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Top 10 Strategies for a Stress-free Classroom

Teacher smiling at young pupilVanessa Reilly is a teacher, teacher trainer, and author. In this article, she shares her advice on how to make the Primary and Pre-Primary classroom a stress-free environment.

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” (William James)

I am often asked for advice about ways of making our English classes efficient and motivational, yet fun. As teaching is such a complex skill, with so many factors to consider, it’s very difficult to narrow it down to just a few ideas but I have tried to limit myself to ten.

1. Establish a routine and rules from the first class

With pre-school or lower-primary children, setting up a classroom routine is as important as any other element of your class. Once routines are carefully established, children know what we expect of them. A well-chosen routine can save valuable class time, help with discipline, and allow you to spend more time on meaningful instruction.

It’s important to establish a clear routine from Day 1. Simple routines like a Hello and a Goodbye song to mark the start and end of English time, and different ways of controlling transitions between activities like using songs or chants to signal a change from story time to table-time are important in pre-school and early primary classes. Younger children love it when their lives are predictable. The best way to capitalise on this is to build a routine into your classes, making life easier for you too.

The reason why children at this stage love routines is because they do not have a developed concept of time and they measure their time in school by the activities they do at set times in the school day.

With older children you might have a lesson negotiating classroom rules where they volunteer behaviours which they think will help to make the classroom a happier place and to help them get the most out of lessons. You will often be impressed and surprised with some of their ideas; like treating each other with respect, always doing their best work and handing homework in on time! You can then make a list of their rules and even get everyone, including you, to sign it. Make photocopies of the list for everyone to stick inside their books and you can enlarge it to display somewhere in the classroom.

2. Use variety

Although chocolate is delicious and many of us could happily eat it every day, we would soon become bored with a diet of chocolate. Why? Because it would no longer be a novelty. We would actually start to feel sick of it! The same can true of any classroom activity. A favourite activity can be fun and educational, but if we do it in the same way every day and only do that type of activity, it can become boring. We know that different children learn in different ways and that different activities cater for their needs in English. Stories provide children with input, as do songs, rhymes and chants. Play, drama and well-chosen games help them internalize language and use it to communicate. However, there are many other activities children enjoy that help them learn language and we should exploit them to full advantage. For example, Alan Maley says of using art and craft in the English classroom:

While making things, children also make meaning. As they explore shapes, colours, textures, constructions, they are extending their experience and understanding of the world – and doing it through the medium of the foreign language.” (In the foreword of Wright, A, 2001)

3. Have fun

Creating fun in the classroom does not mean that the children have to be on the go constantly or that you, the teacher, have to be the all singing all dancing entertainer. Fun can be created in many ways – singing, stories, quizzes, chants, games, acting out, TPR activities… The list is endless. Believe it or not, one of my students’ favourite games is the List Game, where they choose 6 topics, which I write on the board and number from one to six, each number corresponding to the sides of a dice. The children get into teams. One team throws the dice and all the teams have 3 minutes to write a list of words from that topic. They have as much fun with this game as with a running dictation or TPR game.

4. There needs to be language pay-off

Whilst it’s important to make learning fun for young learners, in the limited amount of time we have for English, we need to make sure that there is what Rixon calls language pay-off in every activity. When preparing a game or any other activity, it is important to be clear about the language and learning objectives. We can sometimes get carried away when we see our students having fun, however we must be sure that there is enough language learning going on to justify the activity.

Monitoring is most important during communicative group activities as many will revert to L1. Children find an award very motivational, e.g. a gold star for the table using the most English, or you could give the table not using enough English an Untrophy.

5. Music and movement

The dictionary defines music as an “art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions through elements of rhythm, melody, harmony and colour.”  (http://dictionary.reference.com/)

Music has unique qualities and a well-chosen song or piece of music can provide language learning benefits from Pre-Primary all the way up to the end of Primary, providing the children with useful language input that can be fun at the same time. If the children leave your classroom singing an English song in their head they will carry it with them all day and at home too, something Tim Murphey referred to as S-S-I-T-H-P – Song Stuck in the Head Phenomenon.

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Singing in English on a global stage

Global Sing Along entryStephanie Reaume, a teacher in Turkey, writes about what the Everybody Up Global Sing-along brought to her classroom.

I first heard about the Everybody Up! Global-sing-along at an ELT conference in March where I had the opportunity to meet author Patrick Jackson who very enthusiastically convinced me to participate. After promising to look into it, I went home and watched the winning video from last year and was hooked. What a great idea, I thought; my students will love this. This was followed just as quickly by visions of costumes, props and complicated dance routines. However, as you will see if you watch the videos my students and I proudly submitted, the end result didn’t include any fireworks or gymnastics…

Enthusiasm was high when I first showed my students last year’s winning video. They were ready to shoot the video right then and there. They became a little less enthusiastic once they realized that I expected them to learn the lyrics and the meaning of the song too! But thanks to the lesson plans and materials available through the Global Sing-along website, the students were able to learn about cleaning up, the rooms of the house and the song lyrics in a painless way.

After two weeks of rehearsals, and several dreams involving students with brooms singing ‘OK!’ at the top of their lungs, it was time to tape the videos. After setting up the camera in a way that all the students could be included in the frame, it proved nearly impossible to get them all to look at the camera at the same time. This problem had a simple solution, however: all the students would look in the right direction as long as their teacher was jumping up and down and waving her arms behind the camera!

Watching my young students proudly point themselves out to their parents during the ‘world premiere’ (when we loaded the videos to YouTube) made it all worthwhile. I was also inspired by the level of teamwork showed by the students. They happily helped each other memorize the lyrics and even chose to spend their break times practicing.

The best thing about the Global Sing-along is that it is a project open to everyone, regardless of their English level, age (I have even seen videos submitted by high school students), singing or dancing abilities. Nowadays many schools are only interested in winning. In fact, when I asked my vice principal’s permission to participate with my students she suggested choosing ‘the best’ students from each class and making a video with them. Even though this would have made my life easier, I refused. In my opinion, the point of making these videos is to give everyone a chance to participate in something on a global scale, practice their English and, most importantly, have fun.

This is why, next year, my students and I will definitely be joining the Global Sing-along again. Hopefully this time we will be able to add a few of those complicated dance routines and props that I dreamt about at night! And one thing is for certain: my former students will know the difference between the living room, bedroom and bathroom for the rest of their lives.


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How music changed my teaching life

Patrick Jackson in a class of kids

Havin’ a bit of fun

Patrick Jackson, author of Potato Pals, Stars, and Everybody Up, all published by Oxford University Press, shares with us the power of using songs in the classroom. This article was originally published on the Super Simple Learning blog.

Before I went to Japan and started to teach kids, I ran a late night café in Dublin. While there are some similarities between customers in a restaurant and students in a classroom, I certainly wasn’t qualified to be a teacher. I had very little training and, like many other foreigners who get a job teaching English just because it’s their mother language, I basically walked into a classroom with no idea at all about how to teach young learners. It’s an unacceptable situation that the TEFL industry has to look at. Anyway, I really didn’t know what I was doing and so I made it up as I went along. I had no connections with a wider community of teachers beyond a couple of people in my school who were in the same boat as me.

I soon found out that the only way to survive with young learners was to sing with them, and keep them moving.
The combination of music, language and movement is the most powerful tool we can use to teach young learners and, more importantly, it keeps everyone happy! After a while, I was pretty much structuring my lessons around song. I would include at least four or five songs in a forty-minute lesson. I could easily see that these refreshed everyone, kept the energy positive, gave the class a nice structure and really got the kids to remember the target language in a fun and effortless way. Songs are a great way to get the language in! This is accepted by most teachers nowadays. It always amazes me that there are some who still don’t embrace music and movement. In fact, I don’t know how they survive!

Do you have any tips for using songs in the classroom?

Give everyone something to do. Students can make simple instruments out of recycled materials and that will keep the whole class involved. You can also use props, costumes or get students to make and hold up cards illustrating the language while singing. This creates a stronger connection between the lyrics and the meaning.

Always add movements to songs and if you’re dealing with space issues make up hand movements that can be done even by students sitting at desks.

Get the rhythm going and the tune will follow easily. Clapping out the rhythm together will also create a good screen of background noise for shyer students to feel safe behind.

Divide the class into half or groups and break the song up, singing to each other. A bit of competition can even be fun and a good way to get the energy up. Singing rounds and parts will make it sound very professional!

Think about how the song ties in with your curriculum. Although singing most songs is fun, if you don’t make the connection to the curriculum, you are missing an opportunity to strengthen language acquisition by making those all-important links. With a ready-made course, that hard work has already been done for you.

Patrick Jackson presenting in China

All together now!

Look to combine your favourite storybooks with appropriate songs and vice versa. Projects and other supplementary activities will also build up those connections between the lyrics of the song and ‘real’ language.

Once the language is in, make sure you give students enough ways of getting the language out again – to really use it! I find that a combination of role-plays and personalized writing, drawing and speaking activities that all lead up to take home moments make for the best all-round approach.

How about songs in your books?

When I started authoring textbooks I was very happy to be allowed to make songs a major component. This was true of Potato Pals where every book is accompanied by a song, but to an even greater extent with Everybody Up. Everybody Up is a new primary ELT course from Oxford University Press that I was very happy to have worked on with the Super Simple Learning team. Actually, Everybody Up has more songs than any other primary course. Oxford University Press spared no expense in putting together a dream team of songwriters including Grammy winning Julie Gold (“From a Distance”) and Devon and Troy of Super Simple Learning. We really couldn’t have been luckier.

Everybody Up Global Sing-along 2013The Everybody Up Global Sing-along is an exciting project that encourages classrooms around the world to send in You Tube videos of themselves singing songs from Everybody Up. It’s something that would never have been possible before the easy access of technology and social media. Watching the videos come in from around the world has been the highlight of my career so far. It’s especially fun and educational for the kids to see themselves cooperating on the production of their videos and to be able to see other children all over the world singing the same songs as them. The competition is open until August and I would very strongly urge any of your readers that teach kids to enter. There is a huge prize for the best entry; an all expenses paid trip to Oxford to attend the English Language Teachers Summer Seminar 2014 at Oxford University, including flights and accommodation. The schools that submit the best entries can also receive a visit and concert from the songwriters and last year Devon and Julie Gold visited Taiwan.

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Are your young learners getting their five a day?

Mother and Son in supermarketIn the light of recent food industry scandals, Everybody Up co-author Patrick Jackson asks some questions about what we are putting on the table for our young learners.

When I was little, breakfast was spent listening to our budgie Jacob telling my sister to wake up. I drew faces on boiled eggs, poor souls, then executed them with the whack of a spoon. Above all, I read the back of the cereal box from which you’d often get a small plastic toy. Nowadays, because I eat boring grown-up cereals, the backs of cereal boxes only give me nutritional information and charts showing me how I have made the right choice and will live for 100 years. To be honest, the magic has gone. No more mazes, jokes, cartoons or collectible plastic figures for me.

As educators, we are responsible for providing our students with a healthy balance of activities to make up a good all-round educational diet from source to table.

The recent food industry scandals have made us all think a bit harder about where our food comes from and who we trust to supply it. We should have the same rigour when choosing what we bring into the classroom. Home-grown and home-cooked are the most delicious but not everybody has the time or the expertise to prepare tasty food day in day out. When the ‘family’ consists of 40 or more with ‘meals’ running all day long, it is time to reach for something that has been prepared for you. Do your materials come from trusted suppliers and are those suppliers providing what they say on the packet?

The other day in the supermarket I was struck by how, down the whole length of the aisle, I could only see plastic, paper and glass. I could not see any actual food at all. What a shame it would be if we allowed our education system to become like that: depersonalised, delegated and always covered in expensive and unnecessary packaging.

Patrick in the supermarket

So what are you bringing to the table? Are your lessons nice and fresh or a bit stale and mouldy? Is your presentation crisp and crunchy or a getting rather tired and floppy? Do you use enough organic local ingredients? Are your lessons colourful and attractive or bland and uninviting? Do they change with the seasons or is it the same thing all year round? Do you even get to choose what is on the menu and do your students get to feel like they have choice too? Are there some tasty treats and snacks to brighten things up now and again? Is there enough variety and balance? What utensils do you use to prepare, serve and eat? Does it all come to the table piping hot or have your materials got the look and feel of yesterday’s cold pizza? Do your students get enough chance to ‘cook’ for themselves or is it always a one-way process?

And how about those essential five portions of fruit and vegetables we should be eating every day? What are the language teaching essentials that young learners absolutely need? Everybody will have their own ideas on this but I believe that the diet should include the following:

  • Music and movement
  • Links to real world wonder and discovery
  • Creative and imaginative activities
  • Stories and values
  • Personalisation moments

We owe it to our students to give them fresh and healthy produce. When we need to reach for processed fare, we should do everything we can to ensure it does what is says on the tin. What sort of meals are you laying on for your students?

Try the Everybody Up Global Sing-along for free animated songs, lesson plans and a great learning opportunity for your students.

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Music Makes It Stick

Musical notesSusan Banman Sileci, Everybody Up co-author, has a confession to make…

I have a confession to make: I forget to use music in my classroom. And then something happens that reminds me that using music to teach – not just to kids but to teenagers and adults, too – is one of the best ways to help them learn. It seems obvious, but I forget all the time. I use flashcards. I play games. I teach culture and history and I tell stories. But I forget to use music. Crazy, isn’t it?

Part of the problem is that I teach teenagers, between 12 and 16 years old. My eight students are children who live in one of the poorest areas of São Paulo, Brazil: Campo Limpo. They’re part of a special educational program that removed them from their overcrowded and undisciplined public schools and put them in a private school. I teach them once a week. Our classroom is in one of their homes, on a long table made of wooden planks set upon boxes, and the room’s one electrical outlet is on the other side of the room. The book we use, Oxford University Press’s Engage, is great. But Engage, like most books for teenagers, doesn’t come with a music program. As a result, I often forget how much these kids love music and how effective music can be.

I’m one of the authors of Everybody Up. This is a primary series which comes with an incredible music program and is entering the second year of its outstanding and award-winning Global Sing-Along. You wouldn’t think I’d need reminders to use music! But I do. Here’s a story for you.

Before the books were ready, I received a sample CD of some of the music. I had the CD in my car and was giving several of my teenage students a ride to school after our class. My students love Beyoncé and laugh at Justin Bieber (although they won’t let me change the radio station when he’s on), and one listens to Guns N’ Roses in preparation for his career as a rock star. Instead of turning on the radio, I decided to keep listening to my new CD. A song for the Starter level, Boys and Girls, came on. The music was obviously for very young children.

And my ‘too cool’ teenage students learned the words the first time, divided themselves into boys and girls and sang the song repeatedly. We drove through Campo Limpo with the windows down – past lines of laundry, small shacks and a large trash heap, through a park known for its drug dealers, over speed bumps and in front of the brick homes of one of their family members. ‘There’s my cousin,’ Camila laughed, and shouted, ‘Hi boy!’ out the window. The boy waved.

So, are we really too cool?

With these teenagers, I can use Everybody Up songs and they’re happy to learn them. They laugh. It’s kiddie music, but they always listen carefully, learn, and leave the class singing the song. I also like to use songs from the radio. We recently listened to Katy Perry’s Firework. It’s a song they know but never understood. They’re beginner students so I use a variety of techniques with songs, especially with complicated, non-ELT songs:

  • I don’t expect them to learn the entire song. That can be difficult, requires a lot of L1, and is certainly hard to remember five minutes after class is over.
  • I pick out a grammar point or a set of vocabulary. I pre-teach that language and give them the lyrics printed out with those parts missing. They listen, sometimes several times, to fill in the blanks with pre-taught material.
  • We talk about the general message of the song and listen one more time.
  • We talk about the cultural differences the song exposes. Elvis’s Blue Christmas surprised my students because something blue in Portuguese is happy. Thayza refused to believe me that ‘blue’ meant sad, but she’s beginning to accept the concept!
  • If there’s time, they can do post-listening activities like inventing dance routines, researching the singer or the song, or finding other songs with similar lyrics or messages.

I’ve made a personal goal of using a song – any song – at least once a month. I’m learning that if a song meets a need, students, no matter their age, don’t care if it’s a song for children, for Elvis fans, or for future rock musicians. There’s always something to be learned, and music makes it stick.

What about you? What’s your experience with mixing music styles in the classroom?

Visit our site for more information on Everybody Up and the Everybody Up Global Sing-along 2013.

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