children

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 siteESLjokes.net 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!

laughing

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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.

Mixed-ability dialogue cards (2.0)

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Last time, I shared an idea about how to create dialogues that allowed learners of mixed abilities to talk together in a meaningful way. After that, I practiced using the dialogue cards, and soon discovered that while I had hit upon a great idea, I still needed to refine the process of creating these cards.  I went back – twice – until I finally figured out a better way to create interchangeable dialogue cards.  Here’s how to make your own differentiated dialogue cards:

  1. Create or find a basic dialogue you want your learners to practice.  Many textbooks have a ready-made dialogue for each unit, in which the new grammar and vocabulary is practiced.  Below is an example I plucked from a textbook from a Dutch Publisher.

    Sample-dialogue

    A sample conversation from the English textbook “The Team” (Noordhoff Uitgevers)

  2. The next step is very important: change each line in the conversation into a function.  Here is an example:

    Dialogue-functions

    Dialogue made of functions

  3. In the next step, you work back toward the original conversation.  Change the functions into sentences with a number of choices.

    Dialogue-var-notions

    Dialogue with some variable notions.  There is some space for choice, but not always.

  4. Check if your dialogue with “variable notions” matches up with the Original dialogue.  You may need to make a few changes here. 

    Dialogue-fix-notions

    Moving backwards from “variable notions” to “fixed notions”, this dialogue is slightly different from the original.

  5. With some luck (and a few tries), you now have dialogues with various levels of difficulty.  Now you can print these out for your class.

Please note:  it’s important to check that the dialogues actually match up before making copies for your learners.  (I didn’t, and found out the hard way during a class)

Last step: have fun!

Mixing and matching in the mixed ability group

mix-and-match-puzzle-setOne of those things every language teacher has to learn to deal with is the broad ability range in any given class.  No matter how homogeneously (single-leveled) the class has been put together, there are always students who are far ahead of the group, and a number of learners who are far behind.  That’s just the way of things, it seems.  The trick is to keep every learner actively involved at his own level.

There are a number of things a teacher can do to help each learner unlock his own potential.  The first step, of course, is to create an overview of where the learners currently are, and where you’d like them to go next.  I described this process in an earlier blog (ESL and the long-term plan).

In this blog entry, I will continue along this path and work out an idea to allow children of different ability levels to work together in a meaningful way.  But first, a side trip along Inspiration Lane…

Years ago, I came across a site called raz-kids.com.  I’ve written a blog about that as well (Raz-kids review) in the past, in which my enthusiasm for this site is clear enough.  However, what I didn’t mention about this site was that it also allows for children of different ability levels to work together, using plays from their Readers Theater.

In this script, children are assigned roles based on their ability level.  The levels differ in vocabulary use, length of sentences, and how often that character has to speak.

I began to wonder if it was possible to achieve the same result, but with a bit more freedom.  I came up with a simple solution.  What would happen, I wondered, if we took the concept of different ability roles and mixed it with what we know about functions and notions?

We already know that functions are descriptions of things one can do with a language.  For instance, describe your pet, talk about your hobby, or list ten things you like about your job are all examples of functions.

We also know that notions are examples of how to fulfil those functions.  For instance, “My dog is big and brown,” is a notion that fulfils the function “describe your pet.”

Not only that, but there are fixed notions and variable notions.  In the example below, the words “This is a ….” is the fixed notion, because it doesn’t change.  The words chair, table, pencil, book, and teacher can vary, so they are variable notions.

But enough review.  Time to make the step from theory to practice: differentiating the dialogues.

In practice, Beginning learners need more support, so it’s generally a good idea to let them work with dialogues using fixed notions.

Intermediate learners still need some support, but they’re also able to make some choices.  It’s a good idea to let them work with dialogues using variable notions.

Advanced learners don’t need much support, but in order to have them work together with other learners, they can use dialogue cards with functions on them.

Working out this idea a bit further, I designed dialogue cards that reflect these three levels.  The blue card is for the beginning learner, and contains a fixed notion dialogue.  The yellow card is for the intermediate learner and has space for variable notions.  The advanced learners get the red card, and these dialogues are built of functions that are parallel to the fixed notions on the blue card.  The roles, A and B, remain the same for each card, so that roles are interchangeable.

Here is a simple example to illustrate this:

 

Role-play-easy

A simple example

 

No matter what color card a learner has, he or she can participate in a meaningful conversation with any other person in the class.  It’s important to note that when a learner indicates that his card is too easy or too difficult, he should be allowed to trade colors.  It’s important to realize that no child wants to be bored, and to give them space to decide for themselves what level he or she feels comfortable with.  Also, when you start a new topic, they may all need to start at beginner’s level, as they are dealing with new vocabulary and grammar.  Once they catch on, they may move on to the more difficult levels in the dialogue cards.

Role-play-expanded

A dialogue with multiple steps

 

Hopefully, these examples will inspire you to experiment with the dialogues in your own lessons.  And – I hope to hear about your successful experiences!

We are under the tables!

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Thinking back to past lessons, there is one moment I will never forget.  One morning, the school principal showed up at my door, together with about ten prospective parents.  I sat in the quiet classroom, alone in my circle of chairs.

“Miss Amy, what are you doing?” she asked.

“Teaching English,” I answered.  A few muffled giggles escaped from unseen corners.

In answer to her puzzled expression, I asked, “Boys and girls, are you under the tables?”

The giggles erupted into joyous shouts, “We are under the tables!”

“Are you ready, boys and girls?” I asked.  Silence ensued.  “Then quietly sit on your chairs.”

“Sit on the chairs!  Sit on the chairs!” the children whispered as they made their way back into the circle.  I counted back from five, and soon everyone was seated.  The parents, nodding their approval, continued their tour, and we carried on with our lesson: under the chairs, on the floor, behind the chairs, on the tables, no space was safe for these adventurous children led by their only slightly mischevious teacher.

One of the most important things we as teachers can do, is to have fun while teaching our children.  As I often tell my student teachers, if we have fun, they will have fun, and if they have fun, they will learn more than we could hope for.  When children play, they develop in so many ways: socially, emotionally, physically, and cognitively.  They are exploring and experimenting, noting the responses they get, re-fitting their thinking before sallying out again, to try new things or repeat their sucesses.  We teachers need to remember this, and make use of this in our own teaching, but how?

Total Physical Response (TPR) lends itself really well for play.  There are, of course,  different views on what TPR is, and how it can be used.  But at the base of it all, anytime one combines language with movement in order to learn a language, one is using TPR.  In the story above, I was combining a game of hide-and-seek with commands combining prepositions and classroom furniture.  The children were free to repeat what I said, and those who spoke up in Dutch were occasionally corrected by their peers, leaving me with the happy task of keeping a semblance of order in between commands.

A happy classroom is a learning classroom.  Happy teaching!

 

A new school year – getting started

give-me-five.jpeg

In many countries, a new school year is getting started, and it’s important for teachers to take the time to give shape to their class, together with their children.  One important piece to begin with, is the class rules.  I’ve written about this earlier, in the blog “The happy classroom“.   Children feel safer in a classroom with simple, consistent boundaries, so it’s important that teachers have a simple set of rules they can easily explain and live by.

It’s also important that these rules be easily explained.  A visual aid, such as a poster, can be really useful for this.  This is where Sparklebox comes in.  This site has all sorts of free, downloadable materials for all sorts of classroom needs, it also has a page full of clearly-illustrated posters for classroom management.

Myself, I used my own cards to clarify my rules.  I had three simple flashcards illustrating expected behavior: “listening”, “raise your hand”, and “sit on your chair”.   I had these in a visible area – on the carpet during circle time, for instance – and when I needed to correct a child, all I needed to do was say “uh-oh, listening!” and point to the picture of “listening”.  For older children, I would write the word on the board, next to the flashcard, so they could learn to read the word as I used them in class.

Another thing I did was to visibly to structure the lessons.  I created cards that illustrated what would happen in the course of the lesson, such as a book (story time), a pawn (game), two children talking (speaking practice), and so on.  I put magnetic tape on the backs of the cards so they could stick to the white board.  At the start of the lesson, I would hang the cards in their proper order and name them, and as we proceeded through the lesson, the corresponding card would be highlighted by hanging it a bit higher on the board.  The autistic children appreciated having the structure of the lesson made visible, and others could see just where we were and what they could expect next.  As an aside, I was a “traveling” teacher, often teaching six to eight lessons a day in as many classrooms, and so this tactic also helped me keep track of where I was in each lesson.

Whatever we do, however, let’s remember three things: keep it simple, keep it clear, and keep it positive!

happy-new-school-year.jpeg

 

scaffolding the online task: step by step

computerboy

One of the joys of the digital age is allowing children to work on the computer, playing games and doing web quests to further their language development.  Computer games allow children to work at their own level, and computers never tire of the endless repetition of drilling certain grammar patterns, something I cannot say of myself.  We often boast about how children are “so much more at home” with computer usage and how they just “pick it up so easily”.  Just as often, however, we teachers are faced with children who do not just “pick it up” and need step-by-step instruction on how to use a certain computer game or navigate a web quest successfully.  In our well-filled classrooms and even better-filled time, it would seem quite impossible to give these children the guidance they need.

During a course I once followed in order to become a Dalton-certified teacher, I learned about a wonderful solution to this conundrum: the how-to sheet.  A how-to sheet is, simply put, a means of scaffolding children’s work.  It provides a step-by-step guide of how to complete a task, complete with simple instructions and illustrations.  The goal of using these how-to sheets is to allow children to work independently on multi-step tasks or games with a minimum of extra effort from the teacher.

how-to-backpack

A sample of a step-by-step guide of how to navigate the cd-rom for Backpack 3, the textbook I once used for teaching.

The first few sheets took the most time, as I figured out what format was the most useful, and what illustrations the most helpful.  Eventually, I started making how-to sheets for all sorts of things, from computer games to language tasks, so that children could work independently on a range of activities during the lessons.  The first couple of times, the children needed some instruction: how did these how-to sheets work?  Once they figured that part out, they happily worked on their own, and all I had to do was make sure they did their work well and give them feedback once in a while.

how-to-game-4

A sample step-by-step of how to play a language game

The initial work of making these guides paid off: children could work independently, and my hands were kept free for the work of interacting with the children through the new language.

Here is a step-by-step instruction on how to make one of these sheets:

  1. Look at the activity through the eyes of the child.  What is his starting point?  That is step 1.
  2. Go through each step of the activity.  Every time the screen changes, or every new step in the game, take a picture or make a screen shot.  Crop the picture as needed.
  3. Number the steps, and give a short explanation for each one.  Use language the children can easily understand.
  4. Insert the pictures next to the directions.  I have found that using a table is an easy way to accomplish this.  Anchor the picture as a character, and it will stay in the table where you put it.
  5. Where needed, add an arrow to point out exactly where the child needs to click.  Or, insert thought and speech bubbles to illustrate thinking or speaking.
  6. Show children how the step-by-step plan works, so they can refer to it themselves, and refer back to it should they have questions.

Scaffolding towards independence takes on many forms, and this is only one of them.

But for now, the summer holiday calls, and so I shall take a short time off before resuming this blog.  Happy summer holidays, everyone!