Recently a group of former students who celebrated their tenth graduation anniversary came to visit me. They presented me with a nice bouquet of flowers, then exchanged quick glances, formed a circle and sang, “You put your right hand in, you put your right hand out...” That was the very first song, the first game we played in class when they were eight years old! This little episode reminded me a simple truth I learned thanks to them two decades ago: with the young children anything goes.
• How are babies taught to speak their own language? Parents sing songs to them, teach them to clap their hands, then add nursery rhymes and little stories to the repertoire. When we teach at primary school we can use essentially the same techniques. Young children enjoy singing and dancing, they welcome this opportunity to move around. They usually have no trouble memorizing short poems and fairy-tales; though they tend to mix up left and right, they gladly enact the song mentioned above. And they do remember lots of such activities throughout their life. I know this for a fact because when I started teaching in mid-nineties, I did not have to learn any songs or nursery rhymes anew; they all were present in my memory since my own school days.
• In middle school we should pay attention to the students’ interests. For instance when I asked my class what they were doing they said they were “playing Freddie”. As in Freddie Krueger from “ Nightmare on Elm Street”. They further explained to me that they liked this game because, first, they liked the thrill; and second, it was safe to pretend while being in their familiar surroundings. So, something thrilling, pleasurably scary, yet safe. No, I did not play that game with my students. I told them that I was always too frightened by horror films and they treated me with the kind condescension so characteristic for tweens. Role playing has always been a hit, no matter which sphere of human activity we chose. One day my class pretended to be foreign visitors to our country; next time they could all be astronauts or music idols; if the lesson happened to be at the end of the day they might all turn into cooks and discuss recipes and menus with great enthusiasm.
• In high school we need more sophistication, more discipline and motivation. We cannot use any video games because teenagers, adolescents aged fourteen going on forty, would find ways to escape the ever-boring lesson and simply play a game not paying any attention to our efforts to engage them in a useful activity. We can however arrange a discussion, ask them which games they prefer and why. We can take notes to mention a game later and thus recycle the vocabulary. “ As you emphasized when you played Lara Croft...” They would probably resist our attempts at any game which involves moving around, let alone singing and dancing. But we can suggest that they change seats, move tables to form a circle, transfer those flower pots from one window sill to another. They love to demonstrate their prowess and their unique skills. I once asked if someone could reach the top of the window to open it a crack. In a second all the boys were up on the window sills striking poses and showing off their strength! Two girls created amazing hairdos for the whole class during just one lesson, with much encouragement and laughter.
• One activity which helps my students remember the words and expressions, recycle the vocabulary and activate their speaking skills is the golden rule I introduce at my very first lesson and which I adhere to: speak English. An important part of my work is teaching them how to overcome their fear of making mistakes. The older the students are the harder this may be. Inevitably they have or had a teacher who would sneer and jeer and make fun of any errors in front of the whole class. It takes time and patience to teach them that it is all right to make mistakes in a foreign language sometimes. With senior students and adults I play a game of “missed” things by making lists of words which start with the prefix “mis-“: mistake, misspell, misjudge, misread, misbehave, misstep, misprint... Thus they remember the meaning of this prefix and use it correctly in the future. The number of games and activities we can use to help students remember and activate any new vocabulary is indeed infinite.
Nina MK, Ph.D.