Task-Based Lesson on Nutrition

It’s always exciting when teachers have an opportunity to put a little of themselves into their lessons, and the project I am sharing with you today reeks of my own personal interest.  Moving to one of the healthiest states in the country has provided me the opportunity to eat better and get more exercise than I did when I was younger, and the lifestyle changes I have made are some of the most important lessons of my life.  Therefore, I thought a lesson centered around nutrition would most certainly be applicable for my students as well, especially as they are learning to deal with their own dietary and lifestyle changes since coming to the U.S.

This lesson should ideally be spread out over at least 4-5 days, and is appropriate for all levels with slight materials modifications.


  • This excellent .PDF from KQED (Public Media for Northern California)
  • access to a computer/ projector
  • video recording devices

Day 1:  Getting Warmed Up

Start off by getting your students thinking about food (I chose to show a few Superbowl commercials from YouTube from Pepsi, Doritos, etc. since we had recently been talking about advertising) availability in the US.  What are American foods?  What are American snacks?  How are they similar/different to foods in your home countries?

Review the idea of a Food Pyramid.  Give students a paper with the Food Pyramid categories blanked out; ask Ss to fill in the pyramid from what they think is healthy.  This video might also be useful with some learners.

This is a good time to review food vocabulary such as calories, nutrition, oil, servings, etc.  Alternatively, you can ask students to share food info graphs from their own countries and compare the differences in categories and percentages.

Ask students to recall what they have already eaten today.  This is a great time to work on simple past as well as present/past perfect tenses.  For example, teachers can ask, ” Sari, what did you eat for lunch today?”  “What have you eaten today?”  “What had you eaten before you had lunch?” etc. as the need requires.  Write down the items on the board in a basic template for a food log.

Then, give students the same template for keeping a food diary. ( The KQED has an easily reproducible version on p. 8.)  Students should keep a record of what they eat over the coming week.  Yay vocabulary building!

Day 2:  Digging Deeper

Get students thinking about the differences in diet choices in the U.S. and in their home countries.  Ask students to pair up with someone from the same culture and discuss how their home culture food differs in taste, appearance, portion, etc. in restaurants in the US and back home.  Students should be encouraged to share and discuss as a class.

Have students watch the clip (Episode 3: Becoming Unamerican) from Unnatural Causes discussing the Latino Paradox.  If students are more capable, have them write a couple of discussion questions to work through the ideas presented in the video.  Otherwise, have some comprehension and critical thinking questions prepared that will allow students to utilize their own knowledge in analyzing the issue.

Day 3:  Getting active

If students are high-intermediate or above, you may wish to show this great Ted Talk on nutrition in schools (mind the accent, love!).  It really touches on a number of issues that hopefully will have come up in the previous day’s discussion and will get them thinking about the next part of the task.

Begin by showing students ChooseMyPlate.org, the government-run USDA website.  It is surprisingly cheerful and interesting!  Ask students why it might be important for the government to create a website like this.  You could probably spend an entire day in a computer lab having students work through the different charts and online tools to track their health and fitness!  However, if you don’t have that kind of time, point out the Fruits and Veggies video contest and go over the basic idea.  Show students some of the best submissions (the winners have already been announced!).

Tell students that they will be making their own videos to submit by drawing on their new knowledge and vocabulary.  It is always helpful to have the project guidelines typed and ready to go so that students can follow along as you clearly explain the purpose and details of the assignment.   Students should be given plenty of guided brainstorming time before videos are due!

Day 4: Wrapping Up and Reflecting

After students have had time to complete their food logs, they should be encouraged to summarize their data and reflect on their personal habits.  I like to have my students write a short reflection, incorporating statistics and ideas that we have discussed in class.  I like to also stick it to my students grammatically during this reflection as well!

Of course, watching the videos will be a big part of the finale for this lesson as well.  To better engage the students, perhaps you can even have the students who are presenting make a short quiz or feedback form for their presentations.  I like to have my students “vote” for a winner in a short paragraph, with the real winner receiving a delicious (and nutritious!) surprise! Hello banana chips!

At this point, there are even so many more places to take this lesson.  I’ve also had students do “how to” presentations on making a nutritious snack they’ve discovered online (extra points for bringing in samples for the class!), and I’ve worked with higher level students to brainstorm and debate ideas for social change on this issue.  The possibilities are truly endless!

So, what have you done in your own classrooms?  What other ideas/resources do you have for nutrition-themed lessons?  Leave a comment and share your thoughts!



A Review of Xtranormal for IEP speaking assignments

Just last week, I posted about using VoiceThread, which allows students to record themselves (with a mic or webcam) in a forum based around picture and video content.

Today, I want to share another online tool called Xtranormal that I’ve been using for years; it has gone through several adaptations and upgrades since I was first introduced to it, but it still has practical use for language teachers today.

Xtranormal started out as a text-to-speech program that allowed users to create simple, free virtual videos.  I first used it in grad school to make a video explaining a practical use of the theory we had been discussing in class.  I chose a background, avatar and entered my text into dialogue boxes–and then all I had to do was wait for computer magic to turn my text into a speaking, moving character!  Since that moment, I’ve been hooked.  The whole experience was easy and fun and, especially back in 2009, it seemed the perfect innovative classroom project!

I first had students use this program in a grammar writing course.  With the text-to-speech software, it forced students to be very careful of spelling and use of punctuation marks to ensure clear direction for the computer output.  The “limitations” of the program were actually perfect tools to help students understand rhythm and intonation patters as they tried to get their computer voices to sound correct  (We worked a lot on using various clauses within this program).  Of course, the big added bonus was that students often got so excited by the possibility of true creativity that they worked very hard to make their videos perfect!     Click here for an example of one of my favorites!  Additionally, in the past year, Xtranormal has made it easy for students to now record their own voices for the avatars, creating a whole new range of linguistic possibilities for the program.

However, they have also changed their policies to reflect the website’s growing use by teachers.

The website is now set up for teachers to register and pay for a class of students.  Fees are currently $10 a month plus an additional $0.50 for each student account.  Teachers are automatically billed each month for that set number of student accounts, though I have read that it is a simple process to add and delete accounts.  After I set up my new teacher account, I was given a “Token” code for my students to enter as they set up their own personalized accounts.  Students choose their own usernames and passwords that are collected and monitored under my teacher account.  On my dashboard, I can keep track of how many accounts are in use, set up assignments and due dates and check in on my students’ work.  This has proved incredibly convenient and a snap to explain to language learners.  Yet, the program does have some major kinks that still need to be worked through in order for this program to be more accessible for non-traditional (read: non K-12) programs to utilize.

Firstly, teachers will need to keep track of how many student accounts they need at a time.  Since I only typically do one xtranormal assignment per 10-week quarter, it will be quite costly for me to pay a flat monthly fee for all of my 45+ students at a time.  I plan to activate and deactivate my account as needed–although I am not sure how well this will play out over time.

Secondly, student work comes directly to my dashboard once it has been submitted.  This is an easy way to keep track of work (especially since assignments are set up with parameters that prohibit submitting work past the due date); however, there is no easy way for other students to view one another’s work.  I must project the videos in class through my dashboard account (in comparison with previous versions of the program that gave finished videos their own links and the ability to post to Youtube) in order for students to check out each other’s projects–which is the whole purpose of student ownership and creativity!  For me, as there are no direct links to the work I receive, this makes sharing student favorites or examples quite difficult to do!

Finally, this past week I had trouble with the program saving progress for students.  Many students complained that their work was not saving and, after talking with the Xtranormal support team, I discovered there is a time lapse in the program that prevents students from taking short breaks and continuing on (which basically translates into this being a home-based project students need several days for).

In the past two years, Xtranormal has made incredible improvements to their site and tools, and so I am anxious to keep my eye on the program as it continues to evolve.  Hopefully this program will find a way to better cater to teachers who wish to use the program intermittently.  It certainly still has a lot of potential and the element of novelty and creativity that this program brings is certainly not to be overlooked!

Individual (home) practice for irregular verbs

In my grammar classes, knowledge and use of irregular verbs can be considered the keys to unlocking intermediate (and higher) proficiency in English.  And yet,  one of the biggest divides I notice for a class of learners is whether or not students pay heed to the importance of them.  In fact, most students  tend to fall into one of two categories when it comes to knowing irregular verb forms.  Usually a student will either A) know and use irregular verbs well (along with spelling) without much thought or reminding or  B) seem to live in a grammar world in which words like fall, fell, feel, felt can all be substituted for one another with all sorts of spelling and pronunciation accommodations with no concern.

I stand up in the class and point to the irregular verbs list they have.  “Study these!”  “Go home and memorize them!”  “Don’t forget, keep reviewing this list!”  It’s tedious for them–and me–to keep harping on them and yet no manner of fun “review” games like BINGO! and concentration seem to have an effect on their input (although they certainly make the topic less painful!)  For a long time, it has been easy to put the burden of responsibility for this on the student, and yet I have always wondered how I could more positively encourage real dedication to such a boring–yet vital–part of language learning.

Then, I thought more about those students who usually have no trouble with irregular verbs.  It’s clear they have had oral drilling and repetitious (and monotonous) practice in their previous studies.  While I tend to shy away from rote memorization as class practice, it does seem to have its distinct benefit when it comes to the rule-less items of English.  It got me poking around a little on the interwebs and I ended up coming up with two ideas that I am implementing into my class routine.

First, the amazing website Many Things.org has 5 free downloadable .mp3’s that run through a list of common irregular verbs in a singsong pattern with nice cheesy guitar accompaniment.  A single speaker goes first and then a chorus repeats in the same intonation pattern, allowing for students to chant back the words while paying attention to intonation and rhythm.

Second, in an adaptation from the previous listen and repeat activity, I am now asking students to come up with their own list of 25 Least Commonly Known words from our master list.  Then, they simply record themselves (any basic recording program such as Audacity will do) chanting the 3 forms for all their chosen words and attach it as an .mp3 file on our class Blackboard discussion forum.    Students will then listen to each others’ recordings and write the words they hear.  Since they are aware that others will be listening to their recordings and trying to comprehend enough to write what they hear for a grade, it’s a good incentive for students to do their best work with recording (which I hope helps cement the words into their brains!)

This is what I’ve come up with so far.  But what do you guys think?  How do you get students to sit down and actually memorize those crazy irregular verbs?!

Web-based group discussions made easy!

One of my goals as an ESL instructor is to get quality moments to listen and assess my students’ speaking abilities, but oftentimes it can be quite intimidating for the student to have his/her teacher scribbling notes while they are trying to muster their thoughts together in a foreign language.  I’ve had good success with students doing at-home recordings for me, but it is so tedious to have to open 12-15 emails and download their audio files–many times only to find they have recorded their messages in an incompatible format (How can you even try to explain the difference between .mp3’s  .m4a’s .wav’s  to foreign students when you hardly know it yourself anyways?!).

Well, a fabulous colleague of mine recently turned me on to VoiceThread, a website geared towards online collaboration and discussions.  Here teachers can upload images, documents and videos onto a single account and then have students leave comments in a variety of different ways: with their voices (using a microphone or their telephone), by text, or by video (using a webcam).

The genius of VoiceThread is that one account can host a whole classroom of students who all have their own “identities.”  When a teacher creates an account (be careful to choose a username and password that will be memorable for students and is unlike any of your personal logins), then she can quickly add identities to the account.  I gave all my students separate identities–just their names!–and then showed them how they could log in and add a picture to correspond to their own identities.  It’s a double-win idea:  Students can easily tell who has been “talking” while they are in a forum and they can take creative ownership in the personalization of their identities for their classmates to see.

Just last week, I asked a high beginner class to try out VoiceThread in conjunction with a theme on culture that we had been working on for the past few days.  The premise was simple:  I uploaded 5 images that corresponded to important events in one’s life (such as getting a credit card, learning to drive, joining the military) and asked my students to comment on each event with the age they considered most appropriate for the event.  Students were asked to leave one comment for each picture after listening to what other classmates had said.

Click here to listen to the VoiceThread my students created!

VoiceThread’s simplicity of navigation made it easy for students to log in and get going.  I gave my students a half-sheet of instructions for logging in and commenting (and a 5-minute in-class demo) and all of them were able to complete the assignment without trouble.   Also,  since all students post under one teacher-created account, I was able to quickly log in and start listening to/grading each comment without having to access different pages or accounts.

Although I have only used still images so far, I am excited to try this out with a video of a lecture soon.  I hope to have students each take ownership of a discussion question for the video and then post responses to one another’s questions.  My fingers are crossed and I’ll let you know how it goes soon!

So, what about you?  Any experience with VoiceThread?  What other kinds of voice recording programs do you find easy for both teachers and students to use?

A quick intro and review of Engrade (online grading software)

Hi guys!

I wanted to take a moment to share a FREE online grading website that has really been making my life easier as a teacher these days.

Actually, when I first started teaching, I didn’t really know how to calculate grades in an efficient manner (This is when I was fresh from a Bachelor’s degree in English literature– yikes!).  In fact, I had to ask my mother, who had been a high school English teacher for over 20 years, for help to sort out my jumble of numbers at the end of my first term.  Although she ended up explaining her tried and trued system to me, it’s really almost laughable that I ever recorded any grades at all considering I was using an Excel spreadsheet to record  numbers that I needed to manually add up on my calculator  and then weight at the end of each term for each of my 60+ students!  Talk about a recipe for frustration!

Anyways, a few years ago I got savvy to the availability of software designed specifically to get teachers to kiss their Excel spreadsheets goodbye.   Up until this term, however, I had been using licensed (read: gotta buy it!) software that was installed on my hard drive at work.  However, as the need to be more stringent regarding student privacy laws (as outlined by FERPA) was spelled out for me, I discovered that it was actually a violation to keep such sensitive information in a vulnerable place.

I ended up finding out about Engrade through a fellow colleague of mine who had been previously using the same software I was and as soon as I checked it out, I was sold (although not really because one of its greatest benefits is that it’s free!).

My favorite things about Engrade:

  • It is web-based so you have access anywhere, anytime (including  mobile devices).
  • It allows record keeping for multiple classes under one account–no need to switch from one document to another if you are recording for two or more different classes!
  • There’s a demo video on the home screen so you can easily get a feel for its basic functions and operations.
  • Students can log in and see their grades and overall averages (a huge plus when working with Ss that tend to be confused by how their individual grades work on a weighted percentage scale)
  • If you don’t have access to Blackboard, eCollege or other online learning management systems, you can create quizzes or wikis for individual class content that students can access at home, in computer labs, etc.
  • You can interact with students live on a message board (perfect for virtual office hours no matter where you are teaching!)
  • Oh, and did I mention it’s free?!

If you aren’t extremely familiar with navigating online programs, it may take a while to get used to the interface.  There were a few things that I had to look up on the Help page to get sorted out, but overall it was pretty intuitive.  An “old school” teacher like my mom might have some trouble with this or be daunted at first–but that’s probably true for almost any newfangled technology and is easy to move past!

You can check out Engrade at www.engrade.com.

Oh, and if you have any suggestions for other similar (or better?!) online gradekeeping programs out there, please share below!

A Valentine’s-themed grammar/syntax exercise

I found this the other day at Teaching With TLC and thought it could be adapted perfectly for a fun holiday-themed lesson for a low to intermediate class lesson on syntax.

Materials needed:

  • candy conversation hearts
  • glue
  • cardstock or construction paper


  • To have students understand and effectively create syntactically correct sentences in English


Before this activity begins, your students should be somewhat familiar with the concept of “parts of speech” and other grammar jargon.  If that’s not the case, I recommend pre-teaching the basic ideas and then using this as a simple kinesthetic activity to practice making complete (and perhaps more complex!) sentences!

Have students take a handful of hearts (I suggest 15  maximum) and organize them based on whether the heart is a phrase, an adjective, a question, an imperative, etc.  Students should be encouraged to share the words or expressions that they don’t understand as many hearts these days have a lot of slang expressions.  Then, students can begin to insert the hearts into their own writing while being mindful of how the sentence should be organized.  Students could write love letters to their significant others, parents, their teachers (!), etc. or, to challenge an intermediate class or higher, they could use the hearts to write free-form or rhyming poetry.   

After students are finished, you can invite them to read their sweet sentiments aloud and let the class guess who the letter/poem might be for (mom?  boyfriend?  dog?)  This provides good bonding for the class and is always a delicious day! ❤

I’m sure there are so many more creative ideas for integrating conversation hearts into the ESL classroom.  How have you used conversation hearts?  Or, if you haven’t, what fun ideas do you have to celebrate Valentine’s day and practice English?

And off we go…

Hello and welcome to The Savvy Learner!

Here at TSL I hope to build a community where you can find  creative inspirations for your adult English Language Learners as well as share your own successes and concerns in the ESL field.  As this site is in its infancy, check back often for new ideas, links, videos and more.  

Welcome!  Please stay a while!