Posted by: carolread | August 8, 2011

Z is for Zone of Proximal Development

The ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) is Vygotsky’s term to describe the area of potential learning in which a child can perform an action or task, provided that a more skilled or knowledgeable person is available to help.

Vygotsky defined the ZPD as ‘the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem-solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers’ (Vygotsky 1978).

In an everyday classroom context, this might be paraphrased as the gap between a child being able to do a task easily without help or support, and a task which is simply out of reach for the child at the moment and cannot be attempted without guidance and help from someone who is more knowledgeable or skilled.

In this way, the ZPD provides a valuable conceptual framework for situating the level of challenge in activities and tasks that may be appropriate for children at any one time – tasks which will challenge, stretch and extend learning but which are also achievable and will allow for success.

There is no point teaching below the bottom of the ZPD because the child can already function in a competent and independent way here, and no new learning will take place. Equally, there is no point teaching above the top of the ZPD because the difference between this and the child’s current level of competence is too great.

The importance of situating activities and tasks within children’s ZPD from a classroom management point of view is also worth bearing in mind. If activities are too easy, children are likely to become bored, de-motivated and possibly disruptive. If activities are too difficult, children are likely to become anxious, and also possibly de-motivated and disruptive.

Closely related to the concept of the ZPD is the metaphor of scaffolding.

This was originally developed by Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) to describe the support provided by adults to guide a child through the ZPD and enable them to carry out a task that they would be unable to do without help. Scaffolding is a metaphor based on Vygotsky’s view of learning as a socially constructed process and is frequently adopted to describe teacher intervention and support in other learning contexts as well. As it implies, scaffolding is a temporary structure or support and can be put in place, strengthened, taken down piece by piece or taken away completely, as the child develops knowledge and skills and is increasingly able to act competently and independently.

An important feature in differentiating and defining scaffolding as a particular kind of flexible help, assistance or support is enshrined in its future orientation and in Bruner’s principle of ‘handing over’ the role to the child as soon as he or she becomes skilled enough to take it on.

In illustrating the concepts of the ZPD and scaffolding on primary teacher training courses, I have sometimes used the metaphor of teaching a child to swim. In this metaphor, the ZPD is the shallow end of a swimming pool which the child is learning to swim across independently.

As any parent who has taught a young child to swim will know, the process starts with the child wearing both water wings and a rubber ring, and being held securely and moved through the water by you. The child then gradually progresses to splashing and moving around confidently on their own, but with you still close-by at arms’ reach, ready to help if need be.

At the next stage, the child is ready to discard the rubber ring and learns to kick their legs and move their arms in ‘doggy paddle‘ style, still wearing their water wings, and very often, at first, with you holding your arms out under their body and walking by their side in the water to give psychological, if not real, support. The process continues until the child graduates from water wings to polystyrene float and can eventually (and triumphantly) swim across the pool completely unaided.

In this metaphor, the secret for us, as teachers, is to know when rubber rings, water wings or polystyrene floats are really needed and the moment to stand back and let children swim by themselves. In the same class, we also need to be aware that there are likely to be children who still need rubber rings and water wings while others are already swimming around freely like little fish.

This metaphor reflects Vygotsky’s concept of learning and deveopment as the result of joint participation in goal-oriented activity: ‘What the child can do with assistance today, she will be able to do by herself tomorrow.’ (Vygotsky, 1978). It can be argued that it is only when support and assistance through such things as water wings are needed that learning actually takes place, because it is only then that activity is taking place within the child’s ZPD.

Note: This posting is closely based on articles I have previously written on the same topic (see references below).


Bruner J. S. (1983) Child’s Talk: Learning to use Language Oxford: Oxford University Press

Read C. (2006) ‘Supporting teachers in supporting learners’ in Picture Books and Young Learners of English Enever J and Scmid-Schönbein G (Eds) München: Langenscheidt

Read C. (2006) ‘Scaffolding children’s talk and learning’ in Current Trends and Future Directions in ELT, British Council, Berlin, Germany

Read C. (2008) ‘Scaffolding children’s learning through story and drama’ in IATEFL YL SIG Newsletter Issue 2/08

Vygotsky L. (1978) Mind in Society Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press

Wood D., Bruner J. & Ross G. (1976) The role of tutoring in problem-solving in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17/2: 89-100

Photo: Jamie Matthews learning to swim.

Posted by: carolread | July 25, 2011

Y is for Young Learners

Young learners is a catch-all term for students who are not yet adults. The term swept into fashion at the beginning of the nineties reflecting the trend to lower the starting age and broaden the access to English language learning to younger people in many countries all over the world.

As a quick google search will show, the term ‘young learners’ is frequently interpreted in different ways.

For some institutions and language providers, the term refers to any student who has not yet reached their majority (most usually at 18) and towards whom, as educators, we have a duty of care. This interpretation reflects the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in which a child is defined as ‘a human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier’.

In this interpretation, the term ‘young learners’ includes the whole range of ages and developmental stages of children from infants, young children and older children, through to adolescents, teenagers and young people.

In other interpretations, ‘young learners’ is a term that is used to refer to children from their first year of formal schooling (usually somewhere between 5-7 years old) to when they are 11-12 years old, or to when they move on from primary to secondary school. This is an interpretation that is often adopted, either implicitly or explicitly, by publishers and exam boards. In this interpretation, a ‘young learner’ grows into being labelled as something else, usually a teenager, at adolescence. In this interpretation there is also often an additional term ‘very young learners’ which is used to refer to pre-primary children aged from approximately 3-6.

In various promotional material for language courses, teaching resources and holiday camps, you can also find the term ‘young learners’ used to encompass a range of different age bands such as 8-16, 4-14, 9-15, 5-16, and so on.

As the above shows, the term ‘young learners’ is wide-ranging but, at the same time, it is also ambiguous and potentially confusing. The term also obscures the enormous physical, emotional, psychological, social and cognitive differences there are in children and young people of different ages, and correspondingly and importantly, the wide range of different skills and methodological approaches that their teachers need to teach them.

As those of us who work with ‘young learners’ know only too well, there is a world of difference in teaching pre-literate and pre-adolescent children. And even with the increased maturity of teenagers, where our approach may more closely resemble that of ELT for adults, there are often crucial aspects, particularly in the areas of motivation, self-esteem and discipline, that need finely attuned sensitivities and highly specialised skills.

Rather than using ‘young learners’ as a blanket, catch-all term, it might be more helpful to specify the age ranges we are talking about in relation to the educational systems to which children belong. We could then refer to, for example, infants, pre-primary, kindergarten or early years, followed by primary, middle school or lower-secondary, secondary and upper-secondary.

This would allow for reference to specific educational contexts. For example, in some contexts children finish primary school and start secondary school at the age of 11, while in other contexts this changeover may be as late as 14. It would also more accurately reflect the extensive knowledge of mainstream pedagogy and applied linguistics, as well as the highly specialised repertoire of skills and attitudes that so-called ‘Young learner teachers‘ need to teach all the different age groups effectively.

Any thoughts on what the term ‘young learners’ means to you?


UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, clause 3

Photo of primary school children by R.K. Singam (Wikimedia Commons)

Posted by: carolread | June 23, 2011

X is for Xenophobia

Xenophobia is an emotive word which means ‘a strong fear and dislike of people from other countries and cultures’.

So what has xenophobia got to do with teaching English as a foreign language to children (apart from the fact that, for the sake of this ABC, it conveniently begins with ‘X’)?

The short answer, in my view, is a lot, in the sense that teaching children foreign languages at a young age can potentially lay strong foundations to prevent xenophobia from ever developing.

The jury is out on the issue of whether or not there is solid evidence to support an early start to foreign language learning per se, and there is research both for and against this. Nevertheless, classroom experience strongly suggests that learning a foreign language at a young age can develop interest, curiosity, positive attitudes and respect for different peoples, countries and cultures that are likely to extend well beyond the primary years.

Keith Sharpe has referred to this benefit of early foreign language learning as ‘early start immunisation to later negative attitudes’. Although such ‘immunisation’ is difficult to prove or measure, it is potentially a major benefit that, as teachers, we should do our best to promote as an integral part of our jobs.

In my own classes over the years, particularly in contexts with children from many different backgrounds, I’ve become increasingly aware of how our role as English teachers goes hand-in-hand with broader, and ultimately more significant educational aims, to do with promoting responsible citizenship, democracy, tolerance and peace. These are big concepts. At the same time, every little thing we can do to work towards achieving them in the microcosmic world of our classrooms counts.

For young beginners in schools with a large immigrant population, English is often the only subject in which everyone has equal chance of achieving, since children do not need to know the language of the country to make progress in English in the same way as they do in other subjects. This in itself can help to reduce feelings of difference among the children and can be built on positively in other ways too. For example, through the experience of learning a foreign language, children can be helped to develop the vital skill of empathy and understanding of others. Here is an anecdote from one of my past classes that illustrates this:

Mohammed is a Moroccan boy in my class of four-year-olds. Recently arrived in Spain, he doesn’t speak either Spanish or English and he’s finding it tough. One day when he’s absent, I talk to the children (in Spanish) about how we can help Mohammed. They’re full of ideas: play with him, sit with him, share their snacks, and then one little boy pipes up ‘We can help Mohammed speak Spanish like you help us with English’. ‘How’s that?’ I ask, intrigued to hear their views. ‘By showing us pictures and speaking slowly’ comes the response. Thus it is that, through their own experience of learning a foreign language, these children are able to understand and empathise with how it might feel not to speak their own.

There are many practical things that we can do to ensure that children learn to positively value people from other countries and cultures. These include, for example, showing where everyone in the class is from on a world map with photos and flags, including personalised activities in which children have the opportunity to talk about their country, food, families etc, celebrating different festivals, telling stories or reading picture books that focus on themes of difference and empathy such as Something Else, taking turns to teach and learn simple phrases such as ‘hello’ / ‘goodbye’, ‘please / thank you’ in each other’s languages.

Underpinning it, of course, and the most important thing of all, is to show in everything you do and say that you positively value all the children in your classes too.

Any thoughts?



Macmillan English Dictionary (2nd edition), Macmillan 2007

Sharpe K. Modern Foreign Languages in the Primary School, Kogan Page, 2001

Read C. Is younger better? ETp 28, 2003

Cave K. & Riddell C, Something Else Puffin Books, 1994

Photo by Chiot’s Run.

Posted by: carolread | February 21, 2011

W is for Writing

Writing is a difficult skill and, as most of us would readily agree, not only for children. The development of children’s writing takes place gradually over time. In order to achieve the most effective results, teaching writing needs to be integrated with reading, speaking and listening, both in the initial stages and as children develop greater language competence.

When children learn to write in their first language (L1), it is widely acknowledged that they go through a number of general stages. These are not discrete or age-bound and vary in different cultural and educational contexts. They may be briefly characterized as follows:

Getting ready: Children acquire manual skills and learn the basic mechanisms of handwriting and spelling. They may also be taught synthetic phonics as part of a systematic initiation into reading and writing.

Writing for me: Writing is personal, colloquial, situational, linear and context-bound. Children may be willing to alter spelling but not to revise, re-draft or edit their work. Writing is mainly for personal pleasure and for an immediate audience e.g. parents and teachers.

Writing for others: Children develop a greater sense of audience. This raises awareness that successful writing depends on effective communication rather than satisfaction with self.   Structures of writing and speech become more distinct; writing begins to be better organized and to become more formal. Children’s writing e.g. early attempts at stories, begins to reflect what they are reading.

A world of writing: Children are exposed to, and learn to use, an ever-expanding range of writing styles. They develop an increasing awareness of audience, purpose, genre and appropriateness.

As they learn to write, some of the main problems children encounter are to do with:

Physical factors:

  • In the early stages, the development of hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills needed to form letters is a challenge in itself.

Psychological factors:

  • Writing is an artificial activity: it has to be learned rather than acquired naturally.
  • There is no immediate audience, feedback or interaction between the writer and the reader.
  • School associations with writing are often negative. Writing is often perceived as boring or a chore. Writing is also sometimes used by teachers for discipline and control.
  • Children’s limited ability to produce comprehensible output can easily lead to feelings of frustration and demotivation.

Linguistic factors:

  • Children’s L1 writing system may be different to English.
  • The sound-spelling correspondences in L1 work differently to English.
  • Language used in speech and writing differs, and is organized differently.
  • Children lack knowledge of writing conventions, or there is interference from writing conventions in L1 which are different.

Cognitive factors:

  • Children’s stage of development in L1, including the development of literacy.
  • The organization of thoughts in writing is externally imposed.
  • The transfer of strategies from L1 doesn’t always work.

“Good writers” and “good teachers of writing”

The potential ability of a child to become a “good writer” and for a teacher to become a “good teacher of writing” are essentially two sides of the same coin.

Key characteristics of a “good writer” are:

  • a belief in what you have to say
  • a sense of purpose
  • a sense of audience
  • an ability to order and express ideas clearly and effectively
  • an ability to use the language accurately
  • an understanding of and ability to use writing conventions
  • an awareness of the need to draft, re-draft, edit and change written work in order to produce the most effective final result
  • an awareness of the importance of good presentation

Conversely, key characteristics of a “good teacher of writing” are someone who:

  1. listens to children in order to help them express their ideas;
  2. ensures that writing takes place in a meaningful context which is both motivating and provides a real audience;
  3. ensures that writing opportunities are carefully integrated into an overall teaching plan;
  4. structures lessons carefully in order to equip children with necessary language and to help them structure and order their ideas;
  5. provides frameworks which allow children to use language creatively and  successfully;
  6. balances their approach between whole class work and discussion and individual time for concentrated focus and effort;
  7. teaches children to draft, re-draft and edit and to understand and appreciate the value of doing this;
  8. teaches the importance of legibility and accuracy in written work;
  9. encourages sef-awareness and self-correction;
  10. encourages children to take pride in their own work and interest in the work of others e.g. through display and publication, reading children’s own stories to the class;
  11. responds to children’s intended meanings, gives positive, constructive feedback and is sensitive to children’s problems and needs at different ages and stages;
  12. sets and expects appropriately high standards (children will invariably try to meet these).

When teaching writing throughout the primary years, it is important to vary our approach and to give children a rich experience of different kinds of writing. This includes:

Initial writing – writing to support initial learning and to consolidate oral work. This is often the typical kind of writing included in the Activity Books of coursebooks. The most effective kind of initial writing is when children are also encouraged to think and develop cognitive skills as in, for example, simple classifying, sequencing, logical deduction or visual observation writing activities.

Collaborative writing – a dynamic process in which children’s ideas are shaped through working with others. The final product may be a joint effort or individual work but structured collaboration will play a central, formative role. Collaborative writing allows you, as teacher, to participate and explicitly model writing processes. It also helps you to meet the needs of everyone in the group. Collaborative writing can  be motivating for children and standards of writing often improve rapidly as a result.

Functional writing – writing that serves a practical function such as e-mail or letter writing, report writing, invitations etc.. Children need to be taught how to write functionally in an appropriately contextualized way. As well as explicitly teaching appropriate conventions to be used, it is also important to highlight the reason for these and the way they relate to the reader’s needs.

Imaginative writing – writing which takes children beyond real experiences into a world of invention. The key here is to provide a model, framework or template which gives free rein to children’s imagination but is also within their current linguistic reach.

Personal writing – writing in which children record their experiences, express their opinions, attitudes and feelings. Children need a stimulus to encourage a personal response as well as a framework to help them to organize their thoughts. With young children in particular, you also need to make it clear that there are no right answers  and that you value diversity in the way they respond.

Poetry – writing which gives children the opportunity to explore the power of words and to play with the rhythms and patterns of language. Children need a stimulus, model or framework to support their writing. It often works well to create a poem collaboratively with the whole class first before children work on their own poems individually, or in pairs or groups.

Any other thoughts on developing children’s writing? It’d be interesting to hear.


Note: This post is an extension of the introduction to the section on ‘Reading and Writing’ in Read C. 500 Activities for the Primary Classroom Macmillan Education, 2007, where you can also find a range of practical classroom activities to develop different areas of children’s writing.

Posted by: carolread | February 14, 2011

V is for Vocabulary

The development of vocabulary is one of the most conspicuous gains in early foreign language learning and children themselves often perceive what they know in terms of learning “lots of words”. In the early stages, the acquisition of vocabulary goes hand in hand with beginning to use unanalysed “chunks” of language. This enables children to interact and participate in activities, and builds up their interest and desire to learn.

However, learning vocabulary or ‘knowing a word’ is a complex process which develops gradually and cyclically throughout the primary years, and beyond. This process includes such things as learning the phonological and written form of a word, how it relates to other concepts and words, the way a word can change and be combined grammatically with other elements in discourse, the way it collocates with other words, the connotations it may have, its style and register, its grammatical properties, as well as any specific cultural resonance it may have.

In order to develop children’s vocabulary effectively throughout the primary years and to provide strong foundations for their future learning, here are some things we need to do:

1 We need to think about the status of the vocabulary in our lessons.

  • Do we intend the vocabulary to be receptive or productive? (Is this a useful distinction?)
  • What do the children need to do with the vocabulary? (e.g. respond non-verbally, use it in context.)
  • Is the vocabulary target language? (i.e. Is it a part of the course syllabus that will be formally assessed?)
  • Is it incidental learning as part of acquisition-rich input that some children may learn and others may not?

2 We need to make sure that the meaning is clear.

  • By visual means: through flashcards, pictures, posters, photos, storybooks, objects.
  • By physical means: mime, gestures, expressions, actions.
  • By using a multi-sensory approach: touching, feeling, smelling, listening, tasting, pointing, walking to …, bringing, fetching, giving and taking.
  • By using technology: IWB, DVD, computer, CD-ROM, TV.
  • By verbal means: explaining, giving a definition of the word, defining the context in which it is used, describing the word, identifying it through its opposite.
  • By translating: eliciting or saying the meaning in the children’s first language (L1).
  • By a judicious combination of any of the above.

3 We need to encourage children to notice the form.

Phonological form

  • By providing lots of opportunities to listen to new vocabulary both in a discourse context (e.g. a story) and in isolation (e.g. a flashcard game).
  • By providing lots of opportunities for (non-threatening) repetition, rehearsal and experimentation in getting your tongue round the new combinations of sounds
  • By drawing attention to sounds (vowels, diphthongs, consonant clusters), syllables and stress patterns (either implicitly or explicitly depending on the children’s age).

Written form

  • By providing opportunities for children to associate the written form (shape of the word, initial and final letters, letter clusters, spelling) with the sound and meaning
  • By providing opportunities for children to notice the ‘grammar of vocabulary’ (either implicitly or explicitly depending on the age) e.g. whether a noun is countable or uncountable, the plural regular or irregular etc..
  • By training children to copy and organize the vocabulary they learn carefully and accurately.

4  We need to provide for the creation of a network of meanings which will help memory processes.

  • By presenting words in contexts which show the connections between them, for example, through stories, topics, themes, situations.
  • By giving children opportunities to group words together in logical ways which develop and extend a network of meanings e.g. webs (e.g. which show from general to specific hierarchies), whole to parts (e.g. parts of a house, body, classroom), cline (e.g. words to describe temperatures from boiling to freezing).

5 We need to provide a variety of opportunities for recognising, practising and using the vocabulary.

  • For example, through a wide range and variety of games, songs, chants, TPR (Total Physical Response) activities, drama activities, word puzzles, crosswords, picture dictations, sorting and classifying activities, sequencing activities, visual observation activities, art and craft.

6 We need to actively help children to develop and improve their memories.

  • By integrating memorisation as part of the design of activities, for example, in memory games, magic word chants, songs.

7 We need to create opportunities for children to extend and develop their vocabulary according to their personal interests and abilities.

  • By giving children opportunities to set their own learning agendas.
  • By creating opportunities for choice and personal decision-making in the vocabulary children learn.
  • By offering options, for example, in homework, research and project work.
  • By training children in reference, dictionary and computer skills.
  • By encouraging independent reading.
  • By having available word bags or boxes with words (and pictures), organised either alphabetically, grammatically or based on topics, for independent reference.

8 We need to promote the systematic recording and organization of vocabulary.

  • By making it clear which vocabulary we expect children to record and remember, for example, by writing this in a special section on the board during the lesson.
  • By encouraging the use of vocabulary books which can be organized in a variety of ways, for example, in alphabetical order, according to topics, stories or units of work, or according to grammatical categories, depending on the age and level.

9 We need to recycle vocabulary frequently.

  • By providing regular opportunities for children to meet familiar vocabulary in new contexts.
  • By ensuring that children extend and enrich their understandings and associations of words each time they meet them again.

10 We need to allow for personalisation and ‘ownership’ of vocabulary.

  • By providing opportunities for children to relate the vocabulary they learn with their own feelings, moods, personal opinions, possessions, likes and dislikes, experience at home and school, and beliefs about the world they live in.

11 We need to recognise that different ways of learning vocabulary will appeal to different children.

  • By providing vocabulary input in different ways.
  • By providing varied opportunities for practice.
  • By giving options for recording and revising vocabulary.

12 We need to train children in learning skills and strategies that will help them to develop their vocabulary.

  • By introducing and modelling a wide range of vocabulary learning strategies (metacognitive, cognitive and socio-affective) with the children.
  • By encouraging children to adopt and use the strategies that they feel work best.
  • By teaching dictionary and reference skills in a systematic way.
  • By providing training in independent strategy use e.g. for spelling: look, cover, write, check
  • By building in opportunities for regular self-evaluation and reflection on own learning.

13 We need to provide opportunities to use vocabulary creatively.

  • By setting up frameworks for creative activities e.g. writing a shape poem or designing a zoo, which allow children to use (even very limited) vocabulary in creative and personally divergent ways.

14 We need to encourage literacy skills in L1 and in English.

  • By encouraging children to ‘read’ pictures and interpret signs and symbols.
  • By encouraging children to make strategic guesses based on what they can see and what they know.
  • By showing and sharing a love of words, in English and the children’s language(s).
  • By modelling how strategies and skills children use in L1, e.g. for discovering the meaning of a word in a text, can be transferred to English.

That’s quite an agenda! It would be great to hear about your experiences of developing children’s vocabulary as well as any comments or things you’d like to add.


Note: This post is an extension of the introduction to the section on ‘Vocabulary and Grammar’ in Read C. 500 Activities for the Primary Classroom Macmillan Education, 2007, where you can also find a range of practical classroom activities to develop children’s vocabulary.

Posted by: carolread | February 7, 2011

U is for Understanding

A quick look at a dictionary tells us that understanding is ‘knowing what someone or something means’. This seems straightforward enough. However, understanding is a complex concept, which is often partial and rarely absolute. The degree and nature of understanding depends on a number of intricately interwoven factors. In everyday life, there is frequently no clear-cut distinction between ‘I understand’ and ‘I don’t understand’. A common pattern is for understanding to be minimal or limited at first, and to gradually grow and develop into something more complete over time.

From a very young age, children have an instinctive desire to relate emotionally and socially to other people. They are also driven to construct understandings and make sense of the world around them. In order to do this, children use every clue they have at their disposal: what they can see, touch and hear in their immediate environment, their perception of the social context, their previous experience of human purposes and intentions, their affective relationship with immediate interlocutors, and the way language is used, including intonation and social interaction.

When children start learning a foreign language, they bring to bear all this previous experience of finding or constructing meaning in order to make sense of the world around them. They also have a potentially similar desire to connect socially and emotionally with other people, and to communicate and share their understandings.

As foreign language teachers, it is our responsibility to guide children towards constructing and creating joint understandings which allow them to find meaning, purpose and relevance in the language activities that we do in class. Through making meaning and language accessible, children are increasingly motivated to use the foreign language to express what they want to say.

Here are twelve things we can do to foster children’s understanding:

1 Create a suitable context for learning – this needs to be natural, real and make sense to the child. It also needs to allow for the active discovery and construction of meaning, and lead to the use of language as a vehicle to do things which are relevant and purposeful.

2 Establish a caring working atmosphere - ensure that children feel safe and secure and know that you value their contributions and questions. Make sure they know it’s OK to ask if they don’t understand.

3 Use speech appropriate to children’s proficiency level – take a leaf out of the book of parents and carers and adapt the speech you use to make it comprehensible, especially to very young children. This may mean, for example, simplifying the syntax you use, using repetition and redundancy, and speaking at a slower pace.  Be careful though that you don’t sound patronising or make children feel you’re treating them like babies!

4 Model processes and use think-aloud protocols - when setting up activities with the whole class, talk through out loud the cognitive processes and instructional procedures that children need to follow to do the activity successfully. This gives them a model to follow and may help them internalise language and understanding.

5 Provide adequate ‘wait time’ - when giving input or asking questions (see Q for Questioning techniques) remember to provide adequate ‘wait time’ (e.g. count to ten in your head) to allow children time to think of questions they would like to ask, or to assimilate your question and formulate a response.

6 Relate learning to personal experiences – whenever possible, provide opportunities for children to make connections between their understanding of lesson themes and their own personal experiences. This consolidates understanding and promotes ‘ownership’ of learning.

7 Encourage conversational interaction (negotiation of meaning) - make it clear that you would like children to comment, ask questions, express opinions in order to help them to process meaning. This may be in their first language, English or a mixture of the two, depending on language competence. Conversational interaction is important in fostering attentiveness and involvement as well as making sure meaning is accessible.

8 Provide appropriate scaffolding or support - be ready to provide a lot of initial scaffolding and support to establish understanding e.g. through the use of real objects, visuals, graphic organisers, mime and drama. Gradually withdraw support, or take down the scaffolding, as children show that they understand and are able to process meaning more independently.

9 Foster learning by doing - as the Chinese proverb goes, “I hear and I forget, I listen and I remember, I do and I understand”. Provide opportunities for children to apply their understanding in experiential learning activities as soon, and as frequently, as you can.

10 Provide opportunities to demonstrate understanding - a powerful way of fixing understanding in children’s minds is to provide them with plenty of opportunities to ‘show they know.’ This may be, for example, by giving a short presentation, creating a parallel version of a story or poem, or acting out a role play to the class.

11 Hand over knowledge and control to the children – very often, and perhaps without meaning to, we fall into the trap of limiting children’s understanding by stopping short of handing over knowledge and control, once children are ready to work more independently. This links directly to the next point.

12 Provide individualized opportunities to extend understanding – use a range of techniques and procedures to encourage children to develop personal interests, follow up with further investigation and take increasing responsibility for their own learning. Use this to enhance motivation and build up confidence and self-esteem.

In addition to fostering children’s understanding, we also need to evaluate it. But that would be the subject of another post …

Any thoughts in the meanwhile? It’d be good to hear.


Notes: this post draws on the writing of Margaret Donaldson Children’s Minds (1978) and Lynne Cameron Teaching Languages to Young Learners (2001). The dictionary referred to is Macmillan English Dictionary. The concept of ‘hand over’ is from Jerome Bruner. Thanks also to Antonia Clare who suggested I write about ‘U for Understanding’ on the IATEFL YLT SIG discussion list.

The sculpture is ‘Le penseur’ by Rodin.

Posted by: carolread | November 8, 2010

T is for Technology

The term ‘digital native’ is often used to refer to someone who has grown up with digital technology and can use it easily and intuitively. The term ‘digital immigrant’ is used to refer to someone who hasn’t grown up with digital technology but has learnt, or is learning, to use it as an adult.

I’ve always felt slightly uncomfortable with both these terms on the grounds that it seems unnecessary to import these labels, and the potential underlying note of prejudice which accompany them, into the digital world. However, at the same time, I recognise that the term ‘digital immigrant’ aptly describes my situation. Along with thousands of other primary language teachers, I am constantly learning to adapt my skills in order to use new, rapidly-changing digital tools for teaching children, and to make the most of technological resources in my professional life, both in and out of the classroom.

Technology in education has come in waves over the years and often mistakenly been seen as a panacea for teaching. I’d like to share three personal landmark examples which illustrate changes in educational technology and show how other ingredients are also essential in creating rich and rewarding learning experiences for children.

As a child, I learnt German in a language laboratory that was my school’s prized new acquisition. Seated in individual booths with cumbersome headphones, we parroted dialogues and drills into a microphone, and could re-record our attempts to imitate the perfectly articulated, adult German voices as many times as we liked. Every so often there was a rushing noise that alerted you to the teacher listening in, ‘big brother’ style, to how you were doing. To this day, I have accurate recall of many of the ‘chunks’ and dialogues I learnt. But, with hindsight, I suspect that this was mainly due to the affection, patience and humour shown by our teacher during these strangely alienating ‘lang lab’ sessions. It was also due to the way she enriched our learning experience by, for example, organising German ‘tea parties’, with goodies such as home-made ‘Apfelstrudel’, to get us to practise and transfer our parroting skills to ‘real life’.

Years later, at a school where I worked after becoming a teacher, we could sign up on a weekly basis to take our classes to the computer room – the days of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL). A mixture of chaos and joy usually ensued as the children, seated two to a computer, played simple vocabulary matching games or did gap-filling tasks, at different levels of difficulty, based on previous work that had been done in class. At the time – pre-internet and before most people had computers at home – the weekly sessions in the computer room were a novelty and welcome break from the classroom. The children who were most savvy at using the computers quickly learnt to perform successfully in all the tasks at the highest levels of difficulty. But how much language learning took place? Well, I’m not sure, and it would be interesting to ask those children what they remember now as adults. As with the language laboratory, however, I would hazard a guess that the overall extent and quality of learning also depended on the way the experience of using the computers was integrated and balanced with other aspects of learning face to face.

Much more recently, last week in fact, I spent time with a class of 11-12 year olds in a Spanish state primary school in which all the children have individual laptops with internet connection in their classroom. The children were using their laptops to work on a biology project on nutrition in their first language. This had involved the teacher giving input in the form of a text projected on the interactive whiteboard (IWB) which the children had copied on to their laptops and then discussed. As follow-up, the children had written personal opinions in response to the text on their laptops. They had then embarked on researching different diseases caused by nutritional deficiencies in groups, using prescribed websites. The children seemed highly motivated and self-driven by the project, which would later lead to a final outcome of giving presentations on their findings to the rest of the class. Their motivation was undoubtedly partly due to pleasure and enjoyment in using their laptops, but not exclusively so, as the children have had the laptops and an IWB in their classroom for almost a year and so the novelty has largely worn off. The main overarching factor seemed to be the enthusiastic and magnetic presence of their teacher, who succeeded in communicating his interest in the subject infectiously, and gave the children constant encouragement and support to help them find their feet in working in an independent and responsible way.

So, what reflections about technology arise from these three examples?

  1. We need to embrace technology (if we are lucky enough to have it available). Unlike the language laboratory which was an isolated educational innovation in its day, technology now infuses all aspects of our daily lives, and language teaching at primary level is no exception.
  2. Technology still needs a teacher. When working with children, technology still needs the face to face presence, encouragement and planned support of a teacher, or more competent other person. Affective relationships between teacher and children are as important as ever, if not more so, given the potential isolation that technology also brings. Technology is a powerful tool to enhance learning but it isn’t a panacea.
  3. Change is relentless but needn’t induce anxiety. The laptops of the children I met last week will be as out of date to them, when they’re adults, as the language laboratory is to me now. How will their children be learning? Technological change is happening at an unprecedented speed – that is a cliché. At the same time, we should not be made to feel anxious or guilty if we are not always fully up-to-date on the latest trends and terminology, as long as we’re willing to keep on learning and experimenting, and don’t adopt self-perpetuating attitudes of ‘learnt helplessness’ (I can’t use it, so I won’t use it).
  4. The methodology we use needs to adapt with the times. If we are to use technology successfully, our methodology needs to adapt and change as new technologies develop and we introduce them into our teaching. For example, as technology provides increasing opportunities for individualised, self-regulated learning (as suggested in the biology example above), it would be counter-productive to continue to teach in a whole class, lockstep way.

In terms of getting started on the basics of using technology in your classes, here are 10 top tips:

  • Strictly ensure that rigorous school internet security procedures are in place.
  • If children are going online, check out and pre-select websites they can use.
  • Prepare and practise as many times as you need to before going into class.
  • Only use tools you feel reasonably comfortable with but remember that ‘learning by doing’ is important as well.
  • Don’t feel pressurised into using technology for its own sake.
  • Don’t worry if things go wrong – it happens, and you can probably learn from it and improve as a result (and the children will love to help out).
  • Have clear learning goals and planned outcomes as for any lesson.
  • Structure lessons to integrate technology with language development and other aims e.g. conceptual, cognitive, socio-cultural.
  • Explain to children about copyright and plagiarism (in their own language). Use strategies to ensure that children don’t copy and paste text directly from websites and claim it as their own work.
  • Encourage children to be creative and take pride in their work but be wary of letting them spend a lot of class time, e.g. preparing beautiful powerpoint slides, which may be hard to justify in terms of their language development.

Any thoughts or comments? It’d be great to hear your views.


Note: I’m very aware that this post only applies to educational contexts where technology is easily available and electricity cuts are rare. It’s also likely to be more relevant to teaching upper primary rather than very young children.

The terms ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ were originally coined by Marc Prensky.

For useful technology tips and resources visit Nik Peachey’s blog and if you’re interested in doing online courses to learn about different aspects of technology such as using wikis, webquests, podcasts and blogs, visit the Consultants-E

The photo is from Footprints 3, Macmillan Education.

Posted by: carolread | October 25, 2010

S is for Storytelling

How often do you start the day at work exchanging stories with colleagues about, for example, why the bus was late, the film you saw last night, or who you met by chance on the way home? When we watch the news on television, presenters also often refer to the main news of the day as ‘our top stories’.

Stories are central to our lives. As Jerome Bruner has said: “we represent our lives to ourselves (as well as others) in the form of narrative”. In other words, listening to, telling and sharing stories forms a fundamental part of our identity and how we are perceived by others. For this reason, Bruner also believes that it is vital to create a ‘narrative sensibility’ in children in their own language(s) through giving them access to and familiarity with conventional stories, myths, fables, histories, fairy tales and folk tales that are part of their own culture(s). It is these stories combined with the child’s evolving powers of comprehension, analysis, discussion and imagination that play an instrumental role in developing children’s sense of who they are.

The value of stories in children’s first language development is backed up by extensive research. One classic example is the longitudinal study of children in Bristol described by Gordon Wells. This provides strong evidence to suggest that young children who are read to and told stories from a very young age have considerable advantages later on at school, not only in the development of literacy skills, which you might expect, but also in the development of social skills, such as empathising and being able to relate to others. Conversely, children who are not exposed to stories at an early age tend to do less well later, both in terms of literacy and in terms of integrating with others at school.

It is arguable that stories can play a similar role in the context of children learning a second, additional or foreign language as well. From my own experience over many years of teaching, I am convinced that it can. In our classes with children, the magic of stories seems to lie in the way that they provide shared contexts for promoting participation and developing emerging language skills in a natural and spontaneous way. Stories also potentially engage children’s hearts and minds, as people and as thinkers, with issues that are relevant, real and important to them.

I’d like to share two examples from my own teaching experience which illustrate this:

The first is chosen with the approach of Halloween in mind! It comes from a time when I organised a drama week at the school where I was working to coincide with the end of the autumn term. The aim of the drama week was to provide a framework in which children from different classes could perform to each other. Teachers signed up and ‘performances’ were timetabled according to different ages and levels. Ground rules were kept to a minimum: contributions were to be short (no more than ten minutes); there could be dressing up and props but no-one was expected to do anything too elaborate.

In preparation for the drama week, my own class (a group of 6-7 year old beginners) chose to dramatise the children’s picture book we had recently read for Halloween, Meg and Mog. The children had loved the story and were extremely enthusiastic at the prospect of putting on a play. The project included rehearsals, making masks and props, planning costumes, making programmes and invitations, and lasted over several weeks. Although the final production was modest (see photo above), the children felt a huge sense of achievement. There were a number of significant benefits in the longer term too, including increased confidence and motivation, greater class solidarity, improvement in the children’s willingness to use of English as a natural part of classroom communication, and greater involvement and positive support from their parents. However, the thing that amazed me most as a result of the experience of dramatizing Meg and Mog was the subsequent desire of the children to act out every story that we read together in class! This became something of a ritual with every storytelling session ending with cries of I want to be … / Can I be …? and an instantly improvised play. This is one example of the way in which stories, in this case combined with drama, engage and motivate children to develop language in a rich and naturally contextualised way.

The second example is rather different and comes from a time when I was invited to a conference in a country that had recently emerged from a long and bitter war. The conference organizers asked me whether I would be willing to demonstrate storytelling techniques with a group of children in the main conference hall for teachers to come and observe. So it came about that I did a storytelling lesson with a group of 30 children, aged 9 -12, with 90 teachers observing – probably one of the most challenging conference sessions I have ever done in my life! I had never met the children before and did not speak a word of their language, although they had been learning English for at least one year, and some of them for longer. The story I chose to use with them was a big book version of Something Else, a wonderful story about difference and exclusion.

At the start of the session, I was extremely aware of 90 pairs of teacherly eyes watching my every move (!), but as the lesson got underway, I completely forgot their presence and focussed entirely on the children. The children’s response to the story was one of the most powerful and moving teaching moments I have ever experienced. Their ability to relate the story to their country’s recent experience of war and suffering was extraordinary. Their attempts to use every bit of English they had available to try to convey and communicate to me, as an outsider to their country, their amazingly mature views about how wrong it is for people to exclude, hate and fight each other, were impressive, and you could have heard a pin drop in the hall as they took turns to speak. As well as bringing home the power of stories in a way that I’ll never forget, this experience led me to think how we perhaps often underestimate the maturity of children’s thinking. It also made me reflect on how refreshingly open children are in discussing complex and difficult issues that, as adults, we often shy away from.

I know that many people reading this will already be convinced of the value of stories. It would be wonderful to hear your views and share experiences of stories you have used.


Bruner J. The culture of Education, Harvard University Press, 1996

Cave K. & Riddell C. Something Else, Picture Puffin, 1995

Nicholl H. & Pienkowski J. Meg and Mog, Picture Puffin, 1982

Wells G. The Meaning Makers: learning to talk and talking to learn, (2nd Edition), Multilingual Matters, 2009

Notes: The above is based on posts I wrote as guest blogger on Storytelling on the British Council Teaching English website in February 2010. For examples, of story-based materials, see also the Magic Pencil and promoting diversity through children’s literature on the same site. For further reading on picture books, see Opal Dunn’s classic collection of Real Book News also on the same site, and visit Sandie Mourao’s blog.

Posted by: carolread | October 17, 2010

R is for Relationships

The letter ‘R’ is a bumper letter for this ABC and it’s tempting for me to write about the 7 ‘R’s. I originally developed the 7 ‘R’s to use on primary teacher education courses in order to encourage teachers to reflect on initiatives they could take to establish positive working parameters with a new class. The 7 ‘R’s are: Relationships, Rules, Routines, Rights, Responsibilities, Respect and Rewards. For each ‘R’ it is important to have a vision of how you would ideally like things to be in your classes, and then work pro-actively, patiently and persistently to make it happen. I have written about the 7 ‘R’s in detail elsewhere (1), and so here I plan to focus on the one I believe is the most fundamental: Relationships.

If you think back to a teacher you had at school who made a positive difference to your life, the chances are that the reasons will include something to do with your relationship. No matter how knowledgable, skilled, trendy or cool, it’s almost always the affective side of things that tips the balance into making a teacher, and the accompanying learning experience, memorable and have lasting impact.

Some years ago, I was curious to find out children’s perceptions of their teachers rather than rely only on the hindsight that comes with adulthood. Inspired by another survey I had read about, which had been carried out with adults (2), I decided to conduct a similar small scale survey of 120 children between the ages of six and eleven at a local school in Madrid (3). In replicating the adult survey, this survey consisted of one question only (translated into the children’s first language): What makes a teacher special for you? The children were invited to respond in their first language, noting down as few or as many ideas that came into their heads in any way they liked. The survey was explained and administered by the children’s class teachers.

From the children’s responses, a set of qualities were identified and then scored. These overwhelmingly reflected children’s own perceptions of the ‘special’ importance of their relationships with their teachers. The qualities included teachers who are fair, patient, caring, affectionate, kind, funny, listen to you, help you, make you work, treat you as a ‘person’, tell you off if necessary, but don’t get angry or shout. With younger children, there was a tendency to include physical factors such as ‘good-looking’, ‘wears nice clothes’, and even ‘smells nice’! With older children, there was a tendency to focus on other aspects of teaching, in addition to relationships, such as ‘makes lessons interesting’ and ‘explains things clearly’ although these categories were perceived as less important than other qualities in the overall scoring.

The survey was carried out informally and was too small scale to provide hard evidence that can easily be generalized from. Nevertheless, I believe that reflecting on the ‘special’ qualities of teachers, as identified and valued by children themselves, can provide a useful basis for thinking about the relationships we would like to establish with our classes. Although we all have our own unique personality and ‘teaching persona’ and set about establishing relationships in different ways, the following general points (4) can help in getting off to a positive start:

  • Learn the children’s names as soon as you can and always use them.
  • Avoid having favourites (or at least make sure that this doesn’t show).
  • Listen to what children have to say (if a child wants to tell you something at an inappropriate moment, postpone till later but don’t then forget, as this will give the message that you’re not really interested).
  • Distribute your attention equitably round the class; try not to fall into the trap of paying most attention to the children who are most demanding.
  • Build up children’s confidence and self-esteem and encourage them to believe they can succeed.
  • Be patient if you need to explain or give instructions more than once.
  • Create time for personalised moments in which you convey that you know and care about each child as an individual. This may be, for example, at the start or end of lessons before or after formal teaching begins or while children are working individually.
  • Model behaviour that you would also like the children to adopt. For example, be polite and courteous, use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when you ask them to do things, smile and greet them whether in or out of the classroom.
  • Use praise appropriately to provide constructive feedback and encourage participation and effort.
  • Use inclusive language to create a sense of community e.g. Let’s … / Today we’re going to … etc..
  • Use humour and show a sense of fun.
  • Be fair and firm about enforcing rules and insisting on children’s adherence to classroom norms.
  • Be flexible. Offer children choices about what to do and how to do it whenever you can.
  • Be ready to ‘go with the flow’ and adapt what you were planning to do if children seem particularly interested (or uninterested) in the content of the lesson.
  • Keep calm at all times; try not to raise your voice or shout.
  • If you tell a child off, make it clear it’s their behaviour that you don’t like, not them.
  • Respect children’s personal space. Try not to tower over them or move too close which may be threatening.
  • Be consistent. If you say that you or the class will do something, make sure it happens.
  • Mark and return work promptly. Be constructive in your comments and respond to children’s intended meanings, rather than just language accuracy or spelling.
  • Remember important personal details about the children you teach e.g. the name of their cat or the musical instrument they are learning to play. Ask about and refer to these in and out of lessons as appropriate. (If you teach a lot of children and it’s impossible to remember such details, create a column in your register or keep a notebook where you jot down this kind of information as you find it out.)
  • Make children feel special regularly e.g. by celebrating their birthdays, appointing a  ‘Special child of the day‘ e.g. once a week, doing activities such as thought tunnels and circle time deliberately designed to raise levels of personal self-esteem.
  • Above all be sincere and genuine – even very young children can sense if their teachers are faking it.

As you develop your relationship with different classes and children, it is a good idea to get into the habit of monitoring yourself and how things are going. Through reflection and analysis of your own behaviour (the only person in the class whose behaviour you can actually change), you will be able to identify aspects of this that make your relationships work better and produce a more positive response in the children.

Do you have any thoughts on the importance of relationships in teaching children and how we make them work? It’d be very interesting to hear your views …


Notes: 1) The 7 ‘R’s are described in detail in 500 Activities, Macmillan Education. 2) I read about the adult survey in an article (I think) by Michael Berman. I haven’t been able to track down the exact reference and will be grateful if anyone knows, so I can add this. 3) The survey was carried out at Arturo Soria School with the help of my friend and colleague, Ana Soberón. 4) The general points on establishing positive relationships with children are an extension of ones suggested in 500 Activities.

Posted by: carolread | October 8, 2010

Q is for Questioning techniques

It’s easy to fall into the trap of asking children lots of questions during lessons in a way which is automatic, unreflective and often not very purposeful or productive. It takes awareness, skill and practice to ask children questions in a way that engages them emotionally, awakens their curiosity, promotes thinking and a spirit of enquiry, and supports and extends their language development and learning.

There are many different ways of categorising questions and it can be helpful to think of two broad types which we commonly use. These are questions with a socio-psychological purpose and questions with a pedagogical purpose.

Questions with a socio-psychological purpose

We use questions with a socio-psychological purpose to establish and maintain positive, trusting relationships between ourselves and the children we teach, and between the children themselves. These include most obviously all the kinds of personalised questions we ask to get to know our children better and transmit that we care about them as individuals e.g. What did you do at the weekend? When do you have your violin lesson? How’s your baby sister? Is your dog coming to collect you today? (unless of course you’re asking these questions just to test children’s knowledge of a particular structure or lexical area and are only interested in the language accuracy rather than the content of their responses).

Questions with a socio-psychological purpose also include questions we ask to encourage children to adhere to classroom routines e.g. So what do we need to do when we listen to the story? and to follow instructions and procedures e.g. What should you do next? They also include questions we use to foster children’s respect and willingness to listen to each other e.g. What do other people think about that idea? and to show that we’re interested in and value what they have to say e.g. I think Marina has a good plan. Would you like to share it with us, Marina? Questions with a socio-psychological purpose can also help us to manage our classes and prevent or deal with discipline problems e.g. Nacho, I need you to decide. Are you going to start the activity now or are you going to work on your own in the ‘time out’ chair? It’s your choice.

Questions with a pedagogical purpose

We use questions with a pedagogical purpose in order to give us feedback about the learning process and to find out about and extend children’s knowledge, skills and attitudes in relation to the content of the curriculum. Questions with a pedagogical purpose can be broadly divided into two types:

1 Closed questions (generally lower-level cognitive demand): Closed questions require a specific response or yes/no answer and are the type of question that teachers tend to use most e.g. What’s this? What colour is … ? How many …? Closed questions are useful for getting feedback on specific aspects of what you think you have taught, prompting recall, checking comprehension and ‘testing’ what the children know or can remember. When used judiciously, closed questions with low-level cognitive demand can also encourage participation especially with beginners, less confident learners and very young children. However, if these are the only types of questions used in class, they can severely limit the potential development of children’s communicative and cognitive skills.

2 Open questions (generally higher-level cognitive demand): Open questions are invitations to think and explore ideas and issues through, for example, reasoning, imagining, inventing, hypothesising, predicting, comparing and evaluating e.g. What do you notice about …? What if …? What do you think happens next? How do you know? Open questions have no set answers. They are useful for challenging children to think things through for themselves and act as a springboard for extending and developing their emerging language. Open questions are also useful for getting children to begin to notice aspects of grammar or to compare their mother tongue with English, as well as to help them reflect on their own learning and develop metacognitive skills. However, when using open questions, you need to be aware of children’s possible feelings of frustration at the language demands involved in the responses they want to give, and be ready to extend, remodel and recast, or accept in L1, what they want to say as necessary.

Some general things to bear in mind when developing your own questioning techniques to use with your classes:

  1. Think about and prepare key pedagogical questions in relation to the content of your lesson before going into class.
  2. Keep a balance in the language and cognitive demands of questions and make sure they are appropriate for the age and level of the children you’re teaching.
  3. Make sure you include everyone and distribute questions fairly round the class. Don’t allow the same child or children to always answer however keen they may be.
  4. Vary the types of questions you ask different individual children according to their ability and confidence.
  5. Sequence questions you ask from easier to more challenging in order to give children an opportunity to rehearse using the language and lead them to develop increasingly higher order thinking skills.
  6. As well as our skill in asking questions, skill in the way we deal with responses is equally important. Remember to pause to give thinking time for children to answer before you leap in and either repeat, rephrase or redirect the question – or, as sometimes happens, answer it yourself!
  7. Be aware of the range of strategies you can use to respond to children’s answers e.g. accepting, praising, withholding or giving instant feedback, extending, inviting alternatives, questioning, modifying, probing, correcting or prompting self-correction. Ensure that you do not reject answers outright (unless they are deliberately facetious) but rather build on children’s responses (even if they aren’t correct) in a positive way.
  8. As part of your questioning techniques, it is also important to create a classroom culture where children are encouraged to regularly ask their own questions both to each other and to you. You can do this by explicitly inviting questions about what children are learning e.g. Who’s got a question about how dolphins communicate? / Maria, choose someone to ask what they think as well as including formulating questions an integral part of classroom activities e.g. We’re going to read about rainforests. What are some of the questions we’d like to find answers to? Let’s make a list.

Some of the ideas in this post link to ‘O for Oracy’ and are part of the same theme. It’d be great to hear further thoughts and anything you’d like to add.


Note: photo by Terry Freedman

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