Graded readers: adapted stories for any level, age or interest

I've wanted to write this post about 'readers' for a long time, since one of the pillars of learning (as I'll explain in my next book) is reading, even though we live in a somewhat complicated time regarding this subject. 

As you know, reading is the number one source of independent access to knowledge, and it is no coincidence that the first years of compulsory education are devoted to learning this basic skill. Mastery of any language, mother tongue and non mother tongue, after a first approach made of listening and speaking, passes through the acquisition, use and practice of new words, or vocabulary, and grammatical expressions.

In the practice of teaching English as a second language, ESL, (or Foreign Language, EFL) in addition to the school's grammar and vocabulary textbooks, it is fundamental, in my opinion, to use graduated readings for these different reasons:
 - First, because they present vocabulary and grammar in context, which allows an almost osmotic assimilation of them.
  -  Second, because these books always come with a CD or an audio track that helps learn the correct pronunciation of words as well as get the ear accustomed to different accents and speed of speech.
- Third, because they provide a wide range of conversational topics: from summarizing a chapter to practice verb tenses and vocabulary, to expressing opinions on events, passing through an analysis of the differences between the social and historical context described in the text and the current one.
   - Fourth, and finally, because each reader also proposes reading comprehension exercises similar to those found in the most important official exams such as Cambridge and Trinity.

I personally tend to use them quite a lot, from the second/third year of primary school if my students attend a bilingual school or from the fourth/fifth year of primary school in the case of students attending non-bilingual schools, because at some point the conversation topics start to be always the same and, secondly, to avoid spending an hour translating* what children can't express for their lack of vocabulary when I want to work on their speaking skills.
Naturally I have a couple of favorite reader collections that I usually use depending on my students' tastes: the Oxford Read and Imagine collection from level 3 (Cambridge Starters/Movers), which provides the audio tracks in British and American English, and CIDEB's Green Apple adapted classics collection.

I usually use them for their aesthetic attractiveness, because they come with many images that at the same time support reading comprehension, and for the exercises that they propose, because in addition to questions about the text, they deepen other aspects such as the life of the author or the socioeconomic context, they propose research projects and interactive online activities.
But the most important thing is that depending on the level, they propose topics that coincide with the English, social and natural school textbooks, and therefore they become another tool for strengthening language acquisition.More than once it has happened to me that, reviewing the lesson of the day, I have come to ask my students: do you remember that we saw this in that book? This circumstance seems of little importance, but, in fact, getting a student to connect the concepts of one book with those of another means leading him to reorganize his previous knowledge with the new one and therefore to generate significant learning, which is the ultimate goal of any teaching.

*The effectiveness of having a human translator when learning languages has not yet been scientifically proven ;)

More about reading:

Reading as a game
How to make children love reading

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Blending: first steps towards reading

Hi there! The public examination to become a Primary school teacher is behind the corner here in Spain. That means that studying along with working leaves little free time to write blog posts. However today I have decided to take a break and here I am to tell you how the Jolly Phonics course proceeds.

Back from the holidays we finished the second group of sounds /c/ /k/ /e/ /h/ /m/ /r/ /d/ and started the third. At the same time I decided that it was time to start blending and I'm going to tell you how I decided to introduce it. But first I'll explain what blending is and how it influences the acquisition of reading and writing skills.

We know that the main objective of the synthetic phonics methodology is to teach how to associate phonemes (sounds) to graphemes (graphic sign). At first, they are taught one by one, and then they are joined together to form words. For example, once the vowel phonemes, such as /a/ /i/ /e/ /o/ /u/, and some consonant phonemes, such as /p/ /n/ /c/ and /t/, are seen, students are presented with words formed by the combination of these phonemes: pan, sit, ant, cat, cap, net, pet, nut, and so on. Blending is the process of pronouncing the sounds of a word individually and finally bringing them together to pronounce the whole word. That is: /p/, /a/, /n/ and children have to say the whole word -> pan.

At first it may be difficult for them to recognize the word, but with a little practice during every session their ability improves, and each time they gather the phonemes faster.

How do I do it? As my little group is very lively, at the moment, to be listened to for more than 8 seconds, I'm using Jolly Phonics Read and See books. They are small books where there are words followed by a flap that I only lift once the children have guessed which word they have just heard, underneath there is the image that corresponds to the word pronounced. It's a trick that keeps them attentive because of the surprise effect, which always works with younger children, and thanks to the attention they naturally pay, they learn.

Another material that I use are the Jolly Phonics flash cards and some cards that I have cut from the activity books I had at home. I do try to make sure that the word is always accompanied by the corresponding picture; first of all because it develops reading comprehension and then because the drawings are pretty and, as Maria Montessori said, children have to be given pretty things to create an affective link with learning.

And now, the big question... why do we teach them blending?
I suppose the answer has already been guessed right: once the children have learned to recognize the words broken down by the teacher, they will be equipped to start synthesizing words on their own, which means they will be able to read.

More about reading and writing.

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Fine and gross motor skills with Jolly Phonics

Today I am going to show you some of the activities we have been doing in class with my students. As recommended in the manual, it is very important to go over the sounds throughout every sessions, however it is also necessary to look for ideas so that this part of the lesson will be enjoyable and varied even though we are always working on the same concept.

Here you have 4 activities which can be performed in two ways:

1) At the beginning of the month, when we reached 3/4 sounds, we began to practice auditory and visual recognition with a quite amusing activity: I divided my group of students into 3 rows, and they had to jump, from behind a line of Sellotape (which they insisted on removing 2 seconds after spotting it on the floor) over the card with the letter sound corresponding to the chant, or the gesture associated with the chant, that I was indicating.

2) For the second activity I adapted the game 'Change places if you have…' which in our case consisted of sitting the children in a circle holding one of the sound cards in their hands; when calling one of the sounds, all the children who had it represented on their card had to get up and move around and change places. To make it a little more 'exciting' a student can be positioned in the center of the circle to steal the place from those who have to get up. Finally, in order for all students to handle more than one sound throughout the same activity, it is necessary to take a few moments from time to time so that each kid passes his card to the classmate beside him.

After a few sessions, when I noticed that they were already familiar with the method and controlled the single sounds, we began to do these same activities using words that began with s,a,t,i,p,n: if I told 'ink' they had to jump over the card with the i, or in the case of the circle game, those who holding that 'i card' had to change places.

3) The third activity was that of the pom-poms in the picture: in order to stimulate phonological awareness we started using words straight away. The task consisted in recognizing the first sound and was designed to associated a third sense, the touch, to those commonly implied in this kind of exercises: 6 children kept the paper cups showing to the others the letter and the drawing that each one carries; the remaining 4 children sat opposite them and took a pom-pom each. I showed a card and said the corresponding word, e.g. 'net': The four children holding the pom-poms had to get up and put them in the right paper cup, in this case the one with the 'Nn sound' on it.

I think it's a nice activity because they like to manipulate the pom-poms and they also help each other to identify in which paper cup they have to put them. Naturally this game can also be done using 'single sounds'. 

A fourth activity consists of building a fortune teller so that they discover the letters, say them and make the associated gesture. It's an effective activity because they pay a lot of attention all the time since they also like to discover what's under the flap chosen by  each one of their classmates.

Overall, the truth is that it has been quite an intense month and I have to admit that there has been a lot of trial-and-error work, but the best thing is that the children are learning even though they don't realize it... at least until they get the right answer at the first  attempt. 

More about Phonics here

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Natural Science, CLIL and significant learning.

Today I would like to talk about a somewhat controversial matter: the subject of Natural Sciences in English.

I know that here in Madrid, more than 10 years after the implantation of bilingualism in the Primary school, many parents have left their enthusiasm aside to replace it with the fear that their children will not learn almost anything about the subject in both English and Spanish.

In many schools the greatest weight of the evaluation to pass the subject is taken by the written tests: it turns out that in first and second grade these controls are quite simple: mainly children have to connect a word to a picture, circle parts of a drawing, paint, complete sentences with the given words and little more. The problems begin in third grade, when these controls become quite complex because in addition to labeling drawings or body parts, which implies writing without spelling errors in English, students are asked to fill in gaps in a text, for example, or to read a definition and write the word described, correct statements or even explain with their own words some facts: tasks that not only require spelling correction but also require reading comprehension and the ability to express ideas and concepts using specific scientific vocabulary and correct grammatical constructions (writing skills).

It seems to me that we should keep in mind that at the base of the bilingualism project is the concept of Content and Language Integrated Learning – CLIL– whose objective is for children to learn a language through the study of subjects such as Natural and Social Sciences, Music, Plastics, Physical Education, etc.

However, I have the impression that, despite the CLIL premises, it is still not very clear how to encourage this type of learning. Regrettably, the vocabulary lists copied a few boring times only serve, and not always, to achieve a certain orthographic correction, when the objectives of the subject are to learn the Natural Science in English: children should be able to express and present scientific concepts and facts in more or less correct English, depending on the stage in which they are in.

How can we help our students?

My experience and the cognitive and constructivist theories of learning have led me to this reflection: we should always bear in mind that the main objective of the bilingual project is to learn the language and this is learned using 'complete sentences' made up of a subject, a verb and a direct or an indirect object. In practical terms, it means that children, in class, at home, when doing written exercises, during presentations, etc., should always answer with a complete sentence using the specific vocabulary and the correct grammatical structure (the affirmative, negative and interrogative forms of the present simple and the present  continuous of any verb, together with 'can', 'have got' and not much else).

This may sound banal, but if we look at the dynamics of a class we can see that when we launch a question in most cases the competition to be the first to answer prevails, and that means not having time to think about an entire sentence: our students tend to answer with only one word. On the other hand, the exercises we can find in the book don't help much in that sense either, since most of them are about filling in gaps or answering questions by choosing between already formulated answers. Could you guess how much time and attention a child spends on these types of tasks after 8 hours, or more, spent at school?

To sum up, using complete sentences will cost our students more effort because it requires them to connect the subject of Natural Sciences to that of English, to leave the compartmental units of their books in order to create a more general and flexible narrative; but with time and practice important improvements will be noticed, because there is a greater and deeper understanding of the subject, which will allow them to follow their teachers with less difficulty and assimilate more concepts, unleashing in this way that virtuous circle which improves at the same time the results, self-esteem and control of the language.

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Back to school...with Jolly Phonics

Hello there!
New school year, new project! This time I have the great opportunity to work with the Jolly Phonics method in a systematic way with a significant number of children and I already have my notebook and pen ready for observations and notes on its development. I will tell you how my classes are progressing because I think it's interesting to follow up in order to observe how the method is working, the adjustments that are going to be necessary and everything that may come up.
I am going to start by specifying that in the teacher's book it is advisable to introduce a sound every day, although, if the students are younger than 5 years, it is recommendable to reduce the working speed in order to achieve a better assimilation. Following this pattern, at least at the beginning of the course, I have planned to work one phoneme per week (I have 2 sessions of 1 hour with each group) that we will introduce in the first session and look deeper into during the second one.
The first phoneme of the first group is, as you may have understood from the photos, /s/. At the beginning of the first session I told them the story that accompanies the coloring card that comes in the teacher's book. It's very, very short but at the same time very handy to grab their attention and introduce them to the sound. Then we listened and sang the chant a couple of times and I encouraged them to move their hand as if they were writing an S in the air (this is the movement associated with this phoneme).
At this point I changed a little the recommended plan introducing a variation of the famous game of the 'zapatilla por detrás', using a card that represents a snake instead of the slipper and the chant associated to the phoneme instead of the song of this game. In this way everyone repeats the chant and learns it in a pleasant and natural way.
Afterwards, I went back to the plan of the book, which contemplates the activity 'hunt the sound': I handed out some magnifying glasses (made with brushes for children's crafts) and some booklets (from the Songbirds Phonics collection written by Julia Donaldson) for them to look for /s/. This activity, as it's explained in the guide, helps the children to realize that these sounds that they will learn little by little are not abstract elements, quite the opposite, they are found in the books and are useful for reading stories.
Finally, I showed them the flash card with the /s/ and gave them plasticine so that they could build one themselves with their own hands
In the second session, after singing the chant and accompanying it with the associated gesture (a quick review as suggested in the teacher's book) , we first played an auditory discrimination game in which I placed a large snake in the center of the circle and distributed to each child a pair of cards with some images. Each one, in turn, had to show his card to the others and if the name of the object represented in it started with /s/ they had to put it on top of the snake, otherwise they kept it. Apparently, although this activity seems very simple, I can assure you that for them it is not so immediate to hear and realize if the sound is there or not, which, in my opinion, justifies even more the use of a synthetic phonetic method to teach a language.
The second activity consisted of painting the sheet associated with the sound. While they were painting, I went around with the book 'Phonics Storybook' in which there are two pages illustrated by each phoneme. In these illustrations the children have to look for some elements that begin or contain the sound presented in that sheet and they also have the letter in relief with some arrows drawn so that they follow it with their own finger in the direction of writing, in order to feel the letter with their touch.
Naturally, as the number of sounds studied increases, the number of possible activities also increases and... fun never ends!


Auditory discrimination: i / e

Finally, July! June's been a busy but rewarding month, so today I'm going to share some thoughts, ideas and resources to address the topic of short vowel discrimination with our children, starting with /I/ and /e/.

Short vowels are the first to be learned with the phonetic method but, while on the one hand the children recognize them visually because they associate them with the vowels of the Spanish language, on the other hand more work of auditory discrimination is necessary so that they can hear and pronounce them correctly.

I have noticed that there are pairs of sounds that Spanish speakers tend to confuse more frequently: the i and the e, the a and the lo u, and finally the o and the u

How to do this? Once the 2 sounds have been introduced separately with the appropriate activities and games, it is necessary to point out the difference between the pair of vowels that could generate confusion.

The easiest way to operate is to give each child a letter that represents the e and another that represents the i. Then we tell them, one by one, 3 or 4 letter words with one of the two sounds we are working on; the children have to indicate with the letter what sound they have heard.

For example:

Ideally, this list should be combined with other words that are not written with the same consonants (net, mist, get, hiss, etc.) and presented in random order, so that the children will be able to guess correctly more easily and feel more confident when it comes to answering. There are many more in the word boxes of the Jolly Phonics© method.

Now you can create more or less fun versions of this activity: in my class we usually jump over the chart, throw balloons or run to the chart to add a little psychomotor skills to the class and thus encourage deeper learning.

What to do when a child is wrong? I tell you what I usually do: first I repeat the word with the vowel he has chosen and then I pronounce it with the correct sound, then I encourage them to repeat it themselves, taking into account the position of their lips, tongue and teeth (phonetic articulation), to finally encourage him to repeat the word correctly and show me the corresponding letter.

Over the years I have come to realize that this is a very important job because the few hours of exposure to English in a school class are not enough for children to acquire this phonemic awareness on their own. It is important to emphasize it. What the children will do is realize, little by little, the differences between the vowels in their native language and those in English.

Here is the link to the pronunciation of the /e/ sound for you to practice ;)

More about phonics on my newest page: reading and writing in English, where I have compiled and will add links to related posts.



PBL - Spring Fever

Spring is my favorite season and it's the perfect excuse to start a project about plants or insects. Here I've collected every single post inspired by this colorful and crazy time of the year that I wrote so far.

1 - The Life cycle of a Dandelion

2 - Spring Lesson Plan 1 - Bugs

3 - Spring Lesson Plan 2 - Plants

4 - Herbarium

5 - Garden Scrapbook

6 - Tiny Garden Pot labels

I hope they inspire you many interesting lessons!

An excellent  novel about science and young girls: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate.

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