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.

What are you doing for English Day?

Have you started thinking about English Day this year? Remember, a successful English Day requires creative thought and planning, and your school calendar is probably starting to fill up. So if you and the rest of the English staff haven’t thought about it yet, let me help you get started.

Why should we have an English Day?
An English Day is a chance for students to have a fun, positive experience in English. No drilling, no writing in notebooks, no tests and no pressure. Just activities they enjoy along with a chance to hear and speak English in context. It’s an opportunity for them to see English as something that can be fun and relevant to their daily lives.

Where should I start?
First I recommend choosing a theme. This will make it easier to choose activities and pull everything together. Themes can be simple and vocabulary-oriented such as animals or weather and seasons, or wider concepts such as around the world or protecting the environment. To build up anticipation, have each class choose an appropriate costume, prepare a poster or decorate their classroom ahead of time.

You also need to set a date and make sure it gets listed on the school calendar (lessons learned the hard way).

Kick-off

Start the day with everyone together. It’s great if everyone can learn a song or chant ahead of time and sing it together. This is the time to build up group spirit and also explain what everyone is going to do for the next few hours. If classes have chosen names call them out in your best rock-star voice. Emphasize that today is going to be fun.

Activities

Each class or group should participate in 3-4 different activities. You should have at least one instructor at each station who speaks English and can lead the activity, and one leader to accompany each group. You can also have older students lead activities for younger classes, which keeps them both busy.
  • Songs – Teach a new song or sing familiar songs. Choose them according to the theme and level of the students. You could have each group learn a different song and perform them all at the end of the day.
  • Sports – Have at least one station of active games so that children have a chance to release energy. These might be kangaroo and horse races if your theme is animals, games from different countries if your theme is around the world, or throwing a ball or ring at targets marked with letters or words.
  • Group games such as charades, hangman, hot potato or a treasure hunt.
  • Crafts – It’s nice if children can bring something home. The craft doesn’t need to be related to English, just make sure all the instructions are in English. If you also demonstrate while you speak there’s no need to translate.
  • Food – Find some simple recipes related to your theme. If cooking isn’t practical there are plenty of other options. Get information about students’ allergies ahead of time and have alternatives ready. Like crafts, as long as the recipe and instructions are in English they’re learning English.
  • Stories – Either read a book or tell a story with pictures and props.
  • Printable games – Make sure they’re fun, challenging and different from worksheets you would use in a regular lesson. If some stations are led by teachers who aren’t comfortable speaking English this is a good option.
Plan and print a schedule so that everyone knows where they should be when. Review each station carefully and make sure you have all the materials you need, and that they are in place before the day begins.

What to do during the break
Don’t expect students and teachers to give up all their breaks just because they’re having fun. If your school has a tradition of “active breaks” you know what to do. Put on a CD with dance songs in English and set up some simple outdoor games.  You could also sell food or other items, depending on you school’s policy. Remember, only English.

Bringing it to a close

At the end gather everyone together again. This is a good time to put some kids on stage. This can be a short play you’ve prepared ahead of time or songs they learned during the day. Go back to your rock-star voice to make sure everyone had a great time and that they want to do it again next year.

How can English is Fun help?

English days are all about making English fun, and I have a wide range of resources to offer:

Be Part of the Change

Everybody is talking about education, and it’s time to do something. Less drilling, more learning. Fewer, preferably no, standardized tests and more alternative, creative ways of assessing individual progress. Take away the fear and hatred of school and replace them with curiosity and a love of learning. 
This week I began a new advertising campaign emphasing meaningful English learning. The response was overwhelming. Dozens of principals, teachers and parents across the country are no longer interested only in test scores. They want children to learn English as a language, to be able to speak and most important, to enjoy it. They are looking for activities instead of more workbooks. These activities require more dynamic educators who care about children.
In addition to requests for materials and workshops, I have received several requests for instructors to run programs in various parts of the country. If you love children and want to make a difference in their lives, and speak English at a native or near-native level, this might be the job you’re looking for. You will receive a full set of materials, training and guidance. In return, you must be prepared to lead groups according to the basic principles of “English is Fun”:
  • English is for everyone, and everyone learns differently – be prepared to work with a wide variety of methods including songs, games, drama, physical activity and crafts.
  • Children absorb language naturally – speak English as much as possible and translate only when necessary. Point to objects or use hand motions and facial expressions instead.
  • This isn’t a regular English lesson – children are not expected to sit quietly for 45 minutes. Activities involve moving and sometimes a lot of noise. This should not be confused with a lack of discipline.
  • Encourage creativity – whenever possible, and in most activites it is, be flexible and let kids use their imagination. There are many ways to imitate a horse, draw a house or make a happy face.
  • English is fun –  if kids don’t like English they won’t learn much. This begins with you, your attitude and your relationship with them.
I love what I do. If you think you’ll love doing this, please send a message to aharonmk@zahav.net.il . To learn more about “English is Fun” take a look at my websitehttp://www.englishfun.net

Have you been teaching your students too much grammar?

After packing up my materials at the ETAI conference last week, I had time to hear some of Leo Selivan’s presentation on learning language, which emphasized mainly that language is produced in chunks and that grammar must be acquired rather than learned. Most of what he said matched my own experience and the methods I use, but it’s always nice to be backed up by a reputable authority. Speaking of methods, this is a good time to mention my book English is Fun in Rhythm.
“Speaking of methods” – How would a non-English speaker learn a phrase like that? “How would”? Why not “How could” or “How should”? I could keep going, but I shouldn’t so I won’t (not wouldn’t). Since English is my native language I know which word is correct even if I can’t explain why. I learned by being exposed to language in spoken and written form all around me from the day I was born.
Now let’s go back to our EFL students. They also learned their native languages by constant exposure, and probably speak correctly. Young children seem to be able to figure out the rules by themselves. So exposure to authentic language is the key to producing proper language structures. How can we provide this exposure to learners of a foreign language? Songs (back to my website), drama in the classroom and on stage, computer research, magazines, books, movies. Talk about subjects that interest them and they will learn vocabulary that interests them.
In our discussion after the presentation we tried to come up with songs with “can”. I had trouble thinking on the spot so I’m going to list a few now.
Dancing Queen (You can dance, you can jive..), ABBA
We Can Work It Out, The Beatles

I Can Be Your Hero, Enrique Iglesias

Any song you choose will have some useful language chunks. Teach them the language they need to communicate and learning becomes relevant.

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.