Visible progress for primary learners

I’m delighted to be blogging for Pearson this month. Please check out my latest post on ensuring primary learners not only have fun in the classroom, but are aware of what they are learning, how they are learning it and what they need to do to be even more successful in the future:

At the end of the post you can download my continuous assessment tool for monitoring your students throughout the semester.

IATEFL 2018 YLTSIG Pre-Conference Event Review: Children’s Rights, Children’s Future: Practical Applications in Teaching English to Young Learners


received_2033389586690126I recently attended my first IATEFL conference in Brighton with one of the highlights being the Young Learner and Teens Special Interest Group (YLTSIG) Pre-Conference Event.  The IATEFL conference is rich in expertise and knowledge and it’s a shame so few teachers can afford the time and money to attend. With that in mind, I was delighted to be asked to review the YLTSIG PCE, which I hope summarises the key learning and takeaways from the day. You can read my review here.


Are you excellent?


I’m all for acknowledging and celebrating success and excellence in teaching, so when Pearson asked me if I’d like to mention their teaching award on Primary Stories I was very happy to oblige. The very process of identifying why you believe you are a good teacher is an enriching exercise for a number of reasons. A lot of reflection in teaching revolves around what didn’t go exactly to plan, and what could have been done differently, or better. Feedback on observed lessons tends to focus on procedures, and how you do things rather than on what impact you are having on each individual student in your class. However experienced the observer, they cannot know what you were faced with at the start of the year, and how far each child has come in the context of their own learning. As a teacher trainer who regularly does observation and feedback I don’t want to imply that this process is invalid. Instead I want to suggest that rather than waiting nervously for your yearly formal observation for judgement on your teaching, you trust the evidence you have before you. Evidence gathered from hours and hours of classroom experience, time spent getting to know your students, what they like and don’t like and what they are good at or need help with. Evidence which inevitably feeds into the lessons which you plan.

Easy? Not so much. Identifying what makes you an excellent teacher means making a conscious decision to build regular self-reflection into your already busy schedule, and then really engaging with what is happening in the classroom. Young learner teachers are advised amongst other things to include in lessons a mixture of activities which alternately stir then settle students to cater for their short attention spans and burn off excess energy, to provide plenty of scaffolding to make tasks achievable, to build in plenty of repetition and revision as young children forget quickly, and to establish routines so the focus can remain on learning rather than classroom management. This is all sound advice, but it’s easy to mistake a lesson which includes all these elements and from which children leave happy for an excellent lesson, and therefore excellent teaching. Put children in a classroom and they will undoubtedly learn, but are they reaching their full potential?

It’s hard to define what makes a great teacher. Google threw up various ideas, namely excellent knowledge of subject matter, good organisation, planning and communication skills, solid classroom management and the ability to build a sense of community. What often seems to be missing from these lists is the ability to pitch lessons with an appropriate level of challenge, catering to the varying needs of all the students in the classroom.

Without strong relationships, aka rapport, a plus one level of challenge is potentially detrimental for children who may fear failure and become demotivated. But rapport, both between teacher and students and between classmates, is also slippery to define. We often talk about a positive learning environment or an atmosphere conducive to learning, however, as previously mentioned a popular and fun teacher can often keep children busy on tasks without necessarily doing any teaching. The teaching advice given for building rapport always astonishes me, because it seems to be nothing more than how we would expect two people to behave towards each other in any given situation anyway. Show respect, listen, be fair, learn names, be authentically yourself, to list a few identified by Scrivener (2005) and Harmer (2007). It’s easy to forget that what’s obvious to us, isn’t obvious to everyone. It very much depends on the role models you have growing up. When teaching young children a foreign language, it’s also easy to forget that they are curious about things they don’t understand, that they are capable of making informed decisions and judgements, that they have opinions they want to express and that they are easily influenced by those around them.

The UN convention on the rights of the child states that all children have the right to express their views and that these views be taken seriously by adults, as well as the right to learn and express their opinions. At times, being a teacher can feel overwhelming and simply teaching the language seems a big enough task on its own – surely there’s someone else who can deal with all these other things? I’ve worked at private language schools which have special weeks dedicated to important issues, for example environment week, anti-bullying week, equality and diversity week, where everyone is expected to teach lessons on a particular theme. Some teachers inevitably discover during these weeks that a (very small) percentage of their students actually hold some pretty unsavory views. It also turns these big issues into something special, when they should be commonplace and every day. Awareness is certainly raised, but I’d hope most teachers address these issues as needs arise. I believe these weeks would be much more impactful if they were an opportunity to share and celebrate all that has been learnt or achieved about these issues throughout the year, rather than an allocated time to address potentially tricky subjects that are best left alone the rest of the time for fear of causing offence. Advice for teachers dealing with inappropriate comments from students is often to divert, diffuse and distract, then have a quiet word with the relevant student(s) after the lesson. If we don’t talk about big issues in the classroom, then where can they be safely and intelligently talked about?

For me, an excellent teacher is someone genuinely interested in his or her students whatever their age. He or she challenges their students to think by asking them questions, by engaging with their ideas and by guiding them where necessary. An excellent teacher has high expectations of their students and is not afraid to face the needs of their students full on, whatever they may be. It’s someone who understands their responsibility in helping the children they teach grow up making wise, intelligent, informed decisions about their own lives and the lives of those around them. For me, being an excellent teacher is much more than helping children make progress in their particular subject. Are you the best role model possible for the students you teach? If so, then get entering this competition and I’ll see you at IATEFL Brighton 2018!


Harmer, J. (2007) The Practice of English Language Teaching (4th edn). Harlow: Pearson Longman.

Scrivener, J. (2005) Learning Teaching: A Guidebook for English Language Teachers (2nd edn). Oxford: Macmillan.

Guest blogger for IATEFL YLTSIG

Summer is a hectic time for a freelance teacher trainer which goes some way to explaining my rather extended leave from Primary Stories. I’ve been back in Beirut working on Lebanon’s Accelerated Learning Programme, done a couple of CELTA courses, become an online tutor and to top it off I’m this month’s guest blogger for IATEFL’s young learner special interest group. So still no blog for Primary Stories, but you can read my post, which focuses on key questions for Early Years providers, here.

Photo: Pixabay


Parent power


First up a bit of boasting. I just walked 799km in 31 days. I’m quite proud of myself. I also had the luxury of stepping away from the world of teaching for a whole month. And not just away from teaching – from the real world itself. When on a long distance trek there are no real decisions to make, you simply wake up, walk, eat, sleep and repeat. Despite this, it took me a good week or so to get out of the habit of looking for things to be stressed about. What if my feet hurt? What if it rains? What if I can’t find a cash machine? What if the next hostel also doesn’t have WiFi and I can’t Facebook my fabulous photos? And what about all those people looking at my fabulous Facebook photos thinking teachers have it easy? All these long holidays, who are they to complain about their heavy workloads? Actually, I don’t think my friends think like that and even if they do I don’t really care, but teachers do have a reputation for making a meal of it, and that is very unfair.

Most teachers I know are freelance, or they have contracts which run October to June, which means it’s almost impossible to survive the year without taking on some sort of summer job. Like any profession, there is a huge focus on professional development with many teachers taking on extra work or additional courses to enhance their prospects. I’m currently working full time on this refugee project, setting up my first CELTA as main course tutor and completing an online course in online tutoring (the IHCOLT if you’re interested). I’m also trying to keep up this blog, enjoy the short time I have in Lebanon, and right now trying to catch up with everything that’s been going on in TEFL while I’ve been off the radar.

Luckily, I stumbled upon a lovely blog post from Emily Hird, who had helpfully summarized the what’s hot and what’s not of YL nicely for me (read her post here). It’s all about current trends in young learner education, all of which require skillful handling by the teacher. It’s a pretty big task teaching a foreign language to a small child, and on top of that we need to remember to develop life skills, creativity, innovation, social values… the list goes on. I love how much good intention there is in primary teaching. A lot of teachers stick to adults and teens, not that those classes can be called easy, but it is generally accepted that to teach primary you need to put in a lot of effort and develop a totally different skill set. Many (admittedly not all) of the essential skills mentioned by Emily are well developed by adulthood, but to incorporate them into the primary classroom can be daunting. These skills call for an increase in communication between students, more collaboration and learner autonomy and a relinquishing of control from the teacher, all of which is brilliant and all of which can lead to classroom management nightmares.

Once you have classroom management under control it’s astonishing how much you can achieve in a young learner classroom, and just how mature young children can be. It’s a joy to see groups of children working on creative projects, supporting each other and taking responsibility for their own learning. There are many ideas for behaviour management, commonly reward systems, which I’m not going to write about here. What I want to focus on is parental involvement. Not in terms of meetings, messages, reporting or responding to problems – things which are time consuming and potentially reactionary. I want to share my recommendations for maintaining open channels of communication with parents via a few time-efficient strategies which have worked for me. When students know you have access to their mums and dads the stakes are suddenly raised and you can often turn your attention to teaching rather than crowd control. Having open communication with parents can also have a dramatic effect on the progress and achievement of your students. When parents show interest in what their child is learning and know how to help practice language at home, the results in the classroom are noticeable.

  1. Lesson summaries

lesson summaryPrivate English lessons are expensive so parents understandably have high expectations and want results. The age for learning a foreign language at school is getting lower and lower and English is seen as a priority to give children a head start in life. When parents know what their child does in class, there are two major benefits. Firstly, they have a deeper understanding of what to expect, e.g. their 5 year old is not going to be having fluent conversations in English after a couple of lessons. Secondly, a large majority of them actually want to help, and when parents practice lesson content at home with their child, there is much less work for the teacher. I always use lesson summaries, which you can download here, as a way of keeping parents in the loop. I put the main lesson content along with the homework task, and a short description of what parents can do at home to further support their child learning English. Not too much detail is required, and in fact I always prepare mine when I’m planning the lesson, so if I’m not sure how much of the lesson I will get through I play it safe and stick to something I know I will cover. I can always add things to the next lesson summary if I miss something important. I use these for all early years and primary students, but they work particularly well for the younger students up to the age of about 10. Older students are more capable of remembering and telling their parents what they learnt, particularly if you use Assessment for Learning strategies such as WALT, or Can Do Statements. I give out my summaries as the children leave the classroom, that way they make it straight into the hands of their parents instead of disappearing into school bags never to be seen again.

  1. Monthly portfolios

portfolioSomething interesting happens when students know you have a way of contacting their parents. I don’t like to use the whole ‘Do you want me to contact your parents?’ threat because unless you follow it up it is fairly useless, and in following it up you give yourself (and potentially your colleagues) a lot of work. When I introduced monthly portfolios (download here ) it was a way of getting my students to reflect on and celebrate what they had learnt. It was also a way for me to get feedback. It works excellently in those ways, but it is also a good way to keep in touch with parents and again show them the value in their child’s lessons. Each month I choose 3 different criteria to reflect on, such as new words I learnt, my favourite topic, the funniest moment, my new skill, my best piece of work, how my teacher can help me, my ideas for next month. Students fill in the boxes by writing and/or drawing, and I collect them all in to comment on. Once I’ve commented, the students take them home, show their parents who sign and bring it back to me. It is also signed by the student before being stuck in their notebook. ‘Do you want me to contact your parents?’ turns into ‘remember I’ll be commenting on your portfolio soon’ and the students know you mean it. It’s a routine and easy way to increase communication with home in a non-threatening way.

  1. Behaviour certificates

behaviour certificate imageSometimes certain students need a bit of extra motivation to keep on track in the classroom. I’m quite liberal with certificates, I have them for all sorts of things – helping my partner, working hard, arriving on time – whatever is needed. Children with behavioural issues, for whatever reason, often struggle to get generic rewards such as these, or stickers or points depending on what system the teacher uses. One of my favourite ways to keep a problematic child on task is by introducing a behaviour certificate, which I personalize for the child in question by writing specific achievable targets. To set up in class, I find a quiet moment at the start of the lesson to show the certificate to the child in question and go over the expectations. I usually ask the child how they are feeling and if they think they can meet the targets. If the targets are met during the course of the lesson, they are ticked off and the student chooses a sticker for the blank space and takes the certificate home. If I can’t tick all the boxes we keep it and continue in the next lesson. I have never had issues with jealousy or competitiveness from other class members, as children are usually very discerning and understanding. Someone being naughty is all part and parcel of being a child, and if someone needs extra reminding or help they tend to accept that. As long as they feel they are being fairly rewarded for their effort and contributions there shouldn’t be a problem. This one doesn’t relate directly to parental involvement, but certain children never get the rewards or the stickers, only nagging and complaints from the teacher. Getting a special certificate sends a very positive message to the child and the child’s parents. It shows that the teacher is offering help and acknowledging good work and progress. Download the template here

Teachers do have very heavy workloads, since the business of teaching is a very serious one. Clear and transparent communication with parents takes some of the responsibility and strain off. It can improve behaviour in the classroom, and increase the amount of support and language practice your students get outside the classroom. Additionally, parents love to know what’s going on with their children, and arguably have a right to know what they do in lessons. Why not try some of these strategies and see what works for you? I’d love to hear how you get on. Perhaps you have other ways of keeping in touch with parents in a positive and time-efficient way which you could share with us. If so please comment below.