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#qskills – How can I help my students understand words in a reading passage?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: How can I help my students understand words in a reading passage?

Scott Roy Douglas responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.


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Helping students to use good grammar when they speak

Word grammar spelt in scrabble lettersHow can we help students speak and learn grammar at the same time? Susan Earle-Carlin, author of Q: Skills for Success Listening and Speaking 5, provides tips for helping students use good grammar in their speaking.

Speaking, like writing, requires good grammar in order to communicate a message clearly. I sometimes use an analogy with my students to compare readers and listeners with passengers on a tour bus. Too many grammar mistakes, like too many bumps and detours in the road, will turn their attention away from what’s important towards how uncomfortable they feel and whether they will ever reach the end. So the question is, how can we help students use good grammar while not inhibiting them while they are speaking?

Control the grammar output

  • Make activities appropriate for the grammar level of the students. Ask beginners to describe the food in their home country, but have advanced students compare their class in English with one in another field.
  • Direct the students to target a certain grammar point in speaking. For example, ask students to talk about the objects in the classroom (singular/plural nouns and determiners), explain what is going on in their school at the moment (present progressive), or describe a scene using three adjectives and three adverbs (word form). Review the grammar first to optimize success and follow-up with some global comments on that grammar point, not singling out any particular student.

Provide practice

  • Give students lots of opportunities to speak in small groups without teacher intervention. However, remind listeners to ask questions if they don’t understand something the speaker says.
  • Allow students to practice a presentation with peers to help reduce the stress most ELLs have about speaking in front of the class. Less nervousness usually results in better grammar.
  • Encourage students to record and listen to their presentations for practice. Tell them to write down a sentence they have grammar questions on and give them the opportunity to ask you or the class for advice before presentation day.

Provide feedback

  • Interrupting students who are speaking to provide feedback is too negative. Instead, record their small group discussions or presentations. Listen to the recordings in conferences with individual students to discuss problems and suggest ways to improve grammar.
  • If students can have access to the recordings, assign a transcript for homework and tell students to circle and correct their grammar errors. Check them over and make suggestions on grammar areas to review.


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My students say the absolute minimum

Solutions Speaking ChallengeZarina Subhan, an experienced teacher and teacher trainer, tackles the second of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: “My students say the absolute minimum”.

I find myself in the classroom in an unfamiliar position. It’s not the fact that I’ve given up teaching that makes this a new experience for me. It is the fact that I’m a student again. I’m learning Spanish and am sitting behind the desk, no longer the decision-maker who tells the learners what to do, but the student awaiting instructions and wondering if I understood them.

I’m rediscovering how uncertain, vulnerable and anxious it can feel to be a language student. Most of the reading, writing, listening, speaking and (most importantly) thinking in the target language (TL) happens in the classroom. I know I am there to improve my language; my motivation as an adult learner is high, yet I have to admit I could speak more in Spanish. So why don’t I?

The PPP Model

When you think you’ve grasped the structure of the language that has been presented, it is quite demoralising when you ‘practise’ it and get it all confused, or if you get the grammar focus right you somehow lose all previously-learned knowledge of the language.

When it is my turn to speak I keep babbling on about whatever it is that I’m attempting to say. The natural thing for the teacher to do is to correct me. However, as soon as s/he corrects me it interrupts me. I’m trying so hard to concentrate on what I have to say that this correction stops my thinking, when I need every single brain cell to be able to speak. It has taken me a great deal of focused thinking, recalling, structuring and motivation to construct and actually produce that language. Instead of feeling pleased about having actually communicated in the TL, I focus on what I failed to say correctly.

So, what if I could write a letter advising my teacher what would I say?

Letter to my teacher

Dear Teacher,

  1. Please wait until I’ve completed what it is I want to say, then focus on the idea I communicated and show me you’ve understood.
    That would really give me a feeling of success rather than failure. If at the end you could praise me and only correct me in terms of the structure/language/topic that is the focus for the lesson, it would help me turn your extrinsic motivation into my intrinsic motivation, and help me feel better about opening my mouth again in future.
  2. Could you also not insist on us taking turns one after the other to speak?
    I stop listening to my classmates until it’s just before my turn, when I tune back into the lesson. Perhaps if you asked for volunteers – the ones who actually have something interesting/fun to say – it would be more interesting for the rest of us and it wouldn’t be as painful as ALL of us reading out our boring, unimaginative offerings.
  3. If you gave us more than 2 seconds to come up with a response to your questions it would give me more thinking time.
    Please count to 10, or say the same thing a slightly different way. Whatever you do, don’t translate it, don’t ask several questions all at once, and don’t give us the answer before anyone has attempted to offer a response! Instead try writing up the key words of your question, show me a visual cue, and remind me when I last used this word/phrase. This all boosts my confidence and gives me more time to figure out my response rather than spending half my thinking time trying to be sure I’ve understood you correctly.
  4. I’ve noticed that when we have a laugh, I can forget about my anxiety and about being wrong/not being understood.
    So how about if we have points/smiley stickers/competitive games between teams – so that every time we give you a response in the TL we gain an advantage for our team? It may seem childish to you, but actually my wish to win/gain points/stickers overcomes the anxiety I sometimes feel and motivates me to speak.
  5. Talking of anxiety, not everyone likes speaking in front of the whole class.
    If you moved around the class and came to individual groups/pairs, we would feel happier speaking to each other with you listening in. Then you can correct us individually in a more intimate situation and not with everyone listening.

My lack of speaking is nothing personal. My lack of speaking is simply because I don’t like looking a fool in front of others. So I’d really appreciate it if you could eliminate the thinking that making mistakes is foolish and encourage the attitude that having a go is courageous. I think, then, I would be a better speaker in your classes.


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Bringing English home – strengthening the school-home connection

Mother and daughter holding leavesKate Read, co-author of the new Kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips for strengthening the school-home link.

We all know that most learning goes on outside the classroom. So it follows that learning English shouldn’t be limited to the classroom. Indeed, learning any language can be enhanced by bringing it into the home – after all, the home is where language begins for the young child.

There are a number of easy ways to do this but, first of all, you’ve got to have the parents on board. They can help with learning English, even if they aren’t confident about their own level of English.

There are many ways of doing this:

  • Send home regular letters (or even informal emails or texts) about the topic you are covering. Include ideas for home activities. Oxford Parents give parents simple, effective advice on supporting their children’s classroom language learning at home.
  • Invite parents for informal chats at regular intervals.
  • Give parents simple guidance documents that outline when and where it is helpful to use English at home. Encourage them to foster a positive and fun attitude when using English. Give them advice on when it is not helpful – such as when the children are tired or distracted. Here’s a video tip and free conversation card to help you do this.

1. The child as teacher

It is very empowering for a child to take on the role of the teacher. The child can ‘teach’ simple words or phrases to the family. You can systematically give them words or expressions to take home. You can also give the children tasks to do at home – teaching or telling specific things to specific people. A favourite activity is for the child to teach the whole family to sing a song in English. You can help with this by making the song or backing tracks available. Children will enjoy this process and it will do wonders for consolidation. As you already know, there’s nothing like having to teach something to make you learn it!

2. The child as performer

Allow the child to take some work home to share with the family. (Courses like Show and Tell offer special ‘take-home’ projects.) At its simplest, this can be songs to sing or chants to repeat at appropriate times. It can also be retelling a story to the people at home – or even performing it with simple puppets. In the digital age, and if you have permission to do this, sharing a video of things that they have performed at school is a great way of building confidence and consolidating knowledge. When children use the language to give a performance, they take ownership of the language.

Show and Tell - children performing

3. Making an English space

It’s really useful for children to have reminders of language learned. This helps them to keep it active. Home is a great place for putting up posters, pictures and even single word images or text. Depending on the child’s level of literacy, these can be labelled either by the child or by you. You can also suggest having an English space in the home where the child can keep English books, English games and even English toys. Creating a physical environment where English is a feature provides children with a ‘real’ place for English in their home lives – this facilitates further integration of the language.

4. Making games in English

You can create some simple games to play at home. Provide outlines of games that can be used over and over and provide updates of words/lexical sets that can be used with the games. The games can be very basic with repeated questions and answers, such as hiding things and saying “Where’s the…?” (You would need to supply the names of the objects to look for.) It could be a game to play with picture or word cards, such as concentration/pairs, or “Which card did I take away?” As the child advances, activities could include could be slightly more complex board games for counting and vocabulary.

5. Books with audio

Bedtime reading is always a very special time for the parent and child. For parents who are not confident reading in English, you can recommend books with audio so that they can look and listen with the child. Some people like using stories that the children already know in their own language, making the most of the child’s familiarity with the content. Finally, if you are using simple stories in class that have audio, such as the stories on the MultiROM in Show and Tell, send them home with the children so that they can ‘read’ it with their families.

Encouraging children and their families to do any of the above activities is very simple. The most important thing is to instil the idea of a partnership between school and home. This partnership requires clear and simple communication and lots of enthusiasm. Remember, in the immortal words of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz: There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home …

Do you have any ideas of great ways to use English at home? Share them with us in the comments section below.

Would you like more practical tips on strengthening the school-home link, and teaching 21st Century skills in your Kindergarten children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.


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Mimosa’s report card – strengthening the school-home connection

Family gathered round computerKenna Bourke, Oxford Discover co-author, shares some creative ideas for using technology to help parents support their children’s learning.

Four times a year, I get an email that contains a mysterious thing called a report card. This is a school report on the progress of a six-year-old (name changed for privacy!) who’s not my child, but who’s very important to me. It goes on for several pages, and looks like this:

Sample report card

Great! But I don’t know what Mimosa is reading or how I can help turn her into a full-time genius! What stories is she reading? Does she like them? What’s she learning in science? I’d really like to know!

Do you want one simple way to help parents support your classroom teaching in the home?

Use technology.

Like teachers, parents are busy people. They might only look at a school website a few times a year, but many of them have social media accounts, which they look at daily. How about creating a closed page for your class on Facebook, or whichever social network is popular in your country?

Here are a few ideas for using this as a tool to help parents feel more involved and excited about what’s happening in your class:

1. Try sharing a short biography of an author that the child and family can research

For example, Who is Michael Rosen? What’s he written? When was he born? What’s his daughter’s name? What do you think about the poem ‘A Dangerous Raisin?’

2. Advertise your projects

Explain what you’re going to do so your students can prepare. Or post the results of the projects once they’re done so the parents can see them.

For example, How many subtraction problems can you think of at home? In what contexts do we use subtraction every day? What’s a funny subtraction problem you can ask your friends?

3. Share the week’s lesson theme so it can be discussed at home

For example, Oxford Discover begins each new unit with a Big Question: How do we have fun? What makes birds special? How do numbers help us? Great dinnertime conversation ideas!

4. Preview a reading text so children can discuss their prior knowledge of the subject with their family

You could do this by sharing a simple three-line synopsis of what you’ll be reading in class. Provide some questions for parents to discuss with their children.

For example, What do you know about symmetry? What symmetrical objects can you find at home? What’s the most beautiful example of symmetry you can think of?

5. Follow up on reading texts or topics that have captured the students’ imaginations by posting links to sites that contain further information

For example, in Oxford Discover, you’ll find a fiction reading about a whistling language. That language also really exists! There are schools on the island of La Gomera that have made this ancient language — silbo gomero — a compulsory school subject.

6. Post a picture that relates to your lesson to stimulate discussion

This is really fun! Provide some sample questions, too.

For example, What’s going on with these cars? Why can’t you see through their windows? Where do you think the picture was taken? Who invented wheels? What would life be like if we didn’t have cars?

Completely white cars

Photo © Kenna Bourke

7. Include links to free parent support sites

Oxford Parents gives parents simple, effective advice on supporting their children’s classroom language learning at home.

Would you like practical tips on developing a strong school-home link and developing 21st Century skills in your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.

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