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Learning to learn in the primary classroom

I have been teaching a group of young teenagers of very mixed levels and ages for six months now. Half of the group comes from the state-school system and the other half attend “an alternative school”. The latter group is one-three years younger and was the weakest one in terms of language knowledge at the beginning of the year. These children were weak elementary while the rest strong pre-intermediate/intermediate. I was even wondering whether they would be able to cope emotionally with the fact that the rest of the class coming from a state-school background is so much stronger.

As time went by, however, the children who were seemingly behind caught up at an amazing speed. They were very good at using soft skills such as really listening to the teacher and to each other. They asked questions with confidence if they got stuck. They were able to work out answers for themselves by observing the clues carefully. I also watched them constantly use colors to highlight, to make mind-maps, and to make beautiful drawings in their notebooks to accompany their newly learnt language without having to draw their attention to these learning strategies. Their notebooks are not ordinary ones with the answers of exercises, lists of words and occasional grammar tables, but they look more like living books that you would want to open again and again to look at. And of course, I sometimes witnessed their frustration as well, but I saw their strategies of handling these emotions successfully too.

‘… the children who were seemingly behind caught up at an amazing speed.’

These children have learnt something important that we all need in this rapidly changing world, and these are skills that allow them to adapt to new situations, new contexts, new people, and new tasks easily. Possessing vast knowledge – most of which computers provide us with in fractions of seconds anyway – does not give us enough support in being able to rise up to new challenges at this speed. Instead we need the soft skills and learning skills that equip us with the necessary flexibility.

What are these skills? How can they be developed? From the example above – just as, I am sure, we can all list such examples from our lives – these questions have obvious answers. But it feels harder to teach these skills instead of a set of new words or a new language point as they are less tangible.

Essential skills for primary children

So what is it that children need to learn in the primary school? According to Emőke Bagdy, a renowned Hungarian clinical psychologist, at this age children need to learn the following things: To read, to write, to count, and to be confident. They need to develop a sense of self-belief that they can do it. If this fails, according to E. Bagdy, children will struggle with their learning, in managing new situations at school, and in their life as adults.  This is also supported by the PISA report (Programme for International Student Assessment) that has found that learners’ belief in their own efficacy is the strongest single predictor of whether they will adopt strategies that make learning effective or not (Artelt et al., 2003, pages 33–34).

One of the key things that influence children’s confidence is our own view of them as individuals and of their abilities. It is important to approach every single child believing that they can do it. A simple idea to do this is to catch them being good, something that can be easily done with the help of the Snakes poster – see below.

Snake Poster.

Draw one snake for every child in the class and label each one with a student’s name. Make sure the body of each snake is divided into lots of triangular sections. Each time a student does something praiseworthy (e.g. makes a helpful comment, shows determination, waiting patiently for their turn, etc.), tell them to come out and colour in one section of their snake with a pen of their choice.

Mixed-ability teaching, Edmund Dudley, Erika Osváth, OUP, 2016


Of course, we need to make sure that children progress with the colouring in their snakes approximately at similar speeds to avoid any feelings of shame, which would definitely be detrimental. Feeling good about oneself has an immense motivational power at any age, but it is imperative in the primary classroom.

Another important teaching moment that has a great impact on children’s self-confidence is our way of dealing with mistakes. In my view, there are no mistakes made in the primary classroom, but rather opportunities for children to notice something that is different or new in terms of use of words, language chunks, spelling, etc. For example, if children are copying words in their notebook from the board and there are some spelling errors, rather than overwriting these in red by the teacher, it’s a good idea to encourage children to look at the board again and discover the differences for themselves.

Naturally, there are many more soft-skills that need to be developed at this age so that children become efficient learners, such as resilience, curiosity and collaboration. In my upcoming ‘learning to learn skills’ webinar, we will be looking at further practical examples of how we can develop these in the primary language classroom. Click here to register, don’t miss it!

Have an idea of your own? We’d love to see it, so do share it below in the comments!

Erika Osvath is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and co-author of the European Language Award-winning 6-week eLearning programme for language exam preparation. She worked for International House schools in Eastern and Central Europe as a YL co-ordinator, trainer, and Director of Studies. She regularly travels to teach demonstration lessons with local children, and do workshops for teachers. Erika is co–author with Edmund Dudley of Teaching Mixed Ability.


Artelt, C., Baumert, J., Julius-McElvany, N. and Peschar, J. (2003). Learners for life: student approaches to learning. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Available at: http://www.oecd.org/education/school/programmeforinternationalstudentassessmentpisa/33690476.pdf Accessed 15/2/18.

For Bagdy Emőke, see: http://bagdyemoke.hu/beszelgetesek-emokevel/

Dudley, E. and Osváth, E. (2016). Mixed-ability teaching. Oxford: OUP.

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Free fun reading for the primary classroom

Originally posted on Erika Osváth’s blog, and re-posted here with her permission, this article explores free reading materials and activities for children.

By Erika Osváth.

It all started with my obsession of Oxfam second-hand bookshops, especially the one in Oxford, where I’ve been twice – I mean both to Oxford and to this bookshop – and both ventures had brought some great successes.

Oxford Oxfam shop

My first noteworthy acquisition was the book called Hey World, Here I Am! by Jean Little, OUP and this wonderful collection of poems has been a big hit with my (pre)-teen classes ever since. See here an example lesson plan I wrote around one of the poems.

This summer’s visit to the same bookshop  led to further accomplishments. Books that may very well be in the “nothing special” or “so, what” category for my native-speaker colleagues, especially for those, who have kids, but new and exciting to me and my kids. These are books from the Oxford Reading Tree Series, stories that have everything a good story needs for this age-group, ie 4-10, offering:

  • value for the kids, they can relate to the content easily
  • fun
  • opportunities to interact with the story-line, the characters
  • repetition of some useful chunks
  • authentic language
  • visual support, enough to be able to work out meaning from visuals
  • avoidance of story-line led purely by language  – ie built around certain grammatical structures or vocabulary
  • somewhat graded language for them to be able to analyse language and work out the meaning of some of the sentences, chunks or words
  • freedom to read and listen at the same time, doing this as many times they want (they control the pace of listening too)
  • plenty of opportunity to notice pronunciation features
  • great stories to read in general

and soooo really help kids in the process of appreciating reading in English, with this providing excellent opportunities for natural language acquisition.

Anyway, further proof for how great these stories are is the reaction of my kids, who keep reading the printed ones I had bought in Oxford again and again,

  • first just by going through the pictures and telling me all about it, how funny it was and some of the characters they thought could be drawn with a bit more care.
  • Then next day they picked them up again, read them silently on their own, looking at the pages more carefully, possibly trying to make sense of the sentences together with the pictures.
  • And then for the third time, they asked me if I wanted to listen to them read out-loud. Now that made me a proud parent-teacher.

Seeing their enthusiasm I went onto the website recommended at the end of these books to find an amazing collection of free eBooks for different age-groups. Oh my oh my! Not only there were zillions of great stories, but they also had interactive activities that accompanied them. True, with some of these I did need to turn into a teacher-mummy, but the thing is that they would not come off it. They just read and listened story after story and did the games, which they found a lot of fun.

So here’s how you can access them easily:

I really wish these books were explicitly made available for EFL teachers and learners too and we could make full use of them, not only if someone happens to stumble upon them.

Anyhow, I did become extremely excited about it and decided to share it with you. There are so many things you can do with these free eBooks in the primary EFL classroom! I should certainly do a workshop on it soon, though I’m pretty sure you would have loads of ideas too. Have fun using them!

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Creating opportunities for kids to interact with stories

Story timeErika Osváth, an educator, English teacher and materials writer from Hungary, talks about some different ways for kids to interact with stories.

My friend, who teaches English literature at ELTE University in Budapest told me the other day “I wanted to read this book, which is said to be interesting, written in exquisite language, but I just cannot make myself finish it, even though I am now on page 400. I just cannot connect with anything and anybody in the book.”

This sheds a little light on why we read in our everyday lives. What is the engine, the personal motive that makes us read a story or a book? If I turned my friend’s comment into a definition, she doesn’t read to see if she understands the story, neither to explicitly learn a particular language point, but through reading she satisfies her fundamental need to connect with the storyline and/or its characters. I believe this is the case with most of us when it comes to free reading.

And yet in the language classroom, very often all we have time for (and what the course-books helps our approach to stories with) are the comprehension check activities and some language work based around the text of the story. The one and only way we tend to encourage children to connect with the storyline and/or characters on an emotional level is through acting. I firmly believe, however, that there’s room and need for much deeper engagement forms of authentic interaction with stories, which will help them internalise language in an unconscious and effortless manner.

Here are some activities you can use to go beyond comprehension check and help children engage with stories on an emotional level at lower levels.

After directed reading, i.e. a story chosen by the teacher:

Interacting with the characters:

  1.   Ask children to draw their favourite character or the one they dislike, if appropriate, and fill in the sentence.”I really like him/her because he/she is/can/…” – here, choose verbs that are appropriate for the storyline.

    “I didn’t like him/her because …”

  2. Go through the story again and ask children to stick adjectives to the characters at different stages of the story, for example naughty, cross, careless, attentive, helpful, etc. Alternatively, you could use the faces representing some of these words, if possible, and ask them to justify their choices in L1.
  3. Ask children to match colours, shapes or sounds of musical instruments to characters and let them explain why. In my experience they love doing such abstract things.

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Do you have to be a native speaker to be a good materials writer?

Erika Osváth, an educator, English teacher and materials writer from Hungary, talks about how the ELT world is changing, and how the supremacy of the native speaker may soon be over.

I was recently asked if you need to be a native speaker to be a good materials writer.

Interestingly enough, I had been thinking about it myself quite a lot lately. My first instinctive answer to this question is: “Of course, not!” But then, I doubt myself almost immediately and think: “Of course, you do! How else could you write English language teaching materials?” So what is the right answer? And why can’t I decide? Instead of following this thread, I decided to draw up a shortlist of criteria of what I believe makes a good materials writer.

Well, first of all one has to be creative and innovative, able to  produce materials that are not only engaging and interesting, but also offering fresh approaches and ideas. At the same time a good materials writer has to have a good knowledge of the type of teachers who are going to use them. In my experience this is crucial, as teachers have very little time and energy wherever you look in the world to tune into new teaching approaches, really understand them and put them into practice. So a great deal of empathy is required from a good writer towards teachers, the way they teach and their attitudes, to keep a fine balance between old and new approaches. (Though I always feel there’s nothing new under the sun.)

Of course the same applies to learners: considering the type of learner, their age-specific learning styles influenced by cultural background and social context, possible interests, difficulties with the language is necessary. In case of children it is also crucial to be aware of the different developmental stages (which have shifted somewhat compared to, say 15-20 years ago, due to hormonal changes – in many respects an 8-year-old today is more like a 10-year-old a good decade ago). All these factors determine the channels through which they acquire and learn a language.

The next thing a good materials writer possesses is the ability to match the right methodology to the specific learner group. So they need to be well-informed about the different types of engaging activities, the way they flow from one another to match the aims of lessons and the necessary teaching framework.

Now, if I look back at the criteria listed above, none of them strike me as being characteristics natives any more than non-natives. So up to this point, my answer to the initial question is “No, you don’t.”

But then I wonder again.  A good materials writer has to be well-informed about the language and how it works, including being up-to-date with the changes that take place in the language. The latter point is inarguably one where native speakers have a convincing advantage over non-natives. Having said that, in today’s online world a lot of information about the language can be found almost at an instant. The process requires more effort on the part of a non-native writer if they want to keep themselves up-to-date with all these changes, unless they live in a native environment. In addition, finding information about the language on the internet may not be enough.

In general, however, I find that the language level of non-native teachers has improved enormously over the past two decades, which makes them more competent in the area of materials development for higher levels, too.

Another argument that should not be overlooked is that in general the aim of English courses is not to speak the language at a native level, but to be able to function in English in an environment where the language is spoken mostly with other non-natives.

And then I stop to think again about my own teaching, and realise that I write at least half of the teaching materials I’m using with my classes myself from beginner to advanced level, they seem to work well, the progress of my students is good and I’m a non-native. So why would I think twice about this question?

I believe that the way we think about who makes a good materials writer needs to be revisited and we have to make a conscious effort to not fall into the trap of our beliefs based on old perceptions and impressions.

Times have changed.

Are you a non-native English speaker? Would you like the chance to write teaching materials for Oxford University Press? Then take a look at our new ELT authors page.

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Dream or reality? – reflections on the Oxford Teachers’ Academy course

Having attended the Oxford Teachers’ Academy summer course on Teaching English to Teenagers, Erika Osváth shares her reflections of the three day course, what she learned, and the people she connected with.

Oxford Teachers' Academy Summer 2011 Group

Oxford Teachers’ Academy Summer 2011 Group, courtesy of Alice Abrahamova

Have you ever experienced this?  Getting home from a teacher training course or a conference abroad, where you’d had the opportunity to meet colleagues from a lot of countries from around the world, you feel so inspired by the whole experience that you seem to be living in two worlds at the same time for several days after the event? I’m sure that a lot of you have and know exactly what such an experience is like.

A few days after participating in the Oxford Teachers’ Academy three-day-course on Teaching English to Teenagers I have this pleasantly odd feeling: half of me is still wandering the streets of Oxford, staring at the façades, quads, libraries and churches of the unbelievable number of colleges, some dating back to the mid-thirteenth century. All of them so gorgeous that I’m left speechless. Though, I must admit, I didn’t have any problems chatting in the evenings in the pubs, which were just as old as the colleges.

This same half of me is also taking part in vibrant discussions on what the teens we teach are like in the countries we come from, having lots of fun trying out some useful activities, discussing how they’d work within our own teaching contexts and getting interesting insights into the different cultures.

My physical self, meanwhile, is back in Hungary, surrounded by buildings and objects I can’t really focus on as I find myself constantly thinking about how to take ideas from the OTA sessions further in my own teaching, material development and training.

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