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.

Setting up: models for lesson design

phases of a lesson

What is the proper way to set up a language lesson?  Do we just jump into the body of the lesson, or start with an introduction of the topic?  Do we start right away with a role play, or introduce new words and phrases first?  For many experienced teachers, these questions sound like an open door: of course one introduces the topic before getting into the main part of the lesson; and of course one builds up towards a role play, by first introducing new words and allowing learners to practice in safe and simple dialogues before moving on to the actual thing.  If this sounds like common sense, then that is a good thing!

For some teachers, however, this is not such an obvious order of operations, and it is for these people that I am writing this blog entry.

When I look up this question in Google, I find a lot of really good advice, from different sources.  In the Netherlands, we use what is called the “Four Phase Model”.  This model dictates the steps of a proper language lesson: introduction, input, practice, and transfer.

During the introduction phase, the teacher opens the lesson.  An important aspect of this phase is that the learner’s prior knowledge gets activated.  Did they already learn something about the coming topic?  What do they remember?  What can they tell each other?  If the topic is entirely new, then the teacher spends more time motivating the learners, placing the new topic into a context they can understand.  This is also an excellent moment to let the children know what the lesson objective is, although there is something to be said about leaving that until last, for instance when the objective is related to open exploration of a topic.

During the input phase, the teacher provides the learners with new material: new words, phrases, concepts, and dialogues.  The input text might be stories or songs, it could be oral or written.  The important thing at this moment is that learners are scrambling to make sense of the new material: what does it mean? How does it work? How does one use this?  For different learners at different levels, different things are happening.  The beginner is learning how to pronounce the words, while others are learning how to spell them.  Some children are learning how to place the new words in a chunk or short phrase, while others are figuring out how to place them in a discourse.

At this point, they might show their understanding by pointing at the right picture, by repeating the words the teacher says, or by copying words from the board.  Once the learners have made sense of the input, they can move on to using that input in a closed exercise.

During the practice phase, the teacher provides easy opportunities for the learners to use their newly-acquired words.  This is best done in a closed exercise during which the learner practices speaking or writing.  At this point, the learners are actively using the new words, producing what is known as pushed output.  They might try out the new words in simple question-and-answer dialogues, for instance: “What is this?” “It is a …..” where the learner fills in the blank with an appropriate response.  Other learners might apply these in spoken dialogues or in writing short, pre-structured sentences.  During this phase, it is very normal for learners to make lots of mistakes, which the teacher corrects using corrective feedback.

Once the learners start understanding how to use the new information in closed exericses, it’s time to move on to more open exercises.

During the transfer phase, the teacher provides open exercises or tasks for learners in which the new language can be applied.  This phase can also take place outside of the lesson in other areas of the classroom or school.  Learners continue to apply the new vocabulary and skills, but now in more open situations.  For instance, for young learners this may mean that they apply their vocabulary in the “house corner” or during an extension activity in the “building corner” of the classroom.  More advanced learners may create a puppet show or write a short poem.  Again, the learners are creating output, which may be spoken or written.

At this time, learners are still experimenting with the language and will make plenty of mistakes.  This is all par for the course, and the teacher continues to assist learners by giving corrective feedback.  Eventually, learners will have practiced the language to such an extent that they will start recognizing when they can use it, even outside of the classroom.

During each of these phases, it is important for teachers to create opportunities for learners to be active, with space for interactive and co-operative learning tasks.

Besides the Four Phase Model, there are other models.  These models often include steps before and after the four phases just described.  They may include the planning phase, which the teacher completes before the lesson, as well as the assessment or feedback phase at the end of the lesson, both of which in my opinion make an excellent addition to the Four Phase Model.

Below are links to some articles I found that contain concise, clear information for setting up a structured lesson plan.  Each of them makes use of the Four Phase Model, although they may use different names for each phase.  The content of the phases, however, remains the same.


Now it’s time to look at your own lesson plans: how do you structure your lessons?  Is there enough space for input?  For closed practice?  Do your learners get the opportunity to use their language in open situations?  Have a thoughtful look, and make changes where you see the need.

Happy teaching!

A little humor goes a long way :)

mushroomAt the end of my lessons, I often have a joke like this to share with the class.  When I forget, the students remind me to tell the joke of the day.  After all, a day without laughter is a day not lived, and though they complain, they enjoy the joke.  The puns are often corny, and the students show their appreciation with a collective groan as they pack their bags and leave the room. 

Why are jokes such a rich addition to language learning?  One thing that jokes do, is help students deal with stress.  Some students experience anxiety when they have to perform in a foreign language, and allowing them a space to laugh helps them relax, which in turn helps them perform better.  Besides that, it is a way to level the playing field between the students and the teacher, by making the teacher a bit more human and therefore a bit more accessible to shy students.

Jokes can also be used to teach new meanings behind words, for instance:

Question: Why did the reporter go to the ice-cream shop?

Answer: To get the scoop

In this case, the word “scoop” is the clue to the joke.  The “scoop” is not only that round ball of ice-cream that one eats, but it’s also the breaking news that reporters are always looking for.  

Jokes can be used to practice grammar.  The does just that.  It organizes short, humorous stories by grammatical concept and level of English.  Each story is accompanied by a short explanation of the grammar in question and a few practice exercises.  In a classroom where the teacher needs to differentiate, this provides easy material that can be easily printed for use.

Humor is also a way of keeping the stronger learners interested.  For instance, the classes I teach include widely varying levels of ability.  Some students already speak at a C1* level of the CEFR, while other struggle to keep up in their A2 or B1 level.  Sometimes the material I teach is too easy for the stronger students, but slipping in a joke every once in a while keeps their interest piqued, while the others follow the main lesson.  Everyone gets to learn something, that way.

There are different ways to include humor in the langauge lessons.  Often, I leave the last slide of my power point for jokes, as a way to end my lessons.  I’ve invested a small amount of time learning a few jokes, just so I have a few up my sleeve.  (yes, I practice this stuff)  For inspiration, I look for jokes on the internet, using search terms like “esl jokes easy”, or “esl jokes advanced”. 

Here are a couple of sites that have relatively easy, child-friendly jokes: 

I’m careful about the jokes I tell.  Even though my students are young adults, I avoid any jokes that could have a sexual undertone, jokes with racism, sexism, body-shaming, or other forms of put-downs.  All of my jokes are clean!  Reason being, I see myself as a role model for my students.  I want to give them input that they can use in their own classrooms.  It’s important for teachers to keep this in mind.

But otherwise, I keep to rule #1: have fun when you teach, and the learners will learn more than you’d hoped.  In closing…   How did the ocean say “goodbye”?  It didn’t, it just waved!


A tale of how a bunny inspires my teaching

There are days when I don’t know what to do with my teaching.  Uninspired, paging through teacher’s manuals and clicking through Pinterest, looking for something that will feed the creative spirit.  That’s where I was, when I saw my rabbit chewing greedily on my yellow roses.  Did you know rabbits like roses?  I did, but hadn’t realized to what extent she was willing to go to grab this tasty morsel: on top of her hutch, pushing her head through a hole in the netting – meant to keep cats out and rabbits in – and grabbing the nearest rose to nibble on.  I showed my guy this picture, and for the rest of the day, he went around making up variants of “Roses are red”.

Here are a couple of examples:

Roses are red, violets are blue,

I’m here outside, enjoying the view.

Roses are red, violets are blue,

Time for a walk, I’ll get my shoes.

And one last verse:

Roses are red, violets are blue,

I’m ready to go, just waiting for you.

This is when I realized that this rhyming game is a perfectly fine activity for young EFL / ESL learners.  It’s a short, simple enough rhyme for children to tackle, with plenty of possible rhymes so every child can be successful in creating a rhyme, silly or otherwise.

If your students are new to writing poetry, it’s always a good idea to start by making up a list of rhyming words with the class.  This is an excellent moment to help them understand that words that look similar don’t always sound similar, for instance trough and through (“trof” and “throo”).  Other words that look quite different can, however, rhyme quite well, for instance through and blue (“throo” and “bloo”).

The “oo” (long u sound) has many spellings:

“oo” = too, moon

“ue” = blue, glue

“oe” = shoe (but not in “toe”!)

“o” = to, who

“ou” = you

“ough” = through (but not in “cough” or “bough”!)

“u – e” = tune

It’s handy to keep this in mind while making up a list of rhyming words.

When writing a poem, it’s also good to look at the meter of the poem.  The meter is how the accents are spread across the lines.  For instance,

ROses are RED, VIOlets are BLUE,

I’m REAdy to GO, just WAIting for YOU.

English is a language with a very strong speaking rhythm.  I’ve written about this aspect of the language earlier.  This rhythm helps make English more understandable as a language.  The important parts of the spoken text are automatically highlighted for the listener, and the bits in-between contain grammatical aspects such as tense, place, and connectors.  When children are creating a new ending for their poem, silly or otherwise, this rhythm will help them create fitting grammatical structures.

When your children are done writing their poem endings, it’s always fun to share their work.  A poetry jam might be a good way to show off their skills, as children encourage each other while practicing, fine-tuning, and reading their work aloud.

Whatever you do, remember what’s important: children playing with the language, feeling comfortable while communicating, and challenging themselves to go a step further in their language development.

Encouraging teacher development

We teachers might like to think we know it all…… or we’re really uncertain about how to further our own development… or we’re looking for a way to improve our performance, but uncertain of how to go about it.  At the end of the day, there’s always a way to improve our teaching, and usually reason enough to do so, no matter how good one might already be in the teaching profession.

One way to direct our professional development as teachers is through the use of specialized teacher portfolios.  After an internet search, I found two different portfolios, each with a slightly different focus.

Portfolio for Student Teachers of Languages:

This European Portfolio for Student Teachers of Languages (EPOSTL) focuses on concrete issues related to teaching, such as Context, Methodology, Resources and Lesson planning.  Below is a mind map of the topics covered in this portfolio.  There is the occasional  reference to cultural sensitivity, but most of the indicators refer to general teaching skills for a beginning teacher, with the emphasis on language teaching.


Download here:  Teacher-portfolio EPOSTL-EN  

Portfolio for (Pre-) Primary Teachers of Languages

For more experienced teachers wishing to have a deeper look at their plurilingual and intercultural competences, there is another portfolio developed by the European Centre for Modern Languages.  The Pepolino portfolio was developed for teachers of pre-primary education, but it could be used for teachers in primary education as well, depending on your own starting situation.  There are a few indicators for general teaching skills, but also quite a few related to cultural sensitivity and diversity.  For teachers working in multicultural schools, this is an excellent way to test your own development in this area.


Download here:  Teacher-portfolio pepelino-EN-web

Both of these portfolios look really large – and therefore a bit daunting – as they are documents with no less than ninety pages each.  When embarking on using a pre-designed portfolio like this, therefore, it’s important to realize you don’t have to fill in all ninety pages, just the few that focus on the competences you wish to work on.  So look through it carefully, check what areas are going well already, and then decide what areas need your immediate attention.

Online possibilities:

The British Council has on online teacher’s skills assessment you can fill in to get a general idea of what you might work on, to improve your teacher skills.  Of course, this online assessment is linked to an online course (also offered by the British Council), which you can follow if you like.

The nice thing about portfolios is that they allow you to work on at your own pace, on areas that you’ve decided are relevant to your daily practice.  There’s a certain measure of self-evaluation involved, which means you need to look at yourself honestly: not too generously, but not too harshly either.  Whatever you do, be willing to confront yourself with the good, the bad, and the ugly, and realize that a good teacher is a growing teacher.

And have fun!  Because that’s what makes learning work well: a dose of enjoyment while working on our teacher skills.



Policy planning part 3: a plan of action

Now that you’ve created a complete picture of the language curriculum, it’s time to make a list of “Points of Action” for each section of the language policy.  Points of Action are things that need to be done, in order to realize the ideal English program.  These actions may be big or small, as long as they contribute to the end goal.  When you write a Point of Action, write it using the “SMART” method.  Make it Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-based.  If the Point of Action is rather large, you may wish to break it up into smaller, realistic steps.

For instance, a sample point of action might be “Teachers need more information on how to make better lessons.” When you write this, ask yourself: “What is better?  What kind of information do they need?  Why do they need this?” Clearly, this point of action is not SMART.  To make it SMART, make it more Specific: if the teachers want their lessons to be more interactive, for instance, with more student talking time, then the point of action can be adjusted like this: “Teachers need means to adapt their lessons to allow for more student talking time.”

This is still a very big point of action, which can be sub-divided into smaller, easily-attained tasks.  Think about steps like the following:

  1. Orientation:  what kinds of lesson adaptations are there?
  2. Examination:  trying out various lesson adaptations
  3. Evaluation:  talking about the effectiveness of the various adaptations
  4. Determination:  deciding which lesson adaptations to keep and which to let go
  5. Safeguarding:  making sure the new adaptations remain in place

Once you’ve checked (and double-checked!) your points of action, it’s time to put it all together into one, final Plan of Action.  Start by bringing the points from each chapter together into one summary, per heading (see illustration below).  Talk with your director and find out which points need to be an absolute priority, and decide on a logical order of steps to be taken.  Also, have a good look at the timeline.  How many years will be needed to realize the goals put forth in the policy plan?  Perhaps three is sufficient, but it’s also likely that more may be needed.

After that, set the points of action into the year-by-year overview.  Make sure that each point of action is attainable (not too big!), and part of the bigger plan.  Decide who will be responsible for each point of action, and plan a reasonable deadline for each point.  If money is needed, look at possibilities for subsidies from local and national agencies.  This will be different from place to place, of course.


Putting it all together: take the points of action from each list and put them in a single, simplified summary.  Then, sort the points into a year-by-year plan according to need.

Another important point of action that must be remembered is to evaluate the plan at some point every year.  Have a look at what goals were reached, which need to be amended, and congratulate everyone for any progress made.  After all, when it comes to curriculum improvement, it’s all hands on deck!  Everyone contributes in his own way, according to his own talents.


Everyone contributes to curriculum improvement, according to his own abilities and talents.  (image borrowed from


Whatever you do while writing your policy plan, be aware that for some, simply opening up the conversation about the English program is already a big step.  For others, making space for each teacher to contribute to an improved program will be the challenge.  Each school has its own road to take in writing and carrying out a language policy plan.  So yes, please talk with other people who have written a plan and carried it out, but realize that each road is unique, with its own twists and turns.

So take a deep breath and …. good luck!