Colour Factor in action

Today I have an update on using the Colour Factor set. For the rundown on how this maths teaching tool helps kids visualise numbers as something concrete and dynamic, have a look at my earlier post on these coloured rods. My daughter’s teacher at the local Spanish school has used them for learning addition and subtraction. But their wonder, for me, lies in how far you can take maths using them with even fairly young children. The author Máire Mullarney talks about overhearing her two boys aged around five and seven discussing whether or not 17 was a prime number, and when you actually play with the blocks, you can see how that would be possible, without your kids having to be child prodigies!

We haven’t had the blocks out much in the past six months so I was happy to take advantage of my littlest having a nap on a quiet rainy day to tip the box of blocks on the rug and get playing with his five-year old sister. We played at making patterns with them, and I laid out the following:

colour factor trains

colour factor trains

This prompted her to ask why some were similar colours. I decided to do the odd “stairs” and even “stairs” with her. I checked first that she already had a clear idea of odd and even numbers. She understood them as sequences of alternate numbers and also that evens were multiples of two. In other words, in colour factor terms, you can’t make a row of pink twos the same length as an odd number. To show the relationship of even numbers to each other, which is the role of the warm reddish colours, we grouped the even number blocks as stairs, noting that the difference in length of adjacent rods is equivalent to two, not one as in the full set of stairs, and noting the colours.

colour factor stairs

colour factor stairs

Then I asked her to match the length of various even rods using a row of rods of a different colour. Seaton Pollock called these single-colour rows “trains”. This shows tangibly the role of factors because of their physical size, and the colours underline the message. Next we set about laying out the factors of twelve. We began with a mauve rod representing twelve, alongside two sixes. I asked her to add another single-colour row which would be the same length and she chose six pink rods, or twos. Next she added four threes. Then I introduced the word “factor”. It clicked that the factors are represented by colours, hence the name Colour Factor Set! I can honestly say I would never have dreamt of discussing factors with a five year old just using pen and paper. But with the rods it comes easily.

starting the factors of twelve

starting the factors of twelve

Most of colour factor is about learning on the basis of what is physically visible in the blocks, which is why it works so well with little kids. However, since she has already done quite a lot of simple sums on paper at school I was ready to bring in a written format. I wrote out the following to show both ways of presenting the facts: 6 + 6 = 12 2 x 6 = 12 She digested that.


Then I wrote out the “trains” we had before us in the order we had made them: 1 x 12 = 12 2 x 6 = 12 6 x 2 = 12 4 x 3 = 12. Then I asked if she wanted to know a trick to find yet another factor, and we discussed how 2 x 6 (two violets) came to the same as 6 x 2 (six pinks). This made immediate sense to her. She quickly realised that above the row of four light blue rods (4 x 3) she could make a train showing 3 x 4 with the scarlet blocks, and finally a row of twelve whites (12 x 1 = 12). Then she decided to write these on paper herself, adding to our list with a triumphant flourish.

colour factor

factors of twelve

Finally, I returned to my original rows and told her one set was missing from the pattern. She immediately completed it like this:

full sequence

full sequence

You can get a secondhand copy of Máire Mullarney’s book Anything School Can Do, You Can Do Better for a song off Amazon, and Colour Factor Sets come up on eBay from time to time. Don’t worry if a few of the smaller blocks are missing from these vintage pieces, the set will still be perfectly usable.

las regletas – rods

números pares – even numbers

números impares – odd numbers

menos – minus

más – plus

dos veces cuatro igual a ocho – 2 x 4 = 8

Spain according to Anno

We’d all like to learn a language by osmosis, with a gramar book under the pillow at night. I haven’t found a technique that works yet, but this is as close as I got.


I often feel I should be learning something Spanish-related but just can’t face irregular verbs. So when I collapse on the sofa in the evening after the kids’ bedtime “routine” of bribery and threats, I pick up this lovely wordless picture book by Mitsumasa Anno and ponder over his beautiful illustrations of Spain and all things Spanish:


Mitsumasa Anno's Spain

Mitsumasa Anno’s Spain


I love the way Anno ties in major cultural and historic events along with plain old life. And it’s a good start for understanding the cultural reference points that form the fabric of the Spanish common heritage. Context is everything, after all – remember the man named Maria? If you come to understand a people then you will understand what they are going on about and learn how to be understood by them. That’s my theory.

windmills in Anno's Spain

windmills in Anno’s Spain

In English it’s just titled Anno’s Spain and there’s a whole series. Highlights include the running of the bulls, Picasso’s Guernica, the olive harvest, Don Quijote tilting at windmills and cork extraction.

upside down in Anno's Spain

upside down in Anno’s Spain


Will it help me with the imperfect subjunctive? I doubt it. Will it make me feel less guilty for not digging my grammar book out from under my pillow? Definitely.



This wordless cuento has many stories hidden in the illustrations, including actual history, so it’s a lovely gentle way to introduce these concepts to kids. Remember that in Spain you buy books from your local librería but borrow them from la biblioteca. If you always have your nose in a book then you’re a ratón de biblioteca. Drawings are dibujos or ilustraciones, but if it’s a painting (una pintura) like those by famous artists shown in this book, then you can choose between un retrato, a portrait or un cuadro (even if it’s not cuadrado, square). Look out French-speakers, el cuadro is the picture, whereas the picture frame is un marco.


The voice in my head

The voice in my head has started speaking Spanish. I’m not talking about some personal revelation, my conscience, or an auditory hallucination. I’m talking about that internal monologue that tells and retells my life as I live it. I’ve always had an inner narrator. I don’t let it out that often. Still, that doesn’t stem the tide of narrative. In fact if anything it needs a release onto paper, onto the keyboard, or it gets a bit frenetic. My inner voice is what makes me write.


The monologue relates, but it also thinks ahead, prepares dialogues for upcoming situations, most of which never take place. Unbidden, my inner voice has switched to Spanish to script these hypothetical dialogues, in preparation for the day’s or week’s events. Pretty poor Spanish I might add. With a slim vocabulary. As if listening to oneself talk wasn’t bad enough. So that’s added motivation to steam ahead with my Spanish lessons since I am tired of communicating in such a limited fashion, both with the real world and with my inner chatterbox.

jacaranda in the evening sun

jacaranda in the evening sun


I finally got to the stage where my Spanish was at about the same level as my French was after 6 months in France. I can hold a conversation, read magazines and newspapers. On the other hand, normal conversation with two or more people is often too fast or idiomatic to understand, and films are the pits. I watched one the other night with a plot so obvious that I got the whole story, but despite that I hardly understood any of the dialogue. Kind of similar to a film I started watching in Gujarati. I can’t remember how many French films I saw before I started getting the dialogue. But I do remember a point a few months after moving to Paris when I stopped translating what I heard into English in my head. It was the point when I began to just hear and understand without thinking about it in English.


Now I feel the need to try and break through a barrier and understand normal-speed real-life Spanish, so I’ve begun watching the evening news. I’ve also put a Spanish news feed on my phone, that way I’ll see in print the names of felons, politicians and other headline personalities, to help me understand the news.


I am trying to keep the linguistic boundaries clear for the kids, so I don’t put on Spanish telly or radio when they are around, even though this limits how much exposure I can get. I do read them library books in Spanish. But in general I leave the Spanish to the Spaniards so we can maintain good levels of French and English in the home.


Until now I have learnt Spanish mostly via French, since they are so similar. I was constantly looking for the link with French. Now, though, I need to cut free and try to immerse myself in Spanish as much as possible, and shoo away thoughts in French and English that slow me down. The voice in my head needs consistency to make any sense. Real immersion. I’m unappreciative when teachers tell me the meaning of Spanish words in English. I prefer an incomplete understanding in the foreign language to an exact correspondence in my own, because it gets me thinking in Spanish, not converting to Spanish.


In the meantime I’m getting more interference when speaking French, with little Spanish words sneaking in here and there. It’s annoying, but I guess inevitable.


Even my mobile phone can hear the voice in my head. When I hit the space bar to change the language of the keyboard, it used to switch from English to French first, and then on a second tap, to Spanish, my third most used language. But clearly it has been eavesdropping; it now switches straight to Spanish, leaving French to drag behind in third place.



Teach your kid to read French

I last wrote about the DELE Spanish exams, which surprisingly I passed, and I’ll have more on that some other time. But today I want to talk about a lovely book for teaching your kid to read French. This has been just the thing for helping my five-year old learn to read in French, but I can imagine it being useful also for older kids who are not native speakers. I’ve included photos so you can judge the level for yourself.


Kids are sponges, but that works both ways. Easy in, easy out. Growing up with several languages may sound exotic, but the reality is you have to strike a balance. Sure kids CAN learn anything and everything, but there’s only so much time in the week. And like adults they will conveniently forget what they don’t use. I’m also not a fan of high-powered schedules for kids. I’m just not willing to sacrifice a lot of family time and farm them out to afterschool classes all week long just to make them trilingual.


Balthazar découvre la lecture

Balthazar découvre la lecture


There’s never time for everything, so you need to decide what is important and what level you want to achieve in each. I like to think I’ll see my kids speaking, reading and writing in English, French and Spanish with a good level of proficiency, and having an affinity with Arabic (spoken and written) even if they don’t learn to speak or read it as kids. I think we have enough language resources (ie relatives, friends, circumstances, travel and access to books!) to manage this, but of course life does throw surprises at you.


I think we have English nailed since I’m their main caregiver, and incurably pedagogical at that. Plus English will always hold its appeal when they are in their teens and wanting to watch blockbusters and other weapons of globalisation. And my daughter is already picking up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to read to herself. So that’s English taken care of. As for Spanish, my little Beiruti is already in her second year at the local school, and my Paris baby starts in September. They’ll get ample practice at reading, writing and, of course, chatting in Spanish. French on the other hand risks falling behind. We already make sure they get plenty of stories and some one-on-one with dad. We haven’t ruled out returning to France at some point such as during secondary school.


But how to crack reading in French? Dad is at work all day and French is as hard to decipher as Spanish is easy. The orthographic depth of French is, well, deep. I found this out when I taught her to read. We began with easy three letter words which are read just as they are written, with no silent letters. That meant tonnes of household objects and animals in English, but scarcely a handful in French.


Enter Balthazar.

pain, train, bain...

pain, train, bain…


Each page takes a grouping of letters which produces a certain sound. The example words are beautifully illustrated.


bille, vanille, chenille...morille?

bille, vanille, chenille…morille?


Most of the words are simple, others are less common. Some of the sentences are frankly hilarious.

sound/word activity

sound/word activity


And at the end 30 little sound cards with the relevant word on the back to match with picture cards.


Result: my five and a half year old is suddenly reading pages of the P’tites Poules collection of stories, which Amazon has down as being from 6 years and up. To see her so engrossed in a book, actually reading silently to herself, is just a treat.

Balthazar reading activity

Balthazar reading activity


I see Balthazar also has a range of first readers for little ones. They are in cursive, which could be difficult if your kids are in an English or US school, which either doesn’t bother with cursive or teaches it much later. The Spanish feel as strongly about it as the French do and teach it from five years old, and kids are doing loopy b’s and z’s before they can write much more than their name. However, in these books apparently the silent letters are in grey so kids can read the words and get used to the spelling, which sounds like a smart approach to French for novice readers.

DELE Spanish Oral review

Following the oral test for my DELE Spanish exam, I felt fairly shell-shocked. Admittedly, oral exams are a bit shell shocking. Having done three foreign language GCSEs, two language A-Levels and one language degree, and a DELF B2 in French, there was nothing unusual in the description of the exam. But, a little bit like in a driving test, anything can happen on the day. Like for instance they might change the format after you have spent hours studying the official website to work out what it will be like.


I already felt out of my depth. I had signed up for the B1 level which is supposed to be lower intermediate, apparently equivalent to a lowish A-Level. Students should be able to show the following:

  • Understand the main ideas in clear texts
  • Deal with most situations in a trip
  • Produce simple texts on familiar topics
  • Describe experiences and hopes, and briefly justify opinions or plans

I don’t remember being able to do all that when I got an A for French A-Level. Not smoothly, at least. It was once I was living in Paris that I actually learnt to talk. But I must have scraped through somehow.


Unexpected oral exam: a night in las urgencias with my 2-year old

Unexpected oral test: a night in las urgencias with my 2-year old

I felt ridiculously underprepared. I hadn’t really studied enough to do the B1 exam, as I was only doing 3 hours of classes a week, and on the other days I didn’t have any babysitting. I hadn’t even finished the B1 course or the text book I bought for it. On the other hand the level below, A2, wasn’t really a challenge. With a background in French, reading is straightforward and writing not impossible. It’s frustrating to be able to read with ease, but only be able to stammer through a conversation, although I know from teaching English as a foreign language that it is all too common. So I was basically trying to get in through the back door, using French as a ladder to sneak in where I didn’t really belong.


I may have mentioned how impatient I am. So… I booked in the exam, rather than wait until autumn for the next chance to do it (I’m busy for the July exam date). In the end I shall probably have to do it in the autumn anyway, because failing one part means you have to retake the lot. That means the reading (70 minutes), the listening (40mn) and the writing (1 hour), too.


It started well. I was very glad I was given a slot for the Oral on the day before the rest of the exam. After the other tests, I would have been exhausted. I was already exhausted. Both kids had had a bad virus, consecutively, in the run up. For two weeks I hadn’t slept through, up at all hours mopping feverish brows and supporting little heads over the toilet bowl. With both kids at home, one flopped limply across my lap, or begging to be carried around the room, I basically didn’t revise. Still, you can’t learn how to talk a language in two weeks anyway, so the results might have been the same.


I was in for a surprise when I was led into a small room to prepare, I was given a dozen pieces of paper, six topics (or was it eight?) and six photographs and told to choose one of each. Each topic had a short article and a list of questions/points. This was not what I had read on the official site. Wasn’t I supposed to be given a choice of two offered at random, and wasn’t the photograph to come later, during the Oral, to be discussed without preparation? I was worried – it seemed they had changed things. What else would be different? I asked her but she had little to say. The staff were tense and rushed.


I scanned them all and chose one of each category. The topic I went for was teletrabajo, telecommuting.  The staff member said I had 20 minutes to prepare. Isn’t it 15? I asked. I put my watch on the table. She checked and returned to say yes, 15 minutes. She came back in 12. When I said it had not been the full time, she told me we had walked into the room on the hour, which I’m sure is true.


I had prepared a little, not even looked at the photo. I wished I had not been given 12 bits of paper to leaf through in the first minutes. I could have done with those couple of minutes to prepare the topic I ended up with, whichever it was, as the guidelines for what the student should cover were very precise. I was to discuss a specific quote from the article, to say what type of work lent itself to working from home, to talk about whether I would like to work that way, whether my home country did a lot of telecommuting and what sectors were most appropriate. I would have used the time to better purpose. After all, students are not going to have a single topic they can speak about while being incapable of talking about any other. I had prepared to talk about ten typical topics by way of practise, but I knew none of them might be offered to me. As it was they weren’t, not one of them came up in the six.


The papers were taken away and I was ushered through. The examiner who was to be my interlocutor, smiley but hurried, set the stopwatch on her mobile and told me to start. I was surprised. Surely I was supposed to keep the sheet if I was to talk about the points outlined. In any case, very soon I was interrupted by the strident ring of her stopwatch. I had a lot left to say, and it felt like it had only been a minute, but it must have been two, I imagine, as it is supposed to be 2-3 minutes. Then the conversation, and the buzzer again; next the photograph. Except we didn’t have it. So the other examiner, the one who takes notes on your level while you talk, was sent to find a copy and came back with one to share. He disappeared in search of another and the rush was such that the interlocutor told me to get started all the same and not wait for him to come back.


Lastly we did the situación simulada, the dialogue.  She raced through the brief description, which turned out to be inviting someone to come to a local festival and describe what it would be like. I would have preferred to have to return a faulty item to a shop, like in the practise. Still, I invited her to stay at my house during the festival, rattled on a little with a few subjunctives and told her how great it would all be should she make it. Her last question was where should we meet using quedarnos. Arranging to meet is a key skill at this level, but I was a bit thrown because I had already asked her to come to stay at my house before the festival began, and of course quedarse can also mean to stay. The buzzer rang again, and I was hurried out and found myself outdoors in no time. In fact I was in the venue for 35 minutes total for a 15mn oral with 15mn prep, along with changing rooms, paperwork and passport checks.


I came home thinking that it was a fat lot of good providing such detailed information on the website to help you avoid being struck by a bout of nerves if they then change the format without warning. But on second thoughts, I wondered if perhaps the format hadn’t changed; if perhaps the examination centre had changed it. Giving a choice of topics might be seen as a way to make it easier on the students. But personally I would have preferred to have the oral as described on the website.


I have to wait two months for the results, but since I’m generous I won’t make them wait so long. They get 2.5 stars out of 5 by my reckoning, penalised for not having thought to make sufficient photocopies; for booking the orals in back to back on a very tight schedule where crossing from one classroom to another counts within your exam time; and for not sticking to the instructions.


I made sure to get in plenty of conjecture and subjunctives, both present and imperfect, and a range of vocabulary. Still, I’m sure I made a tonne of mistakes along the way, especially every time the buzzer went off mid-sentence. And in the rush, my pronunciation probably worsened. In any case, if I have to take it again in October, I will be prepared for variations in format and know that I have to cut to the chase when covering the points listed. I noticed that while at least six different exam levels (A1 to C2) were held in that small language school that day, only three are scheduled for October, so perhaps things will be a bit calmer, too.


In the meantime I breathe a sigh of relief that it’s over for now, and sure that I’ll be better prepared next time. After all, over the next five months in Spain, my Spanish can hardly get worse. Really it ought to improve on its own, right?



Before the exam, I researched some expressions which trigger the subjunctive and which can be adapted to any context to make sure I could squeeze some in. Using the subjunctive isn’t only showing off grammatical knowledge, it really adds colour to a discussion, as you can see below:

sea que sea – be what it may

pase lo que pase – come what may, whatever happens

todo sea dicho – all told

por lo que sea – for whatever reason, for some reason

Puede que… – perhaps

Hay pocas personas que… – There are few people who…

Si fuera así,… – If it were so,…

Si yo fuera él, no lo haría. – If I were him, I wouldn’t do it.