Saturday, 28 December 2013

Listening activities with the ESL Literacy learners: top-down and bottom-up

“Progress in reading requires learners to use their ears, as well as their eyes…”Williams (1985)

In this post, I have tried to compile a possible list of ideas on developing top-down and bottom-up listening skills in adult ESL Literacy learners. Some of the techniques I have been using in class, others I have thought of while researching this topic for an MA assignment. Please feel free to add, comment and share what you do in the classroom!

Although it is largely recognized that ESL literacy learners are aurally oriented and they learn best by listening, some students still need a lot of support in lexical segmentation (Field, 2003) in English. Working one on one, I often notice that while trying to repeat exactly what the teacher has said, some of them fail to produce a phrase or utter somewhat distorted sounds. These instances clearly indicate the 'low level listening' difficulties that literacy learners experience in processing the speech input including identifying sounds of the English language and word segmentation out of 'a piece of connected speech' (Field, 2003: 327).
The problem lies in the fact that being illiterate these students are heavily relying on their listening skills and are not yet able to use writing or reading to support their learning. In his article, Field suggests that once identified the difficulties may be re-mediated or in some cases prevented by a consistent use of short exercises (Field, ibid). He also emphasized the importance of the comprehension of the language rhythm that could be achieved by training learners to recognize lexical stress of the English language and this will eventually empower them to naturally recognize the word boundaries in the sentences (Field, 2003: 329). Inspired by the article, I came up with a list of possible activities that could be appropriate for the ESL Literacy learners:
Bottom-up processing
  • Students are listening to a naturally uttered sentence (must be meaningful for their reality) and fold fingers or draw sticks ( | | | | | ) to indicate the number of words in the sentence. The sentence can be repeated as many times as needed.
  • A more advanced stage of the same activity is to ask students to draw the sticks on the first listening and then circle the sticks that match with the most prominent (stressed) words in the sentence.
  • This exercise can be done as a separate activity for sounds or an integrated activity for vocabulary building. Students are taught explicitly a particular sound or some vocabulary, then they listen to a short text including the target vocabulary or the words that exemplify the target sounds, and they have to shout out 'STOP' every time they hear the target words or sounds.
  • A more advanced version of the same activity is to ask students to raise their hand whenever they hear the target words or sounds.
  • This is the activity that my students particularly enjoy. Listening BINGO: students learn a number of words. Then they were offered to choose X words that they like on flashcards and arrange these words in front of them on the table. When they hear the word, they flip the flashcard upside down. The student with all the cards upside down, wins the competition by shouting “BINGO”. It is a lot of fun if the students are listening to words in a song. For example, an introductory activity can be based on the song “Rock-a-bye Baby” and the possible vocabulary would include words such as baby, tree, crib, chair, mother.
  • Students listen to a word or a sentence and then clap to reproduce the rhythm.
Top-down processing:
An interactive storytelling listening activity that we often use in class involves the following steps:
  • Students are given a picture which depicts a situation or a set of events that are in the story they are going to listen. They look at the picture individually, in pairs, small groups or with the teacher and try to guess or describe what is happening. This is done to set a particular context and activate students' schemata. Context and schemata are powerful tools in enhancing learners' listening comprehension. There is a distinction made today between teaching listening and testing it. Therefore, if the goal is to develop listening skills teachers have to create the conditions for students to succeed and reduce the possibility of failure. One of the possible challenges experienced by the LIFE group is the inability to form mental representations from words heard do to the lack of language knowledge or some learning needs. Therefore, they usually process the information at a very slow pace and need more time to make sense of what they hear. In this regards, the picture in front of them is very helpful for students with language and learning needs.
  • The teacher then starts telling the story while some students are looking at the picture and others possibly looking at the teacher for non linguistic cues. Interactive aspect of this activity is that the teacher stops at certain points to ask a question in order to assess listeners' comprehension. In the introductory stage of the activity, Yes/No questions are asked and later on with some practice factual questions are used to encourage selective listening. Some difficulties such as inability to concentrate, lack of attention, quickly forgetting what is heard are very common among my learners. Therefore, knowing that at any moment the teacher can pause and ask a question the learners are prone to listening more actively. Ideally, the teacher stops after each sentence, as many students (especially LIFE) have difficulties in remembering larger chunks of information, to give them just enough input to answer the question. The second step can be repeated as many times as possible. A more advanced version would be telling the story with the picture upside down.
  • A follow up is the story reconstruction by the students with or without pictures.
While practicing interactive listening in class, I could notice how slowly but surely students started easily following the story and answering the questions. Often, I am able to observe that while concentrating on the question, the more successful listeners are able to grasp one or two words that they know and infer the rest of the question from it. For example: “How old is Grace?” Some students would say “Yes”. But others would repeat “OLD” a couple of times as trying to remember everything they know about this word. And then someone from the class would exclaim “YEARS OLD”. And then many of them would happily say: “65 years old”. Someone might correct by saying “No, she is 56”. And then finally, I hear “She is 56 years old.”
It is important to give students an opportunity to respond to the listening texts. While students are trying to process the listening and negotiate the meaning I am patiently waiting for their responses giving them enough time to express themselves and help each other. The example above shows how efficient students are in helping each other to answer the listening comprehension questions. I wonder if I can use peer collaboration as a means of promoting metacognition in class. More successful listeners may identify difficulties and share their strategies with other learners. At some extent, the example above, shows that it is already happening in the class but it needs further exploration.
Top-down and bottom-up:
Today’s technology allows teacher’s easily record a listening exercise and make it available in a matter of minutes. My students particularly enjoy reading-while-listening. They ask me to record some of the readings that we do in class, it may be a challenging text or a topic that they like or consider useful. They can access the recordings on our blog (I usually post the recording with the text and a picture) during the hours in the computer lab. Learners spend a lot of time reading while listening to the recording, stopping it occasionally, copying the text in their notebooks (working on their own pace and deciding what they want to do with individually). For an example check some of the recorded texts on My Home.

One of the latest exercises posted on Ms. Lana’s ESL Literacy, What’s your name?,  is a recording made by my dearest friend Katie Keith. The idea was to record the most commonly encountered questions by newcomers to Canada. Questions that you will find here are drawn from my own experience and brainstorming with Facebook friends (Iulia, Ellen and Tyson). I think that this recording can be used in a variety of ways (both segmentation and comprehension). I can see addressing one question at a time starting with some of the ideas from the bottom-up processing and then practicing possible responses (integrating all four skills).

One last thought...
Often, the only accessible means of the assessment of the listening comprehension by the students in my class is the direct observation of 'puzzled looks and blank expressions'  and also my personal inference of what is happening. This is caused by the fact that majority of the ESL literacy learners in our classes do not speak or write any English. But this analysis is very limited and tells me  ‘very little about mental processes'.
I wish that the learners could tell me about the difficulties they experience but it is not always possible even if I use the help of an interpreter. The problem is that due to the lack of previous learning experience, many of the students even if asked in their first language to think about their difficulties in perception and comprehension of listening texts are often confused and are not able to formulate their ideas. This is understandable and it clearly shows that building metacognitive skills will benefit both learning and teaching processes. My puzzle is finding a way to develop and then assess the application by the learners of the metacognitive skills and strategies such as the ability to notice how they are listening, what is happening while they are listening, identifying personal difficulties and possible solutions to enhance listening comprehension.
Field, J. 2003. Promoting perception: Lexical segmentation in L2 listening. ELT Journal, 57/4: 325-334

Sunday, 1 December 2013

ESL Literacy learners proudly present "YES to HUMAN RIGHTS"...

During the celebration of the Human Rights Week, the teachers in our programs agreed to conduct inter class activities by preparing and sharing small presentations.  Although in the beginning I thought it would be relatively easy to accomplish due to the universal character of human rights, it turned out to be a challenging task in terms of boosting students interest and understanding of such an abstract concept. After brainstorming a couple of ideas in class (literally a couple as we had only two of them), we decided to record a short video of the students reading out some simple sentences based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of my co-workers asked me a valid question of what my reasoning was behind recording a video with my class instead of doing something more traditional. In this post I hope to answer this question.

Honestly, I had my doubts when I brought my laptop to class and proudly announced that we were going to do the most exciting project of the year. To be a complete success, my ESL Literacy learners had to READ and UNDERSTAND 20 what I thought simple sentences based on the ideas expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. My plan was to go through the sentences together and then assign each individual student  one line to rehearse for the recording. According to my plan we had to be able to do it in a day or two. The first hiccup was then I realized that  the text that I had initially planned to use was too complicated for learners to understand. Therefore, I had to simplify the sentences so what initially looked like “You have the right to live in freedom and safety” and “Nobody has the right to treat you as their slave” became “Yes to freedom and safety” and “No to slavery”. Once I had solved the issue with the content,  I did not have any more doubts of making a right choice of activity. All students in class tried to do their best at reading the sentence assigned to them. When I started recording individual students, the rest of the class were passionately rehearsing the sentences with their classmates who were about to be recorded or those who had to do it all over again due to some challenges with reading or pronunciation. I have never seen such an engagement from 100% of the students in class while reading. They were very excited by the thing that they were all, regardless their reading or speaking skills, contributing to our little project. Our first recording did not produce a quality product as I had not properly set up sound features. Therefore, we had to re record it the second day in class. I was afraid to announce it to my learners, but after doing it, I was relieved by an outburst of excitement the learners expressed as they believed that they could do it much better the second time. Actually, we had to record it three times: all my fault as I was pressing the stop button too fast and thus slashing their sentences at the end. In the end, all of the students have read the whole text as they had never done it before, and to be honest with you, I do not think that a traditional reading sequence would have produced the similar effect.

As for the technical part, as you will see, I used some very basic video recording tools. The reason for it is that I am pretty lousy with the video editing tools and I try to avoid any technology that is too time consuming or complicated to be used in a language class. When I finished the editing and publishing of our little video, which involved no more than adding background music and publishing the video on youtube, I put it on our class’ blog where all the student were able to see it. I observed them while they were watching it, and saw 15 smiles approving what we had created. The students will be able to access the video as many times as they want. Our little experiment shows how a slightly different approach to reading has made it an exciting experience for all those involved.


A little warning before you decide to do something similar. Please keep in mind that not all the students especially adults are enthusiastic about using any type of technology. They have to be prepared to do it. There are also some cultural considerations: some of the students do not want to appear on the camera. These things should be discussed and agreed upon the best way to undertake a class project.

Link to our blog

Thursday, 14 November 2013

A picture tells a story or stories...

This is a post about the benefits of activating and building schemata to develop reading fluency and comprehension in the ESL Literacy classroom.

While searching for efficient ways to remediate reading difficulties in adult ESL learners with interrupted formal education (LIFE), on multiple occasions, I have observed that bottom-up techniques are far from successful with learners who are not literate in their first language. LIFE are more likely to identify and retain the words that they understand rather then combinations of sounds that do not make sense to them. Students who have never learned to read before in their first or any other language lack the so called academic or formal schemata of the reading process or reading scripts that would allow them to understand what typically happens when reading a text and, therefore, are not able to apply this knowledge. I have noticed that the learners who have incomplete studies but can read in their first language, even if the language uses a non-roman alphabet, progress in developing their reading skills much faster as they are able to make necessary connections from their previous learning-to-read experience and, therefore, are better readers. It does not necessarily mean that they are better at reading comprehension, but they are definitely much more efficient at deciphering words from sounds and at the reading mechanics in general.

What both groups of learners, those who read and those who do not read in L1, can successfully do is use their content schemata to facilitate top-down processing of the text and, thus, develop reading fluency. The text format that I like using in my class is a picture or a set of pictures describing real life situation followed by a text of approximately 10-15 sentences; each sentence starts from a new line. First, I draw students' attention to the picture. I often encourage them not to look at the text in the early stage of the training (reading at this point can be very confusing) but look at the pictures instead and tell me what they see. I start with eliciting words by asking some common question. Who is this? How old is he or she? Is he or she married? Do they have any children? How old are their children? In the beginning, students may need some help in understanding that they are not required to give precise answers but rather guess or predict the information based on what they see on the pictures. Once they are not afraid of making their own guesses this technique is infallible. Learners soon develop an ability to gather a great deal of information from the pictures alone by making connections with the knowledge that they posses about the world. Based on the information elicited from the students and the text itself, I continue with telling them the true version of the story, sometimes stopping to ask them yes or no questions in order to see if they are following with the story and check their comprehension of what have been said. For example, after saying 'This is Bill. His wife is Faye.', I usually stop to ask whether they are married or not or what Bill's wife name is. When learners proceed to reading, they already know the story very well, therefore, when they approach the words that are not familiar to them, for example, a person's first and last name such as Rose Sullivan or Bill Miller, with a little hint, they are able to guess and recognize what these words are.

A sample of a story described in the post. 

This is a book of stories by Ann Gianola published by New Readers Press. Texts in this book can be used with the techniques described in the post.

I have noticed that at the initial stages some learners draw arrows to connect words with the picture or sketch little images beside the words in the text to recognize these words later on. For example, drawing a person beside 'son', or a house beside 'house', 'home', 'apartment' - a technique adopted from the vocabulary study when many of the learners relied on pictures to facilitate the retention of the cue words for the alphabet.

Learners are using pictures to facilitate reading fluency...

Learners are using drawings to learn vocabulary...

A wonderful thing about this strategy is that by using it students are also working on building their text schemata and bottom-up processing skills. It allows language exploration activities and follow-up speaking and writing tasks. When the students can read the text more or less easily, it is appropriate to draw their attention to some language features displayed in the text to introduce language noticing and awareness. For example, 'Bill lives on a farm. He is a farmer.' - we could point students to the word morphology of the farm and farmer, or in 'Bill is married. Bill's wife is pretty and smart.' - possessive forms could be addressed. Language noticing activities will potentially develop learners' linguistic schemata that they will be able to use in the future reading activities. Vocabulary building is successful at this stage. Learners are more likely to respond well to new words in a very familiar context. As a follow up, they can be invited to share orally or write a few sentences about similar familiar situations. Gradually, the learners develop the ability to search for information in the text without looking at the pictures. I noticed that shortly after a consistent use this technique students are able to quickly find the correct information regarding the name, age, job, marital status, family, etc. in the text. They develop the ability to scan through the text and identify the specific information.

Finally, schema is a culturally bound construct and, therefore, there is an opportunity to develop new schemata based on the values of the new country. For example, we have been working with a story about Rose Sullivan who is divorced. As all of my students come from a background where divorce is forbidden and therefore unthinkable, after reading the story, I observed that all the students in class were upset. I asked them what was so upsetting for them and found out that they thought that Rose must have been very unhappy and her life was almost over. I took some time and courage to convey that maybe she wasn't so unhappy after all, and divorce does not necessarily mean a bad thing: it could have even been a better solution for the parts involved. Another example is a story about a couple who have been married for 10 years and do not have any children. Needless to say, my students (who have big families) disapproved this situation. Once again, I had to step in and suggest that it could have been a choice or a health problem, etc.

I have been using this activity with the primary focus on developing reading fluency in ESL literacy learners but it obviously integrates skills and language and has a lot of potential to build on the pre-existing knowledge and develop some new skills. 

Monday, 28 October 2013

#TESL 2013 Hooray!!!

Monday morning after the conference, on the way to work, I am still having that very warm and pleasant feeling that I brought home from TESL Ontario 2013. It's been my first time to present at this conference. Needless to say, I was very nervous. All sorts of feelings overwhelmed me right before my first workshop. What if my ideas are not good or useful enough? Out of nowhere, I was terrified with the idea that I was about to expose all my practice, make confessions and reveal my little secrets to people I did not know.

I had to wake up at 4 a. m. to get to the Allstream Centre in advance to set up the room. When I arrived, an hour before my presentation, a teacher had already been sitting in the room. I was lucky to have her there. We talked and I realized that there was nothing to worry about, that she was someone just like me: passionate about her students, trying to learn more to make a difference. Then, more teachers joined us. Finally, the room was full and we began at 9 sharp.

It went well. I could feel the involvement of the audience. They wanted to ask questions, share their ideas, and they were genuinely engaged. While distributing the materials I realized that Nathan Hall (if you do not know who he is, check him out ASAP), one of my connected friends, came to support me at the workshop. I did not know then that he was also streaming my presentation live on Twitter. That was very cool!!!

The only drawback was the length of my presentation (only one hour long). I knew it wasn't enough. Teachers had questions, they wanted to interact, but I couldn't stay any minute longer as I had to go to my second computer lab workshop. I was very pleased to see familiar faces during my second presentation. I couldn't possibly wished for more. I had a feeling that it was the second part of my morning workshop. I'll have to confess that although the second workshop went well as well, it was much harder to manage. I finished it with the feeling that I could have done better. The difficulty was that the audience ( about 50 people) were sitting at individual laptops. I could not see their faces and understand if what I was talking about clicked with them. Compared to the first presentation, I couldn't feel the connection with the audience. A friend also came to my second presentation (thank you very much, Carolyn). I asked her for the feedback after the workshop, and she said that I had to be careful while giving the instructions as not all the teachers were able to follow me. I'll have to consider this in the future.

Needless to say, I was not able to tell everything that I wanted. Therefore, I promised to make my presentations available for teachers to review what we talked about and check out even more things.

(Please email me if you attended the workshop and would like to access the detailed notes for both of my presentations).

TESL Ontario rocked this year for me. I saw some old friends, met connected friends from the online teaching community, and, hopefully, made new ones.


Thursday, 12 September 2013

I am presenting at TESL Ontario!!!

TESL Ontario Presentations
by Svetlana Lupasco,
October 26th, 2013

Dear teachers:

I am thrilled to invite you to attend my workshops at TESL Ontario Conference this year. I have scheduled two presentations on Saturday, October 26th, 2013.

ESL Literacy Instruction:
Creative Solutions to Classroom Challenges

It is a hands-on workshop designed to provide a space for creativity and feasible solutions to classroom challenges for ESL teachers working with Literacy, LIFE, CLB1-4 and all those interested in getting a good start in the ESL literacy instruction. It is also a great place to be for teachers at higher levels trying to help students with literacy needs in their classes or just keeping up to date with the instruction at lower levels. I am pleased to invite you to the workshop to  learn, collaborate, connect, and have fun.

Developing an ESL Literacy
Blended Online Course

It is a computer lab workshop designed to introduce teachers working with all levels to free educational technology that can be easily used and adapted to provide extra learning space and practice for ESL learners. A special focus will be given to the online resources for ESL Literacy instruction. I will be sharing my experience in creating and working on a blended online course with the ESL literacy learners over the past 2 years. Since my first presentation on this topic at TOSCON 13 last May, the course has expanded, and exciting new things have been added. I am sure that at this workshop you will get a great starting point in setting up your own courses.

I look forward to seeing you!!!
Warm regards, Svetlana

If you want to learn more about me,
click the link below:

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

L is for LIFE...

This post has been triggered by Nathan Hall’s  reflections on supporting students with learning disabilities in a language classroom: “Supporting”. I would like to draw your attention to another group of students who also need considerable support: Learners with Interrupted Formal Education and Literacy Learners. The ideas below are based on two outstanding documents in the field of the ESL Literacy instruction: “Learning for LIFE: an ESL Literacy Handbook” and “Making It Real” and, of course, my personal observations as an Adult ESL Literacy professional.

As an ESL Literacy instructor, I often get to hear teachers from higher levels complain to me about some students who they believe do not belong in their classes. It is usually something like this: “...there is one (or two, three, etc.) students, they just do not learn anything; I can not spend all my time with them, how about other students in my class, they get bored, you know”,  and so on, and on, and on… Nathan’s metaphor of “selling our students the wrong part” reminded me about these awkward moments. Does it sound familiar to you? Do you encounter these types of conversations in the teachers’ room? Unfortunately, “literacy” has become a coin given to any student who does not fit the so called majority of the class.

All classes are mixed-ability in a way or another, as all learners have different skills and aptitudes, as well as different motivation, needs and aspirations. If a student does not speak or write any English it does not necessarily make him or her a literacy learner. Some ESL literacy students can have speaking and listening skills as high as CLB6 or upper-intermediate. The difference between ESL Literacy Learners with Interrupted Formal Education and the mainstream (or traditional) ESL learners  is that LIFE, as it name suggests, often have incomplete or lack formal education and therefore need literacy support while learning English. The biggest discrepancy between LIFE and the mainstream ESL is that LIFE do not have enough or lack learning strategies to thrive in a language classroom. LIFE can not read to learn instead they are learning to read and often have  a very limited time to do it. Said this, it is possible to identify whether the students are LIFE or just a bit behind from the rest of the group and provided appropriate tasks can catch up quickly.

There are different ways LIFE can be identified. The most obvious one is to talk to them and ask them about their previous learning experiences (if they went to school or not, if yes, for how long). What if they do not speak any English? In community based programs learners usually have a settlement worker; if this is a case then it is a good idea to turn to the settlement team for help (ask them to talk to the students and find out as much information as possible about their previous learning experiences). It could be  a great opportunity to get to know the learners and collaborate with the settlement team. If the student happens to be the one who needs literacy support then the right thing to do is to direct him or her to an ESL literacy program. If there is not any literacy program in the community, there is still something teachers could do to help this learners even though being in a traditional ESL class is not the best case scenario (unfortunately, LIFE learners do not thrive in the mainstream ESL classroom).

The first step is to understand the main differences between learning styles of LIFE and literate students. LIFE learners mainly learn by doing and watching, tend to be aurally oriented, use repetition to aid memorization, learn best when the situations and contexts are familiar; they also need help in developing cognitive abilities, memory skills and metacognition; they are dependent on the teacher and have to be taught to learn individually, etc. Teachers can not expect these learners to know how to learn by themselves. Then choose appropriate strategies and make a plan. There is a very good chance that with “the right parts” the students will get moving.

Formal education and literacy skills in a native language is  a tremendous tool that helps a learner succeed. Not taking it into the consideration can harm both: LIFE and non-Roman alphabet literate mainstream ESL learners.  A typical case is described in “Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Handbook” on p. 24. Once I had a student from China who was referred to me from Level 1 as an ESL Literacy (which, in fact, she was) and joined my 100% LIFEclass. She very soon became an exhibit in our class. With no English skills at all (when she arrived, majority of my students spoke and understood much more English than she did), in two weeks she mastered what the rest of the class had been learning for a couple of months and was helping me out in instructing the rest of the group. The difference was that she was able to apply a variety of learning strategies and quickly figured out the most efficient way for her to learn. Two more weeks and she felt that she needed to get back to Level 1. The tricky part here is that her chances to succeed from this point on will highly depend on the teacher to see that tremendous tool that she already has and be providing her with the appropriate tasks to progress.

Students come to the classroom with a wealth of experiences and abilities. Previous learning experience and literacy play a major role in students' success and can be effectively used in language teaching. At the same time,  timely and correctly identifying literacy needs and giving appropriate support to ESL learners with these needs greatly increases their chances to succeed.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

C is for Cards...

This post is one the series where I am sharing some classroom techniques I have been using with the ESL Literacy learners.

Dollarama happens to be my most visited store during the school year. Fortunately, we have plenty of them in Toronto; I have one near my home and another one across our office at LINC. I often get inspired in the classroom by the needs and interests of the students, and then dash to the closest Dollar store to get stuff gor my aha moments. Sometimes, I do the opposite, when feeling that I urgently need something new in class but have no idea what it is, I just go to the Dollar store to look for ideas. This is how I bought my first set of index cards: I knew exactly that they were meant to be used in my literacy class, but I did not know how in the beginning. After a couple of weeks, they became the indispensable part of our class morning routine.

Does your desk look anything like this?

Using index cards for sentence formation:

Before discussing the use of the index cards in the ESL Literacy classroom, there is a very important thing that all teachers dealing with these group should understand: adult ESL Literacy learners are mainly oral learners. For successful instruction oral language should always come first. “LIFE are learning to read as opposed to reading to learn, so in a good ESL literacy classroom, all new vocabulary and concepts are taught orally before they are taught in written form.”  Read more about Developing Oral Fluency, Vocabulary and Background Concepts at ESL Literacy Network.

Using index cards to develop reading skills in ESL Literacy and LIFE is very effective as it targets learners' kinaesthetic intelligence. Many of the literacy students are very comfortable using their hands. Lesson plans that are entirely based on the textbook or hand-outs just do not work here. Moreover, the last thing we want to use with these learners are traditional hand-outs.

One way to use index cards is to practice and review simple sentences. I usually work with pictures. Let’s say for one activity we need 5 to 6 pictures representing people doing different actions. I start with eliciting as much information as possible from a picture. I ask simple questions such as “Who is this?”, “What does he or she do?”,  “What time is it?”, and so on. When there is enough information to form a sentence, I try eliciting a grammatically correct simple sentence prompting students with the fingers of my hand. It’s pretty easy to get students to produce sentences such as “I go to school at 9 o’clock”, or “I have lunch at 12 o’clock”. Then, I model sentences one by one and students are trying to pronounce and practice them as much as needed. When the sentences are familiar and students are comfortable with what they see on the pictures, it is a good time to transfer the spoken words into written text. My favorite way is to draw boxes on the whiteboard (boxes will remind them of the flashcards that they are going to use later on). I elicit the sentence on the whiteboard, in the beginning of the year I usually write the words myself but after a couple of weeks I always get some volunteers who will be ready to jump in and fill in the boxes.  Students then can copy the sentence from the board. And now is the time for the index cards. At the beginning, when there are fewer sentences and they are usually shorter, I write each word on a card with a black sharpie. The text is pretty big. Shortly, when students get used to these activities the number and length of the sentences grow and I usually cut one card into four pieces and write words on each small piece, so the text is smaller, too. I usually reuse the sets that we create all over the year, therefore, each set will be put in a ziplock bag, with one index card that has all the sentences on it, and pieces with the set number on the back of each of them (it’s easy to know where each piece belongs in case students accidentally mix them). Students work in pairs or individually, they work with a set of cards and have to put together sentences. The level of complexity can be modified according to the learners’ abilities. Some students will be able to put together sentences looking at the content index card with all of the sentences on it; others will be able to form them using pictures as a hint or looking them up in their notebooks; more advanced ones will try to get the sentences on their own with no clues. What else can be done here is  that when students are ready with the sentences in front of them on the tables we can always challenge them by turning a couple of cards upside down and trying to get students to say what those cards are, or to reproduce sentences in their notebooks.

What I noticed working with the cards is that very soon some students develop a sense of language awareness. In the beginning, it may take them a long time to put sentences together, but with practice, students start sorting out words, for example, separating verbs, pronouns and nouns. They are doing this intuitively, in other words, they are able to figure it out by themselves. Students see that they always start a sentence with I, he, or she, and then, shortly, they are able to identify and isolate these words.  

Using cards for vocabulary practice:

A pretty easy way to use the cards is for matching words with pictures or matching words with commonly used abbreviations. For example, months of the year, days of the week with their short forms (August with AU, Monday with MON; works well when practicing the calendar and reading best before information on the groceries). Also, numbers, for example matching digits with words.

Using cards for stories:

Similarly to sentence formation, cards can be used for reviewing or practicing reading short stories. My students quite enjoy it. More advanced learners constantly ask for more new stories. I like working with “Sam and Pat” (a fantastic book in two parts about a couple Sam and Pat and their daily life). In my opinion, it’s an ideal choice to get students reading. The stories are easy to understand, the length is appropriate and they are filled in with bits of humor. The sequence is the same, first we are getting students to comprehend the story orally and then they can work on the story using the index cards. The sets with the stories can be reused all over the year. I practice giving out different sets in the first hour of our class according to the learners’ abilities. Since I established this so called 'morning routine' - the first hour of the class is a silent review hour where students work with cards or anything they like and I get the possibility to read and talk to each of them individually for about 5 to 10 minutes - my class has become more manageable and students have gradually developed learner’s autonomy.

There is more you can learn about the importance of introducing sentences from the very beginning and encourage chunking while developing initial reading skills: Reading Instruction by ESL Literacy Network.

Using cards with rods:

A great combination, especially for learners with reading difficulties, is using cards together with the Cuisenaire rods. (I have a special post “C is for Cuisenaire Rods” and “C is for Cuisenaire Rods Part 2” dedicated to the use of rods in the literacy classroom, please see it for more details). In this case, first I arrange the rods, the length of the rod should correspond to the number of the letters in a word and then ask students to match the card with the rods to form the sentences. It can be used both with simple sentences and stories.

Using cards with different levels of complexity:

A great advantage of using cards is that the same activity where students have to match or arrange the cards can be used with the texts with different levels of complexity. You would ask, what is so special about it? When dealing with a mixed-ability classes I prefer giving students different tasks. I noticed that learners become very anxious if they see that someone else is doing something very different from them. It can be explained with their natural fear to miss something very important even if it doesn't have any significance for their learning process. Index cards activities that I have described above allow me to use the same activity with all students with different texts and tasks. Everyone is eventually happy: learners are looking around and see that everybody is doing pretty much the same thing: arranging the cards!

Let me know how you use the flashcards in your classroom?

You are invited! T4T2017