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Mimosa’s report card – strengthening the school-home connection

Family gathered round computerKenna Bourke, Oxford Discover co-author, shares some creative ideas for using technology to help parents support their children’s learning.

Four times a year, I get an email that contains a mysterious thing called a report card. This is a school report on the progress of a six-year-old (name changed for privacy!) who’s not my child, but who’s very important to me. It goes on for several pages, and looks like this:

Sample report card

Great! But I don’t know what Mimosa is reading or how I can help turn her into a full-time genius! What stories is she reading? Does she like them? What’s she learning in science? I’d really like to know!

Do you want one simple way to help parents support your classroom teaching in the home?

Use technology.

Like teachers, parents are busy people. They might only look at a school website a few times a year, but many of them have social media accounts, which they look at daily. How about creating a closed page for your class on Facebook, or whichever social network is popular in your country?

Here are a few ideas for using this as a tool to help parents feel more involved and excited about what’s happening in your class:

1. Try sharing a short biography of an author that the child and family can research

For example, Who is Michael Rosen? What’s he written? When was he born? What’s his daughter’s name? What do you think about the poem ‘A Dangerous Raisin?’

2. Advertise your projects

Explain what you’re going to do so your students can prepare. Or post the results of the projects once they’re done so the parents can see them.

For example, How many subtraction problems can you think of at home? In what contexts do we use subtraction every day? What’s a funny subtraction problem you can ask your friends?

3. Share the week’s lesson theme so it can be discussed at home

For example, Oxford Discover begins each new unit with a Big Question: How do we have fun? What makes birds special? How do numbers help us? Great dinnertime conversation ideas!

4. Preview a reading text so children can discuss their prior knowledge of the subject with their family

You could do this by sharing a simple three-line synopsis of what you’ll be reading in class. Provide some questions for parents to discuss with their children.

For example, What do you know about symmetry? What symmetrical objects can you find at home? What’s the most beautiful example of symmetry you can think of?

5. Follow up on reading texts or topics that have captured the students’ imaginations by posting links to sites that contain further information

For example, in Oxford Discover, you’ll find a fiction reading about a whistling language. That language also really exists! There are schools on the island of La Gomera that have made this ancient language — silbo gomero — a compulsory school subject.

6. Post a picture that relates to your lesson to stimulate discussion

This is really fun! Provide some sample questions, too.

For example, What’s going on with these cars? Why can’t you see through their windows? Where do you think the picture was taken? Who invented wheels? What would life be like if we didn’t have cars?

Completely white cars

Photo © Kenna Bourke

7. Include links to free parent support sites

Oxford Parents gives parents simple, effective advice on supporting their children’s classroom language learning at home.

Would you like practical tips on developing a strong school-home link and developing 21st Century skills in your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.


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Creativity in the young learner classroom

Young girl filming with iPhoneCharles Vilina and Kathleen Kampa, authors of the new Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, share teaching ideas on an important 21st Century skill: creativity.

Creativity is intelligence having fun.”
Albert Einstein

We’re very happy to be sharing our thoughts and ideas about creativity with you, because it is such a natural and motivating skill to develop in our young learners. Creative activities are fun and engaging for our students. They take learning far beyond the simple tasks of understanding and memorizing. In fact, it is the highest order thinking skill, as Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy illustrates below:

Bloom's Revised Taxonomy

Creativity is an essential skill (along with critical thinking, collaboration, and communication) that students need in order to be successful in the 21st Century. Creative students are better at making changes, solving new problems, expressing themselves through the arts, and more.

How important is creativity?

In one of his TED talks, education scholar Sir Ken Robinson says:

Creativity now is as important in education as literacy. We should treat it with the same status.”

Creativity is a natural ability that is found in every young learner. Unfortunately, traditional classrooms don’t always value creativity, and sometimes even hold it back. Our role as teachers is to nurture creativity at every opportunity.

Consider the following:

  • Creativity develops when students are able to analyze the information they’ve learned, make new connections with that information, come up with new ideas, and evaluate their choices.
  • To nurture creativity, students need the freedom to offer ideas and express themselves without judgment. In a creative classroom, all contributions from students are welcomed.
  • Creativity requires the courage to make mistakes. Sir Ken Robinson states, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”
  • Creativity and innovation go hand-in-hand. David Hughes, founder of Decision Labs and professor at UNC Chapel Hill, feels that innovation is essential for our global economy.

What are the qualities of a creative classroom?

  1. Teachers and students ask open-ended questions that encourage curiosity and creativity.
  2. Students brainstorm as many ideas as possible without fear of being judged or being wrong. Students then go on to choose the best ideas and improve upon them.
  3. Students demonstrate creativity not only individually, but with partners and in small groups. Ideas are generated and assessed collaboratively.
  4. Students lead the learning and work together to complete projects. These projects help students take the information they have learned and present it in new and creative ways.

How can you nuture creativity in your classroom?

Let’s look at some specific ways to nurture creativity in your classroom, starting with one of the building blocks of language learning:

Phonics

Learning about letter shapes and names can be creative! When your young learners are introduced to letters, try this activity to build their creativity. Write the letters one by one on the board and ask the following questions:

Can you make the letter _(b)_ with your fingers? With your hands? With your whole body? With a partner?

When you first do this task, you might model how students could do this. Think out loud. Let’s see. Letter b is round and straight. How about like this? Or like this? Then your students are ready to try their own ideas.

Words

Vocabulary words can be taught in many creative ways. For example, verbs such as walk, tiptoe, and skate can be learned more deeply by inviting students to move in creative ways. Questions might include:

  • Show me what it’s like to walk in deep snow. Show me how you might walk on hot sand.
  • Imagine that you’re tiptoeing past a sleeping polar bear.
  • We’re on a frozen lake in Antarctica. Let’s skate with the penguins!

As you can see, creativity and imagination are closely related.

Other words such as nouns and adjectives can be presented creatively through facial expressions and body language, through movement, and even through dramatic skits.

Grammar

Grammar is often considered to be a logical and unimaginative part of English. However, grammar can be very creative as it is expressed in songs, poetry, and storytelling. Look for opportunities to build creative skills along with grammar skills.

Here’s a fun and creative way to teach not only grammar and speaking skills, but math as well! It’s taken from Oxford Discover Student Book 2, Unit 8:

Oxford Discover SB2 Unit 8 speaking activity

The above activity combines the logical thinking from math with the imaginative thinking from poetry. Students have a great time substituting the animals and numbers in the poem with their own creative ideas, while at the same time presenting a logical math problem.

Big Questions

Oxford Discover offers an inquiry-based approach to learning that allows students to consider big questions with many answers. Students are allowed to come up with their own additional questions. This process is creative as well as motivating for students.

Consider this Big Question from Oxford Discover Student Book 3: How do people have fun?

Students explore the many ways that people have fun around the world. The discussion may turn to the subject of celebrations. Students may explore the following questions:

  • What is a celebration?
  • What are some ways that people celebrate around the world?
  • What do people celebrate in your area? How do they celebrate?
  • What is needed to make a celebration successful?

As students explore these questions and find answers, they process the information by analyzing and evaluating what they have learned. Finally, they should be given an opportunity to create.

One suggestion is to get students working together to plan a celebration. They must determine:

  • What are we celebrating?
  • What is our celebration called?
  • Who is invited?
  • How will we celebrate?
  • What will we need to prepare?

As students plan, they also create. Students might create a poster, gather materials for their celebration, or even write a short play. Finally, they share what they have planned with the rest of the class.

In summary

A creative classroom is a joyful and motivating place where children feel empowered to learn, where all ideas are welcomed, and where learning is deep and meaningful. Children who are allowed to be creative are better learners, and they are more aware of their own learning styles. Creativity is a lifelong skill that our students will take with them into their adult lives to solve problems and help build a better world.

We’d like to conclude with a powerful quote from Robert Fisher in his IATEFL address entitled, “Expanding Minds: Developing Creative Thinking in Young Learners”:

What promotes creativity is a questioning classroom where teachers and pupils value diversity, ask unusual and challenging questions; make new connections; represent ideas in different ways – visually, physically and verbally; try fresh approaches and solutions to problems; and critically evaluate new ideas and actions.”

Thank you, and happy teaching!

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

Sign up for a free webinar with Charles Vilina and Natasha Buccianti on How to use creativity in the classroom on 18 and 20 March 2014.


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Bring on Utopia! Make us all equal! How mixed ability plagues my life…

Diverse elementary students working in the classroomKenna Bourke, co-author of Levels 5 and 6 of the new Primary series, Oxford Discover, offers some practical tips for making the most of your mixed ability Primary classroom.

About a hundred years ago, when I was six, my Belgian primary school teacher wanted me to crochet a poncho: ‘M’enfin! Un poncho, Kénna! C’est facile!’ Crochet! Crochet??? As I remember it, this involved manipulating a weird-looking needle, and some balls of wool: sky blue, navy blue, and white. That poncho haunts me to this day. My long-suffering mother crocheted it in the end. And I had to confess that I hadn’t crocheted it. And six-year-old life wasn’t good for a while.

Also at the age of six, I was promoted to top of the class in Flemish, above all the Belgian kids (dank u wel), and close to bottom in Math because 213 divided by 7 = (well, I have no idea and why does it matter?).

By the time I was twelve, studying at a school in England that shall remain nameless, I was put in the bottom set for English (this requires you to have read Dickens’s Christmas Carol and be able to recite it backwards), and the top set for French (this requires you to be able to say ‘M. et Mme. Dupont ont deux enfants’). I spoke French far better than my teacher, which turned out to be a major disadvantage. I also spent vast tracts of time wondering why lacrosse – a sport – wasn’t banned under the Dangerous Sports Act, and being quite good at … swimming.

Aren’t we all to some extent ‘mixed ability’? Does it matter?

It may or may not matter. The debate rages on. Some contend that all students should be streamed according to ability. But the fact is that people aren’t equally able, and it’s not always possible. As has been said endlessly, if you have a class of two students, you automatically have a mixed ability class. Utopia is a briefly entertaining fiction – we live in a mixed ability world, which we can choose to think of as something to be celebrated.

Imagine how boring it would it be if we all excelled at everything. There’d be little point in competition sports, or comedy shows, or concerts, or art, or literature … It wouldn’t really be worth cooking a great meal for friends because (yawn) everyone can do that. And don’t even think about solving a mathematical puzzle while you’re commuting to work, because we’re all equally good at it, and the person sitting to your left has probably already completed it.

Of course no two students are the same, but there you are, faced with your mixed ability class, and you can’t change that. So what do you do?

Move the benchmarking goalposts?

More often than not, we take a curriculum or set of standards and benchmark all students’ abilities against them, which is fine. But how about also benchmarking student achievement against that individual’s potential? Successful learning usually happens when you hit the tipping point between frustration and challenge. At university, I got bored and frustrated because French was too easy. At school, I was miserable and frustrated because Maths classes were difficult. Had I been pushed much harder in one direction and given more appropriate tasks in the other, I might have been more successful in both subjects.

Differentiate for success?

There’s a danger, also, of setting tasks that scream ‘advanced’, ‘normal’, or ‘remedial’. Not a good thing. It can result in making one student feel superior, another feel average, and the third feel stupid. Used tactfully, differentiated activities can build on each other. A below-level activity provides support and scaffolding for less confident students before they move to a task that is at- or on-level. The at-level task then provides support for students to deal with the greater challenge of an above-level task. Alternatively, you might differentiate learning by setting different tasks to different groups simultaneously so that all students are collaborating on discrete aspects of the whole, as in some L1 classrooms. No one really likes to stand out, except perhaps for the captain of that dreadful lacrosse team.

As my co-author on Oxford Discover, Kathleen Kampa, suggests in this video, there are some ingenious ways of giving all students the same task, yet letting them determine how to do that task at exactly their own level.

Motivate by focusing on what’s good and fun?

Call me a quitter, but I didn’t pursue crochet beyond the age of six, or Math beyond 15, though today, self-taught, I can do Math perfectly adequately. As adults, most of us very sensibly choose to do what we’re good at and what we actively enjoy. Too often, children aren’t given that freedom of choice.

We can create meaning in class and foster an atmosphere in which successful learning will take place by allowing students different ways to respond, and by giving them activities that appeal across a range of intelligences. Some of us are natural listeners; others love reading. Some of us wouldn’t dance or sing if our lives depended on it; others dance and sing till they drop. Some of us react to visual stimulus; others are oblivious to it. But we all do something well. Multimodality, in the form of video, audio, posters, spoken and written language, music and movement, is invaluable in helping students build 21st Century skills in an unthreatening, equalizing environment.

How? To put this idea in its most basic form, try, for example, to give:

  • classifying and problem-solving tasks to students who show logical or mathematical intelligence
  • physical, tactile, TPR-style tasks to kinesthetic learners
  • groupwork, classwork, and games to students who demonstrate interpersonal skills and intelligence
  • reading and writing tasks to learners whose verbal or linguistic intelligence is evident
  • and tasks centred around posters, pictures, and diagrams to children who show signs of visual or spatial intelligence.

As I write this on a January afternoon from my flat in New York City, it’s 11 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus-something horrifying Centigrade, and nothing would please me more than being able to crochet my own poncho to keep warm. But I refuse to get despondent. After all, aged 1, I was so mixed ability that I could drive a car! Who knows what else I might achieve if pushed?

Kenna Bourke as a toddler 'driving' a car

Kenna Bourke as a toddler ‘driving’ a car

If you’d like more ideas on teaching mixed ability classes, why not register for a free webinar led by my colleagues at OUP? Making the most of mixed-ability young learner classes will be held on 18th February and repeated on 20th February 2014.

Would you like practical tips on teaching mixed-ability classes and developing 21st Century skills in your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.


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Don’t gobblefunk around with words!

Don't gobblefunk around with wordsKenna Bourke is a full-time author of ELT and children’s literacy books with a special interest in English grammar. She is the author of Oxford Discover levels 5 and 6, and many more. In this article, she looks at three reasons why reading makes students better writers.

Reading makes you a better writer. And it’s fun! But why?

Because when we write, we naturally incorporate what we’ve learned about lexis, style, syntax, and spelling.

My all time hero is not a pop star, not a president, not a philosopher, not a painter, not a pirate, not a private detective, or even – dare I say it – a primary school teacher. No, my all-time hero is Roald Dahl, a writer who gobblefunked better than anyone. Dahl instilled in me a love of words – real words and invented words – and a love of twisting words; making words do things they’re absolutely not supposed to do … not in any circumcrackles! He also made me understand that, in writing, anything can happen if only you’re brave enough and curious enough to allow it to.

I devoured his books as if they were delicious snozzcumbers.

Now, I realize you may never have gobblefunked, and perhaps you haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting a snozzcumber, but I’ll bet you know which of these two words is a verb and which is a noun, don’t you? And how many of you have students who’d be among the first to put up their hand and correct the Big Friendly Giant’s grammar?

The Big Friendly Giant, the title character in Dahl’s The BFG, spends his life kindly and gently blowing happy dreams to children. But he has no one to teach him English, so he borrows a novel (Nicholas Nickleby, by the well-known author Dahl’s Chickens) from a little boy who happens to be asleep, and he reads it again and again and again, for ‘about 80 years’. This, he explains to his tiny friend Sophie, is how he learns to write English – by discovering new words and teaching himself how to write them. And yes, sometimes he gets his words frack to bunt, but that’s OK because context – fizzwiggling, wonderful context – helps us figure out what he means.

Reading non-fiction is just as valuable to writers as reading fiction. But why?

Because sometimes we feel a need to explain things to people.

Or we want to inform or teach someone how to do something. Or we have to persuade a friend that our way is the right way. Or maybe we’re just bursting to express an opinion on a subject. And here, non-fiction is our friend! Good non-fiction models teach you how to tell a factual story; how to build a solid argument; and how to convey information concisely, logically, and comprehensibly. Well-written informational texts can help students realize that very often our world is every bit as intriguing as the invented world of fiction. I mean, who would believe that 2,000 years ago, a country would bury 8,000 beautifully crafted clay soldiers?

Hidden Army - a page from Oxford Discover 4

Extract from Oxford Discover, Level 4 © Oxford University Press

Reading makes you think; and thinking helps you write. But why?

Because reading forces us to reflect on our own experience; make comparisons with other, often different, realities; build analytical skills; and generate new ideas for writing. 

Imagine a planet without wheels. How on earth would you know what the time was? How would you get to school each day? Where would you get food from if there were no trucks, trains, or planes to bring it to you? What would people  read if there were no printing presses (because yes, printing presses need wheels)? A wheel-free world? How ridiculous!

No, but seriously … What if there really was a planet with no wheels?

Planet SinRota - page from Oxford Discover 5

Extract from Oxford Discover, Level 5 © Oxford University Press

So … would I have become a writer had I not read Roald Dahl? Quite possibly not. I think, on balance, I might have grown up to become a grossgreener and lived on scrambled dregs.

But WHY?

Because, as my all time hero said,

When you’re old enough to write a book for children, by then you’ll have become a grown up and have lost all your jokeyness. Unless you’re an undeveloped adult and still have an enormous amount of childishness in you.”
Roald Dahl

Would you like practical tips on teaching writing and developing 21st Century skills in your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.


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Getting Young Learners to Write

Young boy smiling and writingCharles Vilina, co-author of the forthcoming Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, shares some tips on helping young learners to write well in English. Charles will discuss this topic in more depth in his upcoming webinar, taking place on 21st and 23rd January.

I teach writing to primary students almost every day. Fellow teachers often ask me, “Isn’t it difficult to teach students to write well? I couldn’t do it!”

I understand the sentiment. Of the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), writing is often the most challenging to teach… and to learn. Many people find writing to be difficult even in their native language, so the challenge is even greater for our EFL and ESL students.

Why isn’t writing an easy task?

  • Writing is a productive skill that requires concentration and effort, even for those who write professionally throughout their lives.
  • Writing, like playing a sport or a musical instrument, requires regular practice to do it well. The more often students write, the more likely they are to improve.
  • Writing is a process. Revision is always part of good writing (which is why pencils have erasers), and revision takes patience and effort.
  • Good writing has a very important companion: good reading. Without daily reading across many literary genres and text types, it is difficult for students to develop strong writing skills.

Now for the good news.

There are strategies teachers can apply to make the task of writing easier, clearer, and even enjoyable for our students! Here are three that work especially well in my classes, for both fiction and non-fiction writing tasks:

1. Introduce students to good writing

Fiction:

A good story has the ability to send us on amazing journeys, create strong emotions, and even change the way we look at life. Children need to read good works of fiction, and then always consider the question, “What makes this story so good?” In every class I teach, I try to introduce good fiction, and the love of reading, to my students.

Non-fiction:

In the world of non-fiction, clear and organized writing makes all the difference when learning something new. My students and I read examples of excellent explanatory writing about topics they find interesting. In this way, students learn the best ways to inform others through writing.

2. Motivate students to write about the world around them

Fiction:

“Write what you know about” is excellent advice for a fiction writer. I encourage students to choose a setting that they are familiar with. In this way, they can focus on creating strong characters and an interesting plot within that familiar setting. They are also more able to describe the scenes with greater detail. Later, they go on to create stories in other times and places of their choosing.

Non-fiction:

I first ask my students to write about what they have seen and experienced in their everyday lives, through a personal narrative written in the first person (I). This task teaches them to be observant and aware. They learn to consider all the information that might be useful to the reader (who, what, when, where, why). Students focus on presenting what they know in a clear and organized fashion. Later, they use these skills of clarity and organization to write about subjects outside of their personal experience.

Suggestion:
One simple activity is to think of a clear topic sentence on a theme students know well, such as “I really like English class.” Write this on the board. Then, invite students to give reasons why they like English class, such as, “My teacher is always helpful.” Write these reasons on the board as students say them. After many reasons are listed on the board, ask students to write a paragraph that begins with “I really like English class,” followed by three or four of their favorite reasons.

Mind maps can help students brainstorm what they know, while organizing the information at the same time. For example, students can write and circle the words my school in the center of a sheet of paper. From this circle, lines can be drawn out to subheadings such as my friends, my classes, and my activities. Examples can branch off from those subheadings. This activity can give students a physical profile of what they can write about.

3. Emphasize that good writing is a series of steps

As I mentioned before, writing is a process. We can teach our students to achieve their writing goals more efficiently by following a specific series of steps that will lead them to a stronger piece of writing.

Here are the steps I ask my students to follow in both fiction and non-fiction writing tasks:

  • Brainstorm your ideas first!
    This means to write freely, allowing your ideas to flow without judging or thinking too hard. Fill the page with anything that comes into your mind. This step should be fun and creative.
  • Organize your ideas into groups
    Each group of ideas should center around one main idea. This step also allows you to arrange your ideas in order of importance, and eliminate those ideas you don’t need.
  • Write a paragraph around each group of ideas
    A good paragraph will have one clear main idea, usually stated at the beginning. Continue the paragraph with three or four sentences that support the main idea.
  • Revise your work
    As you read through your paragraphs, ask yourself, “Can I make my topic sentences clearer? Can my supporting sentences be stronger? Are they listed in the best order? Can I find nouns and verbs that are more specific, and adjectives that are more descriptive? Is my grammar and spelling free of errors?”

A final step is often referred to as “publishing” the piece of writing. This step means that students have revised and edited their writing to the best of their abilities, and are now ready to share what they’ve written with the class.

Because each of the above steps is unique, and has specific outcomes, students do not become bored or frustrated with the process. It is best to do the steps over a number of days, so that students can begin each step refreshed and ready to continue.

Suggestion:
After “publishing,” one very effective activity is called peer review. Students read each other’s pieces of writing and then write comments about them. By giving students the responsibility of looking critically at another’s writing, they are able to look more objectively at their own writing.

In closing, I would like to add some final thoughts for teachers:

  • Don’t expect perfection at any level. Writing is a lifelong pursuit, and even the most gifted writers know that they can always do better.
  • Always emphasize the more important writing goals for your students: creativity, clarity, organization, and conciseness.
  • When giving feedback, focus on one area that needs improvement per writing task. For example, does each paragraph have one main idea? Circling every error with red ink will only frustrate students.
  • Whenever possible, for every weakness you point out in a student’s writing, also point out two strengths. Confidence is a prerequisite for all great writing, and we never want to dishearten our students. Stay patient and focused, and you will see real progress over time.

With my best wishes,

Charles Vilina

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

Sign up for a free webinar with Charles Vilina and Natasha Buccianti on getting young learners to write in English on 21 & 23 January 2014.