Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Breaking Rules – Barb

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
EFT Course Director

Focus on Creating, Understanding, Sharing
– Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

If you want to learn how to effectively break rules in young learner classes, look to the experts. If one of the aims of early childhood education is to teach what rules are and why we need follow them, then young learners are experts in the art of breaking them.

We can learn a lot about shaking up the rules we apply to own teaching by watching the way our students approach life and learning. Here are a few of the things they’ve taught me about teaching.

Nurture curiosity and creativity

Children are naturally curious, so encourage them to use English to ask questions and explore. “What’s this?” and “Why?” are very easy but powerful questions, and “I don’t know. Let’s find out!” is a great model for learning. Accept that there’s more than one way to look at things. For example, we often check comprehension by asking children to separate vocabulary into categories. If we put pictures of ice cream, spaghetti, a polar bear, a snake, a pencil, and a piece of paper on the table, we might expect groupings for food, animals, and classroom items. After students have done the expected task, ask them to create a new category of items and explain it. You might see milk, ice cream, polar bear and paper together (things that are white) or spaghetti, a snake, and a pencil together (things that are long and thin), or something else entirely. The point is to reinforce flexible thinking while building language skills.


If one of the aims of early childhood education is to teach what rules are and why we need follow them, then young learners are experts in the art of breaking them.

Focus on accomplishments

Young children are thrilled when they master a new skill or acquire a new word, and don’t tend to focus on what haven’t yet mastered or learned. Teachers have a tendency to see errors rather than accomplishments, which limits our ability to understand either one. In the example below, the student still has a long way to go in her writing development, but she’s already accomplished a lot. She has a good handle on her consonant sounds, is beginning to make some good guesses with vowels, has spaces between her words, and is writing from left to right. She can read what she wrote (“Kuro likes outside”), and is communicating something that’s meaningful to her (Kuro is her cat). Understanding her errors in the context of her accomplishments helps me to plan more effective lessons.


Sharing is another kind of showing, one that adds purpose to using language.

Show and share

Children nearly always show rather than tell. I’m almost always better off showing my students what I want them to do rather than telling them. I’m always better off showing them how language works than explaining it.

Observations can show me what’s actually happening in class (versus what I think is happening). One easy way to find an impartial observer is to set up a video camera in one corner of the room and leave it running for the entire class. I did this when I was having a problem with younger siblings disrupting class. What I observed was two young girls trying to join the older children and becoming frustrated when they couldn’t (usually because they didn’t know the English being practiced). Since the parents and students were all fine with the non-paying siblings joining, I turned it over to the students to set the rules. In the process, I got to see how students had interpreted my class rules. Beyond that, they came up with adaptations that enabled the younger children to join activities even without knowing enough English. I was impressed with the creativity and empathy my students used in solving what could have become a major classroom management issue.

Sharing is another kind of showing, one that adds purpose to using language. Technology makes it easy to share student projects with parents and other students. For example, my older students always need practice with writing and speaking clearly, in addition to opportunities to use English in meaningful ways. So, when my younger students were ready to take on English prepositions, the older students created listening tests for them. These student-made tests are motivating for everyone involved, and they encourage a level of care with enunciation that I can never achieve without an audience.


To see an example of student projects, visit my YouTube channel or authorstream.

Children begin formal education unaware of rules that limit answers to a single correct response, that make errors more important than accomplishment, that put an emphasis on telling rather than showing, and keeping rather than sharing. By learning to break these rules in our teaching, we can also encourage students maintain healthy attitudes about exploration and sharing, and develop creative and critical thinking skills, in addition to helping them become skilled language users.


Connect with Barb and other iTDi Associates, Mentors, and Faculty by joining iTDi Community. Sign Up For A Free iTDi Account to create your profile and get immediate access to our social forums and trial lessons from our English For Teachers and Teacher Development Courses.

Register for John F. Fanselow’s four-week More Breaking Rules Course with live sessions on June 9th, 16th, 23rd, and 30th. The course is only $49.95. The experience: priceless. All sessions will be recorded and the archives made available exclusively for registered participants.

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Published by

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara has taught both English and ESL in the United States, and EFL in Japan for more than 25 years. She earned her BA from Western Oregon University and her Masters in TESOL from Northern Arizona University. Barbara has conducted workshops throughout Asia, the U.S. and Latin America, and is co-author of the best-selling young learners Let's Go series (Oxford University Press). She is also a founding member of the JALT Teaching Children special interest group. Her motto is "Always try new things," so these days, when she's not teaching, writing, or giving workshops, you'll often find Barbara online exploring the potential of social media for professional development. If you'd like to explore with her, you can usually find Barbara on her award winning blog, Teaching Village.

4 thoughts on “Breaking Rules – Barb”

  1. I love this Barb!
    I used to be someone who followed rules at all time! I meant by rules are books and lesson plan provided for me. But the last couple of years since I’ve learnt about Montessori, I realize that teachers need to decide themselves what will work best for their class and students. So I’m a newbie in this kind of thing, but loving it ^^

    1. I’m glad you’re having a great time with Montessori and creating your own path in teaching. Since breaking rules means to explore something different in order to see what might happen, teachers who use coursebooks and lesson plans have just as much opportunity to explore breaking rules with them, too! Even if you use a book, you can always try something new 🙂

      The main thing, as you said, is for teachers to decide what will work best for their class and their students!

  2. Have you ever considered about adding a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is valuable and all. Nevertheless think about if you added some great visuals or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and clips, this site could definitely be one of the best in its niche. Good blog!

  3. What an amazing sharing Barb!^^
    I used to teach by following the rules, very textual, everything must be on the track. After learning from many fellow teachers in iTDi,I decided to teach with my own way. I mean, I’m still using the lesson plan given to me,but I combine it with other interesting materials I got from other sources. I love it^^

    I like your idea to make younger and older siblings in your class do their tasks together,It’s hard for me Barb. I think I have to implement it in my class^^

    Barb, being honest that most of the students ( especially teens’ level) are passive learners. They are very afraid of the word ‘WHY’? When I asked Why? they didn’t answer my question, they prefer being silent:( . They are afraid of giving their opinion or describing something orally.
    What should I do then?

    Thank you Barb.


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