יום ראשון, 11 בנובמבר 2018

What are we teaching and why?


Recently I had a conversation with a teacher I work with about how well the 1st grade students, who have one hour a week with each of us, know the colors in English. When I work with them, they can point to different colors and name them. She even heard a student answer "green" when I asked her "What color is my shirt?" However, she found that when she asks them in Hebrew they can't always  give the English word. This led to a discussion about which is more important - being able to use a word or translate it. The answer to this depends on why we teach - If our goal is to enable students to speak English, then using the words in context is what they need. 

In order to speak a foreign language correctly and fluently, one must begin to think in that language. Constantly translating while speaking will almost always result in errors. When I began studying Hebrew in Ulpan over 30 years ago I was advised to write definitions for words in Hebrew instead of their English translations. Determined to learn the language properly, I followed this advice and  it has served me well. That is, I have learned to speak fluently and have no problem understanding what I hear and read, but I can't always translate words and concepts into English even though I understand them. 

Unfortunately, this isn't the goal in most classrooms. "Teach to the test" is still the motto, and on many of those tests students must translate words into or from their native language. So they are taught lists of words with their translations, and believe that as long as they can translate words they can read and write.

I believe this may explain studies in which children who began learning English later actually performed better on tests, even though there is plenty of research to back up my experience and that of other teachers who teach young children, showing that the younger children start learning the easier it is for them to absorb a foreign language. When children start very young, they learn to speak, when they start later they learn to pass tests. Read more about my experience with young learners here.

Why doesn't translating work? Every language has its own syntax, a word can have two different meanings in one language which are represented by different words in another, and some words and expressions just can't be translated properly. 

Here are some examples. 

  • How do you say "go" in Hebrew? How do you say "walk"?
  • How do you say "like"? Now translate the sentence "Your teeth are like stars".
  • How do you say "do"? How do you say "How do you say do?" or "Do you know how?"
  • Explain in Hebrew the difference between class, classroom, grade and grades.
  • How to you say "take"? "take a shower"? "take a picture"? "take a break"?

And if you're still not convinced, try explaining present progressive!

יום רביעי, 17 באוקטובר 2018

What did we learn today?


Teaching creatively while maintaining structure means adapting many conventional ideas. 

One of my favorite sources is החופש ללמד  Their latest series of tips talks about having students sum up what they learned. I usually end a lesson either by having students collect objects while naming them, or with a chant "What did we learn today?".  They suggest having several students write down something new they learned to see if they understood what we consider the most important points of the lesson.

Writing doesn't really work in my groups. I teach spoken English. Students don't have pencils out unless they're learning about school supplies, looking for objects that are yellow or start with "p", or using them to tap a rhythm. Some of them haven't learned to write yet, and since the point of the lesson is learning to speak writing won't demonstrate that.

So last week toward the end of lesson I opened the voice recording app on my phone and asked who wanted me to record them saying new words or phrases. This was a lot more exciting and more students wanted to answer. Most classes asked to hear the recording and students had an opportunity to hear themselves speak English. I save each recording by class, along with speech-to-text,  to have a record of their progress throughout the year. 

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יום רביעי, 6 ביוני 2018

Get off the Box!

This time I was teaching prepositions. Showing them with my hands, playing games, drawing on the board, learning with all the senses. But some kids are stubborn and want to learn the way they learn in school - "Just translate everything into Hebrew"

I could start telling them how sensory learning has proven to be more effective and how word-for-word translations, especially with words like prepositions, are the cause of many errors, but in this case I had a much better and quicker argument. Here's what happens when we translate:

over - מעל
under - מתחת
on - על
off - ?

There really is no correct translation in this case for the word "off". The only way to explain it is to SHOW THEM. Like any concept that doesn't exist in one's native language, it's still difficult for them to grasp, especially when they're searching for the Hebrew word in their head. To understand "off the box" students need to think outside the box, and more hours of memorizing lists of words won't help. Creativity in the English classroom, as well as any classroom, doesn't just make lessons fun. It opens students' minds to allow them to absorb and understand new concepts and formulate their own ideas. 

Over the years I've created songs, games and other materials for English teachers to use, and of course used them myself with hundreds of students. I've had a lot of success, but also some frustration. Sometimes I find myself giving proverbial nuts to people whose creative teeth have been worn down by a standardized system. 

So now I'm going back to my musical and dramatic roots to develop a new program which will take them on a journey "outside the box" and develop the creative thinking necessary for English language expression

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