4 Great Ways to Use Ed-Tech to Build Communication Skills in the Elementary Classroom


If you read my recent post about my return to blogging, you’ll have seen that I’ve been on a bit of a crusade at my school to prove that ed-tech can be, should be, and is being, used to develop the communication skills of students (If you haven’t read it you can find it here).


One of the positives that came from the frustrating conversation that happily pushed me back into blogging, was that I set about putting together a list of practical ways educators could do this.  It’s not enough to tell time-pressured teachers than you can, in theory, do something. I’ve learned in the past 18 months that giving people something they can directly transfer to their classrooms is critical.  So, without further rambling from me, here are some suggestions for ways to build communication skills in the primary classroom (secondary suggestions hopefully coming soon, too!):


Chatterpix Kids by Duck Duck Moose

If you teach or have young (3-8) children and haven’t already checked out Duck Duck Moose’s app (they’ve recently joined the Khan Academy family) then go and do that now, then come back – we’ll wait for you.


What does it do?

Chatterpix Kids is a very simple app, you snap a picture, draw a line where you want the ‘mouth’ to move, then record what you want to say.  You can also add in a few simple extras such as stickers (funny hats are a big hit with my 6-7 year olds), text, frames, etc.  Then watch your creations, export them to share, or make another.


How could I use it in class tomorrow?

  • To practise giving opinions on a topic/story/event – we recently used it to discuss Chinese New Year, practising giving specific reasons for our opinions (rather than ‘I like it because it is nice.’)
  • Give feedback on work for a partner
  • Student created definitions/points of interest for vocab and topics (share them on your class site, Google Classrooms, Edmodo, blog, etc.)


How is this helping build communication skills?

  • Get all the students are speaking.  Every kid in my class loves doing this, even the shy ones – they can choose whether only I see it, they share it with a couple of friends, or add it to the whole-class mele.
  • It’s a great differentiation tool (you can vary what they speak about, but have all kids join in)
  • Add in a listening station – playback a couple of classmates chatterpix and give them feedback
  • Confidence – okay so the first time in particular everyone gets the nervous giggles about how silly they look.  But then they realise they can talk about things, they do have great ideas, etc.


ThingLink – www.thinglink.com


What does it do?

ThingLink allows you (or students) to annotate pictures or video clips with notes.  You could use it in a number of ways, but I primarily use it as a discussion prompt.  I add questions to the tags, discussion ideas, etc. and send my students a link to the saved version.  They click on each tag to see the questions/prompts I’ve added, then my kids work in pairs/small groups to go through them and discuss them together.  We model and practice language that helps us have good discussions at the start of the year (e.g. I agree with ___, and would add… , I understand your point, however I think…) and recap it for these lessons.


How could I use it in class tomorrow?

  • Activating Prior Knowledge – bring up a picture for a new topic and add some discussion points – what do your class already know about this?
  • Apply new understanding – I recently used this to give students chance to discuss how different objects met, or did not meet, the 7 life processes


How is this helping build communication skills?

  • I have 26 kids in my class.  With the best will in the world I could never, and would never, oversee every discussion they have.  But sometimes, they need a little help staying on track with their discussions.  This way I can, virtually, be there to provide a new question when they need to move on, but they have the freedom to practise without me over their shoulder and can decide how long to spend on each question.  I’m able to get them working independently of me, but with support right there if they need it.
  • Differentiation – I can change the questions as I need to.  Or I can mix up the students working together.  They can change the pace.  They can choose to go on a (reasonable) tangent, or stick to just what I asked).  I can go to groups/students who need me most. Pretty awesome, right?
  • Asking questions – eventually my class get to a point where they are able to set questions too, and then share them with each other – adding another great strand to their communication skills



For this I use Audacity for podcasts, which free and pretty simple, but there are plenty of other options out there too.  For vodcasts we keep it simple with either Windows Movie Maker or iMovie.  

What does it do?

Recoding a podcast is a bit like a radio show, only instead of broadcasting it live over the radio, you record it to your device to listen back or share later.

How could I use it in class tomorrow?

  • Book Club discussions – record a round table discussion of a book
  • Record a drama performance
  • Discuss world events
  • Perform poetry pieces
  • Interviews
  • School News

How is this helping build communication skills?

  • Students will be able to plan, script and then record their podcast pulling in so many skills
  • Builds teamwork and collaboration
  • Again, builds confidence in speaking
  • Allows students to listen to their own work, and that of other students, and reflect on them together


Skype in the Classroom from Microsoft – https://education.microsoft.com/skype-in-the-classroom/overview

Microsoft are busily chasing down the the likes of Google and Edmodo in providing great services for education (we can compare them another time!).  But a lot of their ideas are, as yet, relatively undiscovered! Skype in the Classroom is a great communication tool.  Last year whilst studying Oceans we were able to Skype an expert, a non-fiction author, direct from our classroom!

What does it do?

You use Skype to connect your class to guest speakers, virtual field trips, other schools, to collaborate on projects, or all of the above!

How could I use it in class tomorrow?

Visit the website and check out the experiences available and then schedule one for your class! My school is not in the US, where many using the service are, but plenty of those offering their expert services have been great at working with us on finding a suitable time!

Use it in connection to:

  • Theme units
  • Geography and History
  • Science
  • Author studies
  • More!

How is this helping build communication skills?

We prep for our Skype session in advance, thinking of topics and questions in small groups. But then we get the chance to actually speak to experts or other students and really put our communication skills into practice!
Clearly, this list is not extensive, it’s not really meant to be.  It’s simply intended to share a few ideas from my own practice, and to help other teachers to think of a few simple ways to use tech to support those all important interpersonal skills!


Encouraging Reluctant Readers

I’m back in the UK at the moment for our summer break before we head over to our new school and home in Malaysia in August.  You might think that means I’d have more time to write, but I’ll be honest here I’m spending it all with my little boy and our families – today for example I’m writing this while he naps after a busy trip to a farm a day at the zoo an evening with his grandma and cousin (okay so it took a while to write this)!

Still, with the 2014-5 school year now finished my thoughts are turning more and more to the year ahead. One of the biggest successes in my classroom for the last couple of years was the incredible experiencing of turning some reluctant readers into real bookworms! This love of reading is something I really want to build into everything I do with my new class.  With that in mind I started to think, and write, about some of the strategies I have been using, or wish to try out, to encourage those reluctant readers:

Reading Corner or Classroom Library

Ask my students what their favourite place is in my classroom and I’m pretty sure almost all would reply ‘the readers’ corner’ and this isn’t by accident.  When I set up my classroom (which I’ll be writing about more later)  I always start out with my reading area first.  This has to be a few things:

  • Easy for students to access and easy for me to see everyone whilst working in other areas of the classroom
  • Inviting – students should want to be there
  • Comfortable (obviously!)
  • Easy to organise/maintain

Having a great reading area makes a huge difference because it makes reading feel special.  This is a vital part of the overall effect I’m going for.  I’m also aware that my more confident readers aren’t quite as reliant on feeling comfortable and relaxed as my emergent or reluctant readers, so if needed I can tailor the space to the latter. Generally my reading corner last year was more about being a comfy space than storing books effectively due to our school set up.  That meant it had some nice rugs on the floor (bath mats make great individual/paired reading spaces), a mixture of cushions (big, small, softer, harder, different colours, etc.), a bright but not too distracting display area and some colourful decoration (last year this was some colourful scarves hung over the window).

What is in your reading area/classroom library will vary hugely based on space and resources but with some creative thinking, like the bath mats as reading rugs, it is easier than you might think to create a warm, inviting space. If you’re struggling for inspiration I’d highly recommend searching ‘classroom library’ on Pinterest.

Visual bookcase

This is a great follow on to the reading corner, because it can be included as part of the design.  I used the back of a book case (it was being used as both a case and a space divider) to make a pretend bookcase.  It was covered in brown paper and had ‘shelves’ drawn on (actually stuck on using long strips of black paper) and I provided strips of coloured paper in different sizes to be the spines of books on the case.  My students would read a book and when finished make their own book spine for it and stick it on to the case.  When the case was filled up we had a class celebration. This worked in a number of ways;

  • It encouraged students to read more without pitting individuals against each other (this can work really well sometimes but would not have been the right fit for my class)
  • It was a way for students to celebrate each and every book they read
  • The students could see what their classmates were reading an draw inspiration from it
  • It was a visual reminder of how much great reading progress we were making!

Positive Modelling

Just as I do with my son, I also model being a good reader with my students. Now, this doesn’t mean I leave them to their own devices during maths to read a novel I’ve picked up… but I do talk to my students about what I’m reading as well as reading aloud in class daily. Once children are able to read it’s easy to fall into the trap of not reading to them as much, but its still absolutely crucial that children hear expert reading daily.  If possible I do also strongly encourage buddy reading systems with students from older classes which has multiple benefits for all those involved!

Further more it is important to model good reading procedures (reading to self, someone, etc.) for your class. As with so many things in class I follow a simple but effective procedure for modelling early in the year when we’re establishing good reading habits:

1. Discuss the behavioural expectations clearly with your students: talk about what ‘good behaviour’ would include, and what it doesn’t include.  If you are vague in your expectations you force your students to try to figure them out, which leads to increased distractions and reduces positive engagement.  For example, when we are doing a ‘Reading to Self’ session expectations might include reading the whole time, staying in one place, reading silently, not distracting others, etc.

2. Have a student model all these great behaviours: let the other students see what it looks like to follow all the rules and give lots of praise.

3. Negative modelling: Choose a student (some teachers choose a child here who is more likely to struggle to follow the rules in class) to get everything wrong.  Clearly tell them to break as many of the rules as they can, your class will find this incredibly funny and that’s great! Then, and this is crucial, have the same student show everyone how to do it correctly once more.

4. Short practice: Get everyone in the class to practice all the correct reading procedures together, but just for a short, easily achievable time.

5. Slowly build up the time spent, reviewing the procedures and rules regularly for a few weeks.

Wide choice

Often with reluctant readers the key lies in getting them ‘hooked’ with that one really special book.  For a young sports-mad student I had recently the ‘Diary of…’ series by Shamini Flint (not the Wimpy Kid series, although that also works well to encourage readers!) was akin to an elixir – once he started reading he simply never stopped!  Something I’m working on at the moment, but that is surprisingly tough, is building a good non-fiction selection.  For so many readers non-fiction appeals more than fiction but is vastly outnumbered when it comes to books to pick from.  I’m perhaps a little more conscious of this as my husband Mark is an avid non-fiction reader and has similar issues finding content to really connect with.  What I’m aiming for to start with is a broad spread of reading options and then I can add depth in specific areas later as needed.

Another important aspect of this is to encourage parents to get their kids reading widely in normally occurring situations such as reading menus, road signs, the news, etc.

Want to try: Book boxes

This is an idea I saw over on The Thinker Builder and I can’t wait to try it! Each child has a book box that they keep at their desk.  They are allowed to swap finished or unwanted books at designated times in the week and keep a supply of reading materials at their desk.  I like the idea of having set times to swap books without restricting kids to just one book.

Book Marks

One simple technique that has worked really well has been to have students create and use their own bookmarks.  You can make really simple ones just using strips of paper, or go for a more durable book mark by using card and laminating them.  This really simple little touch gives students a little more ownership of what they’re reading and also makes the whole reading experience more fun.

On a related note, I always have lots and lots of bookmarks available in class for students to use (maybe this year they can keep them in their book boxes?).  Post-it notes work brilliantly for this.

Reading games

I’ve written before about the importance of games in learning and how to include more games in lessons, and this is also true of reading.  Great games about creating stories, writing and reading secret messages and changing the endings of classic stories are all such wonderful ways to encourage readers.  By making the process more interactive you’re breaking down some of their preconceptions that reading is ‘boring’ (not all kids have this, but it is an important consideration for some).  If you’re in need of some inspiration for games to play have a quick read of my earlier post series Great Games for Literacy and Numeracy.

Want to try: Recommendation tags

This is another one I really can’t wait to try out; periodically have students write a short recommendation for a book on a post it note or a cute little tag and then pop them inside the book.  That way when students are browsing through the library they can see what other thought of the book and it might just inspire them to pick it up and give it a try!

Book talks

I’ve written about Book Talks before and how great they are for inspiring readers and involving parents.  Rather than repeat myself too much, here’s a quick link to my previous article.

In short though, hosting a class Book Talk does wonders for making books exciting! It also then draws on a whole host of other skills such as writing, presentation and speaking which are great to practice.  Bringing the parents in to watch adds to the feeling of creating a reading community which is just lovely for all involved!

How To: Incorporate More Games into Your Lessons

As teachers we all know the tremendous benefits of using games for learning; however it is so easy in the middle of a busy week, term or year to lose track of their importance and neglect to include as many as you would like to. In this post I’ll be discussing a few tips and ideas to build educational games into your lessons on a regular basis to maximise their impact.

Build up a good stock list of games

There’s nothing more discouraging for your students than seeing the same 3 games over and over again.  That’s not to say that repetition isn’t valuable – it absolutely is.  However variety is also really important and so having a great bank of games to draw upon (and circle back to when the time is right) through the whole year is crucial.  Check out Pinterest for an easy way to search for ideas, or even my earlier series on Great Games for Literacy and Numeracy.

Organise your games

Once you have a great set of games all prepared and ready to go make sure to keep them organised.  Critically, make sure its an organisation system that your students can use independently.  I’ve used some little stacks of tray, simple boxes, ziplock bags and more – you know your games and your students best so choose something that works with both.

Make games a regular session in your core lessons

The easiest way to build a good habit is to build it into your routine.  I specifically have a Maths games session twice a week in my maths class.  I also link some games to my Daily 5 sessions for ELA (e.g. Vocab Rock n Roll for Word Work). This also helps your students to understand and value the role of play in learning – at all ages!

Discuss the games with your class

Listen and respond to their feedback.  If they are telling you they love a game you can include it more, if they dislike it find out why.  It could be too easy, too hard, too short or too long, or maybe they’ve just not quite got the hang of it …or, without wanting to be too harsh, maybe its just not a good enough game.

Reflecting is incredibly important as a teacher and including your students in the process can increase its value even further – not least because they see you modelling this behaviour.

Get involved

Play the games with your class! I cannot stress this enough: it shows the students the high value of the games, it ensures they have understood how to play, its great for your relationship building with students, you can scaffold weaker students more easily, you can informally assess progress AND its fun! Need I say anymore? This doesn’t mean I play every round of every game with every group (I can’t be in that many places and they need to play without me for a whole host of developmental and educational reasons) but I make sure to play with each student (often in groups) at least once a week.  Sometimes that’s only for a short game, but that connection is still remarkable valuable.

If you follow these simple steps you’ll soon find that your class LOVES to play a whole range of games and that this ensures they get much more practice of some of those vital ideas and skills.

See you again soon!


Consistency and Choice: The Core of Good Teaching?

As a teacher I love to read about education, I know, I know it seems sad doesn’t it! But, in my defense I love teaching, education, learning and all things connected to it! Whilst I love to read about education I sometimes feel like there is a disconnect between some of the broad theories of education and the practice of the classroom. This often prompts me to think about exactly what constitutes great teaching – that elusive goal that we all strive for in our classrooms.

More and more as I think about it I come back to 2 things that form the core of my teaching: consistency and choice.


Consistency for me is central to my classroom management.  From day one of the school year I have clear expectations of my students, and guide their expectations of me and these remain strong throughout the year.  My students understand the benefits of behaving ‘well’ (for example persevering in their work, being respectful of others, showing responsibility, etc.) and with that goes the understanding that failing to meet these expectations will have consequences too.  No exceptions.  Once a rule is broken without consequence it no longer serves a useful purpose because my students don’t know whether breaking it will have consequences or not, and as such wonder if the rule is really all that important.  It might sound a bit tough but it’s a pretty simple line of thinking to follow.  For example if we take a simple rule such as ”No Climbing” and imagine a students breaks this rule without consequence.  Surely they could assume that it must not be dangerous afterall?  I’m not suggesting that this is always a conscious thought on the part of the student for a second! However, it’s an easy road to follow. Therefore my approach is clear – I remain consistent regardless of the circumstance.  This isn’t to say that if a student makes a mistake or fails to meet a behavioural expectation there is no chance to explain and discuss it; in fact it is quite the opposite.  What I want my students to realise is that rules, conditions and expectations are a part of life, as are choices and as the old saying goes ‘You are free to choose your actions.  You are not free from the consequences of your choices.’ I also need them to know that I hold them to high standards not for my own benefit, but to help them to internalise the responsibilities we are practicing together.  They should understand that being a good person means doing the right thing even when noone is watching because it is always the right thing to do.

Consistency also works on the positive side too! I always celebrate my students’ successes, they help celebrate mine and everyone feels like their own learning journey, their passions and their thoughts are valuable. Knowing that hard work will always be rewarded makes doing it just that little be easier and anchors it to all the positive emotions that go hand in hand with feelings of recognition, accomplishment and respect. I also treat my students consistently; whilst I don’t hide the ups and downs of life from them I always endeavour to treat them the same regardless of what else may be happening.

consistency and choice image


I also really value choice.  In my classroom I use the Daily 5 model (if you haven’t checked it out I highly recommend you do so by clicking this link) which promotes the importance of student choice.  This isn’t a choice of doing one task in avoidance of the other, but the idea of allowing students control over the order and methods they use to accomplish a task. For example I started this year with a VERY reluctant reader in my class, everyday he dreaded having to read.  Yet by being allowed to choose when he reads, where he reads (within the room) and what he reads he feels some control and this has made the experience much easier for him.  In fact, he’ll now happily read for 15-20 minutes a day, because he knows that for the rest of our ELA time he’ll get to do other activities that he enjoys much more AND he’s in control of his reading.  If I’d told that same student that he must sit 5 pages from Book X and 10:30 he’d have fought so hard against it, but by offering him real, positive choices he takes ownership of the situation.  I really don’t mind whether he reads at the start of ELA, in the middle or at the end; it doesn’t bother me where he sits, and I’d rather he happily reads something a little easier than detests reading ‘on level’.  I’ve got my reluctant reader reading, and he’s got control of his situation – win win!

As alluded to in the example, these choices must be two things; real and positive.  I certainly to not support the terrible choices we’ve all heard offered by exasperated teachers or parents such as ‘You can choose to come inside now or you can sit here ALL day on your OWN and cry!’ … really, you’re happy with them staying there all day? …. thought not! The choice must be one you are happy with regardless of which option they pick.  A colleague of mine recently had two students refuse to return from the playground.  She asked my advice and I gave her two choices to offer them. ‘You may come inside now with your classmates, or you may wait out here for 2 minutes and then come in – but you will lose those minutes from your next break.’ Either option was safe, the girls came inside after 2 minutes, but they had to lose break time later (consistency remember!) and so they’ve not tried to stay out again.

Back inside the classroom this is surprisingly easy to enact! Let’s say you want students to practice using full stops correctly in an English lesson. You have two activities set up for this; one where students edit a piece of writing to add in full stops, and a write and draw activity in which they write a sentence, include their punctuation and then illustrate the sentence (since they are likely to be young learners!) It’s an English lesson so you can add in a session of reading too! So if we say for simplicity that this lesson is 30 minutes your students will read for 10 minutes, pair up to edit the writing for 10, then work on their own sentences for 10.  Likelihood is they need more help with the latter activity.  If you let the students pick the order in which they complete them they will be more engaged, feel greater ownership and it will be easier for you to help out with the writing task, since fewer kids will be attempting it at once. This is obviously just one example, and it takes practice – but it makes a tremendous difference, especially when done everyday.

Obviously these two ideas do not and cannot form and entire teaching approach I do think they are incredibly important. As I continue to try and improve my practice everyday I also can’t wait to see what other thoughts, ideas and approaches will shape my teaching in the future.

What about you? What do you consider to be the core of your teaching? What do you value most in your approach?