European Countries and Their Capital Cities - Social science

Hi there! Today's post is about how I managed to help my students learn about European countries and their respective capital cities (in English) in a very pleasant and effective way. I imagine that you can use this same method for any list of countries you'd like your students to know.

The most complicated part of this task is that it's totally abstract and quite far from the everyday life of our 8-year-old students. In addition, knowing the capitals (in this case in English) also means knowing the name of the country (also in English) where each one is located and, if that was not enough, it also means being able to locate them on a blank political map. For a student's point of view, studying for this exam can turn into an exhausting and very uninteresting job or, to be quite frank, into a torture.

As usual, the first thing I looked for was a catchy song that mentioned most of states we needed to learn: The Europe Map Song (Obertopian).

In this phase the trick isn't to learn the song by heart; instead, while the music is playing, the child should try to identify the mentioned nations on the blank map by pointing to them with their fingers, as if they were playing the piano: this way they are almost working with all their senses - through the coordination between hearing, sight and touch - which generates a deeper learning. In fact, this coordination allows the brain to establish connections, or synapses, between its neurons, according to Neuroscience and as Maria Montessori intuited*, and, at the same time, we are creating a 'muscular memory' too (actually it is a process known as myelination of the neural pathways that gives athletes and artists the advantage thanks to faster and more efficient neural pathways): the more we practice, the faster and better we solve the task.

Usually children find this exercise pretty entertaining and consequently, just by listening to our song a few times, the location of the different countries on the map was quickly under control, and therefore we could move to phase 2: the capitals (!!!!)

In this second phase we prepared a bingo: first we divided Europe into different areas: we had the English-speaking islands, the Mediterranean area, Central Europe, Eastern Europe and Northern Europe (better known among kids as FROZEN Land ahahhaha). Then we associate a color to each area and we made some little flags - with post-its and toothpicks, as you can see in the photo - where we wrote the names of the capital cities. Then we prepared some plasticine pedestals where we could pin the little flags as they were being taken out from a container and finally we could play our homemade Capitals of Europe bingo!

* Maria Montessori designed sandpaper letters in order to allow the child to "play" the sound - by tracing the letters with his index finger first and with a stick, as big as a pencil, later - and build a muscular memory of the shape of the letter that one day he will write.

Natural Science: The Life Cycle of a Dandelion and The Erbarium

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Flashcards, because my child doesn't repeat

Hello everyone! Back in the saddle, finally!

I was about to write a post about Social Science - The Capitals of Europe, but I've just found these search terms - in the headline - in the statistics of my Spanish blog, mihijohablaingles.com, so I decided that maybe it's worth giving you some guidelines to solve this little inconvenience: MY CHILD DOES NOT REPEAT.

The first step, as always, is to find out the reasons why your children refuse to repeat the words in English (or any other language you're trying to teach them). Generally speaking, it may depend on shyness, shame, insecurity, frustration caused by a negative event which may have occurred in relation to this type of request or you're just dealing with children who simply don't like to be corrected because they are very competitive and associate the word 'mistake' to 'failure'.

Solution? GAMES

Games where, in order to win, you have to repeat words, read them out loud, say short sentences, ask simple questions, etc. We repeat the word aloud (or only the first syllable when we perceive that they can complete the word on their own) and let our children / students say or repeat them. If we realize that their way of pronouncing it is not appropriate, we repeat it ourselves, again, pronouncing it correctly, without making them notice the mistake. Why? Simply because if the child likes the game, he will want to play it again (and again) and that will give us the opportunity to practice the same words several times, thus he'll be able to learn new vocabulary and its correct pronunciation without pressure. Easy peasy.

While children are playing games they are learning in an informal way and they always want to win, so, while they're playing, they forget their inhibitions, concentrate and try to do their best. Playing games is a powerful tool in the teaching - learning process.

Once they have acquired more self-confidence, being introduced to new contents to play with will be perceived as a natural process.

Which games should we propose to the youngest? In the beginning, we should use very simple games like a Memory or a Bingo and later a Go Fish in order to introduce grammatical structures we want them to learn.

I hope you'll find this post useful and that you'll enjoy playing games and practicing  English together with your children.

More play ideas for children

--> I'd like to read this post in Spanish



Five years ago I bought this little book to teach the expression: 

How long does it take to do something? 
It takes…

The book is definitely focused on children's everyday life and suggests them to consider the amount of time they need to do things like zipping up a jacket, going to school by bike, filling in a bucket with sand, taking their shoes off, washing the dog etc.

My students find it quite entertaining, so I wanted to keep thinking about time. I came out with these actions that anybody can time inside any classroom:

- How long does it take to jump 20 times?
- How long does it take to say the English alphabet?
- How long does it take to say "I can speak English" 10 times?
- How long does it take to pile up all your books?
- How long does it take to take everything out of your schoolbag and then put it back in?  

I'm sure you can think about many other enjoyable things to do and time.

Let the children write down the questions and the answers, it'll help consolidate them in their minds.

Finally encourage them to think of their own.

Have fun!

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Rhyme Robber: the game that helps children improve their listening skills

Today I'm going to tell you about one of my favorite board games: Rhyme Robber.It's produced by Orchard Toys, the British company I mentioned in a previous post,  and it's a perfect filler for these last hot days of school.

The most remarkable ESL purpose of this game is to develop listening skills at a very young age through sound recognition and rhyming skills, which, as I already wrote here, are crucial in order to build effective communication skills as adults.

In the game box you'll find 4 rhyme robber boards showing a child with a robber's swag bag (1 for each player), 48 rhyme cards and a rhyme guide board, where all the pictures and their respective words are grouped by rhyming sounds and colors.

Each player is given two cards, which they hold in their hands without showing to anybody else, then 4 more cards are placed face up in the centre of the table, while the rest of the cards are left face down in a pile next to these.

The youngest player starts and if they are holding a card that rhymes with one of the four cards in the centre of the table, then they can take the matching card while saying, for example, 'rake rhymes with lake', and put both cards face up on top of their robber board in their character's swag bag. If the next player has in their hand a card that matches a card on another player's board, they can choose to take that one, instead of one from the centre of the table. In any case once a player puts down a card, they have to take another one from the pile so that they are always holding two cards. The game ends  when all 48 cards have been stolen or no more cards can be stolen.

The game is especially effective with preschoolers and first graders straight out of the box: you'll only have to be there to read the names under the pictures out loud to help children recognize the rhyming sounds. Very small kids won't love the fact that other players can steal their cards so I'd suggest not insisting that they follow that rule, especially since we should focus on the development of listening skills more than anything else.
Once I noticed that older kids have stronger rhyming skills I suggested an extension of the game: through reading rhyming books I encouraged my students to look for new rhyming word families which they would then copy onto paper, cut out in circles, and added to the basic game in order to make it last longer.

My students' favorite books are ones written by Dr Seuss, the author of Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat in the Hat, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who! and many more, as well as others by Julia Donaldson such as The Gruffalo, What the Ladybird Heard, Room on the Broom, The Snail and the Whale,  A Squash and a Squeeze among others.

Click on the links to Orchard Toys, Seussville and Julia Donaldson websites to entertain your childish soul as much as it needs :)

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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.

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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!