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Young Learners - Teacher Development Archive

Teaching English to Elementary School Children

January 07, 2009

Looking Back, Looking Forward

The new year is traditionally a time to look back on the previous year and hopefully learn something from our experiences. Below are some things that I learnt in 2008 that I hope will make me a better teacher in 2009.

Giving children more choice
After attending a workshop by Chris Hunt in April of 2008 about giving children choice in the classroom, I have been trying to do exactly that. One way I have done this is to make small laminated cards representing different games and activities (again this was an idea from Chris Hunt). If I want the children to practise a language target through a game, but several games would achieve this, I give the children the choice. They each choose the game they want to play then we roll a dice to make the final decision, e.g. in a class of seven, if three students choose one game, two choose another and two choose a third, I roll the dice and if 1,2,3 or 4 is rolled we play the first game, if 5 is rolled we play the second game, if 6 is rolled we play the third game. This simple idea has worked very well.

Being aware of how my decisions affect children's behaviour
I have a class of seven 6-7 year olds this year who are mostly very motivated and enthusiastic in lessons. On a couple of occasions they got completely distracted and were chatting away in Japanese and I felt I had lost them for the rest of the lesson. When I thought about these incidents afterwards I realised they were completely caused by my own mistakes. In the lesson where they first had to write a question and answer rather than single words, I didn't lead them into it gradually enough, and only one of the seven knew what to do. The other six were confused and while I tried to help the first student I noticed was struggling, the others needed more help and, while waiting for me, got distracted by each other. The class descended into chaos. On another occasion a game that works well in a class of four or five wasn't appropriate for seven students. They had to wait too long in between turns and got bored and distracted. The same game played in two groups worked fine.

Going beyond flashcards
I use flashcards a lot in my lessons and find them extremely useful. They can clearly show many language targets, are colourful and fun, and can be used in a wide variety of games and activities. However I realised that I didn't do enough activities and games without the flashcards and that my students were too dependent on them. When asked a question that they could answer if they had a flashcard in front of them, they often couldn't answer when there was no visual clue. I have therefore been trying to use more natural conversation and questions in my lessons without the visual clues provided by flashcards.

Encouraging children's emotional development as well as development as English speakers
I have been faced on many occasions with the dilemma of what to do when weak students copy the stronger students' writing. If a student willingly lets another student copy, should we discourage this? We know that copying is not going to help the weak student's English but is it right to discourage kind and helpful behaviour? I used to lean in the direction of not allowing copying as my priority was to ensure the children had the best chance of improving their English. Recently I have been leaning in the other direction, thinking that in the grand scheme of things, being kind and helpful is more important than being able to spell accurately. I have found that some strong students in my elementary school classes, once their own written work is finished, take it upon themselves to help the slower students, and in many cases provide help in the same way they have observed me helping, that is by giving hints, such as the anchor word for the letter the students should be writing or sounding the word out slowly. Obviously, this is beneficial to both students and definitely shouldn't be discouraged. If copying is a big problem, we probably have to consider different writing activities where practicable so that each child has to work individually, rather than trying to stop our students being helpful to each other. On a different, but related subject, I used to play a game with toy money where children collected toy money hidden under flashcards. I have stopped using this activity as I didn't like the idea of the children thinking getting lots of money was important. I realised it is important to ensure that my lessons don't inadvertently encourage traits that I wouldn't wish my students to develop.

Trying to ensure that no child gets lowered self-esteem in my classes
Most classes have some stronger students and some weaker students. It is very important that our lessons don't lead to the weaker students developing low esteem. As a teacher trainer I have had the opportunity to watch lessons taught by different teachers and seen how the teacher's role is crucial in ensuring all students maintain high self-esteem. It was only through watching other teachers' lessons that I began to carefully monitor my own lessons for instances when my actions may cause a student to lose self-esteem. I realised that sometimes my actions could lead to the child feeling they were being too slow, or feeling that they should remember how to write something because we had practised it only a short time ago in a game. I have a class at 5 o'clock on Fridays this year when I am often tired and sometimes have a lack of patience, which has on occasion made me exasperated when I feel the students could do something easily if they just concentrated a bit more. I realise now that this might lead the students to lose self-esteem, and I am trying to be super-patient at all times.

Experimenting with seating arrangements
I have found that where students are sitting in relation to one another can make a huge difference in class. Two brothers in one class fight and annoy each other if sitting next to or across from each other. Two chatty, easily distracted 6 year-old boys in another class stay much more involved if not sitting together. If I simply ask them to sit in certain places they sometimes refuse, and to avoid a power struggle, I let them sit where they want. However, the use of name cards has worked really well. In one lesson I have the students make name cards which I collect and keep (or make name cards for them if they aren't writing yet). Before each lesson I put the name cards on the desks where I want the students to sit. They enjoy coming in and finding their names. I plan to experiment more with seating arrangements, both to allow students different experiences and to avoid students getting cliquey which sometimes happens, especially in classes of older children. When students have to co-operate together in a lesson they are much more likely to have a good relationship in the future. Moving students around means they can develop friendly relationships with all the other students in the class by having them as team mates or partners.

Using classroom English to full advantage
My observations of other teachers' lessons made me realise that I don't take full advantage of the opportunities for using classroom language. I let my students get away with using Japanese in certain circumstances, for example when they are hunting for a particular letter tile, and they find it and shout " Atta!". Encouraging them to say "Found it!" provides them with a useful little chunk of English that they can use in various situations in lessons and they pick it up quickly, just as they pick up "Finished!" instead of saying "Dekita!" and "Eraser please" instead of "keshigomu kashite". It is a shame to waste these opportunities for real communication in English.

Remembering that I may be a big influence on the children I teach
As a teacher in our students' lives, we may have a bigger influence than we realise on the children in our classes. We may be the only non-Japanese person they know, the only English-speaker they know, or simply one of only a few adults they meet regularly. It is important then that we are good role models for our students and always behave in a way that we would want our students to behave, for example being calm and patient, not getting angry, being well-prepared and so on. By being constantly aware of our possible influence, we can ensure that that influence is a positive one.

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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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April 19, 2011

Ensuring fairness between boys and girls

After reading a couple of books by Peggy Orenstein who writes about how teachers, both male and female, in American public schools treat boys and girls differently, I was prompted to look at my own teaching and the way I treat boys and girls in my elementary school classes.

I found that when boys raise their hands to answer questions, they tend to shout “me, me, me” or “Hai, hai”, while girls are more likely to raise their hands in silence. While I do try and ask students who raise their hands silently, my attention was often drawn to the loud (mostly) boys. I also noticed that boys are more likely to try and answer questions that they are unsure of, while the majority of girls will only answer when they are certain they have the right answer.

I also found that I tended to be more inwardly tolerant of naughty behaviour from boys than from girls. Although my reaction to the behaviour was similar on the surface, I realised that underneath I was more accepting of bad behaviour from boys than from girls, and students can probably sense this.

Do these things really matter? Almost certainly, yes. Students are learning a lot more in the classroom than what we are explicitly teaching them. While the lesson is in theory an English lesson, the students are constantly learning other lessons about social roles, social norms, what constitutes acceptable behaviour and so on. How we as teachers treat our students will affect how those students think about themselves and about their roles in the classroom and more widely in society.

How can we ensure fairness between boys and girls in our classes? Firstly we have to be aware of our own tendencies to treat boys and girls differently. Once we become aware of our own inconsistencies it becomes much easier to ensure our actions in class are fair. We can have strict rules about how students answer questions. For example, only students who raise their hands silently can answer. Or, if we do’t want to discourage this enthusiasm we can have a rule that we will ask boys and girls alternately. If girls are more reluctant to answer question than boys, we can have a system of points for girls versus boys, to encourage girls to answer questions.

As well as ensuring fairness between boys and girls, we also need to encourage quieter students to speak out, regardless of whether they are a boy or a girl. Some students are naturally quieter and we don’t want to force them to speak but reluctance to speak out in class can have a detrimental effect on learning. According to Orenstein, “students who talk in class have more opportunity to enhance self-esteem through exposure to praise; they have the luxury of learning from mistakes, and they develop the perspective to see failure as an educational tool”. One way of allowing all students a chance to speak out is to have students divided into a number of teams. Points are awarded when students answer questions. To ensure all students have chance to speak, a rule can be used where the same student can’t answer again until all team members have answered a question. Students can help each other in order to avoid pressure on weaker, quieter students, but a new student must actually answer the question each time.

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