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Old techniques, new results

Cooking class at schoolAnna Silva has been a language teacher for over 20 years in Brazil, teaching in state and language schools. In this article, she looks at ways of reinforcing vocabulary and grammar through practical application for young learners.

It seems that children can learn another language fast; however, they forget as quickly as they learn. So teachers try to find ways to keep young children interested and at the same time help them learn and use the knowledge acquired.

Is there a magic formula to help us?

Over the years, I have developed several projects and I repeat some of them year after year because I do see good results. One of these projects is our cookery classes. I have noticed that cooking really holds the students` attention and helps them memorize vocabulary related to food and verbs related to instructions. Parents have also expressed how surprised they are when they are abroad and see their children mastering the use of simple structures and daily expressions or words. One of these parents was especially amazed because he saw his son asking a waiter for a straw as naturally as if he was using his first language.

In our cookery classes, we follow some steps which I think are crucial to enrich the learning process: introduce the ingredients/ vocabulary, explain the steps, ask students to repeat and explain by themselves what was taught, make the recipe, taste, take a sample home along with the recipe and do a follow-up activity.

As scientists have emphasized the importance of using as many senses as possible to help our brain retain the information taught, the classes are completely practical and the hands-on technique is of crucial importance. Besides this, the very act of cooking brings joy and a lot of laughter to our classes.

The follow-up activity can be a simple and entertaining exercise like a crossword puzzle or  ‘match the columns’, ‘circle the ingredients used’ and ‘put the instructions in the correct order’; but it´s another important step to help them look over what was taught. Howard Gardner proposed that teachers shouldn’t give priority to any one type of intelligence, but that, on the contrary, all types should be catered for in every single class. We can easily follow this advice in any cooking class because students are asked to listen, read, see, make things, walk, taste, and speak.

Another project which complements the cooking class is the gardening project. Every semester, we teach the vocabulary related to gardening: soil, flowerpot, seeds, etc. After this traditional teaching, students not only plant the seeds but often follow their growth. Sometimes we even use them in our cookery classes or just make a flower pot.

Two of our gardening experiences were remarkable: planting tomatoes and strawberries. The tomatoes were used to make a pizza and a smoothie was made with the strawberries. Flowers were also a good idea, since the violets grown were given to their mothers as gifts for Mothers’ Day in May.

The cookery classes help me teach all the vocabulary related to food, which is absolutely fundamental to everyday conversation. The gardening classes are also helpful, not only in what refers to food vocabulary, but also in developing environmental awareness. On Water Day, for instance, we discussed the importance of water for our existence and elicited ways to save water, as well.

Although I love using technology in my classes, I do think that nowadays these activities outside the classroom are a way to surprise students, break the routine and teach new vocabulary effectively! Why don´t you give it a try?

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Using technology to improve writing activities

Anna Silva has been a language teacher for over 20 years in Brazil, teaching in state and language schools. Here she talks about how she uses technology with teenagers to improve their writing.

The fact that teaching teenagers is a difficult task goes without saying. I feel it’s been more and more difficult to draw their attention to what I’m teaching. They come to classes so full of energy that making them concentrate on learning grammar or writing seems an impossible task. At the same time, very little or nothing has been done to change this current situation. In fact, it seems that the more we teachers try, the further away our goal seems to be. What can we do to successfully hold their attention?

There is no doubt that experience and good textbooks do help a lot, but technology has proved to be one of the best tools because adolescents love all kinds of gadgets and software. Teenagers are always so involved with attractive and fast-paced webpages and social networking sites that a classroom, a teacher and a board seem boring and unattractive to them.

Only a few years ago a song or a scene from a movie would do wonders when it came to arousing students´ interest; nowadays, however, these resources are losing their novelty. For this reason, I think that newer technology can be an effective way to catch students’ attention and interest and help me lead my students along the path of learning a second language.

Although choosing a good textbook has certainly made my life easier as a teacher, I often feel like going beyond text books and surprising students with a different project.

This year I was teaching narrative tenses and mini sagas when I came up with this idea of using technology to catch their interest and attention. I needed something simple but innovative. As all my students have mobile phones with cameras, I invited them to walk around the school, choose something, take a picture and write a 50-word story based on that picture. At first, it was a mess. They just could not understand what I meant. It was amazing to see how difficult it was for the students to leave the comfort zone of our classroom and walk along the corridors and patio searching for a good spot to be photographed. They were really hesitating and feeling awkward.

Fortunately, in pairs, they decided to take risks and give themselves a chance. The experience was successful not only in terms of language acquisition, but also in terms of sociability. They went out of the classroom shyly and started walking around the school exchanging ideas with their peers. I was surprised with the results. They took good shots and created some interesting mini sagas about flowers, chairs, computers – even a poster about a new course was used as a springboard to start a story. They found out how creative they are, which was great for their self-esteem.

After this experience, I wanted to explore the idea of using Twitter as a learning tool because I had noticed they were always text messaging or sending tweets to their friends about everything all the time. As it was proving difficult to make them keep their mobiles off during our classes, I was trying to figure out a way to use Twitter as a tool not an enemy. Not until we started discussing short stories from the Reading Circles did I find the appropriate moment to propose it.

Reading circles are a great technique to work with reading; however, I have always felt the lack of a suitable follow-up activity. So, after discussing one of the stories, I asked them to send me a tweet summarizing the story in 140 characters. Some of them argued that they didn´t have twitter which would make it impossible for them to do the task. However, I was ready to solve any difficulty presented. The students were allowed to send me a tweet or a pretend one by email, or by Facebook. I even said they could write it by hand.

In the end, what they expected to be a piece of cake ended up taking much longer. They had to write and re-write it many times until they got to the number of characters permitted without using abbreviations, but keeping the summary meaningful.

Sooner than I expected, I had my students writing and rewriting texts with real enthusiasm and that made all the difference in my daily life as a teacher. Not only were they motivated, but I was too. All in all, I noticed that they improved their written skills by analyzing how the process of writing requires thinking and editing, and how much easier it is when one has a wide range of vocabulary.

How have you used technology to improve your students’ writing?

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