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Young Learners - Games and Activities Archive

Teaching English to Elementary School Children

April 21, 2009


Bingo is a great game for practising reading and writing. I like it because even students who don't like writing will happily write nine words. I also like it because it can be adapted to almost any written target from single letters to full sentences. Below are three versions of the game that all involve writing, and that can be adapted to various targets.

My basic version of the game consists of students drawing a 3x3 grid in the back of their notebooks. I get a pack of flashcards with pictures of words I want students to practise writing. I shuffle the cards, students say "stop" and I show the picture. The students write the word in their grid. To help weaker students, I write the word on the board bit by bit so they can look to the board for help when necessary. When all have finished we move on to the next picture. This continues until the grid is full. The pictures we have used are put along the bottom edge of the board and numbers 1-9 are written by the cards. To actually play bingo, I use a 10-sided dice which the students take turns to throw. They call out the number thrown, and each student looks at the board to see which picture it is, then finds the word in their grid and circles it. The dice has a zero side which can be lucky or unlucky. If it is lucky, it means the student who threw it can choose any number instead. If it is unlucky it means no word can be circled that go. When a duplicate number is thrown it doesn't count and the dice is passed to another student. When about seven or eight of the numbers have been thrown, I stop the game and students count their bingos.

Version 2: Fill in the grid in the same way. Then again shuffle the cards and have students say "stop". Give the students a hint about the card such as its colour. Students raise their hands and guess which card it is. Once the card has been correctly identified, all students circle that word in their grid. This is a good way to practise language such as colour (It's blue), size (It's big), has (He has a white hat) categories (It's an animal) and other language useful for giving clues. Students can take the role of shuffler and hint-giver.

Version 3: This is good for large classes such as elementary school classes. I usually play this with colours but it could be adapted to other language. Students are given identical 3x3 grids that have colours partly written in. They are written so that each colour is identifiable by the given letters but so that the students have to complete some letters by themselves e.g. p _ _ k, r _ _, b l _ _ k and so on. Students don't write anything at this point. Students are given a small piece of card with a colour on it. The colors are not written but actual blobs of colour. They keep their card a secret from other students. Students mingle. When they find a partner they play scissors, paper, stone. The winner has one guess at their partner's colour (Is it blue?"). They then continue taking turns to guess until one guesses correctly. The students then exchange cards (important to do this) and the student who guessed correctly fills in that colour in their grid. The other student doesn't write anything. Both students then take their new cards and go to find a new partner. Stop the game after a given amount of time, ask students to sit down. They count their bingos. This version is quite complicated and needs demonstrating with two students first but once they get the idea it goes really well. It can run for quite a long time without anyone getting bored and without anyone completing their grid.

Bingo can be played even with complete beginners. As soon as they know the five vowels, in their upper and lower case versions, we can play bingo. The filling in may need to be a simple dictation activity (big a, little i, etc) but otherwise the game can follow the basic version given above. With more advanced students, the grid can be completed with whole sentences rather than just individual words.

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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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June 02, 2009

Why and how to use notebooks in class

Notebooks are an indispensable tool for the teacher. Below are five reasons to use notebooks in class, five writing activities for notebooks and five games that can be played using notebooks.

Five reasons to use a notebook

1. Students get used to writing on blank paper without the prompts of a textbook or worksheet.
2. Students can be independent, choosing what they write in the notebook.
3. Students can work at their own pace, and choose to write what is appropriate for their ability.
4. Students can easily look back at what they have done and see how they have improved.
5. Parents can easily see what the students have been doing.

Five writing activities for notebooks

1. Students draw a picture of their choice and write the initial letter or word or sentence associated with the picture.
2. Give students a pile of flashcards that have pictures on one side and English on the other side.. They choose a card, write a word or sentence and then check the back of the flashcard, correcting their work as necessary.
3. Write questions on the board and have students write their own answers in their notebook.
4. Give spelling tests. Most students love tests if the tests are just to see how well they can do.
5. Dictation. Dictate letters, words or sentences and have students write them in their notebooks.

Five games using notebooks (I designate the back pages for games as some games involve speed, and neatness tends to suffer. It is easier to encourage neatness in normal writing activities if the writing is not next to a scrawled page from a speed game).

1. Bingo. Save preparation time by using notebooks for bingo instead of readymade bingo grids. Dictate words then play bingo either using a 10-sided dice or have students take turns to choose a word.
2. Beat the clock. Have a pack of flashcards for each student or one big pile that they can share. Ask students how many words or sentences they can write in a given amount of time (I use a 3 minute egg-timer). Set the timer going and students try to reach their target.
3. Listening quiz. Give a description of something, e.g. "it's a long yellow fruit. Monkeys like them.". Students write their answers in the notebook.
4. Making puzzles. Students can make anagrams for each other, or other word puzzles that they have done in class. Give them a few minutes to make puzzles then they switch books and try to solve the puzzles. Teachers need to be vigilant to check puzzles are correct.
5. Memory pictures. Have students close their eyes and listen to three short descriptions or stories. e.g. "Number 1. It's a dog. It's yellow. It's in a tree. Number 2. It's a rabbit. It's pink and blue It's on a hill. " etc. After the three descriptions, students open their eyes. Ask questions about the descriptions, e.g. "Number 1. What color is it?" Then students get their notebooks and in a given time limit try to draw the three descriptions. For a final writing activity they can write sentences about the pictures they have drawn.

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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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October 08, 2009

Games and PPP in the children's EFL classroom

The PPP model of teaching (presentation - practice - production) has long been a popular model for EFL classrooms. The usual form it takes is the teacher presenting the language to be taught, the students practicing it in a controlled way and then the students having to use the language in a more natural situation. The presentation stage is usually teacher-centred, the practice stage is usually also teacher-centred, and the production stage is more student-centred. This model was intended for older EFL learners choosing to attend a language school and with motivation for studying English. How effective is this model for teaching children?

If we present the new language to the children at the beginning of the class in a teacher-centred way e.g. holding up a picture and saying the associated word or sentence the children will feel that this new language is something the teacher “owns” and wants the the children to learn. It may be effective for some children but there will probably be quite a few who don’t really see any point in learning the new language and will make a corresponding amount of effort. If the children practise the new language in a teacher-centred way e.g. repeating words after the teacher or chorally responding to questions from the teacher, the language will have no real meaning for them. It will just be a classroom exercise and the new language is unlikely to be really internalised by the children. When it comes to the children having to produce the language in a more real-life situation they will probably have a lot of difficulty. The lesson is likely to never really have a production stage as the lack of internalisation will mean that the students are always relying on the teacher to prompt them with what to say.

Teaching through games overcomes these problems. When we teach through games the three stages are all still there but they are not discrete steps. The practice and production stages become mixed together in games because as the students need to use the language in order to play the game, they are practising it as we can tell when they forget the word and need a prompt or make a mistake with the pronunciation, but at the same time they are producing it in a natural situation - in a game.

What is production for one child may be the presentation for another. This can be illustrated by the Missing Card game. In this game several cards are laid on the desk or stuck on the blackboard. Some of the cards may be previously taught items while some are new. The teacher removes a card while the children close their eyes. They open their eyes and try to guess which card has gone. The correct guesser can be the one to remove the next card and so on. When a new card is the one to be removed, some of the students may know the English word while some won’t. When a student who knows the new word guesses the card, they are producing the language. For the students who don’t know the new word, the language is being presented to them by their classmate.

If no-one knows the new language, the teacher can tell them. In this case, although it is the teacher who is telling the children, it is the children who are demanding to know what it is from the teacher. It is therefore a very child-centred method. Once the children know this game, what usually happens is that when they see that there are some new cards that they don’t know, they will ask the teacher or a classmate what they are before the first round of the game so that they are not at a disadvantage. This completely reverses the traditional presentation stage as it is the children wanting to know the new words in order to play the game. The words therefore are “owned” by the children rather than by the teacher.

Teaching through games gets rid of the need for the teacher to present the new language while the students passively wait and listen. Some teachers find it hard to make this final leap. They are happy to practise the language through games but feel the language still needs to be given to the students first. Having done both myself and having watched many classes taught by other teachers using both methods, I have seen that introducing new language through games is more effective, more fun and more time-efficient.

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November 06, 2009

A Success Story

I took over teaching a fourth grade boy in April. This is his third year of learning English including learning how to read and write using phonics but he was still having a lot of problems with reading and writing even simple words. He is the only student in the class so I was able to spend a lot of time on reading and writing activities, going back to the basics of learning the single sounds and then slowly building up to two- and three-letter words.

He was quite unusual compared to most students I have taught who have had problems with reading and writing, in that when trying to write a word such as “dog” he would usually be able to write the last letter and often the middle the letter, but not the first. This would happen particularly when trying to write a word where the initial letter was followed by a different vowel than the anchor word he had learned for that initial letter. For example, having learned the anchor word “panda” for “p” he would have problems knowing what letter should start the word “pen” or “pet”. This problem was probably caused by interference from the kana writing system. Many students have problems caused by this interference I think, but it generally causes a problem with writing the vowels following consonants rather than the initial consonants.

The first step I took was to make sure he could read all the individual letters. We spent some time reviewing these in various ways. The game he liked best was a “race against the clock” game where we had a pile of letter tiles and we tried to read them all in three minutes. Next, I had a set of small pictures consisting of pairs of pictures beginning with the same letter, e.g. tent and toilet, panda and pen etc. These cards were used in various ways such as a “race against the clock” matching game, concentration, and as a writing task where the student would choose a pair and write the initial letter for the pair. From here we progressed to writing the initial letter after being shown only one of the pair. When he had difficulty I encouraged him to think of or find the other half of the pair. The third step was to show him the pictures and have him write the first two letters of the word - “te” for tent, “to” for toilet and so on. This really helped him to realise that words that seem like they would start with a different letter (if they were Japanese) actually start with the same letter.

He is now very confidently writing 3-letter words, and phonetically simple longer words. The problem I now face is how much correction to give him. With his newfound confidence he is attempting to write longer and less phonetically regular words such as “sweater” which he spelled as “sweta”. I don’t want to damage his confidence but don’t want to leave a lot of words uncorrected so have been selecting a few to correct and leaving others. I try to limit the words he writes to ones he will be able to spell but I always give him some freedom to write what he wants as well which is when words like “sweater” come up. However this is a much better problem to face than his previous reading and writing problems. As his confidence consolidates I will give more correction, and introduce more phonetic patterns so that he can attempt a greater variety of words.

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December 18, 2009

Homework Checking (1)

Checking homework in children’s classes can be time-consuming, especially if the students are self-correcting their mistakes, and if some students have made several mistakes. Many teachers prefer to check homework at the beginning of the lesson rather than a later point in the lesson, when the students may be busy with something, so that any mistakes made in the homework are not repeated in the lesson. The students can’t really play a game at this time as they would be interrupted by having to do the self-correction of their homework. Students who have made more mistakes may feel embarrassed or lose confidence if they are having to make a lot of corrections while their classmates are waiting. The students who have few corrections to do will be bored and likely to get distracted and chat excessively in Japanese, possibly setting the mood for the remainder of the class. Self-correction is much preferable to teacher correction though, as most students rarely look at teacher corrections and so learn little from them.

One way of dealing with this potential problem is to prepare worksheets for the students to do while the teacher is checking homework and some students are self-correcting their homework. Such worksheets should be relatively easy so that the students don’t need the teacher’s help, leaving the teacher to get on with checking homework and helping students with self-correction of their homework if necessary. They also need to be attractive (as all worksheets should be) so that the students want to do them, and don’t need any persuasion from the teacher. They can be of three main types - look and write, read and draw, or read, look and match. The students can settle down to these and then, when necessary, pause and do any corrections from their homework, going back to the worksheet when their homework is complete.

As well as dealing with the above-mentioned problems this type of worksheet at the beginning of class can have several other benefits. Having a relatively easy worksheet lets the students increase their fluency in reading and/or writing. For weaker students it is hopefully something they can do reasonably well, increasing their confidence for the rest of the lesson. It is an opportunity to review recent language or language from several weeks or months previously, and also a good way of getting plenty of practice with problem letters, words or patterns. It is a good way of marking the start of the class and getting the students settled into English mode. As the students know the teacher is busy checking homework they are more likely to get help from each other if they don’t know something or need to check something, therefore helping to decrease their dependency on the teacher. As the worksheet is supplementary and not related to the main target of the lesson it doesn’t need to be completed, so as soon as all students have finished correcting their homework, they can stop doing the worksheet and the first activity can start.

I have had particular success with these kinds of worksheets in my class of six students that started in April and are currently learning to read and write. The typical worksheets I give them currently consist of either pictures and the students write the words, or words and they draw the pictures, or words and pictures that the students connect with lines. I use a combination of recent language and language, from several weeks ago, that is now quite easy for them. As I am low-tech, my worksheets are drawn by hand and take about five minutes to make. It is a well-spent five minutes.

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February 08, 2010

Ten ways to use an eggtimer in class

An egg-timer is a great tool for the classroom. It can spice up old activities, turn competitive games into co-operative ones, and help with classroom management. These are some ways a three-minute egg-timer can be used in class.

1. For small classes (four or fewer). Each student has three minutes in which to answer as many questions as possible from the teacher. Another student keeps track of the score, and another watches the egg-timer. It is a good way to practise new targets and review older targets, as well as to practise general personal questions such as What school do you go to? Where do you live? etc. It also really improves students’ listening skills. It can be turned into a co-operative activity by having all students answering questions during the first round, then repeating the activity and trying to beat the previous score.

2. For large classes. The whole class has three minutes in which to ask one question each to the teacher (or to one volunteer student). Questions such as Do you like...?, Do you have ...? Can you ...? What ... do you like? work well, as well as any other questions the students know and want to ask.

3. For any size class. Divide students into small groups (about four). Give each group a set of cards that consists of some kind of pairs, for example, pictures and initial letters, pictures and words, questions and answers. Students have three minutes in which to match up the pairs.

4. For any size class. Divide students into small groups (about four). Give each group a set of cards that consists of some kind of pairs (as above). Students play concentration (shinkeisuijaku) and try to finish within three (or six) minutes. This makes for a faster game avoiding the time-wasting that sometimes occurs as students deliberate over which card to choose. It also makes it a more co-operative game than the standard one as the goal is to finish in the time limit rather than to win the most cards.

5. For any size class. Write “yes” ten times and “no” ten times on the board. Students have to ask yes/no questions to the teacher (or volunteer student). When the teacher answers “yes” erase one “yes” and when the teacher answers “no” erase one “no”. The goal is for all the “yeses” and “no’s” to be erased within three minutes.

6. For any size class. Give verbal maths problems to the students e.g. ten plus twelve, forty minus twenty-five etc. Students raise their hands and answer. They see how many they can answer in three minutes. Play again later in the class and try to beat the previous score.

7. For any size class. Divide students into small groups. Each group has paper and pencil. Give them a category, e.g. clothes and they write as many types of clothing as they can in three minutes. Points can be awarded for the number and bonus points for correct spelling.

8. For small classes. Practise reading or writing for fluency by showing words or pictures, (or dictating words) and having students read or write the words. See how many they can do in three minutes or ask them in advance how many they think they can do, and try to reach that goal. If there is more than one student, then, for reading, students can take turns, and for writing, all the students can write and, once all have written the first word, show the second picture, and so on.

9. For any size class. For time-consuming preparation or clearing away, use the egg-timer to encourage everyone to hurry up and get the job done. This can save a lot of time in class. A one-minute egg-timer is also good for smaller jobs.

10. For sleepy students. I have a student who has some kind of “writing narcolepsy”. I see his eyes rolling back in his head, and his attempts to conceal his yawns as soon as he has a pencil in his hand. However, the egg-timer works wonders at removing his sleepiness. I ask him how many questions and answers, or words, he can write in three minutes, and then we start. He hates to not reach his goal, and enjoys the excitement of trying to beat the clock, and this keeps him awake. We then have another three minutes for corrections. Then start again. The egg-timer has made a huge difference to my class with this boy.

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March 16, 2010

Tests in Class

I have recently started giving mini tests most weeks in my lower level children’s classes. Being against testing for children in general, this went against my natural inclination at first, but I could see lots of advantages to it so I decided to try it. The purpose of the tests is to give the children a sense of achievement rather than to assess what they know or don’t know, so the tests are designed to be easy for the students. My aim is for all the students to get all the answers right, or at least most of them. In this respect then, they are perhaps not tests in the usual sense of the word, but they have a test format and we call them tests in class.

The students number from 1-10 in their notebooks, then I either dictate words or show pictures and the students write the words. When I dictate words, some of the words are real and some are nonsense, as they are learning to read and write phonetically. After we have finished all ten, I ask the students what number one is, what number two is, etc, and I write the correct answers on the board. The students mark their own tests and we are finished. I don’t ask how many they got right but they often tell me or each other. Sometimes I make intentional mistakes when I write the answers on the board, and hope the students will notice and tell me I have made a mistake.

The main benefit of these tests is that the students get a sense of achievement from them. They almost always can get at least 8 out 10. They do not dread these tests in any way. They look forward to them, enjoy doing them and get a feeling of satisfaction from them. Now that they are all confident with them, I can throw in some more difficult words and they readily tackle them, and don’t mind if they make mistakes. It is easy to see how confident they are when they are able to point out the mistakes I have made.

Another advantage is that the students seem to take more notice of any mistakes they make and also seem to think more carefully about words they are not sure about. Another dictation exercise I often do is dictating words for them to write into a bingo grid in preparation for playing bingo. They often rush this activity and don’t think carefully when they do this type of writing. This kind of quick, fluent writing is also useful I think, but it is also good to have the opposite kind of writing where they do think carefully.

Asking students to tell me the answers provides an opportunity for reading practise as they have to read what they have written. Noticing how easily students write the words during the tests and also their shouts during the marking help me see where there are areas that need extra review.

All of these advantages can of course be obtained in other activities and I am still not sure whether I am doing the right thing by giving these tests, but so far I certainly don’t think they are doing any harm, and they do seem to be having a positive effect. Students have to face a lot of tests in this country and I certainly don’t want to add to that test-taking burden but because of the easiness of the tests we do, I don’t think that is the case. I hope that, maybe, developing a positive attitude towards tests by doing these little English tests could help them face other tests with more confidence.

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March 20, 2011

Spot the Difference

I have always struggled to find ways of giving students opportunities to speak English in class in a communicative way without being prompted by questions, either by me or by another student. While being able to answer questions is an important skill in a foreign language, it is also important to be able to speak without having first been asked a question.

One activity I have found that allows this kind of practice is using Spot the Difference pictures. The way I use these pictures is to give the students a pair of pictures which have about five differences and set a 3-minute egg-timer going. I sit with my back to the students with a piece of paper and pencil. The students try find the differences and explain them to me before the time limit is reached. Once all the differences have been explained, I read what I have written and they show me on the picture what it refers to. If there is something they didn’t know how to say or explained unclearly, this is when I can teach them the correct word or phrase. It helps to have your back to the students so that they can’t point at the picture - they have to explain clearly. The time limit encourages fluency and makes it more fun.

This activity allows students to use language they have already learned in class in a meaningful way, and at a level that is appropriate. Lower level students can use single words while higher level students can use phrases or sentences. I have been using this activity in a class of three students who are in their third year of learning English. I have a very small, cheap book of Spot the Difference pictures which I bought from Amazon, called Spot the Differences Puzzle Fun published by Dover Publications. The pictures are simple line black and white line drawings and the differences are easy to find. The second time I did this activity in class the students immediately started asking me the English for anything on the picture they didn’t know, which they knew they would need for the activity, before they let me start the egg-timer. I let the students flick through and choose a picture. They usually demand to do two per class.

The only special language that I taught in advance was “left picture, right picture” although these are words they already knew. I have found that they are very creative in using language they know to explain the differences to me, even if they don’t know the exact way to say it. It is also a useful way, depending on the pictures, for students to learn phrases such as upside-down, back-to-front, topsy-turvy etc. As the pictures are designed for children, the vocabulary that comes up is vocabulary that is interesting for children. It also lets students use a mixture of sentence patterns such as describing actions, describing positions, describing size differences and so on.

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