Classroom diaries: an unusual spelling quiz

kids learning about team spirit

Class profile

A mix of bilingual/trilingual young learners, some of whom are “traditional” EFL students, while others have been exposed to English-speaking environments through school, family, etc. Age range: 7 to 11.


Review unit vocabulary and challenge two learners who are using more advanced resources. Conduct group activities notwithstanding age differences.

How we did it

A couple of students (10 and 11-year-olds) were delighted to prepare the unit vocabulary quiz today. I suggested they write sentences to provide context. I was curious to see how this exercise would pan out – these students are more fluent and work well together. Soon, they whispered, consulted the list, and wrote away, which gave me time to focus on review with the other group.

Quiz time

I should have guessed…If you are a teacher, remember when you started out teaching? Or if you are a new manager, you are going to get every detail right, aren’t you? Leave nothing to chance and make sure everything has been covered?

My Diligent and Focused Helpers wrote about 40 sentences containing 80% of the unit vocabulary filling an A4 page, front and back, and mind you, skipping no line between each sentence. Then, they moved to the front of the room and kept this-most-important-paper (quiz sentences) covered because, as they explained, they did not want the others to even peek at or read any of it (with their long-distance X-ray vision).

Unofficial translation: The Helpers expected nothing short of hard work and honesty from their peers, because after all, they had toiled to write up a killer quiz.

I waited, expecting disaster mutiny to happen, but the test-takers were not about to be undone and they rose to the challenge. So did I. We covered about 20 sentence dictations in 15 minutes. I admit to manipulating the pace: we had to keep this exercise short enough to keep its interest and not demoralize the troops. Had I suggested such a quiz, I would have (rightly) been cast off as a tyrant.


The Helpers delivered grammatical sentences with good accents and tempo. Some students succeeded in keeping pace and wrote the full sentences making very few mistakes; another wrote phonetically.

I thought that was great because he kept up and did not let spelling distracting him from capturing meaning. As a matter of fact, if he didn’t catch a couple of words, the phonetics were off. Others did very well at their own level and overcame challenges, such as being new to writing in English, or not having taken courses in a while. I was impressed.

The two Helpers had a degree of authority (great language skills) and they used it, poking at those who couldn’t keep up with cheer, smiles and fast hints. They expected struggle but above all, they expected success from their peers. Not perfection, because kids speaking multiple languages understand how “perfect mastery” in all skills isn’t a realistic for most. This is likely why one child wrote phonetically – he didn’t want to fall back and he knew he could get through the task, from a listening perspective!

Would we do it again?

Not every week, but sure! The Helpers did a great job and turned a measly vocabulary quiz into a fun challenge. They spoke together at length in English, engaged in writing, and later spoke again to the class, responding to questions and clarifications requested by their peers. The test-takers are nearly foaming at the mouth, looking forward to crafting their own devious quiz to test today’s Helpers, with the hope of bringing them to troubled waters.

I am tickled to see that a teacher rightly could not get away with this kind of tortuous and lengthy “quiz” – but somehow, when peers do it, it works out and is constructive.

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