Time to read - Synthetic Phonics - First Phase

There's a big debate about whether or not children should be taught to read before they are 6. It seems that there's a chance that forcing them to read too early could impair the development of faster connections between the two lobes of their young brains.

Here in Spain, children start reading and writing vowels at the age of 4.
I'm definitely against this rush, and I have my own theory about the reasons why kids are tortured this way, but I'm not here to talk about Spanish education policies today!

Instead, I'm going to tell you what I think might be an intermediate solution to this big dilemma: Synthetic Phonics taught using the Montessori method.

Many of you probably already know the Jolly Phonics method. When I first heard about it, it was being advertised as an innovative way to teach reading and writing, but last summer, reading 'The Discovery of the Child'  written by Maria Montessori and published in 1948 I realized that the use of the Synthetic Phonics method is not new at all; it has just been ignored for decades.

At its simplest, it consists of familiarizing the child with the sounds of the letters by presenting the vowels and consonants separately. However, while the Jolly Phonics method involves written exercises, the Montessori method only requires that kids to first trace the letters with their fingers, and later use a stick to learn the right direction in which a given graphic sign must be drawn, so that the visual and the muscle memory become associated with the letter's sound.

No child even has to pick up a pencil, so with this method, their synapses are safe and children can start to move along the correct path towards reading and writing.

The first phase (which is what I've been experimenting with my class over the last few weeks)  consists of recognizing the first sound of a word. Here you can see a clear example of this exercise.

First you should make Initial Sound Boxes - Each box in the set of 26 contains objects or pictures that start with the letter that box represents. 

Since I haven't got my own classroom (yet) I had to choose the pictures option and  instead of using a little chest of drawers, as Maria Montessori suggests in her book, I'm storing the pictures into envelopes, one for each letter. Of course, it is also possible to use boxes, recycled egg cartons,  and such. Just stick a letter on the outside of each container and you'll have your alternative chest of drawers to group pictures or toys according to the sound of the first letter in their names.

Here you can find the Jolly Phonics chants which will help kids remember each sound.

By presenting single sounds, the Synthetic Phonics method also allows teachers to point out the correct mouth positions needed to produce each sound and to avoid Spanish mispronunciation of English sounds for R, W, V, B etc.


At the moment, we're still on the letter 'M' and it seems that, little by little, the kids are building a certain awareness of the sounds. For example, the other day one of the kids said that the word SNAKE starts with an E. Of course this mistake was due to the fact that he was pronouncing it the Spanish way, which places an E before every word that starts with an S. The good thing was that I could point out the difference and the look on his face showed his surprise and interest in that unexpected information.

Also, recently, they were singing a winter song that goes: Winter! Winter! Winter's very cold!" which they were pronouncing the Spanish way, especially the vowels and the Rs. So I used Synthetic Phonics to teach them how to sing it properly and they did it perfectly. The funny thing is that now they are so aware of the difference between the right and the wrong way to sing it, that when I ask them to sing it, they sing it wrong, on purpose, just to see my horrified expression and make fun of me!
Although I have to admit, I find it kind of cool…!

Some free downloadable resources here

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Let's Talk About Toys: Games and Worksheets

Christmas holidays will certainly have brought a large number of presents to our student's houses, so if you didn't talk about toys before Christmas, the right moment could definitely be now, when every child will be eager to tell everybody else what he found under his Christmas tree.

You can find high quality material about toys to download here:

In the file 'Little bugs story cards 1' you'll find the story of a clumsy elf who helps a young boy get a new robot. It's a story younger students can easily act out thanks to its repetitive patterns. In the file 'Little bugs flashcards 1' you'll find the flash cards which show all the toys mentioned in the story.

I printed a small card version of those flashcards so we could play several games with them.

One game I particularly like to play is 'The wind blows for…': Have your kids sit in a circle, let them choose a couple of cards and when you call out a toy saying, for example: "The wind blows for anyone who has got a scooter."  those who are holding a card with a scooter on it have to swap chairs, as fast as they can. I don't usually remove any chairs because I want them to focus on learning and not on winning the game however, it might be an option to take into account if you're teaching primary students.

Another game the kids loved was this:
Call on one of the kids, let him or her choose a card, without showing it to anyone or saying what toy is shown on it (sometimes this is the hardest part, he,he,he!). The child then has to act out playing with that toy while the rest of the class tries to guess what toy he or she is playing with.
They loved it so much that they could happily have kept playing the same game for the whole hour!

As always I looked for some songs to help them quickly memorize the new vocabulary: this one is really simple and it's the perfect way to introduce the topic. The second song inspired me to come up with another guessing game: just take a small cardboard box and fill it with the cards. This is now your "toybox". Next, slowly take the cards out of it, one by one, while the children try to guess what toy you're taking out. Of course if you have the chance to use real toys instead, go for it! 
The last one is a chant and you can make the most of it by using the expression 'have got' while playing "Go fish".

Interesting worksheets about toys can be downloaded here. I played bingo with my students and, of course, they won many sweet prizes.

Have a wonderful time heading back to school!

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There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly - Fall and Autumn Cookies

For me, baking season officially starts when autumn days become brisk and short. Last year I baked tons of gingerbread men for my preschoolers in order to make the whole story more interesting. 

This year my choice has fallen on  the song "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly" which tells the story of an old woman who swallowed several animals one after the other, each one increasingly larger, in an attempt to catch the last animal she had swallowed.

This song brought to mind the image of happy children and their parents making animal-shaped cookies in their kitchens while listening to the song in the  background. Then I could see those same children later pretending to be the old lady and swallowing one cookie after another following the same sequence as in the song.

To make that vision come true I had to call my good friend Rita who's not only a great teacher herself but also an awesome confectioner. She started her professional career as a psychologist and used her natural talents with kids to teach English to a generation of Spanish students. Despite leading an active and busy life, her love for food never waned, so two years ago, Rita started a food blog mostly dedicated to baking and the fascinating world of cookie decorating.

Can you think of anyone more suited to this challenge?

Her blog has several cookie recipes you could choose from, but these two are my favorites for the fall season: Maple and spicy fall cookies, Spicy Pumpkin Cookies

Once we had baked the cookies, we spent a couple of hours decorating them. Althoug I felt a little clumsy because it was my absolute first time, even though I really enjoyed the drawing part… I was oblivious to the existence of edible ink food coloring markers (!!!!) until last Sunday.

And you could do the same with your kids too. Remember that having a good time is one of the basic ingredients for learning!

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YES magazine - An entertaining way to prepare Cambridge exams (B2, C1, C2)

This year I have started CAE preparation (Certificate of Advanced English, level C1) for my 14 year-old genius of a student.

At the beginning of September I was snooping around the bookshop to see if I could find some material which would be appropriate or him, because, even though he's brilliant, he is still only 14, and let's face it, the books on offer for CAE preparation are not exactly what I would call entertaining. 

Of course, I was quickly starting to realise there weren't any decent options to choose from, at least not among course books, when, all of a sudden, it appeared!
Right next to the cash register, with a headline screaming SPORTS… I knew it was the one! So I bought it, right after taking a quick peek inside.

"YES" is halfway between a magazine and an English supplement for people with a good level of English.

According to the people at Cambridge the most effective way to prepare for the reading test is, (what a surprise!) to read a wide range of texts. This should include magazines, articles from newspapers, and online materials on a wide range of topics. So what could be better than reading and answering questions about an article or two, especially since people generally don't like reading so much?

Inside each issue of "YES" you'll find section about current affairs, sports news, language news, science, technology and politics, as well as a dossier about the main topic and an entire section specifically designed to introduce grammar and new vocabulary.

Once you buy "YES", you have the option of downloading a folder full of audio files whose transcriptions are included in the magazine. In my opinion, they really help with preparation for the listening part of the CAE exam thanks to the variety of English accents you'll hear. As we all know, even though English is just one language, there are quite a few differences in the way people pronounce it. But not only that; there are also differences in the spelling and in the vocabulary, depending on which country the speakers come from: a variety that a candidate will definitely have to deal with during the exam.

In addition, throughout  the whole magazine, there are footnotes which explain difficult vocabulary, giving definitions in English or using pictures and, in the section at the back,  you'll find 20 pages of exercises and games to test and consolidate what you've been studying.

So, if you are looking for something a bit different to your typical course book, don't miss "YES"! Here you can find all the information you could possibly need.

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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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