A Fun Way to Teach Left and Right to Children

Hi there! Long time no see! Autumn has arrived in Madrid, the children are back in school and I've been busy, busy and beyond busy, planning new classes and much more.

A month has passed since my last post, written right after getting back, with my batteries fully charged, from the middle of nowhere in Norway (though it already seems an eternity ago), and it's definitely time to get back to blogging.

Today's topic is something I've had on my mind for a long time.
I've been living in Spain for 9 years and I've always been surprised by the fact that when you ask people for directions, most of them usually end up pointing left, when they mean right and vice-versa.

I also remember how difficult it was for me too, as a child, to distinguish left from right, especially during PE classes. I've been wearing a watch on my left wrist since then mainly to avoid confusion and I must admit that this trick still helps a lot.

So, before starting any lesson about left and right, I provide my students with one of those animal-shaped rubber bands you see everywhere to wear on their left wrists.
Then, I ask them to raise their left and right hands several times, pointing out that the left side of their bodies is the one with the bracelet. After that, I teach them this song, and we try to sing and dance while following the instructions. It might seem a bit of a mess, especially the first few times you rehearse it, but it's reeeeaally funny.

Another game you can definitely use to teach children not only left and right, but also some colors and parts of the body, (especially for younger kids) is Twister. The version you can buy in the shops is designed  for a maximum of 4 kids, so I made myself a bigger one, using a white cotton sheet, some fabric paint and a simple circle stencil. The spinner is quite easy to make too; you'll only need a paper clip and a paper fastener.

This DIY option is better if you have more than 4 children in your class, if you want to use a different palette of colors or even different shapes (instead of circles), and it's also handy if your children are not so short, since you can choose what size to cut the sheet and how many lines to paint on. Not to mention the fact that it's significantly cheaper than buying the original version and that painting is a relaxing activity you can enjoy!

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GANGSTA GRANNY by David Walliams

David Walliams, as Wikipedia says, is an English comedian, actor, author, and television presenter. In early 2008, Walliams began his career as a writer of children's books and 'Gangsta Granny' is his fourth.

This book tells the story of Ben, a boy who hates staying at his granny's house every Friday night because all she ever wants to do is play Scrabble and, even worse, every meal on the menu is alway made of cabbage.

Unexpectedly Ben learns that his granny is not so boring as he thought. He finds out that the smelly squeaky old lady was once an international jewel thief and together they plan and almost manage to achieve to steal every great thief's dream: the Crown Jewels.

Walliams style has been compared to Dahl's since in some ways they are both irreverent and humorous and I share the opinion that there are some elements of his style of storytelling that recall Dahl's own style.

The protagonist, Ben, is a child who has a passion which is not approved of by his family and doesn't feel loved by the adults who should be taking care of him instead of packing him off to Granny's. For instance, Ben loves plumbing (like Matilda loves reading) and he dreams of being a plumber someday, while, his ordinary parents who live ordinary lives and are fond of a ballroom dancing Tv show, want him to be a professional dancer.

Also, as in Dahl's novels, there are secrets to be revealed, funny situations, unusual experiences, a surprisingly understanding Queen of the United Kingdom and in the end a valuable lesson is learnt by all.

On the other hand, I find that Dahl is extremely skilled at drawing you into his incredible tales, that, even though the worlds he describes are so distant from our own reality, you can't help but believe that the impossible has become real. You don't ask yourself whether the Oompa Loompa actually existed or if Wonka's inventions could really work (I can't tell you how many times I dreamt of his Great Glass Elevator as a child); you are just sucked into a daydream, a parallel world, where truly anything could happen.

Walliams' book however, didn't make me feel the same. On the contrary, I found myself trying to figure out if Ben and Granny's ideas would have worked in real life. Possibly, the reason for this quite different reaction is due to the fact that, every now and then, the author establishes a direct dialogue with his reader. From a step-by-step guide to pretending to brush your teeth to the detailed description of the Crown Jewels, passing through an explanation of Venn diagrams and Granny's recipe for cabbage cake, Walliams tends to bring us back to real life, creating a sort of contrast that doesn't allow you to fully escape from reality.

Of course I wouldn't say this is a negative aspect of his style. The image of Ben and Granny wearing wetsuits and scuba diving masks on their way to the Tower of London on a motorized scooter with a top speed of three miles per hour, wouldn't have made me  laugh so much if I hadn't been able to imagine them on an actual motorway to London with some very puzzled real-life passersby staring at them.

Click on this link for classroom activities.

More book reviews and lesson plans based on books here

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Summer Camp 2014: IN THE WOODS

I introduced the topic with a nature walk scavenger hunt to make the most of the fact that the classes were being taught in a garden with a lot of pine trees. Here you can download the list of things that the children had to find which you ca use to entertain them during your picnics.

There is a large number of books about woods and the animals that live there but my first pick was "Goldilocks". I showed the kids this video which is quite easy to follow for preschoolers who are attending bilingual schools and then we played several games such as 'Cops and Robbers' using the pictures in this pack.

We also tried to act the story out, we ate a lot of gummy bears and we made finger puppets… They loved it!

Another story we listened to, sang and acted out was "We are Going On a Bear Hunt". It's a good story for children who are learning English because it has a lot of basic sounds that aren't so common in other languages, so kids can practice some phonetics without even realizing.

After that, I scattered some colorful bear footprints around for the kids to run and look for.

A couple of other nice and entertaining stories that are set in woods with animal protagonists are: "I Want My Hat Back" by Jon Klassen and "The Gruffalo" written by Julia Donaldson (video).

During our handicraft time, besides finger puppets, we reproduced a campfire, a porcupine (see pictures) and an owl to make the most of all the dry sticks, leaves and pine needles we were surrounded by.

Oh! By the way, if you're looking for a story about an owl, Kayleigh O'Mara has written and illustrated one that children will definitely find interesting.


Enjoy your summer!


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Summer Camp 2014: UNDER THE SEA

Most children's favorite topic always tends to be 'animals'. You can introduce them to the strangest and weirdest animal in the world and they will remember what it's called. That's why, of course, I gave squids, lobsters and jellyfish a try.

You can find many pictures and activities here, here and here.

For the handicraft time I picked the jellyfish from among these puppets and we made
1) a fish decorated with cupcakes paper liners
2) a seahorse with plastic eyes and decorated with anything you'd like 

The children loved singing this song during their handicraft time and we also learned these ones:

Mr. Lobster and Mrs. Crab by Debby
('Old Macdonald Had a Farm' tune)

Mr. Lobster and Mrs. Crab
pinch and snap all day
Mr. Lobster and Mrs. Crab
pinch and snap all day
With a pinch pinch here and a snap, snap there
here a pinch, there a snap
everywhere a pinch,pinch(snap, snap)
Mr. Lobster and Mrs. Crab pinch and snap all day.


Fish in the Sea by Jenny
('The Wheels on the Bus' tune)

The fish in the sea go swim, swim, swim
swim, swim, swim, swim, swim, swim
The fish in the sea go swim, swim, swim
all through the day.

The lobsters in the sea go pinch, pinch, pinch,
pinch, pinch, pinch, pinch, pinch, pinch,
The lobsters in the sea go pinch, pinch, pinch,
all through the day.

The octopus in the sea go wiggle, wiggle, wiggle
wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle
The octopus in the sea go wiggle, wiggle, wiggle
all through the Day

The crabs in the sea go click, click, click,
click, click, click, click, click, click,
The crabs in the sea go click, click, click,
all through the day.

We played 'The ball goes to…' and, of course 'Go fish'.

Very nice books to read aloud while studying sea animals are:
"Swimmy", by Leo Lionni
"The Rainbow Fish", by Marcus Pfister
"Mr Seahorse", by Eric Carl

Summer Camp 2014: AT THE BEACH and IN THE WOODS

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Summer Camp 2014: AT THE BEACH

As they say "Time flies when you're having fun!", and July has just flown away. I can't even believe it!

I had the opportunity to teach my own Summer Camp again in the same place as last year, with even more children aged 4 and 5.

This year we worked on holidays and I'm sure you've already guessed the topics: at the beach, under the sea and in the woods.

Let's start from the beginning: AT THE BEACH

First of all, I introduced the new vocabulary using this pack where you'll find flashcards and activities about beach items.

We played beach ball games and...

Simon Says at the Beach
Simon Says at the Beach is simply a game of Simon Says with beach theme movements like these.
Walk like a crab. 
Snap like a lobster. 
Swim like fish. 
Roll your arms like a big wave. 
Tip toe like you're walking on hot sand. 
Dig in the sand.

Sand Bucket Bean Bag Toss: set up sand buckets and play a beanbag toss game.

What time is it Mr. Lifeguard?
This is a fun game to play outside. You can change the name to suit any
The children all line up against a wall or fence.
And one child, (Mr. Lifeguard) or the teacher faces away from the
children, a good distance away from the children.
The children yell, what time is it "Mr. Lifeguard",
Mr. Lifeguard answers 1 o'clock, and the children all take one step toward
Mr. Lifeguard.
The children yell again, what time is it "Mr. Lifeguard",
Mr. Lifeguard answers (fill in the blank) o'clock, and the children all
take same number of step toward Mr. Lifeguard.
This continues until all the children are very close to Mr. Lifeguard,
then Mr. Lifeguard will answer it's midnight, and chases the children back
to the fence or wall that they started at. The first person Mr. Lifeguard
touches will be the new Mr. Lifeguard.

Beach Hide and Seek
Play the game the same as above, except hide the beach object. Then
tell the children individually whether they are "hot" or "cold" to the
relation of the object. Allow the other children to have a change to
hide the object, and tell children whether they are "hot or cold". It may be a good idea to discuss the meaning of hot and cold before you
play this game.

Beach Shape Fishing Game
Tie 3 feet of string to a wooden spoon. Attach a magnet to the end of
the string. Cut and laminate many different colored, and sized beach
shapes from construction paper (not too big though). Attach a paper clip
to each shape. Spread the shapes on the floor and let your child try to
catch the shapes. Have them try to catch the red shape.. or the biggest
shape. For a twist, label the shapes with letters or numbers. Ask the
children to catch a specific shape, or ask them which shape they caught.

We sang these songs:

My Beach Ball Song
sung to "Mary had a Little Lamb"

Once I had a beach ball
a beach ball
a beach ball
Once I had a beach ball
Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce

Beach Song
Tune: The Farmer in the Dell
Song - words by Laurie Patsalides

I'm walking to the beach; (Walk in place.)
I'm walking to the beach. (Walk in place.)
I think I'll find a shell in the sand. (Pretend to dig.)
I'm walking to the beach. (Walk in place.)
Repeat with different motions for physical activity (running, stomping or marching).

And every day the kids enjoyed a handicraft activity:

Sand Art
Allow the children to glue sand to a piece of paper to create a beach scene. Add white torn paper for clouds, colored torn paper for umbrellas.

Make your own Leis
Supply the children with flower shapes, a hole punch and string. Have the children punch a hole in the flowers and lace them onto the string for a necklace.

Beach Towel
Have the children design their own beach towel with scraps of paper, ribbon, markers, crayons etc.

Beach Umbrella Art
Cut out a beach umbrella shape and have your child decorate it with paint, glitter, fabric, crayons, or whatever you can come up with.

Sunglasses Art
Cut out a sunglasses shape and have your child decorate it with paint, glitter, fabric, crayons, or whatever you can come up with.

I also showed them a book called "ToThe Beach!" written by Linda Ashman, which besides being a rhyming picture book, it is also really funny. The children couldn't stop saying "These people are crazy!"

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Auxiliares de Conversación in Spain: an Interview

The Auxiliares Program, officially called Language and Culture Assistants in Spain, gives the opportunity to anyone to teach his or her own native language here in Spain for 8 months, basically for a whole school year. 

Candidates will work in a bilingual school and help students improve their listening and speaking skills for the most part.

But, what do assistants really do once they are inside a Spanish classroom?

I asked some questions to my friend Jessica, who worked here in Madrid, in order to enlighten parents and anyone who might be interested in applying for this experience.

Take your time... It's long and really interesting!

Here it goes!  

How long did you work as an 'auxiliar de conversación'? In which kind of school?

I had the opportunity to work with the public school IES Manuel de Falla in Coslada, Madrid, for one school year.

We know from the
web page  of the Comunidad de Madrid that the assistant's basic duties are:  
-To assist the regular staff at class
-To conduct conversation classes in the foreign language
-To supplement the classes with exercises in reading, dictation and oral composition
-To give pupils an insight to the way of life in his/her country.
-To prepare material.
-Assistants may also be asked to participate in extra-curricular activities such as workshops, field trips, music and theater performances, or sports events.

What did you really do?

I assisted the main teachers in Art, History and  English Literature classes. This included creating presentations or activities to supplement the existing coursework and textbook lessons. Often times I would work on reading and speaking skills with small groups while the main teacher taught the rest of the class. One of my favorite lessons in the upper level art class was going over design vocabulary and having the students create their own logo. It was great to use my graphic design background in class and the kids really loved being able to create their own business idea/logo. I was also responsible for holding an after-school conversational English class for any teachers that wanted to improve their English skills.

Let's talk about students for a moment. How did they interact with you? Were they engaged by the whole experience of having a real native speaker who was there to talk about her own culture?

Most all of the students responded really well to having a native speaker in class. They were all very inquisitive and loved to learn about the U.S. Some of them were shy or a bit embarrassed when trying to speak English because it was a challenge for them, but they did get more comfortable with time and by the end of the year I saw a lot of improvement in all of my classes. 

What was the best part of your English teaching experience?

My favorite part about teaching in Madrid was definitely helping the students to get excited about language learning. I personally love to learn new languages and know what it’s like to be in a boring class with endless grammar lessons. Being able to engage students and see them use their creativity to explore the English language was incredibly rewarding. It was also wonderful to be able to give them a new perspective on my country, the kinds of culture the U.S. exports aren’t necessarily the best representation of America, so it was neat to teach them about some of the less well known figures and places.

In your opinion, what should be taken into account, from a student's point of view, to enhance the program? 

As far as my school was concerned I think I had one of the best experiences of any of my friends that did the Auxiliares program. Other students complained about not being paid regularly and having little to no direction. Most of the teachers I worked with were incredibly helpful and the school fully supported me and gave me all the materials and direction I needed.

However, one of the few things I struggled with was learning some of the material that I was expected to teach, particularly in the history classes, rather than helping with activities or conducting conversations I was expected to teach for an entire class after being informed of what sections of the book I would be teaching just the day before. For someone that doesn’t have a great history background this required a lot of reviewing and often I didn’t feel that I knew enough to really teach a class effectively. Working outside of the classroom wasn’t the issue, I knew going in that I would have to prepare lessons and activities after school hours, it was more that the teacher didn’t know how to incorporate me into the classroom so they just split up the lessons and when I was there they let me teach. It would be great if the teachers could have more training on what to do with English assistants.

Another challenge was helping some of the students in the lower level English classes. We were instructed only to use English when in class, but for the lower levels many students had come from middle schools where their core classes were not taught in English so they had a very hard time keeping up. I found myself having to use Spanish at points so that I could quickly explain things, but even then I think that there are a lot of kids that are caught in the middle and did not get good grades. Not because they couldn’t handle the material in most cases, but because they couldn’t learn well in English. Right now the Spanish school system is transitioning into having more bilingual schools and it’s hurting students that can’t keep up. I suppose that’s more of a problem with the system than with the Auxiliares program though, but perhaps there could be better ways to use English assistants in lower level classes. Otherwise my experience was really wonderful. The teachers made me feel very welcome and the students were great!

Intriguing, isn't it? Are you thinking of applying for the position? 
Read a little bit more then...

While I had a wonderful time teaching I think that there are a lot of students that go to Spain with unrealistic expectations of what they’ll have to do and how much time they have to dedicate. It is not easy to teach a class, especially one with 20 or more students so I think having English speakers that have some training in Education or language learning would vastly improve the quality of the program, or at least giving them spots first when they apply. 

There are a ton of people who I know in the US that applied to the program and didn’t get in because it’s first come first serve. Spain could be a lot more picky with the selection process, or at least provide better training for the assistants and it would help everyone involved. I received my TEFL certificate before going to Madrid and think that I would have struggled a lot more without that experience. 

Also, the program should tell students to expect to do at least half an hour of work outside of class for each class they teach. Some assistants think they’re just have to show up and speak, when really to give the best experience to the students the position requires you to prepare outside of class. Yes it is a fun job, but the program should be a bit more realistic when describing the duties so that students know what they are getting into when they sign up.

Download the Language Assistant Handbook for more details

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Summertime is perfect for books. I remember when I was in high school I had to read many classics, sometimes a little boring, that were going to be meticulously studied during the following school year.

We didn't have many options to pick from. Nowadays things have significantly improved, very much thanks to technology and pedagogic enhancements. We are aware that not all teenagers are eager readers and that we can meet those who are not halfway by proposing a more engaging version of the classic novel, such as a comic.

The publishing house Heinle Cengage Learning (National Geographic) has a collection called Classical Comics especially designed for ELT students. I don't know, maybe if it's my impression, but I've noticed that most students (even the most difficult to engage) react in a very positive and unexpected way when I tell them they are going to read a comic. 

I suppose that direct speech (the dialogues are graded) and attractive comic strips are more entertaining and easier to understand than a stack of words on a piece of paper. Also, the characters are more recognizable. For example in Great Expectations, that's the book I got, there are at least 24 characters and, let's face it, it's difficult even for an adult to remember who is who all the time, especially when you get to those complicated parts where many names appear and you start to get really lost in the mist while you can't help falling asleep.

Well, in these ELT graphic novels you'll find a full descriptions of the main characters with pictures to help students follow the story and also, a glossary to support students while they read. The language used is for intermediate learners, levels B1 and B2.  There's a short biography of the author and, of course, audio CDs to provide a complete reading experience that will allow students to improve their listening and speaking skills too.

Give it a try! Get your students to love reading!

Great Expectations worksheets here.

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