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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.


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Managing the Perfect Classroom

Eager children in classKathleen Kampa and Charles Vilina, co-authors of the forthcoming Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, share some classroom management tips.

As teachers of young learners, we all know the benefits of a well-managed classroom. Our students are alert, focused, and excited to learn. All of our energies can go into teaching the lesson, rather than dealing with management issues. So how can we achieve this perfect classroom?

It’s important to remember that good classroom management is like fire prevention – our aim is to avoid problems in the first place. A teacher who is well organized and prepared, and who has specific goals for each lesson, is off to a very good start! However, there are other things we can do to keep our students focused and happy.

We’d like to begin with two broad perspectives on classroom management, and then move on to some simple strategies that you can use right away.

1. How students perceive learning determines a lot of their behavior

If students sense that learning is a one-way street, with information flowing only from the teacher to the student, management problems can occur from the very beginning of the lesson. Some students may be bored, others may feel forced to learn, and others may seek to stand out and be noticed by misbehaving.

The solution is to create a classroom of curiosity, nurturing a spirit of “wondering”. These qualities of curiosity and wondering are natural to students, but are often lost in traditional classroom settings. As teachers, we can reignite these qualities by being curious and wondering ourselves, as in:

I wonder how caterpillars turn into butterflies.
I wonder how this machine works.
I wonder if there is another way to do this.
I wonder how energy is created and used.

After observing this type of questioning from their teacher, students are encouraged to join in and ask their own questions. They perceive that they are seeking answers together, and that there may be many possible answers. Students become empowered to learn and discover as a class. They are also eager to share what they have learned with their teacher, making them partners in learning. As a result, there are fewer occasions for misbehavior or boredom.

2. CCBA – Catch Children Being Amazing!

We created the acronym CCBA (Catch Children Being Amazing) to remind teachers that students respond better to praise than to criticism. By noticing and pointing out how something is being done well, teachers give students specific examples of good behavior and learning. As you continue to comment on your students’ good behaviors, creative ideas, and positive contributions, you can easily shift the focus of attention from bad to good. Here are some examples:

  • I’m really pleased to see how well you all made a circle and got ready to sing.
  • Look at how Jenna and Miki are making big letter shapes together.
  • Michael, you wrote your story so neatly in your notebook.

Noticing and commenting on your students’ good behavior and achievements also builds confidence. Students often tell their parents later about a CCBA moment in their class. In so many ways, CCBA creates a positive classroom environment that supports learning for the entire year.

Here are some simple classroom management strategies you can try tomorrow!

Kathleen Lampa demonstrating the 'quiet signal'

Kathleen Kampa, Oxford Discover co-author

1. Refocusing Student Attention

Occasionally, it is necessary to get your students’ attention, especially if they are chatting after an activity is over. It is best to do this in a calm, quiet, and confident manner.

Here are two simple strategies you can try. Before using them, it’s a good idea to practice with your students several times until they become natural.

The first strategy is called the “quiet signal”. To do this, raise one hand while placing the forefinger of your other hand over your lips. Students then imitate these actions. Soon everyone is quiet.

The second strategy is to use a simple clapping rhythm. When students hear it, they repeat it. This signal is a clear way to get your students’ attention.

2. Transitional Songs

Transitional songs help move students smoothly from one activity to the next. They’re particularly useful for classes with young learners. Here are two songs you’ll be able to use tomorrow in your classroom.

Come and Sit In Front of Me (by Kathleen Kampa)
Melody: The Muffin Man

Come and sit in front of me, in front of me, in front of me,
Come and sit in front of me, in front of me.

Let’s Make a Circle (by Kathleen Kampa)
Melody: Skip To My Lou

Let’s make a circle big and round,
Let’s make a circle big and round,
Let’s make a circle big and round,
Everybody please sit down.

3. Celebrating Success

Creating a climate of success is important. Students work hard in your classroom, so celebrate their achievements! Here’s a chant you can use often throughout your lesson:

We Did It! (Celebration Chant by Kathleen Kampa)

Celebration Chant – We Did It!

We did it! We did it! We did it today!
We did it! We did it! Hip hip hooray!

4. Working Together

When students work together in pairs or small groups, they’re building the 21st Century skill of collaboration. Students who work together toward a common goal are focused and engaged learners. When dividing students into pairs and groups, it is important that the students view the process as fair.

First, decide the size of each group, based on the activity and the number of students you have. Sometimes an activity asks for students to work in pairs, or groups of three or four students. Some groups can have one additional student if the class cannot divide equally into groups.

There are many ways to divide students into groups. For example, if you want eight groups, students count off from “one” to “eight.” If you want six groups, they count off from “one” to “six”. Students with the same number then work together. Another method is to have students pull colored cards out of a box without looking. Students with the same color work together.

Students can also be placed in pairs or groups prepared beforehand by the teacher. One strategy is to place shy students with more confident students. This creates a unique opportunity to unify the class and include everyone in the learning process.

Classroom management issues exist with every class. However, by creating a positive environment of curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and encouragement, your class will develop a group personality that embraces learning.

Happy teaching, everyone!

Kathleen Kampa and Charles Vilina

Would you like more practical tips on classroom management 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 webinar on Making the most of classroom management on 17 & 19 December.


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Using discussion posters and… an elephant’s foot

Elephant's foot

Image courtesy of valentinastorti via Flickr

Kenna Bourke, co-author of the forthcoming Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, explores the benefits of using discussion posters with young children to aid learning, cognitive skills, and vocabulary development.

Sometime around the age of one to one and a half, I made an incredible discovery: speech! No longer was I just a helpless, gurgling baby making faces at my parents. Oh, no! I could now ask questions. How cool!

And not only could I ask questions, and get answers, but this new found skill gave me one Very Special Power: the ability to drive my parents crazy. I’m reliably informed that many conversations went something like this:

Me: What’s that?
Mum: It’s a table.
Me: Hmm. What’s that?
Dad: It’s a banana, but I think you know that.
Me: (grinning) What’s that?
Mum: You know perfectly well what it is.
Me: WHAT’S THAT?
Dad: It’s an elephant’s foot.
Me: (laughing uncontrollably) No, it’s not! It’s a book!

Sound familiar? I don’t think I can have been the only kid to use the ‘extreme interrogation technique’ for the sole purpose of testing my parents’ patience. It’s in the nature of children to ask questions – lots and lots of questions. That’s how we build basic vocabulary as children: we see something, we wonder what its name is, we point, we ask a question, and BANG! We get an answer. Then we store the image and answer, and the next time we see the object, we know what it is. Excellent.

The curiosity of a child is perhaps the best teaching tool we have. So how do we harness this natural thirst for knowledge?

Well, one way is through the power of the poster. These days we almost take posters for granted. Are they pretty decorative items that make our classrooms look bright and cheery? Yes, but … now it’s the adult’s turn to ask the question, ‘What’s that?’ Here are three things that posters are invaluable for:

Triggering critical thinking

Like me, you may have had an animal alphabet when you were a child. A is for antelope; G is for giraffe; Z is for zebra; X is a problem (!); and that helped you remember the letters of the alphabet. But posters don’t have to be limited to single word associations – they can help students connect concepts.

Think of a colour chart, for example. We can either put splodges of colour on a poster and print the words red, blue, yellow, and so on under the splodges, or we can use posters to go well beyond vocabulary acquisition by presenting a series of interlinked concepts, as in the poster to the right (click to download). In presenting concepts visually, we enable children to think more deeply and meaningfully about a topic. With a poster like this one, you could put students into pairs and ask them to give examples from their own experience and knowledge: where have they seen colours in nature? Have they ever made a colour? Is colour a good thing? What colourful animals can they name? Why might some animals be colourful? They then share their ideas with another pair.

Boosting memory

We know that the cognitive process is enhanced by images. Just as with real physical objects, like books, tables, and bananas, images enable learners to recognize and recall, making it easier for them to internalize meaning and store that meaning in their memory banks. To this day, I clearly remember a poster in my history teacher’s classroom. It was a satirical image of a famous politician with a boiled egg instead of a head. And to this day, because of that image, I could tell you all about him.

A striking image stays imprinted on the memory. It acts as the foundation for a pattern of thoughts and memories – a story if you like – in much the same way that a few bars of music can conjure up memories many years later. Using any good poster, try giving students a minute to remember as much as they can. Then hide the poster or ask students to stand with their backs to it. What do they remember? Why do they remember that? What associations did they make with the image?

Creating equality

Posters have the power to make all students equal. Images free up the imagination and give everyone a voice. As a teacher, you can ask students to say what they see in the poster and there’s no wrong answer. Every answer is equally valid and everyone, from the loudest to the quietest, gets a chance to voice an opinion and react to what he or she sees. It’s very hard not to have some sort of reaction to a visual image (you may like what you see, or you may dislike it; it may provoke a thought or remind you of something) and this means that discussion happens naturally and effortlessly. Child A looking at a poster may see a boy and a girl, but Child B, looking at the same image, may see a family or friends.

Clouds at sunsetWith any image or poster you like, try asking students to brainstorm thoughts, words, feelings, or memories. One child may see a picture of a cloud, while another may see … an elephant’s foot. And who’s to say a cloud can’t be an elephant’s foot? My parents would say it can be!

Would you like more practical tips on developing communication and other 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.


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Critical Thinking in your lessons – It’s easier than you think!

Pensive girlIn the second blog post in our series on 21st Century skills, (to accompany our teacher training videos on the same subject), Charles Vilina talks more specifically about critical thinking skills and how you can bring critical thinking into your lessons.

In my earlier blog, I introduced some of the main 21st Century skills, and argued that the English language classroom is a perfect environment to build those skills. After suggesting five “strategies” that I feel are essential to encourage 21st Century thinking and learning, I promised some more specifics in later blogs.

My focus for this particular post is on the skill known as “critical thinking.” I look at critical thinking as a series of abilities that take students beyond simple comprehension of information. A critical thinker uses logic and evidence to prioritize and classify information, find relationships, make judgments, and solve problems.

You might argue that our students don’t need to move beyond the simple comprehension of words and sentences. However, critical thinkers are better learners, because they explore meaning much more deeply. As English language curriculums continue to use more content to teach English, critical thinking strategies give students a chance to analyze and process the information in valuable ways.

Let’s look at one specific way in which you can begin to bring critical thinking into your lessons. It begins with vocabulary, one of the building blocks of language.

Vocabulary

In all vocabulary development, students must know a word in three ways: by its form, its meaning, and its use. Critical thinking takes this concept even further. Students should know a word as it relates to other words. For example, let’s say that you are teaching students the following lexical set about forms of transportation:

bicycle sailboat
airplane hot air balloon
rocket subway train
cruise ship bus
taxi skateboard

Once your students have a solid understanding of the above words, I’d suggest the following activity:

  1. Divide the class into groups of four students.
  2. Ask student groups to list the above forms of transportation in order from slowest to fastest.
  3. Ask each student group to discuss their list with another group.

This activity, as simple as it sounds, involves lots of logic and critical thinking. For example, students may decide that a skateboard is probably the slowest form of transportation on the list. However, it gets a bit more difficult after that. Is a bicycle faster than a sailboat? It depends on the wind speed. Therefore, does a sailboat move at the same speed as a hot air balloon, since they both move with the wind? Does a taxi move faster than a subway train? Sometimes, but then a taxi has to stop at intersections. How about a cruise ship? Perhaps we can find the average speed of one on the Internet. Is a rocket the fastest form of transportation? Yes, everyone agrees that it is.

The goal is actually NOT to arrive at a correct answer, but to get students to think more deeply about words, what they represent, how they are each part of bigger systems, how they relate to each other within those systems, and so on.

By doing so, students are required to use all of their language skills in the process. The lesson is no longer about memorization and simple meaning. It has transcended this and become an experience. Students are much more likely to remember and use these vocabulary words after such an activity.

Of course, any number of vocabulary sets can be used, with a variety of other critical thinking activities. For example:

1. The lexical set is “inventions”

Activity One:  List the words on a timeline in the order in which they were invented.

Activity Two:  List the words again in the order of importance to humans.

2. The lexical set is “sports”

Activity One:  List the words in a Venn Diagram, dividing sports into those that can be played indoors only, outdoors only, and both indoors and outdoors.

Activity Two:  List the words again in the order of the amount of equipment needed to play them.

3. The lexical set is “adjectives”

Activity One:  List the words under the headings of Positive, Negative, and Neutral.

Activity Two:  List the words in a Venn Diagram, dividing the adjectives into those that can describe people, things, or both.

As mentioned before, get students into groups to collaborate and to achieve the goals of each activity. Then, get groups talking together to discuss their choices.

These types of activities are especially helpful as students later create sentences using these words. After all, they’ve had a chance to explore the vocabulary more deeply with their fellow classmates.

In coming blogs, we’ll discuss many more ways to include critical thinking in your lessons. Until then, Happy Teaching!