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Young Learners - English in Elementary Schools Archive

Teaching English to Elementary School Children

January 31, 2009

Introducing Foreign Languages into UK Primary Schools

The introduction of English to Japanese elementary schools in 2011 for all 5th and 6th graders has a lot in common with the introduction of modern foreign languages (MFL) into British primary schools for all Key Stage 2 pupils from 2010. (Key Stage 2 corresponds to 2nd to 5th Grade in Japan, or students aged 7 to 11.) For example, the subject will not be a core part of the curriculum so there are guidelines but no fixed curriculum, regular class teachers with little subject knowledge will be expected to teach the foreign language in many schools, MFL is quite an unpopular subject among older children, MFL is not seen as an important subject by many people, and consequently British people are very poor at foreign languages compared with most other Europeans. Because of these similarities, the introduction of MFL to primary schools is probably of considerable interest to anyone involved with English education in Japanese elementary schools.

Government Policy
in 2007 the UK government announced that all children in Key Stage 2 would be entitled to learn an MFL from 2010. Many primary schools already have some MFL instruction but currently it is the decision of the individual school or Local Education Authority. However from 2010 it will be an entitlement area. This means that all children are entitled to learn an MFL but it will not be a core part of the national curriculum.

Which Language?
Due to its status as an entitlement area rather than a statutory subject, there is no fixed programme for MFL in primary schools. There are some guidelines, and detailed lesson plans are available from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) for French, German and Spanish. Schools are free to choose which language or languages they teach. French is the most popular MFL in primary schools, as it is in secondary schools, but schools also teach other European languages such as German, Spanish and Italian, and some schools teach community languages. Community languages are languages spoken in the community where the school is situated and which are probably the native language of some of the children in the school. Community languages include Urdu, Arabic, Bengali, Gujarati, Chinese, and Somali. Schools can choose to teach the same language to every year group or can teach several languages throughout Key Stage 2. Obviously this is quite different from the situation in Japan where in mainstream schools the only foreign language taught is English. While other languages are not completely ruled out in elementary schools (the government textbook Eigo Noto and accompanying CD contains greetings in several languages) the focus is very much on English.

Types of Programme
The types of MFL instruction at British primary schools can roughly be divided into two types - language acquistion and language awareness, although in practice of course many programmes will be a mixture of the two. Language acquisition programmes aim to produce a certain level of proficiency in the target language while awareness programmes emphasise enjoyment. Acquisition programmes tend to focus on one language, have 1-2 hours of class time per week, incorporate four skills and start in the later stages of Key Stage 2. Awareness programmes can feature several languages, require up to one hour of class time per week, incorporate two skills (speaking and listening) and can begin in the lower part of Key Stage 2 or even before. The programmes envisaged in Japan are probably more towards the language awareness end of the spectrum although here too it will vary greatly from school to school.

In most cases the teacher providing the MFL instruction will be the regular class teacher, although specialist language teachers will also be used (mainly from secondary schools), as will native speakers of the target language.

By 2010 it is hoped that 6000 new primary school teachers will have completed a teacher training course specialising in MFL. The main teacher training course in Britain is the PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate of Education) which is a one year course completed after graduation from university. Several teacher training institutes are offering PGCEs in primary education with an MFL specialisation (French, German or Spanish typically). While acceptance on one of these courses doesn't require a degree in the target language, such a degree is preferred and more than 50% of entrants do have such a degree. Although the PGCE is too intensive to include much tuition in the target language, the course includes a four week stay in a country where the target language is spoken. During this stay the trainee teachers are placed in a primary school where they observe lessons and also teach part of the regular curriculum in the target language. Trainees who have a degree in the target language will also probably have spent six months or a year in a country where the target language is spoken, as most language degrees in the UK include a year spent overseas. It is also hoped that 18000 existing teachers and 9000 existing assistant teachers will also have received some kind of training to teach MFL by 2010.

Teachers who complete the PGCE with an MFL specialisation will be well-equipped to teach MFL. However, the majority of teachers teaching MFL for the first few years are likely to be regular class teachers who have very little subject knowledge in the language they are expected to teach. Many teachers may have only studied French, for example, for two or three years when they were at school. In some cases the language will be taught by non-specialist native speakers who may have little or no knowledge about language teaching or pedagogy in general. Specialist language teachers will have subject knowledge and teaching knowledge but may only have taught at the secondary level and may not have experience of teaching younger children.

Attitudes to MFL
Currently in the UK, MFL is only a compulsory subject in Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14). In Key Stage 4 (ages 14-16) it is an entitlement area (students can study it if they wish but it isn't compulsory). From age 16 no subject is compulsory. MFL is not needed to gain acceptance into a university (unless, in some cases, the student wishes to study that language at university). English is spoken and understood throughout the world, and many British people generally don't anticipate ever needing another language. Attitudes towards MFL are generally quite negative, possibly due to the above reasons. MFL in Key Stage 3 focuses on 'communicative competence' which means students are expected to speak the foreign language rather then just learn vocabulary and grammatical rules. Children of this age are very self-conscious about speaking in a foreign language in front of their peers and this is another reason for the unpopularity of MFL. Introducing MFL at an earlier age aims to overcome this problem by enabling children to begin speaking other languages while they don't have the self-consciousness of older children and while they are in the comfortable surroundings of primary school. In the long run it is hoped that more children will choose to continue studying an MFL in Key Stage 4 and beyond.

A Case Study of a Primary School with a Successful Programme
As mentioned above, some primary schools are already offering MFL to their students. Byron Wood Primary School is an inner city school in Sheffield. The area is high in unemployment and low in educational achievement. There are a large number of immigrants in the area and in the school. French is taught to some extent to all students in Key Stages 1 and 2. In Year 5 (age 9-10) a language awareness programme allows children to learn a little of several languages. In Year 6 (age 10-11) children can choose from French, Spanish, German, Somali, Urdu and Arabic. The school budget allows one specialist language (French) teacher to visit the school one afternoon per week. This teacher teaches French to Key Stage 1 students and also provides French lessons for regular teachers who can then continue the French tuition in Key Stage 2. Other languages are taught by non-specialist native speakers such as students from Sheffield University and local community members. Regular teachers and these visitors plan lessons together.

Sheffield primary schools have a link with IUFM in Bordeaux, France (a teacher training institute) allowing French newly qualified teachers to spend the summer term teaching in Sheffield primary schools. The French teachers stay with host families and spend three weeks in a primary school, teaching French for 15 hours per week. Byron Wood Primary School has been able to benefit from this programme as well.

More information about MFL in UK primary schools can be found at
(general information about MFL in all key stages)
(schemes of work for Key Stage 2 French)

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May 07, 2009

Topic-based lessons for older children

I have found that teaching 6th graders is very different from teaching 5th graders and below. Something about moving into the top year of elementary school seems to have a very big impact on how children behave in English lessons (and not only English lessons apparently, according to my colleagues at the elementary school I teach at). The games and activities they enjoyed up to that point suddenly aren't as widely enjoyed, and the children seem less motivated than before. I don't know the reasons for this but I guess it may be due to a combination of reaching the age where children want to seem older than they are and therefore not liking anything that they view as childish, their English ability being much lower than their general mental ability which is verging on adult-like, and perhaps feeling that English isn't rewarding in terms of learning new things about the world, In order to try and deal with these things I have tried teaching topic-based lessons which only require fairly basic English but in which children are challenged mentally, learn something new about the world, or at least revisit something that may have already been learned in regular classes or at home, and the format of which is more adult-like. Three of these lessons are outlined below.

Topic: The Solar System
Required language: colours, numbers, moon, hot, cold, warm, big, small, medium-sized, It's ...., It has........., How many ... does it have? What colour is it?
Taught language: solar system, planet names
Useful websites for planet information for teacher:

1. Draw a basic solar system on the board. When students realise what it is, introduce the English name if no-one knows it, and do the same for planet names. Label the planets.

2. Ask the following questions about the Earth, Is it big or small? Is it hot or cold? What colour is it? How many moons does it have? Elicit answers.

3. Write the four questions on the board. Give out a big sheet of paper to each group or pair of students. Ask them to write answers to the four questions for the other eight (or seven) planets. Give them a time limit. Tell them they can write just one word answers.

4. Monitor and help where necessary. Encourage them to guess if they don't know.

5. When the time limit is reached, ask questions about the planets in random order. Award points for correct answers. Encourage full sentences at this point.

6. Students individually draw a solar system, label it and write some information about each planet, or choose one planet and write about it for a shorter writing activity.

Topic: Animals
Required language: animals, colours, habitats/countries, run, swim, fly etc., meat, grass, bamboo, fish etc. can, eat, live
Taught language: animal categories (mammal etc.)

1. In groups/pairs students try to think of an animal beginning with every letter of the alphabet.

2. Elicit animals and write on board in columns (mammals, birds, insects (or bugs to include spiders etc), reptiles, amphibians).

3. As students understand the reason for the columns, label each column and tell them the English categories.

4. Choose one animal and ask the following questions about it, What colour is it? Where does it live? What does it eat? What can it do?

5. Decide as a class on five animals - one form each column - and have students try to answer the same four questions for these animals. (Same as steps 3-5 in above lesson).

6. Students choose an animal and draw it and write about it.

Topic: Food
Required language: types of food
Taught language: major food groups (protein etc.)

1. In groups/pairs students try to think of a food beginning with every letter of the alphabet.

2. Elicit foods and write on board.

3. Write four headings on board - protein, carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables, sweets and snacks. Write one or two items under each column so that students understand the headings. (Put a non-meat product, such as tofu or cheese, under protein so they know it doesn't mean only meat.)

4. In groups/pairs get students to put all the previously elicited food under the four headings.

5. Elicit foods for each heading in turn.

6. Draw a food pyramid on the board showing YOUR diet. Write examples of each category in the pyramid. Explain a little about the pyramid at a level suitable for your students, using gestures where necessary. Make it clear that the base is what you eat the most of, and the tip is what you eat the least of.

7. Ask students to draw their own food pyramid with examples of food they eat drawn and labelled.

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August 21, 2009

Using concentration cards in large classes

Concentration (or memory) or shinkeisuijaku in Japanese is a great game for the classroom. In small classes the basic game with two identical sets of pictures works well. Students take turns to turn over two cards and say the word or sentence associated with the pictures. If it is a matching pair, they keep the cards. If it isn’t a matching pair, they turn them back face down. In a larger class, we can have students divided into groups and each group plays among themselves. However without constant teacher supervision there is a tendency to forget or avoid saying the English and just play the game as they would in Japanese. It then becomes just a game with no English practice. In large classes then we need to adapt the game so that English practice happens regardless of where the teacher is in the room. Fortunately, there are several variations we can use that require the children to use English in some way.

Variation 1
Have pictures and words or pictures and initial letters. Students have to match the picture with the corresponding word or letter. This requires the students to know the word in English and read the word or letter and consider if they match.

Variation 2
Have two sets of different pictures. A pair is made when the initial sounds of the words are the same e.g. dog and desk, car and cow. This can be used with students who are learning to read and write and also with students before they learn to read and write, as a phonemic awareness activity. Many students have trouble realising that words such as dog and desk start with the same letter because in Japanese they would start with different “letters” - ど (do) and で (de). Having them become aware that English words are divided differently will help a lot once they start learning to read and write. This variation requires students to know the English words and to think about the initial sounds.

Variation 3
Have sets of matching questions and answers e.g. What is it? and It’s a pig; What color is it? and It’s white. This requires students to read and understand the questions and answers.

Variation 4
Have sets of of opposites e.g. big and small, hot and cold, or words from different categories e.g. lemon and orange, soccer and baseball. This requires students to read and understand the words, as well as think about opposites or categories.

Concentration, when adapted, is a great game for larger classes. As mentioned above, it requires little monitoring. It also needs little setting up as all children know the basic game. Most children will automatically start a new game once they have finished one round so the activity can continue until all groups have finished at least one round without the teacher needing to worry about early finishers. The cards can also be used for different games such as a team game where all cards must be paired up as quickly as possible. In fact this is a good activity to do just before the main concentration game so that all the students know how the pairs should be made.

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September 15, 2009

English for engaging with English speakers

Recently I was talking to an elementary school teacher who has a sixth grade class. This year a Japanese ALT comes to teach English to the class. The form teacher said that her students felt frustrated because they were learning only vocabulary. They wanted to learn English they could actually use if they met an English speaker. On a recent school trip to the Peace Park in Hiroshima they saw lots of non-Japanese people and were telling their teacher they wanted to speak to them. Unfortunately they didn’t have the English do this. Knowing a list of fruit or animal names in English wasn’t appropriate for this situation.

Of course it is necessary to teach vocabulary. But students need some useful questions too for those occasions when they may actually be able to use English outside the classroom in a real-life situation. The obvious question is probably Where are you from? Subsequent questions that are useful probably depend on the individual student but we can at least teach them some versatile questions that they can ask.

I think two of the best questions to teach are, Do you like ....? and What ....... do you like? This gives great scope if they meet an English speaker. Do you like Japan? Do you like Hiroshima? Do you like sushi? Do you like okonomiyaki? Do you like baseball? What Japanese food do you like? What baseball team do you like? What sport do you like? and so on.

Luckily for us as teachers, these questions are great fun to practise in class. The easiest way to do this is for the teacher to ask a few of the stronger students questions using the target pattern, and help them to answer. Then have a few students ask other students while the whole class is listening. Then put them into pairs and tell them to ask each other ten questions. They usually get so involved in this that they don’t stop after ten. The patterns are fairly easy so usually most students stick to using English and don’t lapse into Japanese. An alternative activity is to have a time limit - about 3 minutes for 20 students is about right. All students stand up, and have to ask one question to the teacher. After they have asked a question, they sit down. They must all be sitting down by the end of the time limit. All the questions should be different. This activity doesn’t use time as effectively as the first one but it is fun and they enjoy asking questions to the teacher. These questions can also be incorporated in a role-play mingling activity (see below).

One thing to bear in mind about these questions is that they don’t lend themselves to topic-based lessons. Definitely, What ..... do you like? would be difficult to practise in a topic-based lesson. Do you like ....? could be practised but would soon become boring. They are much better suited to pattern-based lessons, where students can use any topic they wish within that pattern.

To practise Where are you from? needs a bit more work from the teacher. This question can’t be practised in such a simple way because it isn’t versatile like the above questions. One way to introduce the question is to have some stick people drawn on the board with flags of various countries. Ask the students Where's he/she from? Then ask a few students where they are from. Then hand out character cards to each student. Mine are about playing card size. They have a name, an age and a country plus that country’s flag in colour. Each student takes on a new identity. They mingle, find a partner, and ask their name, their age, where they are from, plus any other questions they have time for (Do you like ....? and What .... do you like? can be practised). On a signal from the teacher, all students find a new partner and repeat. This can continue until the teacher stops the activity.

Doing the above activities from time to time will ensure that when students have an opportunity to speak to an English speaker in a real-life situation, they will have the language necessary to have a reasonable conversation.

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January 12, 2010

Homework Checking (2)

My last entry looked at how to use time efficiently while homework was being checked and corrected. To follow on from that, this entry will consider how to go about checking homework. Most of this can be applied to any written work, not only homework.

Why do we check homework?
Firstly, we should consider the reasons we check homework. They probably include some or all of the following:
to see how the students managed with the task set for homework in order to evaluate the students’ progress
to give students another opportunity for learning as they make their corrections
students and parents expect homework to be checked
checked homework provides a correct model for students to look back on when necessary.

How many of the mistakes in students’ homework should be corrected?
If we look again at the above reasons for checking homework, it would follow that we should probably attend to all the students’ mistakes. This, however, may have some negative consequences especially, but not only, for weaker students. Weaker students may lose confidence if they realise they have made a lot of mistakes. Stronger students too can often be sensitive about mistakes. Pointing out all mistakes may lead students to be fearful about mistakes and may discourage them from taking risks in class, turning them into very passive learners. If they feel that perfection is necessary, they will be much more averse to taking risks. It is far better to have a child spell “desk” as “besc” than have them scared to write anything at all.

How should we handle mistakes in homework?
If mistakes are handled in a positive way then most students will be happy to deal with quite a few, as long as other students have a similar number or are occupied doing something else. If we correct the mistakes ourselves, the students are unlikely to learn from their mistakes and also don’t get any sense of achievement. It is better to have them self-correct. Giving small hints at first and gradually giving bigger hints as necessary gives maximum opportunity for students to think about, and learn from, their mistakes. For example, for spelling mistakes, first, point out which part has a mistake, then which word, then which letter, then say the letter or sound and anchor word (e.g. if they have spelled “desk” as “desc” we can say “k-key”), and finally we can give them three or four options to choose from written on the board (one is the correct answer - others are incorrect). Working through mistakes in this way will mean that finally the student gets the correct answer without being told by the teacher. This will lead to a greater sense of achievement as well as a greater likelihood of the word being remembered.

How should we handle mistakes with punctuation or letter formation?
This probably depends to an even greater degree on the individual student. It is important that writing is legible of course, and probably better overall to correct sooner rather than later to prevent bad habits taking hold. On the other hand, younger children may simply not yet have the fine motor skills needed for good handwriting. If students are making mistakes with the substance then we can probably be more lenient about punctuation and handwriting. With stronger students who are making few mistakes with the substance then we can encourage them to rectify any punctuation or handwriting mistakes they are making, such as height of letters, way of forming letters, and so on.

How should we check homework for large classes?
The method mentioned above will probably not work in a large class. For large classes we have to check the homework in advance or do it as a class activity in class. If we check in advance we can either correct mistakes ourselves or point out the mistakes, without actually correcting. If we have plenty of time for homework correction then students could be encouraged to correct their mistakes, and it can be re-checked with the following week’s homework. If we have time constraints that don’t allow this, it is probably better to correct those mistakes that we think the student may not be able to correct by themselves, and point out mistakes that we consider to be self-correctable. The drawback of this advance checking is that students don’t get the benefit of thinking through the corrections. It can also be quite time-consuming.

We can check the homework in class as a whole class activity. This would save teachers’ preparation time. It still wouldn’t give much chance for self-correction as it would probably involve the teacher or a student giving the correct answer. Common mistakes could be done in a more useful way, with the mistakes written on the board and the students trying to correct them individually. One major drawback of class corrections is that it will accentuate differences in ability between students, with the result of lessening the confidence of some students. Weak students will probably not want to correct their own work in front of their classmates because they feel embarrassed by the number of mistakes, and are likely to put their homework away out of sight as soon as possible. An ideal mix of these two methods is perhaps to check homework in advance, and to incorporate any common mistakes into the activities for that day, either in a “Find the mistake” type activity or as part of a regular activity.

Final Comments
It is important to remember why we set homework and to make sure how we correct it fits in with the reasons we set it in the first place. If the reason to is to provide the students with an opportunity to practise English outside the sessions they have with us, and to increase the amount of time spent on English by our students each week, then it is important to keep homework as fun and as stimulating as possible for the students. This includes the correction of the homework which should also be as fun and stimulating as possible.

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Recent Columns

Recent Comments

  • Homework Checking (2)
  • English for engaging with English speakers
  • Using concentration cards in large classes
      - Alan Miesch
  • Topic-based lessons for older children
  • Introducing Foreign Languages into UK Primary Schools
      - Language expert
      - steve
      - mfl co ordinator



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