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#EFLproblems – Learning English Beyond the Exams

Disappointing exam resultsWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog is in response to Raef Sobh Azab’s blog comment regarding the challenge of motivating students who are in an exam-focussed environment. Stacey Hughes from the Professional Development Team discusses how to take English beyond the focus of exams.

One major problem is that the educational system in my country is mainly exam-based. Most teachers, students, and even parents do not care at all about the quality of learning. They are mainly concerned with passing the exams. L1 is all the time used in class, real life English is not stressed, language skills are not practised at all, learning aims are not achieved, and private lessons given to students at home or in private centers are the norm. This is really frustrating for some teachers who are keen on improving their teaching skills and eager to get their students engaged in the learning process, thus, achieve a real progress and taste the beauty of language.”

Certainly, one way to ensure students are exam-focussed is to make exams central to the course. Constant reference to exams either by the teacher, parents or institution will show students that passing the exam is the goal.

But how can we make English communication skills the goal?

1. Determine personal learning goals

The first thing is to find out from students what their personal learning goals are. Do they want to just pass the exam or do they actually want to learn to communicate in English? Do they want to be able to listen to music, watch films, or search the web in English? Do they want to be able to go to an English speaking country and speak with people there? Do they want to be able to get a job where they use English to communicate via email or telephone? Or maybe they want a job that allows them to travel – in this case, English may be useful.

Help students find an intrinsic reason to learn English – one that is important on a personal level. It also must be said that there may still be students who don’t really want to learn English, and for whom passing the exams is the only goal. However, if the exams are based on reading, writing, listening and speaking in English, then maybe they will see that improving these skills will also help them pass the exams.

2. Use English as the classroom language

Create the expectation that for the time that English lessons are going on, they will be conducted in English. This change may take some time for students to get used to, so take it slowly. Maybe you could aim for half an hour at first and then build on that. Make sure you reassure students that, during the last 5-10 minutes of the lesson, they can ask questions in the L1 if they didn’t understand. Make your instructions clear and make sure you use examples, visuals and, if necessary, written support on the board to accommodate students who aren’t confident in trusting their listening skills. Finally, encourage students to use English when speaking to each other and praise them when they do.

3. Make sure each lesson has a clear communicative aim

Instead of an aim such as, to learn the present perfect, make the aim, to talk and write about things I have done before. This shift in focus lets the students know what the communicative purpose is for learning the tense – how it can be used in real communication. Scaffold tasks so that students have lots of support. So, for example, you might do a Find Someone Who… type exercise in which students have to ask each other, “Have you ever…”Write the kernel on the board, brainstorm some endings and write them on the board: …walked for more than five miles, …eaten foreign food, …run a marathon… Keep these on the board during the discussion phase so that students can refer to them for support. Stronger students will be able to make up their own, so this is an example of an activity which could work well in a mixed ability class.

4. Don’t make exams the only focus

There are lots of ways to bring in on-going assessment and even self-assessment to show students that each stage of the lesson is important. Listen to students during tasks and tell them if you think they are doing a great job at speaking in English – give them an “A” for the activity. Create a check list that students can use to self-assess: I can talk about what I’ve done. I can ask someone if s/he has ever done something. I can write about what I’ve done. (etc.). Ask them to assess themselves honestly and set review tasks if students feel they can’t really do that yet.

5. Take learning out of the classroom

Ask students to set some realistic personal language goals that are not part of the course: respond in English to a blog post, listen to a song and copy out the words, look for information about a favourite subject in English on the web – there are many possibilities.

Breaking out of the exam-based mentality can be difficult. While it is still important for students to do well in exams, there is nothing to stop them from having their own personal goals for learning English. Even if their goals don’t ‘count’ towards a grade, for the student, they may be even more important.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about teaching English beyond the exams, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday, 6 December at 12pm GMT.

Please keep your challenges coming. The best way to let us know is by leaving a comment below or on the EFLproblems blog post. We will respond to your challenges in a blog every two weeks. Each blog will be followed by a live Facebook chat to discuss the challenge answered in the blog. Be sure to Like our Facebook page to be reminded about the upcoming live chats.


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‘All together now’: using songs and actions for kindergarten classroom management

Pre-school children singing

Photo courtesy of Gryphon House.

Margaret Whitfield, co-author of the forthcoming Kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips on using songs and games for Kindergarten classroom management.

There are many reasons for using songs and actions in the kindergarten classroom. They’re memorable, they engage different types of learners, channel energy effectively and – best of all – they’re enjoyable. But songs and actions are also fantastic for encouraging teamwork and managing the classroom.

How can songs and actions encourage teamwork?

Singing a song is in its nature a collaborative activity. All the children can join in to create something that they’re proud of. Harness this by allowing children to join in at different levels. Give them a tambourine if they’re too shy to sing – they’ll still be absorbing the language, learning the natural rhythm and intonation. If they’re super-confident, give them a line to sing solo. Try arranging the children in a circle and moving around as you sing the song – the children have to work as one or the circle collapses!

Ask groups to work together to make up actions or new verses. Have the group teach their verse or actions to the rest of the class, using props and flashcards, if appropriate. By working in groups like this, children are encouraged to collaborate and the less confident members of the class are more likely to contribute. (Try this free song activity idea from Freia Layfield, an Oxford University Press Teacher Trainer.)

Think about how you teach songs as a way of promoting teamwork. Encourage the children to be involved in the process. Begin by simple options – listen again, or sing? Clap the rhythm or ‘la-la-la’ to the tune? The children can move to different areas of the classroom according to their choices. Then have a child be in charge of the CD player. Teach the children simple phrases (Pause, please. Play it again, please.) so that they can direct the child working the CD player. With older children, once they are used to being in control, you could challenge a small group to work together with the CD player to learn the song.

How can songs and actions be a tool for classroom management?

All children have their own ideas about what they want to be doing, and it can sometimes be challenging to focus them on the job in hand, particularly if it’s not one they’re fond of.

My experience is that many very young children will respond better to commands if you sing them – however simply, and however badly. Clean up, put your shoes on, wash your hands, and so on. The same can be true with actions – it’s like a code you share with the children; for example, clap your hands to get their attention, hold them in the air, then rub them together as though washing your hands. One advantage of both these approaches is that you’re not using your voice in the usual way.

A step on from this is to turn everyday classroom routines into short chants and songs. This can be particularly effective if you use a tune that children know and like; for example, try teaching this ‘clean up’ song, sung to the tune of ‘London Bridge is falling down’:

Time to clean up everyone, everyone, everyone.
Do it together, let’s have fun,
Let’s get busy!

If you build in some actions, as well, you can ensure that children are focused on the song and not carrying on with what they were doing. In our forthcoming series, Show and Tell, my co-authors and I have included chants to support good behavior, so you can build these into your classroom routine and use them as a fun reminder. For example, when a child drops something (or looks as though he/she is about to!):

Little hands be careful,
Pick it up and hold it tight.
Little hands be careful,
And it will be alright.

You can also use songs as a reward. Leave time at the end of the lesson, pick a child whose work or behavior has been especially good, and ask them to choose their favorite English song for the class to sing.

These are just a few ways that songs and actions can be used to promote teamwork and help with classroom management. If you have any feedback or ideas of your own to share, please post!

Would you like more practical tips on classroom management and how to develop communication, collaboration and other 21st century skills with your kindergarten children?
Visit our site on
Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.

Sign up for the webinar on Making the most of kindergarten classroom management on 18 December.


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Look who’s talking! Getting very young learners to speak in English

Children in playgroundGabby Pritchard, co-author of the forthcoming Kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips for encouraging your Kindergarten children to communicate in English.

From the moment toddlers begin to discover the exciting world around them, they begin to acquire the language they need to express their curiosity and be understood by others. They very quickly learn to use simple questions to find answers. What? Where? When? How? and Why? become favorite words as they explore how their world works.

So, how can we create a classroom environment that encourages young children to continue their exploration of the world through a new language? Here are some ideas.

1. Begin with questions

Use posters, photographs, toys and real objects to stimulate children’s curiosity about a new topic. Let them feel the objects. Ask plenty of questions: What can you see? What’s this? What color is the…? How many…? Where is…?

Use the same questions every time you introduce a new topic so the children become familiar with them. As they gain confidence, encourage the children to ask some questions of their own too.

2. Cooperative learning

Organize children into small groups to carry out simple investigations and experiments, play language games, act out stories and complete craft activities.

By working cooperatively, your children will find they need to talk about how to complete tasks, assign roles and solve problems. They will also develop their social skills, such as learning to share and turn taking.

Always encourage children to use polite language when working alongside each other. Phrases such as: Let’s play with the… Please pass the… and You’re welcome are very useful phrases. They will help children develop respect for others and form positive relationships. Try teacher trainer Freia Layfield’s idea for a role-play activity that teaches children valuable life skills while getting them to talk in English.

3. Get more from stories

Young children love to immerse themselves in the world of make-believe. Using stories in class provides a great basis for getting children to talk about motivation, consequences and feelings.

Read aloud, or play audio recordings of, short, simple stories. Then ask questions to get the children to think carefully about the characters and events. The questions should encourage a deeper understanding of how and why things have happened.

You can begin by asking simple questions, for example, Is the giant happy? Are the bears angry? Then move on to more probing questions: Why is Jack scared? Why are the bears angry?

When the children have explored a story, encourage them to work in groups to act out the story using props. You may be surprised by how much more enthusiastic the children are, and how much more they put into their acted versions of the stories, once they have explored the meaning thoroughly.

4. Show and Tell

A great way of rounding up a topic and reinforcing what children have learned is to set up group or class projects. These can include:

  • topic-related craft activities
  • hands-on tasks such as growing plants or preparing snacks
  • recording activities such as making graphs of class preferences or talents
  • bringing to class a favorite toy or book to talk about.

Start ‘Show and Tell’ sessions by talking with the children about what they are going to produce, getting them to contribute ideas about how they will do this and the sorts of equipment they will need to complete the project. Get the children to work together to produce different parts of projects where possible. If they need to work individually on a project, prepare sets of materials for groups to share, to encourage them to observe others and discuss ways of working in order to produce the best results.

Finally, have the children present their work to the class, to other classes, or even to their parents. This will help build confidence in their ability to express themselves and give them a real sense of achievement.

For a simple way to introduce the idea of Show and Tell to your kindergarten class, visit the page on ‘Teaching 21st century skills with confidence’ for another video tip from Freia Layfield. It comes with a free worksheet that you can download from the Oxford Teachers’ Club (it’s quick and free to register).

We’d like to hear from you

Please do share your experiences of getting children talking in class – we would love to hear about them. You can use the comments box below this blog.

Would you like more practical tips on developing communication and other 21st century skills with your Kindergarten children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.