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.


Good Game!

eLearn Magazine, Education and Technology in Perspective published What Makes a Good Learning Game? Going Beyond Edutainment in February of this year.  The author,  Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, outlines components in useful buzz words for non-techie educators and the sleek-edu-geeks alike to quickly evaluate the utility of the tons of “learning games” out there when looking for meaningful ways to integrate technology and curriculum.  The buzz words stay with you, and I can see them crossing my mind as I type ready to shoot them down with my semantic knowledge; ready, set, here we go.

1. Substantives – the signifiers and signified – the nouns that set-up the scene,

2. Verbs – the things learners have to do to meet the challenges and get the rewards,

3. Problem-solving – the challenges have to be interesting, and if I may add my two cents, culturally relevant,

4. Rewards – the rewards must definitely be culturally relevant,

5. Feedback – I remember an old mentor always used to say “Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.”   So be weary of games that do not offer corrective feedback if the educator is not present., and

6. Alignment – while Egenfeldt-Nielsen doesn’t explicitly say to look for games that are tied to standards or even lesson objectives, I am.  If a game has all the first five components without this last one, you might as well just flush your professionalism down the toilet and admit you’re using gaming to baby-sit your class.

That said, Egenfeldt-Nielsen validates drill-and-practice games describing them as a “sound learning principle”.  I use drill-and-practice games aligned to standards and lesson objectives in order to pull small instructional groups for more support toward mastery. (Boy, o boy, a traveling tablet lab would be nice!)

Both drill-and-practice and mission-based games can be used to get that much closer to the Holy Grail of buzz words in education today individualized and differentiation.  So let the games begin!

Brain Nook Combines Best of Gaming, Learning Worlds

On recent list of top edtech startups (Wired Academic)  one noteworthy company stood out for its potential for making a big impact in the  learning of English and Math skills at the elementary grades.

Brain Nook, as it’s called,  is an “all-inclusive” learning resort for the students from Kinder to 5th grade.  Featuring more than a hundred engaging games it is a robust and entertaining way for students to practice their academic skills.

But what seems truly remarkable is Brain Nook’s ability to put together the best “brain-rewarding” (see previous post)  elements of the gaming universe and package them into a learning site that will be the envy of many start-ups and “been-ups” alike.

The premise for the game is a story: You, an alien cosmonaut, crash-land on earth. Stranded, you have to buy and collect badges, stars, unlock levels and ultimately find all the spaceship parts needed to get back to your home planet.  Avoiding  immigration does not seem to be an issue for the alien players who travel around the world challenging others to games, or accomplishing solo missions by practicing skills ranging from recognizing long and short vowels to counting money.

What makes the game so engaging is not only the fact that students can customize avatars and “purchase” additional items to decorate themselves and their rooms, but also because they can progress at their own pace and choose from a variety of games and lands.


The mission aspect of the game is reminiscent of what made Cyberchase such a popular game.  Quests seem to add a whole new level to learning that engages students beyond the ability to solve a problem in isolation. The progress bar is an excellent motivator in this regard. When a student sees their progress moving up, never down, they immediately realize that it is within their power to move up, albeit at their own rate.


At first this seemed a bit confusing. The games after all, are adaptive, meaning they increase in difficulty if the user makes progress, so a student might feel like they lost, but in the end they still get to walk away with enough stars to add to their point total. They are thus motivated to continue playing, once they feel like the have a handle on a particular skill.

Another winning  aspect of the game is the social component. Students can walk around and chat, challenge each other and become “friends”.   When you add other people to a game, as any gamer knows, it adds another level of engagement. You are not just playing a game for yourself, but in front of a set of “game peers” united in your quest to get out of Earth. The dynamics of this and why its motivational has to do with neuroscience and we won’t get into that here, but the effect on a learner is remarkable.

It is also a great game for English Language Learners beyond the 5th grade. In fact that is the main reason zapaTECHISTA looked into this site.  It is often the job of the late elementary teacher and beyond to fill the skill gaps of students whose first language is not English. Brain Nook offers students who have not had success focusing on class lectures, or who have missed school in earlier grades (here I’m thinking of a student from El Salvador who did not attend school from 2nd to 4th grade) or who need to work on skills below their grade level to feel successful at their own pace.

The only drawback so far is that Brain Nook only works on a flash-enabled device. Sorry iPad folks. I’m sure the developers are quickly working on an app version, or a lite version like BrianPOPs iPhone app. Also, some of the text moves off-screen too quickly for the youngest readers to keep up, especially the instructions to the games.

We’ll keep an eye out for this one and wish it well.


BBC’s Bitesize Offers Banquet of Online Learning

It’s rare to come across an engaging, all-inclusive digital learning portal like I did this week when I came upon the BBC’s Bitesize education websites. I was actually looking at an old site, Skillwise, which is still good and recommended, but its nothing like what the blokes at the BBC have been working on lately. Here in the United States you would expect to pay a few hundred bucks, or at least a good thousand bucks for access to this kind of learning (think BrainPOP and IXL Math), but the folks in the UK still believe in the government’s role in funding public education, and they are doing a much better job of bringing technology to their students for free .

A full review of Bitesize  is still in the works, and with so many lessons, games and activities it will take a while to truly explore all of the content. But here is a rough synopsis and links to some great starter content:

Bitesize is divided into 3 main areas, KS1 for the youngest kids, KS2 for those 7-11 year-old students, KS3 for the 11-14 crowd and then another level, GCSE for the upper secondary. Each site includes classroom-ready tools that are guaranteed to engage students. Take Questionaut, for example. It is simply put, one of the finest, most beautifully designed flash games I have ever seen. Students have to use their Maths, Language and Science skills to navigate through different tiny worlds where the user has to answer multiple choice questions, but the engaging part is in the actual game activation. The questions do not appear automatically, but have to be figured out from the items in the planet’s environment. Today my students and I played all 8 levels and they stayed glued to their seats, while maintaining an impressive eyeball-to-screen ration the whole time. It is geared towards the 11-14 age group, so it was perfect for my 6th graders.

KS2 offers some great material on Reading, Spelling, and Grammar, which will be very useful to those struggling to learn the basics. Even KS1 might be useful to those who are completely new to the English language, and the games are not too childish to turn off older students. KS3 offers a more mature sense of humor in its lessons. For example the lesson on clauses and types of sentences features a HAL-like computer teaching the lesson using sentences that talk about first kisses that are sure to hold any newly minted teen engaged in what would normally be a boring English lesson.

But it’s not all about games. The lessons are standards-based, and take a learner trough all the requirements of instruction, including learning through reading and direct teaching of concepts, followed by a flash activity, and finally an assessment of the standard. Here is where I think this site stands above all others. The quality and scope of the content are without match in free sites.  There are simply so many activities and lessons that it will be hard to get through them all. And if you are worried about standards correlating to your local standards, I guarantee you will find that the UK’s standards are not that different. Every lesson has some discrepancy to US English, but these hardly detracts from the overall success of this site.

The lessons and content lend themselves well to both single-presentation arrangements, or for use in a multimedia/computer lab. My students all participated in the direct lesson on the LCD and this Friday they will have a chance to explore the site further on their own, with some guidance of course, as it will be easy for them to get lost in all of that amazing content.

Teachers can also access the suggested lesson plans and students can chat in a social-networking forum to share ideas and ask for help in revision (the British term for Reviewing).

More posts on this subject should be forthcoming, so keep reading. I haven’t even tried the High School material yet, which includes many more subject areas than just English, Maths and Science. They also include a few very high-quality games like the foreign language mystery Destination Death.

Maybe a review of each game is in order and perhaps, if  a form is created, students could be involved in separating the good from the great.

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 )