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Language Through Legos

11 Dec

Legos are very popular with boys and girls at our elementary school. No matter the grade level, kids love building things. When kids are asked to build collaboratively, they are given opportunities to not only be creative but also to collaborate.  The ability to collaborate with others is one of the most sought-after skills in both education and the workplace. Giving children a fun way to collaborate and create is what I was after when I began experimenting with using Legos for language teaching this past semester. So far, it has proven to be a wonderful way to get my reluctant learners to participate and speak in English.

The first session I met with students, I found myself facing a group of 16 boys and 2 girls from 4 different Grade 1 classes. The first task I assigned was for children to write their names using Lego pieces.

Once the kids completed the task we then sat in a circle and introduced ourselves to one another. To guide the kids, I had the following sentence stem on the board: My name is … Once we had gone around the circle, I then modeled what I wanted the children to do next. I began by saying my name then I introduced the child to my left: My name is _____ and this is _______. By the end of the first session, I knew almost all of the children’s names and so did most of the kids.


I spy with my eye a name that starts with C and has 3 vowels. The name is ?

At our next session, I began by having a mini competition for the kids to write their names as fast as they could using Lego pieces and come to the circle. We then played “I Spy.” After a quick review of the names of the vowels in English, I modeled the activity by choosing a name at random and gave the children two clues to try and find it. The clues were the first letter of the name and the number of vowels it had.

In doing this activity, I noticed that some of my first graders were struggling with beginning sounds and vowels. As a follow up, I gave each child a consonant and their task was to build an object that starts with that consonant. We then sat in a circle and shared our designed object with the group followed by a brainstorm session of other objects that could have been built with the same beginning sound. I decided to wait on working with vowels for another session.

For the third session, the children were asked to make a replica of themselves. We then displayed the replicas and tried to guess which one represented which child. We looked at words we use when describing people and children were expected to use the following sentence stem: I think this is …. because… For example, one of the children had red hair and all the kids guessed which replica was his because the top of the head was red. The girls’ replicas were also easy to identify because they chose a round instead of a square head or they decorated the head.

In January, I am planning to divide the group into 4 smaller groups. Our first activity will consist of assigning each group a season to construct. We will then talk about what are some of the characteristics of each season touching on weather vocabulary and seasonal activities.

Based on the activities I’ve completed thus far, I’ve noticed that these children are quite motivated by timed activities, competition and movement so I’m thinking of dividing the group for the sessions on vowels into 5 groups. I will then have 5 stations with different activities to complete with each vowel sound. Students then rotate around the room and in so doing complete all five activities.

By the end of the semester, I would like to have the students build popular story scenes collaboratively. I will start the session reading a story and then the children will be assigned to three different groups to build the scenarios. One group will be assigned the beginning scene, one the middle of the story, and the last group the ending scenario. Maybe as a follow up, I will ask the children to decide as a group how/what they would like to see as the new ending of the story. We can then compare/contrast our endings.

Using Legos for language teaching has proven to be a success. Not only is it motivating the children to work either independently or cooperatively in a group, it has also given them authentic opportunities to take risks, negotiate, and use English for different purposes. I would definitely encourage teachers at any level to use Legos for language teaching. It does not require a lot of prep time and it is a great way for integrating 21st century skills into language teaching.

Korean Learners Learning English

21 Nov

There are approximately 80 million people worldwide who speak Korean.  The Korean alphabet is called Hangul and consists of 14 simple consonant sounds and 6 simple vowels.  Hangul can be written either vertically or horizontally and capitalization does not exist in Korean writing.

Differences between the Korean and English language make learning English a challenging task for many Korean EAL Learners.  This blog entry will highlight some of the most common challenges that Korean learners are likely to encounter when learning English.  I’m drawing from my own attempts to learn Korean, combined with conversations I’ve had with colleagues and Korean speakers who have embarked on the journey of learning English.

Stress and Intonation

English, unlike Korean, is a stress-based language where context dictates which word is emphasized in a sentence. Stress and intonation create and change the meaning of a word.  For example CON-test vs. con-TEST, or per-MIT vs. PER-mit. Korean, on the other hand, maintains the same stress on every word. This explains the monotonous-sounding English spoken by Korean English learners, particularly in extended pieces of oral language such as presentations.

Challenging Sounds

There are some sounds which are difficult for Korean learners to hear or repeat and are therefore substituted or omitted. Practice and special attention to these sounds would benefit Korean learners. These sounds include:


Think or sink?

The ‘th’ Sound
/θ/ and /ð/ as in there and three do not exist in Korean. The sound /θ/ as in ‘three’ tends to be replaced with a sound closer to /s/ and the sound /ð/ as in ‘there’ is replaced with a sound closer to /d/ making words such as think sound like sink and those sounding like dose.

B vs. P Sound
The b sound is often replaced by a p sound resulting in words such as bees sounding like peas.

V vs. F Sound
Korean learners of English will often substitute the /v/ and /f/ sound with the /b/ and /p/. Berry and few sound like pew, and coffee sounds like copy.

Z, TS, and TZ Sounds
The letter Z will likely sound like a J or a CH sound. This also happens with the TS and TZ sounds, making words such as pizza sound like peaches.

la-la-landThe L Sound
In Korean, the L sound changes based on where it falls in a word. This is why Korean learners will sometimes pronounce the L sound as an R. It is therefore vital to make learners aware that in English, L is L no matter where it falls.


Sheep on a ship

Vowel Sounds
The short /I/ sound as in the word SIT is often pronounced as the long vowel /iy/ sound as in TEEN changing words like grin to green, slip to sleep, and sit to seat.

The words ‘go’, ’no’ and ‘show’ all contain a double vowel sound /əʊ/ (a diphthong). Korean speakers often pronounce these words with a single vowel sound. Practicing these sounds would, therefore, be beneficial for Korean learners.

What is altogether omitted?
In Korean, words must end in vowels or certain consonants, but never with an /S/ sound. This often leads Korean students to add a vowel to English words such as Miss which becomes missy or nice-uh instead of nice, or simply not speak the sound. This is particularly an issue since Korean does not have a plural form for words but uses numbers to indicate plurality. A special attention, therefore, must be given to S in order to give Korean English learners the practice needed to remember to use the S, where needed, and sound the S, when speaking or reading.

Grammatical Differences
There exist three main grammatical differences between Korean and English:

Word Order in a sentence
Whereas in English we tend to have a subject+verb+object structure, as in the boy eats a banana, in Korean, the order is actually: subject+object+verb, or boy banana eat, with the verb placed at the end of the sentence.

Subject and Object Markers
Because Korean has what is referred to as subject and object markers to indicate which is the subject and which is the object in a sentence, the subject is often entirely left out from a sentence when Korean English learners write. Sentences such as banana eat may actually mean the boy eats a banana, the girl eats a banana, they eat bananas, or we eat a banana, etc.

Words such as a/an, and the are not used in the Korean Language and will therefore likely be omitted by Korean learners or placed in places where they are not needed such as “I went to the Seoul last month.”

As teachers of Korean English learners, we can:

  1. Encourage our students to listen and imitate spoken English. Practicing pronunciation, intonation, and voice stress while having the subtitles turned on will help learners in their speaking ability while also increasing their vocabulary and reading skills.
  2. Provide focused practice using minimal pairs as in light-right, file-pile, base-vase, zoo-Sue, czar-jar, pill-peer, bleed-breed, sheep-ship, pool-pull, not-nut, and knot. Saying these out loud and listening for differences would help learners identify and produce the two different sounds.
  3. Partner students with language buddies. This provides them with opportunities to practice out loud, thus giving their vocal chords opportunities to produce those sounds that are not in their native language.

Low-stress activities are a powerful resource when instructing English language learners of any language. Korean learners, like other English language learners, benefit the most when instructors provide ample opportunities to hear and use the target language.  Whether we are using karaoke singing, role playing, watching English shows and commercials, or acting out theatrical skits, learners increase their awareness of the differences between English and Korean sounds by paying close attention to those highlighted sounds in a low-stress environment. This allows for long-term retention and guides learners on their journey as they acquire English as an additional language.