יום רביעי, 8 בפברואר 2017

What can we learn from Trump? (non-political)

This is not a political post.
The sages teach us "Who is wise? He who can learn from anyone." So I'm just trying to prove how smart I am.

Another teacher asked how we can use this to teach our students something. I began to write an answer, then realized that I have enough ideas for a blog post.

  1. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Many students are afraid to speak or even write because they may make a mistake. Before these students can learn anything we must create a safe atmosphere where mistakes are an acceptable and necessary part of learning. If the President of the United States can't spell but isn't afraid to send out messages that will be seen by the whole world, no one should be afraid to make mistakes in our classrooms. See what I wrote about this in my previous post What if I make a mistake? 
  2. Pretend the mistakes are intentional. Years ago, a teacher I was working with showed me a test she was about to give to her class. She suddenly realized that there were spelling errors in the text (the test had been prepared by another teacher) and she wasn't sure what to do. I suggested that she use them. Tell the class that there are some mistakes in the text, and that they will receive a bonus for each one they find. Double bonus if they know the correct spelling.
  3. Find different options. When Trump said that Ted Cruz is a chocker, did he mean joker, choker, shocker or something else? Honer is probably honor, but what else could it be?
  4. Come up with some definitions for Trump's new words. For example: unpresidented - never been done by a president, Bobby Night - a night when everyone dresses up as Bobby.
  5. Have a debate.  How important is spelling? Should spelling be a necessary qualification for public office? Has social media made spelling errors more acceptable?

Do you have any other ideas?

יום חמישי, 2 בפברואר 2017

Using Songs as Text

If they don't like English something's wrong
And you don't have to sing to use a song!

This post is based on the following observations –
·         Songs are an excellent way to reinforce vocabulary and grammar.
·         Songs are more interesting and easier to remember than text.
·         Not all English teachers sing – fewer play musical instruments.
·         As children get older they don't always want to sing in class.
·         Children and teenagers usually enjoy listening to music even if they don't like singing.
·         Israeli teenagers listen to a lot of songs in English.

So how can a musically-challenged English teacher use music to enrich English lessons?

Start out by presenting the song the way you would present text –

·         Write the title on the board, review some words and/or discuss the theme of the song.
·         Play the song for the class.
·         Ask the pupils which words they recognize.
·         If you want to concentrate on reading comprehension, hand out the lyrics. Another option is to hand out the lyric sheet with words missing and have them fill in the blanks.
·         Play the song again.
·         Discuss the song – what did they understand, what is the song about, etc.
·         Write some questions on the board.
·         Play the song once more, asking the pupils to listen for answers to the questions.

There is no need to actually teach the song, but after playing it a few times you will find pupils singing along with the chorus. Once they are familiar with the lyrics, it's time to divide into pairs or small groups and be creative. Ask each group to present the song in pantomime, stage a "video clip" (actual filming isn't necessary) or even choreograph a dance. You can play the song in the background while they're working. This way they will hear it a few more times without getting bored. If the song tells a story, they can put on a short play. Another option is to play a game like charades using words or phrases from the song.

How should you choose songs, and where can you find them? It makes sense to use songs that are connected to what you're teaching. The connection can be subject matter, or specific sentence structures or vocabulary. Look through your own or your children's music library, or search the internet. If you're feeling lucky, go into a lyrics site and search for the vocabulary or chunk that you're teaching, you may just find a song you know. Asking pupils to suggest songs promises more interest, but obviously you should review the lyrics carefully before using them in class. For younger or weaker students be sure to keep the lyrics simple. There are also songs available written specifically for the EFL classroom, including my own series, English is Fun.

Remember, creativity is the key.

יום שני, 30 בינואר 2017

What are you doing for English Day?

Have you started thinking about English Day this year? Remember, a successful English Day requires creative thought and planning, and your school calendar is probably starting to fill up. So if you and the rest of the English staff haven't thought about it yet, let me help you get started.

Why should we have an English Day?
An English Day is a chance for students to have a fun, positive experience in English. No drilling, no writing in notebooks, no tests and no pressure. Just activities they enjoy along with a chance to hear and speak English in context. It's an opportunity for them to see English as something that can be fun and relevant to their daily lives.

Where should I start?
First I recommend choosing a theme. This will make it easier to choose activities and pull everything together. Themes can be simple and vocabulary-oriented such as animals or weather and seasons, or wider concepts such as around the world or protecting the environment. To build up anticipation, have each class choose an appropriate costume, prepare a poster or decorate their classroom ahead of time.

You also need to set a date and make sure it gets listed on the school calendar (lessons learned the hard way).


Start the day with everyone together. It's great if everyone can learn a song or chant ahead of time and sing it together. This is the time to build up group spirit and also explain what everyone is going to do for the next few hours. If classes have chosen names call them out in your best rock-star voice. Emphasize that today is going to be fun.


Each class or group should participate in 3-4 different activities. You should have at least one instructor at each station who speaks English and can lead the activity, and one leader to accompany each group. You can also have older students lead activities for younger classes, which keeps them both busy.
  • Songs - Teach a new song or sing familiar songs. Choose them according to the theme and level of the students. You could have each group learn a different song and perform them all at the end of the day.
  • Sports - Have at least one station of active games so that children have a chance to release energy. These might be kangaroo and horse races if your theme is animals, games from different countries if your theme is around the world, or throwing a ball or ring at targets marked with letters or words.
  • Group games such as charades, hangman, hot potato or a treasure hunt.
  • Crafts - It's nice if children can bring something home. The craft doesn't need to be related to English, just make sure all the instructions are in English. If you also demonstrate while you speak there's no need to translate.
  • Food - Find some simple recipes related to your theme. If cooking isn't practical there are plenty of other options. Get information about students' allergies ahead of time and have alternatives ready. Like crafts, as long as the recipe and instructions are in English they're learning English.
  • Stories - Either read a book or tell a story with pictures and props.
  • Printable games - Make sure they're fun, challenging and different from worksheets you would use in a regular lesson. If some stations are led by teachers who aren't comfortable speaking English this is a good option.
Plan and print a schedule so that everyone knows where they should be when. Review each station carefully and make sure you have all the materials you need, and that they are in place before the day begins.

What to do during the break
Don't expect students and teachers to give up all their breaks just because they're having fun. If your school has a tradition of "active breaks" you know what to do. Put on a CD with dance songs in English and set up some simple outdoor games.  You could also sell food or other items, depending on you school's policy. Remember, only English.

Bringing it to a close

At the end gather everyone together again. This is a good time to put some kids on stage. This can be a short play you've prepared ahead of time or songs they learned during the day. Go back to your rock-star voice to make sure everyone had a great time and that they want to do it again next year.

How can English is Fun help?

English days are all about making English fun, and I have a wide range of resources to offer:

יום שלישי, 6 בדצמבר 2016

From the Other Side of the Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

יום שני, 19 בספטמבר 2016

What if I make a mistake?

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

יום רביעי, 10 באוגוסט 2016

Be Part of the Change

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

יום שני, 13 ביוני 2016

Research Against Research

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

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

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

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

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

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