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Young Learners

Teaching English to Elementary School Children

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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Thanks, Carla.

It's a good read.

I like the idea of asking them 'what can you see ?', so I'll use it as a warm up to reading the Reader and using some bigger posters we have.

I'm encouraging mine to ask me 'what is .... in English ?'

With Readers, I'm not sure I agree with students reading one word at a time. It just seems a bit, well..... bitty, and I can't think it would help their understanding. I think it would just be an exercise in knowing when it's your turn, but I'd be happy to hear your thoughts on that.

I'm a fan of good old fashioned word tests. I enjoyed them when I did French because I think it really works when it complements other activities.



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