Around Town: activities about shops and places in a city

I suppose every child around the world goes places with their parents. Schools, hospitals, parks, train stations, bus stations, and shops are all around and children learn to recognize them and to interact with the people who work there quite early on.

At the age of five, some of them have certainly already experienced grocery shopping with their parents: asking for food (in our cute Spanish neighbourood shops), asking about the price of it and handing money over to the shopkeeper to pay for the family shopping.

Taking this into account, since my classes are inspired by children's real life and interests, I planned some lessons around this topic. And looking back on the whole experience, I must say we enjoyed it a lot. Thanks to activities involving coloring in, cutting out and pasting, as well as role playing games, the kids learned a lot  and in a reasonably short time.

Step one: I showed them some flash cards and we played flash cards games to remember the different locations. In the first group, the places were either very familiar or had a very recognizable name: school, park, hospital, train station, bus station, gas station… and airport, which at the beginning was logically called… the plane station (my cuties!)

Then we made a paper city: I let them choose which place they wanted to color in, cut out and paste onto the wall of the classroom, where I had previously stuck a long paper street. If you're working with a very small group you could suggest doing a 3D version of the same project, using whatever recycling material you can think of (see pictures).

We also played this game: ' Look!' - pointing in any direction to get the kids attention, of course - 'I can see a train/plane/bus/car/ teacher… Where am I?'

The second step was to introduce the names of shops, such as the butcher's, the fishmonger's (one of the most loved by the kids, probably because it sounded funny) the baker's, the green grocer's, the flower shop, and the supermarket.

We use flashcards games to memorize the words and then we played charades: the players took turns acting it out, without speaking or making sound effects, while the other players tried to guess which shop they were in.

Then we added these shops to our paper city. Everyone got the same paper model of a generic shop. Each child decorated their own shop windows with the typical products of the shop they had chosen to illustrate.

Next we played Shopping List, another Orchard Toys memory game where each player has to be the first to fill their trolley with all of the items on their shopping list. There are also booster packs about fruit and vegetables, or clothes  available which are the perfect way to review a ton of vocabulary.

Finally we practiced real life situations. The last game was a role play about buying  and selling. I printed several items for each shop and fake toy money (which some of the children couldn't resist pocketing, even though they were only pieces of paper, eh eh eh!). Some of the kids acted as shopkeepers, displaying all their products on tables, while the others were the customers.

Here's the dialogue they used:

Customer: Good afternoon! (we usually have class after lunch)
Shopkeeper: Good afternoon! May I help you?
Customer: Yes, please. Can I have...
Shopkeeper: Here you are. Anything else?
Customer: No, thanks. How much is it?
Shopkeeper: It's € ..., please.
Customer: Here you are. 
Shopkeeper: Thank you! See you soon!
Customer: See you!

As you can see I recycled expressions I was sure they already knew (greetings, asking for something, etc.), and added new ones like 'How much is it?', 'May I help you?' and 'Anything else?'. This allowed the kids to think in a logical way about what they were saying instead of just learning it by heart.

First they practiced the dialogue by buying paper bread, paper flowers, paper fish, paper fruit and paper vegetables. Then to make it clear that this dialogue could be used for any kind of shopping, I let them buy real stickers and real candies… to their great astonishment! One even exclaimed ' "What?!?!? You are giving us real sweets for fake toy money?!?! "

They may be young but they're certainly not slow!

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On Reading Comprehension and How It is Connected to Young People's Ability to Visualize Their Own Meaningful Future

A few weeks ago, I practiced some listening with one of my teen students by listening to an audiobook: an abridged version of "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde", by Robert Louis Stevenson.

After listening to the first chapter, which was quite long to be honest, we approached the reading comprehension questions at the end of the book. Surprisingly my student didn't get a single one right. He had almost fallen asleep while the CD was going, while I ,on the other hand, had been imagining my personal version of the movie of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The difference in our approaches to reading and listening made me realize that maybe one of the reasons why teenagers don't read is because they can't create that film in their own heads. But now the question is: how is that possible? I mean, children spend their lives analyzing texts of any nature and genre, so how come most of them end up disliking books?

I'm a visual person, I can draw a map of a town in my head just after a few walks around it. I can see vivid images of what I'm reading, and the other four senses are quite active too.  Obviously, that wouldn't be the case if I hadn't spent primary school drawing pictures for our classroom posters. They were about history, geography or even letters: big posters hanging on my classroom wall all year round. We also read stories and answered questions about them, and guess what? I don't remember those stories, but I do have clear images of those posters in my mind and I still remember the stories they told.

Thanks to the Multiple Intelligences Theory , we now know that each one of us learns in a different way and this means that probably some of my classmates probably remember school plays best, while others will remember the games played or the school trips we took. Any and every kind of experience can be called to mind while reading a book to enhance the experience and make it personal.

Anyway, all these memories have led me to this question: Why can't  teens use their imagination? Do they even have one?  Or  are they just future grey adults, who can only follow instructions, and are incapable of creating their own meaningful future because they can't even imagine it?

The next question is: how can we improve our children's ability to be creative and imaginative?

There are probably many theories which could answer this last question. I'd like to tell you about one in particular, mainly because I had ignored it until January and even though it surprised me quite a lot when I first heard about it, later, I definitely understood the essence of its principles later on.

So here you go! It's called Creative Education and basically it allows any kind of person to express his/her creativity through free-of-all-impediments drawing. During these graphic art sessions nobody judges, compares or comments on any of the drawings in order to allow a real and profound personal expression.

So, I was asked to teach English to preschoolers following this method and what's more, I was told that no illustrations or illustrated albums were allowed in order to avoid any influence on the way the kids expressed themselves. 

Imagine my reaction to the no-illustrations-or-illustrated-books-or-cards rule,
since one of the reasons I love my job is precisely  because I  have the best excuse to collect illustrated albums and cards!

However, thinking about it, I realized that it made total sense. I thought about Beatrix Potter, and how she became the first children's author and illustrator ever, as well as my forever favorite. She spent her whole life drawing animals using real models. No illustrated children's  book had ever existed before her. This shows that, as the Creative Education principles affirm, she could fully express herself in her drawings and stories. And she did a wonderful job of it!

So, to cut a long story short, the week after the first chapter od Dr Jeckyll and Mr hyde I dedicated part of  the class to a  visualization session during which my student had to describe how he was imagining the characters and their surroundings after listening to the description of each scene.

Of course it worked wonderfully. This time, he could easily answer all the reading comprehension questions properly, because he had finally been able to watch his own film too!

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Phonemic Awareness - We play with letters!

In my previous post I told you we were studying phonics using both the Montessori and Jolly Phonics methods, but what I didn't tell you is how we literally play with letters to create and reinforce the kids' phonemic awareness. To be honest, I'm pretty satisfied with the results and that's why I'd like to share the games we've been playing in class  with you today.

First of all, make sure you have the letters of the alphabet, preferably matched with pictures, hanging on the classroom wall for the whole time you're teaching this topic. You will also need a deck of alphabet flashcards.

For the first game, divide your class into teams and have all the kids sit in front of the letters on the wall. Show a flashcard to the first team, and say the name of the picture: the children in team 1then have to stand up and go over to the wall to touch the letter that word starts with. If they're right, you can hand them the card, which could also count as  a point. Repeat the same procedure with all your teams and stop the game when you notice either a certain over excitement or tiredness. The winning team is the one  with the most cards at the end.

The second game requires the use of the Jolly Phonics chants:
Divide your class into groups and give each group a whole deck of alphabet flashcards.
Then play the chants one by one. The groups must find the letter mentioned in  each chant. So, for example, when they hear "The snake is in the grass, the snake is in the grass…Ssss, Ssss, the snake is in the grass", they have to find and show you the letter S.

Game number three is the circle game I told you about in this  previous post about toys.
Have your kids sit in a circle and give each of them a card to hold. When you say a letter (or the sound of the letter), the children who have the card with the picture whose name starts with that letter must swap places.

We also played the "Alphabet Lotto" several times. It's a board game which can be played in 4 different ways: matching picture to picture, letter to picture, picture to letter, or letter to letter.

Another good game you can use in this phase is "Pass The Word", where you have word cards (with pictures) and letter cards shaped like pieces of a puzzle. The kids take a word card and must find all the letter cards they need to 'write' the word. This game is especially useful because they have to recognize lower case letters…not quite yet an easy task for a 5 year old so they have to put a lot of effort into it.

To stick a little bit more closely to the Montessori's principles I would also suggest a couple of manipulative activities: the first one requires the use of colorful pipe cleaners and the second one the use of plasticine. In both activities, the kids could use these materials to physically make the letters.

The last game is the most popular and the easiest to think of, because is the old classic 'Tell me a word that starts with the letter…' game, however before playing it I'd suggest preparing your students by doing all the previous games so that your kids will be ready to play this one and to enjoy putting the vast knowledge and phonemic awareness they've previously acquired into practice.

And for those of you who have the chance to use a smart board, at  http://www.teachyourmonstertoread.com you'll find a really entertaining video game focused on phonics.

As always… Have fun!

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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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