Confessions of an English Teacher: A Little Story About Me

Last May was a particularly touching month. I had been told that it was going to be my last month at the public school in Madrid, the place where I have learnt almost everything I know about children, and about the right way to teach them.

I asked my students to draw me a picture of our time together, telling them to think about 'Lucy and our English classes' and these drawings are the result.

I was particularly impressed by Pedro's art. As you can see, he drew a tall house on a vast horizon and a sky filled with seagulls and a big bright sun.

When I saw the drawing, I travelled back to a turning point in my life, the moment when I made the decision to work with children.

Back in those days, almost 8 years ago, I was quite confused about my life. I didn't really like my job as a graphic designer, or Barcelona, the city where I was living. Everything was meaningless and I really needed a 'time out' to to escape the totally apathetic state I was in.

I felt the need for completely different surroundings, both culturally and environmentally. Fortunately I literally have friends all over the world, so I got in touch with the closest one, who, at the time, was living  in Trondheim, Norway, and we arranged a three-month-stay to take care of his baby daughter, Sandra, who was around 5 months old at the time.

Reflecting on one's life is a process that requires time and broad horizons, and here is where Pedro's drawing starts to make sense.

During the last month of my stay, I had the chance to live in a flat on the 14th floor of a new block of flats at the top of a hill, where I could enjoy views of the 'fjord' in all its magnificence!!! The storms coming in over the bay, the sun shining, the rainbows, and, of course, the seagulls. Have you ever seen seagulls fly, looking down on them from above? From the 14th floor of a hilltop flat, It was like I was flying with them.

When I saw Pedro's picture, a series of questions crossed my mind: 'How ddi you know, little boy?' How could you represent something I've never even told anyone?' Is it just a coincidence or some sort of connection?

Unfortunately I'll never know, but I really hope that during my English classes I will forever be able to transmit the feeling of freedom that little Pedro captured so well in his picture.

--> Quiero leer esta entrada en castellano (he descubierto que eso de usar 'castellano' en vez de 'español' es típico de los de Barcelona :D)

Lucy dedicates a lot of time and love to thinking about and writing the posts she shares with all of you. Because she believes that a better teaching is the key for a better future. If you find any help, value or joy in this blog, please consider becoming a supporting reader. A donation, in any amount, will be gratefully accepted. 



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!

--> Quiero ler esta entrada en castellano

Lucy dedicates a lot of time and love to thinking about and writing the posts she shares with all of you. Because she believes that a better teaching is the key for a better future. If you find any help, value or joy in this blog, please consider becoming a supporting reader. A donation, in any amount, will be gratefully accepted. 



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!

--> Quiero leer esta entrada en Castellano

Lucy dedicates a lot of time and love to thinking about and writing the posts she shares with all of you. Because she believes that a better teaching is the key for a better future. If you find any help, value or joy in this blog, please consider becoming a supporting reader. A donation, in any amount, will be gratefully accepted. 



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!

-->Quiero leer este post en Castellano

Lucy dedicates a lot of time and love to thinking about and writing the posts she shares with all of you. Because she believes that a better teaching is the key for a better future. If you find any help, value or joy in this blog, please consider becoming a supporting reader. A donation, in any amount, will be gratefully accepted. 





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

--> Quiero leer este post en castellano 

Lucy dedicates a lot of time and love to thinking about and writing the posts she shares with all of you. Because she believes that a better teaching is the key for a better future. If you find any help, value or joy in this blog, please consider becoming a supporting reader. A donation, in any amount, will be gratefully accepted.