Making Moves: learning a language through active games

Energy of the young kids

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has spent a busy afternoon with a group of kids and felt exhausted afterwards!  It is exhilarating to be part of their non-stop energy, but while they seem to have an infinite supply of it, we adults tend to run out a bit sooner.  Sometimes the anticipation of tiring out can lead us to squelch the energy of the young kids. We might prefer a quieter learning environment with more structure to the active games that kids love and enjoy.  Finding a balance can be tricky, but here are a few trips to help focus young energy into productive learning games that engage kids.

Shopping in person, not on paper

Since language is meant to be used for communication, get kids involved in actually communicating with one another! Rather than sit and ask a neighbor how they are doing, station kids around a room and have them walk around, introducing themselves or surveying how others are feeling.  Rather than match food pictures and words on a worksheet, have children ‘shop’ for items on their shopping lists by visiting ‘storekeepers’ who hold certain items in their ‘stores’ around the room.  The simple act of moving around to accomplish a task can help instill the actions, words, and context into the learning experience.

I learned this lesson quickly in one class where a young boy was constantly interrupting the quiet discussion, shouting out unrelated responses, and generally being very fidgety.  As soon as we started moving in a task-related activity, he was instantly engaged, completing his task far sooner than the other students. He asked if he could help out the others and went from student to student, helping with pronunciation, giving directions, and communicating in the target language more effectively.

Every teaching moment can’t be filled with action. But incorporating movement into each class helps engage kinesthetic learners in a fun and interactive manner.  What active games help your kids learn?  Share your ideas in our comment section below!

Learning Creative Communication: a tribute to Shel Silverstein

Learning to love your mistakes

I love Shel Silverstein’s books. As a kid, I memorized many poems from “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “A Light in the Attic.” And I was thrilled when my own sons discovered the same funny verses and quirky illustrations that made me crack up as a kid. One of the things that I love about Shel Silverstein (and Dr. Suess, for that matter) is the creative way he expresses himself and entertains with made-up words, silly rhymes, and creative illustrations. Reading is FUN and sometimes non-sensical, but even if the words are invented, the reader still learns quickly what’s going on.

I saw the book “Runny Babbit” recently, and it made me think of all those times when I mixed up my foreign language words or tried to translate my English thoughts exactly into what I thought would be comprehensible French. (For those who are not familiar with the book, check out this short animation of the first few lines.) I’m sure I sounded like one of Silverstein’s poems, mixing Franglais with gestures and a few invented words to try and get my message across.

It is easy to stress out over grammar rules, word genders and pronunciation when you are trying to perfect a new language. But rather than worry about perfection, think of your mistakes as a sort of “creative communication.” Channel a little Shel Silverstein and express yourself the best you can–you might be surprised how much your conversation partner understands! Even if they smile or smirk as you stumble over a word (or sentence or paragraph), just pat yourself on the back for being able to provide a little linguistic entertainment, Silverstein-style!

Bookmarks galore

Language learning through crafts

Reading Time Abounds!

Reading skills are gaining a lot of attention these days among the elementary crowd. At my son’s school, there are several different times throughout the day when the kids read with either a teacher, a group of peers, or just by themselves. And then we read at home! Sometimes he tackles more than one book at a time, switching between a few, depending on what he feels like reading on a particular day. This is when those bookmarks come in handy!

Creative Projects Help Kids Learn

Bookmarks can be funny, encouraging and informative, but they can also be creative! When learning a new language, bookmarks can serve as a sort of flashcard, helping kids remember key words or phrases while also providing space to illustrate the words and show a bit of creativity. Here are some ideas for creating bookmarks that link to language, and are fun to create! For all of these ideas, start with a sturdy strip of cardstock paper about 2×8 inches.

  • When learning colors, ask children to draw objects using certain colors. For example, you might say, “Draw a smiley face that is rouge. Draw a heart that is bleu.” When you are done, you can check their work to verify the correct color and have them write the color name underneath the object.
  • Make an opposites bookmark, listing nouns/adjectives on one side of the bookmark using language words and small illustrations, and then list the opposites on the other side of the bookmark. Simple pairs such as “big/small” or “happy/sad” are easy to illustrate!
  • Another idea using adjectives is to help children create a word list that might describe a book. Using language words, help the children write “This book is:” at the top of the bookmark, and then write words such as “good, exciting, boring, fun, sad, happy, mysterious” in the language you are learning on the front of the bookmark. Ask kids periodically to describe what they are reading using the language words.

With all the reading going on these days, these little bookmark reminders are a great way to help kids express themselves through a craft that is functional, informative, creative, and FUN! What other bookmark ideas can you think of? Share your ideas in the comments section below!

Everyday Language

Learn a new language, one day at a time

Learning starts early!

As a language educator, I spend a lot of time learning about ‘best practices’ and educating others about how language learning works and why it is so important to start the process early with children. Over the years, many, many studies have been done to prove how much young children gain from learning a language in their toddler and elementary years. (If you are interested, you can read some of this research here.)

Practice everyday language fun!

But in spite of the research, what really ‘wows’ other adults, teachers, parents or administrators are the kids themselves! Seeing children adopt new language words and knowledge as if it were just another thing they learned in school really opens people’s eyes to the facility with which kids can learn! Kids don’t view it as a ‘scary foreign language,’ they just pick up what they enjoy and incorporate new words into their own everyday language!

Here are a couple examples:

  • In April, I ran into a kindergarten student who had attended an exploratory French class that I had offered at her school 8 months earlier. Outside of the school context, I didn’t recognize her right away! “Bonjour!” she called to me…and when I asked how she was doing (in English), she replied, “Très mal!” and proceeded to show me the bandage that she had on her ankle! These few French words had stuck with her and not only did she remember them, but she knew the appropriate context as well.


  • Another student who attended a short French class in 4th grade was working on her Elementary Scrapbook at the end of 5th grade, preparing to head off to middle school. The scrapbook project had students recall their ‘favorite’ things from all their K-5 years. Her teacher shared with me that her ‘favorite word’ from all of elementary school was…Pamplemousse (or grapefruit, in French)!

Some might say that a word here or there does not show any significant benefit, and perhaps in terms of fluency and proficiency, they are right. But I would suggest that, if kids can absorb even a few new language words and use them with ease when their exposure to languages is brief and infrequent, it suggests a world of possibility if they could have greater access to language learning at a young age!

Making Music, language learning style!

Language learning fun with music

Music makes the world go ’round!

Do you remember the old McDonald’s restaurant jingle, “You Deserve a Break Today?” I can’t say that I remember all the original words, but the tune is forever etched in my memory as the basis for the Preposition Song that I learned in 6th grade. My English teacher used the tune to teach us all of the prepositions–in alphabetical order, no less! I can sing it for you today although you probably won’t find it on any karaoke playlist!

Music and Learning

Music has a funny way of sticking in our brains, helping us recall otherwise forgettable information. While I struggled to remember all the state names for a social studies test back in the day, my kids have no problem with this task thanks to the “Fifty Nifty United States” song that they learned in elementary school. The simple songs that kids learn as toddlers can even pop up in unexpected situations: my son’s first grade class used Mary Had A Little Lamb to help them remember the days of the week.

Music and Memory

Music helps tie information to our brains in a way that simply hearing words or reading them cannot. Studies of the brain show that music engages many regions that are tied to language development, emotion and stress reduction. If we apply these ideas to the process of learning a new language, it is easy to see how music could play a positive role in language recognition and recall.

When learning a new language, why not set a simple conversation or a list of colors to music? Drawing on a familiar childhood tune will help both adults and children recall the vocabulary in an enjoyable way. You can even create your own original songs to help you remember vocabulary. Students in my language class last week made up their own song about French vegetables, inspired by the unique pronunciation of several words. The faster they sang, the more the song became a tongue-twister! They had lots of fun learning the song and seeing how quickly they could sing it….and the result is that they were repeating the words over and over, helping them to remember in a fun, engaging, musical way!