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Young Learners

Teaching English to Elementary School Children

April 19, 2011

Ensuring fairness between boys and girls

After reading a couple of books by Peggy Orenstein who writes about how teachers, both male and female, in American public schools treat boys and girls differently, I was prompted to look at my own teaching and the way I treat boys and girls in my elementary school classes.

I found that when boys raise their hands to answer questions, they tend to shout “me, me, me” or “Hai, hai”, while girls are more likely to raise their hands in silence. While I do try and ask students who raise their hands silently, my attention was often drawn to the loud (mostly) boys. I also noticed that boys are more likely to try and answer questions that they are unsure of, while the majority of girls will only answer when they are certain they have the right answer.

I also found that I tended to be more inwardly tolerant of naughty behaviour from boys than from girls. Although my reaction to the behaviour was similar on the surface, I realised that underneath I was more accepting of bad behaviour from boys than from girls, and students can probably sense this.

Do these things really matter? Almost certainly, yes. Students are learning a lot more in the classroom than what we are explicitly teaching them. While the lesson is in theory an English lesson, the students are constantly learning other lessons about social roles, social norms, what constitutes acceptable behaviour and so on. How we as teachers treat our students will affect how those students think about themselves and about their roles in the classroom and more widely in society.

How can we ensure fairness between boys and girls in our classes? Firstly we have to be aware of our own tendencies to treat boys and girls differently. Once we become aware of our own inconsistencies it becomes much easier to ensure our actions in class are fair. We can have strict rules about how students answer questions. For example, only students who raise their hands silently can answer. Or, if we do’t want to discourage this enthusiasm we can have a rule that we will ask boys and girls alternately. If girls are more reluctant to answer question than boys, we can have a system of points for girls versus boys, to encourage girls to answer questions.

As well as ensuring fairness between boys and girls, we also need to encourage quieter students to speak out, regardless of whether they are a boy or a girl. Some students are naturally quieter and we don’t want to force them to speak but reluctance to speak out in class can have a detrimental effect on learning. According to Orenstein, “students who talk in class have more opportunity to enhance self-esteem through exposure to praise; they have the luxury of learning from mistakes, and they develop the perspective to see failure as an educational tool”. One way of allowing all students a chance to speak out is to have students divided into a number of teams. Points are awarded when students answer questions. To ensure all students have chance to speak, a rule can be used where the same student can’t answer again until all team members have answered a question. Students can help each other in order to avoid pressure on weaker, quieter students, but a new student must actually answer the question each time.

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March 20, 2011

Spot the Difference

I have always struggled to find ways of giving students opportunities to speak English in class in a communicative way without being prompted by questions, either by me or by another student. While being able to answer questions is an important skill in a foreign language, it is also important to be able to speak without having first been asked a question.

One activity I have found that allows this kind of practice is using Spot the Difference pictures. The way I use these pictures is to give the students a pair of pictures which have about five differences and set a 3-minute egg-timer going. I sit with my back to the students with a piece of paper and pencil. The students try find the differences and explain them to me before the time limit is reached. Once all the differences have been explained, I read what I have written and they show me on the picture what it refers to. If there is something they didn’t know how to say or explained unclearly, this is when I can teach them the correct word or phrase. It helps to have your back to the students so that they can’t point at the picture - they have to explain clearly. The time limit encourages fluency and makes it more fun.

This activity allows students to use language they have already learned in class in a meaningful way, and at a level that is appropriate. Lower level students can use single words while higher level students can use phrases or sentences. I have been using this activity in a class of three students who are in their third year of learning English. I have a very small, cheap book of Spot the Difference pictures which I bought from Amazon, called Spot the Differences Puzzle Fun published by Dover Publications. The pictures are simple line black and white line drawings and the differences are easy to find. The second time I did this activity in class the students immediately started asking me the English for anything on the picture they didn’t know, which they knew they would need for the activity, before they let me start the egg-timer. I let the students flick through and choose a picture. They usually demand to do two per class.

The only special language that I taught in advance was “left picture, right picture” although these are words they already knew. I have found that they are very creative in using language they know to explain the differences to me, even if they don’t know the exact way to say it. It is also a useful way, depending on the pictures, for students to learn phrases such as upside-down, back-to-front, topsy-turvy etc. As the pictures are designed for children, the vocabulary that comes up is vocabulary that is interesting for children. It also lets students use a mixture of sentence patterns such as describing actions, describing positions, describing size differences and so on.

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November 16, 2010

Lesson Balance - One Year Later

About a year ago, after watching a presentation by Paul Nation, I wrote an entry about analysing children's lessons in terms of striking a balance between activities involving meaning based output, meaning-based input, fluency building and explicit language learning. As ELT expo season came around again and Paul Nation visited the Hiroshima expo, I decided to see how much my lessons had changed during the last year as a result of paying more attention to this kind of balance, and which activities had become more of a regular feature of my lessons. The following is a list of the activities I have been doing regularly in class over the last year or so under the headings of meaning- based input and output, fluency building and explicit language learning.

Meaning-based input and output

Answering questions against the clock
This involves all the students in a small class answering questions in turn, trying to see how many they can answer in three minutes, against an egg-timer. The questions are a combination of questions they know very well, questions related to the current language targets and questions reviewing recent targets. The children don't need to make full sentences, but rather just answer as quickly as they can. The focus then is on meaning rather than accuracy or language. It involves both input and output as students are listening and speaking.

Using picture books in class
This is something I have only started doing recently. I use them in various ways but often using ones with pictures that encourage students to want to tell me, or each other, something about the picture. This works well even with very young (kindergarten age) students. They shout out what they can see in the picture. For younger ones they generally name objects they can see, while for older ones they start to try and describe what is happening or what they think is going to happen. For elementary-school age children, I also use this as a writing activity. This is predominantly a meaning-based output activity.

Describe and draw
Students describe something which the other students then draw. This works well for targets such as prepositions, body parts and describing places or people.


This involves making a string of longer and longer self-introductions. First the teacher says, "My name is Carla" then each students does the same. Next the teacher says, "My name is Carla. I live in Higashi-ku" All the students then do the same. This continues until there is a string of a few different pieces of information. Most of the language is known well by the students, so it is a case of simply remembering what they have to say.

One of my favourite activities has become giving tests. I use the word "tests" in a very loose way. I tell the students it is a test but in fact it is just a way of building their confidence and fluency in writing simple words. They number from 1-10 in their notebooks. I show a picture or dictate a word (real or nonsense) and they write it in their books. I use words that should be able to be written easily by the students as my hope is that they will get all or the majority correct.

Race against the clock
About six to ten flashcards per students are laid on the desk. Students try to say all the words or sentences about the cards as fast as possible. I time the group, then we repeat a couple of times to try and get a faster score. The cards are ones that are known well by the students.

Use of readers
Since April I have been using Fun Phonics Readers with Finding Out levels 1-3. In class we read part of a page (students take turns and read one word at a time) and at home students read one page every day for a week. I keep them a unit or two behind the current Finding Out unit so that the reading is relatively easy for them, and include a lot of review of previous pages.

Explicit language learning

I found that before I went to Paul Nation's presentation, my lessons generally had too much explicit language learning at the expense of other types of activities, and I have tried to rectify that. Of course, explicit language learning is hugely important for young learners as they are learning English for the first time, unlike adults or university students who have learned it, at least to some extent, before. I have however reduced the time spent on this type of activity in order to increase the balance between activity types and this I feel has been beneficial. Below are some of the staple activities for explicit language learning I use in class. 

For language introduced using flashcards, this game involves several flashcards on the desks. The first student makes a sentence for one flashcard (chosen by the student). The second student repeats the first card, then chooses and makes a sentence about another card. The third students repeats the first two cards, and chooses a third card, and so on. The language gets repeated several times, but in a fun way.

Car Race
Flashcards are laid in a car race track shape. Students decide where to start. They can all start at different places. They roll a dice to determine how far they move. They make a sentence for each card they pass as well as the card they finally land on. They score points based on the number of letters or words on the back of the the flashcard they land on. For example, if they land on "gorilla" they score seven points (seven letters in the word). If they land on "He's watching a movie" they score four points (four words in the sentence). To record scores they must go to the whiteboard. This takes time so they don't get bored between turns, and acts as a change of focus so they forget momentarily about the new words/sentences. Without this kind of point-scoring, the game can be tedious for students. As above, this activity allows new language to be repeated several times in a fun way.

Dice points
For new language that isn't introduced using flashcards, this game is simple, fun and works well. The students answer a question, ask a question, or make a sentence using the new language. After each turn they roll a dice and score points. Very simple but fun and works with almost any target.

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March 16, 2010

Tests in Class

I have recently started giving mini tests most weeks in my lower level children’s classes. Being against testing for children in general, this went against my natural inclination at first, but I could see lots of advantages to it so I decided to try it. The purpose of the tests is to give the children a sense of achievement rather than to assess what they know or don’t know, so the tests are designed to be easy for the students. My aim is for all the students to get all the answers right, or at least most of them. In this respect then, they are perhaps not tests in the usual sense of the word, but they have a test format and we call them tests in class.

The students number from 1-10 in their notebooks, then I either dictate words or show pictures and the students write the words. When I dictate words, some of the words are real and some are nonsense, as they are learning to read and write phonetically. After we have finished all ten, I ask the students what number one is, what number two is, etc, and I write the correct answers on the board. The students mark their own tests and we are finished. I don’t ask how many they got right but they often tell me or each other. Sometimes I make intentional mistakes when I write the answers on the board, and hope the students will notice and tell me I have made a mistake.

The main benefit of these tests is that the students get a sense of achievement from them. They almost always can get at least 8 out 10. They do not dread these tests in any way. They look forward to them, enjoy doing them and get a feeling of satisfaction from them. Now that they are all confident with them, I can throw in some more difficult words and they readily tackle them, and don’t mind if they make mistakes. It is easy to see how confident they are when they are able to point out the mistakes I have made.

Another advantage is that the students seem to take more notice of any mistakes they make and also seem to think more carefully about words they are not sure about. Another dictation exercise I often do is dictating words for them to write into a bingo grid in preparation for playing bingo. They often rush this activity and don’t think carefully when they do this type of writing. This kind of quick, fluent writing is also useful I think, but it is also good to have the opposite kind of writing where they do think carefully.

Asking students to tell me the answers provides an opportunity for reading practise as they have to read what they have written. Noticing how easily students write the words during the tests and also their shouts during the marking help me see where there are areas that need extra review.

All of these advantages can of course be obtained in other activities and I am still not sure whether I am doing the right thing by giving these tests, but so far I certainly don’t think they are doing any harm, and they do seem to be having a positive effect. Students have to face a lot of tests in this country and I certainly don’t want to add to that test-taking burden but because of the easiness of the tests we do, I don’t think that is the case. I hope that, maybe, developing a positive attitude towards tests by doing these little English tests could help them face other tests with more confidence.

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February 08, 2010

Ten ways to use an eggtimer in class

An egg-timer is a great tool for the classroom. It can spice up old activities, turn competitive games into co-operative ones, and help with classroom management. These are some ways a three-minute egg-timer can be used in class.

1. For small classes (four or fewer). Each student has three minutes in which to answer as many questions as possible from the teacher. Another student keeps track of the score, and another watches the egg-timer. It is a good way to practise new targets and review older targets, as well as to practise general personal questions such as What school do you go to? Where do you live? etc. It also really improves students’ listening skills. It can be turned into a co-operative activity by having all students answering questions during the first round, then repeating the activity and trying to beat the previous score.

2. For large classes. The whole class has three minutes in which to ask one question each to the teacher (or to one volunteer student). Questions such as Do you like...?, Do you have ...? Can you ...? What ... do you like? work well, as well as any other questions the students know and want to ask.

3. For any size class. Divide students into small groups (about four). Give each group a set of cards that consists of some kind of pairs, for example, pictures and initial letters, pictures and words, questions and answers. Students have three minutes in which to match up the pairs.

4. For any size class. Divide students into small groups (about four). Give each group a set of cards that consists of some kind of pairs (as above). Students play concentration (shinkeisuijaku) and try to finish within three (or six) minutes. This makes for a faster game avoiding the time-wasting that sometimes occurs as students deliberate over which card to choose. It also makes it a more co-operative game than the standard one as the goal is to finish in the time limit rather than to win the most cards.

5. For any size class. Write “yes” ten times and “no” ten times on the board. Students have to ask yes/no questions to the teacher (or volunteer student). When the teacher answers “yes” erase one “yes” and when the teacher answers “no” erase one “no”. The goal is for all the “yeses” and “no’s” to be erased within three minutes.

6. For any size class. Give verbal maths problems to the students e.g. ten plus twelve, forty minus twenty-five etc. Students raise their hands and answer. They see how many they can answer in three minutes. Play again later in the class and try to beat the previous score.

7. For any size class. Divide students into small groups. Each group has paper and pencil. Give them a category, e.g. clothes and they write as many types of clothing as they can in three minutes. Points can be awarded for the number and bonus points for correct spelling.

8. For small classes. Practise reading or writing for fluency by showing words or pictures, (or dictating words) and having students read or write the words. See how many they can do in three minutes or ask them in advance how many they think they can do, and try to reach that goal. If there is more than one student, then, for reading, students can take turns, and for writing, all the students can write and, once all have written the first word, show the second picture, and so on.

9. For any size class. For time-consuming preparation or clearing away, use the egg-timer to encourage everyone to hurry up and get the job done. This can save a lot of time in class. A one-minute egg-timer is also good for smaller jobs.

10. For sleepy students. I have a student who has some kind of “writing narcolepsy”. I see his eyes rolling back in his head, and his attempts to conceal his yawns as soon as he has a pencil in his hand. However, the egg-timer works wonders at removing his sleepiness. I ask him how many questions and answers, or words, he can write in three minutes, and then we start. He hates to not reach his goal, and enjoys the excitement of trying to beat the clock, and this keeps him awake. We then have another three minutes for corrections. Then start again. The egg-timer has made a huge difference to my class with this boy.

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