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Young Learners

Teaching English to Elementary School Children

December 01, 2009

A Quick Analysis of Lesson Balance

After attending a presentation by Paul Nation at the Kansai ELT expo on Sunday about balance in the curriculum, I started thinking about my children’s lessons and whether they contain adequate amounts of the four strands that Paul Nation spoke about. These four strands were meaning-based input, meaning-based output, language-based learning and fluency development. He argued that a successful curriculum will contain equal parts of these four strands.

Meaning-based input: listening or reading where the focus is on the meaning of what is being communicated, e.g. listening to a story.

Meaning-based output: speaking or writing where the focus is on the meaning of what is being communicated, e.g. explaining how to make okonomiyaki.

Language-based learning: activities which explicitly focus on grammar, vocabulary etc, e.g. memorising words from word cards.

Fluency Development: activities where the students are engaged in reading, writing, listening or speaking at a level that is easy for them in order to help promote fluency, e.g. reading a book at a level that is lower than the student’s current level.

I hope I have summarised them accurately. Of course some activities don’t involve just one of these, and many activities will involve two, three or, possibly, all of them. Nation was also not talking about individual classes but about the overall curriculum.

I decided to analyse the two lessons I had prepared for my children’s classes the day after the expo. It was an interesting experiment and I would highly recommend it to teachers. Although Nation was talking about older students, I’m sure this kind of balance would also benefit children’s lessons. Below is an outline of one of the lessons and the analysis I made of the activities.

Target: plurals and colours - What are they? They are (dogs). What colour are they? They are (brown, black and white).
Number of students: 2

Activity 1: Dog dice game. Students take turns answering questions about pictures of plurals, then roll a dice. The number rolled indicates what part of their dog they can add. The aim is to complete their dog faster than their partner.

Activity type: This is a combination of language-based learning and fluency development. They have been practising plurals a lot so if the question I asked was, What are they?, they could answer very easily and quickly and mostly accurately. This meant the activity had a fluency development aspect to it. If the question was, What color are they?, they had to think more both about the individual colours and remembering to use “and” only before the final colour. They haven’t had as much practice with this so are not fluent yet in answering this type of question. This aspect was language-based learning. Listening to my questions, both of which they are quite familiar with was also probably fluency development.

Activity 2: Speed writing. Students have a pile of card showing a picture on one side and the word on the back. Against an egg timer they try to write all the words into their notebook. They work independently, first attempting to write the word, then checking they got it correct. If it’s correct they put it in a different pile. If they make a mistake they put it to the bottom of their pile. The words were relatively easy for the students’ level as they were words of mostly 3 letters, were phonetically regular (the students are learning to read and write using phonics) and didn’t include any special combinations (sh, ch, ee and so on).

Activity type: Mainly fluency development. Many of the words were known very well by the students and could be written very easily. Some of the words were not even checked by the students before placing them in the correct pile,as they were so confident. As a few words were more difficult for them (some longer words such as melon and panda) this activity was also partly language-focused learning as they were focusing on spelling the words correctly.

Activity 3: Racetrack game. Flashcards are laid out in a circle. Students roll a dice to move around the track. For the card they land on, they must make two sentences, They are (trees). They are (green and brown). They score points for how many (trees) are in the picture.

Activity type: This is similar to Activity 1. Making the first sentence was fluency development and making the second sentence was language-based learning. It also involved fluency development for saying numbers as each turn they had to answer the question, How many (trees) are there? before they could add their points onto the board.

Activity 4: Guessing Game. One students held the plurals flashcards and after choosing a card, gave the other student hints about the colour. The other student guessed the card.

Activity Type: This involved meaning-based input and output. Both students had to speak and listen. The language they were using is not easy for them and they were focusing on the meaning in order to play the game.

Activity 5: Christmas Picture. Students had to draw a picture based on what was written on the paper (They are presents and Christmas cards.) and then had to write an answer to a question (What colour are they?).

Activity Type: Meaning-based input and output. In order to draw the picture they had to read the sentence that described what they should draw. They had to write an answer to a question based on what colours they had used in their picture. The language was at an appropriate level for the students so they weren’t able to read or write fluently, but had to think carefully. The focus was on accuracy related to meaning not related to the language, in that they were following instructions to draw a picture and then writing about their picture.

I was happy to find that I seemed to have a balance of the four strands in that lesson. Whether that would apply to my lessons overall I don’t know, and will need to investigate further. It was definitely a worthwhile exercise as it has made me think about the types of activity I do in a fresh way. In the past I have focused more on whether I have a good balance of reading, writing, listening and speaking. Now I will be checking for a different kind of balance as well.

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Hi Carla,
nice to meet you at the expo the other day. Great article. I missed Paul Nation's presentation at the expo, but have been watching some video presentations of his about this very topic on Rob Waring's new video page:

Putting your own classes to the test as you did is a great idea. Myself and the other teacher's at our school will be giving this a go through the week. Thanks for the idea.

Hi, Carla,

Thank you very much for sharing what you've learned from Paul Nation with us! His framework seems to be applicable to young learners' classrooms. It's a fresh perspective. I am impressed that you immediately applied his approach in the reflection of your own lesson plan. I think I should do the same, too!


Thanks for this rubric. I am going to use it for analyzing my college classes to make sure I am providing them with what they need. Though the units of language would be greatly expanded, I think these categories can be applied even to advanced classes fr adults. I'll also keep the lessons plan to show students in my Teaching English to Children course.

What grade are you teaching Carla?

I teach 4th, 5th and 6th grade in elementary school. I teach small after-school classes of various grades. The lesson plan I analysed in this entry was for students in the 2nd grade, and in their second year of learning English.

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