Adventures in teaching English in Italy

I’ve just survived my second week of teaching English at a summer city camp in Italy. The first week, in June, was extremely nerve wracking. I was so nervous and agitated about being prepared that I couldn’t sleep at night after spending the last few hours before bed reviewing what I would be doing the next day. By the end of the week I was shattered.

This time, I was ready for my overactive brain and didn’t prepare late into the night. Sleep came more easily, and a rested mind left me with more energy the next day.

As before, we stayed with a host family whose daughter would be attending the camp. My partner teacher, Giulia, and I were welcomed with open arms and shared an attic room with an en-suite bathroom and a resident cat. Actually, there were two cats, but only Micio came looking for company and slept at the foot of my bed every night. He had the most gorgeous face with an intelligent gaze. While practising the guitar one morning, I looked up to find him watching me intently from the top stair, his unblinking gaze and tilted head taking in everything I was doing. I almost expected him to start talking to me!

So here are a few observations and ideas from my experience.

  • Be prepared, but be flexible. Things can change in a moment and if you see something isn’t working, it’s better to change it. When a game or activity was no longer fun, we moved on to the next idea to keep things fresh and fun.
  • It’s not really necessary to organise every moment of the day. We found that our kids begged us for free time when they would quite happily organise their own games with a ball. If you have enough balls, you can have three or four different games going. Favourites were football for the boys and various versions of tag using a ball. They also loved it if we joined in with their games. Although it was quite exhausting, judicious use of my time and energy helped forge a bond between myself and the children and made class discipline a little easier.
  • I found a lot of good ideas on the Internet. Besides finding examples of English camp songs (for ESL purposes), I found a number of brilliant ideas that worked very well. The first of these was a simple call and answer to get the kids’attention when they were particularly excited and noisy. Most teachers will probably know this one, but I didn’t.  It was a lifesaver! Teacher shouts, “One, two,  three, eyes on me!” Campers must reply, “One, two, eyes on you!” I stressed that they should stop what they were doing, look at me, and listen for instructions. It worked like a charm, and made a very good impression at the final day concert.
  • The second was my “Good English” cards. Most Italian kids of this age can’t string together a sentence in English, although they maye be able to conjugate various verbs correctly. My main aim for this camp was to get them talking and to help them realise that it’s not as hard as they think. So I found this sheet of squares with “Good English”, printed off a large amount and cut them apart to keep in my pocket. I told my kids that if they used good English any time in the day, they could get a card. At the end of the day, each camper counted his or her cards and the camper with the most cards could choose a sticker from a supply i brought with me. I also decided on a second camper to get a sticker every day so that not only the best students got stickers. I was soon surrounded by campers, even during the freeplay period, as they asked me questions and tried to make conversation. Success!

      The final day mini concert was a proud moment for me as campers who hadn’t wanted to speak last time around spoke loudly and proudly in front of their parents. All in all it was exciting, exhausting and very satisfying and I’m looking forward to doing it all again next summer. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and write a reply to a twelve-year-old camper who wants to continue speaking English.

      Hungry Caterpillar song

      I’ve just remembered I promised to tell you about the caterpillar song. Well, after doing The Hungry Caterpillar with my little girls, the following week I taught them the song I composed.


      I used C and G chords on the guitar and as it’s so repetitive, they picked it up in no time.

      They loved the song and sang it with me while they coloured in their worksheets. I’m very happy with how it went and I’ll bring it out regularly to reinforce their learning.

      This week, we’re doing Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Any ideas for good resources anyone?

      April 2014 update: I’ve noticed that quite a few people have been looking for the music for the caterpillar song, so I asked my talented daughter to help me write the music. Here it is as a jpeg image. Happy singing everyone!

      caterpillar song music


      ESL resource site share

      Flashcard (Photo credit: pirate johnny)

      Working on the story for my little girls reminded me how much I rely on the Internet for some of my resources. I use a recognised, graded ESL book whenever possible, but sometimes you need extra resources or, as in the case of the girls, a book is not suitable. So here are some of my favourites for other teachers desperately looking for resources. Today I’ll concentrate on resources for children. We’ll look at adult resources another day.

      Sparklebox has got to be one of my all-time favourites. Find it here. It was there that I found the gorgeous flashcards for the caterpillar story. The site is aimed at primary school teachers, but the literacy resources are wonderful for teaching English. And best of all – they are all free! A quick browse of the site reveals new winter resources (words and pictures) and new editable resources ranging from flashcards and activities, bingo boards and labels to display banners and target board posters. I tend to haunt the stories and resources directory, a treasure trove of resources for both popular books and traditional tales. A big thank you to the developers of this site and to the teachers who have contributed their resources.

      Did you know that has resources for all the Cambridge English Tests? My favourite resource from here is a series of four posters and worksheets: The beach, The classroom, the sports field and the house. The posters have a lot of “strange” things eg. a computer and a snowman on the beach or a bath in the garage. The kids love them! It’s a much more fun way to learn “there is..” and “there are…”. They learn the vocabulary in a fun way as well. This resource is called” YLE school posters and worksheets” if you want to look for it.

      Want to encourage your child or students to read? If you are in a place where obtaining good, graded English readers is difficult, why not try the Oxford Owl reading site? This marvellous site has over 250 e-books available which children can read on-line. The directory is arranged according to age, making it easier to choose suitable books for each particular child. The audio facility means that children of non-English speaking parents can hear the correct pronunciation when they read the books at home. What an excellent idea this site is, and I’m sure that many parents will buy some of the other books which are not available as e-books. I told some parents about this site and the children excitedly told me which books they had read last week.

      So that’s my three for the week. There are so many more, but I wouldn’t want to overload my reader. Let the others be revealed another day. What sites do other teachers use? Where do you find your resources?

      The Very Hungry Caterpillar
      The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Photo credit: against the tide)

      Yesterday was one of those days where you remember why you’re doing the job you are. I have two little girls of six and seven who come to me for English lessons. They can barely read or write in Italian, so it’s really difficult to work with them. I decided to tell the story “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle.

      What a delight it was, as the girls got excited about the story and “helped” me tell it. I used flashcards obtained from, which we stuck to the board with prestik. They learnt the days of the week as well as the names of the fruit and food in the story. I found a lovely worksheet on another site (don’t remember the name). They coloured in the various foods in boxes. The days of the week were pasted into their books in such a way that they could lift the days. The food boxes were then pasted under the appropriate day. Next week we’ll revisit colours with a caterpillar activity made of different coloured circles which they have to colour in. And I’m even thinking of making a song to sing with the guitar!

      I’ll let you know how that goes!

      It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

      A chance comment to a student this morning got me thinking about those difficult colloquialisms that English speakers love using and that are a source of great confusion for anyone who is not a mother tongue speaker.

      Looking out of the window at the pouring rain, I said, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” She looked at me in surprise, brow furrowing, and repeated, “Cats and dogs?” A quick explanation brought a smile to her face. “Ah…” she said, and in Italian, “raining buckets”. (Surprisingly similar to the phrase “bucketing down”, don’t you think?)

      I wondered where the saying came from and did a quick Google search. It’s not really clear, but one of the most likely explanations relates to conditions in the cities and sewers. Heavy rain would have flushed out the bodies of cats and dogs from the sewers, allowing them to flow through the city with the water. I found that out here:

      I remember a particular English lesson from my youth where we were asked to draw literal illustrations of a number of colloquialisms. Obviously, we vied each other to find the most hilarious ones. Here are some of my favourites:

      She laughed her head off. Oh, there goes her head, rolling down the street.

      I’m all fingers and thumbs. Imagine how hard life would be if this were really true!

      My new car cost an arm and a leg. Uh-oh! You’re going to find it really hard to drive then!

      I just said hello and he bit my head off. Creates a graphically violent picture!

      She cut off her nose to spite her face. More violence here!

      I got the news straight from the horse’s mouth. Picture my surprise when the horse told me the news!

      What’s your favourite colloquialism, and why? Artists are welcome to draw their response and link to it in my comments.

      Apology: Please excuse the attempt to link to another site. I can’t get the “add link” button to work, so you’ll just have to copy and paste into your browser if you want to go to the site I used. Enjoy!



      Written for the daily prompt: What is success to you?

      I’ve given this a lot of thought over the last few days and come to realise that it’s different things at different times (and of course, to different people).
      At the moment, I’m an “English as a foreign language” teacher. I have to specify because teaching English in a country where the language isn’t spoken on a daily basis is totally different from teaching it and an English speaking country. My students have very little opportunity to hear or use English, so every small improvement is a big success. And for me, success is everywhere in my daily work.
      It’s in a child’s beaming smile when they learn to count or realise that they know the answer to the question. It’s in the delight of the school-leaver who has passed a Cambridge English level exam and can enter University in the UK. It’s in the sincere thanks of a young person who has landed an important job because of their ability to use English. But it’s also in the shy smile of the troubled young man who is desperate to find a job and uses our lessons to keep himself busy.
      I can’t really say that these are my successes because it is the work of the student to push himself or herself forward through studying and memorising, as well as practising. Nevertheless, I feel privileged and blessed to be able to share in the success of the wonderful people who have passed through my life, many of whom still enrich my days with their efforts and laughter. They have taught me the meaning of success.

      Grammar for English Language Teachers – A review

      After reading Jolene’s review: about uncovering the logic of English, I decided to share a review of one of my favourite resources for ESL/ESOL teaching, Grammar for English Language Teachers by Martin Parrot. The publisher is Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 9780521477972

      This is quite a tome, covering every aspect of grammar, from basic word classes to verb phrases , sentence constituents, word order, and finally, complex sentences. The book sets out the basic ‘rules of thumb‘ presented to learners in course material while highlighting the complexity and (where necessary) the ambiguity of grammatical descriptions and rules. Included at the back are spelling rules and notes on pronunciation.

      The organisation of the book is extremely user-friendly. Every chapter starts with key considerations and includes a section on typical difficulties for learners – invaluable when you are trying to figure out what your student is doing wrong and why. Each chapter includes consolidation exercises and a key is provided at the back of the book. A ‘short cut’ index at the front makes finding specific information easy, should you not wish to work through the book in a systematic fashion.

      I highly recommend this book if you want to get to grips with the complexity of teaching English to speakers of other languages.