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!

--> Quiero leer este post en español



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.

---> Quiero leer este post en español


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!

--->Quiero leer este post en Castellano