The Breakthrough

The past week I’ve spent each morning trying to toss a few English words into the spongey brains of Thai elementary schoolers. Cute, sweet and adorable as they are, the task is not an easy one. Each morning I head off at 9am to a school just east of town near a woodsy-looking lake. The classrooms all have doors that look out at the main courtyard in the middle. A play area protects the younger classrooms near the back of the courtyard. Almost everyday I have a different class to teach, with ages ranging from 7 years-old to 12 years-old. I teach 1st grade through 6th grade and see only the 3rd, 4th and 5th graders for two lessons.

The variety is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I replay the first day of class every day. Butterflies in my stomach with each new class. New faces and names I try (and fail) to learn. Games with instructions I have to figure out how to explain again.  By the end of the two weeks, due to my schedule, I’ll have conquered six first-days in six different class levels.

Which is precisely the benefit as well. I have the chance to try out different games and theories in different age groups to see what works. What do the kids like? Which lessons elicit bored looks and slumped shoulders? Which games get them out of their seats and talking to each other in English?


I learned this on days three and four.

Day one: sports. Wrote the question on the board: “What sport do you like to play?” Then showed them pictures of sports and said the name in English. Volleyball. Basketball. Football (soccer). They caught on quickly. They stumbled over the vibrating V of Volleyball, but at least they could identify it.

Day two, same idea. Sports. Sports with equipment: Thai football team in their yellow kitsFootball: Football Jersey (I showed a photo of the Thai football team in their lemon-colored jerseys, or “kits” as the English call it). Volleyball : Net; Basketball : Hoop.

It wasn’t until day three and day four that I realized I have to explain the word “sports.” I have to explain the word “play.” Explain “like.”

The words that seem so intuitive to me are some of the most basic ingredients to understanding one another. Like if I said, “Khoon cheu arai kah?” Expecting something like, “Chan cheu Caley, kah.”

Unless you have information about key words (like cheu means name), it’s difficult to even know where to start the understanding process.

Of course. Of course you have to explain the minuteae of language in order for people to understand it. But breaking language down to its most basic parts is a challenge!

By day five, yesterday, I figured out how to deconstruct sentences into recognizable parts. My target sentence: I like to eat watermelons.

1. Fruits. What are “fruits”?

2. So I show some color photos of fruits and say the names. Thai elementary students are great. They dutifully repeat any word you say in a chorus. watermelon slice Tang-moh

Watermelon= Tang-moh.

Pineapple= Sappa-roat (w/ a rolled ‘r’).

Banana= Gloo-way.

Mango= Mah-moo-wahng.

Okay. So I have the names of the fruit. But we don’t say in English, “I like to eat banana.” We use the plural form of the noun. So if I want to get to my target sentence, I also have to teach plurals.

Okay, so I show photos of a bunch of bananas, a couple of pineapples, a basket of mangos. But they have a hard time with the ‘s’ sound at the end of words. I draw a snake on the board and look back at the class. They all yell the word for snake in Thai, and a few start hissing. “Good!” I say as I move hand in a slithering motion and hiss like a snake. Then I draw the snake in the shape of an ‘S’.

Then I show them the plural photos and say, “Mangossssss.” “Bananasssss.”

bunch of bananasEmphasize with pictures that 1 banana = banana.

That many bananas = bananassssss.

Then I show a Happy Face.

Happy Face = Like.

Then show a frowning face.

Frowny face = don’t like.

I (point at self) Like (show happy face) bananas (show many bananas).

There! “I like bananas.

Phew! I made it! This process takes a good 15 minutes, but once you’re there, you can link the chain of events to get to the target sentence very easily.

Now. Off to teach “I don’t like bananasssssss.”


About KShaw

English teacher in Thailand. Global Traveler. Amateur linguist. Reader. Writer. Photographer. Musician. Friend.
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