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Ready to write? Tips on preparing Kindergarten children to write

School children writingMargaret Whitfield, co-author of the forthcoming Kindergarten series, Show and Tell, offers some practical tips on preparing kindergarten children to write.

Have you ever thought about how complex writing is? It involves fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, control of the arm and shoulder, recognition of letter shapes, association of letter shapes and sounds, and so on. It’s a wonder anyone ever learns to write. The fact that children usually master it is proof of their amazing learning power. The early stages of learning to write involve developing concepts about writing as well as the basic skills that form the foundation of writing development.

Children begin to understand and to enjoy the idea of writing well before they are actually able to write. They see adults and older children writing and, as always, want to join in. Their experiences as they do so can influence both their progress and their later attitude to writing, so how can we ensure that they’re positive ones?

Encourage scribbling early mark-making

Make sure that opportunities for writing are widespread and varied, and that you praise all children’s efforts. When you refer to what children are doing as writing and ask about what they’ve written, you reinforce the idea that they’re doing the same thing as the ‘grown-ups’. You are valuing their effort. The marks may just be scribbles at this stage, but they’re a crucial stage on the path to recognizable writing.

Some everyday opportunities for writing:

  • writing labels for items in the classroom, e.g. toy food in a shop
  • writing a label on a picture they’ve painted or drawn
  • writing a message or a card for a family member

Be CREATIVE

Pencil control is a fundamental skill to master, but there are also many creative activities that will contribute to writing skills that don’t involve pencil and paper.

The following will all develop children’s motor skills, and parents may also like to do some of them at home:

  • Manual craftwork, e.g. manipulating small pieces of paper to make a collage picture
  • Making marks in sand with sticks or fingers
  • Covering a chalkboard with chalk and painting it with a wet paintbrush

In addition, using modelling clay helps to develop the muscles in the hand – get children squeezing, squashing, and rolling balls and sausage shapes.

Focus on letter SHAPES

For children to develop from early mark-making to recognizable letters, they need to recognize the letter shapes. (They also, of course, need to associate letters with sounds before they can use letters meaningfully, but that’s another topic.) Flashcards and posters with the letters are really useful for this, but they can be supplemented and combined with lots of other activities. For example:

  • Have children make the shapes with their bodies. Give two children a flashcard of letter ‘b’, for example, and ask them to work together to make the shape.
  • Match magnetic letters to flashcards.
  • Have children make the letters of their name with salt dough. They can decorate the letters when they’re baked.
  • Letter hunt: give a child a letter flashcard and ask them to find as many examples of that letter around the classroom or on a page of a storybook.
  • Use objects such as buttons or pipe cleaners to make the shape of a letter shown on the flashcard. Watch teacher trainer, Freia Layfield, show you how to make the most of this kind of activity in class and download a free photocopiable activity template.

Make writing part of role-play

Role-play is a key part of children’s play at this age, and it can provide great opportunities for meaningful writing activities. If you leave clipboards with pencils around the classroom in different play areas, children can be encouraged to build writing into their play.

Here are some ideas for combining role-play and writing:

  • Shopping: write a shopping list
  • Firefighters: write the address of the fire
  • Doctors: write a prescription for some medicine or some notes about the patient’s condition
  • Superheroes: write a secret message to another superhero and hide it for them to find
  • Traffic cops: write parking tickets for scooters left in the wrong place – or even speeding tickets!

And finally, be patient

Different children progress at different rates. A child may, for example, have less developed fine motor skills but a good understanding of sound–letter correspondence. Try not to ‘correct’ children’s writing too much and remember to praise their efforts; they will be encouraged to write more and so get the practice they need to progress.

Would you like more practical tips on getting kindergarten children to read and write? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.

Sign up for the free webinar on how to get kindergarten children writing on 22 January 2014.


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How tablet devices can help with mixed ability classes

Indian woman a tablet PCShaun Wilden, a freelance teacher trainer and materials writer for OUP, considers how tablets and apps can help you encourage the less confident students in your class.

As a teacher trainer, I’ve often been asked how to deal with mixed ability classes. The asking teacher is generally of the opinion that mixed ability is something unusual. To me, it’s always seemed the norm, perhaps best summed up by this near twenty-year old quote.

We do not teach a group but (up to) thirty separate people. Because of this the problem of mixed abilities in the same room seems absolutely natural, and the idea of teaching a unitary lesson – that seems odd.”
Rinvolucri 1986, quoted in Podromou: Mixed Ability Classes

Mixed ability classes bring with them a whole manner of challenges for teachers to overcome. Students who perceive themselves as weak are often the ones that go unnoticed, the ones that are too shy to ask, the ones that don’t ask for the listening exercise to be played again and the ones who feel the pace of the lesson is too fast for them. Of course, should a teacher try and slow it down then those who are more confident complain the pace is too slow. Teachers have always been creative in finding ways to overcome the mixed ability issue. Be it through adjustment of course materials by subtle adaptations and grading or imaginative regroupings during exercises.

If, like me, you spend a large amount of your time reading about and using tablets in education, you’re bound to have run across the idea that tablets are the saviour to all things mixed ability. This, of course, is not true. However, perhaps tablets do offer some genuine alternatives for a teacher and their class. While we’re still a long way from most schools having class sets of devices, over the last couple of years we have seen a slow move towards tablet-based course materials. While some view this negatively, there are immediate advantages for the mixed ability class. Take for example, a listening lesson. Typically, such a lesson is more akin to a listening test.

The teacher establishes context, does a variety of pre-listening exercises and then presses play. Playing a few times but generally working with the class as a whole. Here’s where the mixed ability student falls behind: not getting all the answers and not asking for it to be played again. A tablet-based coursebook and set of headphones are a step towards overcoming this. Since every student has a copy of the listening, control can be handed over to them and they can listen as much as they like (and no one will know how much they needed to listen).

In this example from English File Pre-Intermediate you can see how the student is able to control the listening themselves

In this example from English File Pre-Intermediate you can see how the student is able to control the listening themselves.

Staying on the topic of listening, adding audio to reading texts is another way to help some students. In a class you’ll have students who enjoy reading, some who enjoy listening and some who have difficulty with one or both. A tablet-based coursebook gives them the chance to do both, giving the students a choice they wouldn’t necessarily have. Having the choice makes such a task more amenable to a mixed ability class.

In this example from Solutions Pre-Intermediate, you can see how a student is able to listen and read.

In this example from Solutions Pre-Intermediate, you can see how a student is able to listen and read at the same time.

A tablet-based coursebook also gives every student a voice. Not literally, of course, but a voice when it comes to working with, for example, pronunciation. As a digital book can do more than simply have the printed word, the students at appropriate times can record themselves and listen to their own pronunciation when compared to a model. In a large class, it is difficult for a teacher to be able to hear and react to everyone. Recording also builds the student’s confidence as it acts as rehearsal time, so if they are then asked to say something in front of the class they feel more able to speak.

As you can see in this example, from English File pre-Intermediate, a student is able to record and play back their pronunciation.

As you can see in this example from English File Pre-Intermediate, a student is able to record and play back their pronunciation.

All these tools allow for self-pacing. The ability to work at one’s own pace is a key element of differentiated learning. However to be able to measure and then tailor learning, the teacher needs to be able to get feedback on how a student is doing. A tablet combined with cloud storage can add a digital equivalent to material adaptation; for example, a teacher can use a word processor to create individualised questions for a reading comprehension. Saving a copy of the questions for each student to access them, do the text and re-save via a cloud link on their tablet.

There are a number of apps that can be used on a tablet to achieve this. For example, Socrative, a student response system, is an app that allows a teacher to create exercises, quizzes and games that they can then get each student to do on their device. As they do it, Socrative gives feedback on each student and how they are doing. It provides the digital equivalent of ‘Do you understand?’. However, unlike when asking the question to the whole class, feedback is telling you exactly how each student is doing. Or to put it another way, the shy struggling student is not put on the spot in front of everyone. In a similar vein, an app such as Nearpod allows a teacher to create presentations that cater for a mixed ability classroom, creating lessons that include listening, video and presentations. The presentation is sent to the students’ device and while they are working the teacher can get instant feedback on how the student is doing.

Once a teacher has this feedback, they know who needs what help and where. They perhaps then can use a tablet’s screen recording ability to produce personalised instruction.

By this point you might be thinking that using the tablet in this way is turning the classroom from a place of communication into one where the students sit silently staring at tablet screens. However, that is assuming I am advocating these things are done for the whole lesson, which is not the case. In the listening, the individualised listening is a small portion of a larger lesson. With perhaps the pre- and post-listening tasks taking place as they usually would. Using the student response app is only done selectively, perhaps taking up only a few minutes of lesson time. Furthermore, such assumptions overlook a third way tablets can help address mixed ability: project work.

Project-based learning (PBL) is coming back into fashion as a result of what a tablet and its apps can do.

In most books on the subject of projects you’ll find reference to mixed ability:

…they allow learners with different levels of competence to co-operate on an equal basis in the completion of the tasks the project requires. This goes some way to solving the problems of mixed-ability classes.”
Projects with young learners: Phillips, Burwood and Dunford, p7.

Project work leads to personalisation – another factor known to help confidence in mixed ability classes. All tablets can record sound, take pictures, and record video, giving the students tools that were previously difficult to get either in or out of the classroom. Collaborative projects involving things such as podcasting, film making, and digital stories need more than language skills to be successful. They involve good direction, a steady hand with the camera and an eye for design, so those that lack confidence in language can gain it by bringing those skills to the project.

An article in the Times educational supplement lists three categories of differentiation to help deal with mixed ability:

  • differentiation by task, which involves setting different tasks for pupils of different abilities
  • differentiation by support, which means giving more help to certain pupils within the group
  • differentiation by outcome, which involves setting open-ended tasks and allowing pupil response at different levels.

While teachers have been finding ways to do these things in the language classroom for years, using tablets can perhaps do this to levels previously never considered. Used effectively, and at the right moments in a lesson, they can help overcome what many teachers see as the difficulty of teaching mixed ability students.


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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.