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Pronunciation for Young Learners

To celebrate the launch of Project Fourth edition, author of the pronunciation SIG journal, Robin Walker explores the place of pronunciation in the upper primary classroom.

A few years ago I was crossing the playground in Spain, on my way to a training session with local teachers. As I was going past two young girls I heard one of them say ¿Jugamos al inglés? (Lets play English). The idea of ‘playing English’ roused my curiosity, and I stopped and eavesdropped. What followed was a stream of sh- and z-like sounds with not a word of actual English among them. But the rhythm was very English, and very un-Spanish.

By the time they get to the 9-15 age group, young learners are usually very aware that English feels and sounds different to their mother tongue. This makes this a great age for working on pronunciation, and offers us an opportunity to sow seeds that will produce very tangible benefits. We know from experience, for example, that poor pronunciation means poor fluency – you can’t be fluent if you can’t get your tongue around a sound, or get a short phrase out of your mouth. In fact, learners actually avoid words or grammatical structures that they find difficult to pronounce, and as teachers we are sometimes guilty of misinterpreting these ‘gaps’ in production as gaps in a learner’s knowledge or understanding.

But poor fluency isn’t the only outcome of poor pronunciation. Listening is a nightmare for students with limited pronunciation skills, either because they simply don’t recognise key sounds or words in their spoken form, or because they have to concentrate so hard when listening that their brains very quickly overload and ‘block’. When we spot problems with listening we are tempted to respond by doing more listening work, and are frustrated when this has no effect. What is need, of course, is focused pronunciation work.

Although problems with speaking and listening are obvious to us, poor pronunciation can also badly affect reading and writing. At the level of writing, for example, students might write coffee instead of copy, or berry instead of very. My tourism students used to write Festival at the beginning of a series of points in favour of an argument. At first I didn’t understand where this was coming from. Then they told me that I said this a lot in class. What do you think I was saying? (Answer below*)

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Can informal testing methods be as beneficial as formal ones?

To celebrate the launch of Project Fourth edition, English teacher, Marina Kopilovic, from Serbia writes about how to make testing fun and your students enthusiastic.

Informal methods of testing and assessment are as useful as standardized tests. They are typically based on every day classroom activities to measure the progress of students toward the goals and objectives where students are not aware of being monitored and assessed. These activities are monitored and recorded by the teacher as an observer. They allow teachers to keep track of the progress of their students regularly. Portfolios are great ways of monitoring and assessing the students throughout the entire school year.

Can tests be fun? In order to avoid staleness it would be good to allow your students to do group tests from time to time. They will have to help one another and work together for a group grade. Besides the common benefits tests usually provide, this kind of testing will help your students develop collaboration skills.

Have you ever thought of how to make students projects more than just a decoration on the classroom walls? Have you ever tried a group quiz based on questions extracted from your students’ projects? I will describe something I usually do when I ask them to do a group project outside the classroom. The aim is to test reading and speaking skills and monitor and assess some social skills.

The first step is to be done by the teacher – to display students’ posters all around the classroom and prepare questions in advance. Students are divided into groups of five. Each group is given 15 questions (three per each member on a separate piece of paper). Their first task is to move around the classroom (from one poster to another) to read (scan the text) and find the answers to their questions in 10 minutes. Once they have finished this, they go back to their groups to put their answers together and write them in the order of the questions (1 – 15) that are given on a new piece of paper. Then groups switch papers with their answers for checking, marking and correction – group 2 gets the answers from group 1, group 3 from group 2, and so on until group 1 gets the answers from the last group. Now the quiz can start. Teacher reads the questions and answers aloud, students check, mark and correct. Each correct answer earns one point for the group. It is advisable to use PowerPoint or another kind of visual support at this stage of the class. All the groups are rewarded according to the results they have scored. Teacher will decide how – by marking, giving written certificates, flags indicating their achievements etc. – depending on the age group s/he is teaching and on the level of the task students have to complete. Continue reading


How to make your students enthusiastic test-takers

Happy teenage English studentsTo celebrate the launch of Project fourth edition, English teacher, Marina Kopilovic, from Serbia writes about how to make your students enthusiastic test-takers.

Tests are usually students’ least favourite and most stressful school activity. But, there are some ways to make our learners feel more relaxed and enthusiastic about dealing with tests.

To begin with, think about yourselves as test–makers. Do you think a good test–maker  makes a good test–taker? I do.

During my first years of teaching, as a young and slightly overconfident teacher, I naively believed I was a very good test–maker. Then, in a very short time I sensed my first bitter flavours of the reality of testing results. Every testing time was another disappointment both for me and my students – more than half of them scored badly. In spite of that and completely unaware of the fact I should have changed something, I still believed my tests were great and blamed my students for the bad results. Fortunately, I met a more experienced English teacher who was willing to help – to ‘attack’ my tests before they were given to my students.

While doing the tests I had created, she kept asking me questions like “What am I supposed to do here? What does this actually mean? Do you think kids will ever use something like this? What do you want to test here?” She also complained about the time – “Thirty minutes have passed and I have completed only half of the tasks”or the context itself – “This sounds really stupid”etc.  I must say this was a major blow to my overconfidence as a teacher. I suddenly realized my basic errors and became more aware of the close interrelation between test-makers and test-takers.

I haven’t stopped searching for better testing techniques ever since then and have developed some strategies. Welcome to my ‘testing database’ and feel free to update it!

How about making testing time a regular routine by establishing a testing timetable in advance? Why not tell your students they are going to have a test after each unit or after every two or three units?  If they know this, they will be able to plan their revision at home in time.

Classroom preparation activities? Plan them well in advance and in the way that will make your students familiar with what you are going to test and the form of the test itself.

Make sure the instructions are clear. Be specific about the requirements and don’t forget to give an example. Students sometimes fail to complete their tasks not because they do not know English, but because they do not understand what they are expected to do. Have a look at the following reading task:

Insert the phrases into the appropriate gaps.

 a) a part time job
b) baby sitters
c) deliver newspapers
d) 60% of students
e) in the morning
f) 20% of students
g) in the evening
h) They don’t need
i) as shop assistants
j) they want

 In Britain, children can have ____________ (1) when they’re 13. Lots of teenagers work in the evenings or at weekends ____________ (2), or in restaurants and fast food places. Others ____________ (3) before they go to school ____________ (4).  Girls often find work as ____________ (5). In one school near London, ____________ (6) said that they had a part time job. It’s more than a half. Most say ____________ (7) the money to buy clothes and CDs. ____________ (8) the money for their families.

Do you think the instructions are good? Is it clear what students have to insert? The letters preceding the phrases or the phrases in full? There are eight gaps and ten phrases! Continue reading

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Practising listening with Upper Primary students

Teenagers sat at a table talkingTo celebrate the launch of Project fourth edition, Goodith White, author of Listening from the Resource Books for Teachers series looks at practical ways to practice listening with upper primary students.

I had two interesting encounters yesterday; one good, one bad. The first was with my tax adviser. Most people look on these people in the same light as dentists, but I actually enjoyed the hour I spent with him. The second encounter was on the phone when I rang a company to arrange for something to be redelivered to my house. I ended up feeling angry and frustrated and ready to scream!

What was the difference? In the first situation the person really listened to me, showing attention, sympathy and understanding. He  showed he had been listening by asking questions which followed on from what I said. In the second, the person on the other end of the phone was following some preset routine rather than listening to what the customer said. She asked me for my name and address FOUR times in the space of five minutes. Grrrrr!! Have you ever had an experience like these?

These experiences illustrate the importance of learning listening skills in your first language, and also in a second language. We need to be able to listen well in order to function well at work, with our friends and families, and in order to learn at school too, when we need to listen to what teachers and our fellow students are saying. When learning English as an L2 at school, so much of it is coming to us initially through our ears.

Listening skills in English  often get taught badly at school, don’t you think, or ignored? From experience, I think teachers need to follow guidelines like these:

  • Work from the children’s own interests
  • Get them to make some of the listening materials and tasks
  • Explore the possibilities which the Internet and other media offer for listening practice
  • Create situations where teachers listen to children, it shouldn’t always be the other way round! Teachers need to provide good models of listening that children can imitate– showing attention and interest, for example
  • Have some listening skills in mind that you want to develop over the year, and give listening practice designed to develop those skills in a systematic fashion – it isn’t really enough to just ‘do listening in class’. Do you want to practice listening to a variety of accents, or predicting, or aspects of bottom-up listening?

An activity for upper Primary children which might combine all these features could be:

‘The Generation Gap’

  • Teacher listening to studentsAsk the class about the best toy or game they ever had, and why it was so great . Write a list of toys and reasons on the board or Interactive Whiteboard. Keep the list.
  • Ask the class to interview someone at home who belongs to another generation (parents, or grandparents, perhaps). They should ask them what their favourite toy or game was when they were young, and why they liked it. This person needs to speak a little English, but just enough to say ‘My favourite toy was …. because……’ They can record what the parents tell them on a mobile phone, if they have one. If not, they can make notes so they can remember what to tell the rest of the class next day. If parents can’t speak English, then you could invite an English speaker (or more than one) to class to talk about the games they used to play.
  • The next day, you could either upload to recordings to the class computer if you have one, or get students to play the recording on loud speaker, or just tell the rest of the class what their parent or grandparent told them. The rest of the class should listen and write down what the toys were.
  • Finally the class vote on the best  (or ‘worst’) toy of ‘yesteryear’ which has been mentioned.

You could also have a discussion about how fashions in toys and games have changed over time. Were the older generation deprived because they didn’t have computer games?

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