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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Your Virtual English Friend

Having just watched a short video of the Microsoft's presentation of their "virtual human", I started thinking how this technology could change language learning.

Milo is a virtual boy. You see him on your TV screen. He will do as you command, but he's not just a character in a computer game. Milo actually responds to your oral commands, answers your questions and interacts with objects that you give him. In the video the girl passes Milo a drawing she has just done on a piece of paper and he take sthe paper from her and responds. Now, doesn't that seem incredible? We can't pass objects through the TV screen! Of course, the paper itself doesn't leave the girl's hand, but an exact replica of the piece of paper is scanned and it's data sent to Milo. The player and Milo interact and this interaction is so much more realistic than in previous video games because facial expressions and body langauge are so successfully portrayed. When the girl asks Milo about his homework, he acquires a sheepish expression. I have no idea how this technology works, and I'm sure that when it is released as a game it will not be anywhere near as effective or realistic as in this demonstration (just like most video game adverts and demos) but even if it does half of what we expect, it can be exploited in many different areas, not just entertainment.

Imagine you have your own English friend with whom you can converse, play games and explore. For a learner of English this is a brilliant opportunity to practise the language. Learners who live in a country where English is not spoken by most people can have great difficulties in practising the language outside of class. With somebody like Milo in their XBox, they can have a fairly realistic experience of interacting with a real English boy. This will surely interest children and teenagers, but I think a similar product could be developed for adults too. Imagine a "game" where you have to negotiate with a board of businessmen who react and respond to everything you say. To be honest, the possiblities are endless.

Let's just hope that one day soon this technology is released into the market, and at a reasonable price. Then we will all be able to have our own mini English friend!

The article from BBC News here 

Wiki Wiki (not Waka Waka)

I have just created my very first class wiki! The wiki is one of the free educational wikis wikispaces are giving away at the moment.

I am currently designing a programme for one of my young learners' groups for next year, for which I have decided against having a course book. The programme is based tasks and activities related to different areas of the primary curriculum. Since the children will have no book to take home and show their parents, I decided to create a wiki which the parents will be able to access and see some of the work their children are doing in class, as well as helping them practise what they have learnt at home. The idea of involving parents in learning is not new one, however it is one that can be difficult to implement, especially when you only teach the children for two hours a week. Parents show much more interest in mainstream education and often they treat their after school English lessons as a bit of a hobby or babysitting service. For this reason I will send out a letter to all parents, explaining what a wiki is and how it will be used, and asking them to participate. Hopefully, in this way we will see a bit more interest in what the children are doing, on the part of their parents.

The wiki in question will have a page per topic; meaning that approximately every month a new page will be set up. On that page I plan to upload some of the children's work including drawings, photos and videos for all the parents to see. The wiki will be private and only those with a password will be able to access it. Parents with passwords will be able to log on and help their child answer questions and complete tasks that I leave on the page. Parents will also be able to comment on what we have been doing.

I really hope that this way parents will be encouraged to participate actively in their child's learning, whether it is just showing an interest, or actually doing extra practice with their child.

Has anybody else set up a wiki for young children? I would love to hear about how it went and any suggestions you may have.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Wordle of the first unit for next year's 6 year olds

I am currently designing a programme for First Year Primary learners at my school.
Here is a wordle of the first unit syllabus.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

PLN quiz - a fun way to encourage self study

Barbara has a great initiative to encourage people to read blog posts they may have missed in her PLN quiz.  I have just read five fantastic posts that I hadn't discovered or got round to reading the first time around. I would recommend anyone to take part in these quizzes, not for the chocolatey prize, but to read some great posts you may not have come across. Wanting to do well in the quiz just makes you read the posts even more carefully and think about what they are saying - this must be good! It could actually be a nice way of encouraging students to revise - instead of giving them a formal test, why not make a quiz out of it with a nice certificate for the students who get 100% - if like Barbara you give them unlimited chances to get a perfect score, you are giving them more opportunities to revise what they have been studying.

Thanks Barbara, for starting this initiative!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Fluffy Friends

Lenny the Lizard, Kitty the Cat and Robbie the Rabbit are my faithful furry friends. Lenny has been around the longest, Kitty was a favourite at the nursery school I teach at, and this past year we have adopted Robbie as our classroom pet.

Now unlike Leahn at Early EFL I am no animal lover. I would rather avoid most animals (except perhaps cats, but even then it depends on the cat!) so the pets I am referring to are of course, puppets. I am going to talk about how I have used these puppets over the years and also suggest some newer ideas I have for exploiting them in class.

This is Lenny. I actually thought he was a crocodile when I found him, but the children said he was a lizard and gave him his name. He was the first puppet I took to the nursery school when I started teaching 3-5 year olds there a couple of hours a week. Lenny is a fun puppet to use, as children find lizards and other reptiles quite interesting. He's very playful and loves pretending to bite small hands!

This is Kitty. She is a well-loved member of the English class. She came to the nursery school for four or five years before she got too big and decided to go to school with the older children. I named her after the "Hello Kitty" craze, because I thought it would be an easy name for the children to remember and it is easy to pronounce. The children love to give Kitty a hug and a kiss, although some cheeky monsters sometimes pull her tail! Kitty has a surprising past, which I tell the children in our Hallowe'en lesson. Kitty used to belong to a witch! I never met the witch so I ask the children if they think she was a good or wicked witch, usually with mixed responses!

Finally, we have Robbie. Robbie has been accompanying me to the nursery this year. He is actually from Robby Rabbit course by Macmillan  and I decided to keep his name. Robbie's ears are a great source of enjoyment for the children, as they get bent in my bag and every day he looks a bit different! Robbie is very soft and the children love touching him. I made up a song that we sing to Robbie every day. It goes like this: (tune similar to Twinkle Twinkle)
Hello Robbie, how are you?
Fine, thanks. How about you?
Let's speak English today
Let's speak English today
Hello Robbie, how are you?
Fine, thanks. How about you?
                        (Choral), FINE THANKS!

The puppets allow me to use English in a natural way, that doesn't intimidate the children. The puppets don't actually speak themselves, but I talk to the puppets and formulate the questions the children want to ask. Depending on the topic we are covering, I may ask the puppet about his/her favourite food or colour. When we are learning the names of clothes, the children tell me what the puppet should wear and we dress him/her in paper clothes. We have a "Good morning" and "Goodbye" routine where we greet/say goodbye to our puppet. On the odd occasion when I forget to bring him the children always ask about him, so I tell them that he slept in or went away on a short trip.

For young children puppets can be a way of connecting to English and it helps them understand that there are people who do not speak their own language and to communicate with these people they need to do so in English (or whatever language you are teaching). Young children don't really know what a country is and it is hard to explain, they often think that England must be a few kilometres away, which is the furthest they have ever been. Having a puppet that comes from another country (or planet!) and speaks another language can help with this.

However, I have not only used puppets with very young learners. Sometimes I get one out with older children, which they actually quite enjoy, as long as you take care to make sure that the activity is not seen as too babyish. For children with more English, you can do the following activities:

  1. Introduce the puppet as an alien from another planet about whom they must find out as much information as possible by asking questions. (Works great with the puppet from OUP's Galaxy course)
  2. Introduce the puppet as the main character from a story (you can make up your own story or adapt one that exists) that the children will later act out using the puppet.
  3. Show the class the puppet and ask them to write about it, choosing a name, age, sex, nationality, hobbies, likes/dislikes etc.
  4. Students make up dialogues in pairs which they then perform using the puppets.
  5. Ask each student to create a profile for the puppet. They can take a photo of the puppet, dressing it up with props as they require, and add it to the profile. This could be done on computers if they are available.
  6. Again, if the internet is available, use an audio recording program for the children to talk about the character they have invented for the puppet. You could use Fotobabble  or Voicethread to do this. All you have to do is upload a photo of the puppet and the students record themselves talking about it.
  7. Games like pass the puppet (like pass the parcel) where you play music and the puppet is passed around until the music stops, when the student holding the puppet has to say a sentence about it e.g. "He's black and white", or "He eats carrots". This can be a fun way of revising vocabulary.
  8. For classroom management issues, make one child resposible each day for the puppet. The child is also responsible for other duties such as handing out books and pencils. You can allow the child to take the puppet home (for younger children), and this can lead on to a discussion of how to look after a pet.
There is another kind of puppet that I also like using to create stories. These are finger puppets.  I have a set of around ten, where each puppet is a different character. We have a royal family, a wizard, a dragon, an owl, a jester and a baddie (not sure exactly what he is so I call him the baddie!). These are great for dramatising stories. You can make up a story or get the children to make up and write (if they are older) their own stories which they they recreate with the puppets. Finger puppets are also brilliant for short dialogues, even with beginners.

I'm sure there are hundreds of other possiblities for using puppets in the classroom, and these are just a few. If you have any good ideas, post them in the comments section. 
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