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Help your young learners to remember new language

Young girl leaning against brick wall

Photo courtesy of Jenn Durfey via Flickr

Ritsuko Nakata, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at why children forget what they’ve learned and shares her top tips for getting young learners to remember new language. Ritsuko will be hosting a webinar on this topic on 13th February 2014.

Teachers are often puzzled and dismayed to find that their students have forgotten what they learned in the last lesson, not to mention lessons from a few weeks or months before. However, if we look back on our own school days, I think we can say that we also had a similar experience: often forgetting what we had learned. We also crammed for tests and tried to memorize everything, forgetting most of it after the test.

Children tend to forget things

Why do you think you forgot your lessons? Was it the way the teacher taught you or was it your own attitude towards learning? It might have been a combination of both. There might have been other factors as well, like the way you felt at the time, or the environment in which you were living and learning. There are many reasons why students forget.

As teachers, we have a great responsibility to get our students to learn as much as possible. When I first started out teaching, I worked very hard in every lesson and the children were able to repeat after me quite well. However, I was shocked when I saw them again at our next lesson. They had forgotten almost everything! They could repeat well after me, but could not say a single word on their own. I was beginning to think my students were just not good at learning English.

I started to think very carefully about what and how I was teaching the children, and why they couldn’t remember much even after working so hard in each lesson. I realized that it was the way I taught them! I was teaching them to become parrots, repeating all the time and speaking like robots. The children were satisfied just to repeat rather than trying to remember what to say, because I did not teach them how to retain what they learned and actually use the language themselves.

So what are some other reasons children forget what they have learned? Perhaps they were not paying attention during the lesson or were bored. It’s possible that they did not understand the lesson. They may not have been given enough of a chance to internalize the language. Or they might have not practiced it enough to react spontaneously to it.

So what is remembering and being able to retain new language? It is NOT memorization. How many times have we memorized things, only to forget them fast? Since English is a communication tool, we want our students to use the language they learn in class. If children use the language, they will remember it because they are the ones talking, not the teacher. Children need a little time to process the new items we teach them. They need more time to practice saying them aloud in order to become independent speakers. As teachers, we need to make time for practice in our lesson plans.

How can we help them remember?

One way to get students to remember their lessons is to make the lessons active and student centered, where the students do the work together. They will want to learn more, and will be more active in class, concentrate better and enjoy your lesson. This leads to retention of the lesson, gives the children confidence, and will surely bring a sparkle to their eyes (and the teacher’s, too)!

We should give children lots of practice time in class. If your students do not have exposure to English outside of class, this is the only time they will be able to practice. In Japan our once-a-week lessons are only 35 to 45 hours a year. This means that a year’s worth of lessons do not even amount to two days! Therefore we have to make every lesson an intensive one so that they can remember each one six days later when we meet again.

An intensive lesson does not mean study, study, study!

An intensive lesson can be a lot of fun and even more interesting than a slow-paced lesson. Children concentrate better when there is rhythm to the lesson. They speak out more when they get a chance to do quick, short drills instead of one long one. They are more active when they can talk to each other and not only to the teacher. They are motivated, concentrate more and enjoy their lessons. Emotions affect learning and, if they are having fun, learning and concentrating, they will remember the lesson! Motivation and a sense of progress play a big part in student attitudes. Once children are able to remember their lessons, they will have more confidence and will be motivated to learn (and remember) more.

Output is important!

To help our students remember better, our lessons should concentrate on a lot of output from the students. Not only speaking naturally with speed, rhythm, good intonation and pronunciation, but also reading and writing. Listening is also important, as it is an active skill that requires concentration and understanding. With a balanced lesson, that teaches the four skills, we can cover the learning needs in a way that fits the students’ ages. With a variety of techniques, we can cover the different learning styles of the students as well.

It’s easy to get into the “textbook trap”

This means that when the lesson starts, everyone opens their textbook, all heads are looking down and it is difficult to get the children to look at the teacher. Instead, it is more interesting to pre-teach the lesson before looking at the text. This way, the students will pay attention to the teacher, and the cards and other materials that are used. Visual aids will help slower learners by allowing them to see as well as hear the words. Adding the sentence pattern will provide context to the vocabulary, and therefore meaning to what the children are learning. Without meaning, memory will not be well formed. After the sentence is learned, the question form can be practiced. Putting the Q&A together, the students can ask and answer each other instead of being asked individually by the teacher. They will have fun and will have to THINK of the words themselves, instead of just repeating after the teacher.

It’s important to present the language in a variety of ways

Using actions while talking stimulates both sides of the brain and improves memory. Songs and chants with gestures also are important to bring rhythm into speech. Picture and word cards provide the visual stimuli necessary for students to grasp the meaning of what you are teaching. Putting the students into groups and pairs will encourage them to start speaking on their own, to each other, creating their own dialogs instead of relying on the teacher.

If you teach new language step by step, with children putting together new chunks of language to build meaningful short dialogs, the students will remember what they say and will be ready to read and write what they have learned. Their memory will be built up gradually. With plenty of review, their language bank will be expanded throughout the lessons and they will be able to retain most of what they learn.

Join me for my webinar on 13 February to find out more. I’ll be sharing some of the techniques we can use to build our students’ confidence and get them motivated as they have fun learning. I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

Get more free articles, videos and lesson plans from Ritsuko and her Let’s Go co-authors.


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Yes! No! Spaghetti!

Children in class raising their handsRitsuko Nakata, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at how to get students answering questions in full sentences.

‘Yes! No! Spaghetti!’

Are these the kind of answers you get from your students when you ask them a question? Single words, instead of ‘Yes, I do!’, ‘No, I don’t!’, or ‘I like spaghetti.’

When you were learning a foreign language, there were probably times when you were able to understand questions, but only able to answer with ‘Yes’ or No’ or another single word. I’m sure it was a very frustrating experience – you probably wanted to say much more to continue the conversation, but weren’t able to communicate effectively with just one word. We all want our students to be able to continue a conversation and not experience the same frustration we did, but our students usually don’t have much exposure to English outside the classroom.

So how can we prepare them to continue a conversation with confidence? We can do this by teaching them how to use full sentences – and by showing them, through activities and role play, how to communicate with these new sentences.

What kind of communication do you think your students could engage in with the following sentences?

  1. I like cats.
  2. It’s a green book. / The key is on the table.
  3. That’s great! / I’m sorry.

In the first sentence the student is expressing an opinion. (Almost any statement can be an opinion if you teach them to say, ‘I think…’)

In the second sentence the student is giving information.

In the third sentence the student is reacting to someone and expressing feeling or emotion.

Our students can communicate very effectively with simple sentences like those above. They can even create dialogue using question forms. In class, these may feel stilted and sound unnatural, but they form the basics of communication. When our students can use what we teach them to construct a sentence, they are able to use the language practically in conversations, instead of just repeating independent sentences.

When teaching sentences to students, I first teach the vocabulary, then show them, step by step, how to construct a sentence. (This provides a context for using the words.) I then show them how to use that sentence to create a dialog by teaching the WH- question form. You can see how questions and sentences can be taught easily and systematically in my webinar recording, Introducing new language effectively for the young learner classroom.

YES/NO questions and answers

With YES/NO short answers, we are often faced with the challenge of teaching auxiliary verbs. Teachers often say they are reluctant to teach short answers because they do not want to go into grammar explanations about auxiliary verbs. Students have a hard time remembering which auxiliary to use and often make mistakes like the following:

Do you want a cookie? Yes, I am.

Can you swim? Yes, I do.

To help my students learn and use the auxiliaries correctly, I present the WH- question forms before YES/NO questions (my co-authors and I do this in Let’s Go too).

What do you want?

What can you do?

Knowing the WH- question form helps my students to master the YES/NO questions and answers more easily. I ask them to take away the ‘what’ in the question they have learned and add the word they want to ask about. For example:

What do you want?   =  What   do you want       + a ball?

What can you do?    =  What   can you                + swim?

By removing ‘what’, my students are able to use the correct auxiliary automatically.

Do you want a ball?

Can you swim?

My students don’t have to guess what the auxiliary is and they are more confident in asking and answering YES/NO questions.

To help students overcome their habit of guessing, I give them a quick listening activity, which is like a game to them. I don’t complete the sentence, but just say the first two words. I say them quickly in rapid succession, mixing them up:

Can you xxxx?  Do you xxxx?  Are you xxxx?

My students listen for the first words to make their answers:

Can you xxxx?   Yes, I can.

Do you xxxx?    Yes, I do.

Are you xxxx?   Yes, I am.

I make the drills very quick so that my students are able to focus on the words.

Would you like to see how I do this? In my free webinar on Saturday (you can sign up here), I will give a demonstration on how to do this. I will also show you how you can use teacher cards to make learning YES/NO questions and answers lots of fun without a lot of teacher talk. I hope to see you there!

Ritsuko will be giving a free webinar on ‘Getting students to answer questions in full sentences on Saturday, 23 February. Register here.

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Introducing new language so that it sticks

Ritsuko NakataRitsuko Nakata, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at how to introduce new language so that children actually remember and use it.

When I first started teaching, I couldn’t understand why my students could not always speak and use the language they had been taught. Sometimes they couldn’t even remember what they had learned in the previous lesson. They were excellent at repeating after me (like parrots), but they could not say anything on their own without lots of hints. They learned vocabulary, but sentences and question forms were difficult for them. I used to blame the students for not remembering – but it wasn’t their fault. It was mine.

I taught the only way I knew how and used the only texts available then, all of which were ESL focused. These texts included a lot of idioms and expressions, which were too difficult for my students, and there was not enough systematic language build-up to help them progress step by step. Later, I began to experiment with other teaching methods. I found that if I was systematic in my approach, but also varied the presentation and practice of target language, my students learned far more quickly – and actually had fun. I also had fun!

This discovery led to my Model, Action, Talk (MAT) Method. This method focuses on introducing new language in a way that links it with actions so that students remember more and USE the language with confidence (not just repeat it).
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20 years of learning and playing with Let’s Go

Let's Go authorsIt’s hard to believe, but the Let’s Go series is nearly 20 years old. We recently had a chance to talk with the series authors, Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto, Ritsuko Nakata and Karen Frazier, about the changes they’ve seen in publishing, and in teaching English to children, over the past two decades.

As a special thank you, Barb thought it would be nice to share a short video with you, as a little flavour of the last 20 years of working on Let’s Go. Thanks also to Barb for conducting the following interview.

Barb: Let’s Go was one of the first course books for teaching English as a foreign language to children. Quite a few features that are commonplace in young learner courses now started with Let’s Go. What were some of the “firsts”? Please complete this sentence: Let’s Go was the first English course to _____.

Ritsuko: It was the first English course to expose children to the Roman alphabet at such a young age. Let’s Go was also the first English course to include so many verbs. If you know plenty of verbs, you can talk a lot!  Also, it’s written so that children can actually use the dialogues they are learning.

Karen: It was the first English course to include full answers and question forms to get kids talking. With Let’s Go, kids don’t just learn one word answers to teachers’ questions, they learn the words to ask the questions, too. It’s so common now that it’s hard to believe that it was a pioneering approach back in the 1990s.

Ritsuko: I’m pretty sure it was the first book to include chants, and to include movement to help children remember sentences as well as the verbs.

Barb: What’s something teachers may not know about Let’s Go?

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