The other morning, my mum called me from the UK.
Mamma Tiffin is a retired nurse who’s currently taking care of my five-year-old nephew, Juanito. During the global pandemic, when schools across the UK closed their doors, she and my dad became kindergarten teachers at the ages of 65 and 67. From their living room, they covered everything from Phonics, to Numeracy to Art. Like countless other families, they had neither training nor guidance- just a “roll up your sleeves” attitude and a whole lot of love.
From the Philippines, which has endured its own share of problems with the onslaught of COVID 19, I watched my mum’s videos of my nephew learning at home. His activities included:
- Home-made phonics bingo;
- Vocabulary snap; (which came with great footage of my nephew beating his very tired grandad over and over again!)
- Handwriting sheets printed from Twinkle;
- Mindfulness tutorials with a monkey named Zazu.
Mamma T covered the walls with whiteboard sheets, making every room a classroom, and even printed certificates to celebrate my nephew’s efforts. All of this was in addition to games, play-based fun and family time.
Which brings me back to the telephone call I mentioned earlier.
Despite the re-opening of schools in England, my mum has remained in full teacher mode and is always on the look-out for ways to support our little Juanito at home. This week, she asked me how help him write in full sentences. This is what she sent me:
I reassured her what he’s written is, in fact, excellent. His handwriting is legible and shows good motor control, his spelling is phonetically accurate, and what he’s written matches the pictures given. (I particularly enjoyed the gorilla smashing sentence!) In short, I think he’s nailed it.
Mamma Tiffin agreed, but, like all true teachers, she wanted to figure out his next steps. She asked me:
“How can I get Juanito to write in full sentences so that his ideas aren’t broken?”
Well, let’s look at Juanito’s first sentence to see what’s missing.
The gorilla sentence: gorilla smash his belly black and friendly
In this, there are two ideas:
- The gorilla smashed his belly.
- He was black and friendly.
(Juanito is famously petrified of ants, so his perception of a silverback gorilla as "friendly" made me smile!)
All that’s really missing from the above are the articles (the, a), pronouns (he, she, it) and the separation of the ideas with a full stop and a new capital letter.
Now for the second one.
The giraffe sentence: giraffe he had a long neck 20 meters that his height
Again, in this there are two ideas:
- The giraffe had a long neck.
- He is 20 meters in height.
The same targets can be applied: articles, pronouns, separation of ideas with punctuation.
So, how to move forward?
I told Mamma Tiffin that language development and the construction of complete sentences starts with the spoken word. If children don’t speak in full sentences yet, then they’re unlikely to write in them. So, I suggested two exercises to get Juanito talk, talk, talking! These two strategies are designed to support language acquisition, they're easy-breezy and can be used:
- Over breakfast;
- Whilst playing outside;
- After school;
- At bed time.
This is what Mamma Tiffin and Juanito are trialling...
Activity One: Sentence Starters on the Fridge!
Mamma T stuck the following words on one side of the fridge.
Then, from the kitchen, she pointed to one of the words and began the word game activity. It went something like this:
Mamma T: "The kettle was boiling. Your turn: The kettle was..."
Juanito: "The kettle was hot."
Mamma T: "A bee flew inside. Your turn. A bee..."
Juanito: "A bee said hello."
Mamma T: "It was a noisy little bee." Your turn: It was a..."
Juanito: "It was a yellow and black bee."
Top Tips for Mamma T:
1. There's no rush to write! Talk, talk, talk then pick up a pencil. Embed the language structures early and securely, then the rest will come more naturally.
2. Ask Juanito to punch the air or hi-five you at the end of each verbal sentence. This will support him in internalising when a sentence is complete, and should help him use written punctuation easier when the time comes.
3. Mix it up! Kids love routine, but they also get bored easily. Tell him to share his spoken sentences with different people or objects:
- Go and tell the door what you said about the gorilla;
- Whisper to the TV what you said about the bee;
- Record a voice note to Tita Grace telling her about the kettle.
Variety is key, as is imagination :)
4. Repeat, repeat, repeat! Use this strategy daily, weekly, and on repeat. It takes minutes but will really make a difference.
Activity Two: Word Order
Next, Mamma T split up an A4 sheet of paper into sections. In each section, she wrote one word from a complete sentence. For instance:
Then, she cut out each word and mix them up.
Finally, she lay the words on the floor and asked Juanito to put the words into a sentence. As he played around and read, she asked: does that make sense? Does it sound right?
Take a look at Mamma T and Juanito trying this at home.
(Prepare to be won over by his Northern English accent!)
A little while later...
Leveling up with a snazzy board and some new sentences...
Top Tips for Mamma T:
Remember that the aim here is to help Juanito to embed language structures. We want him to recognise patterns in word order, i.e. one pattern might be that sentences often start with articles (a, the) pronouns (he, she, it) and proper nouns (Greg, Lola, Juanito.) Identifying patterns will help him re-create new sentences independently, whether spoken or written.
With this in mind, repeat this activity with small substitutions. For instance, in round number two, change the proper noun, like this:
- higher me Lola than jumped
- me higher jumped Juanito than
- jumped Luna Girl me than higher
In the next round, change the verb, like this:
- higher me Lola than flew
- me higher climbed Juanito than
- hopped Luna Girl me than higher
Before writing a brand-new sentence, try one more round. This time, test his understanding by changing the adjective, like this:
- faster me Lola than flew
- me better jumped Juanito than
- climbed Luna Girl me than quicker
Repetition is an embedding strategy all on its own, so repeat, shuffle and repeat again- until you feel that there's progress. When you're ready, create a brand-new sentence to chop up! Here's one I made earlier:
Last Top tip:
Juanito loves PJ Masks, Pepper Pig and Sarah and Duck. Start there with your sentences. He will engage more :)
The Bottom Line:
Talking is the first step to successful writing. Talk, talk, talk-wherever you are and whenever you can! Do it well and do it often, and when the time comes for Juanito and other kids to pick up a pencil and write, they'll do so with more confidence and understanding.
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Happy home-schooling, all.