Teaching Reading skills from an early age

Teaching Reading skills from an early age

Teaching Reading skills from an early age

Reading is daunting for everyone and it sure is a difficult skill to develop if it isn’t done properly. Researches now show that even babies could be taught to read or at least are responsive to letters in the same way as they are responsive to easy math calculations. Even if those discoveries are a huge step for cognitive theories there are questions that teachers and parents should debate about: The first one is “How young is too young?” And the second one is “How do we make it efficient?”

1. What is Reading at an early age?
We don’t expect young children to read novels of course. When we talk about Reading at an early age we mean the process of decoding. In other words, the ability of putting sounds of letters together to form syllables or words. Many parents and teachers have concerns about the process of decoding from an early age arguing that it can be detrimental to the self-development of children as it puts pressure on them. This is surely something to take into account. As a reminder, some countries such as Finland introduce formal reading at the age of 7. But does it harm to expose younger children from the age of 4 or 5 to the letters of the alphabet and their sounds? Well, experts say it can be a good thing if done in a sensitive way and if done progressively without pressure.

2. Reading: Make it natural
Forcing kids into Reading is counterproductive. Many parents would use flashcards and drilling to get kids used to the sounds of letters or words but the best way to actually get a kid to read is to make it sound natural. There is nothing as powerful as natural communication and bedtime stories to instill curiosity into kids and to get them into Reading. Reading has to be something natural. Kids have to be surrounded by books from an early age. Their environment is what is going to help them become natural readers. The way we learn a language is similar in many ways to the way we learn how to read: We want to communicate, we want to join our peers, we want to share feelings and emotions. Playing with children and talking WITH them rather than TO them is critical to successfully teach Reading.

3. Storytelling: a good way to get into Reading
The best way to motivate children about Reading is to make it a pleasurable moment for yourself as a parent or as a teacher. It is true that no one becomes a storyteller without practice but I can guarantee you that you’ll have great fun in the process and that your children will ask for more. When Reading, read with them, show them the pictures, get them involved, use lots of gestures and sounds, use different intonation, exaggerate. Choose books that are adapted to their age but also to their interests. You will soon find out that children usually prefer funny stories that they can relate to.

4. Reading make it real
Children don’t want to be talked to as babies or toddlers, so consider them as what they are: curious learners that are ready to discover the world that surrounds them. In other words use words that surrounds them. Young children are able to discriminate sounds and phonemes. Instead of focusing on a global approach or syllabic approach that makes no real sense to them you can introduce them to the letter of the alphabet and to their sounds from an early point. Make it fun as well. Write small little words from everyday life, have them to decode the words and have them to label the objects in the room. They’ll love it and they’ll ask for more. Why? Because decoding for kids is like discovering a secret. They feel so proud of themselves when they succeed that they won’t stop. So, how young is too young for reading? There is no age. Everyone is different, but what makes the real difference is the way you introduce them to this fantastic communication tool.

Change bad praise by effective praise

Change bad praise by effective praise

The previous article was about how we can deliver praise in an effective way. When I first started teaching, a million years ago, there are things I said or actions I took that I regretted. Blame it on my youth, as they say. We all make mistakes and it is important to acknowledge when we go wrong, especially when it comes to saying or doing things that may affect students in their learning. My point today here is to give you a –non- exhaustive list- of do’s and don’ts expressions to better praise your students and lead them in the right direction. The next items are part of a long list of things I heard during my career and even if they reflect all the anger, frustration and exhaustion of some of us, it is important to ban them from our language to help our students grow as well-rounded individuals.

1. Instead of “ I’m busy right now”
Try: “Ok, give a minute, I can’t help you right now as I am busy, but when I am done, I’ll come and see you”. I am still surprised to get some University students coming to see me sometimes for things I may consider futile at times when I am obviously unable to help them with their question. I was busy in a training session in the meeting room a couple of weeks ago when I got told that a student of mine had made it clear that he urgently needed to see me. The reason was that he wanted to give me his essay but he had questions about the marking criteria. Well, that is just a little something that can be perceived as annoying and to which we may not respond well. What happens when the learner is a primary school student or a secondary school one? They do not perceive the matter of urgency the same way we do, so if we dismiss them abruptly without any justified reason to their eyes we may make some enemies without even meaning it.

2. Instead of “ You are not good at languages”
Try: “Well, you may find some things difficult in languages, but I can tell you that there are things you will find easy to learn, fun and also interesting, don’t give up”. When we tell someone that they are not good at doing something in most cases they integrate this belief and become actually bad at doing it. I remember hearing my math teacher saying that -I quote-
“ She is not stupid, she has potential but math that is not for her.” Guess what? I gave up on math and the day I truly needed math and all the bloody vectors to get my Aeronautics certificate I couldn’t quite cope because I had believed all my life that I would never be able to cope with math. Imagine the same scenario with a young boy/girl. You may ruin some of his chances simply because your sayings were pretty bad.

3. Instead of “ You could do so much with more effort”
Try: “ You have the potential to succeed, now what can I do to help you unlock this potential fully?” When you say that a student has potential but don’t use it fully that is basically quite offensive. If you know as a learner that you do put the effort into your work but that for any reason the results are not what you are expecting, how do feel? And when your teacher pinpoint the fact that you didn’t do all you could do that feels just like a slap in the face.

4. Instead of “ Your brother/sister was good at languages, why can’t you?”
Golden rule in teaching: never compare brothers and sisters in terms of results or attitude. Even acknowledging that you remember having taught a student’s sibling, avoid any comparison whether positive or negative. Treat everyone as an individual. Period.

5. Instead of “I was expecting something better from you.”
Try: “Well, there are a couple of good things like the use of linking words in your writing, now what do you think could be improved to make it a better piece of writing?” Be specific when you give feedback. Even you are disappointed in the work of a student try to think about ways to improve the student’s work. Learning is a process. Everything can be improved.

These were just some of the examples of damaging expressions that can be detrimental to the learning and growth of students. If we all try collectively to ban those sayings, a lot would be done to improve education and learning.

Mindfulness in the classroom

Mindfulness in the classroom

Morning get-together activities: mindfulness in the classroom

Have you noticed what it feels like when you wake up in the morning and get a good stretch before doing anything else. You basically wake up your muscles and brain at the same time. You feel energized and ready for a good breakfast. I try to include that everyday in my routine. It doesn’t have to be a full yoga stretch but just a couple of minutes in your bed before actually getting up can do the trick. How about our students? Could we incorporate some mindfulness in our daily teaching to make their body and brain ready for learning?

1. Why mindfulness activities
What is mindfulness? It is the moment when your mind is totally aware of what is going around you. It is the state you reached when you are fully aware of your immediate environment and of what you are doing. Many discipline such as yoga or Tai-chi are based on this idea of mindfulness. There is no need to prove anymore that mindfulness is a good way to lower stress, improve memory and facilitate learning.

2. Some activities to try
I am a morning person. I love waking up at 5:30 during the week and I am full of energy for my first lesson. The thing is my students are far from being morning people. Exams, revisions, parties…all of these make their mornings pretty difficult –especially when they have to cope with their superhype teacher. I decided one day that it would be good to be on the same page with my students, so I started incorporating in their daily learning routine some breathing activities, silent moments, and stretching activities. It seemed a little bit awkward to them at first but then they enjoyed it so much that we couldn’t start any class without these little mindful moments.

A. Breathing
There is nothing I find more useful than a quick breathing activity. Your students can stand up or sit down. Tell them to close their eyes and to start by breathing in out slowly. Tell them to listen to their own breathing cycle to be aware of all the changes that happen in their body –like their chest coming up and down. Tell them to listen to the noises around them. They should let go of their thoughts. Let’s forget about any concerns and focus on breathing. You can also add to that some slight movements of head from the left to the right and again from the right to the left. Keep the activity for a couple of more minutes then bring back your students slowly to normal breathing. If your students feel like yawning after that, no worries! It is all part of the plan to bring more oxygen to their body.

B. Listening to silence
I am very sensitive to noise -like most teachers, my brain freezes when the level of noise is too high, so keeping the volume to a reasonable level in class is absolutely vital for me. In our busy lives we don’t pay attention to noise that much. Traffic, listening to music to cover unpleasant noises, barking dogs, constant chats, noisy cafeteria…all this can have a big impact on our concentration, so from times to times we need to be aware of the noise and silence surrounding us. For that purpose, have your students to stand up and close their eyes. Have them to focus on the different noises they hear in class and outside the class. They should be able to hear their classmates breathing but also their peers in the corridors. Keep the activity going for a couple of minutes. Have them to open their eyes and feedback to their partners. What could they hear? How was it relaxing or stressful? Which noise was the most pleasurable?

C. Circle sharing and the positive moment
Instead of starting straight away with the lesson objectives and the rest of the lesson, take a couple of minutes -7 to 10 minutes- to share positive feelings and emotions in class. When we come to class we may not be quite ready to teach emotionally speaking. Teachers have their concerns. Keep in mind that students have their concerns too. Gather your students in a circle –ideally on the floor- everyone should keep some eye contact with the rest of the class. Start by asking our students how they feel and if they have done something great that they would like to share. As it can be difficult with some groups to get them started, be the role model and share with them a great deed you did. It doesn’t have to be a big thing but just something that you are happy to share with them. You can clap after their intervention to motivate them a bit.

With these activities, I am sure you will set a wonderful tone and beautifully relaxing atmosphere to get your students started for their learning day. Remember that no matter how busy you are and how limited you are in terms of time, these little minutes are necessary to connect with your students, relieve their stress and set up the right learning mood.

Effective praise in the classroom

Effective praise in the classroom

What is effective praise about ?

We all know that a pat on the back can improve the way our students learn and it is a good way to motivate them and also reduce disruption in class. However, what if our praise is not delivered in an appropriate way or genuine?

1. Why is praise important
Let me tell you a story. A while ago I was teaching a group of young University students about techniques to write short-stories. One of them who wasn’t a straight A student –nor was he a struggling one- read his story to the rest of the class. This naturally shy student had written such a subtle, entertaining and moving piece of writing that I was taken aback.
“Adrian, that’s absolutely brilliant. That was sharp and full emotions.” I said.
I could see a smile on his face but his look showed more confusion than anything else. Later on, while the group was busy on a task, I came close to him.
“ You looked puzzled when I told you your work was great, why is that?” I asked.
“Well, I am not used to praise. My teachers usually tell me what is wrong rather than what is good. So, yes I am not quite sure about my work then.
“Your work was absolutely remarkable. If you don’t mind I would like to keep your writing and display it.”
If Adrian had been in a secondary I would certainly have called his parents or send a congratulation postcard, because praise is a powerful tool that can turn any child and even an adult into a great learner.
I have certainly already told you that story about another student the young teenager Clara that had just arrived in the UK. Her work was spotless and she would always ask for more challenging tasks. I praised her a lot in class but nothing was as moving as her parents crying during a parents’ evening. Those little moments are precious for the learner, the teacher and the parents because all of them play a part in the learning process.

2. What we do wrong
Now, let’s be honest, we don’t always praise students the way we should. We sometimes have bad days and we sometimes use too many “Good work!”, “Well done!” without even paying enough detailed attention to the actual work of our students. What does “good job” actually mean? How do you feel when your boss gives you that kind of general compliment? It is not specific and doesn’t tell you exactly what was actually good. Another thing we sometimes do, especially with tricky students whose behavior or work is not what we are expecting of them, is that we overpraise their work. Expressions such as “Amazing work”, “Fantastic attitude today” tend to be…too much! Young children like praise and respond well to it but as soon as they reach primary school they don’t respond to it so well, especially when they feel that the praise isn’t well earned or in line with the work or effort they have produced. That generally has as a consequence to demotivate them and we get back to the vicious circle of low standard work, low self-esteem, disruption etc.

3. What is effective praise
Fortunately, there are many things we do well when praising our students. This checklist will help you see if you are at the top of the game:
A. Make it personalized. Know your students by their names and use their names to praise their work.
B. Make it real, well-earned and genuine. Your student has to trust you when you praise him. Don’t over praise work or effort that is just standard work but praise any effort in attitude and work. Students have different potential and needs, so praise accordingly to what they can achieve but avoid at all coast any childish praise that would do more harm than good. Focus on the process and attitude towards improving work rather than ability.
C. Make is specific. If you are praising a piece of writing, tell them what it is you think is especially good. Give them tools to reach the next step of their learning as well.
D. Make it short, sharp and immediate. Feedback that comes after the ring bells is too late. When you spot great work, say it, praise it!
E. Adapt your praise. Some students like to show off: a praise in front of the whole class can be beneficial then. Other students, on the other hand, prefer when praise is discreet. Act accordingly, especially with teenagers who tend to prefer quiet verbal praise and silent praise.

As a conclusion, I would say that there are many ways to praise students, but the best is certainly to be sincere and to be well-aware of the praise we give.

The protection of languages

The protection of languages

The protection of languages: a right and a duty

On a Paris-Toronto flight I recently had the opportunity to watch a documentary –or shall I say 6 short documentaries- about Canada and more specifically about Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation. Those six short documentaries inspired by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms taught me a lot about Canadian culture(s) from Indigenous rights, to citizenship, languages and multiculturalism. What I especially liked about it was the short little introductions based on Canadians’ opinions. They had to answer basic questions like. Black or White? Favorite color? Rights or Freedom? Masculine or Feminine? Basic questions but important questions that define who we are. The reflective approach to the project was absolutely beautiful. Self-critical, poetical and heartbreaking. Let me tell you about the documentary called “L’inspecteur” which deeply resonated for me as a language teacher and language lover.

L’inspecteur, mixes up the stories of three Franco-Manitobans women telling their experiences as young students and teachers. The three now elderly women reflected on their past in Manitoba’s education system a couple of decades ago. They had vivid recollection of their school days and especially of the “Inspecteur”. At the time French was prohibited in schools. A law had been in place since 1919 and all education had to be in English. Obviously, Canada had and still has a fair share of Francophones but at that time and until the 1980s all education was supposed to be done in English. The point was to assimilate the Francophones through the eradication of their language. The way these women were telling their stories was absolutely heartbreaking. You could easily imagine them as young girls terrified by the classroom inspector who wanted to break the teacher and detect any possible trace of language speaking. And how about the teacher? How did she feel when being inspected? It was also the story of a community who tried to resist and rebel, the story of a community whose main crime was to hide French books. The documentary mingled humour, a sense of community, and hope. A must-see.

This retrospective made me think about all the minority languages that don’t have their voice heard in the world. Not long in France I was told that people-now in their late 40s- from Brittany were not taught their own language (Breton) as they would have been sneezed at otherwise. How about my own students who speak Quechua but don’t dare to show their language skills because they fear to be laughed at? Languages are all beautiful and they have to be protected a human heritage to preserve cultures but also to give ourselves a chance to understand each other.