Materials and Methodologies for English in the Primary School

Written by: Nikolina Tsvetkova (DIITT, Sofia) & Syana Harizanova (NBU), managers of the British Council Partnership project

With the rapid advance of high technologies and especially IT, when virtual reality is seen by many as more real than actual reality, and when we are literally drowned in the ocean of information, is it possible that someone should still be inspired by something as old and familiar as a folk tale? Is it worth trying to translate into English and adapt traditional Bulgarian folk tales in order to use them for teaching English to young learners in Bulgaria?

As a matter of fact, the tremendous potential that storytelling has for the development and education of small children anywhere in the world is beyond any doubt. It is through stories that children first feel and indulge in the beauty of their mother tongue. Also, the structure, organisation and rhythm of the stories are subconsciously acquired by children and become the foundation on which they gradually build their own skill for retelling – orally as well as in writing. Children’s active vocabulary grows and expands naturally because words and phrases are found in a meaningful context and create concrete images. Another extremely positive effect of stories is that besides imagination and emotion they strongly stimulate children’s thinking abilities. Children analyze characters, predict their beaviour, suggest alternative endings, etc. From stories, children learn about various patterns of behaviour and interaction, about moral values, about human virtues and vices. As for traditional folktales, they have one particular quality that makes them an indispensable educational tool, namely, their national ‘colour’. They inspire in children a feeling of national belonging and help them understand national traditions and values. In the era of cross-cultural communication when people of different nationalities meet, study, work and live together, it is of paramount importance to be aware of one’s own cultural peculiarities and to be able to understand and accept other cultures.

This overview of the effect stories have on forming the mind and character of small children is far from exhaustive, yet it throws light upon the multifold and long-term role stories play in education.

It is quite natural then that primary teachers, and particularly teachers of foreign languages to young learners should resort to stories to achieve their main goals. As it is well-known, small children acquire language indirectly and subconsciously rather than consciously. What matters most of all at this stage of their education is that they should be attracted, even enchanted by what is going on in the classroom and that this interest and enchantment should be sustained as long as possible. Only then can the teacher rely on the children’s willingness to participate actively in the lesson which, on its part, will guarantee the development of concrete skills and competences in a foreign language in young learners.

Over the past ten or fifteen years more and more FLT specialists have reached the conclusion that stories can and should have a central role in the process of foreign language teaching due to their powerful enchanting and multilateral effect, but also because of the possibility to build an endless variety of activities and tasks around them. It is not accidental that The Storytelling Handbook for Primary Teachers (Ellis and Brewster, 1991) has  become an indispensable guide for many English teachers of young learners in many countries throughout the world. It contains numerous original ideas for using stories in foreign language teaching. One single story can be exploited in a variety of ways and for a variety of teaching purposes – to introduce or consolidate new vocabulary or structures, to develop a topic or topics from the syllabus, to teach the foreign language across the curriculum, to cater for mixed abilities and multiple intelligences etc. Children dramatize or mime the stories, suggest their own versions of the story (modern, horror, comics etc.), make illustrations, masks, puppets, create crossword puzzles and play other games with the main vocabulary of the story… The list of useful and enjoyable story-based activities cannot be finished. Every single child and person in general, can excel in a different area depending on his or her type of intelligence  (a natural ability to perceive the surrounding world and a specific learning style determined by one’s predominant receptors).

Gardner (1983) speaks of at least seven ‘intelligences’ – linguistic, logico-mathematical, visual-spatial, musical, bodily-kinnesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal. The implications for teaching are that classroom activities should be organised in such a way that every child is guaranteed an active involvement and tangible progress irrespective of their type of intelligence. Is there any better or easier way to achive this than stories? On the one hand, every good story can be adapted to match a variety of levels and ages. On the other, stories are liable to such interpretations and improvisations which can make the content alive in many different ways – through words, pictures, sounds, music, movements, rhythm, interaction, etc. In this way stories become a powerful ‘vehicle’ (Garvie, 1990) in the process of foregn language acquisition.

…Once upon a time… there was an education partnership project of British Council Bulgaria for developing materials for TEYL. But these were not ‘just’ materials. They were Bulgarian folktales simplified and translated into English. Folktales like those that our parents once told us. Folk tales that they, in their turn, had heard from their parents…

As it happens with most bright ideas, this one was turned into reality with the joint efforts of many devoted individuals – British Council specialists, Bulgarian teacher trainers, teachers and pupils. They were all inspired by the idea to enhance the teaching of English to young learners in the country…

The result of all these people’s joint efforts were the book of The Blackbird and the Fox retold in English by Keith Kelly as well as The Blackbird and the Fox and Granddad’s Glove Big Back-to-back Book told in English by Julian Whitney and accompanied by detailed session notes. Besides, at the world of teaching English to young children came a disc of the two specially composed songs to go with the stories. What is amazing about this book is that it is big enough for everybody to look at it while the teacher is reading it in class. All exercises, songs, games, dramatizations to go with it are no less valuable especially because they have been trialled out with Zhivka Yancheva’s third-grade students from the Antim I primary school in Sofia. There they studied the stories, learned to count, learned the days of the week, sang the songs, performed on the stage – in short – had great fun working with the tales. This is how two enthusiastic foreigners supported by no less enthusiastic Bulgarians, managed to put into practice the idea of using familiar folktales in teaching English at Primary, while the Antim I children had all the pleasure of the successful experiment.

Nothing unusual up to here, one might think. What is remarkable comes later. Since September 2003 the Materials and Methodologies for the Primary Project has arrived at a new stage, namely the stage of disseminating the ideas of teaching English in meaningful context, through activities, rhythm and melody with the Big Back-to-back Book.

The Project’s main aim is to support the effective teaching of English to primary kids through materials based on favourite Bulgarian folk tales and accompanied by relevant methodological suggestions. Its idea is to create a working story-telling model of TEYL drawing on Bulgarian children’s literature and the existing in the country expertise and good practices of TEFL, which is to be disseminated among teachers and students all over Bulgaria.

As a result of the carrying out of a trainer training programme 23 people were acquainted with the above ideas and equipped with a model of training teachers on their part. This group comprises the teacher trainers from various regions, mentors and primary teachers of English. In turn, they carried out seminars with teachers all over the country and this project activity led to:

  • Developing teachers’ skills to use stories when teaching English to primary children as well as boosting their professional confidence, both of which were demonstrated through participation in competitions (for the most interesting activity, designing a lesson/series of lessons based on the Big Book)
  • Improving Students’ language skills and enhancing their motivation to study English, proved, for example, through the students’ ability to retell the story in their own words, to create a short story of their own, similar to one they have studied, to participate in dramatizations and other activities based on the tales
  • Achieving parents’ positive attitude to their children’s learning English through their being encouraged to visit demonstration lessons, dramatic performances, school concerts at which students demonstrate the skills they have acquired working with stories.

All the above aims and objectives were achieved by means of the carefully thought out trainer training seminar during which the Big Book trainers could observe and take part in a succession of Big Book activities aimed at developing children’s language skills. Apart from first-hand experience they received a copy of the Book together with a disc or tape with the songs and the whole text read out by J. Whitney. One of the most important consequences of this seminar was the fact that it actually prepared the trainers for the organization of similar seminars with primary English teachers from their regions. (Appendix 1 – Trainer Training  Seminar Notes.)

Another important feature of the project was the feedback received from both trainers and teachers. This was done by means of collecting individual questionnaires (Appendix 2) on the one hand, and on the other, by encouraging them to share their experience with the Big Back-to-back Book.

It is the summary of these questionnaires that makes us categorically state that the Project aims have been fulfilled. Moreover, the dissemination programme has reached 620 teachers of English among whom there are kinder garden teachers, teachers of English at the primary level, primary teachers who teach English as well from Sofia and the region, Petrich, Pleven, Vratsa, Gabrovo, Plovdiv, Vidin, Shumen, Smolyan, Pernik, Blagoevgrad and the region, Varna, Dupnitsa, Kyustendil, Montana (Appendix 3). As evident from the appendix, there are several regions where the number of trained teachers is especially high. On the one hand, this is due to the trainers’ personal qualities such as initiative-taking and, of course, the greater number of trainers and teachers in the Sofia region and on the other hand, it is born out of the good cooperation achieved between Project management team and the Regional Inspectorates of the Ministry of Education and Science. Held in a ‘friendly atmosphere’, marked with ‘enthusiasm’, the seminars “stirred the trainers’ activity”, served as “mutual enrichment” for trainers and teachers alike, “built confidence” in their training/teaching competence, showed “good examples of varied classroom practice”.  Some trainers went even beyond that – videoed their own lessons or the training seminar, like Lilly Petrova from Vtatsa or Maria Dimova from Petrich who even turned it into a media event. We can find evidence of the teachers’ “stirred activity” and heightened professional confidence in their students’ participation in the Big Book poster and dramatization competition organized by the British Council (Appendix 4).

The fruitful cooperation among several institutions – British Council, Department of Information and In-service Training of Teachers (Sofia), New Bulgarian University and the regional inspectorates of MoES are of no less importance to the realisation of the project aims. Each of these partners had its share in the dissemination of the Big Book and its programme of teaching a foreign language to children through familiar Bulgarian folk tales.

In the context of compulsory learning of a foreign language in the second grade, which was introduced in 2003 as well as that of a want of fully-qualified teachers capable of handling this enormous task, we sincerely believe that the Big Book appeared on time. Together with the accompanying teaching notes and training programme it meets an immediate need – that of a working model of good teaching practice aimed at developing young learners’ all language skills, at catering for the different type of intelligence and at making sense of unfamiliar language structures in familiar context. As we already mentioned, this model can be adapted to the needs of a certain group of students or to the work with a certain textbook, at the same time outlining a possible map of the process of teaching English in the primary classroom even when no textbook has been chosen. This model is a successful one because it relies on the best practices offered by Bulgarian and foreign methodological traditions.

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Bibliography

Ellis, G and J. Brewster 1991 The Storytelling Handbook for Primary Teachers. London, Penguin

Gardner, H 1983 Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences New York, Basic Books

Garvie, E. 1990 Story as vehicle: Teaching English to young children Clevedon: Multicultural Matters, Ltd

Brumfit, C.J., J. Mood and R. Ton (eds.) 1991 Teaching English to children: From practice to principle London: Harper and Collins

Williams, M. Ten Principles for Teaching English to Young Learners (article) IATEFL Newsletter 142, April – May 1998

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Appendix 1

Trainer training seminar notes

Aims:

  • To introduce to the trainers the Big Back-to back Book
  • To introduce to the trainers the key stages of the Dissemination and Implementation Project
  • To demonstrate methods and techniques of teaching English through stories in the Primary
  • To equip them with a step-by-step training seminar scenario

Duration: 2 ninety-minute sessions

Procedure:

Session One

  • Ice-breaking/introductions (fairy character)
  • Discussion on the value of using stories in the primary classroom and on what we teach through stories in the primary English language classroom
  • Micro teaching:

Days of the week

Names of animals

A chant (On Monday – a mouse, On Tuesday – a frog, etc.)

Sounds they make (+ chant extended: On Monday – a mouse – squeak-squeak etc.)

Basic structures (May I come in? Please come in. This is a nice house. and I see – I saw)

  • The song
  • Drama

Session 2

  • Introducing science in the primary English language classroom
  • Summing up + reflection
  • Other approaches to and activities to go with Granddad’s Glove (elicit from trainers – groups of 4/5)
  • Discussing various approaches to the second story –  topics and structures elicit from trainers
  • Elicit from trainers how we can involve teachers in working with the Book and stories as a whole (sending accounts of evidence – lesson notes, pictures, drawings, students’ stories… to the BC web- page; organizing a competition for a chant, children’s drawings, posters, etc based on the book…)
  • Tеachers fill in the feedback sheet
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Appendix 2

Questionnaire

To the teachers

What we would like to know

  • How old are your students?
  • How long have you been teaching English in the primary?
  • Do you teach other subjects? If yes, which ones?
  • Will you use the Book in your classes?
  • When?
  • Which of the demonstrated activities are suitable for you students?
  • Which of the activities included in the Teacher’s notes are suitable for your students?
  • What can you do to show the parents/ colleagues what the results from your working with stories in your classes are?
  • How has attending this particular seminar contributed to your personal professional development?
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Appendix 3

Big Book Methodology seminars

Place Number of teachers trained
Sofia and the region 135
Russe 44
Petrich and the region 23
Pleven 21
Vratsa 47
Gabrovo 65
Plovdiv 27
Vidin 45
Shoumen 36
Smolyan 15
Pernik 19
Blagoevgrad and the region 50
Varna 30
Montana 29
Dupnitsa 21
Kyustendil 13
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Appendix 4

Big Book Competition results

Poster Competition

I place: IV class – “P. Volov” school  – Shoumen
II place: III class –“Iliya Blaskov” Primary School – Shoumen
III place: IV class – “Ivan Vazov” primary School – Vratsa

Dramatisation Competition

I place: 141 Primary school – Sofia
IIplace: “Petar Beron” School – Cherven Briag

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