My ESL Brown Bear: the story


Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? is a very famous and must-read-book for native English  speakers. In many kindergarten and preschool classes, it is used to familiarize children with animals and colours. ESL teachers have realized the potential of this book for their students to acquire or learn (depending on their views) the language a long time ago. Brewster and Ellis in their book Tell it again! suggest six lessons, from introducing the main vocabulary to performing a rehearsal all of which are aimed at children in the 8-11 age group.

My idea is to start earlier than 8 and target Very Young Learners, by mixing  ideas from native speaker classes and ESL ideas. Every morning I see a 3 y.o. Spanish child repeating blue the very same  way he or she repeats azul, but I don’t hear no entiendo, hablas muy deprisa, ¿qué dices?( I don’t understand), as I would hear in my primary classes. They just wander around and use the same strategies to understand what I’m saying in English as they do with Spanish (their mother tongue). They are acquiring the languages in a similar way but with different amounts of exposure.

To start with and to get inspired I recommend watching an amazing video with Bill Martin Jr reading the book himself:

Bill Martin Jr. reads Brown bear, Brown bear, What Do You See?

I have listened to it at least a hundred times. Simply for the enjoyment of it and of course to better my storytelling skills while getting the rhythm and intonation to provide my students with a good model. As I’m not a native English speaker and as I didn’t grow up with this amazing literature, I’ve had to catch up quickly.

There are many activities, lesson plans, teacher’s notes and ideas out there about Brown Bear. What I want to do here is to try to put them together, organize them and also include plans not intended for ESL activities which actually can be used in ESL classes.

The story

Every morning I go to a kindergarten class (3 y.o or 4 y.olds) with my Brown Bear big book edition and perform the same routine. First of all, I arrange students (up to 25 kids) in a circle. I start showing the front page and ask them “who is our friend?” After a couple of sessions most of them can recognize and answer “Brown bear” as a chunk. I open the book, starting with the picture of the brown bear and I repeat, not just twice as it appears in the book, but up to ten times every colour-animal. Children like the rhythm and join in right away. I usually mark time with both hands clapping on my lap to mark the beats brown-bear, blue-horse, white-dog and so on. This helps Spanish students to realize that, as opposed to the Spanish language which is syllabic, English is a stressed timed language. As they are also learning the colours and animals in their mother tongue, often when you turn the page they eagerly say the name of the animal in Spanish, feeling really proud that they know it. I encourage it as they are making the following connection:

Oso- picture- brown bear (name in Spanish -picture of the animal- name in English)

The telling of the story goes as follows:

Teacher:  Brown bear, Brown bear, Brown bear,(children start joining in) Brown bear, Brown bear, Brown bear, Brown bear, Brown bear, what do you see? (finger below the eye)

Teacher: I see (finger below the eye) [turning page slowly creating suspense]

Children: Un pájaro

Teacher: Yes that’s right, it’s a bird, a red bird looking at me (hand on my chest)

Teacher: Red bird, red bird, (children start joining in) red bird, red bird, red bird, red bird, red bird, red bird, what do you see? (finger below the eye)

Teacher: I see (finger below the eye) [turning page slowly creating suspense]

Children: Un pato amarillo.

Teacher: Yes that’s right, it’s a duck, a yellow duck looking at me (hand on the chest)

(soon see and me are also repeated, and even some children can join you with the whole question, what do you see?)

When we finish the story and we are on the page with all the animals I ask them: Which is your favourite animal? In the first sessions they just point to their favourite animal and I say the name while pointing. After several sessions, some children can say the animal without pointing, and every session more and more students are capable to name their favourite animal.

To finish the storytime I go to the page with all the colours and I point to the colour, say the name and they repeat afterwards. As they have learnt colour-animal as a chunk, some students tend to say brown-bear or purple-cat, as the name of the colour, but after some sessions they realize that when I point to the colour I only say blue or brown and they just simply repeat it.

I have noticed the interference of Spanish when learning English in primary school children in several aspects:

– Tendency of reading English syllabically, which produces a really flat intonation, making it really difficult to understand what they’re saying.

– Word order changing as in Spanish the structure goes noun-adjective as opposed to adjective-noun.

– Difficulty using the auxiliary do when making a question.

This book gives them a model to avoid these problems later on. As colour-animal has been learnt as a chunk, it gives the learners native-like  intuitive sense of rightness. On the other hand, the structure what do you see? learnt as a chunk can be played with and transformed into: what do you hear, like, eat and so on in a later stage.

Have a look at My ESL Brown Bear: the activities


5 thoughts on “My ESL Brown Bear: the story

  1. What great ideas, Conchi! I look forward to reading your analysis of more activities, too 🙂

    And I had never seen the Bill Martin video–definitely one I will make a favorite on my YouTube channel.


    • Conchi Martínez de Tejada

      Thanks! I love to use this book in class and to see how many teachers write about what works for them. I love to be able to share my experiences as well, my blog is becoming my teacher’s room!
      I have recently found another webpage with an interview with Bill Martin where he explains how he wrote the book and it’s really inspiring. This is the site
      Thanks for visiting my blog 🙂

  2. Thanks, this is great. Brown Bear is one of my favorite books to teach as well. I really like your idea of repeating the animal names many times, and later asking the students their favorite. I sometimes give a quick peak at the next page and see if the students can say the animal name. They really like this.

    • Conchi Martínez de Tejada

      Thanks! I find Brown Bear a really useful and motivating book for a wide range of students from preschool to first years of Primary. Sometimes it’s not easy to use English literature with ESL students but this works fine. I love the suspense and surprise in storytelling so your idea of a quick peek is wonderful.
      Thanks for visiting my blog 🙂

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