Teaching English

Makes You Think II

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.

Attachment issues
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.

Proper nouns
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.


Feminine values
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.

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Makes You Think

Each week, I’ll be posting the most thought-provoking comments from my students. If you missed it, check out last week’s edition here.

Word association
One task that we frequently ask students to complete is working out the definitions of new words within a passage. In one example, my eight year olds were asked to deduce what ‘paraffin’ meant. The sentence spoke about pouring it, so we decided that it must be a liquid of some sort. Their answers? Turtles and muffins.


Faith restored
One of my four year old kids had a very serious question for me during class. He asked whether jelly was made from jellyfish, and looked extremely relieved when I told him it wasn’t.

We teach the children a thumbs-up technique to differentiate between lowercase ‘b’ and ‘d’. There are plenty more techniques (such as ‘bed’ or ‘b has a belly, d has a diaper’) available on Pinterest. On discovering that some children were not angling their thumbs correctly, I have switched to the ‘OK’ signal as pictured below. After going round the class and checking each child could both do the gestures and tell the letters apart, one child modified his a bit. He curled down all his fingers leaving just the middle ones up.

Explaining what a disguise was, I told the students that it meant changing your appearance so that you looked different enough to go unnoticed. I gave the classic example of the bushy eyebrows, glasses and moustache. One member of the class suddenly nodded and said, “Oh, like makeup?”

Discussing journal entries, my primary class began thinking about secrets. One bright student raised his hand and told us that he used to have 45 secrets, but he told his brother two of them, so now he has 43 left. I never really considered it, but that is exactly how secrets work!

I gave my primary students a reading list and challenged them to play reading bingo last week. They were genuinely excited, except one girl who seemed perturbed. When I asked her which title she would read first, she asked how long each book was. I told her they varied in length. Another child then boasted about having read a really long book. The girl spun round and said “How long?” as she raised her arms apart. I realised then that she was thinking about the actual length of the books rather than the number of pages!

Don’t try this at home
Finally, as it was Bonfire Night back home this week, I’ll leave you with this final cracker. Reading aloud, one boy read ‘tested fireworks’ as ‘tasted fireworks.’ That would take more than some Gaviscon to fix.

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Curiosity – learning from my students

Curiosity. I lost it temporarily. The pursuit of it caused me to quit my job and move halfway across the world. Now as a teacher, my students often ask me about things I’ve never really considered, such as why a toothbrush is not called a teethbrush, or why carpet isn’t a pet for your car. I began to wonder about all the other things I took for granted growing up. After ten months, here’s a list of things I’ve learnt so far:

Simplify instructions
My classroom rules are simple. However, one boy in class took the first rule literally.


Me me me
When we celebrate a child’s birthday in class, we sing the happy birthday song and give three hip-hoorays at the end. That’s if we can get through the song without everyone shouting out their birthday, or their dad’s, friend’s, or cat’s birthday too.

Toughen up
I had a student ask me if I had washed my hair (it turned out he liked the shampoo smell), and another about the mosquito bite (read: spot) on my face. One child told me I have vampire teeth, and another guessed my age at 90.

Holding a straight face is essential
During a mock oral exam, one student panicked:
Me: Do you have a pet at home?
Student: Yes, I have a fish…but it died.
Me: Oh, I’m sorry. Which animal from the pictures would you choose to adopt instead?
Student: [Blank stare…possibly considering mortality]
Me: Right, what should a responsible pet owner do?
Student: [Shrugs shoulders]
Me: Ok, what things would a good pet owner do to look after their animal?
Student: Walk it at the park.
Poor fish…

I rewarded a boy with a holographic sticker after class. He threw it back at me – even 2D glittery purple spiders are scary.

An honest mistake
Had a dictation in class and the word ‘aching’ caused some confusion. A fair few of the eight year olds wrote ‘Egg King’ instead.

Requesting back-up
I taught a kid to pause at commas and full stops today by mimicking swimming. We fixed his reading but now he does the front crawl at his desk.

New tricks
I did the ‘pop’ noise with my finger and the kids were floored. When I taught them how to do it, they successfully impersonated fish with hooks caught in their cheeks. Drool galore.

Literal learners
During an assessment with a four year old, I pointed to a caterpillar. The child called it a worm. I told him that it transforms into a butterfly. He still didn’t have a scooby. I pointed to the picture as a cat to give him a clue. His answer: catworm.


Simplicity is beautiful
One of the nine year olds in my composition class wrote a wintry haiku. Bearing in mind it should technically focus on nature, he ignored this in favour of opening with: Hello hot chocolate. Accurate.

To help some eight year olds imagine they were exploring the land of the giants, I pretended to zap them with a shrinking ray as they walked in. I had an over-sized tomato-shaped eraser next to a miniature man (representing us) for scale. When I suggested that a giant’s sneeze would create a green pool for us to swim in, they absolutely lost it.

Not all plans pan out
During pirate week for my phonics class, we covered the ‘ar’ sound and had a story and various isolation exercises. At the end, I offered to unlock the treasure chest if they could give me a word with ‘ar’ each. The first boy said “octopus” and the next said “rabbit.” Lesson well spent.


Cultural understanding:
Me: [Reading speaking prompt question] Have you ever been in trouble?
7yo: No.
Me: [Surprised] Really? Have you ever had a messy room? Or left your dinner? Or had a fight with a sibling?
7yo: I’m from China.
Me: Right…

One child asked me if jelly was made from jellyfish which is a perfectly reasonable question. On that theme, jamming with the kids in phonics class produces some unexpected results: 

Jelly on a plate. Jelly on a plate.
Wibble-wobble, wibble-wobble
Jelly on a plate.

Jelly on the the door. Jelly on the door.
Wibble-wobble, wibble-wobble
Now jelly’s on the floor.

Jelly in my eye. Jelly in my eye.
Wibble-wobble, wibble-wobble
Jelly made me cry.

Jelly in my tum. Jelly in my tum.
Wibble-wobble, wibble-wobble
Jelly out my bum!

As Halloween is upon us, I must post these one-liners that one of my six year olds wrote and delivered to the class. I’m not sure they work, but the class struggled to breathe through their giggles and one boy even fell off his chair. Edited transcript below.* Enjoy:


I’ll be posting a weekly round-up of my favourite moments this year so far. Until then, Happy Halloween!


*Jokes courtesy of H, six years old:
Q: What do you call a bunny dressed up as a ghost?
A: Hoppy ghost.

Q: What do you do when a ghost scares you?
A: Glow like a lantern.

Q: What are you going to do when a lantern turns alive?
A: Hide in a cup.

Q: What is a spooky cup called?
A: Cup monster.

Q: What do you call a dinosaur with wings?
A: Chicken dino.

Q: Where do you go when a ghost scares you?
A: Scaryland.

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If you can hold your breath when all about
Kids sneeze open-mouthed at you,
If you can trust yourself when all students doubt you,
But make sense of their doubting too;
If you can wait for a word and not be tired by waiting,
Or being cried about, don’t deal in cries,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t reach too high, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream in phonics —and not make insomnia your master;
If you can mark —and focus your corrective aim;
If you can meet with Tears and Toilet Disasters
And treat those two accidents without blame;
If you can answer ‘What’s that?’ and spell the words you’ve spoken                                 Twisted by rules and explain the traps for fools,
Or watch the crafts you gave your time to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with glittery glue:

If you can make one heap of all your lesson planning
And risk ending on one game of noughts-and-cross,
And lose the calm, then start again with your discipline
And never breathe a word of your control loss;
If you can force your grammar, vocabulary and values
To serve your turn long after the students are gone,
And hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Starbucks latte which screams to you: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with parents and keep your virtue,
Or connect with unruly kids and reinforce the common touch,
If neither bored students nor brutally honest comments can hurt you,
If all children count on you, but not lean on you as a crutch
If you can fill the unforgivably fast minutes
With ninety minutes’ worth of ‘blending sounds’ fun,
Yours is the classroom and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Teacher, brave one!

Crudely adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If —’, Rewards and Fairies, 1912.

Owl puppetReading


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Teaching English – one month in

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.

Finally, if you have any tips or would like to nab anything from here, feel free to share!

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Lah Lah Land – Singlish in Singapore

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.