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Young Learners - The Four Skills Archive

Teaching English to Elementary School Children

February 15, 2009

A Plea for Peripheral English

By peripheral English I mean the English used by the teacher that is not related to the main language target of the lesson. It could be instructions to do with games such as "Your turn, Roll the dice, Choose a card", or general classroom instructions such as "Let's get our notebooks and pencils, Clear the desks please, Can I see your homework please" or requests for students' help such as "Could you fetch the remote control for the air conditioner, could you turn the light off please" or comments about the children's work such as "Wow, that's a scary tiger, Nice elephant, Is that a rabbit?" and so on. It is English that the students in general aren't expected to produce but which provides a lot of listening practice for them, and which they may start to use in time, especially phrases such as "Your turn, finished, eraser please".

There is ongoing debate about the use of Japanese by the teacher in the classroom and although I am not totally anti-use of Japanese in the classroom, a recent event made me fully realise how important it is that students get as much comprehensible English input as possible. I recently took over a small class of 7 year olds who are in their first year of learning English (Class A). They have been following the same syllabus as my own students (Class B) and in terms of their familiarity with the material covered so far, are at a similar level to the students I have been teaching since April. However the listening skills of students in Class A are far lower than those in Class B. The students' reaction when I started teaching them and using only English in class ("eigo? eigo ga wakaranai, nihongo dekinai?" etc) made it clear that the previous teacher (a native English speaker) had been using a lot of Japanese in class. They couldn't follow instructions that Class B can follow very easily such as "Let's get our notebooks and pencils".

Of course if it were merely that Class A couldn't understand a particular instruction, that wouldn't be such a big deal. However, it seems much more fundamental than that. They have not developed the attitude that they can understand English. They feel that English can't be understood without some Japanese help or translation. Whereas Class B, through exposure to lots of English that can be readily understood from the context, have developed the skills of guessing the meaning and listening for keywords, and the attitude that they can understand English, the students in Class A haven't really developed these skills and attitude at all. They are skills that are often absent among adult English speakers as well in Japan. There is often a tendency to panic as soon as an unknown word is heard, even if their English level is quite high. We can try to teach adults the skills of listening for keywords and guessing from context but it is quite hard for adults to learn this. Children on the other hand can pick up these skills very easily. Children, even in their native language, are constantly hearing new words that they have to guess the meaning of. Sometimes they explicitly ask what a word means but often they are just able to guess from the contextual clues. This skill can be easily transferred to the learning of English. But only if they are exposed to plenty of peripheral English.

Some Japanese English teachers may feel their English isn't good enough to conduct the whole class in English. I would like to encourage those teachers to try. Even if the English used by the teacher isn't perfect, I think the benefits for the students of getting used to guessing meanings far outweighs any disadvantages of hearing English with a few grammatical mistakes. Some teachers, native and non-native English speakers, may feel that quick instructions in Japanese use time more efficiently than sticking to English. I have a lot of sympathy for this view and if it is an instruction that is quite complicated and unlikely to be used again in future, I would agree. But for simple instructions or instructions that are likely to be used again, the advantages of using English I think outweigh any time that may be saved in the short-term.

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March 01, 2009

Four Skills or Two?

The elementary school I teach at recently held its annual national teachers' conference which was attended by about two hundred teachers mostly from western Japan. The conference includes lessons in all subjects which participants can watch, followed by Q&A sessions. I taught a 3rd grade English class. The students start studying English from the 3rd grade so this class have been studying for about ten months. They are following a four skills phonics-based course using Finding Out 1. They are currently on Unit 9 of this book where they learn how to read and write longer words, but have not yet been introduced to letter patterns such as "ee", "ch" and "oy". Because, the children are learning to read and write in the 3rd grade, a lot of focus is put on learning these two skills, although speaking and listening are also included in every class. Several participating teachers asked questions about this, as many elementary school English programmes focus only on speaking and listening, and the MEXT guidelines suggest that only speaking and listening should be taught.

The two main reasons given to support the view that reading and writing shouldn't be taught in elementary schools are that it isn't fun and that it is too difficult. Both of these criticisms may be true in some classes, if the method of teaching is dry and the material is introduced too quickly. But this could just as easily apply to lessons that focus on speaking and listening. If, however, the lessons are taught in a way that is interesting for children, and if the material is introduced gradually and systematically then reading and writing can be fun and manageable for students. Of course it may be difficult sometimes, but most students are not afraid of a bit of difficulty and a challenge in class.

When asked, at the conference, my opinion about the relative importance of the four skills, I said that I thought that they were all important and that reading and writing shouldn't be ignored for the following reasons:

1. Some students are visual learners and seeing words written down can help their learning. These students would be at a disadvantage in an oral skills only class. Having four skills allows more children to be good at something.

2. Some students are very shy and may not like speaking out in class. Reading and writing gives them a chance to produce English in a way that is comfortable for them.

3. Homework can be given easily, so instead of studying English once a week, students can do some English between classes too.

4. If we are immersed in a new language then we can usually pick it up without reading and writing, but if we are only studying once a week or even less then the additional support of reading and writing can make a big difference. A table with four legs is more stable than a table with two legs, especially as it gets increasing amounts of vocabulary and sentence patterns stacked on it.

5. Having a notebook, file and homework book allows students to look back and find words they have forgotten. My students often forget the word "leg" for example but, because they can read, they can look back and find where they have written "leg", read it and then they know how to say it.

6. Teaching children to read allows them to notice and read English in their everyday life. Just as we (non-Japanese) start trying to read signs and adverts on the train when we are learning katakana, hiragana or kanji, our students will be able to do the same. There is lots of random English on clothes, shop signs, stationery etc that children can practise reading. Any opportunity to use English in some way between classes can be very beneficial. (Of course the English may not be perfect, but the students are at least improving their skill at reading. On a visit back to the UK, I found my friend had wallpapered his staircase with wallpaper covered in kanji. It was just random kanji in patterns with no meaning but was still useful for me to practise reading each time I went upstairs.)

7. Some diligent students want to remember all new English words. If they can't write in English they will have to resort to writing down the word using katakana. When they look back at this word, they will read the katakana and their pronunciation will suffer as a result.

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March 26, 2009

Writing Tasks for Mixed Ability Classes

Should all children be treated the same in class regardless of ability and confidence or should we adapt the tasks given to the needs of the students?

In a recent teacher training session I suggested to one teacher that they should adapt their worksheets based on the ability and confidence of the student. The teacher was concerned that it wasn't fair if one student had to do a more difficult writing task than the other students despite being a stronger (and older) student.

I have used the strategy of giving the same worksheet to all students in a class but filling it in to differing degrees, based on the ability and confidence of each child, for quite a long time now. In my view, that is fairer than expecting stronger and weaker students to do exactly the same task. Sometimes I pre-fill parts of the worksheets before the lesson and sometimes I ask the students how many hints they want. The stronger students generally don't want any hints or choose a low number. The weak students choose a high number. If the students choose a number I think is too high for their ability/confidence I bargain with them until we reach an agreement. All students have always seemed happy with this. Occasionally a stronger student momentarily complains if they see other students have part-completed worksheets but if I jokingly pretend to grab their worksheet and start filling it in they grab it back and want to do it themselves. One thing that almost all students have in common, in my experience, is that they don't want help that they feel they don't need. Similarly, virtually no students want to be given a task that is too easy or too difficult for their level.

I think giving weaker students in the class a written task that is too difficult can do a great deal of damage. They become discouraged. They feel that English is too difficult for them. They lose motivation. They lose confidence. Giving stronger students a task that is too easy is not so damaging I believe but still doesn't really benefit the student a great deal and may do damage to their motivation. I think of it like crosswords. If I start doing a crossword and find it is too easy, I may complete it all but I may put it down halfway through. Either way I have a distinct feeling of dissatisfaction. If I start doing a crossword and can't get even get one answer after 20 minutes I am likely to lose motivation for continuing. The most satisfying and motivating crossword is one that is challenging but not impossible, and that I can, with a lot of thinking, finally complete. We can be the perfect crossword-setter for all our students by providing them with written tasks that are at the right level. Providing level-appropriate tasks seems to me to be fairer than having all students do exactly the same task regardless of how suitable it is for their ability.

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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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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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July 03, 2009

How important are full sentences when answering questions?

For several years I have been teaching children to answer questions with full sentences, e.g. How do you go to school? I go to school by bus. I believe this is important mainly because low level learners (children and adults) spend a lot of time asking and responding to questions rather than initiating conversation without using a question. The main chance they have to produce meaningful non-question sentences is when they are responding to questions. As their English improves they can give longer answers to questions, e.g. How do you go to school? I go to school by bus. It takes 20 minutes. If students are capable of this, then I have found that I am less strict about them using a full sentence for the initial answer, e.g. How do you go to school? By bus. It takes 20 minutes. This is the closest to a native speaker's answer, which is probably the reason I found myself accepting it without really thinking about it.

There are two main problems I believe with an insistence on full answers. The first is that it is teaching them to do something that most native speakers rarely do. The second is that there are many occasions when students understand the question and know the answer but can't remember how to say the first part of the answer. Very often this will prevent them from answering because they feel they must give the whole sentence. In fact if they just gave the short answer, it would more closely resemble a native speaker's answer.

How can we get around this problem? One way is to only insist on full sentences when it is not an answer to a question. If we use a prompt such as a picture rather than a question to get the full sentence practice, then when students answer a question we can encourage them, or at least allow them, to use a short answer. Another way is to have some activities where speed and fluency are emphasised, and in these activities allow short answers. This will let students see that short answers are acceptable.

I have been playing a game (with two classes of three children who have been studying English for five years) that emphasises quick, short answers. I have a 3-minute egg timer. I ask questions to one student for three minutes while another student records the number of answers and the third is in charge of the time. We rotate roles so that each student has chance to answer. They remember their scores from previous lessons and try to improve them. As well as practising short answers, it is also a good game for combining revision of old targets with practice of new targets. I occasionally use picture prompts for some questions but mostly there are no visual prompts.

I have found this game has worked well even with weaker students, and it seems to be very good for students' listening skills, especially guessing the meaning of the whole question from the keywords they hear. The students know they can answer questions with short answers, but so far I am still insisting on full sentences when answering questions relating to a new target at other times in the lesson. Whether this is the right thing to do or not, I am not sure.

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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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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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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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