TESOL Connections

Quick Tip: Supercharging the Start of Online Classes in the New Year

by Philip Rice

With the fluctuating virulence of COVID-19 and its many variants, many teachers around the world have found themselves transitioning, once again, to teaching online. How do educators engage more students in English during their online classes? Learn a quick and easy way to take a routine, mundane activity and turn it into an exciting language learning activity for your learners. 

A screen of black squares. Silence. Back pain from sitting too long. Silence. Shoddy internet connections interfering with presentations. Silence. Unmuting the mic for the millionth time. More silence.

With the emergence of the Omicron variant around the world, more and more teachers who have been transitioning back into the classroom this fall may have to transition back into the online learning environment for the new year.

This presents the challenge that haunted many of us throughout our pandemic teaching experience: How do we as teachers engage more students in English during our classes?

In pondering this question throughout the pandemic, I asked myself, “Why don’t I take something that is required and mundane and make it a language learning activity?”

Roll call is something most of us have to do, but replacing your normal roll call with the following activity can be an exciting way to engage students right from the start.

Here is how it works:

  • Find an interesting topic on Conversation Starters World or on your own. I like to use some of the following, starting with easy topics and gradually shifting to more personal or complex ones:

    • What is your favorite color?
    • What is your favorite food?
    • What kind of movies do you like?
    • Who is your role model in life?  
    • If you could learn a language other than English, what would it be and why?
    • If you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?
    • If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be and why?
  • Post the question in the Zoom chat or paste it onto the Whiteboard.

  • For a more interesting element, ask students to find a picture to demonstrate the answer.

  • Send students to breakout rooms for a set amount of time (depending on the topic) and emphasize that students must use the whole time to discuss in English.

  • Instruct students on using follow-up questions to fill the time allotted for the breakout room. For example, if students are describing where they want to travel in the future, a follow-up question might be, “Would you travel alone or with friends?” or “When would you travel there?”

  • Students return to the main classroom, and you call roll by using the question (e.g., “Jing, what is your favorite color?”). Ask follow-up questions if you’d like.

  • Continue until all students’ names have been called.

This type of engagement in the beginning of each class accomplishes many goals for you as a language teacher:

  • Students are immediately engaged in inquiry: If at the outset of every class, students know that they must engage their minds, they will be more focused and begin to know that this class expects more than passive participation.

  • Students are asked to speak in English very quickly: By putting the ball immediately in the students’ court, you’re compelling them to get their English “muscles” moving early in the class, acting as a helpful warm-up for later activities.

  • These activities can be modified to suit course goals: If you have been instructing students on, for example, how to use relative clauses, the question could be focused in that direction in order to produce context-rich practice.

  • The spotlight is shifted: Because the students must immediately speak to each other and you, the class becomes student focused and learner centered. Student lives, interests, hobbies, and concerns become a focus in the class, which leads to greater student self-esteem and buy in.

As we look to this new year with both excitement and uncertainty, we know that engaging our students will always be at the forefront of our minds. By starting our classes with inquiry, discussion, and sharing, we can build a more engaged, inclusive and dynamic classroom.

Shared screens. Students sharing experiences. Breakout room discussions. Learning about students. Seeing new places. Speaking more English. No more silence.

Philip Rice is an assistant professor at the English Language Institute of the University of Delaware. He enjoys learning new technology for use in the language classroom, has created an ESL website for teachers and students, and has taught abroad in Liberia, West Africa. He has presented numerous times at TESOL, English USA, and other professional conferences.

TESOL Board Connect: Looking Back to Move Opportunities Forward

by Ayanna Cooper

TESOL Board Member Ayanna Cooper shares some "fun facts" about her experiences growing up and how they helped her on her journey to becoming an English language educator, an author, a civil rights activist, and a leader in TESOL. 

This year marks my second term as a TESOL Board Member. I can remember the call as if it were yesterday that I was elected. Serving during a pandemic has been nothing like what I expected or could have prepared for. The old saying and song lyric “the show must go on,” could not ring more true for me. Despite setbacks, viruses, Zoom fatigue, shutdowns, and social distancing, TESOL the association is still standing, as it should be. What I can attest to is the work we have done—but there’s still so much left to do. In the spirit of the Akan Twi and Fante languages, the word sankofa means “looking back to your roots in order to move forward.” The Sankofa is a mythical bird who can fly forward while looking back, all while holding an egg that represents the future.

This article is an opportunity for me to look backwards while thinking about the future. The following less commonly known fun facts about me are ones that I’ve drawn from over the years as an educator, author, and civil rights activist in order to serve the organization and its members to the best of my ability.

  • At age 5, I played Rosa Parks in school play. I remember it being an important role. It was one of my earliest memories of learning about racism, power, and privilege.

  • I was a Girl Scout, for a short time, but also played one in two commercials. I still remember my lines.

  • I conducted my first dual language program model audit in eighth grade. Informally, of course, but I remember thinking critically about what my Haitian French-speaking classmates were doing in French class. How come I didn’t know they were bilingual? How come they didn’t teach us French?

  • I staged a small protest in high school against historic fugitive slave posters that were hung up during Black History Month.

  • During my yearlong student teaching experience in college, I created and taught a civil rights curriculum for elementary students. I still have some artifacts.

  • I performed as part of a belly dance troupe.

  • I have always taught multilingual students but didn’t learn until years later that TESOL was the best specialization ever.

Those experiences and countless others have contributed to my commitment to serve and advocate for racial, linguistic, and authentic diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yes, even belly dancing! You’d think that, by being in uncomfortable positions more than once, it would get easier. Not for me—discomfort has become something I expect and hope to keep pushing for. Not uncomfortable to the point of immobilization, but rather having the courage to keep improving during especially challenging times.

Ayanna in Preschool, Circa 1970s.

My hopes for the future include supporting authentic initiatives that create more inclusive opportunities for groups and individuals who have not been included regularly and who have been, inadvertently or not, overlooked. Clearly, we are doing the work! Research initiatives, publications, presentations, and the like need to be revamped equitably to reflect the raciolinguistic diversity of the field. Optics matter! Culturally responsive pedagogy affirms the need for students to see themselves reflected in what they are being taught.

The same holds true for professionals: We must see and have our contributions included, widely shared, and acknowledged. One of my recent projects includes supporting and working alongside school leaders who are creating learning opportunities for students to reclaim their native language. How exciting and thought-provoking is that? I also have the opportunity to support preservice educators (who may or may not become language teachers) who have an undeniable commitment to justice and liberation in their classrooms and beyond.

The future generation of TESOLers will inevitably be made up of those who, like myself, entered the profession through nontraditional routes. Let’s be sure to look back and see who might be missing. Let’s extend a hand and invite them to be part of one of the most diverse international language associations, TESOL International Association.

This year, 4 February marks what would have been the 109th birthday of Rosa Parks. Her words and actions still serve as more than a reminder: “You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right.” TESOL the association must commit to and continue to do what is right for its members and for the profession as a whole. Looking back while preparing for a brighter future is imperative if we are going to live by our mission and values as “professionals advancing the quality of English language teaching through professional development, research, standards, and advocacy.”

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Ayanna Cooper, EdD, is a consultant, U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist alumna and current TESOL Board Member. She is the author of several publications, including And Justice for ELs: A Leader’s Guide to Creating and Sustaining Equitable Schools, Black Immigrants in the United States (coedited with Ibrahim), and serves as Language Magazine’s Pass the Mic series editor.

3 Assessment Probes for ELs in the Content Classroom

by Scott E. Grapin
"No help" assessment doesn't always tell the whole story. Try these approaches to better understand your ELs' skills and knowledge. 

When it comes to assessment, teachers can be hesitant to give assistance to their students. In some instances, a “no help” approach makes sense. The goal of any assessment is to determine what students know and can do, and when a student completes an assessment on their own, this tells us what knowledge and skills the student has already developed. But a “no help” approach doesn’t tell the whole story. Specifically, it tells us little about the knowledge and skills that a student is still in the process of developing but hasn’t yet fully developed (Poehner, 2008).

Adopting a “no help” approach can therefore be problematic with English learners (ELs) in content classrooms (e.g., science, math, social studies), who are in the process of developing both their content and English language proficiency. In these contexts, ELs may be able to demonstrate their learning more fully when provided some assistance than would be evident from their independent performance alone.

In this article, I share three classroom-tested assessment probes that can help you get a more complete picture of what your ELs know and can do in the content classroom.* Specifically, these assessment probes enable you to clarify and dig deeper into ELs’ developing ideas and language toward the goal of uncovering both their content and English language learning. After introducing each probe, I illustrate how the probes work together in an assessment moment from an elementary science classroom.

3 Types of Assessment Probes

Each type of assessment probe serves a different purpose with ELs in the content classroom.

Table. Types of Assessment Probes

Type of Probe



Targeted probes

Target specific concepts or ideas being taught in a lesson

  • How does the animal get its energy?
  • Why are you using multiplication?
  • How does a government ensure balance of power?

Open-ended probes

Invite ELs to elaborate on their ideas using language and other meaning-making resources (e.g., gesture)

  • What do you mean?
  • Show me what that looks like.
  • Can you say it again?

Explicitness probes

Clarify ELs’ intended meaning when a lack of explicitness prevents them from communicating their ideas

  • What’s “it”?
  • What does “them” refer to?
  • Which do you mean?

Whereas targeted probes are discipline specific (i.e., tailored to content concepts/ideas at a particular grade level), open-ended probes and explicitness probes apply to multiple content areas and grade levels (similar to some talk moves). What the three probes have in common is that they are intended to be used contingently by teachers—in other words, in response to ELs’ needs as those needs arise in moment-to-moment interaction. This means that using the assessment probes is as much about listening carefully to ELs as it is about responding to them.

Snapshot From a Fifth-Grade Science Classroom

In this assessment moment from a fifth-grade science classroom (see the NYU SAIL Research Lab for a full science curriculum for ELs), Mariana, an EL, was responding to a question posed by her teacher, Mr. Winter: “How is energy transferred into and through the ecosystem to the tiger salamander?” Prior to this moment, Mariana and her classmates had developed a model to represent a key science idea in fifth grade: Energy transfers from the sun to plants (tree) to animals that eat plants (earthworm) to animals that eat those animals (tiger salamander).

The left side of the following chart shows Mariana’s independent performance, in other words, what she was able to express on her own. The right side of the chart shows Mariana’s assisted performance, in other words, what she was able to do with assistance from Mr. Winter. As we will see, Mr. Winter used all three assessment probes (targeted, open-ended, explicitness) to clarify and dig deeper into Mariana’s developing science ideas and language.

Independent Performance

Assisted Performance

Mr. Winter: How is energy transferred into and through the ecosystem to the tiger salamander?

Mariana: Um, like the movement? Like the movement of the…in the whole model?

Mr. Winter: So, where does the energy start?

Mariana: Here [points to sun in her model]. Then, the movement.

Mr. Winter: What do you mean by “movement”?

Mariana: That, like, it’s moving. The sun gives energy to that [points to tree in her model].

Mr. Winter: What’s moving?

Mariana: The energy, it’s to each…to the red oak. And then it just, like, shares the energy.

Mr. Winter: What do you mean “shares the energy”?

Mariana: Like, it gives it to the earthworm and then tiger salamander.

If Mr. Winter had relied on Mariana’s independent performance alone to assess her science understanding, he would have likely concluded that Mariana had learned very little in science. But through multiple rounds of probing on the part of Mr. Winter and elaboration on the part of Mariana, the two were able to jointly construct the correct path of energy transfer.

Specifically, Mr. Winter used a targeted probe (“So, where does the energy start?”) to focus Mariana on the key science idea and help her begin constructing the path of energy transfer. When Mariana used expressions such as “the movement” and “shares the energy,” Mr. Winter responded with open-ended probes (“What do you mean by ‘movement’?” and “What do you mean ‘shares the energy’?”) to dig deeper into her developing ideas. And when Mariana used a pronoun without a clear referent (“it’s moving”), Mr. Winter responded contingently with an explicitness probe (“What’s moving?”) to clarify her intended meaning.

Overall, Mariana’s independent performance told much less than the whole story of what she had learned, and it was only with some assistance from Mr. Winter that Mariana’s developing science ideas and language were revealed. Through careful listening and persistent probing, Mr. Winter uncovered the science in Mariana’s emerging efforts to express her ideas through multiple modalities of communication (saying “gives energy to that” while gesturing at the tree in her model) and everyday language (“shares the energy,” which was an especially creative take on the predatory behavior of animals eating each other!). Having uncovered that Mariana indeed understood the targeted science idea, Mr. Winter might have followed up with Mariana by revoicing her explanation to demonstrate the more conventional way of expressing the idea (e.g., “So, it sounds like you’re saying that the tree gives energy to…”).


Alexei Leont’ev, a lesser known colleague of Lev Vygotsky of scaffolding fame, wrote that the purpose of assessment should be not just “to discover how the child came to be what he is but how he can become what he is not yet” (as cited in Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 40). In the content classroom, assessment probes can help ELs become what they are not yet in terms of both their content and English language learning.

Though a “no help” approach to assessment may be necessary at times, given constraints on time and resources, this approach risks missing the knowledge and skills that ELs are still developing but have not yet fully developed. By using the three assessment probes in tandem to clarify and dig deeper into ELs’ ideas, teachers can get a more complete picture of what their ELs can do in the present as well as what they will be able to do tomorrow given sufficient support today.

*The empirical research study on which this article is based is Grapin, S. E., & Llosa, L. (2021). Dynamic assessment of English learners in the content areas: An exploratory study in fifth-grade science. TESOL Quarterly. Advance online publication.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979).The ecology of human development. Cambridge University Press.

Poehner, M. E. (2008). Dynamic assessment: A Vygotskian approach to understanding and promoting second language development. Springer.

Download this article (PDF)

Scott E. Grapin is an assistant professor of language, literacy, and learning at the University of Miami. His research focuses on the equitable teaching and assessment of English learners in K–12 education, particularly in their content-area classes. Scott began his career as a high school ESL and Spanish teacher.

Adult Learners in SLW (Part 1): Content-Based Instruction

by Rebeca Fernández
This step-by-step guide will help adult ESL teachers design theme-based courses for CBI while improving language skills. 

In the digital age, writing has become a routine aspect of social, educational, and workplace communications. Consider a call center worker or the attendant at a car repair shop, whose job can entail reporting on conversations with customers or describing repair work, respectively, into a computer database. For the individual pursuing a job requiring a 4-year degree, the rhetorical demands and amount of writing are even greater (Droz & Jacobs, 2019). Yet, for several years, the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (2021) Job Outlook 2022 survey of employers has pointed to the gap between employers’ expectations and the proficiency in communication skills, including writing, of recent college graduates.

Writing is especially important to immigrant and refugee students, who require it, along with other English literacy skills, to pursue further education and achieve economic self-sufficiency in their new country. In the adult English as a second language (ESL)/English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) programs that serve them, a focus on writing can support multiple language skills and modes (Fernandez, 2019) while also facilitating content learning (Manchón, 2011).

Content-Based Instruction in Adult Education

Content-based instruction (CBI) is a pedagogical approach to second language teaching characterized by the following (Brinton et al., 2003):

  1. Language is learned as part of a content area course, unit, or lesson.

  2. The sequence and form of language learning are dictated by the content.

  3. The content is determined by the academic needs and interests of the learners.

  4. Learning builds on learners’ knowledge, language, and previous learning experiences.

Many non-credit-bearing adult education program courses rely on some variation of CBI. Although CBI courses often focus on unpacking class readings or lecture material, such courses are also rife with robust opportunities for writing (Brinton & Griner, 2019) that teachers may overlook without quality professional development on the teaching of writing (Fernández et al. 2017).

The following will provide adult ESL instructors with a step-by-step guide for designing theme-based courses for CBI that expand opportunities for students to write for different audiences and purposes, while improving their vocabulary, grammar, speaking, listening, and reading skills. It features an example of a theme-based CBI course I taught in collaboration with a local history museum and funded through the English Literacy and Civics (EL/Civics) grant program.

A Quick Guide to Designing a Writing-Centered Content-Based Instruction Course

Before delving into design, instructors should know that CBI course development is often iterative and not set in stone. A general roadmap for teaching and learning is helpful in the beginning, but components of the course, especially writing tasks and assignments, may have to be modified or added to address student needs and interests as they arise. The following questions, though not necessarily in this order, can help in the early planning stage (adapted from Brinton et al., 2003):

  • What are the goals for and expected outcomes of this specific program or course?

  • What approach/model/format will you use?

  • Who are the learners, and what are their needs and interests, now and in the future?

  • What authentic materials can you find and use?

  • What instructional strategies will you use?

  • How will you know that course goals are being achieved?

1. Set Student-Centered Goals, Whenever Possible

Course topics and goals in U.S. federally funded adult ESL programs are often created in response to local workforce development needs, assessment targets, and funding requirements. Although these constraints limit the setting of student-centered goals in the early stages of planning, adding general writing goals under communication skills may help set the tone for writing among students.

    Real-Life Example

    The goals of the CBI course featured in this article, known colloquially as the “museum course,” were initially established by my supervisor, the Adult ESL Program director, who was inspired by Columbia Teachers’ College Museum Education courses. In her grant application, she persuasively argued for the alignment of EL/Civics objectives and the knowledge of local history, community integration, and increased parental involvement that students could achieve by partnering with the Levine Museum of the New South, a local history museum and field trip destination for the area’s public school students. This rationale became the basis for the initial course goals. In addition, because students had to demonstrate progress on the CASAS reading test, the writing goals could be justified from the beginning.

    2. Create a Tentative Framework in Advance

    A CBI syllabus may be approached in several ways, depending on whether the course is adjoined or stand-alone. If paired with a credit-bearing content course, the CBI course may follow that course’s syllabus structure and weekly assignments to help students meet that course’s objectives. An autonomous, theme-based CBI course may afford instructors greater flexibility. Syllabi may be organized around essential questions or topics centered on a common theme and/or a chronology of events. Language skills and content knowledge can then be shaped by the materials available, as discussed in the next section.

      Real-Life Example

      I designed the museum course around the Levine Museum of the New South’s permanent exhibit, which documents the history of the region since the Civil War through a series of dioramas, each the title of a unit theme. To enhance opportunities to write, each unit included

      • a warm-up writing activity (sometimes done collaboratively or used in a think-pair-share activity afterwards),
      • an authentic reading sample,

      • focus-on-form work,

      • discussion topics,

      • an extended writing prompt, and

      • practice CASAS test questions (see Table 1).

      Table 1. Sample Syllabus Framework and Unit From the Museum Course

      Click here to enlarge.

      3. Take Advantage of Digital Tools to Select and Modify Authentic Materials

      Authentic materials allow adult ESL students, who are often isolated by language and other social barriers, to interact with real-world discourses in meaningful ways (Roberts & Cooke, 2009). In the writing-enhanced CBI classroom, authentic materials accessed on the internet can become the basis for rich conversations and a springboard to writing, provided they are scaffolded sufficiently for students. With the help of digital tools, hyperlinking, glossing, translating, or adding images can make materials more accessible and support the learning of unfamiliar words.

      Authentic texts (e.g., readings, films, podcasts) do not have to be used in their entirety. A podcast clip can be turned into a meaningful dictation activity, used to generate discussion and, for more advanced students, as the basis for extended writing. Students at all levels can also practice writing skills by captioning videos, memes, or other visual material.

        Real-Life Example

        In the museum course, images and excerpts of archival documents worked well as authentic materials. Students at all levels could describe historical photographs, however simply, and empathize in writing with the humble lives of sharecroppers laboring to support their families under harsh conditions.

        4. Design Writing Tasks According to Students’ Learning Needs and Interests

        Although there are six educational functioning levels in adult ESL (National Reporting System, 2019), most classes are multilevel, even when students enrolled perform similarly on the placement test. Assessing students informally by asking them to complete a personal writing task at the start of the course can assist you in setting individual writing goals for students and planning appropriate writing tasks and activities. Table 2, compiled from data in a national survey of adult ESL teachers (Fernández et al., 2017), may also provide a useful comparison.

        Table 2. Writing Focus of Adult ESL Instructors by Educational Functioning Level With Related Genres and Sample Activities (Adapted from Fernández et al., 2017)

        Click here to enlarge.

          Real-Life Example

          Designed for Levels 3 and 4, the museum course’s writing tasks tended to produce student texts from a few sentences to two-thirds of a page in length. I used readings, graphic organizers, and sentence templates to support students at different levels with the tasks. Assignments were also modified and enriched as students shared their rich funds of knowledge. For instance, during a discussion about a reading passage about traditional cotton farming, a group of students who had woven cotton thread from a young age described the cotton-to-cloth process to the class, prompting me to modify the writing assignment so that students could apply new vocabulary (e.g., bud, blossom, boll), demonstrate their content expertise, and expand their language skills.

          5. Assess Student Progress and Course Goals Through Writing

          Writing can allow you to gauge and document student progress toward their personal and course goals in ways that are more individualized than standardized listening or reading tests and avoid the time-induced anxiety of speaking tests. For CBI writing tasks to align to course goals, you will need to elicit more than personal writing throughout the course.

          As with the sample unit in Table 1, you may ask students for personal writing as a lesson warm-up or to make sense of new information. A quick glance at students’ informal writing at the start of a unit or student comments in a collaborative annotation platform, such as NowComment, can act as a formative guide for subsequent reading and language instruction. As the class progresses into the unit theme, asking students to refer to readings or discussions in extended writing can help you determine whether progress toward content and language objectives is being made.

          To support learning, these longer drafts will require more attention. Ferris (2019) lists best practices for responding to student work, among them, meeting individually with students to focus on priority areas, such as content and organization. With respect to language, identifying unclear passages may be the most efficient approach in the first draft (Campbell et al., 2020). During 2- to 3-hour adult ESL classes, you may use class time to read drafts and hold writing conferences, ideally in a computer lab; because not all students compose or keyboard at the same rate, you’ll have time to work on meetings with all students.


          Writing-enhanced CBI tacitly acknowledges that students benefit from participating in multiple forms of writing. From consolidating word knowledge by handwriting notes from the board, to practicing listening comprehension through dictation exercises, to developing rhetorical knowledge by writing paragraphs and essays, writing can be as much an act of the mind as it is of communication. It can support deep learning of content and language as well as create a space for students to gather their thoughts, find community, and advance in their employment or educational goals.

          The next two parts of this series on adult learners in second language writing explore other ways that adult ESL/ESOL instructors can incorporate more writing into their courses. In Part 2, Joy Kreeft Peyton offers strategies for stimulating and scaffolding student writing at multiple levels. Part 3 by Kirsten Schaetzel addresses concerns about writing and assessment by guiding instructors on the use of test prompts to teach academic writing.


          Brinton, D.,& Griner, B. (2019). Building pathways for writing development in the content areas. In K. Schaetzel, J. K. Peyton, & R. Fernandez (Eds.), Preparing adult English learners to write for college and the workplace (pp. 66–89). University of Michigan Press.

          Brinton, D. M., Snow, M. A., & Wesche, M. (2003). Content-based language instruction. University of Michigan Press.

          Campbell, S., Fernandez, R., & Koo, K. (2020). Artifacts and their agents. In A. Frost, S. B. Malley, & J. Kiernan (Eds.), Translingual dispositions (pp. 33-62). WAC Clearinghouse. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/translingual/chapter2.pdf

          Droz, P. W., & Jacobs, L. S. (2019). Genre chameleon: Email, professional writing curriculum, and workplace writing expectations. Technical Communication, 66(1), 68–92.

          Fernández, R. (2019). Writing as a basis for reading, and so much more. In K. Schaetzel, J. K. Peyton, & R. Fernandez (Eds.), Preparing adult English learners to write for college and the workplace (pp. 23–51). University of Michigan Press.

          Fernandez, R., Peyton, J. K., & Schaetzel, K. (2017, August). A survey of writing instruction in adult ESL programs: Are teaching practices meeting adult learner needs? Journal of Research and Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary, and Basic Education, 6(2), 5–20. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55a158b4e4b0796a90f7c371/t/

          Ferris, D. (2019). Providing feedback on students’ writing. In K. Schaetzel, J. K. Peyton, & R. Fernandez (Eds.), Preparing adult English learners to write for college and the workplace (pp. 141–161). University of Michigan Press.

          Manchón, R. M. (Ed.). (2011). Learning-to-write and writing-to-learn in an additional language. John Benjamins.

          National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2021, April). Career readiness: Competencies for a career-ready workforce. https://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/career-readiness-defined/

          National Reporting System for Adult Education. (2019, August). Test benchmarks for educational functioning levels. https://nrsweb.org/resources/test-benchmarks-nrs-educational-functioning-levels-efl-updated-august-2019

          Peyton, J. K. (2019). Designing writing assignments: Using interactive writing and graphic organizers. In K. Schaetzel, J. K. Peyton, & R. Fernandez (Eds.), Preparing adult English learners to write for college and the workplace (pp. 94–117). University of Michigan Press

          Roberts, C., & Cooke, M. (2009). Authenticity in the adult ESOL classroom and beyond. TESOL Quarterly, 43(4), 620–642.

          Download this article (PDF)

          Rebeca Fernández is associate professor of Writing and Educational Studies and Multilingual Writing Coordinator at Davidson College in North Carolina, USA. Previously, she taught adult ESL at Central Piedmont Community College, where she developed the museum course featured here. She received a doctorate in language and literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

          Virtual Exchange: Collaborating to Create

          by Margita Vojtkulakova
          Learn about an online exchange in which English learners from the United States and Slovakia collaborated to create a group project. 

          Online language teaching has challenged English language educators to be creative and flexible in what many have found to be a difficult learning environment. Though inferior in many ways, in others, online learning brought about several benefits. The most evident one is the flexibility inherent in online communication—communication at any time and from almost anywhere.

          Drawing upon this benefit, I organized a virtual exchange (VE; see O’Dowd, 2021; Tomaš et al., 2021) that brought together two groups of students: English as a second language learners from Michigan and English as a foreign language learners from Slovakia.

          Together, these two groups of students developed an e-book project that we called “This Is Us” (click here to see the book). According to Lewis & O’Dowd (2016), there are three main types of VEs (also known as online intercultural exchanges):

          1. information exchange tasks

          2. comparison and analysis tasks

          3. collaborative tasks

          For my e-book project, we incorporated both information exchange and collaborative tasks that included writing about ELs’ cultures and countries of origin, writing about their experience living in different countries, and creating the actual e-book. The following approaches guided the project:

          1. Promoting an asset-based view of English learners (ELs) as multilingual and multicultural citizens. The entire project built on an approach through which learners were positioned to be assets to the created collaborating community.

          2. Creating meaningful opportunities to produce multimodal writing, practice descriptive and informative writing, offer peer feedback, and improve editing skills.

          Steps to Develop a Virtual Exchange E-Book Project

          1. Find an International Collaborator

          To initiate a VE project, you’ll need an international partner. In my case, I reached out to an English as a foreign language teacher in Slovakia I knew from my college studies who works with learners of the same age as my students.

          Here are some places where you could find collaborating parties:

          • If you are located in an English as a second language community, reach out to your local English language teacher colleagues. They probably have students from different backgrounds than you have.

          Reach out to someone you think would make a good partner and explain the project, including your preliminary timeline and your goals for your students, to see if they are interested and able to work with you.

          2. Collaborate to Develop the Exchange

          After finding a collaborator, it’s helpful to discuss the interests of the collaborating students, language proficiency, their assets, and the possibility of synchronous meetings. In addition, I recommend discussing what kind of platform you would be using for your VE and how often you would update each other on the project.

          It’s also advantageous to have some concrete ideas for projects that may be engaging and feasible, and to discuss pros and cons of different approaches with your partner(s). You can discuss which of the three main types of VEs may be the best fit for your students and goals, and then brainstorm some potential VE projects.

          Once you have a few solid ideas, you can introduce them to the students and let them choose, or ideally, a project idea comes from the students after mutual introductions. The introduction can be done via a short video or a written bio of the class or of each student (using, e.g., Google Docs, Google Slides, Jamboard, or Padlet).

          3. Create an Invested Online Community

          Regardless of what type of task you choose, be sure to spend some time initially on creating a positive and respectful collaborative community. First, our students got to know each other asynchronously by introducing themselves on Padlet. Then, we had synchronous meetings—in the beginning all together, and after a couple of meetings in breakout rooms. After a few meetings, students felt comfortable working in small international teams on a set of challenges prepared by the teachers. Challenges should offer space for all the team members to contribute (see Challenge 1; Appendix A) and have students build on their assets rather than on their language skills (see Challenge 2; Appendix B).

          4. Guide Students to Create an E-Book

          After brainstorming about what they would like to know about each other, students dove into informative, descriptive, or personal writing based on the questions posed from the collaborating party. They were writing about something that they considered “theirs,” and they had their own background knowledge as an asset to achieve it. In addition, students had in mind that there was an authentic audience—someone who was truly interested in their writing.

          Once they finished the first drafts, students provided feedback to and received feedback from their international peers. At this stage, learners served as assets to each other. As language learners from various learning environments, they had different experiences with English language acquisition. For example, on one hand, whereas Slovak ELs tend to excel in English grammar and spelling because these are often viewed as instructional priorities in that context, they often lack fluency and struggle to use common collocations. On the other hand, Michigan ELs are exposed to English every day and are generally more fluent, but many lack experience in structuring paragraphs, using grammar structures correctly, or spelling accurately.

          Using prompts provided in Google Docs, students provided a compliment (“What do you like about this writing?”) and then a suggestion (“How can the writer make this writing better?”) to their international peers. After addressing the feedback, the process of creating an e-book began. This included students making decisions about pictures, format, and design while developing their creative and collaborative skills. Instead of pointing out mistakes, the focus was on giving students a voice and a feeling of authorship. Students enjoyed practicing these digital skills that contributed to their skillset of global learners.

          Online Tools for Creating an E-Book

          For our e-book, we used Book Creator, which offers a free account for individual users and provides a link, which can easily be shared, for collaboration. Following are a few other resources that can be drawn upon in creating e-books:

          • Google Slides: A template by SlidesMania can be found here. If learners do not have regular access to the internet, the slides can be printed and used as book pages, and then scanned and shared via Google Drive by the project facilitators. Another option is to exchange hard copies of the book.

          • Canva: Canva offers numerous templates for posters, newsletters, infographics, invitations, magazines, and so on.

          • Newlywords: Newlywords is a resource similar to Book Creator. For free, users can collaborate on an e-book and can download their final product in a pdf format.

          Concluding Thoughts

          Once our e-book was finished, students took pride in sharing the final product with their peers, friends, and family. The e-book project was followed up by reflection and continuous international synchronous meetings.

          This international project approached all students through an asset-oriented lens and capitalized on the advantages of virtual learning. Students were engaged in interactive tasks, inter- and intra-cultural discussions, and developing a set of 21st-century skills (global citizenship, creativity, communication). Through this unique virtual collaborative experience, we increased student engagement and positive identity while challenging ourselves as teachers to grow into global educators.


          I would like to express my great thanks to the collaborating Slovak educators Ms. Patrícia Folvarčíková and Ms. Daniela Škurlová from Spojená škola Dominika Tatarku Poprad. My thanks goes to Dr. Najim Ahmed, my colleague at Frontier International Academy in Detroit, who helped facilitate the project. I also want to thank Dr. Zuzana Tomaš for being my mentor in this project and always inspiring me to do more and better as a teacher.


          Lewis, T., & O’Dowd, R. (2016). Introduction to online intercultural exchange and this volume. In R. O’Dowd & T. Lewis (Eds.), Online intercultural exchange: Policy, pedagogy, practice (pp. 3–20). Routledge.

          O’Dowd, R. (2021). Virtual exchange: Moving forward into the next decade. Computer Assisted Language Learning. https://doi.org/10.1080/09588221.2021.1902201

          Tomaš, Z., Vojtkulakova, M., Lehotska, N., & Schottin, M. (2021). Examining the value of online intercultural exchange (OIE) in cultivating agency-focused, (inter)culturally and linguistically responsive pedagogy: A story of one collaborative international project for English learners. Language Arts Journal of Michigan, 36(1), 51–64. https://doi.org/10.9707/2168-149X.2267

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          Margita Vojtkulakova has TESOL graduate credentials from Matej Bel University in Slovakia and Eastern Michigan University in the United States. She is currently working as an ESL teacher at Frontier International Academy in Detroit, Michigan, USA. She is a published author and a frequent presenter at MITESOL and TESOL conferences.