Ah-peh-ne!

A mother yesterday asked an advisor at MY an odd question:

My daughter keeps saying, ‘Ah-peh-ne,’ after eating. I think she’s saying something in English. Do you know what she means?

Stumped, the advisor passed the question to me.

The three-year-old girl has recently had exposure to English through our immersion kindergarten, so it would make sense that she is trying to express something in English, but “Ah-peh-ne”?

Ah-peh-ne? Is that even English?

In my head, I started trying to peel back the layers of phonology, morphology, syntax, and context that intersect in early language acquisition.

Ah-peh-ne? Does that sound like any phrase in English? Nothing sprang to mind.

Break down the sounds. Are these separate words? Do they combine into one or more multi-syllable words? Which sounds is the three-year-old pronouncing correctly? Which sounds is she pronouncing incorrectly? Which sounds is she failing to pronounce? Still nothing.

What do kids typically say at the immersion kindergarten when they are done eating lunch? Ah-hah! My daughter also attended the immersion kindergarten some years ago. This context gave me the hint to what was happening with the child’s phonology and morphology. It took thirty seconds of fumbling to find an answer, but the puzzle pieces had fallen into place.

Ah-peh-ne. I’m finished.

That’s what the girl was saying. It’s what the immersion kindergarten kids are taught to say after lunch. The sounds and syllables match up:

Ah…I’m
peh-ne…finished

The girl was missing the “m” sound in “I’m.” The “p” and “f” sounds are distinguished by one small change in lip position. She dropped the final “sh” and “-ed” sounds. But despite the missing and undeveloped sounds, “I’m finished” is undoubtedly what the girl was saying.

All this girl needs is a little mirroring with the correct pronunciation from her mother or other English speakers, and those small pronunciation mistakes will disappear.

This small moment reiterated to me why we use context and phonics as language teaching foundations at MY.

Without the context that this child said “Ah-peh-ne” after eating meals, the linguistic puzzle would have been almost impossible to solve. Speakers can make all manner of mistakes with language, but we can still be understood because context drives meaning.

Phonics is a useful tool because the phonics teaching method mimics how we develop the sounds of a language from a young age. Children under the age of five are still developing the basic sounds of their native languages. They misprounounce a lot. Little-by-little, through trial and error, with the exercise of muscles when speaking, phonology eventually works itself out for native speakers. For language students without a native background and with limited exposure to a foreign language with radically different phonology, they need targeted exposure to the basic phonemes before they can effectively morph those phonemes into intelligible words and phrases.

Thanks to this three-year-old girl and her mother for giving me a refresher course in how we teach!

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(Re)learning to teach

What could you do without, if forced to, when teaching? Could you teach without pencils and paper? Without books? Without a white board or blackboard? Without songs? Without toys? At the current moment, for the language school teachers at MY, it’s a physical classroom.

From this month, in place of a room, we have a screen. Our virtual classrooms reach into students’ homes.

Welcome to teaching in the pandemic outbreak era.

Many language schools and services, especially those that focus on conversational practice, routinely offer online lessons. For MY English School, teaching remote lessons this month was a first. For me personally, teaching remotely has meant relearning much of what I know about teaching.

My first day of remote lessons brought me back viscerally to my first day teaching at MY. I had a lesson plan, but I did not know how the lesson plan would go, was not certain how I was going to execute it, felt unsure how I would adjust if plans did not go well, and could not predict how the students would react. Lessons at MY normally involve a lot of movement in the classroom and a lot of physical interaction with objects and classmates. Our face-to-face communication and engagement, especially in children’s classes, is heavily built around the physical interactions we perform in the classroom space.

Several of the basic tools of my teaching had just gotten removed from my toolbox. How am I now going to teach? Much of what I know about teaching and many of the techniques I frequently use were taken away on short notice. That was scary.

Time to (re)learn my teaching skills and add some new tools to my teaching toolbox.

What’s changed?

The differences stand out. I am alone in the classroom. Students are in their homes. Our classroom language has changed. We have to take turns speaking, and I have to make turns for each student to speak, because it is more difficult to interact with a lot of people speaking at once. I have to call students’ names more frequently. Students have to indicate to me, “I’m finished,” since I cannot often see their progress. Students need to work more closely on pace with each other because the online platform does not easily allow one student to move on while others are finishing the previous task. We are holding cards, books, papers, and objects up close to the camera to show each other. I cannot physically steer a student back into an activity. Many of the games that involve throwing balls, building towers, and running around the room do not work remotely, or at least they cannot work the same. My lesson planning time is taking three, four, or five times longer than normal. I am forced to do a lot of my teaching differently.

Changing my teaching practices has been a good experience for me. After years of teaching, I have fallen into routines. Most of my routines have developed because they are positive. Still, it is sometimes good to reflect on those routines, to consider how to do them differently, and to focus on the underlying goals. I am relearning what it means to teach.

What hasn’t changed?

What’s the same? For one, the staff. We have a fantastic group of teachers and support staff at MY. We anticipated that online lessons would become a necessity, and we made preparations. As soon as online lessons began, teachers put in the extra time and immediately began sharing teaching ideas and resources. Our advisor staff supported us and our students on the technical side and communicated with students and parents about worries. Having a talented, professional staff makes a huge difference when dealing with stressful changes.

Also, the students. We have great students. They are adaptable and resilient. With a few exceptions, they are excited to do lessons via camera and screen, and they are working hard to make the best of the situation.

In terms teaching, after two weeks with remote lessons, I have also been surprised how much feels familiar. One reason for this is the way that we teach at MY. Our curriculum is not a script that teachers read, nor a fixed routine that we follow, nor a set of materials, nor a collection of activities. Because we start with learning goals for various skills and content, we have the flexibility to achieve those goals with many different activities, materials, and routines. Take away the game that I often use, and I will adjust and use a different game to reach the same goals. Take away the cards that I normally use, and I will adapt by drawing pictures, using gestures, or giving verbal hints. Take away our physical classrooms, and we are adapting to meet the same learning goals in a virtual platform.

Student choice remains a central element of my teaching methodology. My students still construct language through the process of using language. Lesson activities still use fun to promote engagement. I still foster student curiosity and expect students to ask questions to find out what they want to know. Skills to adapt and deal with the unknown remain primary goals. A teacher trainer I worked with many years ago repeated the mantra, “Pedagogy before technology.” The basic principles and goals of learning and teaching have not changed. I am merely adapting to a new platform.

This is a scary moment for people around the world. It is a scary moment for businesses and workers. Many language schools have entirely shut down and furloughed their staff on reduced pay. At MY, our students’ education is our priority. We do not want a pandemic to disrupt their learning and growth. We want to keep teaching. I remind myself of an important command: “Fear not.” Fear is a physical response to get us out of immediate danger. Fear tends to paralyze strategic thinking, broad perception, and clear planning. Standing on a firm foundation—knowing what my core teaching values are—is allowing me to reflect on how and why I teach and to adapt to the situation.

The results?

Many students and parents were leery of doing lessons online. I was, too. We have experienced some technical glitches. A few of my lessons have, from my perspective, stunk. Overall, most remote lessons are turning out pretty well. Watching the students is fascinating. Many are excited to interact over a screen. I can see from their eyes that they are engaged for the full 40-minute, 50-minute, or 60-minute lesson. Some of my quietest students are suddenly speaking out in loud, clear voices. Distractions for many students are down, and many are more attentive and responsive to the language. Parents and siblings are often positively and supportively involved in the lessons. There are a few students who are visibly struggling, and I am working on how to support them better. This has been an exhausting two weeks of relearning the fundamentals of teaching. The second week of remote lessons was much better than the first, and the third week will be even better.

Looking ahead, I can’t wait to get back into a regular classroom. My small fear now is that my students and I might eventually miss the remote lessons. If there are some elements of teaching and learning that we manage to accomplish better online, that is going to make me rethink my teaching practices again once we return to the classroom. And that will also be a welcome change.

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The importance of igloos

When we teach phonics, the main goal is to get students reading faster and more independently. Every phonics sound is paired with a keyword as a mnemonic device. Kids remember the sound “i” a lot better because it is paired with “igloo.”

But why “igloo”? In other phonics books, I see a lot of other “i” words – insect, ink, or sometimes iguana. Using “igloo” is not too common outside the Finding Out textbook series. “Igloo” seems like a silly choice of a word because there are not many contexts in which we can talk about igloos meaningfully. “Cats” and “dogs” are much easier to bring into conversation. So why “igloo”?

I was not inside David Paul’s head when he made the keyword choices while writing the Finding Out 1 textbook. This year, however, I stumbled onto a couple hints that make me think “igloo” is a very carefully chosen word.

At our last training day, Ryan, MY’s owner, talked briefly about pronunciation. One of the examples he offered was the difference between the English sound “n” and the Japanese “ん,” which could be pronounced “n,” “m,” or “ng,” depending on the Japanese word. It’s an odd Japanese character in that its pronunciation varies from word to word, and so distinguishing “n,” “m,” and “ng” is especially challenging for Japanese students.

There is no “n” in igloo. But here is the weird thing I noticed this year: Japanese students often mispronounce “igloo” as if it did. Somewhere around a quarter of my first-year elementary students say, even upon an initial correction, “ingloo.” Listen to my first-year student say, “ingloo.” (Jump to the 3:00 mark in the video.) I start to correct her, and she she still says, “ingaloo.” Even when this student finally gets rid of the “ng,” she holds onto a third syllable: “i-ga-loo.” The extra syllable is common for many Japanese students in many words, but “ng” in “igloo”?

Why students hear “igloo” as “ingloo,” introducing the “ng” sound in place of the glottal stop “g,” is curious. Japanese does not have a glottal stop consonant sound. My guess is that Japanese kids often add the “ng” because that is what they hear. There is no “n” in “igloo,” but there is also no glottal “g” in Japanese. Some Japanese students don’t hear the glottal stop, and so their brains substitute a more familiar sound instead. The “g” gets blurred into “ん” for these students. Weird, right?

In the past, I noticed students often mispronouncing “igloo,” but I usually didn’t fight them about pronuciation too much. As long as students are getting the “i” sound, that’s what’s important, right? So what if the rest of the word is a bit off? I’m not so sure anymore, and I am taking extra time this year to correct the “ingloo” mispronuncation with my first-year elementary students. Here is my theory:

When we teach phonics, many spelling problems later on start from pronunciation problems in the earlier stages.

If my theory right, “ingloo” is actually a big warning sign that this student may struggle with spelling and pronunciation for many years after. If I help the student hear the correct English “g” sound now, can I help the student avoid some of these problems in the future? That’s my hope.

So, yes, the “i” sound is the primary phonics target, but the phonics keywords are chosen with other goals in mind, too. Students also need to start hearing English glottal stops. They need to develop correct pronunciation for sounds and words that are easily misheard and mispronounced by Japanese speakers. David Paul’s choices of keywords in Finding Out are not random. They are intentionally chosen to challenge Japanese speakers with sounds they don’t normally encounter in their native language.

“Igloo” is something new I learned this year. “Igloo” is important. What are some of the other “igloos” among the Finding Out vocabulary?

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MY Training Day with Lesley Ito

Teachers talking together about teaching is one of the highest impact practices schools can use to boost student learning.  We become better teachers when we reflect and share ideas.  Since I started at MY, MY has annually set aside a number of days when we close all of our schools and gather for training.  Over the years, we’ve experienced some fantastic, memorable sessions that I’ve learned from immensely and that have changed the way we teach at MY.  But it’s easy to become insular if we’re always talking among ourselves, so, this year, we are branching out and inviting outside speakers to two of our training days.

Our first outside speaker this year, Lesley Ito, visited
MY this past weekend.  Lesley is a school
owner in Nagoya and has been active in publishing and presenting around Japan
for many years.  On Saturday afternoon,
she presented two sessions:  Teaching Grammar to Children and Extensive Reading for Young Children.

I deeply enjoy conference sessions where the speaker is a
couple years ahead of me in identifying and working out a problem.  In the first session, Lesley shared some of
her research into how children learn grammar and react to error
correction.   MY’s students check their
own homework, after which teachers check, which has many good aspects.  However, as we’ve become more and more
structured in this homework check system, I’ve begun noticing, especially this
year, a lot more stress among our youngest elementary students.

Usually students are smiling, energetic, excited to start
class, and having a lot of fun by the end of their first month of lessons.  This year, many are, but I’ve also noticed many
young elementary students crying and showing other signs of stress after they
arrive for lessons, even a month or two into the year, which is abnormal.  Lesley’s explanation of how younger kids
process grammar and error correction may help explain why this is, and it has
me thinking of ways we can do better for our stressed first-graders.

Hearing Lesley talk about kids’ ER didn’t give me a
similar “Aha!” moment, but it was gratifying. 
MY’s extensive reading program is in its third year.  There’s very little researched and written
about kids’ ER (and about kids’ ELT in general).  While there are a few schools that can serve
as models, building a kids’ ER program mostly requires trial and error.

MY still has a lot of work to improve our ER program, but seeing the benefits of ER for kids in Lesley’s presentation was a strong reminder about why we created the class.  We especially need to do more to sell ER to our students and parents—yes, reading for an hour without the teacher choosing the book, checking comprehension, or grading results is an excellent way to improve language!  In the past two years and two months of ER classes, we’ve stumbled on a number of ideas and practices for how to do ER with kids, and it’s nice affirmation when another respected teacher like Lesley has independently arrived at similar conclusions and adopted many similar practices.

I’m already looking forward to our training weekend with Mike Griffin in October!

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