I learned a new word today.  (See, students?  You aren’t the only ones learning!  Teacher does, too!)

The word is atelophobia, and it means an intense fear of imperfection, or not being good enough.  From what I read online, I think perhaps most teachers secretly struggle with this…but I can’t help but feel that my struggles are amplified by the fact that “I’m not a real teacher.” I struggle even though I know many “real teachers” who don’t care whether their students learn or not, who get there and get done and get out.  I struggle even though I spend hours online trying to figure out what, exactly, I’m doing, and how to do it better.  I struggle because some of my students still don’t know basic letter sounds, even though I’ve sat down with them one-on-one and tried everything I could think of to help them connect letter forms with letter sounds.  And yet, even so, deep within me, I worry constantly that it’s not good enough.  That I’m not good enough.

The importance of manageable goals

I want my students to learn English.

All of it.

Or at least enough of it to be able to read, write, converse, listen, watch movies, chat with friends, go to Disney World, read the classics, buy their favorite flavor of ice cream.

The problem, of course, is that they can’t.  They’re four and five years old; I have them for two years.  There are some things they just aren’t going to be able to do.

So I have to set goals.  What exactly can they learn in these two precious years?  How much is too much?  How much is too little?

It complicates things that every class is different.  Every child is different.  And I, as a teacher, am really bad (and really new!) at this concept of differentiated instruction.  I hope to get better at it, but for the moment, I just have to understand that what last year’s K5 class breezed through, is too much, too hard, too fast, for this year’s K5.  And, simultaneously, what this year’s K5 is doing is way to easy for this year’s K4, who are English lovers and ready for more than their older counterparts!

I’m really good at setting goals for my own life….and, apparently, really bad at setting them for my students.  Live and learn, and I’m learning as I live, but sometimes it’s so frustrating not knowing where to focus, not knowing where to pour the precious little time and energy and resources I have.  Spread it too thin (conversation, vocabulary, phonics, grammar, reading) and they learn nothing.  Concentrate it too much, do too little, and I have the horrible sneaky suspicion that I’m stealing precious time from them….they could have learned more in this year, but I wasted it.  I don’t want to waste it.

So that’s what I’m doing tonight: answering the question, what do my students have to know when they leave my class at the end of the year?

What should they know?

What could they know?

What do they have to know?  That’s what I should focus on.  That’s what I should throw time and energy into making sure even the slowest learners have the chance to learn.

What should they know?  That’s what most of the class will be able to pick up on.  That’s what I can do over and above the curriculum, over and above the basics.  That’s the fun stuff.

What could they know?  What could the faster learners, the ones with a real head for English (and, often, parents at home who know something of English), what could they learn if given the chance?  How can I include opportunities for them to learn it?  How can I stretch them and challenge them so they won’t get bored with the “musts” the slower learners are still struggling with?


Teach Kids to Learn

On Thursday and Friday we had some excellent teacher workshops after school.  Dr. Alex Granados from Southeastern Bible College was the visiting speaker.  I thoroughly enjoyed both days, but perhaps one of the things that most stood out to me was what he said about teaching kids to learn.

I’ve posted before, and I’ve written on Medium, about how homeschooling helped me to learn.  From 5th grade on, my mom basically did nothing more than oversee my education; she might assign me books to read or lessons to complete, and check my work afterwards, but she did very little in the way of explaining.  (“Look it up” was her motto….frustrating at the time, but I am who I am today because of it.)

And I’ve posted on how her attitude towards learning helped me when I suddenly found myself thrust into the world of kindergarten teaching with (almost) no idea what I was doing.

But there was one connection that I hadn’t made yet, and that was the connection that became startlingly clear on Friday as Dr. Alex spoke.  “Our task as educators,” he said, “is not to give our students information, but rather to teach them how to think for themselves.  We must teach them how to learn.” (the same phrase my mom used, the same phrase I myself had used only a few weeks before!)

And I wonder…am I teaching my students how to learn?  Part of me objects; “My world is different!” “I can’t do what my mom did!” “I learned to learn and look things up by reading; my kids don’t know how to read yet!  I have to teach them!”

All true.  I can’t do what my mom did, give my kindergarteners a book on, say, The Life of Lafayette, and tell them, “Here, read this, and when you’ve finished, write me about three pages telling me what you’ve learned about Lafayette.”

And yet, I realized on Friday that there *are*  things I can do.  I just have to find those things.  I can’t do it all (and THAT is frustrating, because I know that much of what I do in K5 falls by the wayside once the students get to first grade; there is no continuity there as there ought to be….but my responsibility is just to do the best I can in kindergarten, and hope for the best once they get to first grade).  But I have to discover (and Dr. Alex spoke of the importance of discovering, of always having a keen, curious mind) as many ways as I can to teach them to look, to find, to be curious, to satisfy their own curiosity.

My world is very different from the one I grew up in.  You simply can’t compare a lifetime of homeschooling to a single year of private school.  But there have to be little ways I can influence them, little ways I can help direct them and guide them and inspire them.  I just have to find them.

Becoming a Reality

Today, I started working on writing out my very own Sight Word curriculum and making my very own Sight Word workbook.  So far, I’ve written out the introduction, which is more than it sounds.  I’m writing as if everything I’m writing about were already a reality (“This book contains….”), but because the introduction explains the scope, sequence, and theory behind (what will be) the workbook, writing that out is proving to be the most important part.  What will it teach?  Why will it teach it?  Why in that order?  How will students get repeated exposure to each word?  Why should students get repeated exposure to each word?  How many times should a student practice the same word?

All of that – all of it! – is now out of my head and onto paper.  It’s starting to feel real!  This is awesome!

Place Markers


My kids have been struggling with following along in their readers.  With other classes, I’ve always stressed following along with their fingers until they get the hang of reading along, but this class is definitely more hyper and easily distracted.  So I decided to try making them place markers.  These are not bookmarks – they’re made of tongue depressors, they’re too thick for bookmarks – but rather for students to place under the text being read, and help them be more aware of where they are in the book.

They were super easy and really fun to make; I just painted tongue depressors white, then doodled on them with Sharpies.  I covered them with packing tape to keep them from smudging.  They’re much brighter and cheerier in real life; I couldn’t get a good picture of them, unfortunately.

The thickness of the tongue depressors makes them perfect for little hands.  And there’s just something about the combination of the hardness of the wood and the slickness of the packing tape, I can’t keep my fingers off them!  (Miss Keesa just may use one in her reading circle, too!)  Plus, the bright colors will (I hope!!) help keep the kids focused on their reading, at least for a little while!

“Sight Words” and Phonics-Based EFL

As I’ve been reading and researching online (something I do almost constantly when I’m not writing lesson plans or preparing materials!) I’ve been finding a lot of articles bashing the sight word lists (both the Dolch sight word list and the Fry instant word list).  Now, here’s the thing.  From the point of view of those articles, I agree completely.  You see, what the articles were arguing against was not so much the existence of the lists, but rather the idea of teaching words as whole units (rather than teaching kids to sound them out phonetically).  The articles argue that the human brain is finite, that it’s better to teach 100 phonemes which a child can then combine into thousands of words, rather than 100 words which he must then remember.  And I am completely on board with that.

But, see, here’s the thing.  The Dolch sight word list and the Fry instant list contain common words.  That means that these are words which children are going to read, write, speak, hear, in every sentence, every story, every article, for the rest of their lives.  These are important words.  And that’s what makes these lists, I feel, so incredibly invaluable for EFL students.  If a child can learn these words – learn to read them (phonetically, if possible!) and understand them and translate them – then he or she is halfway there.  Halfway there!  Can you imagine it?  Halfway to understanding, speaking, reading, writing English!

The numbers vary, depending on which list you’re looking at; some say that the Dolch and Fry lists make up 50% of all written English; others 60%, others 75%.  Some lists have 100 words, some 220, some a thousand.  To me, specific numbers aren’t as important as that tangible, enticing promise: learn these, and you will be learning the Most Important Words.  Learn these, and you will be making Real Progress.

You see, that’s what frustrates me so much about the way I’ve been teaching.  (And it’s the strategy I’ve developed for working with our curriculum in an EFL setting; it’s at least halfway “my fault”.)   I’ve taken our readers and focused on teaching the meaning of every word in them, so that when students read, they’ll be able to understand what they’re reading.  That means that I’ve been teaching a lot of words that aren’t really “useful”.  Changing that is going to be a long, slow process, but little by little, I am going to change it.

Graded Readers

I found a reader online which introduced new words one at a time, feeding them into the text and then making sentences with them.  I absolutely LOVED the idea for my kids….I have to teach meaning as well as phonics in order for them to be able to read and understand what they’re reading, so books with even 15 or 20 words in them can feel overwhelming at times!  (And if I feel overwhelmed, how must my poor kiddos feel?!)  The idea of teaching a single word, using it in context, then teaching another, using it in context while repeating the first, teaching another, using it in context while repeating the first two….the idea is something of a relief, actually.  🙂

Of course graded readers rely heavily on sight words, which is something I’ve been wanting to introduce more of in my classrooms.  (100 words which make up half the literature they’ll ever read?  You can’t go wrong with that!)

Amazon has some lovely readers that do just that: one word at a time, they build whole stories while constantly practicing words that have gone before.  I must admit, I started drooling when I saw them!

Unfortunately, they’re a bit pricey (worth it, definitely! but, you know, pricey.).  Also, I would have to order them online, and with international shipping what it is, in first place, the cost would be ridiculous (last time I tried to order a couple of books, the shipping total was something like $60….definitely out of my price range!!) and, in second place, by the time they get here, my kids would be graduated!

And, I know, I know, it’s an investment in the future; every class I’ll ever have would benefit from those books.  But I want something I can use in the meantime.  As in, now.  With the kids I have.

Sooooo, I started thinking….am I a writer, or am I a writer??  (Well, I was a writer, before I came to Peru to be a missionary.  I haven’t written since then, unless you count lesson plans.  I’ve written lots and lots and LOTS of those!)

So, I decided to start making my own graded readers!  I am using the same format I saw in the Amazon books and the other reader (I wish I could remember what the other reader was called, but I lost it somewhere in one of my thousand and one browser tabs, and never found it again): introducing a single word, using it, adding another, using it, building, repeating, growing.

I finished my first reader yesterday.  (If you’re curious, you can see it here at my TPT store.)  It’s kind of a weird hybrid; it uses mainly words that my students in particular will need to know next month when we start our A Beka reading circles.  But, at the same time, the words it uses from my curriculum list are mainly those which are also found on the Dolch nouns list or the Fry list.  (You won’t, for example, find the word “tot” or “lad” here, in spite of the fact that my kids need to practice them because they’re going to be reading them pretty soon.)  It’s also heavy on sight words, something that I want to start using more in my classroom.

To illustrate the book, I used clipart sets from the lovely Nicole Rethmeier, of Jolie Designs.  She’s been making me clipart from my A Beka word lists, and it certainly came in handy for this project!   A few pictures that weren’t on my word lists I added in from English Unite, which also has lovely clipart.

Now my problem is, how exactly am I going to use it in the classroom?  Printing off a copy for each student is definitely out of my price range right now.  And reading with them one by one would be too time-consuming.  I have some ideas, but that will be for another blog post.  🙂

Let’s Start Spelling

Next week we start learning to spell in K5.  More than anything else, we start learning about the concept of spelling, and the focus is on using the letter names, rather than the letter sounds.

To help with the concept, I’ve made some spelling puzzles out of craft foam.  (Or, rather, out of corrospun, which is like craft foam but glossy and easy to write on.)  I love the corrospun because it’s easy to cut and work with, but also easy for the kids to handle and work with.  (Plus, it comes in such bright, fun colors!)

I made the letters in cursive, because our students start learning cursive from kindergarten.  (I’ve read some very persuasive articles which suggest that kids should actually learn cursive BEFORE they learn print, but ours start with print in K3 and K4, then move up to cursive in K5.)

I love how the puzzles are turning out, and I can’t wait to play – erm, I mean, work – with them next week.  🙂

Little by Little (Thoughts on designing a curriculum)

When I was in school (homeschooled), I started studying French.  I say started, because I never really became fluent, but that’s a subject for another post.  (Actually, it’s a post I’ll probably write in the near future; it has a lot to do with my line of work today.)

One of the “bits” of French that did stick with me, however, was a line in my textbook that said “Petit a petit, l’oiseau fait son nid.” (And yes, I totally just had to look up the spelling of “oiseau”!  And people complain that English vowels are confusing….)  It means “Little by little, the bird builds his nest,” and it could be considered my defining motto in life, if I had a defining motto in life.  How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time, and preferable with lots of mayonaise and Heinz ketchup!

So that’s become my attitude to the curriculum I want to develop.  Little by little.  A piece here, a piece there.

One of the questions I had when I first started thinking about how to design the curriculum was whether, in vocabulary, it was better to stick with the approach I’ve been using with the A Beka curriculum, of introducing words by letter, vowel, or special sound (all the t words are introduced when we learn the letter t; all the long a words are introduced when we learn long a, all the ch words are introduced when we learn ch, etc.), or whether it’s better to teach vocabulary “thematically,” i.e. parts of the body, family members, furniture, etc.  Almost all  the EFL programs I’ve researched teach vocabulary thematically, but they don’t really explain why.  (I suspect it has something to do with it being easier to remember words if you first create a framework, a context, in which to store them.  But I can’t find any research on the subject, so that’s just my guess.)

So I’ve decided to try including a bit of thematic vocabulary in my classes, and see which one “sticks” better.  I’ll continue teaching vocabulary by letter as long as I continue using A Beka; it seems to be the best and most efficient way of introducing the words the students will come across in their A Beka reading.  However, I plan to put less emphasis on remembering the phonetic vocabulary (or at least the less-useful, more frustrating words, like “tot”) and instead use that brain power to introduce a bit of thematic vocabulary.

It will definitely be an experiment, but it will be interesting to see how it turns out.