Author: teachingtoteach

Toolbox: Interactive boxes

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I’m the type of teacher who loves using envelopes, slips of paper and boxes. I’m always carrying materials like these to my classes, as I believe that they can be used for many purposes. Last year I attended a session about ‘learning boxes‘ in a Training Day for teachers and since then I was thinking about how to integrate this idea together into my lessons. At that time, my colleague prof. Juanjo Rabanal popped in my office to ask for my opinion about types of activities which could be carried out in the ‘Jornadas de Educación’ (Education Workshops), which are held once a year at the university where I work, and a light turned on in my mind. Why not turning ‘learning boxes into ‘interactive boxes’?

Interactive boxes are plastic or paper containers in which we put a task or activity. Students need to be able to carry it out without any lecturers’ help, and the task should ideally involve cooperative learning. Boxes need to include clear instructions about what students need to do to produce a learning outcome. Another characteristic is that time is restricted (that makes students go to the point and collaborate!). Instructions can be included as a paper worksheet, a digital file in a pen drive, a link to a video you have previously recorded, etc. Once students read the instructions and negotiate its meaning in their group, they start working to complete the task. In the box you may include objects they need to use in the activity. In this case, as we were working on interactivity, we used ICTs together with other objects, for example, a mobile phone, a tablet, a laptop, a measuring tool, etc. To make things more challenging, prof. Eva Peñafiel contributed to the project with an added difficulty using geocaching. In that way, students were given the coordinates of the location where the boxes were hidden (this was the first step to start working). We were really happy with the results of this experience, and it looked like students were finding it quite innovative.

My second try with interactive boxes was in a Postgraduate on-campus session.Lecturers from different departments created cross curricular activities which revolved around the topic ‘Scientific Expedition Trips‘. Students were divided into groups and given an explorer’s pack (introduction to the activity, a map with the places where the boxes where located, and a tablet). Once they read the instructions to the activity, they had a limited time to complete the task. For example, I designed an interactive box with fragments of real texts taken from diaries written by explorers. Students had to create a comic strip using photographs and an app to create Comics. Students created freeze frames and took pictures. When we finished the activity, teachers and students had a round-table discussion together. This was guided by the analysis of the activities carried out and the discussion about their design, usefulness,etc. One of the best things was to discover that many students were thinking about adapting this activity to their teaching contexts.

From a linguistic point of view, cooperative learning sets the best context to make participants use expressions related to negotiating meaning, giving opinion, praising others’ ideas, or encouraging peers to participate, among others. Also, it is advisable to encourage participants to reflect about what they have thought and felt while involved in the experience, and to encourage them to come up with more ideas to create new boxes they may use in their lessons.
Are you thinking about using this resource? Have you already used it? Was it successful? Would you like to have more ideas to develop it? I’d love to hear from you.

Interactive boxes are resources full with possibilities
Interactive boxes are resources full with possibilities


1st Meeting of Educational Teams

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On 29th May, our University will be hosting the 1st Meeting of Educational Teams. The central idea is that we are living in a society which moves very fast and requires of educational centres to change and adapt constantly.  Therefore, Head Departments of Educational Centres need to be flexible and creative to cope with these circumstances, looking at obstacles as if they were opportunities. In this context, this meeting aims to provide participats with the opportunity to think and reflect about the ways we can take advantage of educational change to keep on advancing in Education.

The Meeting is open to Head Departments and Teachers working at any educational level, and it will be held using Spanish as the vehicular language. It will run from 9 to 14.30.

Registration is free, but you need to book a place by sending an email to with the subject: I Encuentro de Equipos Educativos de Organizaciones que Aprenden. In this email you need to indicate your complete name and Identity Card Number.

If you need more information, you can access it here


1st Meeting of Educational Teams at Cardenal Cisneros University College. Photo: Communication Service CUCC


My experience with rubrics: all that glitters is not gold

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When I first heard of rubrics, I was thrilled to bits. Assessing students’ work is not my cup of tea, and I always found it difficult to provide students with enough feedback to justify my mark and to guide them to improve their work. Working with rubrics looked the perfect solution for this situation, and I started to use them with enthusiasm. I was a Practicum tutor, and I thought it was a good idea to use rubrics. I defined 30 items as assessment criteria and checked Practicum reports following it. It was hard work at the beginning, but once I knew what I was looking for in my students’ work, it became sort of automatic to mark their works. Once this assessment process was finished, I found out that most of my students didn’t come to my office to collect their works, hence, they didn’t have access to the wonderful rubrics I had written for them. Naturally, I thought that my assessment was better because I could justify the mark with detailed arguments, but I did not feel I was fulfilling the ‘formative feedback‘ I wanted to provide.

Using rubrics: pros and cons
Using rubrics: pros and cons

Once the new degrees (Bologna Plan) were implemented, it sounded natural to me to incorporate rubrics to my everyday practice. Every time I assigned a task, I included clear information about what I expected students to do (or be). I started using checklists, then went through assessment criteria classified into 5 levels according to the level of excellence, and finally I used level descriptors, explaining which outcomes belong to each mark for each assessment criteria. It took me a long time to find useful rubrics, and most of the time I had to adapt them or make them new from scratch. Even showing students rubrics in advance was not so effective as I thought, and many of them confessed they did not look at them when completing assignments.

My last stage in the use of rubrics has been somewhat ‘painful’. From the results I obtained using rubrics in different tasks, I realised that many students were obtaining passing grades, even when their work was not worth that mark. In other words, I considered that if I hadn’t used rubrics, students wouldn’t have had a pass. I discussed this with my colleagues. Some of them had stopped using rubrics, because they considered it was a waste of time (students don’t look at them, it takes longer to mark works and marks tend to be higher than they should; that’s what they told me); some others were adapting them to make them ‘fairer’ (or tougher). I then looked at my rubrics and discovered that I was giving 1 point out of 5 for an incorrect structure, or poor English. The trick was then to do some Maths and check whether works with poor learning outcomes could have a pass with that rubric, and Eureka!, I found out that many rubrics were making things too easy for my student. From a scale from 0 to 5, if you don’t have a 2,5, it is of no use to mark that work. You’re giving points for something which blatantly doesn’t meet the minimum requirements. 

Another issue is the one concerning the integration of content and language in rubrics. Most rubrics contain a section where the teacher can indicate if the students has a good level of English or shows good use of terminology. This ‘saves the day’ for most of us, but it is not a CLIL rubric. If we are integrating language in an appropriate way, we should be developing students’ language functions concerning the task in hand. For example, if we are working with experiments, and helping students to hypothesize, students should master hypothesizing structures such as: “It may…” “It’ll probably”, “It is possible that…”. A specific item in the assessment criteria should make reference to this type of language, and the learning outcomes concerning this. It is not just a matter of assessing, including this assessment criteria in the rubric means that we have integrated the learning of this language function in our lessons, and that students have had the opportunity to practise this language function inside (and/or outside) the classroom.

To sum up, my experience with rubrics is that of ‘constant learning‘, and I am now aware of many issues I have to take into account when designing a rubric (which I was not aware of before). All in all, I believe that rubrics are a great tool to assess students’ learning in a more appropriate way, and providing them with the feedback they need to do better next time.

What’s your experience with rubrics? Are you using them? 

2013 in review – Happy New Year

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Happy New Year to you all! Let’s start 2014 by doing two things. First, I’d like to ask you all about which topics would you like to see covered in my next posts here. I’d be very thankful if you can provide me with ideas. If you would like me to review articles, books, etc., please let me know.

Second, let’s have a look back at how this blog progressed in 2013. WordPress has prepared this wonderful summary to know interesting statistics about this site. I hope you like it!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,300 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

New Postgraduate Course: Expert in CLIL – Virtual Learning

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After one hard year of work, I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be co-directing a new postgraduate course: Expert in Content and Language Integrated Learning. This academic programme is focused on improving teachers’ profiles to cope with bilingual education contexts by using the CLIL pedagogical approach. The Course is on-line with 3 optional face-to-face sessions which will take place on Campus. It will run from February to June, and it is composed by 24 ECTS. Participants will take three compulsory subjects to establish the fundamentals of the teaching-learning process using CLIL, and they will have the chance to choose 3 optional subjects, which deal with topics such as Social Sciences, Arts, Science, Using Stories, Classroom Management, or Coordinating a Bilingual Project (this last subject will have a face-to-face module which will take place in Madrid).

Offering this postgraduate course is not a matter of chance, our University College has been training teachers to offer Bilingual Degrees for 10 years now, and I have been coordinating the methodological training of teachers from 2008. Also, lecturers participating in the Expert Teaching Staff are well experienced in the implementation of CLIL in their classrooms, and many of them are involved in research projects which revolve around bilingual education and CLIL.

 If you are interested in obtaining more information about this Postgraduate Course, you can visit our webpage (information in English will be available soon), and/or contact me via email: raquel.fernandez@cardenalcisneros. Thank you all in advance for spreading the word.

Cardenal Cisneros University College offers an Expert in CLIL Postgraduate Course - Campus
Cardenal Cisneros University College offers an Expert in CLIL Postgraduate Course. Source of Photo:


Wall of Fame- Selection of blogs

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Students' blogs
Students’ blogs

It’s been so hard to choose one single blog for the Wall of Fame, that I’ve had to pick up more than one this time. My students are doing a great job reflecting on the issues raised in the classroom. That’s the case of Eduardo Aguilar, he is good at selecting key points seen in class, but also at expanding them with more materials and resources. You can have a look at his blog here:

One of the main topics these last two weeks has been POETRY. I consider that it is necessary to make a shift in the way we deal with poetry in class, so that children can find a way to enjoy it. Some students have been writing on this topic. For example, Nuria Márquez talks about the digital tool we are using to create a Poetry Book, Storybird. The main aims is to enhance their creative writing and to discover a digital tool they may like to use with their pupils in the future. You can see Nuria’s blog here:

Rebeca has also been dealing with poetry in her blog, and she has linked the techniques and strategies seen in class with CLIL. We have also discovered that we can use poetry to make content lessons more dynamic, interactive and communicative.  You can see Rebeca’s blog here:

If you would like to explore digital tools to create stories in class, Alberto Zapata knows best J. Visit his last post and you will get complete information about how to use digital tools to work with stories and creative writing:

If you would like to read more on the I Can Tell It workshop my students organised this week, you may like to visit Alberto’s blog and Leticia’s blog : It is great to read about the contents of each workshop and how much they enjoyed the experience. 

Last, but not least, María has written an excellent post on Readers Theatre. She tells us about what we did in class, and she expands the information with useful videos and information on this drama activity. You can see her work here:

If you’re visiting my students’ blogs, don’t hesitate to leave comments and participate actively in the activity. They will appreciate your comments and suggestions. Thanks for collaborating.



What’s the role of English in Higher Education?

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What’s the role of English in Higher Education? This was the main topic of an event which took place in Segovia (Spain) last week, as reported by the University World News. The British Council, in collaboration with the IE University organised this international meeting where universities from different countries worldwide and experts from the British Council and the European Commission were involved. The key issue of the meeting was to discuss the implications of offering English courses and programmes at university and to reflect on the quality of this academic offer.

It is no surprise that most universities are pursuing EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction) programmes as a way to increase their reputation. EMI programmes attract international students to their institutions, and improve undergraduates’ profiles to match the needs of an increasingly demanding labour market. According to the UWN article, many institutions are aware of the need to implement the ‘mother tongue + 2’ objective set by the European Commission, and consider EMI programmes to be an opportunity of improving the quality of university teaching. However, there is still much debate on how this can be achieved in a short period of time.

From my point of view, we are mixing two ideas. One is that English should become ‘a lingua franca’, and the second is that English should become THE language of higher education. In my opinion, all university students should be helped and trained to have a good command of English, as this will help them not only in their professional but also everyday lives. That said, the way we are going to improve students’ communication skills in English is another debate, however I don’t consider a completely monolingual programme to be a valid option. It is not how often you teach in English, it is how well you do it, and here we deal with the issue of methodology. Is EMI good just because we are delivering subjects in the English language? Are all EMI programmes successful? I’m afraid not.

Will English become the lingua franca in HE?
Will English become the lingua franca in HE?

From the meeting held in Segovia, issues were raised on two main areaspolicy implications for successful delivery of EMI courses, and “practical implications of EMI: methodology, quality and assessment’. In the first session, participants raised awareness on the danger of launching EMI programmes without prior training and preparation. Obviously, many institutions want to rush to offer the same academic degrees their counterparts are implementing, but organising a good EMI programme means a minimum training period of 1 year, according to my own experience. Also, participants mentioned the need to embed administrative and academic structures to support EMI projects. This is essential, as the EMI programme is a University academic proposal, in which everybody is involved in some way or another.

Regarding the second session, on the practical implications of EMI. Participants considered that this could be a ‘tool for improving the quality of teaching’. I couldn’t agree more. I consider that pedagogy has been disregarded in Higher Education Institutions. Many lecturers are leading experts in their fields of specialisation, but don’t know how to create knowledge in their classrooms. If we help these people to communicate more effectively, to work on higher-order thinking skills, to scaffold their input, etc, we are going to get better, long-term and more effective learning. Also, they will be provided with a set of teaching tools which are easily transferable to their classes taught in their mother tongue.

Another issue raised in the second session was the difficulty of establishing shared policies regarding language testing, and the need to compensate EMI teachers for this extra work they are doing. Bilingual projects in Spain have chosen Cambridge ESOL and Trinity Exams to assess students’ performance in terms of language competence. However, this is making many academic programmes suffer from the so-called washback effect. Besides that, I wonder what would happen if we measured the success of EMI programmes in terms of the 4Cs proposed by Do Coyle: Cognition, Content, Communication and Culture. Language performance is just a leg of EMI programmes.

All in all, I’m confident about the work Universities are doing to provide students with better instruction in or through English. The main issue that should be raised is that everything starts with the training provided to teachers. If head departments are happy just checking the English competence of their lecturers, EMI programmes will not be making the most of this opportunity of improving teaching-learning quality in Higher Education.

If you are interested in knowing more about how  our CLIL teacher training degrees are organised, please visit this link.

Note: Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

I Can Tell It Workshop

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What happens when you have a group of wonderful students willing to learn and become the best teachers ever? THIS is what happens. Today my 4th year Primary Teacher Training Students (Bilingual Group) designed 6 workshops focusing on 6 different fairy tales. They were prepared to welcome 2nd-year Primary children coming from the State Bilingual School Daoiz y Velarde, Alcalá de Henares (thanks to Rosa and all the teaching staff there!) The activity was part of the subject “Children’s literature in English”, and involved the use of ICT (I Can Tell It) to retell popular fairy tales. It revolved around the idea of a boring wizard who had disorganised fairy tales. Children, with the help of characters, had to retell these stories! 

As you can see in the photographs (and video) here they have worked hard to contextualise the story appropriately in each of the classrooms. They have used visuals, costumes, even music! Also, they have created effective activities dealing with all the communicative skills. As a boost to use new technologies, twitter was used to report on what we were doing and to share experiences.The ICT Department helped us to spread the word #unProyectoparaTIC

Children have enjoyed the workshops and students have applied their ideas into practice! What a great opportunity to keep on learning and to enjoy together!

Thanks for your work, my Explorers! #cuccicantellit @cucc_educacion


CLIL students ready to start “The three little pigs” workshop


Reading Map : winners

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Some years ago colleague prof. Alfredo Palacios showed me a book dealing with artistic creation through the use of maps. I then thought about the map as a metaphor of our experiences, and as a way to facilitate instrospection in my lessons. The first time I used maps was 2011, as part of the Children’s Literature subject I was lecturing. I made my students draw their reading experiences using maps. The experience was amazing, as many students who didn’t have a high English level found the map a good visual support for their explanations, and motivation was dramatically increased in the classroom. In 2012 I repeated the experience with similar results, and in 2013, January, I used it with my colleagues, in a training session on their experience being trained to use CLIL in their University lessons. I guess this made an impact in my colleague Alfredo, who had originally talked to me about this, as you can see in his blog The idea was in away going back and forth between us :)

This academic year I have used reading maps with my students again. They had to create a map about their reading experiences, and were prompted to be as creative as possible. Once the reading maps were ready, we then created a Reading Museum, with all their reading maps and descriptions displayed. They then had to look at their classmates’ work and decide on the three best works they had seen. Apart from this, I asked my colleague Alfredo to analyse these works in terms of artistic value and effort. This was a way of make this activity richer and more… interdisciplinary :). I promised students to publish a photo of the students who got best marks, and this is what I’m doing now. Below you can find Patricia Pélaez, Lucía Fernández, Leticia de la Serna, Andrea Sáez and Sonsoles Torres proudly showing their reading maps. Good teaching demands for creative teachers, and here they are! :)

CLIL Teacher Trainees showing winning Reading Maps
CLIL Teacher Trainees showing winning Reading Maps

Does CLIL make a difference? My report on AEDEAN congress

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From Wednesday 13th to Friday 15th November, I’ve been attending the 37th edition of the AEDEAN (Spanish Association of English and North American Studies) congress, which was this time held in Oviedo, and hosted by its University. As usual, I’d like to share my thoughts and impressions with you all. More particularly, I’ll be referring to those sessions related to my main area of interest: CLIL, which were presented in the Language Teaching and Acquisition section of the congress. These sessions were coordinated by prof. Francisco Gallardo del Puerto (Universidad de Cantabria), who did a great job not only in providing speakers with valuable feedback and food for thought in each session but also in creating a relaxing atmosphere.

From my point of view, there seems to be a big concern about demonstrating empirically the alleged learning gains when using CLIL instruction. In fact, most studies presented were interested in proving whether advantages of CLIL instructions can be correlated with the methodological approach used or with the increased exposure to the target language. I’ll provide with a brief summary of each of the sessions dealing with this.  For example, the one conducted by Pilar Agustín Llach (Universidad de La Rioja), and coauthored by Rosa M. Jiménez Catalán. They compared the lexical profile of two groups with the same hours of instruction in English (839 hours). A group was composed by 31 adult learners in their 2nd year of OSL (Official School of Languages), and the other group had 68 young learners attending 5th grade of Primary in a ‘CLIL’ context.  The results ‘clearly point to older learners obtaining significantly better measures of lexical richness, thus claiming that  ‘age is a more relevant factor in predicting or facilitating lexical acquisition that amount of exposure’. One curious finding in this research was that younger learners’ lexical profiles contain more words belonging to higher frequency levels.

In line with this, Izaskun Villareal Olaizola (Universidad Publica de Navarra) presented a study focused on the use of some morphological features (affixal –s and ed, suppletive auxiliary and copula be) in two groups. They are both L3 English groups, Basque-Spanish bilinguals, taking CLIL and non-CLIL programmes respectively. Results showed ‘a higher omission rate for the CLIL group’. The study was then repeated with a different CLIL group with a higher amount of exposure to the language. The non-CLIL group omitted less affixal morphemes again.

Another interesting study was the one presented by María Martínez Adrián. She carried out a research on students’ use of L1 in L3 (English) oral production. Her study was carried out with two groups which had started learning English at the age of 8 and have been learning English for 7 years as a L3. One group is involved in a CLIL programme. Results indicate that the CLIL group uses L1 less, and has a greater variety of tenses and more subordinate clauses.

Finally, Judith Fusté Fargas (Colegio La Carpa) described a study on 6th grade students’ vocabulary knowledge. 223 participants from 6 different schools in Barcelona took part in the study.  Results show that the effect of CLIL programmes is minor when the amount of instruction is parallel to the regular problems, hence, time exposure seems to be more determinant that the methodology used.

Although interesting and relevant, these studies have clear limitations. First of all, we need to establish which the minimum requirements for a programme to be considered CLIL-based are. Are we talking about a bilingual context or a CLIL context? Are they synonyms? What type of instruction is being carried out? I agree with Prof. Carmen Muñoz’s comment (she was a plenary speaker in the cogress, and was present in some of the Language Teaching and Acquisition sessions), who said that there are ‘different CLILs’, and for that reason it is very important to describe which type of instruction is being carried out in the schools researched. I completely agree with this, and I also wonder if we can talk about CLIL contexts (and not bi-,multi- lingual contexts).

Another weakness these studies need to cope with is the type of ‘measuring standards they are using. Being able to produce the 3rd person –s inflection or avoid auxiliary verbs may not be the main focus of CLIL instruction, which favours more meaning-based production. One the plenary speakers in the congress, Prof. Martin Dewey (King’s College, London) , who was among the audience in Villareal’s session, indicated that the results presented, far from being counterintuitive, were reinforcing the nature of CLIL programmes, were fluency was being fostered. This also raises an important question on the way we are ‘measuring’ students’ language performance. If CLIL is based on ‘language functions’, Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, as well as Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills, and fluency, are we using the right tests to check students’ proficiency level?

All in all, I would like to finish this entry saying that I’m really happy to find so many Spanish experts involved in researching SLA in CLIL contexts. I consider that we are doing a great job in seeking answers for the CLIL ‘big question’: does CLIL makes a difference? And Yes, it does!

Information on the congress can be found here: