יום שלישי, 6 בדצמבר 2016

From the Other Side of the Classroom

The best way to understand what it's like for your students to learn a foreign language is to learn one yourself. If you're teaching your native language, showing your students that you have made an effort to learn their language and that you speak in spite of your errors also sets an excellent example. 

It's been a long time since I struggled to learn Hebrew as a second language, so recently I began learning spoken Arabic.  We are fortunate to have a wonderful teacher who usually teaches children. Some of her methods are similar to mine, which allows me to see my lessons from the other side. 

Drilling - Reciting lists of words is boring and not very effective. Using words in sentences, or better yet in songs, is a much better way to learn and remember sentence structures. Unfortunately we don't sing many songs but I do occasionally look for them on my own. Some students have asked for printed tables of verb forms. Personally I think that constantly referring to a list would make conversation difficult, and that it's much easier to learn verbs and tenses in context.

Pronunciation - We aren't learning the Arabic alphabet. The teacher writes words on the board in Hebrew letters, but when she says them they often sound completely different from they way I would read them. We need to hear the words to learn them properly. I've begun recording more of the lessons and writing fewer words. For the same reason, I discourage my students from writing English words using Hebrew letters, and provide younger students with CDs of the songs we learn so that they can listen and review what we've learned at home.

Willingness to Communicate - In a SHELTA drama course we discussed this topic as a critical point in learning any language. Speaking a new language requires confidence, determination and an awareness of the importance of speaking, even with errors. My students often refuse to speak English because they don't know English, I remind them that they will never know English until they begin speaking. As a student, I try to speak as much Arabic as possible during class and make note of my mistakes. There are other students who have decided to just sit back and listen until they feel ready to speak. In both cases I can see how active learning is much more effective than passive learning.

Translation - Every language has unique syntax, sentence structures and expressions. Translating sentences word-for-word often results in sentences that at best are awkward and can even be embarrassing. I've been trying to explain this to my students for years as they try to understand English by translating each word into Hebrew and then putting them together, then translating their answers back to English the same way. Now I'm experiencing it from Hebrew to Arabic. I've tried to say sentences using words I know and was told that that's not the way to express the idea in Arabic. She then rearranged the sentence so that it made sense. This is called Lexical, or whole-language, learning. At least I understand this concept and didn't argue with her.

Comprehension - When our teacher speaks to us in Arabic, I listen for the words I recognize and pay attention to facial expressions and hand motions.  I've told my students for years that they can understand English even when they don't understand every word, and now I'm discovering that it's true. When students constantly ask "What does that word mean?" and then try to put everything together, they often miss the general idea.

After sitting in the student's chair, I can honestly say that what I expect from them is not only possible, it's the best way to learn.

יום שני, 19 בספטמבר 2016

What if I make a mistake?

This week two 4th grade students came to my English group for the first time. The first thing they told me was that their English isn't very good, and they asked if I would get mad if they made mistakes. I told them of course not, they're here to learn, I only get mad at children who laugh at other children's mistakes. I thought to myself how sad it is that children would even ask this question.
They had a wonderful time, responded in English during games and learned some new words. Once assured that it was okay to make mistakes they were eager to participate, and didn't want to stop when our time was up.
Why did they think I would be mad? Is that how their teachers usually react to mistakes? No wonder their English is weak. How can they be expected to improve if they're afraid to open their mouths in class?
In every classroom, whenever a teacher asks questions, there are some students who always raise their hands and some who never do. In most cases, the better students are, or think they are, at a particular subject, the more likely they are to raise their hands. But the reverse is also true, especially when teaching a language. The more students participate in class, the more their English will improve.
When I worked with groups in schools, occasionally I sat next to students in the classroom. I found that many of the weaker students, when the teacher asked a question, would ask me quietly if they had the correct answer before raising their hands. They didn't really need my help, they figured out the answers on their own, they needed my assurance that their answer was correct before saying it out loud in front of the teacher and the class. It wasn't long before these students not only gained enough confidence to participate without checking with me first, they also started doing much better in class.
We all make mistakes. But the biggest mistake is destroying someone's confidence.

יום רביעי, 10 באוגוסט 2016

Be Part of the Change

Everybody is talking about education, and it's time to do something. Less drilling, more learning. Fewer, preferably no, standardized tests and more alternative, creative ways of assessing individual progress. Take away the fear and hatred of school and replace them with curiosity and a love of learning. 
This week I began a new advertising campaign emphasing meaningful English learning. The response was overwhelming. Dozens of principals, teachers and parents across the country are no longer interested only in test scores. They want children to learn English as a language, to be able to speak and most important, to enjoy it. They are looking for activities instead of more workbooks. These activities require more dynamic educators who care about children.
In addition to requests for materials and workshops, I have received several requests for instructors to run programs in various parts of the country. If you love children and want to make a difference in their lives, and speak English at a native or near-native level, this might be the job you're looking for. You will receive a full set of materials, training and guidance. In return, you must be prepared to lead groups according to the basic principles of "English is Fun":
  • English is for everyone, and everyone learns differently - be prepared to work with a wide variety of methods including songs, games, drama, physical activity and crafts.
  • Children absorb language naturally - speak English as much as possible and translate only when necessary. Point to objects or use hand motions and facial expressions instead.
  • This isn't a regular English lesson - children are not expected to sit quietly for 45 minutes. Activities involve moving and sometimes a lot of noise. This should not be confused with a lack of discipline.
  • Encourage creativity - whenever possible, and in most activites it is, be flexible and let kids use their imagination. There are many ways to imitate a horse, draw a house or make a happy face.
  • English is fun -  if kids don't like English they won't learn much. This begins with you, your attitude and your relationship with them.
I love what I do. If you think you'll love doing this, please send a message to aharonmk@zahav.net.il . To learn more about "English is Fun" take a look at my website - www.englishfun.net

יום שני, 13 ביוני 2016

Research Against Research

This post was inspired by the recent article More Research is Needed - A Mantra Too Far? in Humanising Language Teaching by Alan Maley, co-founder of The C Group. Judging by the length of the article and bibliography as well as the language used, Maley appears to be an experienced academic professional and researcher. Using academic methods, he claims that research is overrated and that there are many other, more effective ways for teachers to increase their knowledge. He encourages inquiry as a more practical and direct way of solving problems and improving teaching methods.

Five years ago, before venturing into the academic world, I wrote an article for the ETAI Forum entitled Experience and Observations from the Field vs. Research and a PhD which made similar claims. Now nearing the end of my B.Ed., I re-read the article and decided that none of my views had changed.

As someone who makes most of my living using songs and games to teach English to young children, I read with interest the articles in the last ETAI Forum related to these topics. Some would say that I should have considered a career change after reading about the study in which students who started learning English later actually performed better. A similar change was also suggested to me during a discussion in another forum, regarding a study done in America which showed that CDs and DVDs have no significant affect on a child's verbal development. However, my grass-roots instincts make me question the conclusions of both these studies. In both cases, a vocabulary test was used as the measure of language acquisition. My experience as a teacher, a mother and a living, speaking, bilingual human being tells me that much more is required to communicate in any language, foreign or native.  For starters, if a large vocabulary were the only thing necessary to communicate in a foreign language, Google Translator would do a perfect job every time.

When students go out into the real world, they will need to speak, read and write in English. Therefore, I suggest that the following parameters also be considered by anyone interested in researching language ability and development. I believe that they will find that children who begin learning at a younger age score better in all these areas.

1.      Motivation
Both researchers and people with common sense consider motivation a significant factor in any learning experience. Children who have the opportunity to experience English first as something fun and non-threatening will be more motivated when difficult learning comes later.
2.      Willingness and ability to understand spoken English
How do the children react when spoken to in English?
a.       Do they panic and insist that they don't understand, even when basic language is used? (I've encountered this many times in late elementary school)
b.      Do they try to understand even if they haven't learned every word in the sentence? Do they recognize language chunks?
c.       Do they respond naturally, without noticing or commenting on what language the teacher is speaking? (the most common reaction among pre-K to 1st grade)
3.      Willingness to speak
a.       When spoken to in English, do they answer in English or in their native language?
b.      When shown a written word in English, do they read it out loud in English or give an immediate translation?
c.       How confident are they about speaking in English? How natural is it for them? Like anything else in life, the younger you develop a habit the more natural it becomes.
4.      Pronunciation and listening
a.       How accurate is their pronunciation? Sounds that don't exist in the native language are difficult to acquire later in life, and young children are much better at imitating.
b.      Can they distinguish between vowel sounds?
c.       Can they distinguish between words like angry/hungry, tree/three, mouse/mouth, etc.?

Let's face it, you can't learn any language, and certainly not a language as inconsistent as English, by simply memorizing rules and lists of words. You need to be exposed to a language, hear it spoken correctly and, most important, use it. Younger children learn by doing and absorb information naturally. The early years are the ideal time for language learning. The older they get, the more they become accustomed to learning through books and exercises. They may be better at passing tests, but can they speak?

יום ראשון, 27 במרץ 2016

Breaking Down the Barriers

I frequently have conversations with English teachers who ask me for advice about teaching children who hate English. The fact is, it's almost impossible to teach anyone who refuses to learn or who doesn't believe that they are able to learn. The first step is to show them that English isn't scary, threatening or impossible to understand. In order for children to learn anything they must be convinced that they are capable of learning and that it will be painless.

With young children (pre-K until about 2nd grade) it's usually much easier. They are natural mimickers and less self-conscious about how they sound, which makes it easier to get them to speak. Even the stubborn pupils at this age are easier to convince. If we speak to them or sing with them in English accompanied by hand gestures or facial expressions, they understand and absorb the language without even being aware that they're learning. After they respond to a request or answer a question, that's the time to point out that you spoke English and they understood.

As children get older it becomes more difficult. By the middle of elementary school they begin developing mental blocks. They recognize English immediately and "tune-out" without even trying to understand. Weak pupils develop real gaps in addition to those they imagined. But all is not lost. Use the English words they already know. On Facebook you can see faces. Photoshop is used to edit photos. Cars must pass a test. Men put on aftershave after they shave. All of these are words associations that students suggested.

I also recommend that sometimes you put aside the books and workbooks and try these ideas instead.

Games: Look for simple games appropriate for their age that involve some English. They need to experience success without feeling like the games are too easy or childish. Card games with words and pictures are easy to learn and also teach sentences like "It's your turn", "Do you have…", etc. There are also a lot of fun group games that use repetitive sentences. Take games they enjoy playing in Hebrew and translate them into English. These will be easy to learn and understand. Don't forget the classics like hangman, charades, Simon says and "When I go to the moon I will bring…". Praise each achievement with "Very good!", "Well done!" or "Excellent!".

Songs: Most of your students, even if they don't like English lessons, probably listen to songs in English. Ask them what songs they like, make sure the lyrics are appropriate and learn the songs together. Work on pronunciation, talk about the meaning of the lyrics, ask them questions about the song and the singer. Let them stage a clip or choreograph a dance to the song. If you have students who play instruments they may want to bring instruments to class.

Rap: Rhythm is contagious. Setting your lessons to a catchy rhythm improves pronunciation, makes language chunks easier to remember and most important, kids love it. Write a sentence on the board, then elicit similar sentences from students. Start a rhythm by snapping your fingers, tapping on your desk, hitting a small drum, etc. If you don't feel like a rapper, let your students take over. Invite them to perform for the class.

Find out what interests them: What are their hobbies? What do they like to do? What do they want to talk about today? Go for a walk, cook, dance, draw pictures, play football, it doesn't matter what you do as long as you do it in English. If they are absorbed in an activity and enjoying themselves they will forget that they don't understand.

Like in any aspect of education, the most important thing is to encourage them and let them experience success. Show them that they can learn, speak and understand. They may even have fun.

יום שבת, 5 במרץ 2016

Have you been teaching your students too much grammar?

After packing up my materials at the ETAI conference last week, I had time to hear some of Leo Selivan's presentation on learning language, which emphasized mainly that language is produced in chunks and that grammar must be acquired rather than learned. Most of what he said matched my own experience and the methods I use, but it's always nice to be backed up by a reputable authority. Speaking of methods, this is a good time to mention my book English is Fun in Rhythm.
"Speaking of methods" - How would a non-English speaker learn a phrase like that? "How would"? Why not "How could" or "How should"? I could keep going, but I shouldn't so I won't (not wouldn't). Since English is my native language I know which word is correct even if I can't explain why. I learned by being exposed to language in spoken and written form all around me from the day I was born.
Now let's go back to our EFL students. They also learned their native languages by constant exposure, and probably speak correctly. Young children seem to be able to figure out the rules by themselves. So exposure to authentic language is the key to producing proper language structures. How can we provide this exposure to learners of a foreign language? Songs (back to my website), drama in the classroom and on stage, computer research, magazines, books, movies. Talk about subjects that interest them and they will learn vocabulary that interests them.
In our discussion after the presentation we tried to come up with songs with "can". I had trouble thinking on the spot so I'm going to list a few now.

Dancing Queen (You can dance, you can jive..), ABBA
We Can Work It Out, The Beatles

I Can Be Your Hero, Enrique Iglesias

Any song you choose will have some useful language chunks. Teach them the language they need to communicate and learning becomes relevant.

יום שני, 22 בפברואר 2016

Testing, testing

Although it's not officially part of my job, occasionally I find myself helping to supervise or correct tests at school. It can be quite a humbling experience, discovering that my English is less than perfect according to the Ministry of Education.

Last week I corrected a sixth grade test. Had I been taking the test myself, I would have lost at least 6 points because I thought that the best title for the story was not the one given in the answer key. I may have been angry rather than dissappointed when I couldn't go to a birthday party, or thought that I was supposed to decorate rather than clean my room, and I would have lost a few more points. I'm creative and imaginative by nature but I know that the people who write these tests aren't, so I would have known better than to say that I died in 1996 or that I was sad because my dog argued, which shows that I do have some test-taking skills.

And test-taking skills are exactly what you need to pass a standardized test. That's why in order to prepare for these tests we stop teaching English and just practice doing old tests. They also have very strict guidelines as to how they should be graded, so that under no circumstances will a child be given extra points for being smarter than the person who wrote the test. Points are given for finding the write answer, nothing extra for a perfectly written complete sentence which proves that the student actually understands the question and answer. Of course, there are enough trick questions to make sure that no one can get everything right. And what about all of the students who didn't know what to do when the instructions said "Answer the following question." followed by a sentence and then another instruction - "Copy a word from the text that shows this". Shouldn't they get some credit for noticing that there wasn't a question? But the person who wrote the test also wrote the guidelines for correcting it and obviously didn't notice the mistake. 

This was all in the last two weeks. But I still remember one of the moments years ago when I realized that I would never survive as a formal teacher. I was surpervising a test in elementary school and the children had to read a passage and then mark sentences true or false. About half of the students said that they couldn't tell from the story if one of the sentences was true or false. I read the story and the sentence and realized that they were correct, the answer wasn't there, so I told them to write next to it that they couldn't tell. Afterwards I told the class teacher that I thought there was a mistake in the test and she told me no, everyone knows that if you can't find the answer in the text then the answer is false. I told her what I had told the students and she said that since I told them that she would accept it. I couldn't accept that. What was she testing? If they said that the information wasn't in the text and it wasn't, they obviously understood both the text and the sentence. What is the point of taking off points for not knowing the rule that "don't know = false"? 

Teachers, including those like me who teach informally, are told that before we prepare a lesson we should know what it is we want the students to learn. Test preparers need to start asking themselves the same question - What is it that they are testing?

יום שלישי, 26 בינואר 2016

The Emperor's New Standards

Our story begins in the 20th century.

One day, the emperor asked for new standards. "Who can bring me standards which will tell me how much students learn, how much they know and how well the teachers are doing their job?" he asked. Experts from across the kingdom brought him all kinds of tests and recommended assigning papers and projects. The emperor was confused. "How will we know if every teacher is using the same criteria? Can we trust the judgment of teachers and principals? How will we compare different schools?"

One day a wise man arrived with a PhD in education and a stack of research. He offered the emperor a standardized test. "With this test you can check every student according to the same criteria, compare them and find out where the good and bad teachers are" he said. The emperor looked at the test and said "But I don't see any measure of knowledge or understanding." The wise man explained that these tests were written by experts in education following many years of research. The emperor, who didn't want to appear ignorant, issued a new order. From now on all students and schools will be measured according to these tests. Principals instructed teachers that they must meet the standards set by the emperor. All educators studied the tests thoroughly in order to find out exactly what students needed to know. Everyone began to prepare for the big day. They memorized the necessary information, learned to read and follow instructions and practiced every type of question so that they would know how to answer each and every one properly.

The day arrived. The emperor sent inspectors to deliver the tests to every school in the kingdom. All of the students sat quietly, the teachers stood at attention, everyone knew exactly what they were expected to do. Suddenly one child got up and shouted "This test is useless!" The principal gave the teacher a stern look, and the teacher quickly quieted the child. But the child stood up again. "This test is useless!" he shouted again, "I understand all the material but some of these questions make no sense!" A child from another school shouted, "What's the problem? We don't need to study, we just need to figure out the system."  The teachers and principals looked again at the tests. They realized that the children were right. One teacher called out "We stopped all relevant and meaningful learning to prepare for these tests!" That teacher was immediately sent to an alternative school, and no one else dared to oppose the emperor.

The kingdom continues to hold standardized tests every year.