Adapting texts for use in the English language classroom


The other day, Jen Artan was asking me about finding authentic reading material for my class that wasn’t too difficult. The comment was from a blog post I had written about Frequency Level Checker and so I thought it might be a good time to go through my steps in adapting material for my classroom. I know there is a lot of debate about adapting authentic material for the language classroom, but I feel there is a balance here that needs to be maintained between giving texts that are too difficult for students and needing students to be exposed to authentic language in use. I don’t believe that adapting a text has to take away from the authenticity and will make it better for students.

Step one: Copying the text

There are a few options here. If you already have the text in a document, there’s nothing more to do than just select the text and copy it. If you are copying from a website or a paper document, there are few more steps involved.

One of the problems of copying from webpages is the extra text you often end up getting due to a number of factors. To reduce, or even eliminate this, you can use one of the following bookmarklets (each page has instructions on how to install and use the bookmarklet with your browser):

Read Now from Readability: This bookmarklet converts the page you are on into a clean, readable page from which you can easily copy the text. Also works well when you have a page that is hard to read due to too many ads, small text, and other distractions. One of my favourite bookmarklets.

Text Only from Textise: This boomarklet converts the page you are on into a text only page. Unfortunetly, it also leaves all of the image tags and other extraneous bits. The nice thing is that it is plain text, so the formatting is completely stripped away which works well for some difficult pages.

Print Friendly from PrintFriendly and PDF: This bookmarklet makes the page you are on into a printable page and leaves you some formatting options as well. One nice thing is the option to remove the images from the page. You can also click on objects and lines on the page to delete them, allowing you to remove image captions and other header and footer data. You can also make the page into a PDF for printing.

Instapaper Text from Instapaper: This bookmarklet is similar to Read Now.

If your text is on a piece of paper somewhere or on a webpage or PDF that is locked, you can always convert the text into an image and then use OCR to convert to text. Here are some options for converting text:

Office Lens from Microsoft: This is a free mobile app for iOS, Android, and Microsoft Mobile devices. This is my favourite app on my phone. I use it for “scanning” all sorts of things from documents to business cards to rewards and membership cards that take up too much space in my wallet. Once the image is taken, Office Lens automatically crops and adjusts the image for clarity. You can then have the image automatically uploaded to OneNote which will take the image and run OCR to find text which can then be searched and / or copied. This is now my go-to app for documenting things.

OnlineOCR: This is a registration-free online app that converts images into a text file. It can also convert to a formatted Word document, but that doesn’t always works as well. The text is amazingly accurate, even more so than what I’ve found with Adobe Acrobat.

Google Drive: You can upload an image to your Drive account and convert the image to text by opening the image with Google Docs. In the new file, you will find the image at the top with the text down below. It works pretty well, but I find I have to strip away a lot of formatting first.

Step two: Highlighting difficult words

Once you have your text ready, go to Frequency Level Checker and check your text there for vocabulary level. Here are some general tips on usage:

  • Set Level 1 as black and then make all of the other options as red (ie. Level 2, Level 3, Outside Levels, and Symbols). This way you can get a quick visual of how many of the words are outside of the main 1000 words we use in General English. If your text is a sea of red, then it may be a good sign that the text is quite high. Even for a higher level class, a text with a lot of words above the first level may make it too difficult to read fluently.
  • Take a screenshot of the page or keep the page open for reference later on.
  • This is only a guide. Keep in mind that a particular word or phrase may appear multiple times throughout the text making the text look denser than it is.

Step three: Adapting the text

For words or phrases that are outside of the lexical range of my students, there are four options available to me: define, delete, simplify, or leave alone:

  • Define: If I feel the word is important for the student to know (eg. an important word for the story, or a word I think would be important for them to learn at this point), I can create a glossary of sorts for the story. This glossary should not be long, maybe in the 5-7 word range for a news article. I tend to just put the glossary in the story and will highlight the word (eg. make it bold). I may do something before the student starts reading as a pre-reading exercise, but I don’t find it makes much of a difference and often takes up more time than necessary.
  • Delete: This is a bit trickier since it often means re-writing a section of the story. Often times, I will take out a sentence that has some difficult phrasing if it doesn’t really add much to the story.
  • Simplify: This is what I primarily do to the difficult sections. I find easier ways to say something in order to make the story more readable. I know that there are some who say this takes away from the authentic reading experience, but that would only happen if I end up re-writing a large part of the text. I am only advocating for modifying a small percentage of the document in order to gain some fluency for students. If a text is 85% within the reading ability of my students and I can modify 10%, that makes it much more readable for the students.
  • Leave alone: There is a lot of debate over the ability of students to define words from context. I think there is a balance here and I often look for places where I can leave difficult words in a text knowing that students can make good predictions on meaning based on context and situation. This requires me to take time to think about the word in that context and whether or not there are enough clues to make an inference. Done well, this can be a really positive thing for students.


Here is an article I found in a local free newspaper. The article happens to also be online, so I don’t have to scan it in. “Toronto scientist sharing research in real-time”

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Since there is a lot of images, ads, and other things on the page, I used the Readability bookmarklet to strip all of the extra parts away.

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I then took the text and ran it through Frequency Level Checker, highlighting only the words that weren’t part of Level 1.

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Glossary words:

  • Publish
  • Research
  • Lab
  • Data
  • Online
  • Blog
  • Academic

I chose these words since I’m teaching an EAP course and we are looking at the validity of online research. I would then go and either create definitions or link to the online definitions. I tend to not just use definitions when introducing new vocabulary since it takes the word out of the environment in which it is used. Collocations, variations in form and definition, and so on are all things that affect the meaning of a word and need to be taken into consideration. In this situation, some of the words appear in various forms (eg. research, researcher, researching) and alongside other words (eg. academic research, academic science).

Deleted words / text:

  • Breaking scientific ground
  • Lay language
  • Access
  • Real time
  • Inspire
  • Take note
  • Avoid duplication
  • Huntington Protein
  • Cognitive
  • Physical decline
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Glory
  • Create collaboration
  • Speed up
  • Openness
  • The norm
  • Sustain
  • Tied
  • Incremental breakthroughs
  • Obviously
  • Scooping
  • Super competitive
  • Out-compete

Many of these words were not that important to learn at this point, so I simply took them out. Some of these words could be quite useful to learn, but maybe at a different time. The goal here is fluency and some increase in vocabulary. Having too many new words and phrases takes away from the reason for the reading in the first place.

Learned from context:

  • Biomedical
  • Risk
  • Goal
  • Community

I felt that these words were important enough to leave in, but not really necessary to define. In most situations, if the student is unable to figure out the meaning from context or from using logic to piece it together (eg. Biomedical), then it doesn’t hurt the story. In these circumstances, if these words were simply taken out, the story still makes sense. I’m also making a guess that words like goal will already be known from another situation (eg. sports) and can be easily applied to this situation. This builds on their scaffolding.

The end result:

As researcher Rachel Harding works away in her Toronto lab, she’s doing something that hasn’t normally been done before.

She’s publishing her lab notes and data online along with blogging about her work in a simple way at She’s believed to be the first biomedical researcher to blog about her work as she is working on it rather than waiting for experiments to be completed or their results published.

When other researchers see what’s she’s doing, they can choose to build on it, use it to help their own work or simply make sure they are not doing the same thing as her.

“One of the biggest problems in the way academic science is done is everyone is kind of sitting in their own corner, not really talking too much to each and not sharing with everything,”

“Everything is being duplicated, and it’s the person who gets to the one point where they can publish first who becomes famous.”

The movement toward open access to scientific data movement is meant to help scientists and researchers around the world work together to make discoveries more quickly. But, this isn’t normal in the world of academic research. That’s because the money that’s needed for the work often goes to making big discoveries instead of the smaller pieces those discoveries are built upon, Harding said.

“The biggest risk about being open from the beginning is someone can come in, see what you’ve done, leave out all the experiments that didn’t work—which is going to happen—and they can reach the end goal more quickly than you” Harding said.

“But the goal here is that it isn’t a fight and we work as a community”

Text adapted from original news article written by Jessica Smith Cross

Sentence complexity, paragraph and sentence length, and text length remain about the same. There is plenty for the student to deal with here without adding too much to their plate. This whole process took a bit of time on my part, but in the end, it was much easier than trying to locate something that was perfect. I also have the flexibility of using texts that fit my students’ needs in content and language.


A guide to Dreamreader: A free online English reading site

dreamreader1Finding good reading material for English language learners, especially for mid to lower level adult learners, can be quite difficult. The other day, Michael Griffin introduced us to Neil Millington, the co-creator of Dreamreader. I took a look over the website and I am impressed with what I have seen so far. It is still in the early stages of creation, but there is plenty of content and more still to come.

I thought I would take some time here to give you all an overview of the site and what it has to offer you as a teacher and also your students on their own.


At the top of the page, you have five options to choose from, including easy and academic English. Each lesson has a large image, an audio playback of the written questions, and interactive, multiple-choice questions. There are also a number of downloadable items such as printable versions of the page with answers and a separate audio file.


After doing the quiz, a button appears below the quiz that takes you to the score and answers.


Your answers and score then appear in a new window.


The printable handouts look a great deal like the page, but with the answers found along the bottom of the page.


Some lessons also incorporate a reading section and/or a video to watch.


For the academic English section, you will also find a vocabulary handout included with the lesson.


Overall, I think this is a good site for English language learners to practice their reading skills. In time, the site may evolve and add more components, but for now, I am already pretty impressed.


A Comprehensive Guide to GroupZap – An Online Post-it Board

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There are a number of online corkboard / whiteboard / pinboards that one can use to post notes and files, and even draw and then share those with others. Some can be done in realtime, and others require saving and sharing. One of the most popular is Padlet and for good reason. It is simple to use and handles multimedia files with ease. While fantastic, Padlet is not without some minor bumps. For one, you can’t change the colour, size, or font of the post-it notes, it doesn’t always play nice with links, and to download a file, you have to view it and then scroll down to the source link button. You can create as large a pad as you would like, but there is no map feature to see where you are and to easily navigate to that spot. Lastly, there isn’t a history function such as you would find in a wiki to scroll back to see what people have done to the board over time.

To address these things, I have turned to GroupZap. GroupZap is an online post-it board that allows users to collaborate with others in realtime and to do all of the things I just mentioned that Padlet doesn’t do. This post is meant to be a fairly comprehensive guide to all things GroupZap.

I’ve broken the instructions into sections to make it easier to find answers to what you need to do, but you can also read it in order from creation to sharing.

Creating a new board:



  • Type in your email address (note: you can use a fake email address as well). You may also give your board a name in the ‘Topic’ field. Click on ‘Go to Whiteboard’ when you are finished.


  • Click on ‘Let’s GroupZap!’


Adding items to your whiteboard:


Once you have created a GroupZap board, you can then start adding things to the board quite easily. Most of the functions are drag-and-drop, although you can also click and add items as well.

  • To add a simple coloured note to the page, simply drag a note over from the ‘Stuff to Add’ column on the right side of the screen.


  • To add a file from your computer, simply open a file window on your computer, find the file you would like to add, and drag it onto the GroupZap board. GroupZap will only support files up to 100MB.
  • You can also add a note by simply clicking on the note you would like to add and it will appear in the middle of the board.
  • You can also adda file by scrolling down the ‘Stuff to Add list’ and clicking on the ‘Choose File’ button.

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  • Lastly, you can add a file from a weblink by scrolling down the ‘Stuff to Add list’ and add the link to the URL box and click on ‘Add’.

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Arranging and resizing the items on your board:


Once you have added items to your board, you can resize, rotate, modify, arrange, delete, and move them.

  • To move an item, simply click and drag it to where you would like to place it.
  • To rotate and resize the item, simply hold down the shift key and click and move the mouse up and down to rotate and left and right to resize it.


  • To edit the content of a note, double-click on the note and click on the ‘Edit’ icon (pencil).


  • To move a note in front of another item or behind it, double click on the item and then click on ‘Front’ or ‘Back’.
  • To delete an item, double click on it and choose ‘Delete’. If you accidentally delete something, you will find an ‘Undelete’ panel at the top of the ‘Stuff to Add’ list on the right side of the page. Simply click and drag the item back onto the board.

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  • To lock an item in place and prevent it from being rotated, resized, or deleted, double-click on the item, choose ‘Edit’ and then click on the lock symbol before clicking ‘OK’.

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Editing the content of the item:


  • To add a note to a file, double click on it, choose ‘Edit’ and then add your text to the ‘Note’ field and click on ‘OK’.

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  • To add a link and/or note to a coloured note, double click on it, choose ‘Edit’, click on the link icon (chain) and add your note and/or URL before click on ‘OK’.

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Clicking on links, and downloading files:


  • To click on links of a note, double click on the note, choose ‘Edit’ and then click on the link icon (chain). Click on the arrow next to the URL and the link will open in a new window or tab.


  • To download a file, such as an image or PDF, double click on the item and click on ‘Download’ button.

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Adding boxes, lines, and arrows:


  • Scroll down the ‘Stuff to Add’ column until you see the lines and boxes. Drag an item on the board. Click and drag the dots on the item to manipulate them.

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Adding a different background:


  • At the top of the page, click on ‘Your Whiteboard’, click on ‘Administer’, and then choose your ‘Custom Background’, before clicking on ‘Update’ and ‘Whiteboard’.

Sharing with others:


  • At the top of the page, click on ‘Invite’ and ‘Send Link’. Choose the type of link you want by clicking on ‘Editing’ and choosing either ‘Viewing only’, ‘Administrators’, or leave it as ‘Editing’. Copy the link from beside it and share with whomever you would like.

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Adding a password:


  • At the top of the page, click on ‘Invite’ and ‘Security’.
    • Check off ‘Read-only’ to stop editing on the page.
    • Under ‘Access’, choose ‘Anonymously’ so those visiting the page won’t have to share who is editing.
    • Under ‘Board Password’, add a password and confirm if you want to make the page private.

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Export and embed your board:


  • Once you are finished, you can share an image or PDF of your board by clicking on ‘Export’ at the top of the page and then ‘PDF’ or ‘PNG’.
  • You can also export a CSV file of all notes and links by clicking on ‘Export’ at the top of the page and then ‘CSV’.

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  • You can embed the board by clicking on ‘Export’ at the top of the page and then ‘Share/Embed’. Copy the ‘Embed’ code and ‘Whiteboard’.  Paste the embed code into your website.

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Text2Mindmap – A simple, registration-free webtool for creating mindmaps


In my class, I often have students brainstorm ideas and then share them as a group to the whole class. One of the ways we do this is through mind maps. I have a love / hate relationship with mind maps due to the fact that they can be quite effective in visualizing ideas and information, but that image can get quite muddy and messy if you have too many items or are using paper and pens with lots of scribbles and changes.

To overcome some of that, I like to use computer-based mind mapping tools, especially if the creators are able to share that with others and they can then add to it or simply view it. Either way, it makes it much easier to expand the discussion beyond the people in the room.

One of the online mind mapping tools I like is the simple and minimalist approach used by Text2Mindmap. Instead of a flashy, all-in-one approach, the designers of this site have gone with a clean, easy to use look, even down to the lack of registration requirement. It works on almost anything and users don’t need to do much more than simply type in their mind map as an outline and the tool does the rest. Here is how it works:

  • Go to and a sample map will appear showing the months of the year along with the seasons.


  • Click on ‘New’ just below the box on the left-hand side of the page to get a clean slate to work from.


  • In the box labelled ‘Outline your text’, type in your outline of the map using indents (the tab key) to create branches and sub-groups.
  • To view what you have created so far, click on the ‘Draw Mind Map’ button at the bottom of the box. Your map will appear on the right-hand side of the page. You can now click-and-drag the items around. If you want to continue editing, simply continue typing in the outline box and clicking on the draw button to refresh.


  • At the bottom of the outline box is an options tab. Clicking on this brings up options about locking the position of the items, fonts, colours of the items (I like the level instead of branch option), and line colour.


  • Below the box are the ‘New’, ‘Save’, ‘Download’, and ‘Zoom’ buttons.
    • New – Creates a blank outline. Be careful with this one since it will erase your current work without warning.
    • Save – Will ask for a title and an email. You can use a fake email address in this place. Once you have done that and clicked on the ‘Save’, you will get two links to share: one for editing and one for viewing only.
    • Download – This will give you the option of downloading your map as a PDF or JPG image.
    • Zoom – This is actually two buttons, one for zooming in and one for out.


  • To remove the box on the left, click on the ‘Text2Mindmap’ title in the top-left corner and you will be left with only the mind map visible. Click on the title again to make it re-appear.


Yes, it is pretty simplistic in that you can’t add any documents, images, links, and so on, but it does provide a nice clean interface that is familiar for users who are not as tech saavy. I work with adult learners and sometimes the added ‘benefit’ of more options is actually more than some of them can handle up front. A tool like this gives them a place where they can develop and share ideas with others without the steep learning curve. It is also easier for some teachers to understand as was the case in one of my tech sessions that I gave. One such teacher was drawn to the ease of use for her as she often felt nervous trying to get students to use something she didn’t feel totally comfortable with herself. In the end, she gave a short session to the others in her group on how to use it and she felt like she had something she could take to her class in confidence.

Let me know what you think of it and ideas of how you may use it in your classroom. Thanks!

10 Sites for ELLs to read and listen

In class today, we had a discussion about some of the problems students’ face in their writing assignments. We were talking about the relationship of the spelling of the words and their sounds. The students were complaining that English does not follow the same rules that most of them have in their own languages where the letters are directly related to the sound that they make (I avoided the discussion of diphthongs for the time being. I will address that later with them) and how difficult it was to figure out how a word sounds and how it is spelled in English. I asked them how often they read in English for themselves and how often they listen to something other than conversational English on their own. For the vast majority of them, the answer was almost never. I encouraged them to use some online tools, which I shared with them, to read AND listen in English. There are a number of good sites that have the text and the listening available on a variety of topics and genres. The reason for this is simple: there is a direct correlation between spelling and reading and, I would also add, a relationship between hearing a word and seeing how it is spelled.

Here are some sites that provide both the text and the audio together:

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  • Lit2Go: This is a site that has a number of stories and poems that are organized by author, books, genres, collections, and readability levels. You can read the story and listen to the text online or you can download the MP3 and PDF. They are visually beautiful and the listening is really easy to listen to. This is a great site and safe to share with students.

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  • VOA Learning English: This is a popular news site that has the news article and listening available online. You can also download the MP3 to listen offline. One unique feature is that you can double-click on words in the text and the Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary opens up to the definition. Readers can also comment on an article. Stories are categorized by topics along with classroom activities and articles.

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  • ManyThings Listen and Read Along: This is a site specifically designed for ELLs. Each listening uses a unique player that has three panes: one on the left and one on the right for things coming and past, and one in the middle for the part that is being read at that moment. You can also choose how many times it will read over the text in the middle. There are also reading with clickable teleprompted text. This is mostly for lower level students.

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  • British Council LearnEnglish Listen and Watch: The British Council has a number of interesting things on their site including stories and poems, a drama series, a news magazine, and a section on UK culture. Some of the items have tasks that students can do on their own. A well done site designed specifically for ELLs.

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  • California Distance Learning Project Adult Learning Activities: This site is designed for ELLs and has a number of stories and articles listed by general topics. The stories are divided into basic and full texts, both which have a listening file as well. Most have activities and some even have videos (Real Player files). These topics are designed for adult learners so should be more relevant for older learners.

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  • Spotlight Listen and Read: This site has a large number of interesting articles that also have audio files that you can play on the site or download. Readers can also comment at the bottom of the article. Teachers can also print the scripts to read and listen in class as well.

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  • LoudLit: This site as a shorter list of stories, poems, children’s stories, and historical documents that can be read while listening. This can be done online or the listening can be download as an MP3 file. Mostly for higher level ELLs.

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  • LiteracyNet Story Archives: This is an older site that hasn’t been updated in quite a while. Regardless, there are a number of news articles divided into categories that has an abridged story, full story, and outline and also has the audio recording to go with it (Real Player files).

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  • StoryCorps: This is one of my favourite sites. It has real stories and interviews done by real people. They are about people’s lives and the other people that have influenced them. My students love these. If you click on the transcripts, you can listen and read along. You can also subscribe to the podcast as well. Great natural listening for higher levels ELLs.

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CNN Student News: This site wasn’t designed for ELLs, but is quite good for higher levels. Go to the transcript section to get the video and the transcript to follow along. It is updated each day with current content.

I would be interested in hearing what sites you use for listening and reading. I am especially interested in places that have the text with the listening so students can read along. Please add your favourites to the comment section below, send me a tweet at @nathanghall, or email me using the contact form on this website. Thank you!

7 Amazing Panorama Websites

Today, I discovered some amazing websites with 360 degree panoramas from around the world. I thought they were too good to keep to myself, so I decided to share some of them with you. These could be incredibly useful in the classroom as a topic of discussion, to add a visual to a reading, or simply to show before class:

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Panoramic Earth

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I hope you enjoyed your virtual tour around the world. I know I did.

Using Drama in the English Language Classroom


Photo by Janusz Gawron. Used by permission.

Tonight’s #ELLchat on Twitter was on using drama or drama-based activities. I have to admit that this is an area that I don’t have much experience in as a teacher. I decided I would do a bit of research to give me some motivation to participate in the chat. I read over some articles that covered a wide range of topics and I decided to post them here with a small summary for each article.

The Educational Potential of Drama for ESL

  • Dodson (2002) explains how she created an integrated skills class at a university based on drama that culminated in a half-hour production put on by her students. An excellent article for gaining a variety of ideas on implementing drama ideas in the classroom.

Coping with Obstacles in Drama-Based ESL Teaching: A Nonverbal Approach

  • Culham (2002) shares his experience in using drama as a tool to develop non-verbal as well as L2 language skills in workshops and in the classroom.

Inner City Life Through Drama: Imagining the Language Classroom

  • Heath (1993) shares an example of an inner-city youth organization that used drama to retain their L1 and develop their L2 skills.

Why drama works: A psycholinguistic perspective

  • Stern (n.d.) shows how drama can be an effective tool in a variety of ways including the L2 and L1 classrooms and in speech therapy. She also provides evidence on how drama has a positive effective psychological affect on learners.

Creating Drama with Poetry: Teaching English as a Second Language Through Dramatization and Improvisation

  • Gasparro (1994) provides an overview of using poetry and poetic drama in the English language classroom. She gives a summary of the teacher’s role in implementing poetry, example poems, and suggestions for the teacher.

Overcoming the Fear of Using Drama in English Language Teaching

  • Royka (2002) reviews the four main fears teachers have in using drama in the English language classroom. She gives suggestions on how to overcome these fears and how to use drama with ELLs.

Using choral reading to promote language learning for ESL Students

  • McCauley and McCauley (1992) advocate for the use of choral reading with young ELLs in the classroom. They provide supporting arguments for the usage of choral reading and examples on how this can be accomplished.

Does using drama in EFL classes meet the needs of the learners?

  • Bulut (2011) provides a summary of the value of drama in language learning as well as an overview of the Multiple Intelligences. He provides some examples of how drama can be used in the L2 classroom to help students use different approaches to learning.

Drama in Chalk and Talk Classrooms

  • Rass (2010) gives an example of how drama not only transformed the language learning skills of Arab students in Israel, but it also changed teachers who preferred a more traditional approach to learning.

EFL Learner Autonomy as it Emerges in Drama Projects

  • Fine and Collins (n.d.) show how drama can be used to help student take more control of their language learning. They provide an example of how a class of secondary students in Japan were provided the framework of the dramatic project and how each of them were able to take control of their own learning.

Role Play for ESL/EFL Children in the English Classroom

  • Huang (2008) discusses the use of role play with children in the English language classroom and her six-step procedure in implementing a role play activity.

All the World’s a Stage: Reaching English Language Learners through Drama

  • Fortney (2010) in her summative paper for her MA shares her analysis of literature pertaining to the use of drama in the English language classroom.

Acting For Transformation: An Esl Teacher And Her Adult Immigrant Students Dramatize The Students’ Life Stories

  • Horstein (2010) shares in her paper for her MA the year-long drama project she implemented working with adult immigrants in an ESL program.

I hope that you are able to find something here that can help you in integrating drama into your lesson plan. Let me know if you have anything else to add to this list. Thanks.