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Brain-based learning: teaching that reflects how the brain likes to learn

Sarah Phillips, co-author of Incredible English second edition, talks about teaching students how the brain likes to learn.

What do we know about the brain and how it learns? Well, what is clear is that we’re still only scratching the surface but we know some basics. We know that brains are designed to learn! In the past 20 years we’ve found out a lot about this and there is still a lot more to learn. The more we know about how the brain learns, the better we will be able to match how we teach (input) with how children learn (intake).

We know that experiences shape the brain and those that involve strong feelings are more likely to be remembered. This can be both an aid and a barrier to learning, depending on whether the experiences were positive or negative. To state the obvious: as teachers we need to create positive learning experiences for children. If children enjoy the tasks we give them, it is more likely that they will learn and more than this – remember the learning.

We also know that learning and remembering happens through different channels; it is multisensory. Our brains are literally shaped by our experiences. In addition, children are designed to make sense of the world around them and making sense is fundamental for learning and remembering. So, if children use their different senses when they are learning something, they are more likely to remember it later. It gives them different channels for recalling.

All this should influence what goes on in the classroom. We can use it to guide us when we develop materials and lessons that are brain friendly for the children.

We learn more efficiently if we know what we are meant to be learning. We learn less effectively if we are kept in the dark. So, it seems like a sensible idea to tell children what they are meant to be learning at the start of each lesson. Make a list and point it out to the children.

We process information through three different channels, the visual, the auditory, and the kinesthetic. (We also process information through our sense of taste and smell but we will leave that to one side). There is some evidence to suggest that everyone has one channel that is stronger than the others. If we plan classes that deliver the content in a variety of ways we will engage all the learners in the class. We can also take into account the theory of multiple intelligences in our efforts to reach as many of the children as possible.

Music has a profound effect on many of us. It can influence our moods and evoke memories. We can use this ancient response when we are teaching. If we can link language (words and structures) to rhythm and music we help children remember it. Using songs can have a beneficial effect on learning and in our case, language learning.

Learning is more difficult when it is in isolation. We learn and remember far more efficiently when new information is linked to already learned information. The more links there are from the new to the old, the better our remembering will be. We need to ensure that our lessons are linked together. Reminding children of what we did before and where we are going next will help them make links. This is called ‘linked learning’.

Many children enjoy a challenge. The brain thrives on being challenged. Material that makes children think, develops the capacity of the brain. We can help children by showing different ways, different strategies, for solving problems.

Finally, children need time for feedback and an opportunity to reflect on what they have been doing. This will help the learning process to flourish. They need to be able to evaluate themselves, to think about what they have done effectively and less effectively. They need to think about what they can change. And finally they need to think about what they are going to do next and to set themselves future goals.

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Reflect and relax: reasons to write?

Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English second edition, takes a look at writing exercises in the classroom.

The four skills are listening, reading, writing, and speaking. These are often divided into the Productive skills and Receptive skills. The Productive skills are Speaking and Writing. The Receptive skills are Listening and Reading. First of all let’s think about what makes writing different to speaking.

Well, for a start, the spoken word is not concrete: if you get it wrong it doesn’t hang around your neck like a millstone! The written word is concrete. When you write, what you produce is permanent and so if you make mistakes, they are there for all to see. This can be a source of worry for some pupils. Clearly, we need to ensure that when they are writing children receive lots of support. The aim is not just producing a piece of writing but to build their confidence in their ability to produce it.

Writing is sometimes called the “forgotten skill”. It is certainly the last acquired. For most language learners it would seem to be the least important. After all, isn’t language mainly listened to and spoken? And this would seem to be what most learners want to do with the language. However, I think we need to be careful here. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Writing may come last as an acquired skill and least in importance to many of the learners when they are older, but for the younger learner there are a number of positive aspects. What are they?

To begin with it is allowing language production and consolidation through a different medium to the spoken word. It demands an effort which aids learning. It provides time for reflection and gives the children time to think about, and get a feel for, how the language hangs together. It creates quiet time in the classroom; the children are working at their own pace and the teacher is free to give individual attention to them.

How can writing be approached?

There are two broad approaches to how we can teach writing to our learners: product writing and process writing. Both these approaches have their adherents. I’m not going to go into the pros and cons of each in this blog post. My feeling is that a blend of the two approaches to writing probably makes the most sense with the balance leaning towards product writing in the early years. Other teachers may disagree and I would like to hear from them.

How does product writing work?

First of all we introduce the children to written texts. As they read they are being exposed to the vocabulary and structures that they will need later on. At the same time they are also being exposed to the conventions of the written form: punctuation, paragraphing, and text organisation.

If we take it step by step it goes something like this:

  • model text
  • controlled practice
  • organisation of ideas
  • production

It might help if I put some flesh on those bare bones. For example, the children read a short text from a Fan magazine It is an interview with a boy band. They work on comprehension through reading tasks. Then, they practise particular features of the text – the controlled practice. This could be how to use and, but and too. Once the children have completed the controlled practice they are given the opportunity to create an interview for themselves. They choose a sports star or a musician or even a member of their family. First they plan their work and then they write their interview mirroring the original text they read. This is Product writing.

It seems to me that starting with Product writing provides children with a structured, safe environment in which to produce their work. Many of you will probably argue that it is restrictive. At which point we touch on the old accuracy/fluency debate. Do you remember it? We could loosely sum it up by saying that Product writing goes from accuracy to fluency. Process writing, in contrast, goes from fluency to accuracy. (More or less!) Do you have an opinion on how we should approach writing for younger learners?

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A Listening procedure step by step.

Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English second edition, takes a look at listening excercises in the classroom.

Listening is one of the receptive skills. When we are listening to language, we need to decode what we hear in order to understand it. One of the advantages for reading is that we have the written word to decipher. It is concrete; it doesn’t disappear. It is on the page or screen. In contrast, the spoken word is ephemeral; it is here and then it is gone.

Fortunately, much conversation is cyclical and not linear. By that I mean, we rarely read from a script. Most spoken conversation backtracks, repeats itself using different words; goes two steps forward and one step back. However, one of the problems with recorded material from course books is that this redundancy is often edited out. A script is often linear.

On the other hand, one of the advantages of recorded material is that we can play it again and again; something we can’t do when we are doing ‘live listening’. But if we are to do this successfully, I think it is important that we have a clear procedure in place. If children are supported by our procedure, they will be successful and if they are successful they will improve.

The long-term aim of listening practice in the classroom is that children become more confident when listening. They will become more confident if they see that they are completing tasks successfully.

Let’s look at a basic framework for listening skills work that provides a step-by-step procedure for teachers and the opportunity for children to gain confidence through successful task completion.

“Task before text” is a dictum for all skills work. Children need a reason to listen. And they need something to listen for. Can you see why it makes sense to set the task before the children listen?

The following is a basic listening procedure:

Set the task.

Play the listening.

Get the children to compare their answers.

Ask them if they need to listen again.

If they want to listen a second time, play it again.

If they don’t want to listen again, check their answers.

If there is a second task, follow the same basic procedure as outlined above.

As the teacher, you can probably tell if the children need to listen to it again, or not. I still think that asking the question, “do you want to listen again?” is a useful and valid thing to do. It gives children some control over what is happening and gives them some responsibility for how the lesson is progressing.

Some teachers may feel that getting children to compare their answers is in some way cheating. In actual fact it is a confidence builder. If they have the same answers they will say, “no” when you ask if they want to listen again. If they have different answers, they will want to listen again and they will listen carefully at the point where they disagree.

Perhaps the most important thing that we need to do at the beginning is to build their confidence. To help them feel that they can do it. A good way to do that is by  applying a methodical, staged procedure.

Remember that we are teaching them how to listen successfully, not testing it.

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Reading: Language you can put your finger on

Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English second edition, takes a look at reading and how it can be used in the classroom.

There are two productive skills, speaking and writing, and two receptive skills, listening and reading.  Here I’d like to focus on reading.

First of all, let’s consider what differentiates the skills.

For a start, reading and writing, unlike listening and speaking, are concrete. There are words on a page and there may well be images of some sort too. We receive information from what is on the page, for example the font and the layout, the vocabulary and punctuation.  Written conventions of style and layout also tell us at a glance if we are looking at a menu, or a newspaper article.

In spoken discourse we have intonation to help convey attitudinal meaning. Our ability to encode and decode intonation will radically affect the message we send and receive. With the written word we are dependent on punctuation (! #?!!) and vocabulary to convey attitudinal meaning.

But above and beyond all that is the fact that spoken language is transient and ephemeral. The written word is concrete.

What are the long-term aims of reading? We want the learners to become more confident readers by completing tasks successfully. We also want to develop their range of language for communication.

Let’s look at some of the advantages that reading will bring to a language learner.

It seems that a person who reads in a language, has a far broader vocabulary resource than a person who doesn’t. For me, this resonates as an argument for getting our learners to read. Added to which, this “concreteness” is helpful in both teaching and learning a language. It doesn’t disappear, it stays there on the page.

How can this “concreteness” be turned to our advantage?

Well, for a start we can teach good reading strategies at primary school. Very early on we can get children to be good guessers when they are reading. By the time they get to secondary school this should be a well-developed strategy.

As the children get older we can expose them to longer and longer texts. Our job is to help them develop their reading ability and approach a text with solid reading strategies. As they get older, we can teach them how to apply previous knowledge to a text. We can avoid them getting ‘tunnel reading’ by showing them how to   read for gist. We can help them practise scanning for specific information. We can help them develop an appropriate reading speed.

On top of this, reading will help them to develop their range of language. Starting quite early, we can use texts to focus on language (lexis, structure etc).

We can also teach them to use a dictionary (online or paper) as a language learning tool. In a previous blog post I mentioned the misuse of a dictionary (online or paper) by language learners.  Rather than using it as a “tool”, in a conscious, thoughtful way, it is often used as a “crutch” to help them over a momentary difficulty. Like all tools, it can be used effectively or badly.

One of our tasks is to help them become more confident in their ability to consciously use these strategies and tools. We are helping them to be both competent readers of English and competent language learners.

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Content and Language Integrated Learning in action

Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English second edition takes a look at CLIL and how it can be used in the classroom.

What is CLIL? It means Content and Language Integrated Learning. (Have you noticed how we seem to love acronyms in language teaching? The list seems never-ending: TBL; PPP; CLT; TTT! Can you identify them?).

The idea is simple. Other subjects in the curriculum are taught and learned in a language, which is not the mother tongue. By weaving together a foreign language and the curriculum content from other subjects we aim to provide a rich learning experience for children.

There are a number of ways in which CLIL has been interpreted but the bedrock of the idea is this: children are not focused on learning language per se. They are focused on the content of the lesson.

I think that this definition from Nixon continues to be valid: “the study of a non-language subject through the medium of a major world or regional foreign language” (Nixon, J., 1988).

CLIL is not a newcomer to the world of language teaching; you can see that from the date on that quote. It’s been around for some time. It is an aspect of language teaching which I think has gained strength and continued to develop since Nixon wrote those words.

What does CLIL mean in practice? Let’s look at a concrete example taken from a coursebook. Remember that this is how we have interpreted CLIL and blended it into our material. There are other variations and possibilities.

The topic area for this CLIL lesson is very relevant in many parts of the world at the present time: uses of water!

In the CLIL lesson on this topic children learn about what we use water for. They look at how much water is used for each activity. They learn how to measure a quantity of water. They learn how to make a water meter. In terms of the syllabus these are more related to science than to language.

But out of this would spring language. For example, “Having a shower”. Then how we measure quantities of water in litres: “6 litres”, “30 litres” etc. On top of that how much water we need for each activity: “You need 4 litres of water”.

As you can see, the language that children are using naturally springs out of the topic area. Talking about uses of water demands certain vocabulary and structures. There is a real communicative purpose. This is in contrast to choosing which vocabulary and structures children should learn and finding a topic that comes out of it. In other words they will be using language communicatively and therefore learning it.

This can sometimes lead to a challenge for teachers (it was certainly a challenge for me when I was first introduced to CLIL). How should the language syllabus be ordered? For example, when do you think the present simple passive (it is + past participle) should be introduced to children?

A more traditional syllabus would look at the complexity of the structure and would introduce it later rather than sooner. But that syllabus is ordered on the complexity of the structure rather than on the complexity of its meaning/use. “It’s made of plastic”, to describe a toy is not conceptually complex. Linguistically it’s a nightmare (if you look at its component parts). Or do you disagree? At what age do you think children can cope with this piece of language? At what age group do you think we first introduced this language in our coursebooks?

CLIL is an attempt to combine content and language to make an engaging and useful lesson. In a CLIL lesson children are ticking CLIL-appropriate areas: content; cognition; communication and community. Children are engaging in learning about something, learning to do something, learning to express it and how it relates to a community.

Do you think taking a CLIL approach to language learning is more beneficial than selecting the language and building an exercise around it?

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