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Teach less to help young students learn more

School girls playing repetitive gameBarbara Hoskins Sakamoto, co-author of Let’s Go, outlines the benefits of only teaching young learners one new thing at a time by recycling, reinforcing, and building on new language.

How can you get your students to learn more English? Teach less! It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

Teachers are often pressured to teach more – more vocabulary, more grammar, more content – to satisfy parents and administrators. Moving through a coursebook quickly becomes the measure of success. However, the classes in which I see students making the greatest progress are those in which teachers introduce relatively little new language and actively recycle previously learned language, spending the majority of class time reusing both new and familiar language in new contexts.

The measure of a successful lesson isn’t how much you teach; it’s how much students can do with the language they’ve learned.

There are certainly times when you might choose to throw students into the deep end of the language pool – when asking them to work at understanding the gist of a listening or reading task, for example. But, it should be a choice that works toward your lesson goals, not the standard approach. If you need to spend most of your class with books open, explaining the language on the page, then students are unlikely to remember much for the next class. You end up teaching the same things over, and over, and over again without much feeling of progress.

In contrast, when we recycle language in class, we’re teaching students how to use the language they already know to figure out language that they don’t. It’s one of the most important abilities that skilled language users employ.

There’s no way we will ever be able to teach our students all the English they’ll ever need to know, so instead let’s teach them how to be confident in their ability to figure things out for themselves. One of the easiest ways to model this skill is to introduce new language in the context of familiar. Another way of looking at this is to make sure you maximize the value of any language your students spend the time learning. Here’s one simple example of how using familiar language to introduce new language can help students learn more effectively.

Let's Begin example unit

If you teach without recycling familiar language, this looks like a dense lesson – eight new vocabulary words and two question and answer patterns. However, actively recycling previously learned language can make the lesson more manageable. For example, students have already learned the concept of plurals, and how to add an –s to the end of words to indicate more than one item. They may need to be reminded, but they don’t need to learn it again. That reduces the vocabulary load to four new words (and their plurals). What’s this? It’s a (CD) is also a very familiar pattern. It’s the first question students learned to ask and answer in the first book of the series to which this page belongs (Let’s Begin). It was recycled in a lesson two units prior to this lesson.

Let's Begin example unit

By recycling the familiar pattern with the singular vocabulary words, it’s a small step for students to understand that the new pattern, What are these?, is the same question but for asking about more than one of something. By reducing the amount of new language to be taught, students now have more time to practice the language they’ve learned. They can use the questions and answers with vocabulary from earlier lessons, or apply their plural-making skills to topics that interest them, or personalize the language and build new skills by using the language to write about things in their own lives (e.g., This is my bedroom. These are my CDs. This is my cell phone. etc.) and then to read what classmates have written. Language becomes a tool for communicating about things students want to talk about, and because language is constantly recycled, students are unlikely to forget it.

Active recycling plays a big part in Let’s Go, so the Teacher’s Book lists what language is being recycled in each lesson, and the ‘Let’s Remember’ lesson at the start of each level highlights familiar language from the previous level that will be built upon in the new one. You can do the same sort of recycling, with the same benefits, with any coursebook or even with no coursebook at all. You simply need to keep track of the language being taught so that you know what you can recycle to help students learn new language or build new skills.

A simple guideline is to teach one new thing (new pattern or new vocabulary, but not both) in each lesson, or for longer lessons or older students, in each section of a lesson. Reducing the amount of time spent on introducing new language creates more time for students to use language:

  • to use it in games and activities that provide the repetition necessary for memory
  • to add it to their language repertoire in order to talk about new things
  • to learn to read what they can say and understand
  • to use language they can read to write about their own unique lives and experiences
  • and to use language to connect with other students in order to share their own and learn about others’ lives and experiences.

If you are interested to see how active recycling works in Let’s Go, you can download a variety of sample lessons from the Oxford Teachers’ Club Let’s Go teaching resources page.


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Five things I think I know about teaching reading

Woman teaching young girl to readBarbara Hoskins Sakamoto, co-author of Let’s Go, shares five principles for teaching reading effectively in the classroom.

I’ve tried quite a few different approaches to teaching literacy over the years, initially with students learning to read in their first language, and now with students learning to read English as a foreign language. Like most teachers, I’ve settled on a fairly eclectic approach that seems to work well for me, and my young learners. Here are five principles that work for me.

1. Build a strong oral foundation first

When students begin learning to read in their first language, they have a working vocabulary of between 2,500 and 5,000 words. They learn to connect printed text to words that they already know. We want to be sure that our young learners have a strong foundation of oral language before we begin asking them to attach symbols to sounds, particularly since they will be working with a much smaller vocabulary to begin with.

2. Introduce text from the beginning

I think it’s important to have students looking at printed text long before you begin working on reading skills. By the time my students begin having dedicated reading lessons, they’ve already figured out that English writing goes from left to right and from the top of the page to the bottom, big letters are about twice as big as the little letters and appear at the beginning of a sentence, and that we can tell where words begin and end because of the spaces between words. They’ve become familiar with the graphic look of English before having to deal with it.

3. Teach phonics in context

Phonics can be a useful key for students learning how to make sense of English sound/spelling patterns. Teach the patterns in the context of words that students have already learned orally. Go through your students’ coursebook looking for words they’ve learned that illustrate the patterns you want to teach. That way they only have to focus on one new thing – linking sounds and letters – rather than learning a new word in order to practice the phonics skill. Practice reading the words in the context of sentences (and later, stories) that are also made up of words your students have learned orally.

4. Teach both accuracy and fluency in reading

Both skills are important in developing independent readers. As students become better at applying sound/spelling strategies, phonics shifts into spelling practice and word study, equally important in order to keep expanding your students’ reading vocabulary. To develop fluency, students need a lot of opportunities to read, and be read to. Include reading in every class. Let your students read the lyrics of their songs, or conversations, or grammar lessons – after they’ve learned the language orally, of course! Read to them, so they can enjoy understanding stories even if they don’t understand every word. Create a class library and let them take books home between classes (with audio CDs, if they aren’t yet fluent readers and don’t have anyone at home to read to them). Help them create their own stories to share and read.

5. Engage multiple senses in teaching reading

Have students trace letter and word shapes, sing or chant to help reinforce phonics, use letter cards to build words and word cards to build sentences. Ask them to act out or dramatize stories. Let them write sentences and stories and draw pictures to illustrate them. Record them reading their stories to create audio books. Encourage students to use multiple senses to help them become more effective readers.

How about you?

What have you learned about teaching reading? It would be great to hear in your comments to this blog. I’d also love to see you at my webinar on Saturday, 23 March. You can sign up here.

Visit Let’s Share for more videos, blogs and upcoming events by our Let’s Go authors.

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Help! My students won’t sing!

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at how to make the most of songs in the English classroom – even when your students resist singing…

Most of the time, students (and their teachers) enjoy songs and chants, and they’re a staple in young learner classrooms. When students seem reluctant to sing or chant, it’s because they don’t feel confident with the lyrics or melody. You can increase your chances of success by presenting new songs and chants in a way that builds confidence and reduces stress. For example, have the CD playing as students enter the classroom. Have students listen to the song or chant and tell you which words they can hear – you don’t have to focus on the words they can’t yet hear. Songs and chants in Let’s Go always reinforce the language of the lesson, so students will hear words from the conversation, or the new language pattern, or the new phonics words. As they recognize words and phrases and get familiar with the melody or rhythm, they will be building confidence to sing or chant.

Every once in a while, however, you’ll have students who just don’t want to sing or chant. Perhaps your previously enthusiastic singers have become ‘too cool for school’, or perhaps your boys’ voices are starting to change and they feel awkward, or maybe you have a class of older beginners who think they’re too mature for the songs and chants in their books. You can always explain how songs and chants help students remember language, or improve intonation and natural rhythm, but sometimes it’s easier to have some alternative activities that enable you to reap the rewards of using songs and chants without a battle over actually singing or chanting.

Listen and order. Have students copy the lines in the song onto another piece of paper that is cut into strips (so that one line of the song is on one strip of paper), shuffle the strips and give to another student. This gives students practice writing clearly enough so that someone else can read their writing, and practice reading another students’ handwriting.  Ask students to read the lyrics and see if they remember the correct order. Play the song for them to confirm. If you want this to be more of a listening and reading challenge, give each pair or group of students a set of lines to the song and have them order them as they listen. If your students aren’t fluent readers, give them word or picture cards to order.

Busy, Busy, Busy from Let's Go 3

Song taken from Let’s Go 3

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Let’s Share: answers to your questions

Let's Share: Your Questions AnsweredOur Let’s Go authors answer questions from teachers about teaching young learners. Do you have a question? Visit our Let’s Share page to ask our experts.

1. What is the most effective program for teaching phonics to Japanese students?

There are many different ways to teach reading, some of which don’t even involve phonics. And teachers find each approach effective because their students learn to read. What is probably more useful is to look at the overall purpose of phonics approaches and then show how we’ve tried to incorporate them in Let’s Go. Even if you aren’t using our books, you can still use this information to help you evaluate other phonics programs in terms of whether or not they are likely to work for your students.

First, the purpose of phonics is to help children attach symbols to sounds in words. A combination of phonics words (which children can sound out based on patterns) and common sight words (like the, a, is, are) usually provide students with enough tools to get started reading independently. English-speaking children typically know between 2,500 and 5,000 words when they start using phonics to attach letters to sounds. Children learning to read English in their foreign language class know far fewer words, so it’s important to teach phonics patterns to children using words that they’ve already learned orally.

That’s one of the reasons that vocabulary in Let’s Go is so carefully controlled. We want to make sure that students have learned to say and understand the meaning of words before we ask them to read them. So, for example, when students learn that one way to show the long A sound is a__e (in Let’s Go 2), we use words learned in earlier levels: cake, make, and game. We also make sure that students can find other words in Let’s Go that fit this pattern so that they can try applying the phonics rule and develop confidence in sounding out less familiar words that are decodable. The sight words students first learn to read are the same words they’ve been using in language practice in every lesson.

We think it’s most effective if students can focus on one new thing at a time. Learning to read familiar words is a small step. Asking students to learn both the sound and meaning of new words at the same time in order to introduce new phonics patterns is too much, and ineffective in the long run.

2. What is the ideal time allotted for teaching phonics and teaching using textbooks?

Ideally, we should try to include reading practice in every lesson. Depending on the length of your classes and the number of times you see students each week, you might have a lesson focusing on phonics skills once a week or once a month, but it’s easy to incorporate reading skills in other lessons as well. For example, with very young students, you can:

  • ask them to count how many times a specific word appears in a chant or song (which builds scanning skills and reinforces the idea that spaces help us identify words)
  • have a treasure hunt asking students to find words that begin with specific sounds
  • write the words from the language pattern on cards and let students practice building sentences with a combination of word cards and picture cards.

The less contact time we have with our students, the more important it is to incorporate reading skills whenever we can.

3. Most textbooks introduce a lot of vocabulary but with little emphasis on the phonics program. What is the ideal method for allowing or injecting a learning opportunity for a phonics program, while using a textbook, to maximize the time?

You can use the vocabulary in your textbook to teach phonics. It takes a bit more effort to do this if your textbook hasn’t already planned the syllabus to teach the words students will use for phonics from the beginning, but it can be done. All you need to do is look at the words your students are learning and identify some common phonics patterns. Do your students learn vocabulary words like cat, bat, map, bag, and man? After students have learned the words and their meaning, use them to teach the short /a/ sound. Help students learn to identify initial and ending sounds by looking at the words in their lessons. Use repetitive song and chant lyrics to build sight reading skills. Teaching sounds in the context of words and reading in the context of sentences helps us make the most effective use of our class time.

4. How can I get my students to do their homework each week?

If parents are willing to work with you, it’s relatively easy as long as you keep parents informed. Some teachers send notes home, or if they use the Let’s Go parent guides, they write the week’s homework assignment at the bottom of the weekly summary. Some teachers maintain a class wiki or blog where they post homework assignments, and others send email or text messages to parents.

Ideally, you want students to do their homework without needing parent support. Learning to be responsible for assignments is an important skill for students to develop. One of the biggest reasons students don’t do homework is that they don’t understand what they’re expected to do. To prevent this from happening, take the last five minutes of class to go over the homework together. For older children, read the instructions together and confirm that they understand what to do. For younger children, you can even do the exercises orally before they leave class. If they’re expected to write, show them how they can use the Student Book page from the lesson to help them spell words if they’re unsure. A little bit of support in class can help students become independent at home.

Answers supplied by Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto, Karen Frazier Tsai and Ritsuko Kagawa Nakata.

Do you have a question? Would you like free webinars, articles, videos and sample lessons? Visit our Let’s Share page to find out more…

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