Move over Twitter, Here comes Chirp!

Chirp, the latest app to distract students in class and to annoy people on buses and trains.

Recently I’ve been reminded of the final minutes of “The Aviator”, the 2004 biopic film of Howard Hughes, when Leonardo DiCaprio starts muttering “way of the future, way of the FUTURE!” again and again. That’s kind of how I feel when I hear about Chirp, the app that lets you transmit notes, pictures, and links by short bursts of sound. Watch this and this for short descriptions of how it works.

How does this apply to teaching English? I’m not entirely sure yet. The obvious downfall is that it only works on iOS (for now), leaving those with android phones out in the cold, not to mention those poor souls without any kind of smart phone.

But off the top of my head, you could use it to send homework assignment to students. Hmm, I think I can hear everybody saying, “What happened to the white board…?” Fair enough, how about links to useful websites? “Uh-huh, heard it all before, sounds just like another social media gimmick”.

By clicking on the yellow button you will transmit the photo to everyone in the classroom.

Not so fast! It may not be as trivial as it first sounds, especially if you use a lot of online material in your classes. While teaching you could just blast stuff off to students in mid lesson without having to go to the effort of texting or emailing them later. Or in the spirit of two-way communication, students could blast stuff off to you! Forget to print a handout? Chirp it off to the students. A student forget to print their essay? They could just shoot you a link to the file in their Google drive.

Anyway, it’s early days for this app but I suspect it will be big (that sound is just too cool for it not to be). And if you DO happen to have a class where everybody has an iPhone or iPad then you could be the first teacher on the block who makes use of Chirp. How cool is that? Anyway, personal goal time: By the end of the year I want to come up with ten ways to use Chirp productively in class. So…any ideas? Anybody?

Newspaper Reading in Class: The Day

This week while browsing the IHT over breakfast, I nearly fell out of my chair after reading an awesome piece about a British newspaper for students called The Day. You can check it out here: “Explaining the Issues Behind the News.”

The front page of The Day.

The articles are designed to explain the key issues of the day in a way that is accessible to students, whether it be on the economy, the North Korean nuclear crisis, or Edward Snowden. It immediately occurred to me that it would be ideal for upper level ESL classes. Although I only teach children, I see no reason you couldn’t use this newspaper with adults as a bridge to studying ordinary newspapers.

The Day 1

The articles try to deal with both sides of an issue, giving your students the chance to engage in real debate.

Quality is rarely free. This is a pay site with an individual subscription rate of £52 ($80) per year (albeit with a great group rate). At a glance, though, you can see that there is a lot of value to be had. A lot of care has been put into each article. The files can be downloaded as PDF files and printed out. And the best part is that at the end of each article there are questions and activities all ready to conduct with your group.

The Day 2

A great selection of discussion questions and activities for class.

Now as the paper is produced in the UK you will have to deal with British spelling (e.g. colour instead of color). There will also naturally be a lot of mention of British culture, politics, and places that might be unfamiliar possibly to you and probably to your students. This does not have to be a drawback to the North American. Rather, you should think of it as an opportunity. I’m of the opinion that if your students are advanced enough to read a newspaper, they’re also probably old enough to be exposed to the wider world, and in fact will be all the better off for it. You, as the teacher, just need to be prepared to provide the background information and explanation that will bridge the gaps in their knowledge.

Check it out and let me know what you think!

A Personal Classic: The ABC Game

During my first month as a teacher I was fortunate enough to work with a great fellow from Calgary who taught me one of the first games I ever used. I call it the ABC game, and it’s a great for all levels.

The ABC game can be played with teams or individually. You’ll need a six sided dice. To start, write the numbers 1 to 6 horizontally on the board, followed by the letters of the alphabet, like this:

How's that for team names?

The first player rolls the dice. Let’s say the number one comes up. As you can see on the board, the letters a, g, m, and s are under the number one. The student then chooses one of those four letters and says a word, like gorilla. Erase the letter g from the board, and tally up the points. Since there are seven letters in gorilla, that’s seven points. Now it’s the other player’s turn.

One letter down, twenty five to go!

In team play I let them discuss possible answers amongst themselves but after they have rolled the dice they have no more than thirty seconds to think of something or they miss a turn. They aren’t allowed to consult books either.

Kids soon realize that they get more points for longer words.  Students will rack their brains for long and difficult vocabulary so you can get pretty creative answers. U is for United States of America (21 points). E is for elementary school (16 points). C is for congratulations (15 points). P is for physical education (17 points).

If all the letters under the number one have been played and someone rolls a one I let them choose from any of the remaining letters on the board. This helps keep it from dragging at the end.

Amazing, four consecutive ones! What are the odds of that?

In some versions of the game I give double points for students who can also spell the word, while to really bring it up a notch they only get points if they can spell it.

I’d love to know it works out for other teachers. Enjoy!

OUP Webinar: Child-friendly placement testing

Sign up soon for a great webinar with Amy Malloy from OUP about “Child-friendly placement testing” (Click here to register). It’s on July 9th and like all OUP webinars, it’s free. You’ll get to hear all about OUP’s Oxford Young Learners Placement Test, which after trying, I can assure you is excellent.

“This webinar will take an interactive format, looking at different types of assessment tools and the information they can give us, how to create a positive placement testing experience in the classroom, and finally, ways to integrate the new online Oxford Young Learners Placement Test into an engaging first lesson of your children’s school year or language course.”

Nothing like a little professional development, eh? See you there!

Teach Little Kids? Get a Pet!

No, not a real animal. If you are teaching little children one of the best investments you can make is some kind of stuffed toy animal. Puppets, of course, are an effective way to teach children dialogues and sentence patterns. But bring the right toy animal to class everyday, and it will essentially becomes your familiar. Shannon Sensei has a wonderful piece on her site that really nails this on the head, especially when it comes to the choice of toy animals.

In my case I like to use a monkey. He’s not that big, a little scruffy and gangly. I picked him up second hand for a buck or two from some kids who were selling their old toys at a school sponsored flea market. We’ve been friends ever since.


“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”

Why a monkey? He suits my personality. I can just imagine what he might be like if he were actually alive. Over the years Monkey (that is his very literal name) has developed his own voice and personality. His age varies, but it is always the same as the kids I’m teaching. If he were human, he’d probably look and sound like a slightly mild manned version of J. Jonah Jameson from Spider-Man. Of course my JJ Monkey sleeps a lot, loves bananas, and is ever so forgetful, always asking the same questions again and again, never knowing what things are called, and for the life of him Monkey couldn’t find the flashcard of a ball if it were literally in front of his nose.

All of this is a show for the kids. They love interacting with Monkey and watching him interact with me. Although there’s always somebody who points out that it’s actually me talking, the kids don’t really care. They can never get enough of him, and soon start to think of me as the guy who brings that funny monkey around. They’re enthralled.

And that’s the whole point of having him. Now that I’ve got the kids’ attention, they pick up what I’m teaching that much better. By repeating himself so much Monkey helps cements words and phrases into their minds better. Kids will jump out of their seats screaming the answer to my questions, trying to help Monkey, who just never quite gets it.

Super Simple Songs Review: The ABC Chant

The ABC chant from Super Simple Songs 3 is a great way for children to practice the alphabet. In the upper left corner you can see Devon (the founder of Super Simple Learning) saying the alphabet with his big, friendly smile and in the lower right corner is warm hearted Tanja, who is following along in American sign language. Their facial expressions are just priceless as they repeat the alphabet progressively faster.

The kids in my kindergarten class got a real kick out of this while listening to the CD. Even when the chant was over, they kept saying, “faster!” So we went again, without the music but faster. Then faster, and faster, until the ABCs became an unintelligible glob of sound.

The Joy of Cooking in English Class

In recent years I have become really fond of cooking classes as way of further engaging the senses of my students. It’s a great opportunity to talk about food names, tastes, colors, smells, textures and cooking words in a way that that isn’t really practical during an ordinary English class. And since the result of the class is that everybody makes something they can actually eat, almost everybody really gets into it.

It’s a perfect activity for small or large groups. At one school last year I conducted one cooking class every month and the kids always had a blast. It’s also great for open-classes like I conducted this past weekend, where the parents were participating along with their child (as well as a few brothers, sisters, and grandparents). In the later case, it’s a great opportunity for you to interact with the parents and to connect with the children.

It’s very important to get the logistics right, so you need a lot of support from your school to get the ingredients bought and prepared, and to set up and take down the class. The choice of food you make is also really important. Let’s be frank, the point of this type of class is not to introduce the joys of foreign cooking, so choose something the children are familiar with, that way there is no chance of them not liking it.

Now, since I am in Korea, that meant making mini kimbap. First off, I did a short warm-up to get everybody in the mood. I talked about what we were going to make, introducing the ingredients while asking the audience to describe their colors. For these kinds of things I always make great use of my monkey doll, who also talks and interacts with the children (I’ll be writing more about the importance of this at a later date). Then I demonstrated how to make the food, although I am sure the children’s parents could already do that far better than me. It’s good to ask for volunteers during the demonstration to help generate interest. Of course, some of the very little brothers and sisters didn’t wait to be asked, and just came up to assist me.

Then we got down and dirty and started making the food. In a normal class, I take a very step-by-step approach with the kids to keep them under control. But with the parents around there isn’t too much for the teacher to do except circulate, help where necessary, and just be sociable with the children and parents. We even prepared little plastic cases for children to take home what they made. By the end of the class, everyone had a smile on their faces and parents leave with a much better impression of that new foreign teacher they’ve heard about.


The last of three sessions. I was a big fan of the little guy in the yellow and white hat on the right. He had me in chuckles through most of the class.

A Scathing Review: Kids Butter

kids butterIn a lot of jobs, you occasionally have to do things that really make you mad, frustrated, or perhaps just plain go against every fiber in your being. Fortunately as English teachers we’re never asked to whack anybody, or make sub-prime mortgages look like triple A investments. We do occasionally have to teach things that we don’t like just because the boss wants us to (and for me that comes pretty close to one of the aforementioned examples).

What could be so horrible you ask? Teaching the kindergarten series Kids Butter. There are just so many things wrong with this series that over the course of the next year I’ve decided to chronicle just what I dislike about it. Now, during this process I might just find this series’ inner core, that special something that is truly magical; or I might just make myself more enraged about how badly designed I think it is.

In any case, should you never read this blog again, please heed my warning: DON’T USE KIDS BUTTER! If on the other hand you intend to stick around, stay tuned for my 20 reasons not to use Kids Butter.

Super Simple Songs Review: I like Something Blue

This week I had the pleasure of teaching the song “I See Something Blue” from Super Simple Songs 1 to my kindergarten classes. This was a brilliant song, cheerful, upbeat, and able to put a smile on even the most cynical of six year olds. The video below shows Devon Thagard, the founder of Super Simple Learning, and a few small groups of kids singing the song. Check out the song page on the website and it will teach you everything you need to know, and there are some great, FREE flash cards too.

It’s a good idea to pre-teach the colors blue, yellow, red, and purple which are featured in the song. Then practice saying “I see something blue/yellow/red/purple” by putting your hand over your eyes like Devon in the video. Let the kids find what you are looking at. They’ll also probably want to point at a few things on their own just to show you that they know the colors.

Now I teach groups of twenty plus kindergarten children so demonstrations are a must. I choose a well behaved boy and a girl and take them by the hand like in the video and just act out the song. The little helpers catch on pretty quick and soon enough the kids sitting on the floor are green with envy and want to try too. After a full run through with the helpers the whole class stands up, makes a circle, and does it again together. Some kids get a little over excited so for large classes its great if you are lucky enough to have an assistant to keep the kids in line (or if you don’t then it’s a great chance for you to work on your patience and class control skills:).

The whole thing was great fun and I was amazed how quickly the kids picked up on the lyrics. The song has definitely become one of my new favorites.

A Personal Classic: The Listening Game

Ages ago when I first got into teaching English, I had the pleasure of attending a seminar in Seoul by Ritsuko Nakata, one of the co-authors of the Let’s Go series by OUP. There was another great speaker there who was energetic, vibrant, and had lots of great ideas for teaching young kids (but for the life of me, her name escapes me, and truth be told I barely remember most of what happened during that two hour session…). BUT I did get a great game from Ritsuko that has become a favorite for reviewing different questions and answers.

Everybody knows concentration, right? You place a bunch of picture cards on the ground and students take turns turning them over trying to find two identical cards. Been there, done that…. Well Ritsuko turns that game into a listening activity. As such, I quite UN-originally call it “The Listening Game”.

Instead of cards on the ground, you writes numbers on the board, say 1 to 20, like this:

Each number represents either a question or answer. Like normal concentration the questions and answers are all mixed up. It’s important that each question has only one possible answer, otherwise the game turns into a confusing mess.

Now, unless you have a phenomenally exact memory you’ll need to prepare an answer key in advance with the 10 questions and 10 answers you want to review. Like this:

Listening game

For this game there is a picture in the textbook that the children can look at.

On the answer key you can see that the questions are darkened for ease of reading. In each box you’ll see a number followed by a sentence. Whenever somebody calls a number from the board, you read out that sentence. The second number in brackets is the matching question or answer the sentence corresponds to.

Now, how to play the game… I like to divide the class into two or three teams. Then after deciding which side goes first, a student chooses two numbers, say 2 and 10. The teacher, reading from the answer key, says, “2, My name is Jane, 10, I’m 10 years old.”

Nope! Sorry, wrong…

Then the next student takes a turn, and perhaps going through the numbers methodically says 2 and 13. To which the teacher says “2, My name is Jane. 13, What’s your name?”


I don’t much care if they say the number for the question first, or the number for the answer first, but I do force them to say both numbers at the same time.

After somebody says two correct numbers, you cross out those two numbers and give that student, or that student’s team some points. You could give one or two points, roll a dice, or whatever point system you like to use. Personally, for this game I like to give points equivalent to the numbers they chose from the board, so in this case the student or their team would have gotten 15 points (2 + 13 :)). This creates for some wild point swings which gives the game a little excitement.

I let the students take notes while we are playing (otherwise it might take really long, and some kids start to zone out), but for added difficulty you could tell them to just use their heads. Also, while I use this game with questions and answers exclusively, there’s no reason you couldn’t use just single words, or words and their definitions, or even math questions. You don’t have to limit it to 20 either.