How to Assess in Theme-based Learning

Formative and summative assessments need to be approached a bit differently from standardized testing to assess progress in language acquisition throughout the school term.   Some benefits of Theme-based Learning assessment strategies are that they are much less stressful for the students and usually provide a more accurate evaluation of what your students have learned and remember rather than what they have memorized for a test.

Summative Assessment ideas:

  • Individual, Group Project, or Collaborative Class Project – long-term, puts together all the things they have learned
    • Create a board game using language learned in classFilm a pantomime with 1 or 2 narrators or voice-oversCreate Neighborhood mapsBook creator – create a book (online or paper) related to the units studied and connect them under the themeDioramaPresentationReport/Essay
    • Scavenger Hunt (complex): Create questions based on a unit or story you students just completed.  Students find items by answering the questions which gives them a clue to answer the next or other questions on the list.


For summative assessments in Theme-Based Learning always have a good analytical rubric. 
It will make your job easier and it will make it easy to explain goals and results to students (and parents).

*See padlet for sample rubrics & Theme Project Examples for Summative Assessments

Formative Assessment ideas:

  • Quick questions: while students are working on projects or assignments to check if they are going the right direction.
    • Concept Map (a visual plan of their ideas or a summary of a story you read or they are reading)Transfer the Concept: example – students have learned prepositions of space (in, on, under, next to), then give them different situations to use the new language such an images of inside a home, businesses along a street, freeze a scene from a movie, or get them to draw their favorite place and label items there or write sentences about the items in the picture.Survey game (Find Someone Who…. BINGO) using BINGO cards related to the topic with sentence scaffolding.Then get students to share the information they collected:
      What does _____ like to do on the weekend?
      She/He likes to ___________.Picture Dictation: draw what you hear.Peer instruction: one student teaches another how to do something related to the topic/themeShort interviews with students (usually one-on-one)Scavenger Hunt (simple): Create clues based on a unit or story your students are studying.  Students find items around the classroom that match the clues and write them down on the paper or collect the item. (ie/Find a blue book about animals).Graffiti Wall: large poster papers with questions or topics on them are put up in sections around the room, and students walk around and write or draw answers with markers.Graphic Organizers: Mind maps, Venn Diagrams, character/subject charts.
    • KWL chart: students fill in the first 2 sections before they study and the last column after the lesson or unit.

Image: Kristina Kauss 2022, based on data from KWL Example – Seasons Storyboard by Natasha Lupiani

Activity: Post Reading Assessments.

Are the following examples Formative or Summative forms of evaluation?  

Write either F or S.

  1. ___ A book review
  2. ___A drawing of a scene from a book
  3. ___A book report
  4. ___A skit that replays a scene from a book
  5. ___Designing a cover for a book
  6. ___Create a poster to promote the book
  7. ___Having a discussion about a book
  8. ___Writing some sentences about what the student
           thinks will happen next in a book
  9. ___Talk about characters or scenes from the book

EXAMPLES of adapting school textbooks to Theme-Based Learning

  • Use dialogues in the textbook, but personalize them based on student interests and experiences connected to the theme.
  • Change textbook stories and reading passages into Interactive Dramatic Reading activities with follow-up speaking or writing prompts that utilize reading comprehension strategies. 

Ask students questions about how the reading material connects to the theme you have chosen to bridge the different units.

  • Change grammar or pronunciation lessons from the textbook into concept attainment lessons. (Strategy created by Jerome Bruner that encourages critical thinking.
    A teacher shows students a group of pictures/ words and then asks what the common theme is in pictures or words).  

      • Example: if a teacher wanted to teach students about FoodThe teacher has a stack of cards, each card with a picture of types of food. The teacher does not tell the students the topic, but asks them to instead guess the common theme.
      • OR the teacher has the students group cards into different themes.
  • Going beyond what the textbooks provide.  Create projects and games that tie together content from multiple units.
  • Mix up the units.  You are not required to teach every unit in order.

PBA – Create a Class Game Board Project

This is a fun PBA (Project Based Assessment) project for students to do.  It takes some planning, but it can be adjusted to accommodate any/language level.

This is a long-term project (usually an entire semester).  It is student-centered.  Students have control over the design and rules of the games (for individual team projects) and control over what mission cards or question cards, and avatars they create (individual group or whole class).   

This can be a small group project where each team creates its own game over the course of a semester, or it can be a large class project where each team creates a section of the game board. When doing this as a small group project you can give the students a lot more creative freedom.

In either situation, after each learning module have students create a part of the game: one time it is working on the board, another time they make chance cards or mission cards or question cards, and another time they make the characters for the games and the rules.  

I usually give students at least 1 class hour a week to work on their games. If you do not see your student frequently, 1 class hour every 2 weeks works, too. Students learn and reinforce class lessons in English by creating the parts of the game, and they practice reading, listening, and speaking through playing the game(s). 

Elementary & Secondary: An added bonus when you need a class lesson to fill time. After working on the games for about 4 – 6 weeks, students should have completed enough of the game boards that you can take the games out and have students play the games in teams. It is a great review and language practice tool.

When planning this project think about:

Kristina Kauss August 2022

Elementary School 5th and 6th grades created their class game board based on a map of their neighbourhood. The units they were studying first to start these projects were about giving directions.

Each team was given a B4 size paper with a section of their neighbourhood. They traced the map, made larger blocks for different places on the maps, and wrote the names of places in English.

They wrote the names of streets and businesses, landmarks, and other buildings they learned about in class (hospitals, police stations, schools, post offices, restaurants, supermarkets, movie theatre, etc…).

Then they coloured their maps and used markers to outline building locations.

Once the map basics are completed glue them onto hardboard so they don’t rip, and they will survive until at least the end of the semester. Usually, 2 B4 Papers fit on one board. You can cut the boards in half to fit the B4 size, so teams can continue adding to the boards from future lessons.

Next, students created game cards based on the language they learned from the 2 weeks of lessons (review!) which included mission cards about asking for and giving directions, chance cards that had TPR directions, and jeopardy cards for losses and advancement.

Some classes added hints at the bottom of the cards for the more difficult questions.  Other classes wrote hints/ answers upside down in smaller print at the bottom of the cards. 

After each of the following topic’s lessons (appearances, food, restaurants, going to the doctor/dentist, etc…) they added more features to the game boards (specific stores, restaurants, and other topic-related locations), created game avatars, danger zones, and bonus areas. The students also created the rules for the game (with the teacher’s help).

When using this for PBA for a final exam: provide students with an analytical rubric when you hand out the directions, so they know what the parameters and expectations are.

Instructions for Secondary+ Students (Different game boards made by each team):

  • 4 partners will make an English Speaking Board Game using all language/ grammar studied during the semester.  ALL UNITS.   ALL Vocabulary & Grammar
  • Board games must be English SPEAKING games.
  • Teams have the freedom to design the theme of their games.
  • Teams must create the rules, avatars, and all game pieces for their games.
  • The games are due the week before exams.
  • Teams will present their games to the class, and they will explain the idea behind their game and how to play the game (the game rules).
  • On the final exam day, teams will play the games they created, and then you will play the games other teams created. (Station Rotation)
  • After playing each game for about 15 – 20 minutes, students will write a 2-3 sentence review of the game they just played.
  • You will be graded on Language use (spoken) during each game and the evaluations you write about the games after you play.

Secondary and 1st-year University students’ creations

Some teams got very creative.

Others kept their designs more basic. Which was Okay, since the presentation and speaking portions of the exam were worth the most marks.

Facilitating in Active Learning

“Active learning requires students to think, discuss, challenge, and analyze information.  Passive learning requires learners to absorb, assimilate, consider, and translate information. Active learning encourages conversation and debate, while passive learning encourages active listening and paying attention to detail.”

–  Khristina Russell

Be a Facilitator
In passive learning (reading and listening) the students are responsible for taking in and comprehending everything that is given to them.  

Sometimes the teacher needs to take a step back from “giving” the students all the information.   Students are not simply computers waiting for commands to be input.

Help students discover answers and improve their skills by being a facilitator and subtly guide activities through tasks that generate active participation and critical thinking skills rather than lecture.  

Active VS Passive Learning (Bath & Bourke, 2010: 25, International Journal of Languages’ Education and Teaching. 6. 163-170)

Active Learning activities can include:

  • projects
  • perspective role-playing
  • game based learning
  • role-playing with character cards (Mystery – Murder Mystery games)
  • survey tasks (disguising them as games helps)
  • real world problem solving

One of the best ways to improve Language Acquisition is to do things that involve talking to people in a more relaxed environment.    Getting students talking while focusing less on their language skills and more on communication and conveying their ideas is a great foundation.   To improve language acquisition use activities that get students out of their comfort zone (silence) and actively speaking.  Make speaking their new comfort zone by encouraging them to communicate and not worry about speaking perfectly.

Some Other Ideas for Adapting Boring Book Exercises into Active Learning are:

  • Turn gap fill exercises into a treasure hunt
  • Turn surveys into a bingo game
  • Turn vocabulary study into a number of activities
  • Do group projects where they need to communicate
  • Projects
  • Team Project Example: Create Which way adventure/ Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Story
  • Station Rotation
  • Get your students moving
  • Perspective role-playing
  • Role-playing with character cards (Mystery – Murder Mystery games)
  • Survey tasks (disguising them as games helps)
  • Real world problem solving
  • Game based learning

Example Activity

Perspective role-playing: look at the topic/situation from the perspective of a
character, who will affect or be affected by the topic.
(Example: the hamster’s view vs. the elephant’s point of view in a situation)

Reflection: Active Speaking in My Classroom

  • Are there follow-up questions in your speaking activity?
  • Are there  prompts to keep the conversation going and for
    students to give detailed answers?
  • Are learners actively doing something?
    Students like something active to do rather than just following the book.  
    Even in ‘Read – Aloud’ activities!
  • Does one task lead into the next creating a smooth flow?

Russell, K. (2021, June 2). Active vs. passive learning: What’s the difference? Graduate Programs for Educators. Retrieved from,and%20paying%20attention%20to%20detail.

Active VS Passive Learning (Bath & Bourke, 2010: 25, International Journal of Languages’ Education and Teaching. 6. 163-170)’s_Motivation_in_English_Teaching_Learning_Process

Using TPR to Encourage Speaking

TPR or Total Physical Response: matches vocabulary/phrases with actions.  It utilizes kinesthetic learning used in combination with visual and/or auditory learning, thus producing multi-sensory learning.  TPR activities are great for language acquisition and for getting the wiggles out (when students start fidgeting in their seats in class or when online at home) of students of any age.  I have used this for my students in classes from elementary to university and adults.

How to use TPR

  • Prepare: Plan the vocabulary you want to focus on and the matching movements.
  • Teacher Modelling: The teacher does an action, both demonstrating and saying it (ex: “I’m washing my face”).  Be prepared to exaggerate, use gestures, facial expressions, and props if you have them.  For example, use a pen as a prop when you do the action and say “Write your name.”
  • Student Participation: Get your students involved!  Have all the students repeat the action and say the word or phrase together.  This is when you can see if everyone understands.  It also helps reduce part of the insecurity your students may feel speaking English.
  • Optional: Write the verb/phrase on the board or screen AFTER modeling and getting the students to do the actions with the words.  

    Not writing or having the words up earlier helps students focus on the sounds of the words and your actions, rather than the spelling of it.  Writing it down for them after helps students connect the sound and action with a written word/phrase.
  • Repeat: Repeat this for additional vocabulary.  After you have introduced all the new vocabulary or phrases be sure to review all the new words and movements with the class.

    Return to these words and phrases regularly throughout the school year to reinforce memory assisted by the TPR mnemonic device.

Read more here:

TPR and C.A.R.E.

C.A.R.E. is a mnemonic device (in this case an acronym) to help you remember the 4 main types of memory activities for English Language Learning.  

  • TPR often incorporates these 4 main types of memory activities:
    • Creating a mental linkage (connecting action to words)
    • Applying images or sounds (students hear/speak to match TPR)
    • Reviewing well (repeating TPR activities works as a mnemonic device)
    • Employing an action (this is TPR)

Read more here:

TPR: Total Physical Response activities

Simon Says

This is a great game because your students probably already know it as it has probably been used in the students’ L1.  This is a very useful activity for reviewing vocabulary from previous lessons or at the end of a complicated lesson. Simon Says is great example of an action and speaking activity tool which reinforces the language acquisition through kinesthetic learning.

“Simon says” to do something, and you do it.

If the leader doesn’t say “Simon says” first, you don’t do it.

Traditionally teachers in large classrooms typically have all of the students stand up to start.  Then throughout the game, teachers usually have students sit down if they miss a question or answer incorrectly.   However, some students will deliberately make a mistake quickly in the game so they can sit down and not have participate.  Instead of having students sit down when they get caught making a mistake divide the class into teams and when someone on one team makes a mistake award a point to the other team instead of having the student sit down.

Simon Says as a Speaking and Action Activity

For example, you’ve just taught a lesson on meeting new people (unit 1 of almost every ESL book).  You can use these phrases with actions for Simon Says.

  • Simon Says “greet your neighbor” (turn and say hello)
  • Simon Says “ask your partner about their family” (make a circle w/ hands)
  • Simon Says “ask about your partner’s job” (I’m a student)
  • Simon Says “ask about your partner’s pet“ (actions matching dog/cat)
  • “Introduce yourself” doesn’t have Simon Says in front, so speaking here is incorrect and loses a point for their team.

Group Singing

A great example of group singing with total physical response is the grade school classic, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”.  This song is not only fun for students to sing but incorporates movements that students can remember even if they can’t quite get all the words.  

Songs work as an audio, visual and physical mnemonic device.  They help students remember the words more accurately as practice or repetition combined with the tune reinforces the meaning of the words/phrases.

You can add actions use this TPR with popular songs as well.   There are often actions you can add to every line of a song that reflects the meaning of the lyrics.  Popular songs are usually catchy, repetitive, and encourage movement.  It is one reason they become popular.

Some fun songs that can be easily made into TPR songs are:

TPR can also be done in a call and response chant or song. Call & response chants are usually short and are used to get students’ attention or to reinforce and give positive stimulus.  The TPR actions can all be modified easily for online zoom classrooms.

Here are some fun examples:

Call & response chant examples

Ss = Students
T = Teacher

Teacher says:Students respond with
words and actions:

“Listen Up!”
T: Put hands facing front on both sides of your face
“Listen Up!”     
Ss: put hands facing front on both sides of their face
“Hocus Pocus!”
T: Wiggle hands as if making magic
“Everybody focus!”
Ss: wiggle hands, too, then point to the teacher
“Macaroni and Cheese!” 
T: Wave hands in the air
“Everybody Freeze!” 
Ss: put hands in the air
“If you’re happy and you know it…”
T: One hand cupping ear
“Clap your hands!” 
Ss: clap hands
“One, two, three, eyes on me!”
T: Use fingers to count, point to your eyes
and then point to yourself
“One, two, eyes on you!”
Ss: use fingers to count, point to their eyes and
then point to the teacher
“A better you!”
T: Hands out the students palms up.
“A greater us!”
Ss: make a big circle with their arms
T: One hand pointing or in a fist up high
Ss: two hands up
“Stay focused because?”
T: One hand cupping ear
“There’s great work to do!”
Ss: two hands up in power fists
“We are the movement”
T: Marching on the spot
“We are the voice!”
Ss: cup hands around mouth
T: Hands out
“Lives here!”
Ss: point down