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Activating Speaking with Young Learners

Sarah Phillips, co-author of Incredible English second edition, talks about her upcoming webinar entitled ‘Activating Speaking with Young Learners’ on 18th April. You can find more information and register to attend here.

I’m often asked how we can get our pupils speaking more English. It’s a good question. As you know, Speaking is possibly the most difficult, but probably the most important, skill for our young learners.

Please join me in the Activating Speaking with Young Learners webinar on Wednesday 18 April 2012 18:00 – 19:00 BST as we look at examples from Incredible English 2nd Edition and try to identify:

a) what it is that makes teaching and learning speaking so challenging
b) how we can support the children during speaking activities
c) what we can do make speaking activities communicative and fun.

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Incredible Support for Cambridge Young Learners English Tests

How can you prepare your students for the Cambridge Young Learners English Tests? Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English second edition, gives some advice for the different test levels.

Younger learner exams/tests are becoming more and more popular. The demand is growing and many parents seem to be keen for their children to enter. Teachers are preparing the children for tests at a younger and younger age. Naturally, publishers and coursebook writers have responded to this and by trying to give the teacher as much help as possible.

However, some children do not perform well in test situations. You hear stories about people who have sat their driving test over 50 times! They are perfectly competent drivers, but when it comes to the test situation they ‘freeze’. It’s the same with some children: they do well with classwork but when it comes to a test/exam situation they fall to pieces.

What can a teacher do about this? The problem is that the teacher needs to prepare them for the test. (Remember, knowing how to do the test is halfway to passing it!) Yet, overt exam preparation can heighten tension for some children and make them less able.

Well, one thing we can do is make preparation for the test a linked event for home and school. That means the first thing we need to do is prepare the parents. Look in your coursebook: is there a list of exam advice for parents (tips for parents)? If there is, send a copy home to parents. It will be full of fun, easy-to-use ideas.

For example the children can take home the word list for Cambridge Starters, Movers, or Flyers. It can be stuck on a pinboard or put onto the computer. The words can be highlighted or crossed out when the kids have learned them.

These tips for parents will help them prepare their children for the exams. And don’t worry about the linguistic competence of parents. In this day and age, many parents will be able to handle the level!

Parents will be doing things like pointing at objects and asking ‘what’s this?’ or ‘what’s that?’ Getting the children to say things like, “it’s a green ball’, or ‘it’s a big, red chair with purple stripes’. They can practice saying and understanding the English alphabet by asking their children, ‘How do you spell “duck”?’

To be fair, it does get a bit more difficult with Flyers. The children need to be able to count up to 1,000 in this particular test!

Some parents take these tests very seriously and why not? After all, they pay good money for the children to enter. But this shouldn’t blind them to the affective side of exam practice. Fun practice makes perfect.

Tell parents that it should be enjoyable and that it shouldn’t become a chore. Whenever possible they should try and turn the practice into a game. Suggest that the children should practise little and often, rather than do full-scale exam practice! It really shouldn’t need saying, but say it anyway: tell the parents to give their children plenty of encouragement.

Have a look in your coursebook and see if there is a list of advice for parents and a page of exam practice ideas for teachers. With the strong trend towards CYLET type testing for young learners, the more up-to-date coursebooks should carry this type of advice for teachers.

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Speaking for fluency in public, and for accuracy in private

Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English 2nd edition, looks at the concepts of accurancy and fluency in young English language learners.

If you think about it, we need to give children plenty of listening practice in order to help them speak. It’s logical. It follows the natural route of language acquisition: given the right conditions, input (listening) will become output (speaking).

So, one of the best ways to get children speaking English is to provide them with lots of listening practice and guide them into spoken production. Children may not see the point in learning another language: it has no reality in their world. But they have less of a problem in using or repeating another language when they are having fun.

How can we make this happen in the classroom? Let’s look at one way of doing this.

An animated story is a perfect vehicle for moving children from listening to speaking. For a start, most children like stories. They are fun and engaging and children enjoy them. Stories are part of their reality: storytelling is an activity to which children are accustomed. More than that, stories are based on real life and so they are relevant.

When they are trying to understand a story, the language has a purpose. It is given a context and it becomes meaningful. Participating in a story gives them a reason for understanding.

Above all perhaps, children love stories. They can listen to them again and again and never become bored. Stories often have strong repeated phrases. For example, how does this line from a famous children’s story finish: “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow….”? Small children will often join in and say these powerful, repeated lines. They are acquiring language.

In our context as language teachers we can take advantage of this strong human urge and the powerful human activity of storytelling. The stories in our coursebooks are often vehicles for the language we want to introduce to the children. The language that is repeated in the story is usually the language that we want children to “get”.

Helping children to act out a story can be a fruitful classroom activity. Most children enjoy it (but do keep in mind that not all children enjoy it). The specific language aim is to activate a piece of language.

Here are some thoughts about speaking and error correction. The idea of “private practice” and “public performance” may be worth bearing in mind. Or, maybe the concepts of accuracy and fluency.

As they practise, go around helping them say the language. If you like, this is private practice and so getting it right (and that means correction by you, the teacher) is important. They are not exposed in front of the whole class. They are in a private space with you and a small peer group. They are more likely to hear and respond to your correction when they are not exposed in front of the whole group.

When a group shows their story to the whole class I think the dynamic has shifted. I think it’s very important to give positive feedback as this is happening. Help them say the language if they need it, but avoid overt correction. This is now a public performance and so correction is probably inappropriate. Having fun and being motivated is far more important than language accuracy.

Correcting errors is an important part of our work as language teachers. But over correction will demotivate the children. I need to be principled about what I correct and, perhaps more importantly, when I correct it.

How do you encourage accuracy and fluency of language in your classroom?

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Vive la différence in Differentiated Learning!

Student Displaying Art to TeacherHow do you cater for different learning styles in a class full of young learners? Peter Redpath, co-author of Incredible English second edition, looks back at his experience and offers some words of advice.

When I was a schoolboy, research into the area of learning styles and individual differences was receiving significant attention. However, the idea of differentiated learning had not taken root in any significant or practical way in the classroom: its time had yet to come.

At school we were taught that “one size fitted all”; as if we all learned the same thing in the same way. This often meant that we weren’t taught according to how we learned best, but according to how our teacher learned best. In other words, the teacher’s teaching style was probably influenced by their own learning style. What was your experience at school?

(I hope I don’t sound too critical of my teachers. They worked hard and under difficult circumstances. After all, they had me in the classroom; not an easy situation.)

It is perfectly understandable that my teachers wanted to pass on what had successfully worked for them. After all, if it hadn’t worked, they wouldn’t have been the teacher!

So, they transferred the style that had worked for them as a pupil to the children they were now teaching. If a pupil’s learning style matched the teacher’s, the pupil had a better chance of being successful. If the two styles did not match, then the pupil had less chance of being successful.

In fact, is it possible to take it a step further? The teacher had moved through the education system successfully. The child whose learning style matched the teacher’s also probably matched the exam system! If you think about it, it was a self-sustaining circle that slowed down change and progress. Or it at least meant that some children were doomed to failure.

Perhaps I am being unfair in my analysis. What do you think?

Early in my career I was fortunate to work with a group of teachers who seemed to be gifted at teaching younger learners. Twenty years later I got the chance to collaborate with one of them again. How lucky do you get?

An area that interests us both is the learner as an individual. A question that challenges is how material and the teacher can adapt to the individuality of the children. Some of our answers are reflected in the material that we have produced.

Let’s look at the downside first. As an example, I can spend a number of lessons doing a little dramatic performance. The learners who like acting and group activities will enjoy themselves and probably learn a lot. The children who like to work individually on tasks will probably feel less engaged.

Simply put, there are differences between all learners. Differences in their likes and dislikes. Differences in what they are good at and what they are not quite so good at. Differences in what they like to learn and what doesn’t interest them. It can include learning styles and strategies, aptitude, gender age and culture.

But I need to teach all of the children. So what can I do about this? How can I take their differences into account?

Well, for a start I can try to be aware of their individuality and different learning styles. I can try to be aware that in any classroom there is going to be a range of different learner types.

This means that I need to make sure that I cover the same language in different ways – in a story, in a song, in a puzzle, in a game – so that the children have the chance to engage successfully with at least one of the activities. I need to check the material I am using to ensure that there is a range of activities that will appeal to different learner types. I can try to push as many of their learning “buttons” as I can.

What is differentiated learning? It is taking the differences in learning styles into account with how I teach and with the materials that I use. In an ideal classroom, all the children should be engaged in tasks that enable them to be successful and ensure they are learning.

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