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?