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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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Help! My students won’t sing!

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at how to make the most of songs in the English classroom – even when your students resist singing…

Most of the time, students (and their teachers) enjoy songs and chants, and they’re a staple in young learner classrooms. When students seem reluctant to sing or chant, it’s because they don’t feel confident with the lyrics or melody. You can increase your chances of success by presenting new songs and chants in a way that builds confidence and reduces stress. For example, have the CD playing as students enter the classroom. Have students listen to the song or chant and tell you which words they can hear – you don’t have to focus on the words they can’t yet hear. Songs and chants in Let’s Go always reinforce the language of the lesson, so students will hear words from the conversation, or the new language pattern, or the new phonics words. As they recognize words and phrases and get familiar with the melody or rhythm, they will be building confidence to sing or chant.

Every once in a while, however, you’ll have students who just don’t want to sing or chant. Perhaps your previously enthusiastic singers have become ‘too cool for school’, or perhaps your boys’ voices are starting to change and they feel awkward, or maybe you have a class of older beginners who think they’re too mature for the songs and chants in their books. You can always explain how songs and chants help students remember language, or improve intonation and natural rhythm, but sometimes it’s easier to have some alternative activities that enable you to reap the rewards of using songs and chants without a battle over actually singing or chanting.

Listen and order. Have students copy the lines in the song onto another piece of paper that is cut into strips (so that one line of the song is on one strip of paper), shuffle the strips and give to another student. This gives students practice writing clearly enough so that someone else can read their writing, and practice reading another students’ handwriting.  Ask students to read the lyrics and see if they remember the correct order. Play the song for them to confirm. If you want this to be more of a listening and reading challenge, give each pair or group of students a set of lines to the song and have them order them as they listen. If your students aren’t fluent readers, give them word or picture cards to order.

Busy, Busy, Busy from Let's Go 3

Song taken from Let’s Go 3

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Let’s Share: answers to your questions

Let's Share: Your Questions AnsweredOur Let’s Go authors answer questions from teachers about teaching young learners. Do you have a question? Visit our Let’s Share page to ask our experts.

1. What is the most effective program for teaching phonics to Japanese students?

There are many different ways to teach reading, some of which don’t even involve phonics. And teachers find each approach effective because their students learn to read. What is probably more useful is to look at the overall purpose of phonics approaches and then show how we’ve tried to incorporate them in Let’s Go. Even if you aren’t using our books, you can still use this information to help you evaluate other phonics programs in terms of whether or not they are likely to work for your students.

First, the purpose of phonics is to help children attach symbols to sounds in words. A combination of phonics words (which children can sound out based on patterns) and common sight words (like the, a, is, are) usually provide students with enough tools to get started reading independently. English-speaking children typically know between 2,500 and 5,000 words when they start using phonics to attach letters to sounds. Children learning to read English in their foreign language class know far fewer words, so it’s important to teach phonics patterns to children using words that they’ve already learned orally.

That’s one of the reasons that vocabulary in Let’s Go is so carefully controlled. We want to make sure that students have learned to say and understand the meaning of words before we ask them to read them. So, for example, when students learn that one way to show the long A sound is a__e (in Let’s Go 2), we use words learned in earlier levels: cake, make, and game. We also make sure that students can find other words in Let’s Go that fit this pattern so that they can try applying the phonics rule and develop confidence in sounding out less familiar words that are decodable. The sight words students first learn to read are the same words they’ve been using in language practice in every lesson.

We think it’s most effective if students can focus on one new thing at a time. Learning to read familiar words is a small step. Asking students to learn both the sound and meaning of new words at the same time in order to introduce new phonics patterns is too much, and ineffective in the long run.

2. What is the ideal time allotted for teaching phonics and teaching using textbooks?

Ideally, we should try to include reading practice in every lesson. Depending on the length of your classes and the number of times you see students each week, you might have a lesson focusing on phonics skills once a week or once a month, but it’s easy to incorporate reading skills in other lessons as well. For example, with very young students, you can:

  • ask them to count how many times a specific word appears in a chant or song (which builds scanning skills and reinforces the idea that spaces help us identify words)
  • have a treasure hunt asking students to find words that begin with specific sounds
  • write the words from the language pattern on cards and let students practice building sentences with a combination of word cards and picture cards.

The less contact time we have with our students, the more important it is to incorporate reading skills whenever we can.

3. Most textbooks introduce a lot of vocabulary but with little emphasis on the phonics program. What is the ideal method for allowing or injecting a learning opportunity for a phonics program, while using a textbook, to maximize the time?

You can use the vocabulary in your textbook to teach phonics. It takes a bit more effort to do this if your textbook hasn’t already planned the syllabus to teach the words students will use for phonics from the beginning, but it can be done. All you need to do is look at the words your students are learning and identify some common phonics patterns. Do your students learn vocabulary words like cat, bat, map, bag, and man? After students have learned the words and their meaning, use them to teach the short /a/ sound. Help students learn to identify initial and ending sounds by looking at the words in their lessons. Use repetitive song and chant lyrics to build sight reading skills. Teaching sounds in the context of words and reading in the context of sentences helps us make the most effective use of our class time.

4. How can I get my students to do their homework each week?

If parents are willing to work with you, it’s relatively easy as long as you keep parents informed. Some teachers send notes home, or if they use the Let’s Go parent guides, they write the week’s homework assignment at the bottom of the weekly summary. Some teachers maintain a class wiki or blog where they post homework assignments, and others send email or text messages to parents.

Ideally, you want students to do their homework without needing parent support. Learning to be responsible for assignments is an important skill for students to develop. One of the biggest reasons students don’t do homework is that they don’t understand what they’re expected to do. To prevent this from happening, take the last five minutes of class to go over the homework together. For older children, read the instructions together and confirm that they understand what to do. For younger children, you can even do the exercises orally before they leave class. If they’re expected to write, show them how they can use the Student Book page from the lesson to help them spell words if they’re unsure. A little bit of support in class can help students become independent at home.

Answers supplied by Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto, Karen Frazier Tsai and Ritsuko Kagawa Nakata.

Do you have a question? Would you like free webinars, articles, videos and sample lessons? Visit our Let’s Share page to find out more…

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Getting children to talk in English from the beginning

Karen Frazier, co-author of Let’s Go, looks at how to get children speaking in English from the very beginning.

Would you like your young students to speak more in English? Getting children to speak has always been one of my main goals when teaching English language learners. Yet students are often very reluctant to speak. Why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

Sometimes, students are afraid of making mistakes. They think they will be misunderstood, and they don’t want to be embarrassed. Other students are shy and just don’t want to talk. So how do we get them talking?

One thing we can do is to make sure that students are comfortable with the language we expect them to use. If they are not comfortable, they will probably hesitate to speak.

Do you remember being in a class where you weren’t confident about something you had learned? For me, it was my geometry class. Perhaps for you it was a science, history or language class. If your teacher began the next lesson by asking you to demonstrate something from the previous lesson, without reviewing it first, how did you feel? Many of us probably would have been anxious about volunteering or speaking out in that class. And we might have tried to avoid talking as much as possible. The same is often true for our language students.

We should remember that young students usually leave a language class thinking, and maybe hoping, that they’re finished with the language learned. They seldom think that they might need it again for the next lesson. That’s why it is important to prepare our students for a new lesson by reviewing what they already know at the beginning of every class.

Another way to encourage our students to speak is to create lessons that incorporate a reason to communicate. In many English classes, students answer, but rarely ask, questions. Lessons are often full of drills and other practice activities that are boring for students. Students quickly lose interest and focus. Our challenge is to plan lessons that expect students to ask questions to get information, thus keeping them involved in the learning. There are a number of ways to introduce language that will have your students asking questions from the beginning. Here’s an example of one activity using puppets to do this. (I’ll be sharing some more activities that have worked in my classes in my webinar on 30 November – do join me.)

Engaging lessons not only help our students remember language, but also help them develop positive attitudes toward using new language. Language learning involves a memory that comes from more than just remembering the images, sounds and words for objects. This memory also includes how the language was introduced and the context for that introduction and practice. If language is presented in an interesting way, children will remember that it was exciting. They will want to use the language because they see it as something fun to do.

Of course, students have to practice language over and over to imprint it on their memories, much like a dancer or an athlete works to develop muscle memory. Practice and repetition in a language class is important to make using basic language patterns automatic. But drills don’t need to be boring for young students and we can borrow ideas for creating engaging activities from watching the ways children interact with games and media available to them.

It is possible to make language presentation and practice fun and interactive! Tools like puppets, teacher and student cards, and even mobile phones, can be used in lessons that will get your students to enjoy talking so much that they’ll forget they are learning.

Here’s a sample lesson that incorporates a review and some engaging ways to present and practice a lesson on birthday gifts that will get your students talking. Let me know how it goes!

Visit Let’s Share for more videos, blogs and upcoming events by our Let’s Go authors.

Karen gave a webinar on ‘Getting children to talk in English from the very beginning’ on 30 November 2012. If you missed it, you can watch the recording here.