Thursday, August 29, 2013

The highlight of the week

Early in the year I was asked to join a meeting of the English committee to brainstorm ways the whole-school English program could be improved. Some ideas had been suggested in the areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening and I added a few more. I was grateful for the opportunity to contribute as I could see lots of need for improvement. All the suggested changes were simple and required no money or extra resources but had the potential to improve the teaching and learning of English across the whole school.

Why is this important? Well, after the students get through the first few years, all subjects are taught in English (except obviously Dzongkha). Can you imagine learning physics or chemistry or economics in a language you are not proficient in? Sadly I see this is a serious problem and the main reason behind why students perform so poorly on the big end of term tests. If you can't read a question, or have adequate writing skills, how can you answer the questions? Not to mention, if you can't comprehend spoken English, or read well, how can you even learn the content in the first place? I saw all this first hand as I was called on to help mark highschool tests across all disciplines and was saddened by the poor results.

Anyway, some simple suggestions I have taken on board in my class are having good results. Most Mondays we begin with writing a simple recount of the weekend. At the beginning of the year students could not independently write a thing in my class. I started by putting sentence starter cards on the wall and a poster of likely places the kids go on the weekend. At first they wrote one or two basic sentences but now I've got some students who write a page or two of writing and it is of a standard similar to what I'd see in Australia. I've always felt that for young students who are learning to write this chance to regularly write about what they know best - themselves - is very valuable. Breaking away from the local habit of copying off the board which of course does not teach the skill of writing or demand the student think and 'have a go' is important and can be done with the youngest students.

A recent worksample from one of my 'good average' students.

And this (and the one that follows) is from one of my high-fliers.

We also have 'show and tell' on Mondays. I have a roster of 4 students per week which means all students will have two turns this term. They need to remember to bring in an item (a toy, a photo, a book etc) that they can speak about for a minute or two. I mark them out of 10 (out of 4 for speaking, out of 3 for non-verbals and out of 3 for preparation). This mark is part of their Cumulative Assessment mark. The students love it and I'm impressed by the ones who go to the effort of thinking of what they want to say at home - it is evident in their confidence. They feel very proud to get in front of the class and speak and at the age I'm working with, no one is shy. Children also learn to be part of an audience and show good listening manners.

Handwriting was another suggestion at the English committee meeting and I try to fit one handwriting lesson in a week. I use this as an opportunity not just to focus on handwriting skills but also an aspect of spelling or grammar. For example we looked at the different type of words that need capital letters, we have brainstormed words with long vowel sounds like ee/ea/ow/oa etc or contractions. The slow pace and quiet atmosphere of handwriting time is the perfect opportunity to concentrate on these skills. Again, the students (just like those in Australia) get excited when it is handwriting time!

I'm leaving the best for last though - for me and the students in my class the highlight of our week is after school on Thursday. I believe the school had some type of a reading period last year and I've added a few ideas to it. After school Thursday all the classes stay back for an extra 40 minutes and have a reading period in their classrooms. So that they would all have books to read I put together a box of 40 books each week for every class. At first I was unsure that the older students (up to 18 years old) would enjoy the type of books I have in my primary school library - mainly children's picture books. But I have been proven wrong. When the highschool students were younger there was no primary library, and nor would most have had story books at home. So for many this is the first opportunity to engage with these colouful fun stories. I keep hearing from them how much they enjoy coming to the primary library to read the books.

Another factor in this is that for many, their English reading and comprehension is not up to the level required to read a novel, and yet their curriculum is based on reading the great novels of western literature. Many of these are complex for native English speakers to fully comprehend, and it must be so discouraging for a poor reader. No wonder they love to read a simple picture book and actually grasp the story.

The best part of the reading period for class 2 and 3 is that I have organised for a class 9 and 10 class to join us for the session. I had no idea how well it would go!
All day class 2 is excited for the afternoon and seeing their 'azhim' or 'acho' - big sister or brother. They fret if their partner arrives a couple of minutes late. The younger students choose a book and find a spot at the low tables in the library, or on the floor or out on the verandah and snuggle up close to their partner.

With no direction the older students seem to know just what to do. They are expert tutors and I get tears in my eyes every week seeing the positive, caring way they interact. The younger students read and their buddy gently corrects any mistakes or helps them read new words. The best part is that when new words come up I hear them translating and explaining the new vocabulary in the local language - try as I might this is one skill I do not have to offer my students. The love flows freely - it is such a pleasure to watch as week by week the friendships are deepening and it is not just the little ones who value this time, but the older students seem to gain so much from it too. When you consider that most of my students do not have parents at home who can help with listening to their reading, this time is of immense value.

I bought a few bigbooks at the book fair and they are the big hit at reading time.


Kids snuggle up so close together!


Kinley (who wants to be the King of Australia when he grows up) gets the royal treatment with two adoring buddies!


I love seeing the cuddles - this is what reading is all about.

It is the only time I have to freely move among my students, listening discreetly over their shoulder, watching them attempt new and more difficult books and really impressing me with how far they've come.

 I have no doubt this weekly reading boost is an important component of my class 2s success in reading, and I hope the school will find a way to continue the program next year. I would love to think that I have given my students enough this year which will help propel them forward through the rest of their schooling with a good foundation of English to build upon.



  1. I often say I could not be a school teacher, but this story shows how rewarding it must be. Deep respect, Andrea, for the brilliant work you are doing.
    Thank you for sharing these beautiful stories.

    1. Thanks Dan, its a pleasure to share these stories and I hope I open these simple ideas up to a wider audience. Teaching anywhere in the world is very rewarding but particularly so here.

  2. Great blog and lovely ideas for the rest of Bhutan to implement too I can really see how much impact you are having and like you I hope your school can keep it up and running when you are gone You are doing such a great job Andrea

    1. Thanks Vicky. I post my blogs on what we're achieving at school in the hopes it might inspire other schools in Bhutan. Simple strategies can have a big impact. I look forward to show you my school soon :)