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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Benefits of Exams for Young Learners

Here's the link to an article about exams for young learners I have written as a guest piece on Alex Case's blog:

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Adapting traditional games for whole-class use

Most students enjoy playing games from time to time, even adults, who after a long day's work need a bit of relaxation. As I mostly teach young learners, I will be focussing on using games with them, but you could use the same principles with more mature students. One of the important things to decide before you play a game is whether the objective is just to play and give students a break, or if you want to practise a specific set of vocabulary or grammar point. With children I usually involve some vocabulary practice, but it can be a good idea to allow older students to play as a break in the lesson or as a reward for working well. There are many traditional board and card games that you may have at home which you can use in class.

Card games
You will need a set of cards with pictures on. There are some nice sets available for children that have pictures of animals that are split into two or three cards. This makes it into a kind of jigsaw puzzle. With a group of young children for example aged 5, deal the cards until everyone has the same number, if there are any left over, keep them for yourself to demonstrate and start off the game. Place one of the cards on the floor an ask the children if they have a card which matches it. If so they place it in the right position. When you have placed all the extra cards, say the name of an animal e.g lion and the children that have the lion come and place their card on the floor. The winner is the child who gets rid of all their cards first. Afterwards, you could play a pelmanism game where all the cards are spread out face down on the floor and the children take it in turns to turn over a card. When they find a match, they form the animal and keep it.

This can be done with almost any set of cards or even dominoes. Games traditionally played in small groups can become whole class activities.

Board games
Games such as Monopoly, Ludo, Scrabble, Snakes and Ladders or Cluedo can all be played with the whole class by dividing the students into teams. I have a large floor board game which is called The game of the goose. It is a traditional board game in Spain. The one I have is based on a national children's TV programme. It has giant counters and a giant dice, making it ideal for the whole class to play. What I usually do is show the children a flashcard every time they throw the dice, and they can only move forward if they say the word correctly. If they are a bit older (7-8) I ask them questions, sometimes based on pictures or objects e.g What is the boy doing? How many pencils are there? etc. You could use this strategy with Snakes and Ladders or Ludo. Monopoly and Cluedo are more complex games and require lots of language, which you will need to prepare students with before playing. You can grade the language provided depending on the level. Scrabble can be played according to the rules, or you could just use the letters. A very popular game in my school is Combiletter, which can also be played with Scrabble letters, where the letters are placed face down in the middle of the table (or floor) and are turned over one by one. When a student sees a word can be formed with those letters, he/she says "Stop!" and forms the word, which the team keeps.

Other children's games such as "Guess Who" can be very useful when teaching parts of the body or "has got". Playing such games makes the lesson much more fun and motivating for the children, although beware of using them too much! Young Learners will get used to playing games and will demand to play every day, something which should not always be allowed. Make sure that your learners do all the work before they play, or just let them play occasionally as a treat. When the games are to practice a certain structure or vocabulary, tell the students this so that they know why they are playing. If you do have the odd student who doesn't like playing games and feels that they are not learning if they are playing, explain the reasons why they are playing and what they are learning/practising with this.

Generally, using games regularly as either a way of learning and practising or as a break from the routine of the course book, can be a postive way in which you can reward your students for their hard work, and get a few brownie points in the process!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Preparing children for Young Learners Exams

Those of you who who work with Young Learners will probably have heard of the Cambridge Young Learner Exams. These exams are for children aged 7 to 13 and are available at three different levels. The benefits of children doing these exams are not so clear to me, as I generally believe that assessment should not be exam-based, but I'm sure the marketing people at Cambridge will have plenty of reasons why your young learners should sit these exams. In any case, they are becoming more and more popular, and you will probably have to help prepare your learners so that they are ready to do the exam.

The original idea of these exams I believe, was to introduce the concept and format of Cambridge exams to younger learners, so that they would be better prepared for KET, PET or FCE at a later stage. The exams were introduced to teachers as being suitable for children from as little as one year's English experience and that no extra preparation was required. If you have looked at these exams, you will see that they include quite an unusual vocabulary list, with some Americanisms (French Fries, eraser), unusual fruits that the children may not have even tasted (kiwi, mango), and some of the grammatical structures are quite challenging for a child who has only been learning the language for a year or two.

In recent years, Cambridge have realised that a general English course for children may not be enough to get them through the exams and have been publishing materials to specifically help with the preparation of them, and they have even brought out a new course specifically for the Young Learners Exams. I am actually using such a course with my seven to nine year olds, and I must admit, it is quite a nice course to use.

I would like to suggest some activities that can help with the preparation for these exams, including vocabulary tasks, grammar practice activities and ideas of how to improve students' reading, listening and speaking skills for the exams.

Firstly, lets look at the different levels. The first is called Starters, and is suitable for children of around seven to nine years with one or two years of English. Quite a lot of vocabulary is required, at least in a passive sense, and the ablility to read English is essential. As for all the exams, there is a reading and writing component, a listening paper and an oral interview. The second level is called Movers and requires a level quite a bit higher than Starters. It corresponds to level A1 in the Common European Framework. Understanding of the past simple tense is necessary, as is that of some modal verbs and comparatives and superlatives. The final level is called Flyers and is equivalent to KET (A2). This is a challenging exam and in my school we don't usually prepare our learners for it, as they are usually about 13 years old when they get to this level and find it too babyish for them. Instead, we start them on a two year PET course.

For this reason, I shall be focussing on activities for Starters and Movers. However, you could probably adapt them to Flyers, if you wish. Any worksheets will be posted on my Resources page (see link above).

Reading and Writing
There are five parts to this exam at Starters (S) level and six at Movers (M). The activities are very easy at the start and progress to become quite challenging in the later parts. In the first part the children have a set of pictures and a list of definitions which they decide are correct or incorrect (S) or names and definitions to match (M).
One activity you can do with your learners to practise this is Pelmanism.

You can make your own cards with a set of pictures and definitions or see my Resources section for examples or to download. Learners can work in pairs or small groups with a set of cards between them. They spread out the cards face down in two separate areas, one for the pictures and one for the definitions.  Each turn they pick up one picture and one definition. If they match, they keep the cards. If not, they return the cards to their original position. The game continues until all the cards have been used or whenever you think the children are getting bored. The winner is the person with the most cards at the end of the game.

Another part of the Starters exam is based on spelling. Learners should have plenty of practice of ordering jumbled letters (anagrams) of common words e.g classroom objects, food, transport and other words that appear in the thematic vocabulary list (see You can do this by writing anagrams on the board for them to copy and rearrange, or give them words cut up into letters which they should place in order. They can also make their own anagrams for other students.

They will also need practice of singular and plural forms of nouns for part 4 (S). In this part candidates are given a short gapped text but they are given the missing words. They have to decide which word fits in each gap, but should be aware of the artcile a/an before singluar nouns and no article before plural or uncountable nouns. They should have practice in completing simple sentences with missing words. You can make cards or worksheets to practise this. There are examples on my Resources page.

Generally, you can practise most parts of the exam as a whole class activity if you have access to large pictures, big books or flip charts where you can ask all types of questions, either orally or written, about the pictures.

Tasks in the Starters and Movers Listening exams are mostly based on matching, notetaking and carrying out instructions. Learners will need to be able to recognise the names of the letters of the alphabet, numbers, colours and days of the week (M).

Here are a couple of activities which practise giving and carrying out instructions, prepositions of place. These are good practise for parts 1 and 4 of Starters, and parts 1 and 5 of Movers.

Draw It!
Give students a blank piece of paper and show them how to place it in a landscape postion by drawing a rectangle on the board. Draw a few basic objects e.g a tree, a house, a car (S) or stick people doing various activities such as carrying a book, climbing a tree, eating a sandwich etc (M). Students copy these pictures. Then give instructions such as the following:
Draw a ball next to the tree. Colour it orange. Can you see the house? Draw a cloud behind the house. Now draw a cat in front of the house and colour it black.
Can you see the girl eating a sandwich? Her name is Sally. And look at Peter, he's climbing a tree. John is the boy who is carrying a book and wearing a blue t-shirt. Colour his t-shirt.
Now, on another piece of paper the children do their own drawings. They then give instructions to their partner who draws and colours as instructed.

NB You will need to make sure the children know the names used in the exams and whether they are boys' or girls' names. These names are included in the vocabulary lists in the Handbook.

Lego Building
 This activity includes giving and carrying out instructions, prepositions, colours and sizes. Give each student a selection of Lego bricks. Each child makes a sculpture with their bricks. They then have to give instructions to their partner so that they can make the same sculpture without actually seeing it. You should revise statements such as Can you repeat it please? and  I don't understand so that the children can ask for clarification.

Silly Words
To practise spelling, make a list of silly words. These are invented words - you can give them a meaning if you like but make sure the learners know they are not real words!. It can be fun to invent animals e.g. SQUANT, PREATER, JUMSLE etc. Spell the words to the class and get them to write the word and then draw what they imagine they look like. Then, the children invent their own silly words and spell them to each other in pairs, groups or to the whole class.

For Starters, the speaking test also includes carrying out instructions such as pointing to objects and placing objects in certain places. It also includes some basic personal questions about likes and dislikes, hobbies, family and school.

The House
This activity is to practise giving and understanding instructions. Give students a picture of a house with different rooms and some pictures of furniture. They colour and cut out the furniture (if you prefer you can give them magazines or catalogues from which to cut out the pieces of furniture). Then write the following dialogue on the board:

A) Can you see the lamp?
B) Yes I can.
A) Put the lamp in the bathroom next to the bath.
B) Sorry?
A) Put the lamp in the bathroom mext to the bath.
B) OK.

The learners use the dialogue to tell each other where to place each object in their house.

Vocabulary and Structures
There are some specific vocabulary and structures that you may wish to practise with your learners in preparation for the exam. Really, this will depend on your students and their weaker areas. However here is an activity that you can do with any vocabulary.

Tricky Words
Write a song or chant that includes some of the words your learners find it hard to learn (abstract nouns, determiners, quantifiers, adverbs etc) for example:

I like sweets! Sweets! Sweets!
Some are here
Some are there
A lot of sweets
and chocolate too!
Yummy Yummy
Let's chant again.

Here I have taken some of the words my students have problems with and after learning the chant, the children were able to guess the meaning of these words. We did actions to help understanding. You can call the chant a rap if the children are a bit older. I have a class of nine and ten year olds who I soemtimes get to create their own raps. You could give them a set of tricky words that they have to incorporate into their own raps or songs.

Find the Answer
I find it quite hard to get students to remember the different WH- question words and so they need lots of practice in this. This activity can help:
Print and cut out the questions and answers from the Resource section, or create your own. This activity is a mingle activity. Depending on the number of students, each child has a Q/A or Q&A. The objective is to find the answer to their question. They must mingle, asking their question to different students in order to find the answer. They must not show their question to anybody. When they find their answer, they take it and sit down.


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