The A in ABC: An A to Z through artworks

We’re heading towards wrapping up the coursebook pre-Unit dealing with alphabet with my 3rd grade groups. Here is something I have prepared to revise, read, do some pronunciation work, and of course have the pleasure of viewing art. Seems we teachers have our own little moments of creative flow, too 🙂

Hope you enjoy it, and even think of some use for it with your younger learners. Let me know about it if so. Should you have any other ideas, I’d be glad to find out, too.

The A in ABC pdf

The A in ABC ppt

Expertise through Experience: the art of growing

Alan Maley, the editor of this new British Council publication, proves that he is a living example of life-long creativity and development. Developing Expertise Through Experience takes an enlarging perspective in the acts of teaching and learning exploring Prabhu’s concept of ‘the teacher’s sense of plausibility’ through the voice of twenty practitioners. Needless to say that I am delighted to have been invited to contribute a chapter to this fascinating collection of insights.

The threads that weave together our narratives are the places, people, ideas, publications and critical moments that have been formative for our career trajectories. Through this kind of reflective process valuable elements can be distilled within the framework of teacher development as a whole. These elements point to the necessity of taking into account trainees’ narratives and personal experiences of what is appropriate for them in their specific context. This applies to pre- and in-service training programmes and in Continuing Professional Development (CPD) in general.

The book is free to download here:

And from British Council’s TeachingEnglish:

There are also suggestions for practical activities to achieve this in a forthcoming e-file soon to be published in the above link.

Sky and water: visual literacy with very young learners

This post reflects on a series of lessons I recently had with a group of 8 year-old 3rd graders. The lessons aimed at enriching alphabet and word learning with a visual literacy component.  

In the Greek state school, 3rd grade is when the formal EFL programme starts. It is formal in the sense that it aims at the development of students’ language proficiency. In the first two years of primary school, students are attending a curriculum which introduces them to the oral mode of foreign language and tries to develop their social literacies.


It all started when we encountered letter F. In the coursebook, letters are presented as initials of particular words (e.g. F for fish and fishbowl) and there are rhymes that contain repetitions of the particular letter/sound relation in a meaningful or funny context. There is also visual input designed for each rhyme to facilitate comprehension and memorization. In the coursebook, letter F is dealt as follows:

coursebook excerpt

It was at that point when one of the students pointed enthusiastically to the classroom door saying: “A family of fish, like that!”. He had noticed an artwork on the classroom door. Then, another student noticed the birds while a third one thought the changing pattern in the fish as we move downwards was a sign of their aging. These interesting reactions gave me the idea of this lesson which was completed in three teaching sessions.

The artwork on the classroom door

Sky and water I

The artwork on the classroom door is Sky and Water I a woodcut print, by the Dutch artist M.C. Escher, first printed in 1938. Birds and fish fit into each other like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each element is alternately foreground or background, depending on whether the eye concentrates on light or dark elements.

The aims of the first session were to

  • encourage visual literacy micro-skills (careful viewing, analyzing)
  • encourage early word identification and recognition (birds, water, sky, in the)
  • practise saying a short rhyme related to the artwork
  • watch an animated version of the artwork
  • encourage body gesture to facilitate comprehension and memorization
  • have students exposed to and observe carefully a series of other multimodal resources (word clouds, letter tessellations, logos)
  • recognize previously taught words and letters in the word clouds and tessellations
  • practise uncovering the hidden message in the logos
  • complete a worksheet with relevant activities

I first projected the artwork on the classroom board. They were happy to see it in a bigger size.

Sky and Water I, M.C.Escher 1938

I pointed at the different elements in the artwork and elicited the words ‘fish’ and ‘birds’. I wrote these on the board. We then added before each word ‘a family of’. Next, after each phrase (a family of fish/birds) was heard in the classroom, I asked ‘Where?’ and we came up with the words ‘water’ and ‘sky’. I also jotted these down as well as ‘in the’. We tried this four or five times alternating among whole class response, individual response, and then whole class response again.

I reminded them of the little rhyme we had encountered in the coursebook during our previous class. I prompted them to adjust it to the artwork. Our new rhyme went like this:

A family of fish, of fish

in the water.

A family of birds, of birds

in the sky.

We added some rhythmic clapping. By now they were all very excited.

I then showed them a very nice short animation of the artwork.

M.C. Escher: Sky and Water 1 – Animation

I divided the class into two groups: fish and birds. I turned the sound off. When each element appeared in the video, the relevant group chanted their part. The students enjoyed themselves enormously. I then asked them to chant it in a whispering mode. I also encouraged them to gesture accordingly, i.e. fish group pretended they were swimming, bird group pretended they were flying. Water was mimed by placing hands under our desks, sky by lifting them up. I gestured with them along the way. At the end of the animation we said ‘Goodbye birds, fly! Goodbye fish, swim!’ Students improvised gestures for ‘fly’ and ‘swim’. We had a great time. Students asked if they could watch the animation for a second time and repeat the activity. I turned sound on and we repeated the activity. Enthusiasm led us to a third time, too.

Tessellations, word clouds and logos with a hidden message

I then projected the artwork again and asked students to carefully observe its details. They noticed that there was no space between the fish and bird shapes. Escher’s work consists of geometric shapes that fill the plane with congruent forms in rhythmic repetition without leaving any void. These formations are called tessellations. Escher liked to play with positive and negative shapes. In Sky and Water I the birds at the top appear as positive space (a main subject), yet its shape is echoed in the dark negative shapes between the fish.  Likewise, the positive shape of the fish at the bottom has its shape repeated in the white spaces between the birds. I invited a couple of students to the board and had them outline the fish or bird shape hiding in the negative spaces.

I also showed them some letter tessellations. They identified the letters, we talked about the colours, how the letters appeared face downwards and face upwards covering all the surface.

We then had a look at two word clouds. I invited individual students to the board to trace the words in them. In every slide we repeated the relevant part of our rhyme.

To end the first session we had a look at a selection of logos with a hidden message. Apart from the last logo, these were of products found in the Greek market.

Toblerone logo

In the Toblerone logo some students saw a fish and a bird. I initially thought they were influenced by the previous activity so I invited these students to the board to trace the shape they had seen. Then, the first student traced the left leg of the bear and it did look like a fish swimming upwards while the second student traced the little shape right next to it which again did look like a bird flying. I told them they were right about the shapes and prompted them to look again carefully in case they could see something bigger. It was then that some of the students saw the bear hiding in Toblerone’s logo. I told them the story behind this logo.

LG logo

Most of the students ‘saw’ the face hiding in LG’s logo. One of them said ‘it’s Pacman’ while another said ‘Life is good’. Many students said that had LG products at home. Another student wanted to draw the full face so I invited him to the board. He added the other eye and two little dots under L to indicate the nostrils.

Hope for African Children Initiative logo

Almost all the students saw the child looking up to an adult hiding behind the ‘Hope for African Children Initiative’ logo. I was initially taken by surprise since when I first looked at it I focussed on the map of Africa. But then I thought that my young learners were not familiar with world maps so they immediately focussed on the shapes of the people. Some students recognized the word Africa(n) in the logo and one said children are hungry and suffer there. We talked a bit about the need to protect children in that place and the message of the logo.

At the end of the first session students were given a worksheet to complete as homework activity (see downloadable material below).

My hidden message or image

In the second session, I asked students to reflect on the previous class, work in groups and: create an image with a hidden message, or form a word cloud using words we had already encountered.

In the third session groups presented their images to their classmates who tried to guess the hidden image or message. They described and explained what they had created. L1 was used by the students for the descriptions. L2 was used for single items in their images that the students knew the English word for. For every image, I offered and asked them to repeat new key words while we revisited words we already knew.

My aims during these two sessions were to

  • encourage students’ visual literacy micro-skills (visual thinking, and visual representing) through selecting and creating an image to convey meaning
  • encourage their creative non verbal expression
  • recycle previously taught vocabulary
  • encourage oral vocabulary acquisition through students’ work
  • practise repeating single words spoken slowly and clearly

The students worked in groups. When ready, the groups showed their images to their classmates who tried to guess the hidden image or message. They described and explained what it was and why they had made it. For every image, I offered and asked them to repeat new key words while we revisited words we already knew. 

Free fish

The group who had made this wanted to convey the message that fish should not be kept in fishbowls. They had asked me for the word ‘free’ as they were working on their image. (new key word: free – known words: fish, fishbowl)

Sad mountain

This is a sad mountain, students said. It’s sad because the water at its foot is dirty. Their answer to why this is so was that people throw rubbish in it. (new key words: mountain, sad, brown, rubbish – known word: water)

A snake-cow hat

This is a hat, but if you look carefully it’s also a snake that has swallowed a cow, students said. They had asked for the word hat while working. (new key words: snake, cow, hat, green)

The shark who has eaten too much

This is a shark who has eaten fish, grass, birds, rabbits, grandpa, a family. A very big shark with many things in his belly, students explained. (new key words: shark, grandpa, rabbit, grass – known words: bird, fish, family)

Mrs Nature

Mrs Nature is happy when there are flowers and trees and sad when there is nothing. Students said that people make Mrs Nature sad when they destroy trees and flowers. (new key words: happy, flowers, trees)

A word cloud for letter C

Students in this group created their own impression of a word cloud based on one of the previous letters we had learned (C) and a relevant short rhyme about a cat on a computer.

Wrapping it up

This series of lessons is a step beyond my comfort zone, a departure from my work with older primary school students which dominates the posts on this site. It signals an attempt to expand my experimentation, insight and knowledge of themes that are very close to my heart, i.e art, visual literacy, making meaning, and creativity in the English language classroom. Language input, activity design, appropriacy and variation all had to be viewed under a new light taking into consideration a group of very young learners whose needs are very different from my usual older students. I feel really happy to have tried it and to share my insight here because it has been a new learning experience for me, as well.  

During these sessions I was struck by the children’s enthusiasm and engagement upon their exposure to a variety of multimodal ensembles (the artwork, the animated video, the letter tessellations, the word clouds, the logos, the written text) and activities. This echoes relevant literature that variation is a sine qua non when working with very young learners. I was also fascinated to observe how 8 year olds hone their viewing, analyzing and decoding skills as the visual, the verbal, and the gestural interweave and how all these are in a direct conversation with memorization and comprehension. 

I was finally struck by their readiness to embark on a creative process. As their visual thinking and visual representation were put into force, they further built an understanding of the meaning behind their images through perception and imagination. It was interesting that in half of the groups a social awareness thread could be identified (free fish, sad mountain, Mrs Nature) and how they chose to relate their images to the social environment. It was also a surprise to see humour in their work (the shark who has eaten too much). 

The experience has certainly whetted my appetite for further exploration of this approach. 

How about you? Have you ever tried anything similar with your very young learners? I would love to hear about it. 

Downloadable material

Escher worksheet

Tessellations, word clouds, logos ppt


Avgerinou, M.D. (2002) A Review of the Concept of Visual Literacy. British Journal of Educational Technology, 28(4):280-291.

Dendrinos, B. (ed) (2013) The ‘PEAP’ Programme: English for Young Learners in the Greek Primary School”

Escher, Sky and Water I

13 famous logos with hidden messages

The diary of Anne Frank ii

I had come across a 3 minute animation showing extracts from the graphic biography of Anne Frank that I wanted to show students, but I thought that language might be a bit difficult for them. The research, sharing, visually organizing, and writing activities that we first worked on, and that I wrote about in the previous post, paved the ground for stepping smoothly into watching the animation.

The Anne Frank animation – ordering the events

I prepared a worksheet with 10 events from the video and jumbled them up. This is an activity drawn from Kieran Donaghy’s excellent resource Film in Action. Students watched the video twice and they ordered the events as they appeared in the animation.

Representing: my image of Anne Frank’s story

On finishing the lesson, I asked students to choose the most important thing from Anne’s story and communicate their ideas in both verbal and non-verbal ways. A wealth of hand made drawings and digital work was brought in class.

representing the most important element in Anne’s story

Many students chose to draw Anne’s diary associating it with her life events and her writings about the war. Others drew Anne herself writing in her diary and the importance of what she wrote not only for herself, but also for us, as future generations. A student drew Anne with a “Jew” badge on her chest the moment she was arrested by the Nazis. There was also a group of students who had chosen to work on this collaboratively and came up with a series of 4 portraits of Anne capturing all the important events in her life. These portraits were inspired by the imagery in the animation and were linked to four relevant life moments. Each portrait was related to her state and feelings starting from birth when she was free, moving to her receiving the diary (happy), hiding and writing in the Annex (sad, angry) and finally being arrested (scared).

Sentence-phrase-word: what speaks to me

The last activity on this topic involved being exposed to Anne’s writing. I was lucky enough to trace the definitive edition online and made a worksheet with 3 excerpts. I first read the excerpts to the students and we worked on language they did not know. Then, we worked on the sentence, phrase, word routine. I asked them to choose:

  • a sentence
  • a phrase
  • a word

that were important, meaningful, powerful or moved them. I also encouraged them to justify their choices.

Some students chose their sentence, phrase, word from the first excerpt, some from the second, while some from the third. Some others tried choosing from more than one excerpts and some made one choice from each excerpt. Finally, some students chose only one or two of the stems (sentence or phrase or word). I realize that this activity requires a deep, personal insight into a topic which is not an easy one, let alone when you have to express yourself in another language. Students’ answers were touching and showed an admirable effort to offer their personal interpretations on Anne’s writing.

Some responses for excerpt 1

for excerpt 2

for excerpt 3 and mixed responses

By the time, we reached the end of our work, Anne Frank and her diary had become a topic of everyday discussion whether we had a class together or not. I can even say that I was slighlty surprised by the impact it had on the students. Books bought were brought in class, others had already been ordered, excerpts from their Greek language textbook on Anne Frank were discovered and they asked their Greek language teacher to work on them; students were sharing among themselves youtube addresses where they could watch and find out more about her. It was great to see the resonance of her story with the children.

The diary of Anne Frank i

Some diary excerpts from previous decades that were in our coursebook sparked the idea of dealing with the most widely read diary: the diary of Anne Frank. Not a happy ending story, yet one that I felt is important for my young sixth graders (A2, eleven year-olds) to know. It can trigger thinking about injustice and discrimination, about where hate can lead, and stimulate empathy for others through a real story of a girl close to their age.

The cloudy girl: triggering curiosity

Skills: observing, writing, speaking, listening, note-taking

I first showed them a screenshot from an animation on Anne Frank and we worked on the see-think-wonder routine. They observed silently and answered 3 questions:

What do you see?

What do you think about it?

What does it make you wonder?

They took notes of their ideas. I went round the classroom and offered help with language when needed. Some asked for words like “wires”, “torn”, “borders”, “bent” (shoulders). One needed help clarifying between “die” and “kill”.

We shared our ideas in class. They fact that the girl in the image was writing a diary was a prominent answer among most of the students. They identified the feeling of sadness in the girl’s face and made associations with a war situation. Two of the students straightly associated the image with World War II because the shape of the airplane reminded them of similar airplanes they had seen from that period. A student used the word “cloudy” to describe her thoughts about the girl and word choice made me smile. I found it creative and unexpected.

They also hypothesized about the relationship between the two female figures. Some thought the woman at the back was the girl’s mother, others her grandmother. A couple of them thought that the people were refugees trying to cross the borders because of the wired fence at the back and their torn clothes.

See-think-wonder, classroom documentation
see-think-wonder, classroom documentation

Students’ questions embraced all the who, where, what and why relevant to the topic: Who are these people? What is the girl writing? Why is this war happening? Why are they sad? Where are they?

I took some notes of their ideas on the board and encouraged students to do the same in their notebooks.

student notes

By the end of the session they were more than curious to find out who the girl in the image was. I revealed her name and wrote it on the board: Anne Frank.

Some of them went bright-eyed. Two had the Greek translation of the book at home, but had never read it. One said he was a member of an amateur theatre club and he remembered once talking about staging a performance of this play, but not doing it in the end. A fourth one had been to the theatre with her parents and had attended a professional performance based on Anne Frank’s life. A vague familiarity with the cloudy girl in the image began to spread in the classroom.

I asked them what they knew about Anne Frank and three things came up: she was writing in her diary about the war, she lived in Germany, she was a Jew (that was a word that they knew in Greek, and I provided them with the English equivalent). When they asked what Jew means, I explained in simple terms that it is a religion.

At the end of this first session, I asked them as a follow-up to:

  1. Write a short paragraph about the lesson, based on their notes and class discussion.
  2. Research, read about Anne Frank (reading could be done in either L1 or L2) and come back next time with 4-5 sentences about what struck them as most interesting.

Organising Anne’s story visually

Skills: reading, listening, speaking, note-taking, story building

Until our next session, I was pleasantly surprised and happy to see students come and find me before the morning assembly or during breaks to report either that they had started reading the book or that they had asked their parents for a copy. Those who had started reading it were amazed to find out how many things Anne could not do because she was a Jew.

In our second session on the topic, individual students initially read their paragraphs and some feedback was given.

Then, they started sharing their choices of sentences. I knew that not all students would come up with the same things. I trusted that from the multitude of sentences we would manage to create an as complete as possible picture of Anne’s story. I also had in mind of asking them at the end of the session for a writing assignment that would incorporate all the elements shared in class.

I decided to organise the information into a more visual form to illustrate the connections and relationships between various aspects of what we were discussing. I hoped to enable students to refer to, relate between information, and help the writing process.

The diagramme was built around the first 4 sentences that were read in class, namely that she was born in Germany, she was a Jew, she wrote a diary and that she died in 1945. From thereon I intervened at times and facilitated building the story by asking some questions and seeing whether students had written a relevant sentence.

For example, I asked “What was happening in Germany at the time Anne was born?” and a student had written a sentence about Adolph Hitler and the Nazis coming to power. That’s how the left part of the diagramme started being formed. The next question was “Why was this important for Anne?” and someone else had written that the Nazis discriminated against the Jews and made life difficult for them. I went on by asking “So, what did Anne’s family do?” and we found out that they moved to the Netherlands. “Were they safe there?” was the next question to get the answer that “no” because “persecutions against the Jews intensified”.

We finally reached the point where the family hid in the Secret Annex with four other friends. The Secret Annex was linked to her writing the diary and the people were linked to the aftermath i.e that the Nazis arrested them, and they were taken to a concentration camp where Anne died. Which brought us back to one of the first four sentences.

visualising Anne’s story on the board

While writing on the board, I used colour coding: blue for the information, black to highlight verbs used, red for things of importance, and finally a green contour around new language. This was language students had included in their sentences, but other students were not familiar with since each one had come up with different sentences.

At the end of the session, I asked students to draw on the diagramme and retell the story. We did this as a relay race. One would start, I would say stop, another student would take up from that point and go on with the story. We tried this two or three times and it went well. Students left the class to do their writing assignment feeling quite confident about it. I left thinking about the next stage of the topic which is still going on and I hope to write about it in a next post.

Ruby’s story

This post reports on how we worked some time ago with a group of fifth graders (A1 level students, 10 years old) using Norman Rockwell’s “The problem we all live with”. The aims were to:

  • collaboratively build a story with prompts
  • raise awareness of intolerance and racism
  • practise Past tenses (Past Simple, Past Progressive)
  • develop viewing, observing and description skills
  • encourage note-taking
  • link to Art, History, and Geography

“The problem we all live with” is an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. It depicts Ruby Bridges. She was the first African-American child to attend the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in 1960.

The problem we all live with (1964) by Norman Rockwell

Building the story

I framed the procedure as a viewing/describing activity towards collaboratively building a story with prompts. For the prompts I used the typical journalistic questions: Who? What? Where? How? Why?

I first introduced the painting by saying: Well, this is Ruby…,and then invited the children to go on with the story, prompting them to respond by providing full answers to my questions:

  • Who was she?
  • What was she doing/carrying/wearing?
  • Where do you think she was going?
  • How did she look?
  • Was she alone?
  • Who was with her?
  • Why?

The students were speaking, they listened to their classmates’ ideas and took notes. As the story was gradually built, individual students narrated it, adding each time the new elements, so that they could get an as good as possible grasp of it. They came up with descriptive pieces of writing based on their notes and class discussion.

Student writing

Students were very happy with Ruby’s story. They liked the painting and they also liked this beautiful little black girl. They thought that the four policemen were walking with Ruby and protecting her because she was an important person. They made associations with the former USA president.

Student writing

What more can we find? Ruby’s real story unfolds

Then I started drawing their attention to other details in the painting by asking:

  • Look carefully, what more can we find?

We started developing the real story.  They first noticed the tomato splash on the wall and the tomato on the ground. I asked them:

  • What do you think about that?
  • What was happening?

Students were surprised to realise that “Oh! people were throwing tomatoes”. Then they noticed the word Nigger on the wall above Ruby and they asked: “What is a Nigger?” I explained in simple terms that this is a racist word to talk about black people. They finally noticed the letters KKK on the top left corner of the painting and again they wanted to know what these stand for. I said that it is an organization in the USA that terrorizes black people. All this was added to our initial notes about Ruby. It was at this moment that the students were shocked, sad and angry. They had grown to like Ruby so much that when the actual story unfolded in front of their eyes, they felt it was unfair. It was an apt moment to ask:

  • Why do you think that people were reacting like that?

It came very natural to children to say that this had happened because she wasn’t white, she was different.

Student notes

I then provided them with the geographical and historical context of the incident.

We also moved from racial intolerance in general to the racism of our everyday life. I asked them to look at each other and notice how different we are, whether that means height, weight, whether we are strong or less strong, and the things we like. We are all different. It was about raising awareness of intolerance towards difference: the more “different” the other is perceived, the stronger the fears and negative feelings tend to be.

Student writing

Interactive work on Ruby’s story

Following classroom work on Ruby’s story, I developed a course presentation with interactive slides to give students the chance to further practise vocabulary and grammatical structures involved in the lesson. It comprises of 12 micro-activities, each one dealt with in a different slide:

Slides 1-8 

  • drag and drop vocabulary activity
  • reading, part i
  • reading quiz- answer 5 questions
  • reading part ii
  • reading comprehension gap fill
  • focus on language structures: Past Progressive identification
  • focus on language structures: Past Simple & Past Progressive gap fill
  • Interactive video (hotspots with questions and information): Ruby Bridges talks about herself and the painting.

Slides 10-11 

Choose one of the following 2 activities:

  • Work in groups of 3. One of you must get in the shoes of Ruby, one in the shoes of a US Marshal, and one in the shoes of one of the people in the crowd. From your point of view, answer the questions: What do you think? How do you feel? What do you care about? These questions build understanding of multiple perspectives.
  • Watch the trailer from a film about Ruby Bridges. Answer the questions: How is the trailer similar to the painting? How is it different? How do you feel? Why? What new things did you learn about Ruby’s story?

Slides 13-14

Choose one of the following 2 activities:

  • Visit GoogleEarth – Louisiana (make sure you open your browser in Google Chrome). Prepare a word doc or a ppt presentation about 3 things that you find interesting about Louisiana.   
  • Prepare a word doc or a ppt presentation about Norman Rockwell. 

Ruby’s story triggered students’ curiosity and evoked self-initiated work and further research. They made little booklets with illustrations, handmade word clouds, little posters.  I think what happened to Ruby spoke highly to children’s hearts and minds.

Student word cloud, handmade

The interactive work was created using H5P, an online tool for creating, sharing and reusing interactive HTML5 content.

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