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Learning to learn in the primary classroom

I have been teaching a group of young teenagers of very mixed levels and ages for six months now. Half of the group comes from the state-school system and the other half attend “an alternative school”. The latter group is one-three years younger and was the weakest one in terms of language knowledge at the beginning of the year. These children were weak elementary while the rest strong pre-intermediate/intermediate. I was even wondering whether they would be able to cope emotionally with the fact that the rest of the class coming from a state-school background is so much stronger.

As time went by, however, the children who were seemingly behind caught up at an amazing speed. They were very good at using soft skills such as really listening to the teacher and to each other. They asked questions with confidence if they got stuck. They were able to work out answers for themselves by observing the clues carefully. I also watched them constantly use colors to highlight, to make mind-maps, and to make beautiful drawings in their notebooks to accompany their newly learnt language without having to draw their attention to these learning strategies. Their notebooks are not ordinary ones with the answers of exercises, lists of words and occasional grammar tables, but they look more like living books that you would want to open again and again to look at. And of course, I sometimes witnessed their frustration as well, but I saw their strategies of handling these emotions successfully too.

‘… the children who were seemingly behind caught up at an amazing speed.’

These children have learnt something important that we all need in this rapidly changing world, and these are skills that allow them to adapt to new situations, new contexts, new people, and new tasks easily. Possessing vast knowledge – most of which computers provide us with in fractions of seconds anyway – does not give us enough support in being able to rise up to new challenges at this speed. Instead we need the soft skills and learning skills that equip us with the necessary flexibility.

What are these skills? How can they be developed? From the example above – just as, I am sure, we can all list such examples from our lives – these questions have obvious answers. But it feels harder to teach these skills instead of a set of new words or a new language point as they are less tangible.

Essential skills for primary children

So what is it that children need to learn in the primary school? According to Emőke Bagdy, a renowned Hungarian clinical psychologist, at this age children need to learn the following things: To read, to write, to count, and to be confident. They need to develop a sense of self-belief that they can do it. If this fails, according to E. Bagdy, children will struggle with their learning, in managing new situations at school, and in their life as adults.  This is also supported by the PISA report (Programme for International Student Assessment) that has found that learners’ belief in their own efficacy is the strongest single predictor of whether they will adopt strategies that make learning effective or not (Artelt et al., 2003, pages 33–34).

One of the key things that influence children’s confidence is our own view of them as individuals and of their abilities. It is important to approach every single child believing that they can do it. A simple idea to do this is to catch them being good, something that can be easily done with the help of the Snakes poster – see below.

Snake Poster.

Draw one snake for every child in the class and label each one with a student’s name. Make sure the body of each snake is divided into lots of triangular sections. Each time a student does something praiseworthy (e.g. makes a helpful comment, shows determination, waiting patiently for their turn, etc.), tell them to come out and colour in one section of their snake with a pen of their choice.

Mixed-ability teaching, Edmund Dudley, Erika Osváth, OUP, 2016

 

Of course, we need to make sure that children progress with the colouring in their snakes approximately at similar speeds to avoid any feelings of shame, which would definitely be detrimental. Feeling good about oneself has an immense motivational power at any age, but it is imperative in the primary classroom.

Another important teaching moment that has a great impact on children’s self-confidence is our way of dealing with mistakes. In my view, there are no mistakes made in the primary classroom, but rather opportunities for children to notice something that is different or new in terms of use of words, language chunks, spelling, etc. For example, if children are copying words in their notebook from the board and there are some spelling errors, rather than overwriting these in red by the teacher, it’s a good idea to encourage children to look at the board again and discover the differences for themselves.

Naturally, there are many more soft-skills that need to be developed at this age so that children become efficient learners, such as resilience, curiosity and collaboration. In my upcoming ‘learning to learn skills’ webinar, we will be looking at further practical examples of how we can develop these in the primary language classroom. Click here to register, don’t miss it!

Have an idea of your own? We’d love to see it, so do share it below in the comments!


Erika Osvath is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and co-author of the European Language Award-winning 6-week eLearning programme for language exam preparation. She worked for International House schools in Eastern and Central Europe as a YL co-ordinator, trainer, and Director of Studies. She regularly travels to teach demonstration lessons with local children, and do workshops for teachers. Erika is co–author with Edmund Dudley of Teaching Mixed Ability.


References:

Artelt, C., Baumert, J., Julius-McElvany, N. and Peschar, J. (2003). Learners for life: student approaches to learning. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Available at: http://www.oecd.org/education/school/programmeforinternationalstudentassessmentpisa/33690476.pdf Accessed 15/2/18.

For Bagdy Emőke, see: http://bagdyemoke.hu/beszelgetesek-emokevel/

Dudley, E. and Osváth, E. (2016). Mixed-ability teaching. Oxford: OUP.


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10 ways home learning apps can boost children’s English learning

Home learning appsToday’s children are much more tech savvy than yesterday’s, and this has had a profound effect on the way that they learn languages! No wonder then that there has been an increasing interest in home learning technologies that support language learning at school and back at home.

Children are natural language learners. They love to seek out and soak up new experiences, and we can’t deny that they are much more stimulated and motivated when they interact with apps. Apps enhance their curiosity, spice up their learning, and keep them engaged as they make learning animated, fun and more appealing to children.

We want our children to learn on the go; learning apps engage them with opportunities to improve their listening, reading, writing, speaking and cognitive skills in an authentic way, wherever they may be. Apps can create an enjoyable learning atmosphere when they are used effectively.

Today, with little or no English at all, parents can be a part of their children’s language learning journey using home learning apps with them.

Home learning apps that are specifically designed for pre-primary children may include listening and pointing activities, games, singing songs, and listening to stories. Apps are designed to keep children on task, maintaining their interest and concentration by gradually increasing the level of difficulty and challenge. By using instructions and activities that reflect what children learn in the classroom, children can easily navigate apps by themselves. The educational value of home learning apps can be enhanced by simply watching, guiding, and sharing children’s enthusiasm as they navigate the app. Parental engagement transforms screen time into family time, and refocuses a child’s attention to the task at hand while simultaneously reinforcing their language learning.

There are thousands of language learning apps out there, and they all do things differently. So we’re basing our 10 tips on the Lingokids English language learning app.

Lingokids (available free via the Apple and Google Play stores) is an educational app that features materials from Oxford University Press ‘Jump In!’ and ‘Mouse and Me’ coursebooks. The curriculum has been designed by experts in early language learning development. The app targets pre-primary children who are studying ‘Jump In!’ and ‘Mouse and Me’ coursebooks at school, and aims to help parents reinforce their children’s English at home in a highly engaging and fun way. It immerses children with a wide range of vocabulary in meaningful contexts using cross-curricular topics. The app uses stories, songs, animations, games, letter tracing and interactive live-action videos of native English teachers introducing a variety of topics. The adaptive learning system also adjusts the level of difficulty according to the child’s performance, providing each child with a unique learning experience. There’s also a reward system in place to encourage and reinforce language!

The potential and success of Lingokids can be maximized with the support and the participation of parents at home. Here are ten activities for you to share with your parents using Lingokids to extend their children’s English learning outside the classroom.

Create a mini-story book: After watching the stories, parents and their children can work together to create mini-story books, encouraging children to retell the stories to other family members. If parents know how to write in English, they can write sentences or words that their children have said as they are retelling the stories. The mini-story books can be shared with teachers at school as well.

Dramatize the stories: Children love to watch videos over and over again. Parents can use their interest in the characters by making puppets that their children can use to dramatize the stories. Parents can also take part in this role-play.

Turn off the sound: After practicing with the app, parents can turn off the sound and view the topics that they have played again. They can ask their children to name the things that they see as they play the app.

What they remember: After using the app, parents can ask their children to recall what they remember from what they have just practiced. Children can describe and draw the things that they remember. The drawings can be displayed in the house to be referred to any time that parents would like to practice English with their children.

Create a picture dictionary: After practicing with the app, children and parents can draw and colour the words together in their picture dictionaries. If parents know how to write in English, they can even write the English words next to the pictures.

Picture cards: After practicing with the words in the app, parents can create picture cards of the target vocabulary. Children can help by drawing the pictures on the cards. Then, they can play flashcard games together. They can play a memory game, or they can put the picture cards in a bag before taking them out one by one and naming them. They can put the picture cards on the floor. As they play the app, children can point out the picture cards that they see and hear on the app.

Sing the songs: The app is full of songs that parents and children alike can sing along to. Singing along and performing the actions referred to in the song is a great way of embedding the language in a unique and engaging way.

Record: Parents can record their children as they are dramatizing the stories, playing with the flashcards, retelling the stories through their mini-story books, or singing along to the app. By listening to themselves speak, they can become more confident and more fluent in the new language.

Additional materials: Each topic has worksheets that parents can download, print out, and do with their children. The worksheets include song lyrics, more books and craft activities, and useful phrases that parents can integrate into their children’s daily lives.

Learn with them: Learning English with children helps to foster in them a positive attitude towards English. If parents use the app enthusiastically, children will imitate, encouraging and motivating them to learn English. Parents should practice with their children even if they’re proficient in English themselves, as it’ll help young learners to stay on task.

The activities above should not only help children to learn English, it’ll allow parents to spend quality time with their children, learning and having fun together. It’s a win-win situation!


Özge Karaoğlu Ergen is the foreign languages department K12 technology integration specialist, a teacher trainer and a course book writer.  She has been recognized by the ELTons Awards, ESU, MEDEA, Microsoft, and Telly Awards for her digital projects. She currently teaches young learners herself, and she has been developing digital games, animations and mobile applications with her learners for the last eight years.


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Giving children more agency in class: A Q&A session with Annamaria Pinter

shutterstock_309235367Annamaria Pinter is Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick. She has published widely in the area of Young Learners ELT. She is the author of Teaching Young Language Learners (2017, second edition). Earlier this month, she delivered a webinar on ‘Giving children more agency in class’, and today we bring you the question and answer section of the session.

What do you think about the use of the mother tongue versus the use of the L2 in activities where children work in groups and actively explore something, analyse data or discuss ideas?

My general advice would be that the most important first step is that everyone should be engaged and enthusiastic about participation whatever language they are using. Then, in any one situation the teacher can judge what might be realistic for the children to say and manage in L2 and what has to be handled in the L1 or indeed bilingually or using various languages that learners speak in multilingual classrooms. It is often possible for the teacher to translate into English something that a child may have said in L1 and even more importantly, children may also be able to help each other with re-phrasing things in English. No matter what the situation is, however, it is good to insist that the final product (such as a poster, a newspaper magazine page, a recorded presentation, a questionnaire or any other product) should be in English. It is good to display these products by uploading them to a secure website or simply putting them up on the wall because making these available to external audiences this will help motivate children to work hard on their English.

How can I allow children to choose learning content within a restrictive curriculum?

This is difficult. With serious restrictions, teachers can only make very small changes.  It may be possible for some teachers to look at content and learning outcomes and see if the children can at least have some limited agency by choosing tasks (albeit very similar ones) or by being invited to design an extra task in each unit, or simply choosing the order in which they would like to tackle units in the book. If no freedom or agency is given to the teacher in a very restrictive curriculum, then it is hard to implement the ideas from the webinar. Still, some teachers in India were able to do extra work with the children outside classrooms and some allocated only a limited amount of time to research project work every week after covering the content of the book. Children were motivated to get the book out of the way to be able to progress to the ‘real projects’.

What do we do if we feel that the children’s ideas or input is not relevant or useful?

In my experience this is very rare and an important lesson for us teachers is that whenever children say or suggest something that seems unusual or at first sight irrelevant, it should never be just dismissed as such. It should always be explored further so that we can gain a better understanding of the original idea or point. It may well be relevant but in a different way compared to what we would have anticipated. In my experience children really appreciate this gesture of respecting ALL their responses.

What does this mean for the teacher’s role?

Teachers generally report that this is a more satisfying way of working, they feel alive and more enthusiastic about their jobs and the children’s motivation and intensive engagement seem infectious. In many ways when children take more control and teachers become ‘learners’, there is less pressure on the teacher to get everything right alone, but it is important to remember that teachers are also role models. If children are researchers and expected to work hard and enthusiastically, teachers must be doing the same!!

If you missed the webinar and want to catch up, feel free to visit our Webinar Library, for this session and previous recordings.


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Giving children more agency in class

shutterstock_336098690Annamaria Pinter is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Linguistics in the University of Warwick and she is the author of Teaching Young language Learners (2nd edition, 2017). To find out more about Annamaria Pinter’s work, you can download sample material from ‘Teaching Young Language Learners’.

Agency and Structure

In all situations of life, at work, at home, on holiday or on a shopping trip, we can exercise some choice or ‘agency’ about what we wish to do. At the same time, however, we are usually constrained by systems around us. For example, when driving home from work, the route we take is our decision, but our choices will be constrained by systems such as the traffic, the layout of the road system or by how much time we can devote to the journey.

In schools too, children as well as teachers, can exercise some agency but they are also controlled by the systems in place. Children are told when they can sit down and stand up, when they can leave the classroom, how long each break is and when it is their turn to answer a question. In fact, children traditionally have very little agency because teachers and adults control almost all the aspects of their lives.

This control is because schools are highly structured organisations and look like pyramids. In a pyramid or ‘coercive’ structure there is inequality of power and those at the top impose their order.   Less structured or ‘normative’ organisations look more like networks where there is less hierarchy and engagement is more voluntary.

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Children taking more control

In this webinar I will be exploring what teachers can do to move away from classrooms that look like pyramids to classrooms that function more like networks of learners. I will be suggesting that when teachers are ready to give over some agency and control, children are very much capable of making informed choices for themselves about their learning and taking responsibility for their actions. More agency in learning comes with higher levels of motivation, self-awareness and a sense of accomplishment.

I will be sharing some real classroom examples from a variety of contexts and countries where children have been encouraged to take more control. Some examples indicate how giving children just a little more agency than usual can make a big difference.

I will be taking examples that illustrate how some children may become interested in exploring their own classrooms and their learning and given the agency and the opportunity, they can become co-researcher or researchers. In doing so, we will look at the differences are between academic research in universities, teachers’ research undertaken in classrooms and children’s research.

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Small changes can lead to big outcomes

It is important to acknowledge that different teachers may want to offer more or less agency to their learners depending on their circumstances and there are no rules to follow. Encouraging children to become researchers is not a feasible goal for everyone and certainly not every child will be interested in this. Giving children more agency in some classrooms might just mean offering some opportunities of choice between different activities or regularly encouraging children to recommend materials and ideas to the teacher. Many teachers are constrained heavily regarding how much agency they can offer in their classrooms but even a small first step can eventually go a long way!

If you are interested in exploring these ideas in more detail and you would like to see the practical examples please join us on 20/21 April 2017.

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Further reading

Pinter A and S Zandian 2014 I don’t ever want to leave this room- researching with children ELT Journal  68/1: 64-74.

Kellett M 2010 Rethinking Children and Research London: Continuum


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The iChild: Young learners and digital technologies

Girl sat at computer smilingNicky Hockly has been involved in EFL teaching and teacher training since 1987. She is Director of Pedagogy of The Consultants-E, an online teacher training and development consultancy. She is the prize-winning author of several books about language teaching and technology, most recently Focus on Learning Technologies (OUP, 2016). We look forward to hosting Nicky’s talk at this year’s IATEFL conference in Glasgow.

Children and teenagers today can mostly be found staring into screens. Mobile devices, PlayStations and Xboxs, even the occasional laptop… today’s youngsters spend a significant amount of their time interacting with and via a range of digital devices. And because of this, the argument goes, digital technologies should be increasingly present in the English language classroom. The general feeling is that teachers should be using these technologies to enhance their teaching and to increase their students’ motivation, both in and outside of class.  However, one essential question – Do digital technologies actually help students learn? – is not always asked. Arguably this is because the answer is less than clear.

Why is this? One reason is that it is very difficult to make comparisons across studies, when research is carried out in different contexts with very different groups of students, with different teachers, using different technologies and tools, and with widely differing aims and task types.

Sometimes studies on exactly the same area (such as using blogs to improve teenage EFL students’ writing skills) show differing results – in some cases blogs appear to be effective in doing this (1), while in other cases it doesn’t seem to make any difference (2). But it’s worth bearing in mind that research studies tend to be self-selective. Researchers will often only publish studies that show positive results – those that show negative or contradictory results may never make it to publication. And although researchers try to avoid it, they are inevitably biased towards positive outcomes in their own studies. All of this means that it’s difficult to make sweeping generalisations such as ‘Technology helps students learn English better’ or even more nuanced statements such as ‘Blogging helps adolescent EFL students improve their writing skills’.

Where does this leave us? For me, the important point is that we need to be critical users of digital technologies, and critical readers of research in the field. We need to be particularly wary of techno-centric views of technology that claim that the latest hardware/software/game/app/program will somehow magically help our students learn English ‘better’. In short, we need to be critically aware consumers of new technologies – both as users ourselves, and as teachers interested in using digital technologies with our own young learners and teenagers.

References

(1) Raith, T. (2009). The use of weblogs in education. In Thomas, M. (Ed.). Handbook of research on web 2.0 and second language learning (pp. 274-91). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

(2) Sercu, L. (2013). Weblogs in foreign language education: Real and promised benefits. Proceedings of INTED2013, 7th International Technology, Education and Development Conference, Valencia, Spain, pp. 4355-66.