Get off the Box!

This time I was teaching prepositions. Showing them with my hands, playing games, drawing on the board, learning with all the senses. But some kids are stubborn and want to learn the way they learn in school – “Just translate everything into Hebrew”

I could start telling them how sensory learning has proven to be more effective and how word-for-word translations, especially with words like prepositions, are the cause of many errors, but in this case I had a much better and quicker argument. Here’s what happens when we translate:

over – מעל
under – מתחת
on – על
off – ?

There really is no correct translation in this case for the word “off”. The only way to explain it is to SHOW THEM. Like any concept that doesn’t exist in one’s native language, it’s still difficult for them to grasp, especially when they’re searching for the Hebrew word in their head. To understand “off the box” students need to think outside the box, and more hours of memorizing lists of words won’t help. Creativity in the English classroom, as well as any classroom, doesn’t just make lessons fun. It opens students’ minds to allow them to absorb and understand new concepts and formulate their own ideas. 

Over the years I’ve created songs, games and other materials for English teachers to use, and of course used them myself with hundreds of students. I’ve had a lot of success, but also some frustration. Sometimes I find myself giving proverbial nuts to people whose creative teeth have been worn down by a standardized system. 

So now I’m going back to my musical and dramatic roots to develop a new program which will take them on a journey “outside the box” and develop the creative thinking necessary for English language expression

If you would like to hear more, please fill out the following short survey, or pass it on to those who might benefit:

English

Let’s finish the year with a smile

It’s the end of the year and everyone is tired. Maybe you’ve finished the textbook and maybe the kids just don’t have the patience to open it. This is the time to review everything you’ve done during the year and let groups choose their favorite games, songs and activities. Here are a few more ideas:

  1. Summary game – Make cards for different categories you’ve taught and spread them out, then set out objects or pictures representing words from each category. Children in turn choose an object/picture, say the word and place it in the proper category. You can also call out words and have them run to the proper card.
  2. Another good activity to refresh their memories is “Name that Tune”. Play or sing a few notes of a song they learned and see who can guess first.
  3. Review Weather and Seasons with an emphasis on “hot” and “summer” (yes, I know it’s still raining) – sing The Weather Rock, play the game hot-cold, sort out objects and clothes by season.
  4. Swimming, Swimming – one of my favorite camp songs. I wish I had written it, but since I didn’t this is the best clip I could find on YouTube https://youtu.be/HeMOaMwTgp0
  5. I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream – Familiar to many and easy to teach if students repeat after you. Emphasize the difference between “I scream” and “ice cream”.
  6. Give students a certificate of completion to show that they have “graduated” and can speak English.
  7. End-of-the-Year celebration – My book English is Fun on the Stage contains short playscripts that can be performed by students. You can also put together your own, or just have them sing some of their favorite songs.

Hopefully you and your students have had a fun year. Finishing on a high note will help them remember it that way. 

How to teach English to young learners


I don’t know if it’s Bennett’s new program, the growing amounts of research* or a generation of Israelis who  grew up learning English but are still afraid to speak, but there seems to be an increased awareness of the importance of learning English at an early age. Many teachers are teaching English to young learners for the first time, and the question “How should I teach them?” is being raised more and more. 

My answer is – Don’t. 

???

That’s right – Don’t teach them at all. Young children learn on their own without being taught. Expose them to English by speaking to them, singing, playing games and reading stories and they will absorb the language naturally. Explanations will bore and confuse them, and are unnecessary.

Now for some more specific ideas:

Speak – Young children are very tuned in to body language, facial expressions and voice intonation. Unless you are giving complicated instructions, speak English and use gestures to make the meaning clear. They will quickly become accustomed to hearing English and recognize common words and phrases.

Sing – Songs are an excellent way to learn and remember language along with its natural rhythm and flow. Singing should be active – add movements, hand motions and props rather than just watching videos. Make sure the lyrics of the songs are simple, repetitive and suitable for EFL students. They don’t have to understand every word, but don’t burden them with words like “merrily” and “water spout”. This is why I started writing my own songs.

Play- If you play games that they already know, it will be easy for them to understand instructions in English, allowing you to use very little L1 and making them feel more comfortable by creating a familiar atmosphere. Use games in which the children repeat a few words or sentences. Some popular kindergarten games I use are Knock-Knock-What’s My Name, Telephone, What’s Missing, Red Light/Green Light and Hot/Cold.

Show them – Do any activity they like, but do it in English. Whether you dance, draw, cook or throw a ball, if they can see what you’re doing while you speak to them they will understand and pick up new vocabulary.

A few basic rules to remember:
  • Keep them active. Kids need to move.
  • Be friendly and patient. Everyone learns at their own pace.
  • Children learn by hearing, seeing and doing. 
  • Avoid translating whenever possible. Use props, pictures or gestures instead. The disadvantages of translation can fill another blog post.
  • Make it fun. They more they enjoy English, the more they’ll learn now and in the future.

Using Songs as Text

If they don’t like English something’s wrong
And you don’t have to sing to use a song!
This post is based on the following observations –
·         Songs are an excellent way to reinforce vocabulary and grammar.
·         Songs are more interesting and easier to remember than text.
·         Not all English teachers sing – fewer play musical instruments.
·         As children get older they don’t always want to sing in class.
·         Children and teenagers usually enjoy listening to music even if they don’t like singing.
·         Israeli teenagers listen to a lot of songs in English.
So how can a musically-challenged English teacher use music to enrich English lessons?
Start out by presenting the song the way you would present text –
·         Write the title on the board, review some words and/or discuss the theme of the song.
·         Play the song for the class.
·         Ask the pupils which words they recognize.
·         If you want to concentrate on reading comprehension, hand out the lyrics. Another option is to hand out the lyric sheet with words missing and have them fill in the blanks.
·         Play the song again.
·         Discuss the song – what did they understand, what is the song about, etc.
·         Write some questions on the board.
·         Play the song once more, asking the pupils to listen for answers to the questions.
There is no need to actually teach the song, but after playing it a few times you will find pupils singing along. Once they are familiar with the lyrics, it’s time to divide into pairs or small groups and be creative. Ask each group to present the song in pantomime, stage a “video clip” (actual filming isn’t necessary) or even choreograph a dance. You can play the song in the background while they’re working. This way they will hear it a few more times without getting bored. If the song tells a story, they can put on a short play. Another option is to play a game like charades using words or phrases from the song.
How should you choose songs, and where can you find them? It makes sense to use songs that are connected to what you’re teaching. The connection can be subject matter, or specific sentence structures or vocabulary. Look through your own or your children’s music library, or search the internet. If you’re feeling lucky, go into a lyrics site and search for the vocabulary or chunk that you’re teaching, you may just find a song you know. Asking pupils to suggest songs promises more interest, but obviously you should review the lyrics carefully before using them in class. For younger or weaker students be sure to keep the lyrics simple. There are also songs available written specifically for the EFL classroom, including my own series, English is Fun.
Remember, creativity is the key.

And do they know the Earth is round?

I was in the car listening to the radio tonight. During the news I heard Bennett, the Minister of Education, talk about his new English program. “Children in Israel need to learn spoken English… The ability to have a conversation in English is a necessity today… Our children will know how to speak English and not be afraid to open their mouths when they’re overseas.”  Later I heard other speakers discussing the program “A student can do a 5-point Bagrut in English and still not be able to speak.” “Children need to speak a language before they learn to read it.”

Bennett’s quotes made the headlines, the interviewers sounded interested, but I think I’ve heard this before. Oh, right, I said it yesterday when I presented my English group to parents. And in the past to school principals. My motto “English is not just a subject in school, English is a language” basically sums it up. No, I’m not Galileo. Plenty of other people have discovered, researched and said all these things.  But now the top bureaucrat of education wants English to be taught as a language. This could get interesting.

The obvious question is – Will anything really change? Written English is so much simpler to teach. Students do exercises from a book and memorize vocabulary lists. Teachers prepare them for tests and then test them on the material they prepared. Tests can be graded quickly with numbers that go into a computer to be compared. Everyone can see which students are smarter and which schools are better. 

Now Bennett is talking about extra time for spoken English, debate clubs, oral exams. In other words noise, disagreements (maybe even political), no objective standards and all that extra time and effort! Teachers will need to learn new skills, and no one will be able to measure their success with standardized test scores. 

They will only have the satisfaction of hearing their students speak English and knowing that they made a difference in their lives.

Why bother?

Last week I attended the ETAI (English Teachers’ Association of Israel) National Conference. In addition to the wide variety of lectures and workshops, we were given a chance to ask a panel, student-style, questions beginning with “Why bother”. Most of us added “when…” such as “Why bother coming to a conference when we can meet online?” (short answer – the importance of face to face contact). Sometimes the most logical answer was “Don’t bother”, but one question really bothered me and I wish I had been able to answer –
     “Why bother having an English Day when my colleagues don’t cooperate?”
Honestly, I barely see a connection between the two clauses (a word I picked up substituting in formal English classes). We don’t have English Days for our colleagues, we have them for our students. English Day is a chance for students to have a positive experience in English,  and no matter what activities you choose they probably will learn something. It’s a way to show them English as a spoken language and culture in a relaxed atmosphere. Whether they perform on stage, make crafts or play games, they will have achievements to remember that aren’t graded.
It’s unfortunate that there are teachers who aren’t willing to put in the extra effort to do something special for their students, but don’t let that stop you from doing your best.
Why bother teaching at all? Why bother preparing interesting activities, paying extra attention to students who are struggling as well as those who want to be challenged more, and making sure that everyone understands before you continue? If you do this to impress your colleagues, you will probably be disappointed by their reactions. But if you do everything you can to help your students, in the long run your efforts will pay off and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you made a difference.
And when your colleagues see this, they may decide in the future to join you.

What can we learn from Trump? (non-political)

This is not a political post.
The sages teach us “Who is wise? He who can learn from anyone.” So I’m just trying to prove how smart I am.
Another teacher asked how we can use this to teach our students something. I began to write an answer, then realized that I have enough ideas for a blog post.
  1. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Many students are afraid to speak or even write because they may make a mistake. Before these students can learn anything we must create a safe atmosphere where mistakes are an acceptable and necessary part of learning. If the President of the United States can’t spell but isn’t afraid to send out messages that will be seen by the whole world, no one should be afraid to make mistakes in our classrooms. See what I wrote about this in my previous post What if I make a mistake? 
  2. Pretend the mistakes are intentional. Years ago, a teacher I was working with showed me a test she was about to give to her class. She suddenly realized that there were spelling errors in the text (the test had been prepared by another teacher) and she wasn’t sure what to do. I suggested that she use them. Tell the class that there are some mistakes in the text, and that they will receive a bonus for each one they find. Double bonus if they know the correct spelling.
  3. Find different options. When Trump said that Ted Cruz is a chocker, did he mean joker, choker, shocker or something else? Honer is probably honor, but what else could it be?
  4. Come up with some definitions for Trump’s new words. For example: unpresidented – never been done by a president, Bobby Night – a night when everyone dresses up as Bobby.
  5. Have a debate.  How important is spelling? Should spelling be a necessary qualification for public office? Has social media made spelling errors more acceptable?
Do you have any other ideas?