Thursday, 3 April 2014

Learning by playing: instroducing Jelly Band, by Infinite Dreams

One of the best and most effective ways to teach English to children (and adults) is by playing. Tablet apps can be really useful for that, being many of them specially designed for educational purposes or language learning and/or teaching. But sometimes you may also find some good game or app which, even if devised for fun rather than for education, can be a good tool for the ESL or EFL learner and teacher as well. This is the case of, for example, Jelly Band, a game designed by Infinite Dreams:

Jelly Band is a free, simple, and really funny game that consists of forming a music band of your choice by picking a number of jelly-like monster musicians and placing them on the stage. By swapping the monsters in and out of the arena, you also alter the melody. It can be really addictive! Here is a promotional video showing a little sample of what one can do in the game:

The useful part for the English teacher concerning this game is that the monsters have different colours, show different shapes, and play different musical instruments. So in just one game we can:

  1. Practice the colours, even with their shades or tints (e.g.: dark blue, light green, etc.)
  2. Practice the numbers (e.g.: how many eyes does that light purple monster have?)
  3. Practice the shapes (e.g.: square, circular, triangular, with horns, spiky, blobby, with a trunk,...)
  4. Practice emotions (e.g.: smiling, relaxed, thoughtful, laughing,...)
  5. Practice clothes vocabulary, complements, physical appearance, etc. (e.g.: wearing headphones, bandanas, with dreadlocks,...)
  6. And finally, and most importantly, learn vocabulary about the musical instruments, which may also lead to studying the instrument family, etc.
I have classified the many different monsters in the game according to the following descriptions:

  1. A happy, pentagonal-shaped yellow monster playing a music box (Stage 1 and 2)
  2. A slender, one-eyed purple monster playing a herald trumpet (Stage 1)
  3. A one-eyed, light blue monster with one curly horn playing a vinyl disc by scratching (Stage 1 and 2)
  4. A surprised or amazed, very wide-eyed orange monster playing a hang drum (Stage 1 and 2)
  5. A smiling, slender, one-eyed purple monster wearing a red bandana playing a Hindu sitar (Stage 1)
  6. A square-shaped, spiky-headed, one-eyed red monster playing a cello (Stage 1)
  7. A one-eyed light blue monster playing a red tambourine (Stage 1 and 2)
  8. A really happy, one-eyed, light green monster with six teeth playing an electric bass (Stage 1)
  9. A smiling, blobby, light blue monster with a trunk playing an electric sitar (Stage 1)
  10. A really happy, blobby-haired, one-eyed red monster with five teeth singing (Stage 1 and 2)
  11. A very serious, one-eyed, light blue monster with one curly horn playing an electric guitar (Stage 1 and 2)
  12. A serious, triangular-shaped, one-eyed magenta monster with three teeth playing an acoustic guitar (Stage 1 and 2)
  13. A square-shaped, spiky-headed, one-eyed red monster playing a brass horn (Stage 1 and 2)
  14. A blobby, spiky-headed, red monster with eight eyes playing an accordion (Stage 1)
  15. A smiling, blobby, light blue monster with a trunk playing drums and cymbals (Stage 1 and 2)
  16. A serious, triangular-shaped, one-eyed magenta monster wearing 3D glasses from the 80s - one glass is red for the right eye; the other one dark blue for the left - playing an electronic keyboard (Stage 1 and 2)
  17. A slender, one-eyed, emerald green monster with a huge mouth who sings (Stage 2)
  18. A really happy, one-eyed, light green monster with six teeth drumming on a tailpipe (Stage 1 and 2)
  19. A blobby, spiky-headed, red monster with eight eyes and four sharp teeth singing (Stage 1 and 2)
  20. A really happy-go-lucky, light brown monster with black dreadlocks playing the bongos (State 2)
  21. A laughing, spiky-headed, one-eyed, light blue monster playing an electronic keyboard (Stage 2)
  22. An oval-shaped, seven-eyed magenta monster playing with a steel sheet (Stage 2)
  23. A very serious, rectangular-shaped, four-eyed, light green monster playing a flute (Stage 2)
  24. A smiling, three-eyed, light blue monster wearing a yellow, green and red beanie playing an electronic keyboard (Stage 2)
  25. A really concentrated, one-eyed dark orange monster playing an electronic keyboard (Stage 2)
  26. A serious, triangular-shaped, really spiky, one-eyed black monster playing a toy duck (Stage 2)
  27. A concentrated, one-eyed, dark blue monster sticking out its tongue and wearing yellow headphones playing a DJ table that resembles a game of Simon Says (Stage 2)
  28. A smiling, one-eyed, yellow monster playing a classical organ (Stage 2)
Obviously, these definitions are only indicative: one will not teach these long sentences to the kids! But, classified like that, it is easier to remember the adjectives necessary for the many different descriptions. Another element worth noticing is that sometimes the monsters are repeated: this can also be used to encourage the student to relate them, establish comparisons, connections, etc.

For all this, Jelly Band constitutes one fantastic example of a tool for learning and teaching by playing videogames.

More to come soon! Greetings to all of you :)

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Verbal tenses aplenty!

On this post I will upload the charts that I use with many of my pupils to display, on a single page, most of the verbal tenses one may find in English. This time, I will try to describe them only briefly: later on, I will run through all the tenses to explain them in depth one by one. This post is going to take quite a few updates and modifications until it is completed. To start with, here I post for you some my verbal tenses diagrams that you can download through the links provided:

(More to come soon!)

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Can a full grown-up acquire a decent level of English via the minimum means?

I still remember how my first English teacher at school told my parents that I would never pass her subject unless I was given a great deal of private lessons by a qualified teacher.

My parents could not afford that at the moment, so I was all alone for that matter. It was a time when English became compulsory at school from the 12 years onwards, never before: the exact age when linguists claim that one loses the blessed capacity to learn a language like a native. So there I was, at the beginning of my very troubled puberty, unknowingly having lost most of my chances of competence in foreign language acquisition and, when I first faced the new subject of English in class, with most of my mates already knowing the language up to a point via extracurricular lessons, private teachers, etc., I thought I would never, ever make it. Things that were read and written differently! So many consonants put all together, so much vocabulary, so many strange rules! As always, the difference between my companions who could afford a better tutorship and me was quite a breach. So I did what most kids feeling hopeless at school do: I just let the days go by and tried to survive as unharmed as I could.

For obvious reasons, I didn't do my homework at all, nor pay attention in class. What for? I could not understand a thing anyway. It was just all the more frustrating. So there came June and the final course marks, and, not surprisingly, I was amongst the three lousiest dudes in class concerning, amongst other subjects, English. I had the three months of the summer to try and pass a completely failed subject.

Unknowingly, though, my teacher led me to the path of improvement. The notions of homework and the teaching methodologies applied to children were very different back then, much more punitive than encouraging. As a tough punishment for not having done any of the homework due along the course, she told the three of us, very angrily, that we would not be allowed to sit the final remedial exam in September unless we handed in the full contents of our workbooks... in triplicate! So we were to hand in three notebooks, each with the answers of all the questions from our exercise books, and, obviously, they must be correct.

I was utterly appalled... but my parents could not afford to have me repeat a course, and necessity, together with the care for your people, is the best trigger possible, undoubtedly. So during that summer I held the untouched workbook in my hands and swore to hand in those damn three notebooks and pass the subject no matter what it could take.

I studied all the summer, all alone. It was very basic English, fortunately... and the workbook provided all the rules and explanations needed to understand and do the exercises correctly. On my own, without the peer pressure putting me down because of my so much more inferior level in class, I started to understand what that wacky book asked me to do. I started to do the exercises. In triplicate. Fortunately enough, adolescence gifted me with the required level of clumsiness for later success, so I realised the correct answers were at the end of the book when more than half of it was already done. So that was what "key" meant?? I had thought it had to do with opening doors, and locks, and such!

But it also opened answers, I learned.

Up to that point, I did not know it yet, but I knew English. I could have passed the exam with ease. If it had not been for my deep insecurities, I would have realised that I was actually doing quite well. I corrected the exercises and decided not to cheat on the ones I still was to do. I did them, and then corrected them. I filled up the three notebooks, handed them in (I was the only one who did that, and my teacher did not even stare at them. Yet she let my classmates do the exam anyway, which was, in my opinion, the correct thing to do). My past effort paid off its due; I passed the exam by the skin of my teeth, and forgot the whole of the matter until much, much later.

If somebody had told me back then that I was to become an English teacher in the future, I think I would have laughed all my guts out at him or her. Or I would have got very, very angry. Most probably, both. A tough adolescence, you know. 

On the following courses I had a different teacher. She used diagrams to explain the verbal tenses in class: templates we were to copy endlessly and then fill in by heart and that I still use with my own pupils nowadays. She really took her time to explain the lessons in class, and, after all that summer of self-study, I did not feel so disadvantaged in front of my peers anymore. My marks began to fluctuate like a rollercoaster between the scraping pass and the B plus. I kept on studying on my own a lot, looking for a great deal of vocabulary in the dictionary and, finally, one day my improvement grew steady. I started to get really better in English and, more importantly, to enjoy studying and learning English a lot.

But the moment when I decided I wanted to learn more and more English, for the rest of my life, was in the summer after I finished high school. I discovered Loreena McKennitt and her music. Oh, that poetry, those chords, those lyrics...! All that aural beauty embedded so magically in her soft, mysterious voice; in the harmony of her harp strings; in the mergence of so many instruments that accompanied her melody... I had never listened to anything similar before; and I was so completely enthralled... I needed, physically, to know what she was talking about! That summer, the little money I got I spent it all in purchasing Loreena McKennitt's full discography. It was the very beginning of Internet available here in Spain, and we did not have a connection at home, so, fortunately enough, I had no means to check the lyrics online... nor its translations. Thus, I took the small, square booklets that came with each CD-and which now I treasure dearly-and did my best, armed with my dictionary, to translate the lyrics of each and every one of the songs: seven full albums, being the first and my favourite The Book of Secrets, followed by The Mask and Mirror; The Visit; Parallel Dreams; Elemental; A Winter Garden, and To Drive the Cold Winter Away. The songs did not disappoint me in the least: they spoke of journeys, fairies, elven, ghosts, mysteries, the fear of death and melancholy: the perfect themes to stir me completely at that glorious age. I spent, again, a whole summer holiday researching on English, but this time for sheer pleasure. Oh, it felt so great to be able to translate these songs, to uncover a hint of their meaning! Obviously, some of my translations were inaccurate, but I really enjoyed trying. I did a lot of work, actually; and in the end I was somehow able to grasp the main ideas behind each lyrics, and, most importantly, I acquired, via motivation, quite a lot of vocabulary, yet a bit too formal and old-fashioned, of course...

The following year, my family, seeing that I was growing fonder and fonder of English, made an effort and paid me the admission fee to the EOI, the Official Language School, which was more or less accessible economically speaking, and from that moment on I attended one course there per year, with good marks, until I finally obtained my CAE, my Certificate in Advanced English by Cambridge.

Still craving for more, and encouraged by my EOI teachers, I took up the Degree of English Philology at my local university, and after the first cycle, because of an urgent need to take care of some member of my family who was in very poor health, I moved to UNED, where I could study on my own, work and take full care of my family at the same time, and finished my studies there with very good marks, being even granted a top qualification in linguistics. All this I could do thanks to the fact that I was allowed scholarships each year, which helped me buy the necessary material for each course.

Time has passed and learning and teaching styles have evolved. When I think of my past teachers of English back then, I realise not a single one of them were native speakers. Some of them were very good teachers; some others were quite poor: but they were all nonnatives, even at college. This relates to what linguists say nowadays: that modern English has, from original English, very little left. It is now one of the preferred languages for global communication, and, in their own fashion, each people, each culture have adopted a different style of English for themselves, merging their own accent, knowledge, social rules and local expressions with it, keeping one single goal in mind: to communicate amongst nations.

So here I am, with my man-made English, acquired via translating songs, watching movies in English, listening to free material, reading a lot of novels and other texts... communicating with other people in English, be them natives or nonnatives. Only once did I travel to England to spent some twenty-five days there, running an English In The Vacation course in Sussex University, Brighton, England-which was magnific, by the way. A full grown-up teacher with a past as a disastrous student-exactly like what happened with my very beloved husband.

Now I love to tell this story to my pupils; I'm really proud of it. Many feel insecure, or very discouraged about their foreign language acquisition skills or capacities. "I'm afraid I will never be able to understand English," they say; "or speak English, or communicate in English, or pass my English exams...". "Well," I reply. "I was told the very same once. And look at me now." These words, coming from a Graduate in English with good qualifications, really does make an impression, and helps them believe they can overcome their difficulties with English as well, no matter how deep, how lifelong or how harsh. And I believe it as well.

And all this I have to thank-including meeting my husband, whom I met because of our mutual interest in languages, writing and reading-to a teacher who punished me to do an awful lot of homework during the summer, to a Canadian singer and musician fond of Shakespeare, traditional folklore and the classics, and to many, many hours of e-learning, research and self-study, always guided by the fantastic people who offer their own knowledge on the net for free.

So can really a full grown-up acquire a decent level of English via the minimum means? In my opinion, yes, he or she can... provided that they are motivated enough to run through the whole adventure, at their own pace, but without a pause. And there are unlimited benefits along the path, as a reward for carrying out that effort. Here is a proof I made for you of how far one can get: my reading of "The Raven", by Edgar Allan Poe. It might be a humble reading, yes... and yet, by all means, not bad for someone who once was deemed as hopeless! I hope you like it. Greetings, and thank you for trusting me as your English teacher.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Debuting blog!

As I already said in the first page you'll find on the toolbar on your right, welcome to my newborn blog! :) This is going to be a place where a whole lot of information is going to be shared, analysed, produced and sent back to the net again. As the webmaster I will try to keep the info and contacts updated and of the best quality possible.

All the material you will find here of my own production is registered through the Creative Commons license Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 4.0 International. In the same manner, all the material from other authors on this web has been found through the due search engine provided by the Creative Commons webpage itself, and properly registered through Creative Commons as public domain or attribution, including all the images, even the butterfly that I used for the logo. In the rest of the cases, any material taken specifically from some author in particular will have its due authorship mention and a link to its source.

To start with, I would like to invite you to read my page about my first SymbalooEDU webmix, in which I analyse each one of its parts in depth. Here I post a picture of it:
Soon, I will add more posts specifically about grammar, vocabulary and reading material, as well as about other useful tools in the process of learning and acquisition of English.

Just an extra note: this site appears to work much better on Chrome than on Firefox or Explorer, with other browsers some of the options on the sidebar do not work properly.

Still working! New info to come very soon! Thanks for your patience :) All the best!