I usually use my own songs with young learners, since many popular children’s songs that seem simple are too complex for non-native speakers. I see no reason to have them go merrily down a stream or up a water spout during their first exposure to a new language with unfamiliar sounds.
One song I do like to use is If You’re Happy and You Know It. I usually simplify it even more by leaving out the line “and you really want to show it” and repeat the previous line instead. This song can be used to teach more than simple words describing feelings and actions. It’s really about expressing emotions safely.
I pause before the verse “If you’re mad and you know it…” Yes, I use the word “mad” instead of “angry” because it’s much easier to pronounce and spell, and isn’t confused with “hungry”. I ask children what they do when they’re mad. Some of them go to their rooms, play with a favorite toy or go to sleep, which they can’t do at school. Some may admit to throwing things, few will say that they hit someone even if they did 5 minutes earlier. This is when I tell them that we never hurt someone or break anything no matter how mad we are, so we’ll learn something we can do. Then we all stomp our feet. It really is a great way to release frustration, especially when everyone makes mad noises and faces, too.
From then on, any time I see a child get angry I remind them – don’t hit, push or break anything – stomp your feet.
P.S. The following week I teach them to twiddle their thumbs when they’re bored.
Whether you teach full classes or small groups, in or after school, it’s important to keep your students interested and engaged in lessons.
Children don’t just like to move, they need to move. Research also shows that they learn best when they’re active, using their bodies as well as all their senses. We don’t need to wait for students to learn some vocabulary to have fun – we can have fun while we’re teaching it. Memorizing lists of words and translations is boring. It may improve test scores but doesn’t do much to improve speaking skills. Learning with all the senses is much more effective.
Do you spend a good part of your lessons telling students to sit still and be quiet, punishing them if they don’t? Do you use a lot of worksheets because your students have trouble sitting still, hoping that this will keep them from moving around?
A year ago I was looking for a change. The niche I had created by combining my music and drama skills with English had me labeled as an English teacher and almost forgotten as a musician. Sales had gone down as the availability of free materials went up. I began a program for teacher-entrepreneurs and started to develop a new music project. I also took advantage of the program to reorganize my business. Then I was offered an exciting challenge – 4 days a week teaching the program I’ve developed over the last 15 years, using songs and games in active, engaging lessons. I also took on several after-school groups. Suddenly I found myself busy doing exactly what I wanted to do, not compromising and not looking for work. I also keep my music career going as a pianist, playing at a hotel and going to jam sessions. So I put my indepent business, English is Fun, on the back burner, along with other projects I started. Occasionally I would promise myself I’d get back to something, but didn’t. I was frustrated by what I wasn’t doing, until I realized why – I’m happy where I am now. It’s not a cop-out. I started working in education because I love working with children, especially when I sing and dance with them. I don’t enjoy selling and marketing. Now I create new materials, use them in class and put them on YouTube – and the kids are impressed that I have my own channel even if it doesn’t actually create any income yet. At the beginning of the summer I went to the ETAI international conference. I used to have a table at the book exhibit, where I would sit all day and try to sell CDs, books and workshops. A few years ago I stopped because I wasn’t making enough to cover the cost. Now I go as a participant, attend workshops and often lead one, mingle, meet new people and have a wonderful time. I like my role as an educator rather than a publisher. This time I lead a forum on songs and games. It was a fun workshop, and I realized that I do have a lot to offer. And it’s always good to have something simmering on that burner. So once again I’m trying to restart my blog/mailing list, again in a new format. I hope to reach more people and provide occasional ideas and tips. So please follow me here and on Facebook. As you can see, there won’t be too many posts.
I don’t bring an electric keyboard and toys to class to teach grammar rules. That’s the job of the “formal” English teachers. My job is to help kids practice speaking so that they learn how to actually use all of those rules that sometimes even native speakers don’t fully understand. If you don’t know how important that is, look here, or search Google for “Lexical approach”. Since my job is also to teach them to enjoy English as a spoken language, I want that practice to be interesting, varied and meaningful while creating a pleasant, non-threatening environment for everyone.
It’s sometimes hard to relate to sentences written in a textbook. However, students often have trouble creating their own sentences using a specific format.
Recently I was helping a group of weak students practice (again) the different forms of “to be”, an essential English verb that has no Hebrew equivalent used in common speech. This time I tried something new. Each student had to compliment another student. To make sure we included he, she and you, they had to say the sentence to the student and then tell us the same thing. Example – “You are strong. She is strong.” Sometimes they had something to say about more than one student – “They are good at art”.
Not only did students leave class likely to make fewer mistakes, they also had more reasons to feel good about themselves.
Creative people with ADHD are always looking for something new to try. So I don’t like doing or saying the same things week after week, but sometimes that’s what children need, especially when they’re young. For example, I thought they’d be bored after a couple of weeks of my asking each of them individually “Are you ready?”, but I found that not only do 1st and 2nd grade classes like it, they started to join me. They think it’s funny, but I think it’s great. Kids love to repeat what we say, and it’s a great way for them to learn new words and phrases. That’s why songs, chants and games with repetitive short phrases work so well.
I hoped the same thing would happen when I played my adapted version of “Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar?” with the 3rd grade while teaching school supplies. For those of you who haven’t been to one of my workshops or used my materials –
All children close their eyes and put their hands behind their backs.
The teacher puts items from the pencil case – pencil, eraser, scissors, glue – in their hands. It isn’t necessary for every child to be given an object.
Children open their eyes but hands remain behind their backs, even if they’re empty.
Begin by asking. “Who stole the (object) from the pencil case?”. Continue “(name) stole the (object), etc.” as in the original game (“Who, me?” “Yes, you!” “Couldn’t be!” “Then who”).
Each round continues until someone guesses which child is holding the object mentioned.
The object, of course, is to practice speaking along with learning some new words. But I found that although the same phrases were repeated again and again, I really had to encourage them to join me.They knew the words, but mimicking the teacher isn’t automatic at this age.
Something else happens when we get to 5th grade. I often use songs that they request in addition to my own. Although they like hearing them and even learning the lyrics, I don’t always hear them singing. But if I look around the room I can see lips moving, and I’ve had students tell me that the song we learned last week is still stuck in their head. This is exactly what I want, since the words usually stick there too. I even had a 9th grade student walk into class singing “Hello Everybody” which I opened lessons with when I taught her in 6th grade.
Children, like adults, have some annoying habits. Some of them can disrupt lessons, but sometimes these habits are the best way to learn.
Recently I had a conversation with a teacher I work with about how well the 1st grade students, who have one hour a week with each of us, know the colors in English. When I work with them, they can point to different colors and name them. She even heard a student answer “green” when I asked her “What color is my shirt?” However, she found that when she asks them in Hebrew they can’t always give the English word. This led to a discussion about which is more important – being able to use a word or translate it. The answer to this depends on why we teach – If our goal is to enable students to speak English, then using the words in context is what they need.
In order to speak a foreign language correctly and fluently, one must begin to think in that language. Constantly translating while speaking will almost always result in errors. When I began studying Hebrew in Ulpan over 30 years ago I was advised to write definitions for words in Hebrew instead of their English translations. Determined to learn the language properly, I followed this advice and it has served me well. That is, I have learned to speak fluently and have no problem understanding what I hear and read, but I can’t always translate words and concepts into English even though I understand them.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the goal in most classrooms. “Teach to the test” is still the motto, and on many of those tests students must translate words into or from their native language. So they are taught lists of words with their translations, and believe that as long as they can translate words they can read and write.
I believe this may explain studies in which children who began learning English later actually performed better on tests, even though there is plenty of research to back up my experience and that of other teachers who teach young children, showing that the younger children start learning the easier it is for them to absorb a foreign language. When children start very young, they learn to speak, when they start later they learn to pass tests. Read more about my experience with young learners here.
Why doesn’t translating work? Every language has its own syntax, a word can have two different meanings in one language which are represented by different words in another, and some words and expressions just can’t be translated properly.
Here are some examples.
How do you say “go” in Hebrew? How do you say “walk”?
How do you say “like”? Now translate the sentence “Your teeth are like stars”.
How do you say “do”? How do you say “How do you say do?” or “Do you know how?”
Explain in Hebrew the difference between class, classroom, grade and grades.
How to you say “take”? “take a shower”? “take a picture”? “take a break”?
And if you’re still not convinced, try explaining present progressive!
Teaching creatively while maintaining structure means adapting many conventional ideas. One of my favorite sources is החופש ללמד Their latest series of tips talks about having students sum up what they learned. I usually end a lesson either by having students collect objects while naming them, or with a chant “What did we learn today?”. They suggest having several students write down something new they learned to see if they understood what we consider the most important points of the lesson. Writing doesn’t really work in my groups. I teach spoken English. Students don’t have pencils out unless they’re learning about school supplies, looking for objects that are yellow or start with “p”, or using them to tap a rhythm. Some of them haven’t learned to write yet, and since the point of the lesson is learning to speak writing won’t demonstrate that. So last week toward the end of lesson I opened the voice recording app on my phone and asked who wanted me to record them saying new words or phrases. This was a lot more exciting and more students wanted to answer. Most classes asked to hear the recording and students had an opportunity to hear themselves speak English. I save each recording by class, along with speech-to-text, to have a record of their progress throughout the year. Do you want to receive ideas like this by email, along with bonus tracks and printables? Sign up here: