Speak for IH... Zoe Harris in Poland

How can we effectively encourage our VYLs to learn a new language and start producing it independently in our classes and beyond?

On Saturday 23rd September, as part of the 3-day 32nd IATEFL Poland conference in Wrocław, I represented International House, conducting a workshop with like-minded teachers about how to do just that. The conference was enjoyed by over 600 participants from across Poland and beyond.

Summary of my workshop:

Flashcard games are an essential part of teaching 2-6 year olds, but how can we use them in a way which successfully develops their receptive skills and consequently activates their productive skills? In this workshop I will show you how I implement the flashcard games we know and love at the start of a new unit with very young learners.

The games within the workshop consisted of a variety of flashcard games I have picked up along my career, whether it be from the IH OTTI Very Young Learners course, the NILE Online Teaching English in Pre-Primary Education course or the IHCYLT I completed at IH Toruń with Glenn Standish, as well as from my research during the Trinity Certificate for Practising Teachers in which I specialised in pre-primary education. It would be remiss of me not to also mention the influences of my former colleagues such as Lisa Wilson, Laura Brown and Jennifer-Anne O’Neil, who helped guide me when I was fresh off my CELTA, teaching at IH Valladolid.

However, the premise of this workshop is not so much about using the flashcard games in isolation, but how to effectively sequence them within a circle time portion of a VYL class to help learners recognise, retain and regurgitate new language quickly and effectively.

To do this, I asked six volunteers from a group of approximately 25 participants to join me at the front of the seminar room and put themselves in the position of their learners, by taking part in two sequences of flashcard games through not English, but Mandarin Chinese. Having lived and worked in Shanghai for 3 years and successfully passing the HSK4 (A2/B1) exam, I was able to translate the lexical chunks and chants I use with my students into Mandarin. I did this for two reasons:

  1. The workshop participants are really put into their learners’ shoes
  2. They can really appreciate just how effective sequencing the games in this way can be.

I used six fruit flashcards (banana - 香蕉 - xiāng jiāo, orange - 橙子 - chéng zi, pear - 梨 - lí, apple - 苹果 -píng guǒ, mango - 芒果 - máng guǒ, and watermelon - 西瓜 - xī guā) with the help of my trusty puppet, Ellie the Elephant in the following two sequences of games:

Lesson 1:

  • What is it? - the teacher uses the puppet to ask what a flashcard is and has students chorally repeat it in a chunk, e.g. This is an apple.
  • Low to High - The teacher starts by whispering the chunks, displaying the flashcard and gradually getting louder with the learners chorally repeating.
  • Round the circle - The teacher passes each flashcard in turn around the circle for each learner to individually repeat.
  • Touch, Turn, Take. - The teacher places all six flashcards on the floor and asks individual learners to touch the flashcard they hear, then turn, and finally find and take the flashcard.
  • Can I have...? - The teacher asks the learners to give them a flashcard they have.

Lesson 2:

  • Wrong flashcard - The teacher wrongly identifies the flashcard and students respond with yes/no, perhaps correcting the teacher.
  • What's missing? - The teacher places the flashcards on the floor, asks learners to close their eyes, and removes one of the flashcards. Then, learners are instructed to open their eyes and identify the missing flashcard.
  • Secret flashcard - The teacher holds the flashcards facing towards them and asks students to guess which of the flashcards they have. The student who correctly identifies the flashcard, wins it. Once all the flashcards have been won, the teacher asks students individually what they have.

 Mix it! - The teacher and students sing the chant Mix it, mix it, 123, mix it, mix it, play with me! to pass the flashcards around the circle and the teacher asks each student what they have. This is repeated several times.

After each sequence, the participants discussed how the games develop learners' receptive and productive skills, why I chose to do the games in this order, how TPR games can be incorporated into these lessons, what could be done in subsequent lessons, and how the games could be adapted for larger groups of students.

This first lesson is one I conduct at the beginning of each unit with my own learners, with the intention of not only developing the learners’ receptive skills but activating their productive skills through repetition, routines and drilling, the cornerstone of any good VYL lesson. While the aim of the second lesson is to test the learners’ long-term memory (between classes) and encourage independent production of the target language, with support from the puppet whispering the correct phrase in the learners’ ears if they struggle to remember the target language.

After the session, many of the participants thanked me for sharing these ideas. I was proud to represent the International House brand, and I cannot recommend attendance at conferences like this highly enough!

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