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Young Learners - Curriculum Archive

Teaching English to Elementary School Children

August 04, 2009

Topic-based or pattern-based curriculum

Is it better to have a topic-based or pattern-based curriculum? First it is important to remember that a topic-based curriculum doesn't preclude pattern-based lessons and vice versa. Topic-based lessons usually focus on vocabulary e.g. a lesson on fruit would focus on types of fruit, probably colours and include one or two patterns such as "Do you like ....?" or "Bananas are yellow and long." Pattern-based lessons usually focus on one pattern e.g. "What .... do you like? I like ....." and can include various topic areas such as animals, fruit, sports, school subjects etc.

In my experience, students remember vocabulary much more easily than they remember patterns. If vocabulary is the main focus of the lesson and different patterns are introduced as part of that topic the students will certainly remember the vocabulary but will they remember the sentence patterns that are taught? Probably not. On the other hand if we focus on a pattern and insert vocabulary into that pattern, then the students are more likely to remember the pattern and will pick up vocabulary along the way from the teacher and from other students. Of course in a topic-based curriculum, patterns will crop up again and again, and through this constant review the patterns will probably be learned. It is also possible to have a topic-based lesson with only one pattern practiced during the lesson, e.g. in a lesson about school subjects the pattern could be, "What's your favourite ...?".

But pattern-based lessons have a further, very important advantage. Students can steer the topic in whatever direction they choose because many different vocabulary items can be inserted into the pattern. When learning the pattern, "Are you ...?" students can have great fun in asking each other, "Are you a cockroach?" or "Are you a pen?". Once they realise the great scope they have, they become very creative. If the topic is determined by the teacher then the students have little scope to use their imaginations, and are limited to the topic chosen. In the above school subjects example, if they are practising, "What's your favourite ....?" then they can really only ask one question, "What's your favourite subject?" and possibly "Who's your favourite teacher?" Then the topic in respect to that question is exhausted and it is probably unrealistic to expect students to ask different types of questions on that topic.

Topic-based lessons definitely have a place in any curriculum, but I think they are most effective as a review when certain patterns are already quite well-established. For example, a lesson on animals would be a good topic-based lesson if the students are already familiar with the patterns, "What animal do you like?", Where do penguins live?", "What do lions eat?", What colour are tigers?".

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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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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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