A simple song about anger management

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.

Summing up the year

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.

What if I make a mistake?

This week two 4th grade students came to my English group for the first time. The first thing they told me was that their English isn’t very good, and they asked if I would get mad if they made mistakes. I told them of course not, they’re here to learn, I only get mad at children who laugh at other children’s mistakes. I thought to myself how sad it is that children would even ask this question.
They had a wonderful time, responded in English during games and learned some new words. Once assured that it was okay to make mistakes they were eager to participate, and didn’t want to stop when our time was up.
Why did they think I would be mad? Is that how their teachers usually react to mistakes? No wonder their English is weak. How can they be expected to improve if they’re afraid to open their mouths in class?
In every classroom, whenever a teacher asks questions, there are some students who always raise their hands and some who never do. In most cases, the better students are, or think they are, at a particular subject, the more likely they are to raise their hands. But the reverse is also true, especially when teaching a language. The more students participate in class, the more their English will improve.
When I worked with groups in schools, occasionally I sat next to students in the classroom. I found that many of the weaker students, when the teacher asked a question, would ask me quietly if they had the correct answer before raising their hands. They didn’t really need my help, they figured out the answers on their own, they needed my assurance that their answer was correct before saying it out loud in front of the teacher and the class. It wasn’t long before these students not only gained enough confidence to participate without checking with me first, they also started doing much better in class.
We all make mistakes. But the biggest mistake is destroying someone’s confidence.

Research Against Research

This post was inspired by the recent article More Research is Needed – A Mantra Too Far? in Humanising Language Teaching by Alan Maley, co-founder of The C Group. Judging by the length of the article and bibliography as well as the language used, Maley appears to be an experienced academic professional and researcher. Using academic methods, he claims that research is overrated and that there are many other, more effective ways for teachers to increase their knowledge. He encourages inquiry as a more practical and direct way of solving problems and improving teaching methods.

Five years ago, before venturing into the academic world, I wrote an article for the ETAI Forum entitled Experience and Observations from the Field vs. Research and a PhD which made similar claims. Now nearing the end of my B.Ed., I re-read the article and decided that none of my views had changed.

As someone who makes most of my living using songs and games to teach English to young children, I read with interest the articles in the last ETAI Forum related to these topics. Some would say that I should have considered a career change after reading about the study in which students who started learning English later actually performed better. A similar change was also suggested to me during a discussion in another forum, regarding a study done in America which showed that CDs and DVDs have no significant affect on a child’s verbal development. However, my grass-roots instincts make me question the conclusions of both these studies. In both cases, a vocabulary test was used as the measure of language acquisition. My experience as a teacher, a mother and a living, speaking, bilingual human being tells me that much more is required to communicate in any language, foreign or native.  For starters, if a large vocabulary were the only thing necessary to communicate in a foreign language, Google Translator would do a perfect job every time.
When students go out into the real world, they will need to speak, read and write in English. Therefore, I suggest that the following parameters also be considered by anyone interested in researching language ability and development. I believe that they will find that children who begin learning at a younger age score better in all these areas.
1.      Motivation
Both researchers and people with common sense consider motivation a significant factor in any learning experience. Children who have the opportunity to experience English first as something fun and non-threatening will be more motivated when difficult learning comes later.
2.      Willingness and ability to understand spoken English
How do the children react when spoken to in English?
a.       Do they panic and insist that they don’t understand, even when basic language is used? (I’ve encountered this many times in late elementary school)
b.      Do they try to understand even if they haven’t learned every word in the sentence? Do they recognize language chunks?
c.       Do they respond naturally, without noticing or commenting on what language the teacher is speaking? (the most common reaction among pre-K to 1stgrade)
3.      Willingness to speak
a.       When spoken to in English, do they answer in English or in their native language?
b.      When shown a written word in English, do they read it out loud in English or give an immediate translation?
c.       How confident are they about speaking in English? How natural is it for them? Like anything else in life, the younger you develop a habit the more natural it becomes.
4.      Pronunciation and listening
a.       How accurate is their pronunciation? Sounds that don’t exist in the native language are difficult to acquire later in life, and young children are much better at imitating.
b.      Can they distinguish between vowel sounds?
c.       Can they distinguish between words like angry/hungry, tree/three, mouse/mouth, etc.?
Let’s face it, you can’t learn any language, and certainly not a language as inconsistent as English, by simply memorizing rules and lists of words. You need to be exposed to a language, hear it spoken correctly and, most important, use it. Younger children learn by doing and absorb information naturally. The early years are the ideal time for language learning. The older they get, the more they become accustomed to learning through books and exercises. They may be better at passing tests, but can they speak?

Breaking Down the Barriers

I frequently have conversations with English teachers who ask me for advice about teaching children who hate English. The fact is, it’s almost impossible to teach anyone who refuses to learn or who doesn’t believe that they are able to learn. The first step is to show them that English isn’t scary, threatening or impossible to understand. In order for children to learn anything they must be convinced that they are capable of learning and that it will be painless.
With young children (pre-K until about 2nd grade) it’s usually much easier. They are natural mimickers and less self-conscious about how they sound, which makes it easier to get them to speak. Even the stubborn pupils at this age are easier to convince. If we speak to them or sing with them in English accompanied by hand gestures or facial expressions, they understand and absorb the language without even being aware that they’re learning. After they respond to a request or answer a question, that’s the time to point out that you spoke English and they understood.
As children get older it becomes more difficult. By the middle of elementary school they begin developing mental blocks. They recognize English immediately and “tune-out” without even trying to understand. Weak pupils develop real gaps in addition to those they imagined. But all is not lost. Use the English words they already know. On Facebook you can see faces. Photoshop is used to edit photos. Cars must pass a test. Men put on aftershave after they shave. All of these are words associations that students suggested.
I also recommend that sometimes you put aside the books and workbooks and try these ideas instead.
Games: Look for simple games appropriate for their age that involve some English. They need to experience success without feeling like the games are too easy or childish. Card games with words and pictures are easy to learn and also teach sentences like “It’s your turn”, “Do you have…”, etc. There are also a lot of fun group games that use repetitive sentences. Take games they enjoy playing in Hebrew and translate them into English. These will be easy to learn and understand. Don’t forget the classics like hangman, charades, Simon says and “When I go to the moon I will bring…”. Praise each achievement with “Very good!”, “Well done!” or “Excellent!”.
Songs: Most of your students, even if they don’t like English lessons, probably listen to songs in English. Ask them what songs they like, make sure the lyrics are appropriate and learn the songs together. Work on pronunciation, talk about the meaning of the lyrics, ask them questions about the song and the singer. Let them stage a clip or choreograph a dance to the song. If you have students who play instruments they may want to bring instruments to class.
Rap: Rhythm is contagious. Setting your lessons to a catchy rhythm improves pronunciation, makes language chunks easier to remember and most important, kids love it. Write a sentence on the board, then elicit similar sentences from students. Start a rhythm by snapping your fingers, tapping on your desk, hitting a small drum, etc. If you don’t feel like a rapper, let your students take over. Invite them to perform for the class.
Find out what interests them: What are their hobbies? What do they like to do? What do they want to talk about today? Go for a walk, cook, dance, draw pictures, play football, it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it in English. If they are absorbed in an activity and enjoying themselves they will forget that they don’t understand.
Like in any aspect of education, the most important thing is to encourage them and let them experience success. Show them that they can learn, speak and understand. They may even have fun.

Testing, testing

Although it’s not officially part of my job, occasionally I find myself helping to supervise or correct tests at school. It can be quite a humbling experience, discovering that my English is less than perfect according to the Ministry of Education.
Last week I corrected a sixth grade test. Had I been taking the test myself, I would have lost at least 6 points because I thought that the best title for the story was not the one given in the answer key. I may have been angry rather than dissappointed when I couldn’t go to a birthday party, or thought that I was supposed to decorate rather than clean my room, and I would have lost a few more points. I’m creative and imaginative by nature but I know that the people who write these tests aren’t, so I would have known better than to say that I died in 1996 or that I was sad because my dog argued, which shows that I do have some test-taking skills.
And test-taking skills are exactly what you need to pass a standardized test. That’s why in order to prepare for these tests we stop teaching English and just practice doing old tests. They also have very strict guidelines as to how they should be graded, so that under no circumstances will a child be given extra points for being smarter than the person who wrote the test. Points are given for finding the write answer, nothing extra for a perfectly written complete sentence which proves that the student actually understands the question and answer. Of course, there are enough trick questions to make sure that no one can get everything right. And what about all of the students who didn’t know what to do when the instructions said “Answer the following question.” followed by a sentence and then another instruction – “Copy a word from the text that shows this”. Shouldn’t they get some credit for noticing that there wasn’t a question? But the person who wrote the test also wrote the guidelines for correcting it and obviously didn’t notice the mistake. 
This was all in the last two weeks. But I still remember one of the moments years ago when I realized that I would never survive as a formal teacher. I was surpervising a test in elementary school and the children had to read a passage and then mark sentences true or false. About half of the students said that they couldn’t tell from the story if one of the sentences was true or false. I read the story and the sentence and realized that they were correct, the answer wasn’t there, so I told them to write next to it that they couldn’t tell. Afterwards I told the class teacher that I thought there was a mistake in the test and she told me no, everyone knows that if you can’t find the answer in the text then the answer is false. I told her what I had told the students and she said that since I told them that she would accept it. I couldn’t accept that. What was she testing? If they said that the information wasn’t in the text and it wasn’t, they obviously understood both the text and the sentence. What is the point of taking off points for not knowing the rule that “don’t know = false”? 
Teachers, including those like me who teach informally, are told that before we prepare a lesson we should know what it is we want the students to learn. Test preparers need to start asking themselves the same question – What is it that they are testing?

The Emperor’s New Standards

Our story begins in the 20th century.
One day, the emperor asked for new standards. “Who can bring me standards which will tell me how much students learn, how much they know and how well the teachers are doing their job?” he asked. Experts from across the kingdom brought him all kinds of tests and recommended assigning papers and projects. The emperor was confused. “How will we know if every teacher is using the same criteria? Can we trust the judgment of teachers and principals? How will we compare different schools?”
One day a wise man arrived with a PhD in education and a stack of research. He offered the emperor a standardized test. “With this test you can check every student according to the same criteria, compare them and find out where the good and bad teachers are” he said. The emperor looked at the test and said “But I don’t see any measure of knowledge or understanding.” The wise man explained that these tests were written by experts in education following many years of research. The emperor, who didn’t want to appear ignorant, issued a new order. From now on all students and schools will be measured according to these tests. Principals instructed teachers that they must meet the standards set by the emperor. All educators studied the tests thoroughly in order to find out exactly what students needed to know. Everyone began to prepare for the big day. They memorized the necessary information, learned to read and follow instructions and practiced every type of question so that they would know how to answer each and every one properly.
The day arrived. The emperor sent inspectors to deliver the tests to every school in the kingdom. All of the students sat quietly, the teachers stood at attention, everyone knew exactly what they were expected to do. Suddenly one child got up and shouted “This test is useless!” The principal gave the teacher a stern look, and the teacher quickly quieted the child. But the child stood up again. “This test is useless!” he shouted again, “I understand all the material but some of these questions make no sense!” A child from another school shouted, “What’s the problem? We don’t need to study, we just need to figure out the system.”  The teachers and principals looked again at the tests. They realized that the children were right. One teacher called out “We stopped all relevant and meaningful learning to prepare for these tests!” That teacher was immediately sent to an alternative school, and no one else dared to oppose the emperor.
The kingdom continues to hold standardized tests every year.