The “Magic E” Telephone – A Spin-off

Sunbirds certainly “talk” a lot! Naomi’s photos

When I read Teresa Bestwick’s short post titled “Minimal Pairs Telephone” I immediately knew that a variation of this would be a hit in my classroom.

The fact that it is such a  simple activity to prepare and that the activity is so easy for the students to understand makes it even more appealing.

In addition, it’s fun! Especially with the twist I added.

Teresa used minimal pairs. That’s out of the question when working with students who don’t hear well. The difference between words such as “fit” and “feet” is very hard to hear and to see on the lips.  So I decided to practice the “Magic E”. The words with the magic E have longer sounds and are easier for the students to hear and see. And there is a nice rule one can use.

Since I teach in the format of a learning center, I could not do this activity on the board with the whole class, the way Teresa did it. I needed this activity to be up on the wall to be done individually or in small groups during the week. So I used 10 index cards, and attached them to an existing activity board (little pockets for flashcards).

Magic E Telephone


Above each word there is a number, zero to nine.

First I asked each student what  the difference is  between the words that look mostly similar (hat /hate). They all noticed the letter “e ” at the end. I explained about the Magic E and its effect on pronunciation and said the words out loud. Then I informed them that I was going to say my phone number, but in words!

You may be surprised, but it isn’t so simple to think of a number and then say a word. I found myself wanting to point to each word and it goes slower than rattling off numbers. Try it!

Close up of Magic E Telephone

Then it was the student’s turn.  To make it more amusing, I asked the students to fold their arms and not point at all and just read off the words of their phone number. I pointed to each word I understood and they had to nod if I had understood them correctly. If they didn’t pronounce the word correctly they had to repeat my example.

The students loved it! I love it! It was great fun for them trying to meet the challenge of not pointing and not getting confused and they all tried hard to say the words correctly. I’ll see how many repetitions we can manage of this activity before moving on to the next one.

Two anecdotes:

One student got a new phone with a different phone number just before school. He could not recall his new phone number. I told him to use his old phone number. The student came back to me later in the day and said he found his new number and asked to repeat the activity!

This year I only have three students who are profoundly Deaf from Deaf families and don’t usually use their voice very much. I had planned in advance that any student who wanted could opt out of a speaking activity and learn to sign the vocabulary items in ASL (American Sign Language) instead. They wanted to speak the words too and did create a difference between how they said the words! No one else would understand their speech, that’s for sure, but even for Deaf students speaking helps retention.

Lost in a Book: “Speak Swahili, Dammit!” by Penhaligon

Full title: Speak Swahili, Dammit – a Tragic, Funny, African Childhood.

Naomi’s Photos

I discovered this book completely by chance and really enjoyed it. My son was explaining to me that Amazon actually has free Kindle books and was demonstrating how one finds them, when we stumbled upon this one. I had never heard of it, but at the price of $O.O , with such an intriguing title,  it was an easy decision to give it a chance.

James Penhaligon grew up in a truly remote, tiny cluster of homes near a mine by Lake Victoria. A child of British parents who picked up Swahili before English, he tells the story of an unusual childhood. He earned the right to use that subtitle, the tale is fascinating, funny and tragic. But it is more than just the story of his childhood, Penhaligon also tells the story of the region in East Africa, what was once called Tanganika, the battles fought there, how it changed hands and the very diverse people who ended up living there.

My only complaint is that the book is too long. Slightly less detailing of every escapade would have been better. Young James had many an escapade indeed!

I was so absorbed in the story, now that I’ve finished reading the book I feel I’m going to miss the characters! On the last page it says another book will soon be out , describing what happens next. However, as far as I can tell, it hasn’t been published. I’m very curious regarding what happened when the mine closed and all the residents had to leave.

Back to Amazon, I discovered two things after finding this gem of a book:

When you scroll through the options for free Kindle books, Amazon starts suggesting  sleazy looking romantic novels with suggestive covers , supposedly based on your viewing preferences.  There are a ton of such books in the free section. ANNOYING!

This book, at least today, is no longer free. I assume that if they see people are downloading it they start charging for it again.



Full Title  – Pondering the “Periodic Table of Teacher Elements”  that make up a teacher’s life.

There are all sorts of lines…
Naomi’s photos

The spark for this series of posts was ignited by reading the book “The Periodic Table” by Primo Levi. That book is unique, fascinating and powerful. These posts do not even attempt to hold a candle to the book, which I highly recommend reading.

Nonetheless,  the idea of exploring elements that make up a teacher’s life took hold…

If my claim that “lines” are an absolutely basic element of every teacher’s life took you by surprise, ask yourself the following questions:

  • When you taught the alphabet, did you draw lines on the board yourself or did you have one of those boards that have a section with lines? Are you capable of writing on the board in a straight line? I can’t…
  • Which behaviors do you draw the line at in class? Do you allow chewing gum but draw the line at using the cellphone?
  • To what degree are you required by the administration to toe the line in class? How much leeway do you actually have to decide what you teach, when you teach it and to add your own “flavor”?
  • What are your lines of communication with your students / parents / the administration?
  • How is your classroom organized? In straight lines? Traditional columns and rows?
  • What are your strategies for drawing the line between your private life and work? How do you shut the door on something that worried you at home and give your students your full attention in class? Or vice-a-versa?
  • Lines can become blurry, sometimes…
    Naomi’s Photos
  • How do you navigate that fine line between using humor in the classroom and ensuring that not a single student leaves the lesson feeling insulted?
  • Do you feel a student is out of line when he /she asks you whether or not you fasted during the holiday or if you are pregnant?
  • Do you let students get away with lines such as “My dog ate my homework”?
  • How often have you tried desperately to fit  some important phone calls into a ten minute break between classes, only to be told to hold the line? Then they say they’ll call you back, but of course, you can’t answer the phone because you are teaching?!
  • How much time do you spend online for work purposes?
  • How often do you say (perhaps feeling exasperated) in class “Pay attention to the line numbers!!! “.

I’m sure you can think of other examples along these lines. In the school in which I teach, I am not required to line the students up for lunch or recess, but perhaps that is a daily element for you. In any case, you are welcome to drop me a line with your comments!

Note: I use an apron when I cook for my family. It has lines on it too…

Lost in a Book – “Solomon’s Song” by Toni Morrison

Moving from darkness into “go safely”…
Naomi’s photos

Toni Morrison had me hooked by the end of the first paragraph.

Hooked from beginning to end, when I finally figured out at least a few of the layers of meaning that the title refers to. No spoilers here!

I found myself comparing a few elements of  this book to “The Bluest Eye” which is still my favorite book by Morrison.  “Solomon’s Song” has an educated African-American family of means at the center of the story.  It isn’t as gut wrenching to read as “The Bluest Eye” with its tale of a child caught up in endless cycle of poverty, lack of education and woe.  A book that was nonetheless mesmerising – I couldn’t put it down.

In Solomon’s Song, through the tale of four generations, one encounters a rich tapestry of tales over the generations. We have racial tensions, gender issues, politics and ideology, history and much more. The language used is different too.

The whole issue of people’s names and their implications is fascinating too.  The main character is called Macon Dead. His aunt is called Pilate…

This is the kind of book I would be happy to study in a literature course and discuss with others. There is so much food for thought in it!


A Teacher’s “Periodic Table”: 2. Diamonds vs. Rust

Full Title  – Pondering the “Periodic Table of Teacher Elements”  that make up a teacher’s life

(Naomi’s Photos)

The spark for this series of posts was ignited by reading the book “The Periodic Table” by Primo Levi. That book is unique, fascinating and powerful. These posts do not even attempt to hold a candle to the book, which I highly recommend reading.

Nonetheless,  the idea of exploring elements that make up a teacher’s life took hold…

*** Title inspired by Joan Baez’s song: “Diamonds and Rust”, 1974.

Naomi’s Photos

Diamonds are those moments when…

… a student’s face lights up with the joy of comprehension.

… a student uses what we have just taught on his /her own initiative.

… a student is eager to learn more.

… we realize that the way we presented / planned / constructed our lesson was just what the students needed to grasp the issue and move a step forward.

Rust takes hold the minute  you decide that since that particular mode of presenting the material was such a success, you will always teach it that way, regardless of context, the years that have gone by  and the ever-changing needs of different students. If the fact that  diamonds no longer sparkle during the lessons escapes you, than the rust is truly entrenched.

Note: One good strategy for Rust Removal is to have a student teacher (a teacher-to-be) in your class.   The need to explain why you do what you do is a terrific rust detector.

Additional Note: Attending  a teacher’s conference will enable you to meet other teachers who also swear by their methods for mining for diamonds. Taking in some of that collective knowledge provides powerful rust-removal polish.

Final NoteDiamonds are also those moments in the hallway (and outside of school) when the students are happy to see you…


A Teacher’s “Periodic Table” / 1. Ink

Full Title – Pondering the “Periodic Table of Teacher Elements”  that make up a teacher’s life

Naomi’s Photos

The spark for this series of posts was ignited by reading the book “The Periodic Table” by Primo Levi. That book is unique, fascinating and powerful. These posts do not even attempt to hold a candle to the book, which I highly recommend reading.

Nonetheless,  the idea of exploring elements that make up a teacher’s life took hold…

*Ink  – as in ink stains on my hands & clothes from the carbon paper I carried around in university when studying to be a teacher. The choice was between using carbon paper and letting copies of my notes circulate or me not having my notebook when I needed it.

*Ink – as in more ink stains from the mimeograph machine we used in school during my first years to make copies of worksheets. I can’t recall if those stains came out…

* Ink – as in the ink blots that appear on the Rorschach Cards that the young man I married 30 years ago (this week!) was studying back then.

* Ink – as in the ink pads for reusable stamps (proclaiming “WELL DONE” “GOOD JOB” “HAVE A NICE DAY”)  used when teaching elementary school, in a successful attempt to eliminate the endless “out-of-pocket” purchase of stickers.

* Ink – as in the ribbons of my parents’ old Olivetti typewriter which I used when needed because the school simply didn’t own an electric typewriter with an English keyboard.

* Ink – as in the change to whiteboard markers. Farewell to sneezing caused by chalkdust!

* Ink – as in the joy of opening a new package of colored pens. The color chosen to grade papers changes as the year progresses – when the ink runs out I move on to the next color…

* Ink – as in the number of pens I carry around in my purse (usually three). A teacher in the staff room invariably needs to borrow a pen for a moment, a student shows up for a test without a pen while another pen quietly resigns from its duties …

And finally:

* Ink – as in the notes-to-self on real paper, which I keep on my classroom desk. Despite using a lot of technology (educational, to-do lists, Evernote, reminders and more),  when I need to get something down quickly, especially at school , it’s got to be ink-on-paper.

What role has ink played in your teaching career?





“Identifying Patterns of Behavior” & a Comic Strip

Would you sit or hike?
Epstein Family Photos


Some of my students have begun studying  the story “Mr. Know All” by Somerset Maugham. The higher order thinking skill we focus on when teaching  this story is known as “identifying patterns of behavior”.

The comic strip , “Patterns” by Grant Snider, combines the topic of  patterns with some great vocabulary for advanced students. The drawings are a big plus, of course.

I purposely did not mention the story “Mr. Know All” itself on the worksheet that I prepared. I teach in the format of a learning center and the students don’t all do the worksheet at the same time. They haven’t all progressed to the same point in the story either. This way the students can focus on the thinking skill itself, while I connect the skill to the story when each student has reached a suitable point in the plot.

The worksheet can be downloaded by clicking on the name below.

Patterns of behavior

Saturday’s Book: The Tobacconist by Seethaler

You can’t hide for long…
Naomi’s Photos

I have mixed feelings about this book.

One hand I certainly have patience for “slow-moving books and I prefer books that don’t feed you every bit of information with a teaspoon.

I also think it is a clever idea to have an imaginary character having conversations with Freud in Vienna on the eve of  WWll.

However, some things really annoyed me.

The main character’s infatuation with a woman who doesn’t give him the time of day is one of the  important influences on Franz ( the main character) on the path to growing up and truly seeing what is happening around him,  I understand that. However,  the amount of detail and the length of the descriptions were way more than necessary. It’s as if the author to lost for a while.

While I’m willing to accept that Franz was sort of a simpleton who achieved an awareness, I found the mother’s letters harder to believe in. They didn’t fit.

In short, this book has some annoying parts, especially in the middle section but does have some interesting parts as well.

I’m quite hesitant about recommending it, there are so many other books I would rather recommend. If you have it available, read it, but don’t make an effort to get a hold of it.

Myths & Tips: Using Electronic Dictionaries in the Classroom – Part Five

Are we there yet?
Epstein family photos

This is part five of  a series in which I share my experience based on working daily with electronic dictionaries in the classroom with my Deaf and hard of hearing students.  I hope that other teachers may find my experience with Deaf and hard of hearing students useful. To read more about the background for these posts, click here.  

Note: This is a “two Myth & Tips” post!

1) Myth – The electronic dictionary is “The Great Equalizer”. “Equalizer” as in now that all the students can use them, teachers no longer have to accommodate students with special needs.

I believe that it is wonderful that the act of using an electronic dictionary in school will no longer label a child as “one who needs accommodations”.  Some students do not mind but I have certainly encountered students who refused to use the electronic dictionary because they did not want to be perceived as being different. The new policy also solves the problem of those who felt that using an  electronic dictionary would help them yet were not permitted to use one.

All students may now be allowed to use the same tool, but the manner in which they learn to use it effectively may not be the same.

Some of the students with a learning disability may need more explicit instruction of basic dictionary skills. For example, some students waste precious time by looking up names. If a name happens to be similar to a word with a meaning the student will be led astray. It helps these students to review the use of  capital letters and practice  identifying names of places /people.

All students need to be encouraged to form a habit of  looking at the screen of the electronic dictionary before hitting the “enter” key in order to make sure they are actually looking up the intended word and not gibberish. However, some students need more encouragement and explicit modeling than others in forming this useful habit.

I have found it worth spending time on  convincing struggling high-school learners that it actually matters (matters to them!) whether or not one just blindly copies off a translations from the dictionary instead of stopping to check whether it is a noun or a verb. I emphasize the three words most students think they know well “name” “shop” and “play” and patiently let them complain a bit (or a lot!) about English being an annoying language that has more than one meaning for some words. Complaining contributes to memory! Here’s a simple worksheet that I use for starters. It’s meant to be done in class with a teacher. It is not self-explanatory (I snuck in a mention of Shakespeare, doesn’t hurt!).

noun vs verb exercises 1 and 2-1p0k6b7

If you have a Deaf or hard of hearing student in your class, you may encounter the following: a student uses the dictionary beautifully, finds the correct translation, yet is still baffled by the word. To read more about that, click here. 

Bright eyed and bushy tailed…
Epstein Family Photos

2) Myth – A teacher can be “an island”.


There’s no way one teacher can know everything about every feature of every model of dictionary AND have a full bag of tricks, tips and worksheets ready for every type of learner on her /his own.

If you have been reading these posts you will see that I haven’t covered everything and certainly don’t know everything.  Thanks to Dorian Cohen I now know that at least one of the newer models includes an “example” button, which will let you see the word used in a sample sentence. Older models didn’t have that and I hadn’t noticed it myself. Jennifer Byk wrote about issues related to color of letters, size of keys and teaching phrasal verbs. I’m looking forward to the dictionary worksheets she’ll be sharing.

Share what works for you and benefit from what others have learned and are sharing. Break free from the walls of the teachers’ room by joining the professional online groups on ETNI mail and the various Facebook groups. Be a member of ETAI – electronic dictionaries are a hot topic now, I’m sure we’ll see helpful information in upcoming conferences, mini-conferences and in the ETAI forum.

Don’t forget the counselors that are available, especially if you are teaching students with special needs. Information is your best friend!

Have a wonderful school year!



“The Dilemma”: Using Electronic Dictionaries in the Classroom – Part Four

Naomi’s photos

Note: The decision to post this series at this time is based on the following two facts: 

  • My Deaf / hard of hearing students and I have been working  with electronic dictionaries on a daily basis since the very first models were sold. The students had special accommodations that permitted the use of these dictionaries.
  • This will be the first year that all 7th-12th grade students in the school system will be allowed to use electronic dictionaries. Many teachers are currently expressing interest in the subject. I hope that these teachers may find my experience with Deaf and hard of hearing students useful. 

This is not a “myth -tips” post but rather an attempt to present the different aspects of a dilemma that arises when using electronic dictionaries in class. Since there is no “right” way to deal with these questions, I believe they should be discussed by the staff in each school. These issues must be addressed.

Naomi’s photos

I believe that it is each student’s responsibility to acquire and bring his /her dictionary to class. Especially in high-school. Taking responsibility is a life skill that we want to foster, but it goes beyond that. We want students to recognize that their dictionary is a tool they need to have with them, just like a calculator for math lessons, because it is helpful and makes a difference to their studies. It is part of them taking ownership of their studies. 


While the price of the approved electronic dictionaries has gone down significantly thanks to the change in policy, we all know that some students will  not be able to afford to purchase one. Will you allow students to share dictionaries during lessons? What happens when there is an exam? These questions must be discussed by the staff.

Some schools may choose to purchase a few electronic dictionaries for such students to use. Sometimes donors will help. It may seem like a good idea to place these dictionaries in the English Room or English Closet, where students can access them easily during a lesson.


Naomi’s Photos

Who will be allowed to use these dictionaries? Will you tell student K., who happened to forget her dictionary at home today, that she can’t have one because her family isn’t considered “needy” while student D. can use one because of his family’s level of income? To avoid labeling students in such a manner a teacher might allow any student who needs an electronic dictionary to take one for the duration of the lesson. Not only does the teacher then have to worry about whether or not there will be a dictionary left for the student who can’t afford one (especially if the quantity is small) , but a new problem presents itself. The larger the number of  school-owned electronic dictionaries  available for use  during the lesson the larger the number of students who stop bringing their own dictionary to class completely. ..

Naomi’s Photos


I prefer to have any extra electronic dictionaries obtained for such students come from the counselor’s office, not the English Room. The student signs a “contract”  promising to care for the dictionary and return it at the end of the school year. Then the students become responsible for a dictionary, as was discussed above.


There may be too few electronic dictionaries to lend to students who need them. Sharing may be necessary. Staff members should discuss how this will work.

And then…

What about the student who owns an electronic dictionary but due to his /her particular learning disability has serious difficulties with organization and often forgets his dictionary at home (or perhaps can’t find it in his school bag among his chaos because it is so small)? Such a child may need the dictionary  even more than other students do. If the teacher just leaves this kind of student to take responsibility for his/her dictionary completely  on his /her  own, the student’s progress may be seriously impaired. Sometimes a good friend in class can be enlisted to remind such a student to put the electronic dictionary in a specific school-bag pocket at the end of every lesson. In other cases, involving the school counselor could be the way to go.

There is no right answer to these questions. These are all issues that arise and need to be addressed by the staff members of each school.





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