I’ve completed my first four weeks teaching English here in Singapore. I’m enjoying the job, and mostly teaching Kindergarteners (aged 4-5) their phonics to enable them to read, along with expanding their vocabulary. However, I have some older groups up to Primary 3 level (8-9 years) which focus on comprehension and honing productive speaking and writing skills. I also teach some intensive lessons where the children are likely to be ESL (meaning English is their second language) and need to brush up for school.
I’m very proud of the fact that I have now mastered the names of all 80 of my students (although pronunciation on a couple may be a bit off). Here’s what I’ve learnt so far:
Creativity There is a general perception that Asian students are not as creative in their thinking compared to the rest of the world, but given some visual or audio prompts, I’ve found that my classes can easily tap into their imaginations when writing narratives. Especially if you happen to mention Pokémon.
Lost in translation When I’m teaching my younger reading classes, I have a tendency to enthusiastically say “Keep going!”. Then, if I say “Keep your book on the table” I’m met with a blank expression from the class. For children here, ‘keep’ means put away. So telling them to keep something out is an oxymoron, resulting in a comic to and fro as they process the instruction. I’ve learnt to say “Carry on reading” and, “Put this on the table”.
Say it don’t spray it Phonics, with the plosive sounds of ‘p’, ‘t’ and ‘k’ mean that the children are getting their mouths around these sounds for the first time. This can invariably result in a lot of spit flying about. Particularly when we practice sounds that don’t come as naturally here such as the digraph ‘th’. Repeating “th-th-three” and “th-th-thumb” can get quite messy! It also requires some explaining on how to stick your tongue between your teeth without biting it.
It’s in the detail I’ve found that the students are far more engaged when they encounter something out of the ordinary. This might be googly eyes on the ‘sound sticks’, or a genuine postcard from England, or fishing for answers with magnets fixed to lolly pop rods.
Songs and rhymes save time This is hardly a revelation, but I’ve found that drilling sounds and expanding vocabulary is easiest though singing songs. Together with funny mimes, the children are able to understand the meaning and practise the target sound extensively. In my ‘under the sea’ week focusing on the long ‘e’ sound, I adapted ‘A sailor went to sea’ which featured verses with seahorses that drink green tea, seaweed that waves at me, and a pirate with a leg wooden from the knee!
Grammar games Although our pre-made materials offer comprehensive activities to test grammar, some constructs seem a little more tricky for the students to remember. I made a couple of superhero inspired cards to help them remember how to change third person verb endings (usually add ‘s’ – hello Superman!), and how to recognise an infinitive verb (hi Buzz Lightyear).
The writing is on the wall It’s important to motivate students to produce good work by displaying pieces in the classroom. My 7 year olds were given different coloured paper and asked to write down their haikus. Their final work was more polished and creative than the version they wrote in class, because it comes with a sense of pride to have your name on the wall. I say the same to my younger classes to encourage them to colour neatly to improve their motor skills. It works!
Watch them grow One idea I stole from Pinterest (a goldmine for teaching ideas) is a vocabulary tree. I made one which includes spelling test words from each of my Primary classes. I quiz the students on the definitions and check they can use the word in a sentence. I also have some synonym flowers to help them find other words for ‘nice’, ‘cold’, ‘big’ and ‘good’. Their antonyms are featured on the back, and the kids enjoy reading a petal and discovering new words. I’ve made some for the verbs too so that we can avoid a tsunami of ‘I/he/she said’;
Chop chop Stamps are called ‘chops’ here and kids will do ANYTHING to get a chop. Stickers are also a great way of setting boundaries and expectations of the students in class. Our centre has kindly provided us with some, and from the age of 7 up the children only want the more academic ones, which range from ‘Good try’ to ‘A+’. There would be a fight if they were to choose their own stickers.