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The 12 Days of Managing VYL Classes

The 12 Days of Managing VYL Classes

The 12 Days of Christmas Managing VYL:

12 Ways I try to ensure my lessons are the sparkliest thing in my VYL classrooms.

One of the toughest things about teaching little people is that, well, they behave like little people!

Not long ago I promised the ‘Teaching Very Young Learners’ Facebook group a Christmas gift. So here it is (albeit a little late). I’m sharing 12 things that have helped me over the years to improve my classroom management.

No matter how competent and confident you are with your teaching in general, Very Young Learners are not Adults or Young Learners. And teaching VYL is not the same as teaching other groups. Far from it. And it’s much easier to cope with a 5 yr old (and indeed 2, 3, 4, 6 year old) behaving like a 5 year old when you’re able to anticipate it. Learning a bit about early childhood development will help with both understanding their behaviour and also planning your lessons accordingly. Thus helping to avoid many of the classroom management issues us experienced VYL teachers know all too well. I therefore highly recommend to all those teaching VYL, particularly those new to the age group, taking a teacher development course like the International House IH VYL (Disclosure: I mention this particular course because I work for IHWO), or at least reading books, journals articles, blogs etc on the topic. Lesson planning is so very important for classroom management. All the tips in the world won’t help if the activities and language aren’t age appropriate.

But for now what you really want is for me to get on with said tips, right? Getting there.

You should know (so that you don’t reach the end disappointed) that this post isn’t a replacement for the above or even a list of classroom implications e.g. ‘They have short attention spans so keep activities short’ (Although I do have other blog posts for that – see links at the bottom of this post). It’s not even a list of activities that work well with this age group, sorry. I don’t have anything flashy, new of fancy to share.  Rather it’s a list of simple things that I have personally found to be effective for me, in my own classrooms.

Something else important to note, I called this the 12 days of managing VYL classes because I don’t think super efficient VYL classroom management something you should expect yourself to achieve overnight. Maybe not even in 12 lessons. It’s more realistic to try one thing at a time and slowly build your classroom management techniques with trial and error, tweaking as you go so that your techniques suit both you and your learners. Effective classroom management is a work in progress for all of us. With every new student, class, comes a new challenge, a new way of doing things.


WARNING: If you thought the introduction was lengthy. Get ready. Super long blog post ahead! Can you make it to number 12?


What: I take 5 minutes before the lesson starts to prep both myself and the room
I do my best (although sometimes with other lessons being taught immediately beforehand it’s not perfect) to arrive in plenty of time to set up the classroom and get organised. I don’t just mean moving tables around or taking flashcards out of my bag. I mean taking a moment to look around the classroom and visualise where I will stand for each part of the lesson and where the learners will be. What they will be doing. How they will be reacting. This includes managing my space, thinking about where I will do different things e.g. will I sit with my back to the board for the flashcard games? The back left corner with my back to the window for the story? And also placing the materials I will need for each task within easy reach. I might put my flashcards in a pile on the floor close to where I plan to sit, my story book on a back table or the window sill, some sticky tac on the board ready for a board race etc.
Why: It only takes a moment to lose them to a dried leaf on the bottom of their shoe. To say prevention is better than a cure is an understatement when teaching VYL and the proverb underpins almost every one of the below ideas.

Read the rest of this entry

Food for thought: The role of play in TEVYL (Teaching English to Very Young Learners)

Who doesn't like a table full of enticing food that you can choose from as you wish?

Who doesn’t like a table full of enticing food that you can choose from as you wish?

The school year started this week here in Prague and it was a big week for my family as my twins started preschool. It’s big for them and big for me as it means I’m changing my workload and routine after more than 3 yrs on (semi) maternity leave.

This past weekend the kids and I attended a princess and superheroes party. The kids loved it as they got to dress up and I loved it as the birthday girl is Korean and her mummy made an enormous plate of yummy gimbap. Mmmmm.

It didn’t take long for the conversation in the mummy circle at the Princess and Superheroes party to turn to preschool. One of the mums commented to me that she didn’t want her child in state preschool as it was “basically babysitting”. When I asked her what she meant she elaborated, “Well they can’t possibly do stuff with them when there are so many kids for only one teacher”. I assume by “do stuff” she meant some kind of structured activity. Whilst she does have a point that our state preschools are understaffed, in defense of the hard working teachers, I replied that firstly, I have taught in Czech state preschools and assure her that with patience and practice it is indeed possible to “do stuff” with up to 28 preschoolers, and that secondly, free play is really important and that whilst it might look like babysitting, the environment is such that the kids are learning valuable skills. She gave me a ‘let’s agree to disagree’ kind of look so I left it there and wished her kids well. Besides, there was more yummy gimbap to be eaten and who doesn’t love a table full of food to choose from? That’s something we can surely all agree on 😉

As part of my ‘new school year resolutions’, I have decided to read a teaching/EFL/YL related article every day. When I saw the below article posted in a ‘Bumps, Babies and Toddlers’ facebook group I belong to, I decided to make it my article of the day as it’s relevant to both my professional and personal life right now. Whilst I don’t plan to write about every article I read. I do want to share this one. Or at least this line of thought…

Click here to read: The decline of play in preschoolers and the rise in sensory issues

Whilst I’m not fully convinced it’s so cut and dry, I do believe we need to be more mindful (and by we I mean both parents and educators) of the importance of play in preschool and reading this article brought me back to thoughts that have been running through my mind for the past 3 years.

While doing my MA, particularly my dissertation which focuses on VYL,  I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of play (in general), but more specifically, how to really foster it and incorporate it into TEFL (or as I use in the heading, TEVYL). In the above article the author talks about parents and their desperation to fill their kids to the brim with ‘academic’ activities as early as possible and I feel this is especially relevant when it comes to teaching English to VYL. How many of our learners parents are paying for English class because they want their kids to have a ‘head start’? How many of our schools advertise our classes that way? How can we find a happy balance between embracing play, and more importantly free play, whilst still keeping our fee paying parents happy?

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of seeing the wonderful Sandie Mourao speak at the International House Young Learners Conference (which was this year held in Torres Vedras). One of the highlights for many of us at the conference was hearing Sandie speak about ELAs (English Learning Areas) in pre-primary classrooms. Such a simple, brilliant and yet obvious idea. Why weren’t more of us doing it already? We left Sandie’s session and the conference feeling both inspired and incredibly envious of those that already had the resources to implement such a project. Our minds were buzzing with ways to incorporate this idea into our own contexts. Below is a link to the project report which is well worth reading and one possible way to include more play in TEVYL.

Click here to read: English Learning Areas in the pre-primary classroom: An investigation of their effectiveness

What do you think? Food for thought?

And since you took the time to read until the end, as an added bonus on the topic of play, how cool are these free printables?

Click here to see 32 FREE pretend Play Printables

Princess Turkey and Spiderman

Until next time….

Using songs and chants in the YL classroom

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wpid-fb_img_1426189219067.jpgBoom Chicka Boom!

Thank you to those of you who attended my session at the IH Torun Teacher Training Day, April 18 2015. You will find a link to the handout at the bottom of this post.

Literature is full of references to the efficacy of music as a tool for both first and second language acquisition, but are songs and chants utilized as much as they could be in the second language learning classroom? I’ve loved singing and music for as long as I can remember, and been interested in using them in the classroom since I stepped foot in one.

How do you feel about using songs in the YL Classroom?

YL coursebooks are full of songs and chants. And why not? Using songs and chants as a pedagogical tool to teach children language is a natural and logical choice. Singing is a natural and popular medium for both parent and child and by the time children come to us in the second language learning classroom, they are often already equipped with a catalogue of songs, chants, and rhymes. Children live in musical worlds. In fact, according to research, babies as early as in the womb pay more attention to singing than speaking and it’s suggested that from very early ages there is little distinction between singing and speech.

Are you happy to sing? Why? Why not?

According to Trinick (2012), Lee believes songs are not being used as much as they should be in the classroom and suggests the root may be that they are viewed purely as entertainment, or that teachers lack understanding into the theoretical underpinnings or application and methodology. Could it be as Carless and Douglas (2011) surmise that the significance of the ubiquity of songs goes unnoticed? Trinick (2012) concurs and cites Tracey, ‘there is a tendency to overlook familiar, everyday materials and resources’. As Rogers (no date) attests, literature ‘abounds with positive statements regarding the efficacy of music as a vehicle for first and second language acquisition’. Indeed countless resource books for teachers, coursebooks, TESOL websites and blogs proffer advice, activities and encouragement*. *See handout link for resource list

Are you ruling the TEFL world Beyonce style in your classroom? Or are you pressing play on the CD and hoping for the best?

Maybe you do want to sing in class, and it’s not that you’re afraid to, but you just:

• can’t be bothered • don’t have time (you do one at the end of the lesson if you need to fill in time)

• aren’t sure what songs to sing

• aren’t sure how to sing the songs

• aren’t sure how to teach the songs

• have never done it before

• hate the songs in the coursebooks

• would rather teach grammar and other important things

• are actually a T-rex and therefore can’t sing. Or clap.

I urge you to think about using songs and chants in the YL classroom.


‘Children love rhythm, music and movement, and it is widely recognised that the use of rhymes, chants and songs contribute to young children’s overall social, linguistic, physical, cognitive and emotional development. When starting to learn a foreign language, rhymes, chants and songs play a special role in drawing children into producing language in ways which are natural, spontaneous and enjoyable. As well as enhancing children’s learning and acquisition of language, the use of rhymes chants and songs promotes the development of positive attitudes and motivation towards learning a foreign language in both immediate and longer term. Give their many potential benefits for learning, there is a strong case for making rhymes, chants and songs a fully integrated component of any programme to learn English.’

(Read 2007)


It’s all about confidence, enthusiasm and having fun. Songs and chants are perfect for the YL classroom as they present language in a fun and memorable way and allow our students to experiment with the sounds of English. Many teachers, however, despite being fully aware of the potential of songs and chants fall a little short because they lack the confidence to pull it off in the classroom. Confidence and enthusiasm is key. Students need to know the teacher feels good about the song in order for them to. It really doesn’t matter if you’re a little off key and no Mariah Carey. Chances are your students won’t notice or will feel more comfortable knowing you are normal just like them. What will stop your students joining in is if they see you aren’t 100% comfortable. It’s fine to have a CD player for back up. But don’t rely on it, and whatever you do don’t stand at the front of the class lip syncing and conducting (but not actually singing) expecting them to do all the work. If you are enthusiastic and singing along you are more likely to get them to join in.

Want to know more?

You can read my 5 tips for using songs in my YL Column in the next issue of the IH Journal here

You can get a handout on Using Songs and Chants in the YL Classroom here Boomchickaboom_handout_April2015

I’d love to know how you feel about using songs and chants in the YL classroom.

Until next time!

CARLESS, David and DOUGLAS, Kitrina (2011). What’s in a song? how songs contribute to the communication of social science research. British journal of guidance & counselling, 39 (5), 439-454.

READ, Carol (2007). 500 activities for the primary classroom. Oxford, Macmillan. Macmillan Books for Teachers.

TRINICK, Robyn Margaret (2012). Sound and sight: The use of song to promote language learning. General music today, 25 (2), 5-10.

Teaching VYL

Teaching VYL

I’ve been busy the last year being a part of the writing team for a new IHWO teacher training course, the IH VYL.

International House Certificate in Teaching Very Young Learners

We piloted the course face to face  in 4 different schools around the world and now it has been released online via the IHWO OTTI (Online Teacher Training Institute).

First online course starts 27th September 2014 October 25th!

Ziga Ziga ah!

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Ziga Ziga ah!

This year seems to be year of the project work presentation for me. In January 2014 I gave a short mini-presentation called ‘Bringing Language to Life’ at the IHWO DOS Conference in London. I wrote a ridiculously long blog post about it. Anyway, I was overwhelmed by the positive response so I wrote about project work for my column in the IH Journal and went on to give a full presentation on spicing up project work for YL’s at the 2014 YL Conference in Bristol. As luck (or bad luck in this case) would have it, we were running over, technology failed me, I was full up with a head cold and couldn’t hear myself speak let alone think or put clear sentences together etc etc, yes please do play tiny violins, I was really disappointed in myself. It ended up being a rushed mush of a few potentially good points hidden in the gabble. Well, that’s how I felt about it anyway, so I decided that instead of moping around thinking ‘Ohhh if only blah blah’…I would revamp it and give myself a second shot ready for the Akcent IH Prague Teacher’s Conference.

The Akcent Confernece has now been and gone, and a number of people from both conferences have requested the presentation. So below are the slides (for the IH Prague version) and here are my ‘notes’.ziga ziga ah IHP notes I must point out that when writing my notes I was flicking through the books listed at the end of my slides. I never intended to publish or share my notes. They were intended for my eyes only to read through before I stood up and did my thing, so there is no referencing or citation through the text, or paragraphing, proofreading, full sentences, any of that normal stuff. But you asked for it and I’m feeling generous. Just not generous enough with my time to change them in anyway.


Until next time…


Bringing Lasagne to Life: A ridiculously long blog post

One of the best things about working for IHWO is their conferences. I have to tell you, be jealous folk, be very jealous, as the IHWO 2014 DOS conference certainly didn’t disappoint. It’s right up there with my favourite conferences of all time. Did I mention Patsy M. Lightbown sat at my lunch table. Twice!! Yes, THE Patsy M. Lightbown! This TEFL geek was in teflygeek heaven, I tell you. Bravo Shaun Wilden and OUP, Bravo!

As promised, (thanks for all your interest), I’ve logged on to the ghost town that is my blog (I promise to make more of an effort in 2014) and here I am, sharing my ‘speed dating’ presentation with you. Enjoy!

What was it?

The title of my mini presentation was ‘Bringing Language to Life’, or as those who’d spent the evening before at the hotel bar called it, ‘Bringing Lasagne to Life’. Either way, I took 3 age groups and 3 problems and presented 3 super easy media projects (so easy that even the biggest of technophobes can manage them, promise!).

Age Group 1photo3 ihdos14

Very Young Learners


This age group struggle a bit with CAE and FCE given they generally can’t read or write. Parents, however, want some kind of evidence that their child is learning and that their money has been well spent. And so was born the ‘end of year performance’ <sigh>. In my experience end year performance teachers fall somewhere on a scale between SDT and OST. Allow me to elaborate….

Behold, Exhibit A: The super-duper-make-the-rest-of-us-feel-bad teacher. AKA as the SDT. The SDT is an amazing teacher who works hard all year long to get the most language and learning they can happening in their fun filled classroom. The SDT’s students are equally amazing, how could they not be? The SDT spends months meticulously planning a spectacular end of year performance with hours and hours of rehearsals, quite possibly with props and costumes.

And at the other end of the end of year performance spectrum we have the debatably more common, Exhibit B: The oh-shit-is-that-today teacher. AKA as the OST. The OST really doesn’t give a hoot about the end of year performance. They followed the coursebook. Most of the time. Kept the kids alive. What more do you want? Besides, their class love singing ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’. Again. And, if you, their DOS, will be there, what the hell, they may even push out the boat and throw in some actions too.

Many a great YL teacher started an SDT. Slowly though, teyl-land eats away at them and even the most passionate and dedicated will likely have at least one OST experience. Why? Because they know what we all know in the TEYL world: regardless of whether they had an SDT or OST, 90% of the time, (possibly higher) the little darlings stand there staring at the floor. Or, at best, sing ‘heads, shoulders, knees and poo’. Because, let’s face it, that’s hilarious! It’s at that point some of us realise, it wasn’t just for the parents, we could have done with some sort of feedback on our hard work throughout the year too. <insert virtual hugs for all>

A few years back I had a super amazing class of 5 year olds. It was their first year learning English and they were fab. Naturally then, leading up to open door week, I couldn’t wait to see the look of pride on each parent’s face whilst observing their child’s brilliance. I think you can guess where this is going. Did they shine and glow and woo us with their very presence? Of course they didn’t. They mucked about, ignored me, threw things or stood silently and even said loudly and clearly to me in Czech (on more than one occasion throughout the lesson) ‘Nemluvim Anglicky’, I don’t speak English. The parents actually didn’t mind. They gave me a sympathetic look. The kind you might give to Brad Pitt’s character in 12 monkeys. I couldn’t quite believe my 8 little monkeys had let me down. Where did I go wrong?


An end of year film premiere!

For the final month of the school year, I spent one of the two 45-minute weekly lessons working together with the class on our ‘movie project’.

1. They voted for their favourite book. Hungry Caterpillar! (woohoo! My favourite too).

2. We spent every lesson leading up to the premiere on language work. It was both explicit and integrated. We worked on obvious language points from the book (colours, days of the week, food etc), language for project work and language that came up and was requested by the students. I was pleasantly surprised at just how much language they asked for and used because they really wanted to communicate with me and be involved. In my eyes it was a successful project even without the end product.

3. The kids drew and cut out pictures for the story. I gave them all some blue tack and they decided where the pictures would go on a back drop, as I read out the story.

4. The kids took it in turns to take photos of the backdrops with the pictures tacked on. Between you and me, I had to retake quite a lot of the pictures, but they think they took them, and that’s the main thing. They decided, on their own, that they would say the words ‘ready, picture, go!’ just before taking each picture (which was a cue for the other students to move out the way). How super cute is that?

5. I showed them all the pictures on a slide show and informed them we needed sound. I’d found 5 different ‘garden’ sounds on the internet the night before the lesson which I let them listen to and choose which one they liked. They talked to each other in Czech about what they could hear and asked me how to say different things in English e.g. ‘Cricket’ ‘frog’ ‘wind’ (I always pretend I can’t speak any Czech. Not at all difficult given my current…ermm..abilities) .

6. Using an MP3 player I recorded the students telling the story. The first recording was mayhem as the kids fighting over what was ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and who said what better, so in the end, we agreed that each student would take it in turns. I wanted motivation to remain super high, so I didn’t do any correction. Plus, I think it’s cute on the final video when you hear one little girl repeatedly say caterpilly and a little boy in the background explain to another little boy (in Czech) that the caterpillar is very hungry.

7. I put the pictures together into a slideshow using picassa (a free photo editing program). I then added the MP3 file of the kids reading the story and changed the speed of the slide transitions so that they matched the recording. I also chose different kinds of transitions e.g. zooming in and out, so that it looked more movie like. Once I was happy with this I added some subtitles, for the parents. This part of the project was done by me, obviously. Trust me though, it was all very easy. Matching the slide transitions to the voice over was time consuming but easy. Probably even easier for someone who actually knows what they are doing 😀

I really wanted to include the kids as much as possible and feel proud of everything they’d had a hand in, and no movie is complete without credits, so I took the kids to the computer room, showed the draft of our movie/slideshow on a big screen using a data projector, and let them choose the fonts for credits. They LOVED seeing their names on the big screen.

Finally, I added photos of the kids actually doing the project at the end of the ‘movie’. I did this in the computer room with the kids watching on the big screen and we discussed what they were doing and the project in general. I asked them what song they wanted for these final photos and they replied ‘apples’. No idea what they wanted. I had the Andrews Sisters ‘Don’t sit under the apple tree’ on my laptop, so I added that. They liked it because it had the word apple in it. Youtube on the other hand didn’t like that bit :/ So I’m not going to breech copyright and include a link to the video here. You’ll have to use your imagination 😀

8. Now that the kids had seen the draft, they were super excited, so we made event posters, invitations and tickets.

9. On the day of the premiere, we set the computer room up with rows of seats and red carpet and of course a big screen. We had ‘paparazzi’ and I invited everyone who was in the staffroom and offices etc at the time. One by one I invited each child to walk in on the red carpet. The crowd clapped and cheered. The paparazzi snapped. I couldn’t stop smiling watching their little faces beam. During the movie the kids couldn’t keep quiet ‘Mum, I took that photo’ ‘Mum, I drew that egg, I wanted to use an Easter egg by Teacher Kylie told me it should be a caterpillar egg’, ‘Mum, it turns into a caterpillar at the end’, ‘shsssshhh, don’t tell her the end, it’s only hungry now’ etc etc. The room was buzzing and it was the cutest thing ever. The kids were talking to their parents in Czech, but, it was obvious to the parents that in English lessons, a LOT happens in English.

Age Groupphoto4 ihdos14



‘What do we use English for?’ They haven’t quite turned ‘sour’ just yet. They are potential teacher pleasers, but they don’t really know why they should bother learning this weird language with funny spelling.


I did what many YL teachers, including myself, have done before: A class comic.

The example I gave at the conference was my favourite of all time titled ‘Magic Planet’. The main characters, Matej the Wizzard and his pet lion Mr Sock aka The Strongest Lion in The World  lived together, as best friends, in Bradavice castle (google translate it J) on ‘Magic Planet’. Matej and Mr Sock both love aliens, pizza, trains and dinosaurs, naturally, and so like to pass the time by travelling to earth in their spaceship to see different time periods.

The first part of the project involved creating the characters, adjectives to describe them etc and deciding where they live and what they like to do. Then, after each unit in the coursebook we added a new chapter to our comics. The successfully used past simple to talk about dinosaurs and made interesting predictions about the students of the future. The most interesting chapter was when their assistant, Mrs Kylie, got stuck in a train toilet and had to be rescued by Mr Sock…’ll see in a moment where I’m going with this…..

We didn’t use any fancy apps or programmes. Students designed their own costumes which they brought to class with them on project days. We drew up some story boards, then went out into the garden and took photos of the students acting out the scenes. (Yes, I did. Yes, I was). These were then posted into a word document and the students then added speech bubbles to each photo. Students were allowed to ask me for vocab (which they did) and encouraged to use spell check and ask each other for proof reading etc. At the end of the year, chapters were collated into a book, leaving students with not only something to take home and be proud of, but a record of the language points and new vocab they’d covered throughout the year.

Age Groupphoto5 ihdos14



Err, where do I start? No, seriously. ‘Bored’ doesn’t even cut it, right? How many times can the present perfect be covered, anyway? Anyone who teaches teens know that they know everything, right? so why are we wasting our time revising all this stuff?

Teens always seem to want to escape whatever it is they think you’ve got planned for them. My teens always wanted to do Aussie slang. It’s flattering the first time they ask, and I think they really do enjoy it (more so than other ‘escaping from the coursebook’ activities anyway), but what for? Will they ever need to know or use the expression ‘Fair dinkum, mate. She’ll be right!’?


An Aussie soap opera. I’ve done this many times and most teens love the idea of learning some Aussie slang and then using it to write an Aussie Soap Opera (I’m looking at you Alf Stewart). What they probably don’t realise is that for me, it’s all about the process. I couldn’t care less what they come up with. I once cried with laughter when  an aptly named protagonist , Bruce, told the guy working at the Bottlo to ‘pash my ass ya flaming galah’. For this particular group, I did explain that a ‘pash’ wasn’t quite the same as a kiss, but largely I let them write whatever they want. My objective is always to get them working collaboratively and speaking in English throughout the project. I do this two ways. I have designated ‘English only’ parts of the project, which of course means a little preparatory language work, and we practice a kind of cooperative learning (correct me if it’s called something else). Within each ‘Production Team’, students have specific jobs e.g. the screenwriter, the manager, the PR person etc. Each student is responsible for making sure their part of the project runs smoothly. Managers make sure each person speaks English, screenwriters make sure everything is recorded in written down, PR people feedback to the teacher etc. It’s fabulous for mixed ability classes. Each student can shine as not only a language learner, but as a person. What I often find is that in the end, the teens really don’t care about recording the soap, they just enjoy the process.


What’s in a word?

One concept – many ways…

I recently attended IHTOC3. The International House Teachers’ Online Conference. A biannual event and the third of its kind since it’s inception – organised by IHWO superstars Neil McMahon and Shaun Wilden. This time around it was available and free for all (not just IH staff) and we were treated to two full days of fantastic sessions including a closing plenary from the fabulous Jeremy Harmer.Image

As well as thoroughly enjoying being a participant, on the Saturday I moderated one of the sessions, and on the Friday I gave my own session on Social Media and YL.

Something interesting happened during a number of sessions. Something almost as interesting as the (very exciting) launch of ‘MY Words’, the new IHWO App for students (check it out, seriously, check it out, it’s very cool). Participants picked up on certain words, got quite excited about them, and just ran with it. For example, during Shaun Wilden‘s (great) session, we all loved and got carried away over the word chimping (who doesn’t love a word that is new and sounds silly?) and during my session many commented on my use of the word ubiquitous when describing social media. At first I was taken aback as I thought the word itself was ubiquitous and didn’t get why it was singled out. After all, it’s not new or funny like ‘chimping’? But then I remembered the concept of ‘favourite words’.

We all have favourite words don’t we? Words that sound funny, sound nice, mean something nice, or just look good on paper. I’ve always like the words ‘fabulous’ and ‘splendid’, as to me, the word fabulous sounds fabulous when you say it and the word splendid sounds splendid when you say it. I also have words I hate. Crisps. Eww! I hate saying it. I hate hearing it. I hate the way it looks on paper. I much prefer the Aussie ‘chips’.

Every year I do a Vocabulary workshop for new teachers at IH Prague. At the beginning of the workshop I ask the teachers to write down their favourite word on a slip of paper (an idea I got from Shaun Wilden many years ago). I then use those words to demonstrate a whole range of vocabulary activities and games to use in class. Every year it’s fun. But 2 years ago was the best. 2 years ago the favourite word belonging to one of the teachers was new to many of us. It sounded funny, it had an explanation that made many of us blush, and it was promptly followed by an array of interesting uses, conjugations and jokes etc.  Participants couldn’t get enough of using this ‘funny & new’ word. In fact, many of the teachers still joke and laugh about it. (The word was clunge – thank you, your awesomess, aka Perran).

Since words are so ubiquitous and so much fun, I’ve decided to write a post for you to chimp around, with some basic ideas for every age group to help us take advantage of our fascination with words.

Favourite word (4-8)

ImageThe lower end of this age group won’t necessarily understand the concept of ‘favourite word’ in the same way we do, but they appreciate things that sound funny.

Get each learner to choose their favourite English word.

Choose a simple nursery Rhyme e.g. Baa Baa Black Sheep or London Bridge

Children sing the song repeating the ‘favourite word’ throughout. I once had a 7 yr old who loved the word ‘hat’ he loved saying it over and over and loved drawing hats on everything. Any team games he wanted the team name ‘hat’ or ‘Mr hat’.

So his song would be…

(To the tune of Baa Baa Black Sheep)

Hat Hat Hat Hat hat-hat-hat-hat HAT! Hat-Hat Hat-Hat Hat Hat HAT!

Mine might be…

Fabulous Fabulous Fabu fabu fabulous, fabulous fabulous fab fab fabulous!

The whole class sings each song, then the next child’s song and the next until each child’s word song has been sung.

WHY? The children will like the repetition, they’ll like to hear their own song, it’s a nice way to experiment with the sounds of English, it’s fun and most of all it’s silly! and who doesn’t love silly?

Favourite word (6-10)

This age group is more likely to understand the concept of having a favourite word, but might be lacking the linguistic knowledge and skills to use it. This age group generally love drawing and being creative, so why not utilize that.

GetImage the students to ‘draw’ their favourite word. They can make big posters using decorative lettering or pictures (e.g. use drawings of snakes to letter the word snakes) or they can draw pictures around the word. They could even write their favourite word over and over again to make a picture.

Students can give presentations about their favourite word. They can ‘teach’ the class their word – pronunciation, spelling etc. You could have a spelling bee with all the favourite words?

Put all the posters on the wall.Image

Encourage other students to use the ‘favourite words’ when giving examples of language in other lessons. e.g. ‘I like snakes’ ‘I saw a snake’ ‘Snakes can’t run’ etc

Why not use a program like wordle and put all the students favourite words into a poster.

‘Favourite words can be updated each week, month, unit of the class book, semester… Whatever suits.

WHY? It gets the learners interested in words. The shape of words, the way they look and sound and that they can be fun.

Favourite word (8-12)

8 to 12 yr olds are more likely to be able to use favourite words and have some fun with them, but why not use their ‘favourite word’ to teach other words?

Students write (their own) sentences using new vocabulary learnt in a lesson.

They then replace the new vocabulary with their ‘favourte word’.

Students read out their sentences (or write them on the board) for the rest of the class to get the ‘hidden word’. e.g. if my favourite word is ‘monkey’, can you guess the ‘hidden words’ below?

A tiger can monkey fast, but it can’t monkey

Yesterday I went monkeying at the beach.

I like to monkey TV

She monkeys a book every night.

You can chose not to conjugate the favourite word as it often doesn’t make sense – see above. But I find the students like it more when it doesn’t make sense and like to play around with the endings.

WHY? It’s a fun way to practice using words.

Favourite word (12-18 and beyond)

Get the students to write their favourite word down on a small square of paper and there you have it. A million and one potential vocabulary activities. The ideas are only limited to your imagination.

1. Get the students to write 3 words they associate with that word and play taboo

2. Get students to mingle and describe their word and other students must guess it.

3. Get students to tell each other why it’s their favourite word.

4. Students write description for a class crossword to exchange with another class.

5. Students are given a topic to talk about for one minute (randomly) then either their own favourite word or another students. While they speak they must include the ‘favourite word’ (which should be unknown at this point). The rest of the class tries to guess what the word is.

6. Get students to teach the class their word including all aspects of it e.g. meaning, use, pronunciation, spelling, part of speech, C vs U word families, synonyms,antonyms, idioms using the word…the list goes on

7. Pexeso (Pelmanism). My favourite. All cards (words on paper) are face down and shuffled around.  Students choose two pieces and turn them over. To win the pair students must use both words in a sentence.

If you have teen favourite words (or new teachers’) you’re likely to get some funny and interesting ones and this activity can be challenging and good for a laugh. During my ‘clunge’ workshop, one poor teacher turned over ‘scarlet’ (the colour of my face at this point) and ‘sphincter’ (and the new teachers seemed like such a nice lot). The poor teacher who’d turned these words over was Czech and had never heard either of these words.I don’t think she’ll forget them in a hurry.

WHY? Personalising a lesson with favourite words creates interest, prompts discussions, and paves the way for memorable moments. It facilitates learning and it’s fun.

There is (almost) nothing better than having students interested in words. Learning new words. Remembering new words. Using new words. Right?

So why not start using favourite words in class? and don’t forget to get your students to download the new IHWO My Words APP to record all these new words.

Until next time….

They’re Little. Yeah yeah. Got it. Let’s get on with it!

They’re Little. Yeah yeah. Got it. Let’s get on with it!

Procrastination Prose Part 3

Practical Tips for Teaching VYL

The Classroom

If possible, have lots of bright colours and some toys, small tables and chairs, small scissors, big markers.  And remember, nothing dangerous. They are super quick on their feet.

Think about how you will use the classroom space. If possible put their work on the wall. They love to see it displayed and makes the space their own. It’s a good idea to have certain places (as well as routines) for certain activities e.g. a storytelling corner. It’s a non-verbal way of letting them know what is coming next and what is expected from them.

The Teacher

  • Ready and willing to nurture a whole range of needs, not just linguistic, a MUST.
  • Patient
  • Creative
  • Energetic
  • Organised
  • Quick thinking!

A VYL teacher needs to be super talented indeed, but above all they need to be flexible and have an affinity with young children (or at least like them! Don’t laugh, I’ve met a VYL teacher who didn’t like children. Her lessons were well planned and logically staged etc but classroom management was impossible – they sussed her out immediately). They are intuitive little things. They can sense fear and whether or not you genuinely like them. They also seem to know when you are unorganised and delight in taking advantage of this and why not? when their number 1 goal in life is to enjoy themselves.

Materials and Activities

Before we get into the ideas, don’t forget some rules of thumb.

  • Set up the activities clearly and have all your materials ready to go. Turn your back for a moment to get your flashcards and you’ll lose them. Give clear simple instructions and demo if possible. If you do leave your materials on the other side of the room – don’t panic! Just give them something to do so there is no waiting time e.g. get them to close their eyes and count to ten’
  • Recognition before production. Give them plenty of opportunity to hear the word and recognise the word before they say it. When they are ready, saying it in a song or chanting with the group gives them the opportunity to experiment with the sounds.
  • Stirrers vs settlers. What this means is don’t have the whole lesson sitting on the floor (they’ll get fidgety and lose interest) or the whole lesson running around (They’ll get over excited and impossible to calm down and control). It just won’t work. Think about not only using the classroom space well but also their energy.  Keeping them calm but engaged keeps them focussed.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition BUT don’t forget to mix things up and move from activity to activity quickly and smoothly. Have whole lots of tricks up your sleeve. Their attention span matches their size and just because they loved a particular game last week doesn’t mean they’ll dig it this week. Be prepared to be flexible and don’t get caught fighting a losing battle. Keep activities short, focussed, fun.
  • Think about why you are doing each activity and what they need to be able to do in order to complete it. Don’t forget that language isn’t the only limitation. Pair work ? Forget it, try to make each child feel they are working with you. Them and you. They don’t generally cooperate well together and are sometimes, but not normally, competative. A race to see who can line up first won’t go so well if they don’t care what their team mates are doing and don’t care if they are first or not. Some team games will work, but keep their developmental needs in mind. Give lots of individual praise.


Bright, easily recognisable flashcards (It’s a good idea to have them uniform: same size, same type, same coloured backing etc. VYL tend to make their own rules about what they see and may think if one is a different shape or size it’s for a reason). Making up actions for the corresponding flashcards is also a good way to help them remember the vocabulary and make it their own.

What to do with them?

There are hundreds (maybe more) flashcard activities. Here are a few to get you started.

Presenting the language

Work with what they already know. Hold up the flashcard and talk about it. Ask easy questions you know they can answer and HELP them.

e.g. Look! A monkey! Monkey!. What colour is the monkey? Is it brown? Yes. How many legs has the Monkey got? Let’s count. 1,2. MONKEY.

Find the Card

It’s good to have a game where there are no losers and children aren’t afraid to try. Here is a VLY version of pelmanism.

  •  If possible, teach some actions for the flashcards.
  • As you place each flashcard on the floor (face down) say each word clearly and (if applicable) do the action and encourage the children to join.
  • Count to 5 (the children should join in) and as you do so move the flashcards around so they  won’t be able to remember where each one is.
  • Show the children how to sit up nicely and put up their hands.
  • Choose a child who is sitting nicely and say ‘Where is the monkey?’ Then do the action.
  • As each child turns a card over encourage the rest of the group to clap if they find the monkey.
  • If the child doesn’t find the monkey say ‘No, sorry, that’s not the Monkey, that’s the tiger’
  • Repeat

Sometimes the children can be shy to join in other ‘finding’ games as they can’t remember the word or recognise what you are saying making them anxious. This takes the pressure of and makes it a ‘finding’ game as opposed to a language game. The bonus is they get to hear the language over and over again.

You could go on to play this with the cards facing upwards when they are more comfortable with the language.

Flashcard Boules

  • Get the children lined up into teams
  • Give each team a fluffy toy. Use the fluffy toy to name the teams plus an adjective e.g. the ‘Blue Teddy Bears’
  • Layout the flashcards on the floor in front of the teams
  • Call out a word and the children must throw the soft toy to the flashcard.
  • The team who is the nearest wins a point
  • Allocate points by putting a classroom object such as a building block in front of the teams.
  • At the end of the game count the building blocks with the children
  • If it’s a larger group you’ll need to keep those waiting occupied with a chant or perhaps counting.


  • Place flashcards around the room
  • Call out the word and the children run to the flashcard
  • Alternatively give further instructions (pre taught) e.g. jump to the monkey, swim to the tiger

Musical statues

  • Play some music, the children dance
  • When the music stops the children freeze
  • Once they get the hang of this, call out a word when the music stops e.g. monkey. They freeze, wait for your command, then do the monkey action
  • Alternatively they can do more than just dance to the music e.g. you can give them a task before pressing play ‘jump, run, swim, fly’.
  • If you have a musical instrument at your disposal this is even better than a CD/ MP3 as you can change the tempo for each instruction

Run and find

This requires preparation, but can be used over and over and the kids love it.

  • Prepare small pieces of paper with pictures of the target language
  • Get the children to help you scatter them around the room face down
  • Think of a chant or song to go with the vocab (or create one)
  • Put the children in 2 or more teams
  • One at a time the children have a time limit to find as many bits of paper as they can. Here is an example…

I photocopied the pictures from a zigzag book (Cookie and Friends PMB) and cut them up. I also made a paper picnic basket (Cookie and Friends PMB) for the children to put the pictures  they collected in)

Teacher says ‘ Mmmm. I’m hungry. I want….Ice-cream! 1,2,3, GO!’ (can point to a picture on the board or mime if necessary)

1st child in line runs, turns over pictures one at a time, if Ice-cream takes them, if not, turns them back over

Rest of class and teacher sing (to the tune of, the super wonderful, Frere Jacques);

I am hungry, I am hungry (rub belly)

I want ice-cream, I want ice-cream (mime ice-cream)

Yummy Yummy yummy, Yummy yummy yummy. (rub belly and lick lips)

I like Ice-cream. I like ice-cream.(nod head and mime ice-cream)

5, 4, 3, 2, 1 STOP

Once the child hears ‘stop’ they must run back to the team and we all count the pictures together.

What is it?

For the same reasons as the find the flashcard game, this game is a game of chance. An opportunity for the children to say any words they know. This is good when they are not yet confident with the language.

  • Shuffle the cards
  • Encourage the children to say stop
  • Say (shrugging shoulders) what is it?
  • Don’t show the card or give any clues. Hold the card close to your chest and shrug.
  • Encourage the children to hold up their hands and choose each child to say a word or if it’s a smaller less rowdy group allow them to call the words out.
  • The idea is they will call out what they know – not that they are ‘proving’ they know the word to match your card.
  • If they need help start listing some of the words ‘monkey, tiger, elephant, snake…’
  • Children can take it in turns to be the teacher (holding the cards)

Of course there are many other ways to play this such as giving a quick glimpse of the flashcard or a slow reveal, but I like to give them the chance to say as many words as possible rather than only the word which corresponds to the flashcard, although, later as they are more confident it can be confidence boosting for them to ‘prove’ to you that they know and understand the words.

1,2,3 Bye Bye!

A VYL version of Kim’s game.

  • Lay the flashcards on the floor (or stick to the board) saying the words clearly as you do
  • Hold hands cupped in front of you
  • Say ‘1,2,3 Bye Bye!’ (Move hands up and down as you count and cover eyes when you say by bye)
  • Remove one flashcard
  • Say ‘Hello’ and all children uncover their eyes and call out what is missing


Lots of songs. Simple, repetitive, even better with actions. Use them for language work, use them for fun, use them for routines. Don’t be afraid to make up your own.

What to do with them?

Frere Jacques is an amazing song. The tune is so memorable. So many ways to use it. Getting them settled;

Look and Listen, Look and listen

Shhhh, shhhh’

Point to eyes, then ears, then mouth. First line is to the tune of Frere Jacaque

OR a Flashcard game using the whole Frere Jacques tune.

  • Shuffle flashcards with the pictures facing the kids
  • Encourage the kids to call out ‘stop’
  • Sing

Look and listen, Look and Listen (point to eyes then ears)

What is this? What is this? (hold out arms shrugging and point it flashcard)

Is it a…..(pause for a moment to scratch your head like your thinking and then say a word from the lexical set you’re using) monkey?

Is it a monkey? (mime monkey)

  • Look at children waiting for response, indicate thumbs up and thumbs down for those who are too shy to join in with the yes or no.
  • If it is a monkey children sing

Yes, yes, yes. Yes, yes, yes (nod and give the thumbs up)

  • If it isn’t a monkey

No, no, no. No, no, no. (shake head and thumbs down)

  • Repeat process

The old favourite Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toesis a great song with Actions. I like to mix things up a bit by singing it the first time really slowly then repeating it getting faster each time. I also like to sing the last ‘Knees and Toes’ of the song in a really deep voice as the kids love experimenting with their voice. Or, you can skip out words like in this wiggles video.

I also like to ‘act out’ the songs. For example I love ‘Five little ducks and ‘Five Little Monkeys. First I teach the songs with sitting down actions. Once they are familiar with the songs it’s fun to get the kids to act them out. This also helps them with meaning.

Use songs and chants for paper based activities such as colour dictation.

  • Set up the task and give first instruction e.g. ‘Colour the ball blue’ and demo
  • Start singing the following colours song from Cookie and Friends A to the tune of ten green bottles (while monitoring and helping as necessary)

Red, Pink, Yellow. Purple, Green or blue?

Red, Pink, Yellow. Purple, Greenor blue?

What’s your favourite colour, please tell me do, is it

Red, Pink, Yellow. Purple, Green or blue?

  • Repeat the song if necessary. Once you can see that a few children have finished call out

5 4 3 2 1 STOP!

  • Put your hands on your head and tell the children ‘hands on head’.
  • Walk around and take away the blue marker/ pencil/ crayon.
  • Repeat process with new colour and be firm to  make them stop with the blue during the second colour.
  • By the time you get to the 3rd colour they get it.
  • Give them time at the end to ‘finish’. They next time they ‘play’ this they won’t be anxious if they know there will be time at the end for ‘finishing’.


We’ve already discussed the virtues of stories, but what to do with them? Don’t be afraid to repeat them over and over. Studies have shown that children, although they get bored at some point, enjoy the stories more after they pass this. It’s the reminsicence and the known. We already mentioned having a story corner. How about a storytime chant? The first time you read a story is a chance for them to listen. On consequent readings encourage the children to join in with actions, words phrases. Get them to act out the story. AND don’t forget to choose books which are really visual in nature (or even tactile) i.e. limited text and with lots of big colourful pictures. Story cards are also great (like those used in many VYL coursebooks). If the text is too complicated or abstract, grade it and included some repetition and or noises. e.g. no becomes ‘no, no, no, no’ complete with head shaking and clicking noises with the tongue when someone is walking etc.


There’s more than one was to skin a cat, so to speak, but here is one example of  a very basic lesson structure for VYL (although of course there would be many mini stages)

Don't forget! Let the children SEE. HEAR. SPEAK. and DO!

A welcome routine

  1. Sing a song they know.
  2. Revision of language they know
  3. Present new language
  4. Recognition game (s)
  5. Physical movement/ TPR
  6. Song
  7. Drill/ chant
  8. Production game (s)
  9. Story
  10. Table time (craft, colour dictation, fine motor skill activities, colouring)

Goodbye routine

I think I could go on forever listing games and ideas, but my blog was initially intended to be for the people by the people (before I started my procrastination project), so I’m handing it over to you and putting a call out for people to submit their favourite VYL activity. In the meantime, I think it’s about time I prepared that workshop!

Until next time…

They’re Little. Now what?

They’re little. Now what?

Procrastination prose part 2

Okay. Let’s refresh on procrastination prose part 1.  I decided that a good place to start (I’m supposed to be writing and online workshop remember) was with some questions participants might like answered. They were:

What are VYLs? (I think we’ve covered the basics)

What are their characteristics and the implications of these in the classroom? (we looked at some statements and made a checklist for the classroom)

Ok. That leaves this then.

How about some defined pathways designed to meet our goals? Validating teaching VYL to sceptics who say it is ‘just’ playing games and singing songs? Pleasing stakeholders in an increasingly competitive industry?

A normal step would be to assess the needs of the students and choose a coursebook (and use this as our syllabus. C’mon, don’t try and tell me you don’t). Let me begin by saying there are loads of fabulous coursebooks out there for VYL (My favourite is Cookie and Friends. Once you hear the weather song, you’re hooked for life) and a good way getting into the right mindset and arming yourself with great ideas is to spend some time reading the accompanying teachers books and asking yourself why. But for the sake of the blog, let’s get into the nitty gritty of it all.

How do we do a needs analysis for VYL? We could go in with pen and paper and ask them about their learning needs, not sure, however, what kind of response we’d get. Okay, I’m being silly. But with some lateral thinking we can in fact do a needs analysis by thinking about the characteristics we looked at in part 1. How? Have you read Nunan’s legendary ‘Syllabus Design’ (1988)?  Great book. Needs analysis 101: learners assumptions, purpose, societal expectations and constraints and other subsidiary questions….. that’s all very well for most learners, but….. VYL lack the cognitive ability and awareness required to enable them to indicate their present and future learning needs. VYL are not generally aware that they are acquiring a language, nor are they aware of societal values and attitudes placed on one language or another. Their needs are more immediate, related to providing tasks and topics of interest, and tools for basic communication in the classroom. AND let’s not forget. Stakeholders are involved. Mummy and Daddy are the paying customers here. So let’s look to Jim Scrivener and an old favourite of teachers around the globe  ‘Learning Teaching’ (2005) for some simple guidance, intended for adult learners, but indeed suitable for our purposes. He proposes 3 questions for a basic needs analysis.

  • Where is the learner coming from?

Er, Home? Sometimes our VYL have had some English before they come to us, but it’s more than likely they’ve been home with Mum (or Dad) and aren’t used to a classroom environment. They also (as I’m sure I’ve mentioned somewhere already) have a limited experience of the world. Their world is a lot smaller than ours. It extends from Home, to Preschool to Grandma’s, to Tesco, to the Playground…you get the idea. It’s useful to know the child’s cultural background. Have they always lived in the country they live in now, what language is spoken at home etc. I could go on here, but let’ not go overboard.

  • What does the learner want/ need?

A great job in International Relations? I think not (but Mummy and Daddy may have that in mind). They want to have fun and ‘like’ being in your classroom. They want it to be a safe, fun, pleasant place to be and to enjoy positive and constructive experiences. They want/ need you to think about all the intelligences/ learning styles/ skills and teach them holistically. Word up, it’s worth looking in the Primary Teacher’s Guide on page 36(Brewster, Ellis and Girard, 2004). There are certain topics that VYL’s typically like and are interested in; animals, toys, colours, make believe (princesses, fairies, pirates etc) but it doesn’t hurt to ask them what they like (keeping in mind the answer is likely to change from week to week) and asking the parents what topics they like to talk about in L1.

It’s also a good idea to think about what lexical sets are relevant to their age and situation i.e. can be used in real contexts: family, clothes, weather. It’s also key to consider language items the learner can; use in real contexts : ‘I’m..’ ‘It’s…’  ‘It’s a…’ ‘I have…’ ‘Can I have…’ ‘I like/ don’t like…’ ‘yes/ no’ ‘Please’ ‘Thank you’ ‘Hello’ ‘Goodbye’ AND recognise in real contexts: ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Would you like..’ ‘Do you like..’ ‘Is it…?’ ‘What is it…?’ ‘put on/ take off’

Oh, I almost forget. It’s also about what the stakeholders want, need. Perhaps you need to work towards some sort of mini end of year production to keep the parents happy? Find out what their expectations are (and delicately educate them about what they can realistically expect if possible).

  • How would they like to learn it?

We know this one! Songs and games, right? Didn’t we already establish that that’s what other teachers think we do all day? They’re not too far off you know. These are the bricks (without the mortar) or a VYL lesson. They would ‘like’ to learn by experiencing the language, and, as forementioned, by having fun. Whilst most syllabuses include both linguistic and attitudinal goals, the attitudinal goals are often proportionately more important the younger the learner is. VYL lack literacy skills as well as the ability to make abstract deductions. They are often still making mistakes in L1 and therefore can’t be expected to follow a structural progression. Aiming for VYL to enjoy using the language is more appropriate. Linguistic and cognitive aims are embedded within the individual components of the syllabus, but the overall focus is to provide necessary conditions and motivating experiences for the target language to be acquired. Whoah. That was a mouthful (can one say that when typing? A keyboard full perhaps?). To summarise, how about taking a look at the goals of the VYL programme I coordinate at my school.

  • To provide a positive and constructive first language experience.
  • To introduce children to learning English in a fun and involving manner with a focus on recognition before production and exposing them to natural, communicative English through real communication.

I’ve chosen a list of topics, useful language and materials based on my assessment, experience and theories behind VYL. During induction, I highlight to my teachers the six features of the syllabus which reflect key methodology and approaches aimed at making learning enjoyable and meaningful for this group. The six key features: Routine, Stories, Songs and Chants, TPR, Games, Craft, can be incorporated into any VYL syllabus and would act as a good guide for those teachers new to VYL.

Routine is vital in any VYL programme. VYL like the familiar, it gives them a sense of security when they know what to expect (but don’t we all feel this way?), and it provides repeated exposure and opportunity for use of the language. The first month of my VYL programme has limited new language so that the teacher can focus on the routines and recognition metalanguage.

Stories provide an extension to the themes, appeal to a VYLs visual nature and inclination towards fantasy. Indulging in their imagination enables VYL to connect the language to real life. Storytelling is central to a child’s development, is generally a preferred activity in L1, and takes advantage of acquisition based methodology. Let’s have a look at an oldie but goodie from Krashen (1981:103), storytelling…

“ creates an acquisition rich environment and ideal learning conditions which provide comprehensible input, or language a little beyond the child’s current level of competence”

Songs and chants present language in a fun way, and also encourage experimenting with the sounds of English. (Ideally) coupled with this and a dominant feature is Total Physical Response (TPR). VYL learn through direct experiences via the five senses. This combination encourages cognitive development via concentration and coordination. What’s more, the repetition and parallelism is something they like and instrumental to memory.

Games play an important role as they are; motivational and enjoyable, can change the pace of

Once upon a time there was a very stressed out teacher, and then she discoverd storytime...

the lesson e.g. ‘stir’ or ‘settle’ to take advantage of energy levels, and provide opportunities for social and cognitive development such as ‘developing strategies’ and ‘turn taking’.

Craft or table based activities are a valuable way of providing comprehensible input, as following instructions is required. It also gives the learners a ‘silent period’ to consolidate the language, and provides them with a stimulus when their parents ask ‘What did you learn in English today?’.


Okay. Now the heavy stuff is over, it’s time for me to go make a cup of tea. BUT, stay tuned, I intend to write a third instalment. A practical component. Yay! They’re little. Got it. Let’s get on with it. Procrastination Prose part 3. Some hands on ways to apply all this theory. Basically, what the hell to do once you’re inside the classroom.

Until next time……

They’re little. And?

They’re little. And?

Procrastination Prose part 1

It’s 6pm on a Friday night, friends are at the pub or on their way home. I’m sitting at my kitchen table staring out the window into the grey and slowly darkening street. I hate this time of day. It reminds me that my time is slipping away. I’ve been asked to create an online workshop. At first I said ‘Sure, no problem’. I mean, why not? I love workshops. No sweat. Right? Wrong. You see it’s my first online workshop and although Neil has kindly taken me through everything I need to know, I find myself so blocked by the unknown, that I can’t even fool myself (I tried – ‘pretend it’s a face to face one, then rewrite it to match the context’ I said to myself this morning, and again throughout the day). So here I am, procrastinating might be the best word for it, but for morale let’s call it brainstorming. I decided that writing a blog post was more constructive than looking out the window and maybe I could use it to bash around some ideas before writing my workshop. So here goes.

The topic of my workshop  is VYL. Voracious Yelping Leeches. Sorry, tiredness and delirium setting in. In fact, teaching Very Young Learners is one of my favourite things in the world to do. I could be on to something though. It could be an obvious start. What the hell does VYL mean? And yes, maybe they are voracious yelping leeches, but why? And what impact will this have on lessons and teaching. Look! I’m doing it! I’m scratching out a plan already 🙂

The obvious start: What are VYLs? But first, indulge me while I rewind a little bit.

Why a workshop on VYL?

Aside from there being a very active VYL discussion currently on the YL Google group, it’s relevant for teaching TEFL today. I could go into Critical Period Hypothesis and a debate over whether younger is better for mastery of a language blah blah blah, but let’s face it, the real reason we are teaching more and more VYL is because there is a market for it. The parents want it. They are customers, we’re the providers, right?

So, if we look at the (by the way totally fabulous book) Very Young Learners (Reilly and Ward, 1997) it’s stated the main ‘bonus’ teaching VYL is ‘no strict syllabuses to follow, no tests and no performance objectives to be met’. Cool huh! Hmmm. While I agree with what they later go on to say about the absence of pressure leading to an ‘enjoyable experience’ how does a VYL virgin (for lack of a better term) start. Walking into a classroom with some great activities is great and all, but a few bits and pieces of basic knowledge and some sort of structure surely leads to a more focussed and relaxed teacher.

So. What should a ‘VYL for Beginners’ workshop do, apart from give the teachers a bit of confidence before striding on into the lion’s den, oops, I mean VYL classroom ;)?

What are VYLs? (as we already established, a good start)

What are their characteristics and the implications of these in the classroom? (sounds useful enough)

How about some defined pathways designed to meet our goals? Validating teaching VYL to sceptics who say it is ‘just’ playing games and singing songs? Pleasing stakeholders in an increasingly competitive industry? (oooh, the heavy stuff)

What are VYL’s?

Basically, they are little. Very little. So what comes with being little?

Imagine yourself looking into the window of a VYL classroom. What do you see?

  • Excitement
  • Energy
  • Smiles
  • Tantrums
  • Laughter
  • Games
  • Play
  • Music
  • Songs/ chants
  • Stories
  • Colours
  • Pictures. Lots of pictures
  • Toys
  • ‘make believe’
  • Little things e.g. little chairs, little scissors
  • Little People. People with their own little personalities, their own feelings, their own histories and backgrounds, their own (limited) experiences of the world, their own ideas about how the world works.
  • People between the ages of 2-6 (give or take a year), who are not yet in formal schooling and more than likely not yet reading or writing.

What are the characteristics of VYL and the implications for teaching?

Time to ‘accommodate’ and ‘assimilate’ a little bit of theory. Behold, my attempt at putting Piaget, Bruner, Vygotsky etc into simple terms, and more importantly the implications in the classroom.

One word. Development. That’s right. We’ll start with the obvious first.

While there are criticisms floating about that Piaget underestimates the capabilities of YLs, you only need to step into a classroom to see VYLs:

  • are egocentric and unable to see others points of view or take responsibility for communication
  • live in the moment and are unable to consider past or future actions and consequences
  • are unable to think logically and enjoy ‘make believe’

But why stop there, we can go on to say they:

  • have shorter attention spans which increase with age
  • are easily distracted if not being paid attention or focussed on a task
  • unlike adults won’t pretend to be interested if they are not or do a task for a greater learning purpose
  • are still developing socially, cognitively and physically as well as linguistically (in their L1).
  • have more physical energy than older YL’s (and certainly adults), but also tire easily
  • are more emotional and open about their feelings
  • require constant teacher attention and praise
  • can’t read or write
  • don’t normally make the decision to attend English class
  • lack insight into their own learning

All very well, but what does this mean for us teachers? How about a checklist 🙂

  • Interesting topics to hold attention
  •  Concrete language presented in context
  • Short, varied activities
  • Linguistic and non-linguistic goals
  • Stirring and settling activities
  • Teacher centred interaction, but child plays an active role at all times
  • Language presented orally relying on visuals and considers all learning channels
  • The teachers role is one of greater responsibility
  • Fun activities designed to motivate the child by the task over outcome

And let’s not forget

  • Little to no written text

Not a big enough list yet? How about we try this one on for size. VYL actively try to construct meaning. i.e they need some thinking time. What’s more, they:

  • have a very limited experience of the world
  • depending on their background, are often unaware of the concept of other countries, languages, and cultures
  • not unlike older learners recognise more than they can produce
  • are risk takers and like to guess and predict

Time to add some more things to your VYL list (pffft to those who thought it was all about games and songs!)

  • Language repeated and presented in variety of contexts, which VYL can relate to own experiences
  • Focus on recognition before production
  • Stories to allow VYL to predict and make sense of new language whilst using their imaginations
  • Quiet activites such as craft to help consolidate language and give ‘thinking’ time

Think I’m done? Think again my friends. Vygotsky and Bruner have a little beauty which, whilst not rocket science, often goes against what some people think learning is all about. VYL learn more with help. Go figure. They get by with a little help from their (grown up) friends… you need anybody…oops! Short singing interlude. Back to the serious stuff. Aside from all the technical stuff about the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ and ‘scaffolding’ etc it makes sense that a little bit of help can be confidence boosting and that a positive first language learning experience is really what it’s all about. I’m totally cool with this one. Why? In my VYL classrooms my little lovelies;

  •  participate more when they feel safe and produce more language when singing songs or saying chants
  • are often (but not always) excellent mimics (I am proud to have Czech pre-school students with an Australian accent), but whilst impressive in terms ofpronunciation does not always equal understanding orretention of language
  • appear to learn quickly, but actually learn more slowly (Brewster, Ellis and Girard, 2004) and also forget quickly.
  • are desperate to impart information

My weapons of choice (checklist time again);

  • Supportive and secure classroom environment, conducive to providing an ‘enjoyable’ and ‘positive’ English experience a must.
  • Flexibility required with planning, error correction and L1 use in the classroom.
  • Low stress production activities like songs and chants

    Did I mention VYL like making people pyramids? Classroom implications: Don't kneel down when there's a camera about!

  • Easy to answer’ questions e.g. ‘yes/no’ questions ‘IS it blue?
  • Lots of eliciting, feeding, giving and helping with answers
  • Lots of opportunities to ‘mimic’ and experiment with sounds and intonation
  • Language repeated, recycled and integrated
  • Topics VYL would like to talk about
  • Functional language to help VYL express themselves e.g. ‘I like/ don’t…

It seems a few ramblings have turned into a rather long post. And it’s now 8pm on a Friday night and hubby is hungry. BUT, stay tuned for part 2. They’re little. Now what? Quite possibly (If I don’t get distracted on facebook, twitter or youtube) some key elements to a VYL programme i.e. those defined pathways I mentioned and some practical ideas.

Until next time….

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