaningful message.

Family Tree

Another activity that incorporates the use of pictures is the family tree. To introduce the vocabulary of family, a teacher can “build” a family tree right before the students’ eyes using magazine pictures that are put on the board or wall. Begin with a picture of the central character and write a name such as Mary. After introducing Mary, introduce various siblings, parents, cousins, and so on. After each family member is added to the tree, ask simple questions such as, “Who is Mary’s husband?” “How many children do Mary and Mark have?” The humor comes from the chosen pictures—pictures of unusual-looking and/or famous people. The students think it is funny to see, for example, Michael Jackson marry Miley Cyrus, or for Popeye to be given the name of a male teacher in the department (see Appendix 2 [.docx]).

2. Using Humorous Commercials

Using verbal humor in second language classrooms offers opportunities for students to increase their linguistic and cultural knowledge by observing and participating in humorous exchanges (Ziyaeemehr & Kumar, 2014). In this next activity, students watch humor in commercials, which creates a lighthearted environment, while examining the cause-effect relationship between the events in the commercials using the necessary grammar and vocabulary.

To introduce or review the basic concept of cause-effect and the words used (e.g., because, due to, since, as a result), we like to use the humorous series of commercials created by DirecTV. The cause-effect episodes present examples of logically false slippery slopes. Begin by previewing vocabulary in the video (See Appendix 3 [.docx]). Show students a DirecTV commercial while students complete a cause-and-effect chart (See Appendix 4 [.docx]), and discuss how one event leads to the next. Show another clip; then repeat the process. Next, students work with a partner and create their own example of slippery slope. For example:

Completed homework → doorbell rang, so left paper on table → cat jumped on table and pushed paper off table → assignment fell into dog’s food bowl → dog ate homework → no homework to turn in.

Another humorous commercial is the “Chef Boyardee Whole Grain Beefaroni” commercial about body language. In this commercial, the parents have a whole conversation without saying a word, just through using gestures and facial expressions, trying to keep a secret from their daughter; a hilarious nonverbal conversation results. This commercial can be used to show students how body language can be used effectively in a conversation.

Read this and other ELT lessons and activities using humor in New Ways in Teaching with Humor, new from TESOL Press

3. Using Humorous Videos

The final activity for incorporating humor in the classroom uses funny videos, such as the “I Love Lucy” video where Lucy tries to teach Ricky how to pronounce the “-ough” sound in various words as he is reading a children’s story (available on YouTube). Ricky encounters the words bough, rough, through, and cough and does not understand the English pronunciation system, which does not have consistent sound-letter correspondence. This funny video can be used to lead into a lesson on the pronunciation of difficult letter groups.

Another humorous video clip is “Phoebe’s Smaller Bag” from the TV series Friends. The teacher can ask students what types of items they carry in their bags or backpacks to practice using the indefinite articles a and an. Then when the clip is played, the students can identify the items in her bag using the correct article.

Cat videos are always entertaining to watch and can provide practice in the language classroom. This funny cat video compilation can provide practice for prepositional phrases. For example, you can ask the students, “Where is the cat?” Answers include on the carpet, in the bathtub, next to the alligator, in the bucket, and so on.

A great resource for videos that can be used in class is the America’s Funniest Home Videos You Tube channel. There are a variety of videos on this website that include categories such as Best Dog Videos, All Time Cutest, and Funniest Fails. A good future-tense activity using the “Funniest Fails” videos involves showing the first part of the video and then pausing and asking your students what they think will happen next. For another activity, you can show a video and ask the students, “What is happening?” to practice present progressive. You can also talk about American humor and ask students if they think the video is funny and why it is funny.

These humorous activities require minimal preparation time but enliven the classroom and motivate students to learn. The activities can lower students’ affective filter and increase their language learning. Using humor in the classroom transforms language learning from a sometimes tedious, monotonous exercise to an enjoyable, engaging enterprise.


Bell, N. (2005). Exploring L2 language play as an aid to SLL: A case study of humor in NS–NNS interaction. Applied Linguistics, 26(2), 192–218.

Berwald, J. (1992). Teaching French language and culture by means of humor. The French Review, 66, 189–200.

Bond, A. (2011). Photos with strange or funny images deemed most memorable. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/haunting-scenes/
Deneire, M. (1995). Humor and foreign language teaching. Humor, 8, 285–298.

Wright, A. (1989). Pictures for language learning. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Ziyaeemehr, A., & Kumar, V. (2014). The role of verbal humor in second language education. International Journal of Research Studies in Education, 3(2), 3–13.


Jolene Jaquays has been a teacher in the English Language Program at UM-Flint since 2011. She completed both her MA in TESOL and her BS in education at Central Michigan University. Her 30-year teaching repertoire includes teaching English, ESL, and Spanish to preschool through graduate-level students. She is the new president of MITESOL, an affiliate of TESOL.

Sara Okello, English Language Program Instructor at Maryville College (Tennessee), has taught in China, Korea, and France as well as in the United States, most recently at the University of Michigan-Flint. She received her BA in English education from Cedarville University and her MA in TESOL from Eastern Michigan University. She has presented at both the Michigan and TESOL International Association conferences.

True Grit: Tips for Turning Tragedies Into Triumphs

by Natalia de Cuba Romero and Ashley Fifer
Understanding the language of crisis can be of critical importance to your ELLs' safety. Learn how to turn tragedy into language and content learning. 

With one student dead, many others displaced, and our campus converted into a FEMA shelter for Nassau County, Superstorm Sandy in the fall of 2012 left both students and faculty of our intensive English program—Language Immersion at Nassau Community College (LINCC)—devastated and traumatized.

As our community of 250 students and 16 faculty and staff returned to classes, we knew we couldn’t simply pick up where we’d left off as if nothing had happened. There was serious shock among our students, many of whom had come to the United States thinking that such disasters didn’t happen here. They were rattled. We also realized that understanding the language of storm preparation and crisis is of critical importance to their safety. It was time to transform tragedy into important language and content learning.

Choosing Content

We created a thematic unit that would be rich in vocabulary, grammatical structures, and highly pragmatic content. We decided we needed to address the following:

  • Storm preparation (for predictable events such as hurricanes. Hurricanes are particularly common in the fall in our area; your area may be prone to flooding or fires or blizzards)
  • Emergency preparedness (for unexpected events such as earthquakes)
  • Emergency responses (in the case of active shooters, for example)
  • Accessing reliable information
  • Expressing and processing emotional reactions to disasters
  • Recovering from disaster (including ways to volunteer or make donations)

Remain Focused on Linguistic Objectives

While emotions were running high and content seemed to be of the utmost importance, we recognized that our primary role in the lives of our students—high school and college graduates who are polishing their academic English in order to enter our community college as freshmen—is as assistants to language acquisition. So for each content area, we were careful to embed linguistic objectives. Here are some successful pairings of content and language goals for storm preparation:

  • Target vocabulary leveled to the students (e.g., natural disaster, hurricane/typhoon/cyclone, aftermath, resilience, recovery, meteorology)
  • Making questions
  • Reading for information
  • “Do-aux” (making lists of the “dos and don’ts” of emergency preparedness)
  • Reinforcement of modals (refining understanding of should [suggestion] versus must [official] and had better [warning])

A Prestorm Activity: Step-by-Step

We then adapted a variety of free media resources to serve both the content and linguistic goals. The following is a step-by-step example of a prestorm activity.

  1. Locate short articles in the local press, USA Today, or The Weather Channel that contain the target vocabulary. Choose one to use and adapt it to the level of your students.
  2. Elicit prior knowledge of storms and weather-related vocabulary (engagement and discussion).
  3. Ask for predictions based on the headline (encourage active reading).
  4. Have the students create questions that they want answered by the article (this can be a group exercise on the board that practices making questions).
  5. Read the article individually or as a group and then review: Were the questions answered?
  6. Listen to a weather report (broadcast at regular intervals on radio or online) as a class, and have students listen for new vocabulary and to compare and contrast with reading (listening, vocabulary reinforcement).
  7. Decide how to prepare for a storm. In groups, students prepare lists using “do” and “don’t” or modals, or the imperative, as appropriate (group work, writing, focused grammar practice).
  8. Allow students to compare their final lists to those of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), especially their kid’s guide, or contact your local legislator for extra copies of the preparedness guides they send to their constituents—an invaluable tool they usually give out for free (comparative analysis, critical reading, reading for information).
  9. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website is rich in storm-tracking information, and the Storm Ready section contains storm-prep recommendations; it makes important distinctions between storm warning and storm watch, for example.
  10. Extension activities: A wrap-up writing assignment could be how students can better prepare for a storm using modals and do/don’t or a past storm experience using past tenses, and so on. A science teacher might use this as a jumping off point to teach weather patterns. Groups can also prepare presentations or posters on storm readiness.

Other Considerations

Prepare for the Unexpected

The previous lessons serve in the case of relatively predictable events. However, other events are less predictable. Man-made tragedies such as school shootings may be unexpected, but you can also prepare older students for them.

  • What are your school, district, or campus policies on lockdown or lockout? Have students review these, identifying target vocabulary.
  • Are your students signed up to the emergency alert system, if you have one? Here is a perfect opportunity to practice following written instructions.
  • Invite the school’s public safety official to your classroom for a Q&A session about safety procedures. Students practice making and asking questions. They may also take notes and then produce a summary.

How Does It Fit Other Content?

These issues also provide opportunities to see the constitution in action. The Second
Amendment is all over the news, and at no time more than when there is a random shooting. From investigating the Bill of Rights to staging debates on gun control, you can use these situations to make civics real.

Honoring the Emotional Impact

“By giving hope for the future and providing order, structure and a sense of normalcy, education can help to mitigate the psychosocial effects of conflict, disaster and displacement” (UNESCO, 2010).

Whether the crisis is natural or man-made, the ESOL instructor should be prepared to help students process their experiences. After a major event, students want to talk, and in light of our Superstorm Sandy experience and a lockdown incident involving a shooting in the vicinity of the college, we recommend letting them, perhaps in small groups. We use freewriting or journals to allow them to share their impressions and the impact events have had on them.

Given the frequency of shootings and terrorist attacks of all natures lately and the fact that many of them involve marginalized populations or school settings, it is important to give students experience in discussing the issues in an academic environment. So we get back to more formal structures, eliciting vocabulary they had learned in class and later heard during the crisis or words they learned as events unfolded. We also take articles and radio segments and adapt them for the students (Sandy’s impact on the next election was one).

And we also focused on taking positive action.

Giving Back

In the aftermath (there is that word again!) students in our program donated money, foodstuffs, and clothing, and—because our campus became a shelter—they became important translators for emergency workers on the ground.

When to Get Additional Help

Finally, it is important for classroom teachers to recognize when students are traumatized by the events. We brought a psychological counselor from the campus to provide grief counseling to the class whose classmate died during the storm. We helped students identify agencies that could help them. And we made sure we could identify the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and refer students as needed. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America is one place to start.

Working with your students to help them cope with trauma and disaster will pay rich dividends in their learning and their lives.


UNESCO (2010). Nine reasons to provide education during and after conflicts and disasters. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/unesco/themes/pcpd/education-in-emergencies/nine-reasons/

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Natalia de Cuba Romero has been an ESOL lecturer at Language Immersion at Nassau Community College (LINCC) since 2007. She is a past recipient of a TESOL Professional Development Travel Grant for Practicing ESL/EFL Teachers. She has presented at multiple local, state, and national TESOL conventions both in the continental United States and internationally. She recently presented “True Grit” and three other presentations at the 50th TESOL International Convention in Baltimore with coauthor Ashley Fifer. A food and wine writer in her other life, de Cuba presented “Leather, Slate, Cat Pee: Deconstructing and Using the Oddly Flavored Language of Wine Tasting” at the International Linguistic Association Annual Conference at Hofstra University in March 2016.

Ashley Fifer holds master's degrees in both Spanish and TESOL from New York University.  She has taught in the City University of New York CLIP program at Bronx Community College and currently is an ESOL lecturer in the LINCC (Language Immersion) Program at Nassau Community College, where she has been for 9 years. Fifer is currently the vice president of membership for NYS TESOL.  She has published for Idiom, and has presented at multiple local, state, and national TESOL conventions both in the continental United States and internationally. She recently presented “True Grit” along with three other presentations at the 50th TESOL International Convention in Baltimore with coauthor Natalia de Cuba Romero.