Nancie Atwell's tips on how to hook your students up with literature

I've recently found the perfect excuse to devote some precious time to reading "The Reading Zone", by Nancie Atwell, who happens to be the first teacher to win The Global Teacher Prize, just in case you're not familiar with her name.

In fact, since I had to design a blog for didactic purpose as part of a a university assignment for my ICT class, I decided to be a little bit more innovative and creative by giving an old project of mine another chance: The Reading Club (version 2.0 in this case). It was originally designed for Spanish children and Spanish children's literature, but you can definitely make it work for your own students and whatever language you'd like them to improve. 

So let's take a closer look at Nancie Atwell and her book. First of all, I'd like to clarify what "The Reading Zone" means: it's the place readers go when they leave our classroom behind and live vicariously in their books (Chapter 2, page 21). It's comparable to a 'private internal movie, but better,'  as I also described it in this post.

This state of mind is possible only if the mechanisms of reading comprehension are working and the reader has personally chosen the novel. But the question is: how does reading comprehension work? To make a long story short (though you should definitely read the book) we, as readers, understand what it makes sense to us. Our comprehension of a text is directly connected to the percentage of the words whose meaning we understand without too much effort, which is normally about 90%. As a consequence, if a child is struggling with a book, it means that they can't figure out the meaning of enough of its words.Therefore, it's important to learn how to pick a title that will be the right match for our student's reading skills.

So how do we do that?

Leslie Funkhouser has developed an approach that defines 3 levels of book difficulty: Holiday, Challenge and Just Right. Holiday books are, as you can guess,  easy reads, while Challenge are books which will require some adult assistance; finally, Just Right titles are novels which meet both the reader's needs and their level of skill.

How to determine which category the book falls into is a easy enough if you are acquainted with Janette Veatch's "rule of thumb" (1968): turn to a page in the middle of the book you're considering, read it silently and use a finger to mark each unfamiliar word. If you hit 5 words - using all four fingers and your thumb - it  means that the book is too difficult (i.e. a Challenge) for you at that moment of your reading life.
Easy, isn't it?

In addition, the best thing about this method is that it labels the books, not the child, which is fundamental  in order to avoid undermining their confidence and to help expand their reading choices.

Here's the link to Nancie Atwell's school: Center for Teaching and Learning.
Don't miss the recommended books section!

More about books.


The (not-so-secret) secret behind our listening skills.

One day, several months ago, I was about to start one of my classes when my student's father asked me what he could do to improve his own listening skills, since every time he watched a movie he had trouble understanding the dialogues.

It was actually an interesting question as the attempt to improve Spaniards' speaking and listening skills has brought to this country a horde of native speakers from all over the world to this country; in fact, this man was actually taking classes himself - however, it clearly didn't seem to be enough.

My experience with children with reading and writing difficulties has lead me to one simple conclusion that might explain this issue: there is a gap between how the listener pronounces a word and the correct pronunciation of that same word.

The causes of this gap might vary according to individual learning experiences but, to keep it extremely simple, most of the issue could be solved just by checking how to pronounce the word in an online dictionary. This theory might sound like the egg of Columbus to you, but for many people it is definitely not so obvious.

We are so often in a hurry and have so many other things to do, that we don't dedicate enough time to the details of a language, supposing, of course, that in the fantastic world of ESL, where grammar rules the roost, listening comprehension could be considered a detail (which it definitely is).

As an example of what I'm saying here, take the word 'procedure' - pronounced /prəˈsiːdʒə(r)/ - which is a totally latin-root word that in Spanish is translated as 'procedimiento'.

Now imagine you have some maths and language homework awaiting on your desk, besides your English homework, of course, or you have to go and pick up the children from school etc.; so now you're there,  doing your English exercises, reading that word in your mind, as quickly as possible, and BANG! Before you know it, your brain begins to play a trick on you!

How? The first part of the word  'procedure' coincides with its Spanish translation procedimiento, right? So in your mind, it should be pronounced /prɔːsiː/,  /prɒθe/ or /prɒse/ while the second part of 'procedure' should sound like 'during' /djʊər/... There you go! The die is cast! From now on the word procedure will be recognised by your brain only when pronounced  /prɔː siːdjʊər/,  instead of /prəˈsiːdʒə(r)/, which, basically, means that you'll never recognized that word!

This example can be applied to any word and the consequences are important, because it is a circular process. Now imagine you're a student who has a couple of pages to study. You read them, trying to guess how to correctly pronounce the words you don't know, which are probably the key words you must learn to pass your exam. The next day you go to school and your teacher and classmates start to pronounce those words correctly. You don't recognize them and after a while, you're lost, and, even worse, you've practically wasted an hour of English class. Then the day of the exam arrives and part of it includes in a listening test but, since you don't recognize the key words, you fail it. Sad, isn't it? But definitely more common than we think.

What's the solution? When speaking English in class all the time doesn't help because there are always children (or adults) without a "good ear for sounds", we should focus on teaching sounds, enabling our students to first recognize them, and then to reproduce them correctly. Starting with phonemes, followed by words, phrases, sentences, texts and then books.

What I do during my classes is to listen to the children reading, without following the text on the page. This way when I don't understand what they are saying, because they're mispronouncing words,  I can stop them, read the passage correctly and make them repeat it. Unfortunately, the fact is that many teachers get used to Spanish mispronunciation or simply avoid correcting the speakers, especially when dealing with adults (who are more difficult to correct because their brain is already fully developed), which leads straight to the frustration of that parent I mentioned above.

In general, it is possible to work autonomously and improve our listening skills by ourselves, but it requires more effort and time than most of people are willing to dedicate to it. There are plenty of books (called readers) and magazines which come with audio files, so that anybody can check how to pronounce every single word, as well as most films and series which now are available in their original language with  subtitles. The secret is to start from the easy ones, increase the difficulty little by little, and rehearse pronunciation out loud, until we can understand almost the entire audio file without reading along.

But first, the sounds of English!


My favourite graded readers are edited by Cideb. Their Green Apple collection is especially designed for young learners and teenagers to help them prepare official exams such as KET, PET, Trinity, etc.



Related Posts:

Phonemic Awareness

Flashcards Games

On Reading Comprehension


My blog in Spanish


On teamwork, problem solving and motivation

Summer has always brought new life experiences into my professional life, however, the one which has just ended will definitely be remembered as a special one. I experienced something that you could recreate in your own classroom, especially during these first days of school, when children are starting to get acquainted with each other again or for the very first time.

If you've been following my blog, you'll know that during the month of July I usually run a summer camp in an outdoor environment  with students not older than 6, where the main activities are games, songs, and crafts to help them learn some basic grammar and vocabulary. After this summer I can definitely say that little kids are easy to understand and work with; believe me, if they like the activity you have planned, 

they'll do it but if they don't, they'll get distracted by anything more interesting, and that's all. Simple and easy to grab.

Unexpectedly, this time I ended up working with slightly older children: a group of 6/8 girls, aged 6 to 9 , who had already started developing their own personalities, which made them completely different from one another, and especially sensitive to impolite leadership attempts. They made it clear from the very first day that this Summer Camp had to be totally different.

First of all I pointed out how essential it was to be polite to each other so that nobody would get offended: I introduced the frequent use of  'please' and 'thank you' and reminded them to use suggestions and express opinions instead of giving orders. This way, instead of saying 'do this and that' they would use should, might or would; in other words, they were being forced to use grammar like never before.
But not only that! The icing on the cake was the ban on the word 'NO' in any form: a more understanding 'YES, BUT…' had to be used instead.

The second step  focused on creating cooperation instead of competition by using team building games. Just by luck, I found a copy of "Silly Sports and Goofy Games", by Dr Spencer Kagan, on my overflowing bookcase,  which was exactly what I needed. Over the following weeks we played games such as  "Movement Chain", "Instamatic", "Detective", "Smile if You Love Me", and "Maze Walker", where the girls worked together to build a maze with their own stuff and all the leaves, rocks, sticks and pine needles they could find in the garden.

Furthermore, in order to encourage relationship skills and equal participation, every time an activity required splitting them into different teams, I made the groups by drawing from a bunch of popsicle sticks with their names on them; this way they couldn't complain about the group they ended up in, because, as I would tell them, 'the sticks rule'.

The third step was to begin each Monday by offering a selection of 3 or 4 week group projects, to choose from: a play, a dance show, the opening ceremony of the Olympics, etc.  Each time the main goal was to sit together and decide who was going to do what, how to do it, who was going to wear this or that costume, how to arrange the stage, etc. without screaming, arguing or crying. Once everybody was happy with the decisions, I would participate in the process and add my own suggestions and ideas. They would work together on the project for the following 3 days until, on Friday, they would present it to the other groups.

It was awesome to witness the development of their relationships and the way they ended up working together, communicating politely, making decisions which would suit everybody, showing enthusiasm, rehearsing in the afternoons to come well prepared the next morning. The atmosphere was so friendly and engaging that even the shy ones or those who weren't feeling so confident ended up improving their English speaking skills which you can read about on my  parents' comments page.  

Oh! And the shows themselves were amazing!


Modeling: teaching positive attitudes towards learning

Long time no see! At last a Sunday off and some time for blogging!
Illustrator: rinapiccolo.com

You see, after 8 years teaching extracurricular English classes, last year I decided that it was time to get an actual teaching degree from an actual university, so I signed up for one! As a result, over the past few months I've had zero time to write anything… until today :)

The classes have definitely been interesting and quite useful, but my favorite subject, above all, was educational psychology, where I realized that over the last 8 years I've been applying the most modern educational theories without even knowing it. Somehow, through my personal experience as a student in addition to observing and analyzing my students to enhance their learning experience, I've been putting into practice theories I had been unfamiliar with until October.

It has been reassuring and encouraging at the same time to discover that others have scientifically proven things I have experienced almost daily. Actually, while I was in class I couldn't help sharing my classroom stories… though I'm not sure how much the teacher appreciated it!

Anyway, today I'd like to talk about one particular topic from those educational psychology classes: observational learning.

Do you remember that campaign with the slogan "Children see, children do"?
Well, between the phrase children see and the phrase children do, we could definitely add a third phrase: children learn.

Observational learning, or modeling, is part of the Social Learning Theory developed by Albert Bandura, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University. Bandura demonstrated that children learn and imitate behaviors they have observed in other people through his Bobo doll experiment, which shows how a child reproduces the same  aggressive behavior he has observed.

There are 4 important steps involved in the modeling process:

- Attention, which is connected to your interest in what you're seeing and the lack of possible distractions.
- Retention, which is the capacity to store information, usually facilitated by seeing and listening to how to do something.
- Reproduction is the phase that starts once you've retained the information and understood the process. It's the time when the child performs the observed behavior. Their performance will improve and lead to skill advancement through further practice.
- Motivation is essential for successful observational learning and it can be generated by using positive or negative reinforcement. This also includes punishment, but it's not a desiderable way of going about it.

It sounds a bit like my method, doesn't it?  ;) Not only that, but it also sounds like how a Montessori teacher does it when they explains to their students how to use the prepared material.

As adults, it's clear that we can choose to use this process to encourage more positive behaviour from the young people around us, and this is also why I always insist that parents and teachers must be an active part of the process. In fact, I even wrote a book about it!

If you want your kids to read, let them see that you like reading; open a book, talk to them about what you're reading, and take them to a library.

If you want your children to learn English, take part in the process with them. If they're shy don't force them to speak if you're not making the same effort, because then they will just ask you why they have to when you don't.

Do you want your students to care for environment? Start by caring for it yourself, showing them how to do it.

When I started my first internship at a school in January, I bought one of those notebooks with the big squares that first graders use to write in so that I could practice my primary school calligraphy.

Every day, I made sure to use it in front of them, showing them my improvement, and asking them how they wrote this or that letter. Judging by their amazed expressions every time I took the notebook out of my bag, I'm pretty sure that, many of them paid much more attention to how they were writing and tried to improve the legibility of their writing just because they felt that their own effort to produce legible calligraphy was being understood and appreciated,

In conclusion, the learning process is a team effort and if you have a tricky issue in your own classroom, this process can be modified to help you deal with it.

If you'd like to take a deeper look  at the subject, here's a link to a more exhaustive explanation and another video about the Bobo doll experiment.

Meanwhile, have fun!

P.S. I got a really good grade on the Educational Psychology exam ;)

About Reading Comprehension


Easy and Effective Flashcards Games Ideas for Preschoolers

Flash cards… These Cards with a word and/or a picture on them that teachers use during their lessons, and which are particularly useful, for teaching a foreign language without using the children's first language. (Check out chapter six of my guide for more details.)

So, you're a teacher or parent who's fresh off the boat and someone has suggested that buying flashcards might help you grab your young learners' attention during English classes. You went out and bought a set and... now what?

Sometimes, especially at the beginning of the school year when I show my students the first set of flashcards, during the first classes, they become very excited and there's always someone who literally begs to hold them. I usually let them because I 'm always curious to see how they'll use the cards. As children usually tend to repeat what they've learnt with their school teacher, sometimes they come out with cool ideas I can reuse, but, unfortunately, when it comes to flashcards, they just sit quietly and start to slowly show one card at a time, asking 'What's this?'. If you are in a  classroom  with  the  desks  organised  in  rows  without  much  space  for  moving  around,  I  imagine  that's  the  most  obvious way to use flash cards. Even so, I think it's worth exploring some more drilling games you could use to make the most of your flashcard sets in order to grab your students' attention and speed up their learning process.

So here's list of flash cards games for  children who can't read yet:

Choose the flashcards you're going to use and hold them so that the children can't see what's on them. Pick one card and turn it around very fast, so that students only have enough time to take a peek at it before you turn it back round.  Ask what it was on the card and if nobody answers, show them the flashcard again, but a little more slowly than the first time. Repeat until somebody gives the right answer. Once shown how to proceed, you could also call on some of your students and let them be the ones to turn the cards round quickly.

Obviously this game is the opposite concept to the one above. Choose the flashcards you're going to use and hold them so that children can't see what's on them. Pick one card and turn it round very slowly so that the kids will have to pay a lot of attention to be the first to guess what's represented on the card. Again, once shown how to proceed, you could also call on some of your students and let them do the trick.

Point to…! or Walk to…!

Walk around the classroom sticking a set of flashcards to the walls round the classroom. Get the children say the names as you stick them up, then say 'point to the rabbit!' or any other item shown on the  cards. The children listen and point to the correct flashcard as fast as they can.

"The Walk to…!" - version allows the children to stand up and go over to the card. However, in order to avoid a crowd of 24 kids pushing and pulling (and screaming and crying :o) ) to touch (and possibly destroying it) the only one card in the room which shows what you've just called out, I'd definitely suggest using at least 3 copies of the same set of cards, spread out all over the classroom.

What's missing?
Stick a set of flashcards on the board. Have the children say the names as you do it. Then say 'Close your eyes!' and once their eyes are closed, take  one card off the board. At that point say 'Open your eyes! What's missing?' and let the children guess the name of the missing card. The funniest part of this game is that  the second time you say 'Close your eyes', the children will start to cheat. Pretending to be a little upset and surprised (yes, just like a clown), call out the name of each cheating little monkey and tell them to reeeeaaaally close their eyes this time. You'll see how easy it is sometimes to make a child really happy.

Kim's game
Stick 8-10 flashcards on the board, eliciting the names. Give your students 1 minute, or less, to look in silence and try to memorize the flashcards. Then remove all the cards from the board and finally ask them to say the names they can remember. While they're telling you the right answers, repeat the names of the items and stick the cards back up on the board, in the same order they're being called out by the kids.

Flashcard chain
Sit in a circle with the children and with your set of cards.  Pass the first card, e.g. cheese, and ask a question 'Do you like cheese?' encourage them to answer 'Yes I do/ No, I don't'. After answering, the child asks the same question while passing the flashcard to the next child and so on round the circle.

This game is quite flexible because you can choose different questions depending on what you're currently studying, or you can change the questions for statements, e.g. 'I like cheese' or I don't like cheese' , I would like…, I can…, I have got…, etc.

Another option is to have every single child holds a different card, while the first child says ' I like cheese', holding the card which shows the cheese so that everybody can see it. The second child, who is holding the card with,  let's say, the lettuce then says: 'I like cheese and lettuce'. The third child, who's holding the card showing ham, says: 'I like cheese, lettuce and ham'. Keep playing until the last child in the circle has mentioned all the cards.

WARNING! Always expect some mess the first time you introduce a new game to young learners, because, as they say, practice makes perfect and children need a lot of it. This way, the second time will be a little tidier and quieter and the more you practice and adjust the game to your students needs and characteristics, the smoother the game will go.

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Jolly Phonics - Teach Your Cute Little Monsters to Read

Over the last 2 years I've been teaching some children who were finding learning to read difficult and they also made lots of mistakes when writing.  As a result, and despite their best efforts, their academic results weren't satisfying at all. When I started to help them, their self-esteem was non-existent; they showed no interest in learning English, and, since they had experienced failure so often, they didn't even try to write correctly anymore and, of course, they didn't like reading at all.

To try to solve the whole situation it occurred to me to use phonics: If my students had begun by learning to decode a word by identifying the sounds it's composed of, they would at least have had a tool to help them write that word correctly. Having said that, if they had learnt how to read a word correctly, they would have been able to recognize it even when someone else said it, which would have improved their learning ability overall.

It worked. After a few sessions of studying phonics they've started to do better in English tests, their self-esteem has 'risen from the ashes' and they have even started to enjoy reading.

But, what are phonics?

Each letter of the alphabet makes a sound. Also, different combinations of letters produce other sounds such as 'th', 'sh', 'oo' or 'ee' for example. Words are made by blending all these sounds together from left to right.

More details about phonics are available here

What I like about the theory behind phonics is the fact that children acquire a decoding tool they will be able to use at any time with any word. Phonics improve their reasoning skills which is exactly what we, as teachers, should look for: children who can think.

In order to delve a little bit deeper into this topic I took a course in June where I learnt about the Jolly Phonics method of teaching phonics.

I definitely recommend it to anyone, both teachers and parents, because the amount of English words that children have to learn has increased dramatically over the last 7 years. In addition to English as a subject, kids are now studying science, social studies, art and music in English, which means there are many, many words to read, remember and write correctly if they want to get high marks. Learning every single word by heart, as children are doing now, is exhausting and certainly doesn't improve their love for learning or reading.

This year I'm going to follow the Jolly Phonics method to teach my youngest students, who are 4, 5 and 6 years old. If you too wold like to know more about it I suggest you take a look at the Jolly Learning website first and then attend one of their courses. To do so, you can get in touch with Beki, who, by the way, is a great trainer, her classes are dynamic and really entertaining, exactly as we like them at Miss Lucy's ;)

More about this topic here, here and here.

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Summer Camp 2015: My House

At Summer Camp this year we learned about 'the house', among other things.
Since the location of the camp is a garden I introduced the topic by asking the children to fetch sticks and dry pine needles to build a simple flat model house in the grass. 

Then I let them choose which room was the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom, the garage and the garden and I placed the corresponding flashcards in each 'room'.

After everyone had agreed on the layout of the rooms, we played this simple game: 'Where is the cat (or any other animal or object you know your students may be interested in)?' In this game everybody closes their eyes and you hide the picture of a cat under one of the flashcards representing the rooms.  The children have to guess which room the cat is hiding in. Once they've picked the right room, you can let them hide the cat for the other kids, one by one.

Once the topic was introduced, we read a Cat and Mouse book 'Come to My House' which repeats the same pattern as the game. The protagonists go from room to room asking 'Where is Coco?' the cat family's pet parrot.
The next step was learning the song 'Cows in the Kitchen', a pretty catchy song.
We studied animal sounds: moo, quack, meow, baa, oink and meh, with a game in which one kid reproduced  one of the sounds and the others had to guess which animal it belonged to. Apparently the most challenging sound to remember was the goat's Meh, as they kept confusing it with the sheep's Baa.


Then we built a cardboard house and stuck pieces of furniture in each room. While working, I left the song on in the background, so the children could continue to learn the words without realising. Other games you can play to teach songs in a more playful way are Musical Statues or Musical Chairs. Kids love them!The last step was painting the farm animals mentioned in the song with finger paint. The most fun part was trying to wash our hands in the garden sprinkles without getting completely soaked. Fortunately the heat wave that covered Madrid for the first 3 weeks of July allowed us to dry off quickly anyway.


Summer Camp 2014
Summer Camp 2013

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