Grammar Quizzes: Comprehensive Resource for ESL


Don’t let the name fool you. offers more than just quizzes.

Starting in 1998 Julie Sevastopoulos started compiling ESL resources and posting them on the web under the name “Grammar Check”,  and to this day she’s still at it, updating and adding new English Grammar material under a new domain, “Grammar Quizzes”.

The layout of the  is free of bells and bullhorns. Its strength lies not in cutesy characters or flash-based animations, but in the huge breadth of the material she covers, giving the user hours of systematic language practice with feedback.

The content is tailored to intermediate students, and although it seems that it was made with adults in mind, it does not seem inappropriate for younger audiences.  I found the content to be useful to both non-native speakers of English, as well as native students trying to get a grip on some of the more nuanced verb patterns, or for anyone trying to improve their writing skills.

Some of the areas covered include:

adjectives, adjective clauses, noun clauses, modals, gerunds, infinitives, participles, adverbs, sentence agreement, articles, connectors, present, past, present perfect, conditional and passive tenses, and writing introductions and creating thesis sentences.

Each area is broken down into a thorough lesson, with various examples, links and technical language for the instructor, and practices to self-evaluate.

Some lessons even begin with a diagnostic, which can be very useful for a teacher to introduce the topic. In fact this site lends itself well to both individual practice, say in a computer lab setting, or for direct instruction with the use of a Smartboard and/or projector. The site also lends itself well to note taking and scaffolds the information in a way that is easy to follow.

Overall, The provide an excellent resource for the ESL/ELD educator implementing a blended learning model.


iBooks and English Language Learners

Apple’s recent announcement of a “gamechanger” in education arrived with much fanfare and generated mega decibels of buzz around the world because the Cupertino, CA tech giant was again attempting, to either  A) help revolutionize how we consume and create content, or B)  to gobble up yet another industry.

The past few days have produced many posts and tweets, many critical, many outraged, some cynical and  others truly awed and excited about the possibilites iBook Author offers. With all the questions regarding content ownership, portability, collusion with mega publishers aside, we at Zacatechista wanted to drop our own thought droppings on eTextbooks and iBook Author specifically.


Here is a screenshot of our current project–and the reason for this post:

We should disclose that we have been working for more than a year now on a set of English Language Development games and apps for the iPad called elDcoder, and while the project is still under construction, the prospects of being able to extend its boundaries  into the textbook realm offers new possibilities.

First, as content creators we look forward to adapting and extending the content of elDcoder,  which is currently much more geared to gaming and testing English listening, reading, writing skills, and porting some of that over onto a sequential textbook series that can accompany the app, or vice versa. And its clear after only one weekend of playing with iBook Author really makes this process easy. This should come as no surprise, coming from the same company that puts out Garage Band and iMovie, both of which were used to build the content for the first chapter of elDcoder’s (Beginner level).

Getting the hang of it was no problem. Knowing how to best take advantage of the features and to better streamline your job will require more tinkering. Discovering the versatility of working with Dashcode also contributed to the prolonged sense of tech-arousal inherent in these interactions. Now a textbook can be embedded with anything we can dream of, as long as it is not Flash.

As for what this means for English Language Learners? Well, anyone that teaches ELL students knows that ELD curriculum is not always the top priority of most schools or districts. The requirements are there, but ELD, at least as it is practiced in California is a reality often found on paper, but with so many curricular and other constraints, it often goes untaught or folded into the traditional English Language Arts, leaving many students with profound language gaps in both the forms and functions of English which prevent them from every reaching Fluent English Proficient Status, permanently relegating them to a secondary LEP  status, thereby  not graduating, or amounting to anything, and dying a cold and lonely death.

OK, hyperbole aside, It should also be noted that while explicit English Language Development is very important, not just for newcomers, but for those students with years in the system, there often is very little invested in terms of materials for its instructions, leaving many teachers to make up their own curriculum.  This is where iBooks author comes in. All of us who are in the trade of educating English Language Learners in all of their manifestations and who have been for years developing our own curriculum where there was none now can come together and start building the next generation of textbooks, as open and free in many cases, and under Apples restrictive ownership agreements in others.

The goal for us ESL teachers, authors and content providers  should not be whether can get rich making textbooks, as the mega-conglomerates are happy to do, but to offer schools the most authentic, constantly updated, classroom-tested textbooks at the lowest possible price in the name of education. If we must partner with the Giant Apple that is now doing the gobbling in order to do so, then we must deal with them with the best interest of our students constantly in our mind.

If you are interested in contacting us about possible collaborations or if you have further questions, please leave a comment below. We will be launching a more formal collaborative effort with the aims of producing a collaborative eTextbook series for English Language Learners in the coming months and asking other interested educators to share their lessons, materials and other resources for inclusion into the elDecoder series.






When My Dictionary Doesn’t Help try YourDictionary

How many times have you assigned work out of some dictionary–even reputable online dictionaries–and end up with a definition that is equally baffling to a student. A student in this situation will usually do what she or he is  told and copy said definition in their notebooks. Then  they will attempt to write a mangled sentence with no sense of context and meaning, suggesting that the whole activity might just have been a huge waste of time. 

This aforementioned scenario takes place in countless classrooms around the world and millions of students who are supposed to be learning new vocabulary are in fact engaged in a senseless practice of copying from a reference book and practicing their handwriting and patience, but little else.

Dictionaries are useful tools that can help a reader find the meaning of a persistently hard-to-pin-down word when all other recourses fail. They should not be used unless context clues and word analysis don’t help.

That said, I recently came across, a site specifically developed for learners of English who struggle with the oblique and comprehension-unfriendly language often found in most dictionaries.

It works very similarly to a or the Websters online dictionary. The user enters a word into a field, and as long as it’s spelled correctly it will reveal the definition. The difference is that in YourDictionary the results actually make sense.

Let’s compare:

Here is the entry for “manifest”





readily perceived by the eye or the understanding; evident;obvious; apparent; plain: a manifest error.

Psychoanalysis. of or pertaining to conscious feelings, ideas,and impulses that contain repressed psychic material: themanifest content of a dream as opposed to the latent contentthat it conceals.
verb (used with object)


to make clear or evident to the eye or the understanding;show plainly: He manifested his approval with a hearty laugh.

to prove; put beyond doubt or question: The evidencemanifests the guilt of the defendant.

to record in a ship’s manifest.

a list of the cargo carried by a ship, made for the use ofvarious agents and officials at the ports of destination.

a list or invoice of goods transported by truck or train.

a list of the cargo or passengers carried on an airplane.

And here is the YD version…


Manifest describes something that is clear to see or understand.(adjective)

An example of manifest is someone knowing that something is true.

Manifest means to prove or make something clear. (verb)

An example of manifest is showing someone the facts about something.

As you can see, the latter is much clearer and easy to understand. It goes without saying that the previous definition is more comprehensive and more reliable in terms of finding out the specific use in all the possible contexts, however the YD version has the advantage of purging out the language that is an obstruction to understanding, and only presents the most common uses of the word.

Another advantage to YourDictionary, at least as it pertains to English Learners, is that it offers sample sentences, probably fished out of the internet by some algorithm, but that nonetheless offer a student many different ways they might encounter a word, or many real life ways that a sentence can be constructed with it.

But it doesn’t stop there. Besides providing word definitions and examples in sentences,  offers ESL and Education pages specifically designed to help teachers and students of ESL make better use of their vocabulary development time. There are lesson ideas on how to use and other resources to help with comprehension whether you are learning English in Harbin, China, or in Phoenix Arizona. You can even use your mobile device so you can get results on the go.

There are also pretty simple printable worksheets on vocabulary, commonly confused words, GRE or SAT practice, essay writing tips, grammar help for kids and more, earning this site the title of “indispensable” for any bilingual or ESL classroom.

So next time you think of throwing  a brick at your students, send them to YD instead, and you will hear more students exclaim, “Aha” instead of “huh?”

Anyone Can Be a Poet with Pic-Lits

I’d like to thank the people (or person) over at who posted a link to this website.

[Pic-Lits]  are “Inspired Picture Writing” or think of them as the digital version of the now-ubiquitous refrigerator magnet poetry. But there is more here and after today’s field test, I can definitely say that we will be using these again.

Basically you choose an image from the gallery–a typical landscape, or generic greeting card pic–and you drag-and-drop words just like the magnets on the fridge in any order. The words provided fit well with the images and they are separated by category (nouns, verbs, etc.) for the user to arrange in the order they want.

The point here is to make poetry, which isn’t hard to do given the words. You can be e.e. cummings or Pablo Neruda, it’s up to you. The students in the lab today spent more than the usual time creating images and creating their own accounts. You need, of course, an email address to register and then you can begin saving and sharing them. Here is one of mine:

Click on me to see the full size

But there is more! Students can also choose the LearnIt tab and they are guided through some pretty creative and effective excercise and lessons on the elements of poetry; figurative language, meter, etc. The lessons then assign the student to try a Pic-Lit based on the material on each lesson.

zapaTECHISTA rates this as indispensable, because of the level of engagement and the educational value. English learners of various levels can still put together a meaningful Pic-Lit. They not only get to experiment with putting words together, but they can get feedback from other users on their poems and word choice.

Christmas cards? Birthday wishes, love poems? It’s all there for you and your students to get your poetry on!

LearnEnglish: A Panoply of Digital Learning from the British Council

The British Council has been providing an incredible service for English Learners worldwide through their LearnEnglish website.  Of all the sites, apps, and services that ZapaTECHISTA has reviewed, this is by far one of the best and most comprehensive…and it’s free, unlike BrainPOP ESL.

LearnEnglish and LearnEnglishKids offer an amazing array of high-quality stories, activities, lessons, and games for the ESL classroom or independent learner.

LearnEnglish is geared towards the adult learner community, although it can be used with middle school and/or high school age students. It includes a podcast/audio soap called Big City Small World that follows the lives of 20-something immigrants trying to make it in London. The content, or course has a distinct British feel, but the content is at the intermediate English Level and should still be accessible to most students within this range.

Big City Small World also has all the episode scripts in an easily downloadable format. At the end of each episode is a quiz to test for auditory comprehension that could be done as a whole-class excercise. Each episode also includes pre-listening vocabulary activities, and several interactive “tasks” that help the student make sense of the material. 

The interactivity is fluid and fast, not clunky nor dated like a lot of the grammar activities found online these days, which seemed like products of the 1990s.

LearnEnglishKids, on the other hand is full of engaging activities, songs and stories for the Pre-K to early elementary level. Like its more adult counterpart, it has simply too many features to cover here.  The content is colorful and rich in visual detail, and the activities are comprehensive. Although it is geared towards ELD or ELL students, it is obvious that the site offers something for all English learners, even native speakers, or students who might be working below grade level.

Parents might find it a useful and engaging addition to their current panoply of digital learning options.

And…as if this were  not enough, the Council also released a TeachingEnglish portal for teachers  who wish to make sense of all the available resources. It includes more downloadable materials, professional development options and more.

Overall, they definitely earn an A+ and a tag of “Indispensible”.

(More to follow as we plan to test this out with some of the newcomer students )