Having taught young learners in Singapore for the past year and a half, I’ve noticed the regular hurdles that trip up my students while learning English.
1. Androgynous – he or she?
This is a common mistake for my Chinese students, who usually default to the gendered pronoun he in any situation. Before I recognised this, it made me self-conscious as students would regularly refer to me as he. The main reason for this is that the gendered pronouns simply do not exist in Mandarin, and the pronouns he andshe must be learnt and practiced along with the possessive pronouns his and hers. Once this has sunk in, the next step is to differentiate his and he’s (he is).
2. Three or tree?
The /th/ sound is a tricky one to master. Teaching phonics and reading, as well as coaching students for oral exams at the Primary level, I encounter this every day. Most students will produce the /f/ sound instead, so I encourage them to hold down their bottom lip so that their teeth stay away. I model sticking the tongue between the teeth and blowing. If I hear a student say tree instead of three, I hold up my arms like branches until they correct themselves. Of course, it is difficult for those students who have recently lost both front teeth, and for teachers, there is an occupational hazard of being covered in spit as the children practice. The pronunciation is particularly evident when the child says, “Today it is the turd (third) of June.”
3. How many? Singular and plural nouns
The ‘s’ is often neglected at the end of countable plural nouns. Even in reading class, it is as though it is simply invisible. The main cause is that, in Chinese languages at least, plural nouns are distinguished through the determiner rather than the noun ending. It is perfectly reasonable to say, “Five student” and not add an ‘s’ at the end in Mandarin. I spend a lot of time teaching happily hissing to get across the importance of that final ‘s’, or feign surprise and say, “Only one?”
4. Prepositions – tiny assassins
I often refer to prepositions in this way, because they are small yet have the power to completely kill meaning in a sentence. In other languages, there are either less to worry about or they can be used interchangeably without causing too many problems. In English we are very precise, especially when it comes to time. We say, in a minute, at four o’clock, on Tuesday, in a month. When it comes to travelling, it is equally confusing. We say, getting on the bus, driving in the car, riding on the train or by foot. My older students get frustrated as most prepositions are just two letters, but getting them right can be difficult.
5. The past, present and future walked into the classroom. It was tense
Tenses can be minefields for young learners, who may only have a few to learn in their mother tongue. English has thirteen tenses with very specific uses, so the students must know which one to apply in each scenario. My students often use the past continuous tense incorrectly in their narratives. For example, “He was wearing a bandana and he was stealing the money.” We use past continuous when two events happen simultaneously, or where the first action is interrupted. So, instead it should be: “He was wearing a bandana as he was stealing the money,” or simply just, “He wore a bandana and stole the money.” I often hear my Chinese students say, “I got done already.” The word already is a sneaky way for learners to avoid learning the past tense verb conjugations and should be discouraged. A student may prefer to incorrectly say, “I eat already” rather than “I ate.”
I hope this post was useful for those who are either learning English or teaching it. If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe for weekly updates. Cheers!
When being an adult is tiring, it is good to see things from a child’s perspective. Luckily, I have over a hundred of them to brighten my week:
Some of my students have been writing personal recounts about a fun family day out. I always mark their drafts to avoid any recurring spelling or tense errors before they expand their ideas. One student did raise my eyebrow when she wrote, “We went on the Singapore flayer.” She meant ‘flyer’, I hope.
A letter changes everything
Studying adjectives, my class were encouraged to describe a dog. We discussed lots of ideas, from whether her nose was wet or dry, how long her pink tongue might be, and what she liked to do best. Obviously, going for walks was number one, but one comment made my toes curl. “She likes to chew her bones.” Funny how one ‘s’ can change the meaning entirely.
As the ability in my lower primary classes vary, when it comes to writing tasks we brainstorm ideas and I elicit sentences from them as we go. I write these up on the board so that the students can jot down our shared ideas and use them as a reference when they form their own written piece. For students who are new to writing, it can be daunting to write four paragraphs so we break it down. I cover two finger spacing for indenting, give prompts for punctuation and ask them to spell words or provide synonyms to check understanding. However, one child managed to write, “The children ate their schoolbags.” He’s clearly not a fan of mornings.
This week, I was almost caught out. While discussing an answer with the class, one of my students corrected me. The passage spoke about having a barbecue, along with sweet treats and Japanese delicacies. I agreed with the suggestion that the boys were going to eat barbecue, a dessert and Japanese dishes. One student was indignant that it should be barbecued food instead, because they were not going to eat the actual barbecue itself. However, it does also mean barbecued food so we were both right, although the student did not seem to believe it!
Someone call the Avengers
This week, I designed a Lego superhero sheet for my phonics classes. The worksheet tested their stretching ability, and once they had finished, they could colour in the superheroes (DC’s Batman, Wonderwoman and Superman). After that, I invited them to draw their own. One boy drew a stick man and looked very confused when I asked him to colour it in. Another gave Batman lipstick. My favourite moment was when one boy refused to colour in any more, and said, “One superhero is enough.” Don’t let Stan Lee hear that…
Without warning, one of my six year old students announced, “I know the two bad fingers!” He proceeded to raise his middle finger and index finger and I snapped into action and went in for a high five. He was so distracted he failed to show his classmates the revolutionary hand signals after that. Phew.
During class, I welcome interesting questions and allow the class to journey along mini tangents relating to our topic. This helps to engage my learners. Of course, there is a limit and I have to monitor which direction we head in, but I think it is valuable to let the children express themselves. I think that a teacher should never ‘shhh’ their students, after all, we’re there to improve their speaking skills. However, one comment temporarily stunned me this week. One child asked me, “Did you kill yourself?” Before I could reply, another said, “Charlie Charlie” and it took me a few minutes to get everyone back on track.
I empathise with my students on a daily basis. Learning English is tricky, as it is full of exceptions to the rules and can be a veritable mine field for those working towards fluency. This week, one student was actively expanding his vocabulary and had a lightbulb moment when he realised he could add the suffix -ful to form adjectives. “Wonderful, cheerful, awful…niceful.” When I corrected him, that lightbulb smashed into smithereens.
Dot dash dot
I teach nursery age children phonics primarily, but we also work on speaking, comprehension and fine motor skills. Some children are still learning to write their names and form the English characters, while others are getting used to looking from left to right when they follow stories. I created a tracing sheet for my students to test their pencil grip, and was helping one girl draw her ‘e’ letters the right way round when I heard a tapping noise. Looking up, I saw one of my three year old students furiously stabbing his pencil into the paper. I think he thought we had to form the letters in dots too, rather than drawing over them in smooth lines.
To the beat of his own drum
I like to take an interest in the lives of my students, and often ask broad questions to initiate class discussions. After one student mentioned they played piano, I asked the whole class if anyone played an instrument. Many played the piano or the recorder, but one boy professed to playing the rectangle. It was the triangle back in my day…
Finally, I leave you with a revelation. Talking about recipes, I gave an example of making chocolate chip cookies, and asked the students to describe the instructions using imperative verbs. One suggested, “Cook the cookies.” I realise ‘bake’ is better, but this blew my mind. Of all the foods we cook, why did these get the monopoly on the cooking method? The answer is linguistic evolution, and we have the Dutch to thank. Still, I enjoy stumbling across these coincidences.
Until next week.
This week, my classes covered self-realisation, a new way of blowing your nose and found an alternative sidekick for Pinocchio.
I’ve been teaching our lower primary kids all about procedures and using imperative verbs. When I asked for an example of a recipe, one child described how to make soup. “Cut some vegetables. Add water. Pour in a can of soup.” Sounds like a Delia Smith fan to me.
In my phonics class this week, we focused on shooting stars. For the independent work time, I had the students trace the ‘Starlight, Star Bright’ poem, and then colour a picture of Pinocchio wishing on a star with his pal Jiminy Cricket beside him. One of the boys coloured him entirely brown, and said to the others, “That is a giant cockroach!”
Be careful what you wish for
Practicing speaking is an important part of language development, so I always build in time for the children to talk in my lessons. This week, I asked the children what they wished for after seeing a shooting star, which in reality was a shiny holographic star on a stick that I swished around. One class was materialistic and wished for Elsa crowns or Optimus Prime toys, whereas another wanted to go to space and grow the greenest grass. One boy, who is usually reserved, told us that he wanted to be a crocodile and proceeded to clamp another student’s head between his arm-jaws. The best one, though, was from a girl that wished it was her birthday every day. When I told Tom that night, he said, “She’ll be so old.”
In one particularly dull lesson, I taught the children how to separate sentences. It’s amazing how quickly they forget to use uppercase letters and punctuation. To make it more interesting (for me as well), I told the students that a full stop sounds like the ‘puck’ noise made when you pucker your lips. Now, rather than saying, “What goes at the end of the sentence?” I make the sound effect and they know to check. I just hope they don’t tell their other teachers.
One talkative student had a bit of a moment in class this week. Stopping mid-sentence, he abruptly declared, “I’m the only one with a high voice.” Give it a few years…
The dark side
I celebrated Star Wars day with a crudely drawn Darth Vader on my board. Some children recognised him but only a handful understood the joke of “May the fourth (force) be with you.” One overexcited pupil exclaimed, “Tomorrow, may the fifth be with you.” Nope.
Fine motor skills
Teaching young children, it is important to improve their pencil grip and control, building those muscles in their hands through tracing, colouring and forming letters independently. One newbie to my class had good control but pressed too lightly, so his pencil was barely visible. When I asked him to press harder, he squeezed the pencil until his knuckles went white but wrote as lightly as before.
One of the less glamorous parts of teaching nursery children is wiping snot off their faces and showing them how to blow their noses using a tissue. One child said his mummy had taught him a different way. Blowing out sharply, he quickly caught it with his tongue in one swift movement. His neighbour wasn’t the only one to gag.
When my new reading class did not know the word ‘cod’ I immediately sucked in my cheeks, moved my squished lips up and down like a fish and flapped my hands like fins beside my face. One of the children shouted, “Oh, a clownfish!” They’re too smart.
Finally, I leave you with an uplifting thought. One of my students who has only recently learnt to read and write, loves sharing her jokes and stories. She came into the class with a tatty pile of plain paper that had been sellotaped together. It was an entire book complete with illustrations. She passed it to me to read and proudly said, “This is my third book.” If a seven year old can do it, what is stopping the rest of us?
If you enjoyed reading this, check out my Teaching page for more. Until next time!
It was Labour Day here in Singapore, and my students have worked hard to produce some corkers in the classroom this week:
Last week I made some new sea creatures to make our phonics fishing game more fun. Using magnetic fishing rods, we matched flashcards to the correct word through stretching out the sounds. Just don’t ask what the ‘bus’ shape is meant to be.
Tied up in knots
Teaching silent letters can be tricky. When my students read the word ‘know’ I asked them to distinguish between the homophones ‘no’ and ‘know’ using gestures. One child said, “I know ‘know’ and ‘no,’ you know.”
Teaching English, I understand how apologetic us Brits sound when asking for things. Rather than saying, “I want the chicken soup,” a Brit might ask the waiter, “Could I possibly have the chicken soup, please?” That is why I was thrilled to see one of my students experimenting with a phrase they’d picked up:
Thank you for your letter. I hope you are in the pink of health.
So near, yet so far.
Please note that I sometimes take photos before making all the necessary corrections for comic effect!
This week, I was asked to be observed by three teachers. Of course, my students were on top form in front of their new audience. When I asked for an example sentence, one student said, “Thank you for being trifle” rather than ‘truthful.’
The learning journey
As a teacher, I always tell my students that it is part of learning to make mistakes. For older students, I enjoy showing them this by deliberately making my own on the whiteboard and encouraging them to correct me. One child, who already knew my mantra on this, repeated it for the others but didn’t quite get it right: “It’s ok to make mixtapes.”
One of the boys I teach has behavioural issues but we are usually able to avert any meltdowns by diffusing the situation with humour. I always have a few bad teacher jokes up my sleeve, or failing that, a funny story with facial expressions to match. This week, he came prepared with his own jokes:
Him: What is the loudest pet you can have?
Me: Hmmm, I don’t know.
Him: A TRUMpet!
Him: Why can’t dinosaurs clap?
Me: They have short arms?
Him: They’re dead.
Him: Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl use the toilet?
Me: I don’t know. Why?
Him: The pee is silent.
Something in the water
Finally, it is well-known that the water in Singapore contains a high level of chlorine, which can be attributed to hair loss. Until now, I’ve considered it an urban myth and will happily drink the tap water, but after seeing this picture that a student drew of me, I might just reconsider:
Until next week.
The hardest thing about being a teacher is keeping a straight face when the children say something unintentionally funny. This week’s round-up induced some eye twitching on my part:
I had my first wardrobe malfunction at work this week. I started the day feeling optimistic. I was chuffed that I could still squeeze into my tailored chinos from six years ago. I boarded the MRT (train) and arrived at work without incident. Then disaster struck. I bent down to grab some booklets and felt a sudden release. My button had popped off my trousers, and worse, the zip had derailed. I began to panic. I pulled my shirt down and fumbled towards the chair to grab my scarf. I picked up the stapler and began frantically firing. The material was too thick, and now I had metal sticking into me. I suddenly remembered the CCTV camera in the corner and cursed my choice of clothes. I tried fashioning a belt from tinsel pipe liners, but everything remained gaping open. I had a brainwave: I discreetly asked the receptionist for the first aid kit and raided it for a safety pin. Just one pin managed to hold up my sari while I danced in India, so surely it would save me now. No, as soon as I sat down, it bent before pinging open. I shoved the scarf through the belt loopholes but it was too thick and bulged like a strange trunk from under my top. It was the eleventh hour and I had no time to go shopping. I asked my closest allies what to do. Tom sensibly suggested a bulldog clip. This is what my family offered:
Back home, the Queen just celebrated her 92nd birthday. One of the kids in my class told me I was a queen, and instead I immediately envisaged RuPaul. I went with it. I asked the class where I would live if I were a queen. What would I wear? Would I have to put on my own socks? We practiced the royal wave together. I showed them two stamps of the Queen that I’d attached to postcards before coming to Singapore, one as a young royal and a more recent portrait. When I asked what I would wear on my head, one of the boys shouted out, “A clown!”
Groped by ghosts
This picture appeared in The Tickle Ghost:
We had a discussion on what snacks were good for our health and which should only be considered treats to eat every once in a while. Of course, some of my pupils refused to sway from their beloved crisps. Others said they loved vegetables, but then one girl said she likes to eat vegetables without the vegetables. My favourite comment was by one student who declared, “I love eating flute.” I checked he still had some teeth left.
The Phantom is back
A new motto
My reading class learnt that ‘s’ can sound like /z/ sometimes. The word busy was a great chance for me to introduce the simile, as ‘busy as a bee.’ However, one child decided to improvise and interrupted our class effort. He thought it was ‘busy as a boozy.’ I feel that this would be somewhat less productive.
Finally, my positive energy can sometimes be misinterpreted by the students. Take this narrative title for example:
That’s it for this week. As always, I invite you to share your favourite classroom moments in the comments below!
This week, I encountered some dubious morals, some beautifully misquoted idioms and received a blatant bribe. Here are more snorts and giggles from the classroom:
A lesson well learnt
Many of my classes were encouraged to write compositions this week and include a fitting moral ending. My younger students wrote about a storyboard which showed a burglar being caught red-handed by some police officers. Here are some of their conclusions:
Sometimes, students can catch you off guard. I’m a big fan of routine and as my class entered, I said, “Bags at the back…well, you know the drill.” I began reviewing the previous week’s work and after five minutes, one girl asked, “What is a drill?” Now, we were having renovation works next door and I was competing with the builders, so I mimicked a drill bit with my finger and buzzed. She looked even more confused. After our spelling test, it dawned on me what she had meant. I explained the saying properly after that.
Sometimes as a teacher, you feel as though you are tricking the children. This week, after having always taught that ‘g’ has a hard sound (like in girl), I told them it can sound like /j/ too. After reading the word ‘strange,’ I asked for an example sentence. One student enthusiastically said, “It’s when you are not even on the toilet and it flushes!” Ah, the mysteries of life.
It’s in the detail
When a student adds in descriptive phrases, be it an adjective here, or an adverb there, or even a well-placed idiom, I get excited. One, because they have (finally) listened to me, and two, they are being creative and having fun with it. A recent assignment based on the theme of ‘excitement’ prompted one pupil to write, “I was on nine clouds,” whereas another taught me the Chinese phrase, “We were like ants on a hot pan.”
I like to sprinkle these in at random to test understanding. I taught my classes about pairs through playing sound bingo and repeating (with actions), “Snap! A matching pair. Which sound? /ar/!” At the end of the lesson, I asked the students to give me an example of a pair. We had a pair of shoes, a pair of glasses, a pair of trousers, then a pair of teeth. There is a tooth wobbling frenzy going around so that is about right…
Call the RSPCA
One class stumbled across the word ‘igloo’ this week. My phonics classes are able to recognise it as it is the picture reference I use for short /i/, but this older class was stumped. When I explained it is made out of snow and ice, an audible wave of “Ahh” swept the classroom. I asked who lives in igloos. Some answered polar bears or penguins, but my favourite was iguanas.
I like to motivate my students who are learning to read by telling them the benefits of feeding your brain with words. I also have a vocabulary tree in my classroom that sprouts new leaves every week and continues to grow. Once the children have taken turns and tackled unfamiliar words with their phonics skills, I use the mantra of “See the word, hear the word, say the word for it to go in your…”. The answer is brain, but I often point to my belly, my toes or my knee to challenge them. As all the class screamed “Brain!” in delight (because no kid would pass up the opportunity to correct their teacher when they’re being silly), one boy simply shook his head. When I asked him where the word goes, he replied, “Your heart.”
I explained the meaning of the word ‘cement’ this week. I told my class that it was used to make roads and buildings, but my partner, who is an architect, informed me that I was wrong and that tarmac and concrete are used instead. As I encourage free discussion, one of the students asked me if it was sticky. I said it was when it is wet but dries very hard. One child then murmured, “Mmmm, marshmallows.” I told him that it wasn’t a good idea to eat it as your teeth would get stuck, and then all your teeth would have to come out and you’d be gummy. I was wrong there too, apparently you’d get lime poisoning. Sometimes being an adult sucks.
A student gave me this treat as he left class this week. I tried to say no but he looked offended when I tried to give it back. It is no coincidence that we are halfway through exams at the moment. However, they did not taste like the pink Prawn Cocktail I love back home and instead gave my classroom a distinct aroma for the rest of the day.
Here is the latest round of classroom mishaps for your enjoyment:
To blend four sounds, the students have to blend consonant cluster sounds together. These can be tricky so my classes have been focusing on these by drilling the pronunciation, isolating the sounds at the start or end of the word, blending random pairs and building their vocabulary with the specific target sound. I wrote ‘br’ on the board and asked the students to blend /br/. Then, using a soft ball, we threw the ball around the class and provided ‘br’ words. I mimed out ‘brain,’ ‘bright,’ ‘broom,’ ‘bring,’ then also gave clues such as, “Not your sister, but your…[brother]” and “Not scared but…[brave].” One student caught the ball and shouted “Bra!” which was correct, but I didn’t relish explaining that one to the 4 year old boys in the class.
Art of deduction
As I’ve mentioned before on this series of posts, I enjoy asking the children to use context to understand the meaning of an unfamiliar word. When the word ‘stung’ came up, I said that a bee or a wasp may do this. One student raised her hand confidently and said that it meant when you take out your tongue. That’d be some party trick!
Before setting any task for the class, I’ve been taught not to simply ask, “Do you understand?” or “Do you know what to do?” The obvious reason for this is that the child may have no idea but could answer, “Yes” before doing something else completely. So, I always give an example before asking concept questions to check the students know what to do. For example, “Are you writing or speaking?” / “Are you working on our own or in pairs?” / “How long do you have for this task?” / “How many paragraphs?” or “Which tense?” After going through this rigmarole, I love it when a pupil raises their hand five minutes later and utters those dreaded words, “What are we doing?” or even worse, “Which page are we on?” Patience is a virtue that teachers must have in abundance.
The perfect crime. Just call me Fagin
Public service announcement
During our reading classes, it is important that the children listen when it is another student’s turn to read their vocabulary words / lines. One of my students often loses her etiquette stars as she gets overexcited and either blurts out the word or tries to remember what the word means out loud. I encourage her curiosity but equally I have to set boundaries or none of the others would get a word in. This week she lost ALL her stars because she had some exciting news that she just couldn’t contain. When I eventually allowed her to share during the halfway break, she exclaimed, “I have wobbly teeths!”
Living in Southeast Asia, there are many strange things that the locals eat which would have sent me reeling as a child. Delicacies like the spiky, green-fleshed durian that is so pungent it is banned on all public transport, or the popular boiled chicken feet, or the ice kacang dessert that contains kidney beans and sweetcorn. There is the intriguing ‘Kickapoo’ and ‘Bird’s Nest’ drinks, the Roald Dahl-sounding ‘soursop’ juice which is surprisingly tasty, and not forgetting the annual obsession for the shockingly expensive ‘Abalone’ (that’s canned sea snails to you and me). Even longan, which tastes deliciously sweet, would have wrinkled up my nose as the fruit looks exactly like mini jellyfish. In class, I asked if any of the children had eaten oysters before. Some said yes and when I asked how, they mimicked slurping them from the shell. I (childishly) said I did not like them as they tasted like bogies. I asked who liked eating bogeys. Half the class raised their hands.
(Rifling through the paper recycling bin)
Finally, I leave you with a small gift that a student gave me on his final lesson. Teaching is so rewarding.
Contrary to public opinion, I haven’t included a kiss in the title. I’ve been counting this series with Roman numerals for no good reason other than I’d quite like to see if I can.
This week’s episode of things overheard in the classroom:
Next big thing
The word ‘author’ came up, so I asked the children what an author does. One student knew they wrote books, but none could name an example (asides from one girl that believed Harry Potter wrote a lengthy autobiography). I asked the class, “If you could read a book about anything, what would you choose?” Some children answered unicorns, one boy wanted to know how to prepare for Christmas, and inspired by this, his neighbour suggested, “Santa being chased by Big Foot.” Now that I would read!
I like to inject some drama into my phonics class by introducing a soft toy ball to throw around. The children get to practice their motor skills along with their sounds. Teaching children to catch and keep their eyes open is almost as much fun as getting them to wink. One child got rather carried away and launched it overarm at me, and amazingly I caught it (despite teaching them how to catch, I do seem to drop the ball a fair bit). I was known thereafter as the “Catching Queen.” I’ve been called worse things.
When I grow up…
I had not asked my lower primary class about their aspirations for the future, so I decided to give them a brief platform to share their ideas. Many of the children wanted to be teachers one day, some aspired to be scientists and one boy said he wanted to be a computer. Never say never, kid.
We covered the vowel sound /ɜː/ in class (that’s /er/, /ur/ or /ir/ to most of us). We discussed which animals have fur and agreed (after a considerable talk) that Teacher Lindsey definitely does not have fur, but does occasionally have ‘curvy hair.’ One girl announced that she goes to church to see “Christ. Jesus Christ,” which is exactly how he would introduce himself , or maybe “00-heaven…” We also covered worms and how one boy enjoyed eating them when he was younger, mistaking them for French fries.
Do you have a gift receipt?
During a reading class this week, one of my more vociferous learners kept interrupting our spelling test, despite the classroom volume-o-metre clearly being in ‘Silent Ninja Mode.’ After I read the word ‘dirt’ he announced, “Soda cleans up dirt easily.” Then, ‘thirsty’ prompted him to say, “If you’re thirsty, drink a soda.” Finally, I said ‘squirted.’ He blurted out, “You can squirt soda from a water gun!” I hope he is earning commission.
Finally, I leave you with my new sign off phrase: I love this new blog post. Don’t you?
As always, I’d love to hear from you. Comment below and feel free to share your funny moments.
We have March break here in Singapore, but here is the latest from the classroom:
In one lesson this week, the children were encouraged to describe animals using an adjective with the same first sound. My class came up with a ‘runny-nosed rabbit,’ a ‘chatterbox cheetah’ and (à la Louis Armstrong) a ‘hippity-hoppity horse.’
I think I’m with most teachers who work weekends when I say that coffee is a pivotal part of my working day. One of my 8 year old students pointed to my flask and said, “Do you have coughing in there?”
Two different pitfalls
One pupil was thinking of ‘knocked out’:
This one needs no explanation:
Prepositions are a tricky thing to master as I’ve mentioned before (read here), and used incorrectly, these small words can kill meaning. This week, one of my students had to construct a sentence using phrases laid out on a page. She created some brilliant scenes: ‘We jogged over the park.’ And my personal favourite, ‘We jogged through my neighbour.’
My reading class encountered the word ‘soar’ and I asked them what it meant. One child knew it meant fly high. I asked them what could soar, and one boy shouted out, “John Cena!” He’s not wrong.
We were reading and the word ‘course’ came up. I asked the class if they could put it in a sentence. One child said, “Of course!” which was simply genius. However, another pupil immediately crossed her hands over her mouth in shock and said that was a rude word. Other than the risk of sounding like a ‘know-it-all,’ I cannot fathom why.
As is customary, we sing happy birthday to a student if their birthday is that week. One child loudly sang the ‘Merry Christmas’ song but with the birthday lyrics, “We wish you a happy birthday / We wish you a happy birthday / We wish you a happy birthday….Oh no.”
Down the dark, dark stairs…
During one of my kindergarten classes, I heard one student whispering to another. When I asked what they were saying, the second looked upset. “He said the ‘f’ word.” I asked what the ‘f’ word was, and the first quickly replied, “Fank you.” I have spent enough time modelling the /th/ sound to know that this was a lie.
Sometimes it is difficult to teach past tense in Singapore, since it is not really used in the Singlish dialect. Instead, they simply insert ‘already,’ saying “I got bring already” instead of “I brought it.” To conquer this, I play a speed game where I shout out irregular verbs in the present tense and get them to call out the past tense versions. For example, see-saw, tell-told, buy-bought, read-read (pronunciation changes), swim-swam etc. The students put a finger on the table for every word they get correct, and first to ten gets a sticker. It works!
I went to work dressed in a long skirt, a lace-sleeved shirt with an embroidered eggshell blue waistcoat on top. The children were complimentary, and one of my Singaporean colleagues said I looked like the ‘Danish Girl.’ When I asked her if she was referring to Alicia Vikander, she shook her head and said no, she meant Eddie Redmayne in transition to becoming a woman. Then, to add salt to her jellyfish sting, she said that I should consider botox to erase my wrinkles around my eyes. I flashed a large, crinkly smile at her in response.
That’s it for this week. As always, I’d love to hear your experiences teaching and the funny things that happen in your classroom!
Here is the latest from the classroom:
Whilst singing the nursery rhyme ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’, one of my students stopped abruptly. When I asked why, he said, “But the cow didn’t really jump over the moon?” I asked whether the dish really ran away with the spoon, to which he replied, “Yes, that is ok.”
My class and I were having a discussion about pets. Cats, dogs and rabbits were very popular. One child raised their hand and exclaimed, “I have a skinny pig!” I asked if they meant guinea pig. “No, a skinny pig. The long ones.”
Take a punt
One of my favourite things is asking my students what they think an unfamiliar word might mean. We encountered the word ‘drama’ and my entire class immediately began to play air drums.
I was reading a storybook to finish a lesson and I asked which animal is pink and stands on one leg. They knew it was a flamingo and sprung up to show me they could also (sort of) balance on one leg. I asked why flamingoes are pink. One child announced with some authority that they roll around in paint.
I tried to elicit the answer ‘skirt’ from my students by asking, “What am I wearing?” They replied, “A costume!” and “Pyjamas!” Charming.
I tried to explain the word ‘pudgy’ which inexplicably came up one lesson. I mentioned it might mean having ‘chubby cheeks.’ The kids began squidging their own and one girl suddenly screamed, “Don’t kiss me!” She must have grandparents…
Two very different sentences:
When teaching modal verbs, I asked the children to finish my sentences. ” I should…” then I mimicked washing my hands. One child exclaimed, “You should wash your hands with soup.” Campbells have a new market.
When teaching homophones, I gave my students two sentences to complete. The first was ‘An octopus has ___________ arms.’ The second was “I ___________ the whole cupcake.’ The answers are of course ‘eight’ and ‘ate.’ One member of the class told me that her mother says she is not an octopus since she only has two arms!
I’ll leave you with some lovely notes from my students, and the hardest word search I’ve ever done:
The past, the present and the future walked into a bar. It was tense. This week I bring you the latest from the classroom:
Bite your tongue
The /th/ sound is really difficult. To model it for my students, I ask them to stick their tongues between their teeth and blow out. For those who carry on saying the /f/ sound, I ask them to pull down their bottom lip. We play a game where I present the four actions of ‘tree,’ ‘three,’ ‘thumb’ and ‘tum’ (tummy). We drill how to say them, then I chant them quickly and they must show me the right action. However, this week, as the children lined up by the door, a boy announced, “I’m turd!”
Yesterday one of my pupils who is six years old, said aloud that he did not want a wife. I told him that I did not have a husband. He replied, “If you did, you would go home and shower.” It struck me as odd, but having thought about it more I realised it was perhaps lost in interpretation. His parents must persuade him to bathe by saying he will not get married otherwise.
A novel approach
An unexpected turn of events
During my register, I was missing a student. As I called her name, one member of the class said, “Oh, she passed away.” I was shocked initially, but at that moment I saw her walking past the door to her newly promoted class. ‘Passed away’ was actually ‘passed by,’ thankfully.
A new motto
During a spelling test, I decided to make it a bit more fun.
Me: Garden. I like to sit in the garden. Garden. I eat spiders in the garden…
Student: Me too!
Student: When I’m frightened of something, I just eat it.
Sometimes it is difficult to argue with the student’s logic:
I leave you with one unfortunate typo. He meant to write ‘wound’ I believe:
If you have any teaching stories to share, I’d love to hear them.
I, for one, am a fan of Roman numerals. This week brings you more merry mishaps straight from the classroom.
One of my favourite tasks for my Kindergartners is asking them to wink. As a four sound word, it often comes up in my ‘Teacher Says’ blending game (after all, who is this Simon?). My students will often scrunch up both eyes for extended amounts of time, or creepily stare at me through one eye as they squeal, “Look!” One child who had mastered the skill proudly turned to the others, before giving us a slow-motion blink.
Sometimes, children can find it difficult to stay balanced in class. I try to alleviate the pressure of their performance by always praising effort first. Recently, one usually cheerful student cried during class, and sensing her discomfort, I continued teaching before quietly sliding her some tissues. At the end, she apologised and seemed to know what had caused the outburst. “I didn’t have my Vitamin C this weekend.”
This week, I was observed by a fellow teacher. During one part of our space-themed lesson, I asked the class to count the sounds to sort various cards into the numbered spaceships. Each item was described for its purpose, for example, “Oh! We will need somewhere to s-l-ee-p. Yes, a bed!” One of the newer pupils looked confused, before complaining that the bed was far too small. Instead of explaining it was a picture and attempting to convey scale, I merely got out my invisible shrinking ray gun and zapped the child. As we lined up at the end of the lesson, the same child poked my belly and said, “Big tummy!” It’s all relative, I suppose.
I avoid making any solid promises as a teacher, but I am ashamed to admit that I occasionally will ask a child to pinkie promise to do their homework. It is sometimes difficult to encourage a five year old to do homework, so I find this a neater incentive to get across my expectations. It has worked on all but one of my students.
I asked my class which animals could be spotted on an African safari. Some answered the usual culprits of lion, tiger, zebra and elephant, whilst some were hoping that rabbits would make an appearance on the ‘big five’ list. I delved deeper and asked which of these had stripes. Of course, many correctly said zebra and tiger. However, one boy shouted out, “A zebra has spots…long spots.” A budding politician in the making.
I taught my class that molten rock was also known as lava, then asked if it was hot or cold. One student, who I knew had a keen interest in volcanoes, said that if you touched lava you would melt like an ice cream and die. But then, you would go to heaven…where you can eat ice cream. I feel I failed my class on teaching them how to safely approach a volcano.
As a teacher, it is important to know the loo lingo. In Asia, children are encouraged to say ‘Pizureen’ which translates to the rather crude ‘pass urine.’ I am lucky to have experienced only three toilet dramas so far. One happened in my very first week as we lined up to leave, and the poor boy suddenly covered himself with his bag. The second incident also happened right at the end of class, but this young chap stared vacantly ahead as he went, before sploshing his bare feet in the newly made puddle much to the horror of the rest of us. The final event was more dramatic though. One girl shrieked, “Oh no!” before announcing to the class that she had, in fact, ‘passed motion.’ As she entered the class the following week, far from being embarrassed as her mother had feared, she squealed, “I’m a poop monster!”
In the eye of the beholder
On reading the word ‘cute,’ I asked the class what could be described using this word. I heard the usual kittens, puppies and bunnies, but one girl said ‘babies.’ She then elaborated on this, by saying only very chubby ones are cute. I recall the same student had boasted that her daddy was very strong, but then at the end of the lesson she corrected herself and explained he was actually very fat.
Many teachers find marking a chore, but I enjoy it for all the endless one-liners it provides. From the massive joy of being ‘on nine clouds,’ to the student who forgot the word ‘van’ and improvised with ‘veg. car.’ One student, who had almost cracked similes, wrote, ‘Her hair was as fresh as apples in a refrigerator.’
I will leave you with some more gems:
Until next time!
The latest round up of the things my students say in our classroom:
These small words, such as ‘at’, ‘on’ and ‘in’, may seem insignificant, but they can really bugger up the meaning of the sentence if used incorrectly. My lower primary students find it particularly confusing that you get in a car or taxi, but on a train or bus. At first, they think it means you stand on top of it to travel.
Science of deduction
One of my favourite games is to ask students to offer an educated guess about an unknown word. I make it more exciting by saying we must be detectives and I get out my magnifying glass to mimic Sherlock (or Geronimo Stilton for them). Recently, the word ‘rodent’ came up. One child thought that it might mean ‘rotten’ which wasn’t so far off, but another guessed ‘food’. I’m not accepting an invite to dinner round theirs.
Inside the lines
Sometimes, our practice of the fine motor skills (handwriting and colouring to the rest of us) can produce something wonderful. I present to you a truly ‘baked’ gingerbread man.
Another tricky hurdle for my students is idioms, those well-known phrases that are often unique to your home country. In the beginning, my students are hesitant to use them, but they soon go overboard and sprinkle them in nonsensically. I created a worksheet to introduce them to body idioms, and gave them a word bank of body parts to complete the phrases. There were some old favourites, such as, ‘legged it’ for running away, ‘nosy’ for someone who is overly curious, and a ‘hair-raising’ experience on a roller coaster. One of my students believed that the phrase, ‘headless chicken’ was actually ‘stomach chicken.’ I bet this is a dish readily available in the hawker centre.
Teaching children to read can be challenging. You need a huge dollop of patience and should be encouraging at all times, but you are occasionally rewarded with hilarious alternatives to the words on the page. Some that stick in my mind from the last few weeks are ‘eating toes’ instead of ‘toast’, washing your hands with ‘foamy soup’ rather than ‘soap’, a student read ‘ate a snake’ instead of ‘snack’, and one boy repeatedly read ‘myth’ as ‘meth’.
In a recent lesson, we sent the children in a time machine into the future, exactly one hundred years to be precise. I asked my class to imagine what will have changed, especially with transport and their school. Many were excitedly discussing robot teachers, flying spaceships and space academies. One boy, who seemed to miss the concept a bit, dryly exclaimed, “But I’ll be dead!”
Eat my dust
One particularly tricky lesson where I had a few emotional three year olds join my class, I made up a funny game to distract them from the fact they were no longer with their parents. Joining up lowercase and uppercase letters, I deliberately drew some lines incorrectly to get them to correct me and build their confidence. When I erased the line, I made a funny “Nom nom!” sound, as if the eraser enjoyed eating up the pencil. All the children laughed except one serious young girl, who worriedly asked, “Where is its mouth?”
Stick to the script
As a teacher, it is important that you think carefully before opening your mouth. Each instruction should be clear, concise and pitched to the appropriate level. However, sometimes you can be caught off guard. I had marked a student’s narrative where they had used multiple conjunctions in a sentence, so I explained, “You don’t need a double ‘but’”. The whole class erupted.
There are times when you are rewarded as a teacher quite unexpectedly. One fond memory is a student who passed me a pizza promotion flyer as we lined up for class. One six year old wrote this in our lesson recently:
I leave you with my latest wall display to compliment the book bingo game I made my primary students. Until next time!
After the Christmas break, I’m back with more insights from the classroom. Enjoy!
In one reading class, a child misread ‘failing eyesight’ as ‘falling eyesight.’ I mimicked what that could mean (dangly eyes) and the children were grossly delighted.
‘J’ is for…
Students often encounter animals exhibiting human characteristics in literature (especially in Aesop’s fables), and it is important to explain the stereotypical roles they play. I asked my class which animal was said to be wise. One boy exclaimed, “A buffalo!”
I asked my class about whether they could remember their dreams. Many said they imagined flying, running faster than cars and swimming underwater. One student glumly admitted, “I dream of spelling.”
I would like a stern word with whoever named this part of punctuation. Not only do the children struggle to say the word itself, they become so liberal with the little flying comma that they sprinkle it everywhere where an ‘s’ appears once they’ve encountered it. Aged 7, I was guilty of this too. With lots of practice, the primary students begin to understand it is only used for possessives, but the backwards step seems inevitable before they crack it.
When I was marking a 4 year old girl’s homework book in my phonics class, she had correctly circled a ‘mermaid’, recognising it had the same first sound as ‘man’. She said it was her favourite as it “wears a sexy bra”. Another child was outraged at another student and immediately told on him, saying that he’d said the ‘s’ word. I called both of them over, and tried to stifle a snort when that word was revealed to be ‘selfish.’
Kids love being icky. From sneezing out swinging snot ropes, to picking their nose before giving me a high five, they love to share their germs to my dismay. One lesson, I noticed one of the boys in my class had a huge wet patch on his shorts. When we reached reception, he explained, “It’s just saliva.” Oh, that’s better then…
The struggle is real
RIP jumbo pencil. I hope you enjoyed your three short weeks on this Earth. I tried to save you from excess sharpening, but alas, you perished too soon. You are survived by lime green pencil #2. I have since bought the amazing book, The Day the Crayons Quit to further educate my kindergartners.
I am worried my ‘teacher’s voice’ might be permanent. I often have a stray sticker stuck to the bottom of a foot, and have given up trying to remove the permanent marker which is just part of me now.
When a three year old child says ‘daddy finger’, I feel a little pang of sadness saying that it is actually called a thumb. For kids new to phonics, giving the first sound can be challenging. The first sound of tiger is ‘tuh’ for example. It’s sometimes hard to argue with their logic of ‘meow’ for cat and ‘oink’ for pig though…
As a final note, I have introduced our centre to the endless delights of puns. Stay tuned for weekly updates, and feel free to share or leave comments below.
This week’s instalment of comments overheard in my classroom:
Isn’t it amazing to think of the varieties of fresh produce and items available in our supermarkets? One text prompted a student of mine to write, ‘She saw milk in the refrigerator.’ Yet she didn’t actually write milk. She wrote ‘milf.’
Like many others, I find the prospect of holding a social gathering and cooking for others daunting. My students, as young as they are, apparently feel the same. Instead of reading ‘picnic basket’ they repeatedly said, “Panic basket.”
Names such as Siobhan and Hermione have been tripping up children for years. For some of my students, pronouncing Western names proves a real challenge too. Many of the stories include names such as Anthony, Naomi and Chloe. Inexplicably, the hardest of them all turned up in an oral exam. That name was Phoebe.
One of my students was reading a personal recount about a boy on a farm. He read the phrase, “I wore a thick coat and tough shoes.” However, the /th/ and /f/ sounds caught him out, and he instead pronounced it as “tooth shoes.” I’m not convinced they’ll take off.
Marking can sometimes be an arduous task, but occasionally some absolute corkers will surface. These need no introduction, but I’d like to take a moment to apologise to my Great Auntie Melita. I was brought up to be better. That said, the last one is rather uplifting, don’t you think?
Although many children do not celebrate Christmas here, it is still prominent with carols blasting in Fairprice and tinsel exploding overhead in the malls. Although I generally wait for December, I have started early this year since most children are off on their holidays soon. Here are some terrible festive one-liners. Enjoy!
This week’s round-up of the weird and wonderful thoughts from my students:
One of my reading class students read the word ‘magician’ and asked what it meant. I described the traditional image of a magician using a magic wand, and pulling something surprising from his (seemingly) empty hat. The boy had a flicker of recognition pass over his face. “Like a pigeon?” In a budget show, perhaps.
I always encourage the nose-pickers to grab a tissue, and as a teacher of three and four year olds, I even have to show them how to blow their noses effectively. Perks of the job. One girl successfully blew her nose, and as she discarded the used tissue into the bin, she cheerfully exclaimed, “Byeeee!” as if it were a close friend.
Most of the children who are finishing Kindergarten and moving to Primary school in January (school term starts at the beginning of the year in Singapore) are now breaking up for the holidays. Some are travelling to China, Malaysia, Myanmar, India or the Philippines to visit their extended families. I asked one of my young students what China was like as I had never been. He said it was nice, before offering to take me to MacDonalds. What a gentleman.
One of the inevitable situations in a classroom full of children is that someone will fart. It’s no good telling the children that it isn’t funny, because it is and always will be. Depending on the child in question, I will either ignore and deflect the attention to something else, claim it was my chair, or ask them that they wait for me to open the door first. During one class with six year olds, one child let rip. Another quickly rebutted, “Excuse me, I’m eating.” It was clear this was a regular comment at their dinner table.
After introducing my class rules song and threatening to enforce it by singing to the child each time they broke one, I lost my voice completely. I had to take a day off as it is difficult to teach phonics and reading without talking. My students were surprised that I wasn’t there and asked the cover teacher what happened. On hearing that I had lost my voice, one said, “She talks a lot.” Thanks, kid. On my return, I told them I did indeed lose my voice and I had to go on a daring quest through the jungle to find it. This was a bit more exciting than the Strepsil truth.
I like to introduce the concept of proper nouns and capitalisation early, so when my reading class encounters such a word, I ask them, “What is special about that word?” I’ve coached them to say that it has a capital letter so it’s a name / country / month etc. On reading ‘Egypt’, I asked the same “What is special?” question. One student replied, “Nothing.” The pharaohs would be turning in their tombs.
On discussing gendered nouns with my lower primary students, we listed the masculine / feminine names for animal species. For example, horses are stallions or mares, female lions are lionesses, and chickens can be named cockerels or hens. When we covered cows, the children rightly said a male cow was a bull. When they realised a female was still called ‘cow’, one boy exclaimed, “It’s rude to pull milk from a cow then!” I quickly moved on.
Finally, I leave you with this body-positive thought. I asked my student to make a sentence with the word ‘hips’. She said, “I shake my hips when I dance. It shakes my bum too because they are friends!”
I’ll be back next week with more insightful comments from my students. Likewise, if you are a teacher, parent or look after little people, share your comments below. I’d love to hear them.
One month ago, I flew to Singapore. I had resigned from a good job in London to come teach English, having no real experience of teaching beforehand and only a TEFL certificate and English Literature degree to back me up.
I was one of seven new teachers undergoing training, and it seemed that this was the first teaching job for many of us which was encouraging. We represented a mixture of English dialects, from American to Kiwi, from Scottish to a Yorkshire accent.
We made our way through the materials and learned how to teach phonics to kindergartens, with only a few minor disagreements of whether the American way of saying ‘banana’ was correct compared to the English /ar/ sounding vowel. Of course, both are correct and it’s important to give the children exposure to different versions of English as they will encounter various forms in their lives.
We also delved into the kiasu mindset of the parents who want to give their child a fighting chance to succeed at seemingly any cost. Most children will participate in music, sports, language and extra tutored lessons after school and at the weekend to achieve an edge when it comes to the all important Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE). Taken at the age of twelve, the results of these tests determine the future of the children in terms of which secondary school, and ultimately which college or university they attend.
As the whole curriculum is taught in English except for a lesson in the mother tongue language (which ironically is the language that the child’s father speaks), it’s our job as English teachers to ensure that it is not their understanding of the language that holds them back. In fact, English is a compulsory subject as it is considered a joint first language in this country, with the government recognising the importance of being able to communicate with the business world in English.
It’s impossible to be in Singapore and not come across the hybrid language Singlish. Although English remains the official language, since the country’s independence over 50 years ago, it is Singlish that you will hear being spoken by locals on the streets. Ordering food at a hawker centre, or trying to follow the local soap operas is much easier if you know a few phrases. Singlish does away with many grammar constructs such as prepositions and verb inflections, and in that way resembles other regional languages such as Malay.
As a nod to the immigrant roots of the country, Singlish borrows words from Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin and other Chinese languages, as well as Tamil from southern India. It was previously seen as a lesser educated form of communication, but since government campaigns to stamp it out in favour of ‘better English’ have failed, the country is now embracing its hybrid tongue but insists that Singaporeans are able to switch between Singlish and English in the appropriate contexts. Read this informative BBC article for more examples.
In my classroom, I often hear ‘can’ as a positive response to a question accompanied with fast nods, often with the nuanced addition of ‘lah’ at the end which, depending on the tone, can change the sentiment of the sentence (although I couldn’t yet tell you how).
As I teach the conjugations of different verbs, or introduce plural forms of countable nouns, I am aware that in Singlish it simply doesn’t exist; it’s really a shorthand way of communicating, a more efficient and less decorative form that deserves to be preserved and celebrated, similar to the traditional dialects in England that have resisted the onslaught of so-called ‘superior’ Received Pronunciation (RP) or Queen’s English.
So, while I teach my students English, I will be mindful of conveying it as the ‘proper’ way to speak. I’d like my students to be confident in speaking English at school and later in their professional life, but also to use Singlish whilst they’re playing with friends, or speaking to elders who perhaps only speak Singlish. If the children cannot speak Singlish they may be considered at best, snobby, or at worst, less Singaporean. It’s important to recognise that this is Lah Lah Land after all, and the Singlish language exists to remind us of Singapore’s heritage.