Potato Pals Reviewed

I’ve been teaching children for eight years in Japan. I’ve bought and used many many (too many maybe) books since I started teaching and I can’t say enough good things about the Potato Pals series from Oxford. We love it, my students love it and my son loves it. Everything has to pass the “Taka Test”, Taka is my four year old son and if he doesn’t like it, chances are my students won’t either. Needless to say it passed the test and we’ve been using it with great success since April of last year. Quite frankly it’s the best thing since mashed potatoes.

We use the potato pals for many different situations, we use it as a main coursebook for our kindergarten kids and also to supplement other textbooks that we use if we have time at the end of the lesson. Our kindergarten classes are 40 minutes long and we do each book four times.

We always start every lesson with the Potato Pals theme song, which the kids love. After that we look at the cover of the book and I let the kids tell me anything they can think of related to the title in Japanese or English. After that we find out which Potato Pal is featured in this months book. For example, In the Morning is about Buddy Potato. After that we read the book using the CD. I start with reading two the first week because it repeats all the previous pages and then adds the new page which gives the kids a lot of exposure to the story sentences all with fun sound effects in the background. After we finish the book we listen to the song. When the song is over we then get into the focus words. I don’t pre-teach them. I have a few pieces of colored paper cut to the same size as the flashcards, each one has a different shape or two cut into it. I cover the flashcards with the pieces of paper and the kids love trying to guess what it is. They shout out the flashcard usually in Japanese and after I repeat them in English. After we finish the focus words we usually play a game with them. In the Potato Pals User’s Guide there are many great game ideas to try out. After that I like to practice the actions for the songs and give the song with the actions a try. Each book comes with a list of Topic Words as well. I like to do something related to these each class as well. For example, for ‘In the Morning’ the Topic Words for the month are colours so I play a game of run and touch or karuta or do a colouring worksheet. If we have time we usually do a page from the Activity Book or Workbook as well and then we are finished.


The Potato Pals users guide is very user-friendly. It’s packed full of great ideas, games and an extra worksheet based on the theme of each book. I give the kids the worksheet to do at home and they bring it back and we put them up on our wall in the classroom. The songs are fantastic and the kids love doing the actions and singing the songs each week.

Jeff Hodgson, Japan

 

If you enjoy using stories with young learners, or you have always wanted to use stories but weren’t sure how, Potato Pals could be just what you are looking for! Potato Pals 1 is a set of six readers with audio CD, Activity Book, Workbook, 200 Picture Cards and User’s Guide. The concept is very simple: young learners are helped to develop their communication skills by telling the story of the things they do in their own lives. This is reflected in the titles: In the Morning, At School, At the Park, At Home, Good Friends and In the Evening.


The heroes of the stories are six appealing potato characters, Buddy, Daisy, Nina, Dean, Joy and, of course, Chip! The 16-page stories are accompanied by three readings on the CD. These readings, presented in a mid-atlantic accent, include fun sound effects which are important for supporting meaning. The CD also contains a catchy song containing the key sentences for each story. Facing each of the simple but clearly illustrated pages of the story is a page of ‘memoricons’. A memoricon is a little picture cue representing a story sentence. These accumulate on alternate pages and encourage children to repeat and review the language of the previous pages. Each reader comprises eight short key sentences in the simple present tense, and features eight topic words (colour, shape, numbers, weather, feelings and prepositions). Each reader also has between and 11 and 22 focus words, listed at the back. The first CD reading requires the children to listen and repeat the story. The second has them listen and repeat it, using the memoricons in order to reconstruct it. The third gets them to point, say and answer a question. In this way, the key sentences, focus words and topic words are practised and reviewed in a systematic yet enjoyable fashion.

The readers are accompanied by two practice books, which add flexibility. Each contains seven pages of activities per story. The first, the Activity Book, is designed for children who are just starting to learn English and helps to develop pencil control, cognitive skills and passive recognition of letters, words and simple sentences. The Workbook is for those who can remember or refer to the language of the readers. Using tracing, matching and puzzles, children write simple words, but not whole sentences. A nice feature of both practice books is a space at the bottom of each page for teachers or parents to check and sign the children’s work.

The real strength of the Potato Pals reading package is to be found in the User’s Guide. This is where teachers who were never quite sure about what to do with readers, or busy teachers with little time for extra preparation, are going to feel very supported. Each story unit starts with an ‘At a glance’ chart, showing the story language, the song lyrics, which Picture Cards are needed, and which tracks on the CD to use. The unit is then divided into four lessons. The first concentrates on the key sentences, the second teaches the focus words, the third covers the topic words and the fourth is a complete review. Each lesson includes a prediction activity, a reading that focuses on a different aspect of the story, two practice activities, three games, information needed to do the relevant pages in the practice book and a photocopiable worksheet. The User’s Guide also gives advice on how to tailor the plans to suit lessons of differing lengths, from five to 40 minutes. I particularly like the Quick Tip in each lesson, which provides teachers with an extra idea, and the Potato Wisdom at the end of each unit. (One of my favourites is: Teach like a potato – be versatile!) At the back are more photocopiable worksheets, a model reading with suggestions for questions about each story page illustration, extended readings which provide amplified text for each story, and six photocopiable ‘Potato Awards’. In addition, there are instructions and answer keys for the practice books, together with a list of the Picture Cards.

Potato Pals 1 is likely to capture the hearts of your pupils and make your lessons truly enjoyable. Potato Pals 2 is also available to take your pupils to the shops, the town, the beach, the zoo, the farm and on a camping trip. And who knows … there may be more!

Coralyn Bradshaw, Spain

That is a good, creative series for YLs that was developed based on years of application and development in real classroom contexts. Kids I’ve used it enjoyed it a lot.

Jason Renshaw, Australia

One more spud follower here. At the risk of sounding like a blurb from the publisher, here are a bunch of things Potato Pals offers that classic picture book titles don’t (at least not always):

1) Useful expressions that young children can use to talk about their lives. Kid’s may learn “Where…?” and animal names from “Where’s Spot?”, and maybe some parts of the face from “Go Away Big Green Monster”, but they don’t learn expressions that allow you to actually communicate with them about their daily expreriences.

2) An affordable way for students to have a series of readers, with audio (spoken stories and songs) of their own which they can take home and (because of the CD) read with their parents who may or may not be comfortable reading in English with their kids. We use a lot of picture books in class to supplement our lessons (including our PP lessons), but we can’t buy a copy of each book for each student, so they can read them at home.

3) A picture book that children can “read” on their own, no matter what level they are at in terms of reading. The pictogram system allows children with no reading experience to be able to turn the pages and tell the story as well as their classmate sitting next to them who may be reading at some level. An interesting challenge in teaching young learners these days is the mixed levels we see even from a very young age. We see 4 year olds in our classes who have been learning English since birth, and 4 year olds who have never learned English in their lives.

A series like Potato Pals is really easy to adapt to the different levels in your classroom. There are a lot of little details and a wealth of vocabulary items in each unit to challenge the more advanced learners (in addition to being able to practice reading), or you can keep it really simple and focus on basics with the beginners. And you can do it in the same class with everyone together, and everyone feels great senses of completion upon reading their books.

I should add here that I think the books and the songs in Potato Pals are appealing to very young native speakers as well. We’ve used it many times with young returnee students and have great success with it.

I don’t think there is a another series like it. I’ve told Patrick that even after using it for 5 years I still find creative little touches in the illustrations, layout, and songs that I didn’t notice before.

One reason Genki English and Learn English Kids and the like have succeeded is that we teachers all want to sing with our students as we know it’s a powerful tool, but found the materials created for native speakers (Wee Sing, Raffi, etc.) often just a little too difficult or a little too fast. Not a lot, just a little…but that little tiny bit is the bit where we lose our students and they tune out. So there is this frustration that we can’t always use these great songs that we’d like to. Good songs (including the songs on the PP CD) for non-native speakers address that.

And Potato Pals addresses that same thing, but for books and reading. It’s at the right level for all of my young students…beginners to more advanced. Our students using Potato Pals each get a set of 6 books which provide them really, really useful phrases they can use to talk about their lives from the time they wake up ’til the time they go to bed. And they get to enjoy reading these books at home, with their parents, at their leisure, which is an incredibly powerful thing that I don’t think picture books as traditionally used in the classroom offer.

Devon Thagard, Super Simple Songs

Teaching everyday language and daily routines are a part of our kindergarten curriculum in my school and I used to teach things we do in a day by using flashcards and TPR. Then, we started to use “Potato Pals” and everything is easier now. There are two sets of the books and each set contains six stories. The characters are very cute potatoes and are all colorful. There is a cue system which helps to repeat the language and my kids feel very comfortable with it because they cannot read but can read the pictures! At the first two or three lessons, we listen to the stories from the CD. The kids pay a lot of attention because there are some sound effects used before you hear the sentences and kids love these effects! The following lessons, we read the story, sing the songs and dance.(I have my own choreography for each song:)Then we play games out of the sentences/patterns we have learnt. My kids really enjoy “Potato Pals” and learn a lot from these cute friends!

Ms. Esra, Turkey