Saturday, 8 June 2013

C is for Cuisenaire Rods, Part 2

Since I joined Twitter, I 've come across lots and lots of profound and true observations about learning and teaching made by the educators all over the world. A very good opportunity to catch up on these kind of ideas and thoughts expressed by teachers is following or, even better, becoming a part of the weekly Twitter chats.

Some time ago, my attention was caught by the following opinion: "Silent teachers make students talk..." I couldn't agree more! How about you? What do you think?

As a teacher, I strongly believe in learner autonomy, learner's ability to figure it out by themselves, comprehensible input and the idea that if all of the above is present in the instruction the "language learning will take care of itself".  

One day I was sharing the room with a teacher. Oh, poor students... I heard the teacher's voice (by the way, a very strong voice) 90% of the time!!! And that was a higher level! How exhausted she must have been after the class!? But what about the students, how much did they learn that day? I am not sure about that...

On the other hand, dealing with the ESL literacy, how much time does the teacher talk in class? Most of the time, you would think? Not at all!!! One thing I am sure about, every time teachers speak instead of the students, they deprive their students from the precious opportunity to develop.

It's true, that at the literacy level, unless students come with pretty good speaking skills already (once in awhile, I get students in the class who have been living in Canada for 5-10 years but have never had a chance to go to school), learners are afraid to speak. Especially in my class, the majority of my students are women who come from a background where they were educated not to speak. We get to the point where their reading is getting so good that they are able to read independently and instruct others, their writing is also developing very fast and they can write down what I am saying with minimum mistakes, but with speaking it's a dead lock. Every time they are asked to say something they usually say this: "English is a problem" and then ... giggles.

I used Cuisenaire rods to overcome this speaking barrier. Provided that students are very familiar with the topic ( earlier I have introduced the story with the pictures to make sure that the content is comprehensible; we have read and practiced it  for a while; we have reconstructed the story using the flashcards; students are able to easily answer yes or no questions based on the story), I sit down at a desk (in a whole class or a small group) and take a set of rods with me. I show the students, using some body language, that I will remain silent and they have to speak. Usually, they have pictures in front of them. They take the first picture and I line the rods (one by one; the size of the rod I choose corresponds with the actual length of the word) and elicit the words to make a sentence. There are so many things involved: their memory and speaking skills are activated, they are prompted to produce grammatically accurate sentences. I was surprised how well it worked with the common mistakes such as “go to home” instead of “go home”, articles, pronouns, etc. Self-correction and peer-correction are encouraged: even if they miss something in the first try they are figuring it out in the second or third times. 

Please be mindful that the first couple of times, the students will require more prompts from the teacher but when they become familiar with the activity, many of them will be able to take it up by themselves. A friend gave us the second tin of rods (they are pretty expensive), so I am able to give one set to a more advanced group and they are working with it individually while I am working with a group who needs more help.

Conclusion: Cuisenaire Rods are a great tool to have in an ESL literacy classroom.

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