As it appeared in the Spring 2012 edition of ELT News, the journal of TEA-- Teachers of English in Austria.
I love teaching children. Walking into a classroom of young learners awaiting their English lesson is like walking into a rainbow and exploring its multitude of colors with all the senses, eventually finding the pot of gold. Children love to learn via their creativity— it’s what they know and do best. Creativity is just taking the raw materials, adding imagination and play, and letting them grow together to completion. These young learners, brimming with curiosity, openness and playfulness, know innately that creativity and learning go hand in hand— creativity creates learning and not the other way around. They also know that
creativity is for everyone.
When I meet a group of students in my private workshops, at schools or at language institutions (I keep the groups to a maximum of 10 students), the first thing I do is what I like to think of as a discovery session: I discover the kids’likes and dislikes— how they prefer to create and learn. This is easily done in simple ‘getting to know you’ games or activities (like a hello song, making name tags or cover sheets for their folders, or any game with movement, so that all of the senses have been addressed). It becomes instantly obvious who likes what. Then I just take note and start directing their energy and talents into a creative English
lesson. (It goes without saying, that each teacher brings his or her areas of creative interest/experience to the table as well!)
To paint a more vivid picture and connect the dots between teaching English and creativity, I’ll describe a course I taught as part of an English camp in a peaceful, friendly village nestled in the Austrian Alps. One of the groups I taught was children ages four to six, who were both natives of this village and of Vienna. I taught them for 6 hours over the course of one week. (During that week this youngest group of children was in instruction with 3 other teachers, doing separate learning material and activities, averaging about 4 hours per day, mixed in with activities like hiking, swimming and archery.).
As a professionally trained and active singer, I have a strong connection to the performing arts, so I often use songs, pictures and performing when I teach. For this particular English camp, I chose to use the story, “The Hungry Caterpillar”.Most of the children, who I met for the first time that week, already knew the story, which made it easier and faster for them to make the connections between English and German words. After getting to know the kids by way of playing a couple of games and singing some well-known children’s songs, I decided what activities to focus on for the week. I started off by using worksheets that accompanied the story, with labeled pictures of the words we were learning for the children to color in and practice at home or at the pension where they were staying.
We made up a song to the tune of an American folk song, using words and movement to tell the story of the caterpillar. They learned the vocabulary as we created murals and props together. They also learned important skills like:
Asking and answering questions: “Where is the blue crayon?” “Stefan has it.” “Can we sing the song again?” “Yes!” “How do you say ‘Schere’ in English?”
Basic phrases: “I am having fun!” “I like to sing!” “My favorite fruit is strawberries.” “Today is Monday.” “I don’t like plums.” “I have three markers.”
Action verbs from all the activities we do: make, cut, glue, color, speak, go, play, run, sing, sit, stand, jump, look, listen, smell, feel, taste…
Being polite in English: “May I have the scissors, please?” “Thank you!” “You’re welcome.”
The first couple of days we spent learning the story and the song. Then we started creating the performance, singing and telling the story while we made everything we needed for the performance, adding a little movement here and there. It never failed that those children who finished their part quickly on a given day offered to help out those who were still working (usually the youngest ones). By day 6 nearly all of the artwork was finished; we simply practiced the performance and re-played games from the first few days. They never tired of singing that song or practicing with their props— or of asking questions about more new words.
When you’re involved in creating like this, kids hardly even realize that they’re actually learning. They’re “playing English.” They get to speak their lines and learn pronunciation while working on cutting out a circle for a sun we need, for example. They sing and create together, helping each other along the way, connecting movement to words, letting their curiosity guide them to new word discoveries. They have pride in what they have created as well as in what they have learned. And within the 6 hours in my class over the course of 7 days, they have put together a dazzling performance, remembering most of the words to the song (actually they sang a couple of songs, but only did a complete performance with movement and props for one song), using the props at the right time, doing the movements with the words, and ultimately, sending both themselves and their parents beaming all the way home. The gold we find at the end of this colorful creative process has become seeds that have taken root and are already beginning to shoot through the earth. These young learners co-created a successful early language experience which will positively mold their view of learning English for the rest of their school careers and lives.
Note: The same methods can be used equally well to teach older children (up to age 13); the material just has to be geared towards their interests, of course, with a bit of ice-breaking for those who already have negative associations with learning English (or learning in general). They can also be used with older students, however these students typically need tutoring by this point (unless they are one of the few who come just for fun), with a little creativity added in for good measure. But these are really topics for another article…
Suzanne Preston has been teaching children practically since she was a child herself. Her keen sense for what children like and a deep respect for them as intelligent, creative individuals has made her a favorite of students in the USA and in Austria. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Ball State University (Indiana, USA), she became the assistant director of the Indianapolis bureau of Children’s Express (now called ‘Y-Press’), a news organization giving kids worldwide a voice through journalism. Simultaneously, she studied singing and eventually moved to Vienna to concentrate on singing full time.
Not wanting to leave her work with children completely behind, she started teaching English in Vienna, both privately and at language schools. She combined her love of children, music and language into creativity workshops called Learning by Heart, with Suzanne (which has since become the name of her business, a branch of the business she and her husband created together: PM Creations). After earning her opera diploma, she also started teaching singing to children and adults, including using singing and art to open creative channels for children with speech difficulties or disorders. Additionally, she is active as a writer, editor, and translator.
Suzanne lives in Vienna, is happily married and the proud new mother of a sweet baby girl (maternity leave officially ends summer 2012).