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Why teach values in the Primary classroom?

shutterstock_408187930Susan Banman Sileci is an American ELT author. She has written materials for pre-primary, primary, secondary, and adult levels, including textbooks, activity books, graded readers, resource packs, and digital practice materials and is the author of Everybody Up, Super Stars, and Shine On.

I’m an American living in Brazil and I’ll be honest: it’s been a rough year. Brazil is going through a corruption scandal that included the impeachment of a president and, of course, there was this month’s presidential election in the United States. The world has seen just how much Americans don’t agree and how ugly the discussions can become.

It’s been hard and the adults have been fighting. But guess what? Now more than ever we need to teach values to the little ones. That doesn’t mean that we impose our political views on our students, much as we might want to. School is about lots of things including learning to read and write, learning subject matter, learning to get organized, and learning to listen to and respect one another.

In the past six months, through all of this, I’ve been struggling to listen and be respectful. I’m learning too! Home is often a place where we all believe the same thing, and school is where we gather up the beginnings of life in a larger community. Certainly, most primary students aren’t talking about impeachment in Brasília and the American elections (and I rather hope they’re not!), but English classrooms can easily be places where we help our little ones learn to listen and respect one another.

How? I have a few ideas.

Set a good example

First, we need to look at ourselves and realize that we’re models to our students. They’re watching us closely and whatever we’re asking of them, we need to be sure to do ourselves. It’s not always big things… have we taught “please” and “thank you” to our students? Do we use those words ourselves at every opportunity? Have we finished a lesson about being on time but they see us racing into class, not quite prepared and a little frazzled? I know my students have.

And to me this one is a big thing. We need to say “I’m sorry.” We teach the language for this – it’s common functional language in many primary books. Do we require them to apologize to one another for mistakes and impolite things they’ve done, yet they never hear us apologize?

Share our values

We can share more about our lives. We teach simple language and basic values to primary kids: be polite, be fair, share your things, work together, be helpful, respect nature, among others. I suggest we look for opportunities of good values, or failed values, in our lives and spend a few minutes once in a while talking about them in class. In fourth grade, our teacher told us about a racist incident she’d seen on a city bus. It wasn’t in the lesson plan but my teacher needed to share something she’d seen. Why do I remember it 45 years later?

Provide opportunities for good citizenship

Finally, we can look for opportunities for our students to do good. They’re young, yes, but they’re still critical to one another and to our community. More than anything else, showing them how to do good and then doing it teaches them values. There are so many ways even our youngest English students can make a difference. They can work in the school garden (or start one!) and talk about what they’re harvesting in English. They can make holiday cards or write letters to be delivered to older people or others in need. They can listen, and offer solutions, when a classmate is struggling.

It feels like the world is upside-down sometimes, but our classrooms can be places where we teach, discuss, and then live out the best we can be.

In my webinar, I’ll be examining some of the ways we can introduce values into our classrooms. We’ll talk about where we can find examples of values and how we can make the most of values opportunities in our textbooks. We’ll also discuss a few concrete ways to help students practice what they’ve learned and be important members of their larger communities. I hope you will join me!

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Making books look like candy

shutterstock_280154789Patrick Jackson, author of the popular Potato Pals series, Shine On! and Everybody Up!, explores the importance of design and ‘eye candy’ in materials for young learners.

In the natural world, colour and pattern are keys to reproduction and survival. The attention of bees is guided by precisely marked, competing flowers. Camouflaged moths hug tree trunks, invisible to their predators. Birds and animals show off their plumage and markings to attract a partner. Phosphorescent creatures in the warmer oceans mirror the night sky, filled with the stars that guide our journeys across its expanses.

The same is true with the learning journey we embark on with pre-elementary and elementary students. The learning materials we use must guide, motivate and excite, firstly and above all through the eyes of our young students. The characteristics and effectiveness of materials are largely determined by the visual impression they make and the deeper design decisions that undergird their development. As teachers and publishers we rightly should embrace the extent to which design decisions influence the whole learning process.

An Oxford University Press designer once said, “I like to make books look like candy.” Children, more than any other age group, are visual learners. The younger the learners, the more important the visuals are. That is not to say that they are not important with older age groups, but in the absence of a lot of printed text, children depend on what they can see on the pages (or increasingly, the screens) in front of them. The classroom can be very cut off from the outside world and exciting images from beyond the classroom bring the experience of learning a new language alive.

Young learners benefit deeply from interacting with different illustration styles and different media. These inspire creativity as well as maintain students’ attention. Good illustrations convey emotion and that in turn motivates young learners. The aesthetic experience should be pleasurable and the content memorable. No doubt we all remember our favourite illustrations from the books of our childhood. Furthermore, language itself is not linear and the visual presentation of language in context is a powerful tool that mimics the state of language in the real world. It has been proven that language is more memorable when presented with images, particularly images that children can identify emotionally with. Again, this replicates their experience of learning their first language.

The layout of activities on the page gives a book its feel and determines how we will respond. The lesson should flow smoothly from well signposted activity to the next. Icons and titles are part of this rhythm. The font and size of rubrics are also very important, as is the amount of blank space on the page. This informs how we perceive the level of difficulty of the material. The feel and finish of a course book are also vital to our experience of a book. Who hasn’t stroked the cover of a book or run their hands down its spine? Who hasn’t been frustrated as a child by trying to write or colour on the wrong quality of paper? All of these decisions, taken by the editorial and design teams, contribute to the soul of the materials and the ‘user experience’.

We call something superficially attractive but lacking deep meaning ‘eye candy’. They also say that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’. On the contrary, we can and do tell a great deal about course books by looking at their covers, and a bit of eye candy on their pages for young learners is just what they like and need. Their first impression of the path ahead is partly determined by the design of their very first English book.

So let’s not underestimate the work of the design department as we choose the materials we use. Let’s celebrate those beautiful illustrations and gorgeous double spreads. Let’s obsess about clear, well-set rubrics. Let’s appreciate delicious paper quality. Let’s delight at a bit of bling on a cover. As a great scholar may or may not have once said, “Per pulchra ad astra.” Through beauty to the stars!


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Beyond the classroom…involving parents in learning

shutterstock_220645462Vanessa has been teaching English as a Foreign language in Portugal for the past 20 years. She is currently teaching at Escola Superior de Educação.  Her areas of interest are teaching YLs, Teens and Pre-Teens. She joins us today to preview her webinar, ‘Beyond the classroom… involving parents in learning’ taking place tomorrow, 28th June and Wednesday 29th.

While it is true that as teachers our main mission is to teach the students in our classrooms lots of exciting new language and skills, it’s also true that as professional educators we often invest a lot of our precious time in speaking to and dealing with students’ parents. For example, we may just say a friendly hello, offer a friendly reminder, provide a word of warning or perhaps simply give a student’s family and loved ones some feedback about their child’s progress. Whilst this may suffice for some parents, some teachers assert that this is just the tip of the teacher parent relationship. I would argue that there is so much more that could be done to encourage both parties to join efforts to guarantee that each student reaches their personal learning goals successfully.

This webinar aims to look at how we as teachers can actively involve our students’ parents in their children’s school learning process. Generally speaking, by nature, most parents are interested in their children’s academic life and progress, and want to help their children be successful at school. It is also true that more often than not they are true specialists when it comes to knowing their children’s strengths and weaknesses. Yet, in many cases this natural interest turns out to be a source of frustration as it is not always channeled correctly, and rather than feeling useful and engaged, parents end up feeling lost and frustrated. They know that there is so much more that could be done to help their children, but don’t know exactly how to go about doing it.

In order to revert this, we will begin the webinar by discussing and analyzing how parent involvement outside school can be set up in a practical manner. The webinar will be structured as follows:

  1. Setting up a clear and open channel of communication between teachers and parents.
  2. Suggesting and exploring various ideas and activities to get parents started on the right track and gently guide and encourage them to become active participants in their children’s learning process.
  3. Suggesting and considering ideas like how to plan and set up a revision schedule for their children, how to choose appropriate learning resources and how to use the Oxford parents’ website to find appropriate tasks and activities.

By the end of the webinar participants will have a fair idea of how to go about creating a game plan to apply in their schools to involve and engage parents to help maximize their students’ learning. We will end the webinar with an opportunity for participants ask questions and to share any valuable experience and tips that they may have.

If you’re interested in taking part in Vanessa’s webinar, register for free by clicking the button below.

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Janet Enever reflects on the #ELTJ Debate at #IATEFL 2014

Janet Enever at the ELTJ Debate at IATEFL 2014At this year’s ELTJ Debate, Janet Enever (Umea University, Sweden) argued against the motion that ‘This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good‘. Janet shares her thoughts on some of the points that came out of the debate. Catch up on the highlights in our Storify story of the event.

Firstly, I’d like to say how pleased I was to hear so many interesting and relevant points raised at the ELTJ Debate. Together, they provided fruit for a really valuable round table event – perhaps this would be a more productive format for developing shared understandings and creating networks than the adversarial stance of a debate.

Here, I’d like to pick up on a few points raised that I felt were particularly important – just to start the ball rolling for additional perspectives to be aired.

There’s proof in the pudding

Firstly then, the exciting new evidence from Eva Wilden in Germany! A study of over 6,500 children at the end of the German primary school phase (aged 10/11 yrs). She reported clear evidence of greater progress in receptive skills by approximately 50% of the sample who began English earlier. This large scale study is very significant evidence. In addition, the study linked higher achievement with stronger reading skills in German (national language – which may or may not be the children’s first language). Can we extrapolate from this that higher level literacy in the language of schooling/L1 works hand-in-hand with higher achievements in English?

I’d like to add a note here on the broader question of literacy and politely take issue with Fiona [Copland]. There is now strong evidence on the potential of early language learning to contribute positively to literacy in L1. The references are now too numerous to list here, but perhaps I can include one quote and suggest that for anyone interested, it would be worth following up on this particular source. So: Fernandez (2008:8) summarises evidence, that:

far from detracting from the development of literacy, learning a second language actually enhances and enriches children’s language experience and offers unique insights and opportunities for the development of cognitive skills, which are unavailable to the monolingual learner.”

It seems possible that Eva from Germany has evidence of just this happening – I’m glad to say that she has now agreed to present at our conference in Umea this June – so join us if you can to hear more! Of course, OUP are one of our proud sponsors!

Political buy-in

Secondly, I’d like to mention the contribution of a colleague from Bangladesh. I haven’t had the chance to spend time there so cannot pretend to be knowledgeable on the challenges, though I’ve heard this account many times and seen many of these challenges elsewhere in the world. The current problem for Bangladesh seems to be that there are very few positive aspects to this policy decision! Here I will take up just one.

From the ELLiE study we learnt that primary English teachers need a fluency level of at least B2 if they are to be able to respond to the unplanned, informal everyday requirements of English in the primary classroom. In many contexts this continues to be a distant goal, but this does not diminish its importance. At a language planning stage we need to ‘help’ politicians to fully understand this and strategically plan to achieve this target. Years ago when I worked in Poland (soon after the political changes), I witnessed thousands of teachers of Russian losing their jobs. Some, astonishingly, managed to speedily turn their hands to rapidly learning English and became excellent English teachers instead. The shift in language choice that has occurred there over the past 24 years is certainly remarkable, with a national policy now established for introducing the first foreign language (mainly, but not only, English) from the start of schooling. However, in a country of 40 million, this has taken a generation to implement – and they are still working on it. Evidently, Bangladesh has much greater challenges – probably not only in the teaching of primary English, with large classes and a struggle for adequate resources.

How much is too much?

The final point that I’d like to discuss relates to the question of ‘how many languages are possible at primary level?’ This is indeed a difficult question to answer – probably impossible! A delegate from Switzerland outlined their current debate. Last year I attended a national discussion forum on this in Bern where I learnt that English was creeping up the agenda in a number of cantons, and concerns were rising particularly about the decline of their fourth language – Romansch. From informal coffee break conversations I gained the impression that the German speakers in particular no longer saw French as so important/valuable as English.

This topic links also to the question raised by a British Council representative from Senegal in Francophone West Africa. Similarly, there, current discussions consider whether children will suffer from overload if they have to cope with learning two languages in addition to their home language/mother tongue/language of schooling (various terms may apply in different contexts). In response to the question of: ‘How many languages are too many?’ we can cite countries such as India where it is often the norm for young children to shift between 3-4 languages in their daily lives – but these are generally languages that are widely used in the community. We can also cite smaller-scale examples where three languages are taught in schools from an early age – e.g. Luxembourg, Belgium, some regions of Spain such as Catalonia and the Basque region. However, again, at least two of these languages are widely used in the community, whilst the third (English) is seen as a high status international language.

From this and other evidence then, we know children can cope, but we have to ask whether the contextual conditions are sufficient to provide enough support for them to make progress. With good teachers, good resources and a supportive wider community (both in and out of school) I’m sure it can be done. However, achieving this on a wider scale takes substantial national/political commitment. Of course, it also takes a significant amount of class time so it’s important to consider the priorities and take care not to create a primary curriculum that suffers from overload. In Africa, I know it’s a real dilemma, with some former colonies having opted for non-local language as the medium of instruction from the start of schooling and then later recognising this might result in only limited progress in basic education. The theme of Medium of Instruction deserves a separate discussion I feel – and was not the focus of the Debate. Here, we are discussing the introduction of a foreign language, together with the teaching of a former colonial language (English or French mainly).

My expectation is that the outcome is unlikely to be balanced bilingualism. Nonetheless, the experience of learning two languages early, in addition to the first language, will certainly provide a valuable foundation for later further development – assuming the conditions are sufficient to ensure good provision. Of course, Harry Kuchah’s contribution from Cameroon serves as a salutory reminder on how difficult it can be to achieve satisfactory conditions for learning.

There are so many more points I would like to discuss, but I hope the above provides some food for thought and provokes further discussion. As you can see, there are so many perspectives to consider.

If Janet’s points on the ELTJ Debate have interested you, or you’d like to challenge them, feel free to leave a comment below. And don’t forget to watch the recording of the Debate or read our Storify highlights.


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#IATEFL – This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good

Thumb up and thumb downAhead of the ELT Journal debate at IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate, Graham Hall, editor of ELT Journal, presents an introduction to the motion of the debate.

The ongoing expansion of English language teaching for Primary age learners and teenagers has been a notable feature of ELT in recent years. In many countries, English is now compulsory in primary as well as secondary education, whilst English for Pre-school learners is also increasingly common. Some estimates suggest that up to 80 per cent of English language teaching globally is directed, in diverse contexts, at students in Primary or Secondary schools. As the exact cut-off point between Primary and Secondary education varies around the world, let’s assume for this blog that we’re referring to teaching children of pre- and/or post-11 years old).

As both parents and educational authorities seek to increase younger learners’ English language skills, we can’t assume that an earlier start to learning English is automatically better. The advisability of an early start to learning English can be affected by a number of factors, ranging from the availability of suitably skilled teachers and appropriate resources to concerns about the possible implications for the teaching and learning of other languages, and from the development of suitable classroom practices and methodologies to the relationship between a child’s first language literacy skills and their English language development.

So, it’s perhaps time to step back and take a little time to reflect on the extent to which the expansion of Primary ELT is, in fact, straightforwardly ‘beneficial’. If we, the ELT profession, teach millions of Primary age children English around the world, does this automatically lead to advantages, both for individuals and societies more generally, or is it possible that Primary ELT brings with it significant problems and difficulties? Does, in fact, Primary ELT do more harm than good?

There are perhaps 3 key reasons for the growth of Primary ELT. Firstly, there is the widespread assumption that ‘the earlier a language is learned, the better’; in other words, younger children are (or are more likely to be) more successful language learners. Secondly, the expansion of Primary ELT is a response to the increasing demand for English, which results from globalization; governments and policy-makers around the world would like an English-speaking workforce, which they see as leading to economic success. And finally, parents would like their children to benefit from learning English.

Yet, although age clearly influences language learning in some way, the exact nature of this relationship is rather less clear than is popularly imagined – the actual evidence in favour of younger learners’ superiority in L2 learning is rather inconsistent, especially in non-immersion situations, where encounters with English might be limited to a few hours a week in the classroom. And we might also worry about a top-down ‘rush for English’ in which policy is not thoroughly thought through and issues such as teacher training and education, and classroom methodologies and materials for teaching Primary ELT, become problematic. Is a gap developing between policy and practice, and between our goal of how Primary ELT ‘should be’, and the realities of often under-resourced classroom life?

These issues will be discussed and debated in more detail in the ELT Journal debate, held at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate (UK) on Thursday 3rd April (11.30-12.45 BST). There, Fiona Copland (Aston University, UK) will propose the motion: ‘This house believes that Primary ELT does more harm than good’; Janet Enever (Umea University, Sweden) will oppose the motion.

For more information about the conference and to access the debate online visit Harrogate online. You can also follow us on Twitter as we live-tweet highlights from the debate and other IATEFL speaker sessions.

Graham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.