Young Learners: It’s all happening at the zoo.

9th April 2019

I’m getting a head start on my weekend class planning, and here’s the projected plan for my early morning class of nineteen young learners (13th April). It’s a mixed bag; I have some ideal students, some good but hyper-active students, some ultra-shy students, some recalcitrant students, some who are learning nothing, some who want to learn nothing, and some special-needs students. Thankfully my TA is amazing, but we both end up with vocal chords ripped to shreds, and questioning the meaning of life, or at least the meaning of doing this job. And after, we have two other classes.

One technique is to use one student as class captain, usually the meanest and noisiest. The responsibility can make that student an asset in the un-winable war on noise. I also have recourse to employ John Bercow, Speaker of the House in the UK Parliament for assistance:

John Bercow has it easy; he only has to control 650 politicians. I have 19 Vietnamese kids … no contest.

And so, without further ado, the plan (and the best laid plans of mice and men …)

In small teams, the students have to write the name of an animal that can fly, one that can swim, then jump, then hiss. This will help review names of animals and give writing and spelling practice.

For this, we pass out small, wipeable boards and marker pens. We also make sure that a different team member writes each time. I know some students will NOT participate, so I will make a note of their names and pass the information onto to Student Support.

Following this, I want to see if the students can use the prepositions ‘on, in, under’. We have 14 flashcards of animals. I’ll ask one student per team to put a flashcard in a certain place e.g. ‘Put the elephant on the board’, or ‘Put the turtle in the bag.’

After I have given one or two instructions, I’ll use the best students to act as ‘thay’ and they can continue giving instructions.

I also want to revise ‘Do you like ?’ and the response, ‘Yes, I do’, or ‘No, I don’t.’ In pairs, the students can ask each other this question, relating to various flashcards that I hand them. Again, I’m sure some students will refuse to open their mouths, and again, their names will be taken. Hopefully, once the parents are informed, the students will start to work in the class.

Next it’s back to old-school grammar drill, and we’re still on the verb ‘to have’. I’ll choose four students and hand them an animal flashcard. I shall model first:

I have a tiger, you have a monkey, he has a turtle, she has a lion.

The students repeat the pattern, while the cards get changed. This helps them learn animal names and the subject-verb agreement.

Finally, before the book work, a chance to practice ‘Can you see .. ?’

I shall model one question: Can you see the rhino ? Where is it ?

After, the students can come up and ask. I’m looking for the students to answer in sentences with correct prepositions.

Then we hit the books and do a project. Fast-finishers can do a work sheet learning new vocabulary and doing a word search. This gives me a chance to hear as many of the students as possible read a few lines from their work books and assess how they are improving, or otherwise.

This weekend, I have a break until 13.00 … and no doubt I shall need it.

TAs: they can be heaven, they can be hell. First school 2015 – 2016.

8th February 2019

One motivation for starting this blog page was to depict, as honestly and objectively as possible, what it’s really like teaching in Vietnam. Today I’ll focus on the teaching assistants, TAs, I’ve worked with. Some were excellent, far better teachers than I could ever be, others who were, as we say in the UK, a ‘waste of space.’

So first, what is the role of the TA. Here, I’ll quote my friend and former TA ‘Kelly’ or Ms Nguyen:

‘Kelly’, my TA for Kindergarten Class 2016. We worked for a modest, low-tech private centre, that was part of a larger international group.

Kelly, pictured above in Tet Holiday attire (absolutely gorgeous, n’est-ce pa ?), says that her duties included:

supporting foreign teachers in class,

translate instructions in case students didn’t understand,

write grade reports each term and

mark workbooks.

The last two are independent of the teacher’s work, while the second listed is self-explanatory. It’s the vagueness of the first stipulation that caused an issue or two.

In our class, Kelly worked alongside another TA and they helped me arrange the class lay-out, put up pictures or flash cards, encouraged the students to do activities as well as the more prosaic duties such as wiping noses, drying tears, washing hands and cleaning up substances of one description or another. I feel it was a good relationship though it was my first time as a teacher and I had A LOT to learn, most of which I did by making mistakes.

The first part of the class was mainly games and activities, then after break we began bookwork. The class could have up to 18 students and there was no way I could check each of their work. The TAs therefore were vital in helping me, keeping so many young learners in their seats and occupied, and correcting work. It was a joy working with them (and as you see, I’m still in contact with Kelly).

Then we come to the morning’s second lesson; young teenagers. My first TA was a reasonably nice young chap, somewhat rotund, a Dickensian whiff about him. He was in control of the marking, homework and spelling tests. Unfortunately, he had a habit of taking my class folder which I found rather irritating as I needed it as well. But then I noticed a strange phenomenon; a male student, who was by far the weakest and laziest in the class, was routinely getting top marks. Then, the plot (such as there is a plot) thickened – every time I would ask him a question, I would hear the TA ‘whisper’ or feed the answer to him.

Asking questions is essential, not to victimise a student, but simply to make sure that they understand a concept, and are able to process and form a suitable response, as well as checking for pronunciation and intonation. The students seem to think that the teacher just wants to hear ‘the answer’ and will be happy. And the Vietnamese, bless them, are not the quietest nation on earth. A prompted answer can usually be heard in the next room.

It transpired that the TA was in the employ of said student’s parents, to give private lessons (and boy, did he need them). Now, let’s not be cynical. It’s possible that the lad was able to do homework by himself, referring to books. Likewise, a spelling test is just a memory test (and is zero indication of how well someone knows a language). However … a student who was, statically top of the class in homework and spelling, yet was unable to answer even the most basic of questions was highly suspicious.

Soon, both TA and student left (TA to get a ‘proper’ job, the student because his parents were furious that I didn’t approve of his progress. The mother apparently stormed into the office and let rip at the desk staff, no doubt a cause of my unpopularity at the school … but that is for another blog), and so … a new TA and, not to mince my words, as much use as a chocolate teapot (Deliberate over-use of metaphor for my non-native speaking audience … if I have one).

The TA in question was very young, quiet and shy, and appeared to have no idea of what she had to do. Marking books, fine, assisting teacher … not so much. An example, or two, will suffice.

As mentioned, this was a young teens class, so they are mostly polite but they are becoming teenagers and starting to rebel. One day, one of the top students became obsessed with the phrase ‘big bottom’, which she began saying with increased frequency and volume. A real TA would have stepped on that immediately and threatened to call her parents. Instead … nothing. It was left to me to respond and control the situation, and sometimes … well, joking aside, teachers are only human; some things get to us.

Another time, she brought some craft items into the lesson, for break time. Brilliant ! The students continued playing with the bits of this and this instead of doing the book work, thereby giving me a lot more work in class management. I was later assigned a new class and told the lackadaisical TA we would part waves. Her smile was the only emotion I ever saw her display.

My final gripe is perhaps the worst. I was not popular at this school; I couldn’t wait for my contract to end, and a lot of staff couldn’t wait to see the back of me. A lot of pettiness ensured; constant complaints about me not following rules, all of it so juvenile it really isn’t worth writing about, but there was one incident which has to be noted. I still don’t know if information was being deliberately withheld from me. What happened was this: I had the Kindergarten class (with the beautiful Kelly) then a 15-minute break before a pre-Kindergarten class. I used that time to prepare the room, put up posters and pictures, organise the books and CDs.

After putting pictures all around the room, for games and activities, one young chap ran around, knocking all the pictures flying then looked at me with a beaming smile, as if expecting a treat or a round of applause.

This type of behaviour was repeated, but my TA and I were barely on speaking terms and there was no interaction between us. She did her work, I did mine and never the twain met. Until she informed me that the aforementioned whippersnapper was ‘unwell’; he had a learning or behavioural disability. I shall address this is a separate blog, but obviously it altered everything. He wasn’t an obnoxious naughty child; he was a poor boy unable to control his actions. I suspect that she had been told this from day one (I could be wrong, so I make no accusations) but this is vital information for a teacher. It affects the whole class dynamic and approach. If she felt she was hurting me, the TA was wrong. It was the student and students that suffered.

But let’s not end on a downbeat. I had two other wonderful TAs whom I, as the saying goes, love to bits. I shall not name them as I don’t have their permission, but they know who they are. They got me through my afternoon and evening classes, organised and suggested games, assisted my (idiosyncratic) teaching or what passed for teaching, and controlled the hoi polloi, the trouble makers, the big mouths, the lazy, the unfocused, the irritating, those who are committed to driving a teacher crazy. And Vietnam has those people in spades. To Ms T and Ms A …. all my thanks 🙂

Kindergarten: Surfin’ Safari

24th January 2019

This type of class is very divisive among teachers who either love them or hate them. I am firmly in the former camp, so please allow me to set the scene.

The class size is relatively small (a dozen – twelve – or so students), the room has three brightly coloured tables and a variety of coloured chairs. There are vibrant murals on the walls, somewhat reminiscent of the Beach Boys’ ‘Smiley Smile’ LP cover

My teaching props include Polly – a puppet parrot of a psychedelic green hue, and Mike the mischievous yet well-meaning Monkey. Yes – I get to play with puppets AND get paid for it. Sometimes life ain’t so bad.

The students are around four or five in age, and love Mike and Polly – they tolerate my presence as a necessary evil.

I am admirable assisted by two very sweet young ladies, TAs, whom I ‘love to bits,’ (expression indicating a strong liking – in English we use ‘love’ quite liberally – we love coffee, love TV shows, love a shirt etc. This is not the same in other languages – in Swedish, for example, love is ONLY used for personal relationships.)

My class this Saturday is at level 3, so they are able to count, are familiar with the alphabet, can sing basic songs, follow instructions, ask basic questions, know colours, and are continuing to expand their vocabulary.

I want to push them further because they are motivated and, at this age, can absorb a new language easily. I am rather older, and find it a Herculean task to learn even one or two new words (and as for pronunciation – forget it !). As such, I’ve banned the use of the word ‘fine’ as in, “How are you ?” “I’m fine.” (see my earlier blog ‘Don’t say, “I’m fine.”

Instead: I’m good, great, very well, thank you … I’ve also started to make the students use the terms ‘Activity Book’ or ‘Pupil Book’.

Also, we can impart language in a more natural way; we can use various words / expressions repeatedly so the students acquire language as opposed to being taught the vocabulary. For example, a student’s work can be described as ‘excellent’, or being told ‘well done.’ Apart from the new words, they are hearing longer, multi-syllable words, and basic collocations – words that go together to form one unit of meaning. Another ‘trick’ I have is to sing to myself the Kraftwerk song ‘We are the robots.’

I sing, under my breathe, the chorus and then mime the four notes played on synthesiser. Just four simple words, but so effective for English learners, especially Asian countries where plurals are formed in a different style.

For are start we have some basic grammar – subject + verb ‘to be’. Vietnamese verbs do not alter according to subject. Students may start to learn ‘I am’ but here are introduced to ‘We are.’ The noun is robots – can’t go wrong there – everyone loves robots ! From a pedagogic view, the plural sound in introduced and drilled, repeatedly. By copying the song, they automatically repeat the -s plural sound AND apply it here after a difficult ‘t’ sound – the ‘ts.’ Lastly, we employ the notorious English ‘the’ ðə sound. The students are having an English lesson without even knowing it !


Today I’ll start with a musical game, ‘Musical Statues.’ To tie-in with a previous lesson, I could use either ‘Sit Down’ by James or ‘Stand’ by REM (previous lessons taught stand up / sit down).   http://   

With younger classes I use a ‘montage of attractions’, a term I came across in a book on the Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein, and itself adapted from engineering. It means placing different elements together to form a unified whole, as in cutting a film, or attaching pipes. We need to keep interest and motivation / energy levels up, and this is achieved by varying the games and activities, changing after five or so minutes, before boredom and apathy set it. Thus, after musical statues (in which I am ably assisted by Mike the Monkey to see which of the students are really NOT MOVING), we’ll have ‘student as teacher’ session. One student will mime some action from last week and the class have to shout out the correct expression (sit down / open a book / put the bag on the table etc). They can then continue this at their tables, changing the ‘teacher’ so all students are active.

Next, I’ll repeat the ‘on/in/under’ song – quite simply, the three words sung with accompanying gestures and then a four-beat hand clap. It’s a fun way to introduce the students to prepositions. We could then put Mike around the room and ask where is he ? “Under the table,” “On the chair,” and then extend their speaking skills by asking for an adjective (usually a colour) + noun construction: “Mike’s on the yellow chair.”

After, I’ll distribute some writing boards and marker pens, and start saying the alphabet … when I stop, the students, as a team, have to write the next letter, both capital and lower-case, i.e. “A, B, C ….. ?”

Following, there will be a CD song, re-inforcing prepositions and adjective + noun sentences.

For a new activity, we turn to phonics – sound production / pronunciation. Today I’ll focus on the letters ‘R’ & ‘T’. I’ll prepare a slide of various words beginning with the two letters. The class will them form two lines and are given a sticky ball to throw. One side shouts out a word and one member from the opposing side must throw at said picture. Points awarded for direct hits, sound effects for total misses !

Then time for a fun song to practice the ‘R’ sound. What better than this famous British song:

‘Run, rabbit, run’ – sung quite slowly and clearly enunciated.

This should bring us to the book work and the introduction of continuous verbs. The subject is ‘What am I doing ?’ followed by five illustrations. The students will listen to a CD, then repeat.

Lessons usually end with a colouring session, allowing them to choose a picture and encouraging values such as sharing, being polite and being fair.

Then it’s High-Fives all around (to Mike; they don’t care a fig about me !) and good bye, see you next week … By this time, it’s lunch. I need a break, I need a coffee, I need a fresh shirt and I need to know how I can be as popular as Mike the Monkey. Somehow, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen. To quote Kurt Cobain, “Oh well, whatever, never mind.”