Vanessa 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.
As teachers, we can also rest assured that by using music, song, movement, and all the other activities involved in the musical process, we are addressing most (if not all) the Basic Skills and Key competences.
…of the many factors that influence learning, few are as far-reaching – or little understood – as sound and music.” Halpern, S. (1999, p1.)
6. Surprise them!
To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand.” José Ortega y Gasset (1883–1955)
- One thing the children really like is when you sometimes let them choose the order of your class. I tell them what we are going to do but ask them what they would like to come first, second, etc. I don’t do this too often or it is no longer a surprise!
- Turn song time into a karaoke competition.
- Bring props for your story and hide them in a bag, inviting different children to feel and guess what’s inside and then using them to act out the story.
- Present a song as a letter to the children. Let them read and work on the letter, asking who they think sent it, whether they are happy, sad, etc. Then surprise them by playing the song at the end. Try the Beatles ‘Love me do’ as a Valentine’s letter or Louis Armstrong’s ‘Wonderful world’ for Peace Day – but remember you can only do this once or twice in a year or it will no longer be a surprise!
- Try doing even the most familiar things in a different way. Instead of making a list of words, let them create a mind map.
- When the children write sentences encourage them to do colour parsing, for example using the colours of traffic lights, writing the pronoun in red, the verb in yellow and the noun in green. This will make the sentence more memorable and can help with corrections. Instead of referring to nouns, verbs, etc, you could say for example; “The red words are he/she and it. Have a look at your yellow words. What’s missing? Good, the ‘s’.”
- Don’t always ask the children to write on a blank page but instead investigate the use of graphic organisers. You can download some that are ready to use. (See bibliography)
- Let them present their writing in the form of a shaped book, for example, or write their food poem on a paper plate.
We all like positive feedback and respond well to recognition of a job well done. Most small children want to please their teachers and love any positive attention you show them. Try to praise the children for any effort on their part, whether it is using English or being the first to follow one of your instructions. Praise good behaviour and you will find many of the children trying to copy.
As Maya Angelou says:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
8. Evaluate fairly
Teachers often ask me about assessment and it seems they are at times obsessed by testing children. I view tests as just part of the teaching and learning process, as I need to be regularly, but not constantly, assessing the children’s progress in order to make sure I am catering to their educational needs. However, a quick rule of thumb over testing is that a test needs to be valid. This means that we should test what the children have learnt. We also need to take care over how they have learnt it. You may think this is obvious but we should not use a new activity type in a test. I saw a teacher give the children a dictation in a test when they had never done one in class!
9. Try to be enthusiastic, even if you sometimes don’t feel like it!
It can be difficult to remain enthusiastic all the time but when a teacher enters the class smiling and seems enthusiastic about an activity they are presenting, they will find it much easier to captivate their class. Hiding your flashcards in a bag, peeping inside and asking the children to guess what is inside will get their attention a lot quicker than putting up the flashcards and getting them to repeat the words. That element of surprise adds to their enthusiasm.
10. Stay motivated yourself
Update your skills: from time to time sign up for some training. It’s always good to feel what it’s like to be a student again. If you do not have time to go on a course, try going to one-off training sessions or sign up to a conference like APAC, TESOL or ACEIA and see a number of talks in one day. You can learn so many new things in one day and maybe a speaker will remind you of an activity you already knew but haven’t used in a while. I even try to use sessions I don’t particularly like as a learning experience to realize what some students in my class may be feeling if I haven’t made my class fun, relevant or interesting to them.
Remember also to make sure that you have some YOU time outside school. As the old saying goes “a little bit of what you fancy does you good”. Whether it’s taking your own children to the park and having fun, going swimming, phoning a friend or skiing down a mountain, you need to have a rest for your own sanity.
Halpern, S. (1999) Sound education: creating the optimal learning environment. http:www.soundrx.com/monthly/sound_education.htm
Murphey, T. (1992) Music & song, Oxford University Press
Rixon, S, (1992), The role of fun and games activities in teaching young learners. In Teaching English to Children: From Practice to Principle
Wright, A, (2001), Art and crafts with children, Oxford University Press