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Young Learners

Teaching English to Elementary School Children

January 07, 2009

Looking Back, Looking Forward

The new year is traditionally a time to look back on the previous year and hopefully learn something from our experiences. Below are some things that I learnt in 2008 that I hope will make me a better teacher in 2009.

Giving children more choice
After attending a workshop by Chris Hunt in April of 2008 about giving children choice in the classroom, I have been trying to do exactly that. One way I have done this is to make small laminated cards representing different games and activities (again this was an idea from Chris Hunt). If I want the children to practise a language target through a game, but several games would achieve this, I give the children the choice. They each choose the game they want to play then we roll a dice to make the final decision, e.g. in a class of seven, if three students choose one game, two choose another and two choose a third, I roll the dice and if 1,2,3 or 4 is rolled we play the first game, if 5 is rolled we play the second game, if 6 is rolled we play the third game. This simple idea has worked very well.

Being aware of how my decisions affect children's behaviour
I have a class of seven 6-7 year olds this year who are mostly very motivated and enthusiastic in lessons. On a couple of occasions they got completely distracted and were chatting away in Japanese and I felt I had lost them for the rest of the lesson. When I thought about these incidents afterwards I realised they were completely caused by my own mistakes. In the lesson where they first had to write a question and answer rather than single words, I didn't lead them into it gradually enough, and only one of the seven knew what to do. The other six were confused and while I tried to help the first student I noticed was struggling, the others needed more help and, while waiting for me, got distracted by each other. The class descended into chaos. On another occasion a game that works well in a class of four or five wasn't appropriate for seven students. They had to wait too long in between turns and got bored and distracted. The same game played in two groups worked fine.

Going beyond flashcards
I use flashcards a lot in my lessons and find them extremely useful. They can clearly show many language targets, are colourful and fun, and can be used in a wide variety of games and activities. However I realised that I didn't do enough activities and games without the flashcards and that my students were too dependent on them. When asked a question that they could answer if they had a flashcard in front of them, they often couldn't answer when there was no visual clue. I have therefore been trying to use more natural conversation and questions in my lessons without the visual clues provided by flashcards.

Encouraging children's emotional development as well as development as English speakers
I have been faced on many occasions with the dilemma of what to do when weak students copy the stronger students' writing. If a student willingly lets another student copy, should we discourage this? We know that copying is not going to help the weak student's English but is it right to discourage kind and helpful behaviour? I used to lean in the direction of not allowing copying as my priority was to ensure the children had the best chance of improving their English. Recently I have been leaning in the other direction, thinking that in the grand scheme of things, being kind and helpful is more important than being able to spell accurately. I have found that some strong students in my elementary school classes, once their own written work is finished, take it upon themselves to help the slower students, and in many cases provide help in the same way they have observed me helping, that is by giving hints, such as the anchor word for the letter the students should be writing or sounding the word out slowly. Obviously, this is beneficial to both students and definitely shouldn't be discouraged. If copying is a big problem, we probably have to consider different writing activities where practicable so that each child has to work individually, rather than trying to stop our students being helpful to each other. On a different, but related subject, I used to play a game with toy money where children collected toy money hidden under flashcards. I have stopped using this activity as I didn't like the idea of the children thinking getting lots of money was important. I realised it is important to ensure that my lessons don't inadvertently encourage traits that I wouldn't wish my students to develop.

Trying to ensure that no child gets lowered self-esteem in my classes
Most classes have some stronger students and some weaker students. It is very important that our lessons don't lead to the weaker students developing low esteem. As a teacher trainer I have had the opportunity to watch lessons taught by different teachers and seen how the teacher's role is crucial in ensuring all students maintain high self-esteem. It was only through watching other teachers' lessons that I began to carefully monitor my own lessons for instances when my actions may cause a student to lose self-esteem. I realised that sometimes my actions could lead to the child feeling they were being too slow, or feeling that they should remember how to write something because we had practised it only a short time ago in a game. I have a class at 5 o'clock on Fridays this year when I am often tired and sometimes have a lack of patience, which has on occasion made me exasperated when I feel the students could do something easily if they just concentrated a bit more. I realise now that this might lead the students to lose self-esteem, and I am trying to be super-patient at all times.

Experimenting with seating arrangements
I have found that where students are sitting in relation to one another can make a huge difference in class. Two brothers in one class fight and annoy each other if sitting next to or across from each other. Two chatty, easily distracted 6 year-old boys in another class stay much more involved if not sitting together. If I simply ask them to sit in certain places they sometimes refuse, and to avoid a power struggle, I let them sit where they want. However, the use of name cards has worked really well. In one lesson I have the students make name cards which I collect and keep (or make name cards for them if they aren't writing yet). Before each lesson I put the name cards on the desks where I want the students to sit. They enjoy coming in and finding their names. I plan to experiment more with seating arrangements, both to allow students different experiences and to avoid students getting cliquey which sometimes happens, especially in classes of older children. When students have to co-operate together in a lesson they are much more likely to have a good relationship in the future. Moving students around means they can develop friendly relationships with all the other students in the class by having them as team mates or partners.

Using classroom English to full advantage
My observations of other teachers' lessons made me realise that I don't take full advantage of the opportunities for using classroom language. I let my students get away with using Japanese in certain circumstances, for example when they are hunting for a particular letter tile, and they find it and shout " Atta!". Encouraging them to say "Found it!" provides them with a useful little chunk of English that they can use in various situations in lessons and they pick it up quickly, just as they pick up "Finished!" instead of saying "Dekita!" and "Eraser please" instead of "keshigomu kashite". It is a shame to waste these opportunities for real communication in English.

Remembering that I may be a big influence on the children I teach
As a teacher in our students' lives, we may have a bigger influence than we realise on the children in our classes. We may be the only non-Japanese person they know, the only English-speaker they know, or simply one of only a few adults they meet regularly. It is important then that we are good role models for our students and always behave in a way that we would want our students to behave, for example being calm and patient, not getting angry, being well-prepared and so on. By being constantly aware of our possible influence, we can ensure that that influence is a positive one.

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I know what you mean about classes falling into chaos due to lack of my own preparation. Don't you hate that feeling that you could have planned something better?

Great article, Carla.

I enjoyed reading this. I agree we (teachers) have a very important role to play in children's lives (especially when we see them every day)
I often hear my children saying 'nice' things and encouraging each other such as "Wow, what a lovely picture" And often I know they are words I use myself. However, it was only today I heard a child say to another child "Come on, haven't you finished yet" And I'm sorry to say this is something I've said before. Children learn behaviour from people they are with and it is vital we behave as we want our students to behave. I know if I'm feeling tired and inpatient I think it is the children not doing as well as they can. But in reality it is them reacting to my negitivity. I also agree that giving children choices is very benificial. I think this gives them an ownership of what they are doing and therfore, they enjoy doing it and gain a lot from the experience.
When you talk about visual aids, I notice (even with my English speaking children) when using flashcards for learning letter sounds they are dependent on the picture next to the letter. I have now started writing a letter on the white board or ask them to come and write the letter and use the flash cards less often.
I believe promotiong high self-esterm is so important. It is easy to lower a child's self-esteem without even realising just from one comment. Children (and adults) remember negative things, so we must be very careful (even when we have very little patience!)
I agree that you shouldn't discourage helpful behaviour in the classroom, and again this is something they learn from us. However, it is important to recognise if a child becomes too dependent on their 'friend' helping them or copying them. But changing the seating arrangements is a good way around this.
I think observing other teachers is a great idea as we can always learn new things. Sometimes the most simple things that you can't believe you didn't think of yourself!
I am in my second year of teaching reception class (age 4 and 5) and I have changed so many things this year and I believe I will continue to do so year after year.

i enjoyed reading all indeed they are practical and intresting

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