The name of the game: language learning at its best!


“Max the Cat” boardgame

“Okay, guys, whose turn is it?”

“Roll the dice.  What colors did you get?”

“Green and black!” 

“Black is for the cat…. here comes the cat!  Here comes the cat!” 

“Okay, so who are we going to help?  The bird, the mouse, or the chipmunk!” 

…just a few bits of dialogue, typical for a round of “Max the Cat”.   Children love this game, and find it terribly exciting to make decisions about which animals to help, when to feed the cat, and counting out spaces as they move their counters around the board.  With this particular game, children work together to move the parent animals – a chipmunk, a mouse, and a bird – to the tree, so they can feed their babies.  Each time a green dot is rolled, the group decides which parent animal to move forward.  In the meantime, there is also a hungry cat on the prowl.  Each time the child rolls a black dot, the cat moves forward one step.  When he gets too close, the children can “feed” the cat one of his favorite treats: milk, cat food, cheese, or catnip.  That means the cat has to go all the way back to start, giving the smaller animals a temporary reprieve in their quest to feed their babies.  Children identify with the various animals, often saying things like “I’m the bird!  I want to fly!”

As they play, the children discuss various decisions and work together to reach a common goal, making this a very effective way to work on their social skills.  At the same time, they are developing language skills, making this activity doubly effective.

Games are a wonderful way of learning language in a natural environment.  As teachers, we need to be aware of the different kinds of language we can teach with games: game-specific language, and general language of play.  In the case of “Max the Cat”, game-specific language would for instance include the names of the players: cat, bird, mouse, chipmunk, and babies.  It could also include short utterances like “here, kitty kitty,” when the children feed the cat and call it back home.  This is the language that is tied to this specific game, due to the types of players and kinds of moves in the game itself.  General game language would include things like “it’s your turn”, “roll the dice”, and counting the spaces as the players move.  This is language that is applicable in different kinds of games, no matter the game.  This worksheet  (borrowed from provides excellent examples of general game language.

When designing a lesson using games, we can look at these types of language use and plan the kind of language we want our learners to pick up on, including examples of chunking and phrase-building.  Keeping with the example of Max the Cat, game-specific language we can employ, including levels of chunking, might include cat, the cat, the black cat, or the hungry cat.  It could also include the question “who do we help?

If we look at another game, like “Guess Who?” game-specific language would include facial characteristics, and learning how to ask and answer questions.  “Does he have a big nose?” or “Does she have brown hair?” are examples of fitting game-specific language.


Another excellent game for language learning: “Guess Who?” 

When we play games with our language learners, we need to be constantly aware of the fact that we are, in fact, doing several things at once.  We are giving our learners a space to acquire language in a natural, enjoyable fashion.  At the same time, we provide them space to practice that language and provide them feedback with every set of the game.  And of course, we are simply having fun – as we well should!



Story table: elements and introduction

Story-table (2)

Many teachers around the world have discovered the joys of a story table in the class for their developing language learners.  As I explained in a previous blog, a story table is an excellent way to activate the narrative skills of the young learner.  For those of you just stepping into this new adventure, it may be a good idea to take a moment to orient yourself to this phenomenon and have a look a two important questions, namely: how does one make a story table?  And how does one introduce this into the classroom?

The first question is the easiest.  A story table is based on a story that you have read aloud to the class, and must contain the following elements: the setting, the characters, and any necessary props that are found in the story.

The setting:  In the picture above, Max’ bedroom, the jungle, and the ocean are pictured, which form the setting of the story Where the Wild Things Are (by Maurice Sendak).  In this case, I used a shoebox for the standing sections, and a piece of cloth for the ocean.  There are many different ways of creating the setting.  A quick search for images of “story tables” reveals many excellent examples, where branches, rocks, wooden boxes, and popsicle-stick bridges form an excellent basis for the story table.  I’ve added a few examples at the end of this blog entry to help get you inspired.

The characters:  Sometimes, one might have dolls or toys that are similar to the characters in the book one is reading.  Other times, one might have to improvise and make the characters from scratch.  In my case, I found a set of printable characters when I looked up “stick puppets ‘Where the Wild Things Are'”.

Props: These are any items that can be manipulated to help re-create the story.   For instance, in the picture above, Max’ bed, a boat, a tent, and a moon/sun are shown.  These items are all an important part of the story and can be moved around while the children re-enact the story.  I made these items using simple things like a milk carton or some leftover cloth.  Some people prefer to use “non-representational props” (like a block for an oven), because this stimulates the use of the child’s imagination.  The use of non-representational props also has the pleasant side-effect of saving the teacher precious time.

It should be noted, that children can also learn to help create story tables.  In working with the children, many different things happen.  First of all, this allows children to experience the story outside of the formal lesson, simply because they have to think about what they saw in the story, and what techniques do they know that they can use in re-creating that story?  Secondly, it empowers children to create a meaningful item for real use in the class.  Thirdly, creating a story table with the children gives them a sense of real ownership of their learning, which is known to act as a powerful motivator for participation.

However, how does one introduce a story table to the class, if it’s never been done before?  Simply putting a fully-furnished story table in the class may be asking for trouble, or children may simply do nothing with it, mystified by its presence.

I would suggest that a first-time introduction would include reading the story to the class more than once.  During the second (or third) reading, one points out important elements of the story, for instance the bedroom, the bed, the boat, or the water.

After that, it is useful to have a starting example for the story table, for instance: a bed, a boat, and a couple of puppets.  Then it’s time to start re-enacting the story, using the elements already in place.  Re-tell the story, and use the puppets to show what is happening.  Do this a few times, until the children start joining in.  When possible, invite children to start “adopting” roles, moving the puppets and re-enacting the speech and actions as the story develops.

Of course, the story table is incomplete.  That’s when one asks the children about what’s missing:  What do we still need?  Who can make the jungle / the ocean / the monsters?  As children volunteer to make the missing elements, make a note of this and help them get started.  When their pieces are ready for use, help them introduce their work to the story table (an excellent moment to talk with children about using the story table, and how to be careful with the various elements).  Then it’s time to let the story table bloom on its own.

Examples of beautiful story tables:

The Story Table

Playing with language at the story table


On a large, round, short table, the children and I re-created the landscape for the book “Elmer in the Snow”.  Using the toilet-paper roll technique for making individual elephant finger puppets, each child had already made his own version of an elephant for the story.  We used paper-maché to create the mountain, crafted jungle trees and fir trees, a river, a bridge, flowers, and snow.  As we worked, we talked about what we were doing, and what we were making.  The children practiced talking about the landscape and what they were doing to create it.

“Tear the paper! Glue the paper! Stick the paper!” … were all sentences they practiced using.

And later: “Look!  A mountain!  A very big mountain!”

And even later: “I make red flowers.  I make a tree.  I paint a river.  It is blue.”

Just making this story table with these learners lent itself to a rich lingual and sensory experience.  Those who weren’t chatting up a storm were often enraptured by the sensation as their hands glided through the glue on the smooth surface of the table.

Later, we read the story again.  This time, using their finger puppets, they re-enacted the story with me.  Up, up, up the mountain they went, giggling as their elephants “threw” minature “snowballs” at each other.  Then down, down, down again, where they were nice and warm.  As they played, they talked about the story, “hiding” their elephants in a table-sized game of hide-and-seek.  “Where are you?” the one would ask, and the others, having cleverly hidden their puppets, would respond “Here I am!  Behind a tree!”

What an amazing way to stimulate children’s learning and speaking!  If we think back to the language they learned, they spoke about processes such as tear, glue, stick, cut, paint, and draw.  They spoke about landscapes and what one finds there: mountains, rivers, snow, trees, flowers, and jungles.  And finally, they talked about the story, using elements from the book.  This is what makes story tables such a rich linguistic experience for language learners.

Of course, those were the days when I had my own classroom to welcome young learners into.  These days as a teacher trainer, I have no room of my own, but have to share rooms with hundreds of other lecturers, and there are few who would appreciate losing a precious table to a re-enactment of an Elmer the Elephant story.  So I had to come up with a more compact example of a story table.  It took some thinking, but I finally managed to make one using a shoebox, pictured below.

Story-table (2)

Story table for “Where the Wild Things Are”, including the bedroom, Max’ boat, the jungle, his tent, finger puppets, a sun/moon clip, and a miniature copy of the book.  The regular book and a couple of puppets are also shown.

I made the story table using re-usable materials I thought most teachers would have access to: a shoe box, toilet paper rolls, a milk carton, and some scraps of cloth.  I found some ready-made templates for stick puppets on the internet (really, why invent the wheel when you can find it?), laminated them for sturdiness, and we were good to go.  My example may not win any prizes for beauty, it is clear and useful for the goals I have in mind.

Firstly, I want my students to realize that story tables are a powerful way to encourage language development.  Not only do children learn the words of the story, and start using them, they also start developing meta-linguistic skills related to storytelling.  A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Characters can do things.  Characters can say things.  Characters say different kinds of things.

Secondly, they don’t have to make the story tables themselves.  Children can assist in making these.  In helping make the story table, children develop a certain awareness of story: who are the characters?  What is in the story?  What is needed, in order to re-enact the story?  While they are making the needed parts, they have the chance to develop an entirely new area of vocabulary, as I explained above, talking about the process and the product of their making.

Thirdly, story tables give children a space to practice language outside of the formal learning environment, be that in the circle, or in rows of tables.  When children feel relaxed and “unseen”, is often when they start to practice language, free to make mistakes nobody will ever hear.

In a later blog, I will talk about the elements of a story table and introducing the story table to your class.

Science in the EFL classroom: an experiment worth trying!


Children love to explore!  Sometimes, their exploration seems random, like tinkering around.  Other times, children explore in a more organized, or scientific, fashion.  As teachers, we can combine children’s love of exploration with language by teaching using the Content and Language Ingrated Learning approach, otherwise known as CLIL.

In this video, you can see a number of examples of how CLIL lessons work:

What we see during these lessons is that the teacher strikes a constant balance between two things: the language input and the subject being taught.  This is what makes CLIL such an efficient didactical approach.

What we also note, however, is that we as teachers are required to actively use a specialized vocabulary.  Talking about farm animals and restaurants just isn’t enough anymore.  This can make the CLIL approach quite daunting.  For indeed, how do we know that we’re teaching the right words for these concepts?

One thing that might be handy for teachers to have at hand is ready-made material in the target language.  For instance, English language science textbooks, or French language maths textbooks, depending on your target language and subject of choice.  These textbooks contain material that is at the level of your learners along with the needed vocabulary.   However, many teachers are not fortunate enough to have stacks of ready-made materials from foreign countries, and see themselves faced with the task of making their own materials: a time-consuming task in the best of times.

Fortunately, there is a lot of online material available to teachers all around the world.  One of these sites is called  This site has readers for science topics, science experiments complete with worksheets and printable materials, and handouts with handily labeled pictures.  All of this is available at different levels of ability, in various formats, printed and projectible.  A free trial is available, during which you can download materials to try out in your own classroom, and costs are reasonable.

Another online resource with science activities for primary education is called Science Activites for Kids.  You can sort the activities based on age, subject, and even theme.  The activities can be downloaded as PDFs, and again, the needed vocabulary is part of the description.  That having been said, these activities were not created with the structured scientific process in mind.  There is no hypothesis, no measurement-taking, and little to no attention to language.  You as the teacher would therefore need to put that in yourself.

If you decide to create your own lessons, then a picture dictionary can come in very handy.  I found a couple of online examples that work pretty well:

One thing I find handy when creating CLIL lessons is a lesson plan form, in which it is clear what I am doing, at each step of the lesson, to teach the target language and the material.  I’ve made a blank form for a lesson plan that you may use and adapt for your own needs, and you can download it here:  LVF-CLIL-English

Whatever you do, start small and simple, and work your way out from there.  Once you’ve had your first success story, you and your class will want more!  And remember, every mountain top is in reach, if you just keep climbing, a step at a time.


Early Language Learning Resources



Last September, I went to Graz as part of a two-day workshop about teaching foreign languages in primary education.  I’d written a blog about the plurilingual classroom, but hadn’t gotten as far as the resources that this group had created.   The European Center for Modern Languages (ECML) is very ambitious: they want to create materials, provide inspiration and information to language teachers across Europe and wherever possible, around the globe.

They started by creating some basic, guiding principles for teaching languages to children.  These principles are based on the idea of the child as an active co-constructor of knowledge.  In the eyes of the ECML, good language instruction actively relies on the existing linguistic repertoire of each child, is holistic and meaningful, is active, is a process, and is coherent and continuous.  Each of these principles is briefly explained further:

  • relies on a child’s existing repertoire: children come to school with their own, personal background knowledge of language, which forms a basis for its further learning of languages.  Good language education allows children to access this as a basis for learning.
  • holistic: language learning is a multi-dimensional process.  It is a social, emotional, intellectual, and sensory process.  It is formal and non-formal, taking place inside and outside school.
  • meaningful: as children grow and develop, their needs in the learning process also change.  Language learning not only gives meaning to the world around them, but also gives children a means to express their own thinking.
  • active: a good language learning environment stimulates problem-solving, enquiry, and discussion.  Teachers shift from being sources of information to being facilitators for their pupils.
  • process: language learning is a journey in which each individual’s path for learning needs to be made clear.  For teachers, this means a shift in focus from results to the process of learning taking place.
  • coherent and continuous: language learning isn’t just for the language classes, it is part and parcel of every subject taught in school.  Attention to the linguistic aspects of each subject help insure succes for children, in and outside of school.

Besides these basic principles, the ECML site has developed a page for FAQ’s (Frequently Asked Questions) including a quiz about “facts and myths” regarding language learning in primary education.  The “myth or fact” quiz provides food for thought regarding our own beliefs and the place of plurilingualism in our own classroom environments.


Example of “inspiring practice”.

Two things that the ECML is starting to develop is a space for learning and teaching resources and examples of inspiring practice.  The learning and teaching resources provide simple lesson activities that can be easily adapted to fit different age groups and themes; and the examples of inspiring practice are simple examples of “good practice,” tried and true succes stories from around Europe.  These two pages are still in development, but it’s a start.

For those wanting more inspiration for their plurilingual classroom, the ECML has provided a page with further inspirational reading.

Of course, there is much more to be found on the website of the ECML, but this is a start.  Happy teaching!


Language awareness in the plurilingual classroom

Last September, I traveled to Graz, Austria, to attend a 2-day workshop entitled “Early Language Learning”, hosted by the European Center for Modern Languages.  Each participant at the workshop represented a different European country, and I had the honor of representing the Netherlands.  During the round of introductions, it soon became apparent that each country wrestles with a different set of problems in teaching foreign languages to their primary school children.  In Scotland, the government had recently created a policy in which all schools must teach French as part of the curriculum.  Teachers suddenly found themselves faced with an impossible situation: how to teach French to children, when the they themselves had little to no training in this area?  It was apparent that the country was at the start of a long, upward spiral of training the teachers, so they could teach the children, who hopefully after a generation or so would themselves be able to teach the language more adequately.

On a similar, but slightly further-developed part of that spectrum, were the countries that had once been behind the Iron Curtain.  Their governments had decided that English would be the foreign language of choice, and schools and teachers found themselves swamped with the sudden need to get training in this area after generations of learning Russian.

On a completely different note, the teacher from Malta noted that the island population had grown 20% in the last year due to the boat migrants.  Teachers found themselves faced with the conundrum of which language to teach: English, in the hope of moving them on to Europe in their journey, or Maltese, so they could get along in their current situation?

It made me realize how incredibly fortunate we are in the Netherlands, with teachers and resources enough to face the challenges offered by foreign language instruction in primary schooling, a simultaneously humbling and joyful experience, to say the least.  On that note, I will continue on to a story I found particularly inspiring, and one which we all can learn from: the story of Scoil Bhríde.

Déirdre Kirwan, former school director of Scoil Bhríde, a primary school just outside of Dublin, opened the workshop.  She spoke of how her school once faced a sudden change in its pupil demographics about 20-odd years ago.  What once had been a school of all-white Irish children suddenly became host to children from fifty different nationalities, and the children of Irish descent suddenly found themselves in the minority, constituting only 20% of the school population.  The school found itself in crisis: what to do with this massive shift in population while the test scores for the English and Irish languages plummeted?

The team decided to make a radical move: to welcome the children, with all of their languages, into the school.  Instead of banning their home languages from the school environment, the teachers made space for these in a myriad of ways, deciding to view these languages as part of each child’s individual language repertoire and therefore useful to their learning.

For example, when teaching young children to count, first in English, then in Gaelic, they then continued the experience by asking the children how they count in their home languages.  Soon, children began to share their languages: Russian, Polish, Angolan, Hindi, French, and the other children joined in, copying their classmates’ counting words.  If children didn’t know how to say something in their mother tongue, they were encouraged to ask their parents about it and to develop these concepts in their mother tongues as well.  As a result, the learning at school and home reinforced each other.

This approach had an unexpected impact on the Irish children, who then began to wonder about their own long-neglected mother tongue, the Gaelic.  They soon started asking more about the Gaelic and developing their own language skills, giving this dying language a boost back into the world of the living.  Soon, the test scores for English and Gaelic turned around.  These days, children at this school score well above the national average.  As for the children, they are attuned to the fact that having a variety of languages at hand to express oneself is a valuable thing, and feel sorry for children in monolinguistic schools.

Making space for the plurilingual child does more than just raise test scores.  It also recognizes the child as a whole.  No longer must he leave his “other” languages at the door, together with that piece of his identity, but he can use that piece of self as a valuable tool in his learning.  In my own classes, for instance, I often give my students an assignment to do during the lesson.  Invariably, one or two of them end up asking their neighbors what it was they were supposed to do.  They ask this not because they weren’t paying attention, but because their grip of the academic language simply wasn’t sufficient at the time.  Once their neighbor explains the task in Dutch, they happily complete the task at hand and share their findings with the class in English.  As a result, they can continue their development as primary school teachers of English without having to feel incapable.

This realization – that a plurilingual environment is valuable to our children in more ways than one – is just now beginning to arrive in the Netherlands.  One need only look through the new curriculum being developed to see this.  Plurilingualism is the way of the future, and it is up to us to be prepared for it.

For more reading on this topic:

plurilingual and pluricultural awareness in language education



For more about the European Centre of Modern Languages:



Language development in a broad perspective: the kindergarten class


A sample floorplan of a kindergarten classroom

One of the challenges unique to kindergarten teachers is making good use of the various corners of their classrooms: a house corner, a maths corner, an arts and crafts table, a painting corner, a writing center, a math and science center, a reading corner – the list can be quite long!  Each corner offers opportunities to explore various aspects of development in a more or less informal fashion.  To the outsider, such classrooms may seem chaotic, as children move from place to place, solving puzzles, building castles, and painting pictures.  To the practiced eye, however, these children are learning as they play and work, selecting activities that suit their need and energy as they go along in a semi-orderly fashion.

Outfitted carefully, each of these corners offers opportunities to practice learning and using a foreign language.  For instance, the house corner affords children the space to practice simple dialogues previously practiced during a class lesson.  At the arts and crafts table, children can create attributes related to the picture book that was read during the language lesson.  These attributes can later be used on the story table, to re-create and re-tell that same story.

Here, I’d like to put forward an idea that I’ve used in the past, with great success.  It’s a way of combining language learning with fine motor development: the clay table.

clayAt the clay table, children play with the clay while talking about what their work.  This allows for a low-stress, informal environment where the teacher can introduce new vocabulary and help children practice putting those words into chunks or sentences.  Typical conversation includes talking about what they are doing: rolling the clay, smashing it flat, making impressions with stamps and objects, for instance.  When they are modelling animals, for instance, they can talk about the animal: what animal is it, how do you know that?  Where are the legs?  the ears?  the claws?  This kind of conversation happens in a spontaneous, relaxed fashion.  There is no agenda of pre-determined vocabulary that must be learned and practiced.  Instead, topics pop up as the child works, and the teacher joins in, stimulating discussion and introducing new words as needed.

I often kept a pile of laminated flashcards on the clay table, with the instruction for children to make one of the items depicted.  When they finished, they could show it off and tell me about what they’d made.  A picture of their accomplishment was made for their portfolio, as a reminder of their spoken sentence and a celebration of their creation.

Another thing you can do with clay in the lesson, is use it in a game of “clay-tionary” – a 3-dimensional adaptation of Pictionary.  Make teams, if you like, or let children just take turns making things (animals, food, feelings, depending on the theme at the moment) for the other classmates to guess.  When the creation is correctly guessed, a group “hurray!”  is a wonderful celebration before moving on to the next creation.

child-making-a-clay-figureHere is a recipe for homemade play-dough:


  • 1 cup salt
  • 2 cups flour
  • 4 teaspoons Cream of Tartar
  • 2 Tablespoons cooking oil
  • 2 cups water
  • Food coloring

Mix all dry indredients in a large saucepan.  Add the water, food coloring, and oil.  Mix well over medium heat for five minutes, stirring contantly until the dough becomes thick.

Take it out of the pan let it cool.  Knead it well, until the texture becomes smooth.  Keep in an airtight container, and it will last for months.

Wonderful for making shapes or pounding, pulling, rolling, or molding!  Nice to the touch.

Whatever you do in your lessons, remember the most important element: fun!  And happy teaching.