Friday, March 30, 2012

After school language programs fill the gap in Florida

We are hearing about many after-school and extracurricular language programs for elementary schools. The LEE program provides elementary school children with Spanish language instruction as an after-school activity in St. John's County in Florida. Created by two teachers, the LEE program is focused on differentiated learning and letting each child acquire language in their own way. The variety of activities and the rigorous preparation of the teachers, is probably the key to their success. Here's a recent article about the program: Bilinguals in the Making | Eco Latino

What can all parents and teachers take away from this? We think these two points should help teachers  improve their own lanaguage teaching skills:
1. Each student is a unique individual, and the teacher cannot provide a "one size fits all" instructional approach. The teacher needs to have an endless bag of tricks - multiple ways of introducing and practicing language. Each of us has our own favorite activities, but it's important to keep adding, expanding and adapting the toolkit to keep the engagement level high. That is why QTalk provides classroom games in card-based format, in Smartboard lessons (our DLS products) and then the same material in Student Books and in Online Games. We love the idea of music and singing in the classroom! The brain is soothed by music, and the patterns of rhyme and meter in the lyrics create connections that are much stronger, than those created by spoken words.

2. Language instruction increasingly takes place outside of the traditional classroom setting. This does not make the class any less valuable, nor does it allow for ill-prepared or ill-equipped teachers. We note that the children quoted in the article were proud of their ability to interact with native speakers when their families traveled on vacation to Spanish-speaking countries. The children also enjoyed learning about different countries. Language instruction is about so much more than just how to say the words - it is a window into another way to think and see and be in the world, literally promoting an expanded world view in these fortunate young children.

Bravo to the LEE team for their accomplishment. We hope they will serve as inspiration to other communities.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A few teachers have commented on the difficulty of reaching today's media-Internet-commercial inundated students. They believe the children's imaginations have been weakened in some way by the relentless exposure to more and more content - from YouTube to FaceBook to video games and smartphone apps. Is this really true? 

Regarding imagination, we would agree that there is truly a dangerous level of passive consumption of "junk" media content, commercialized food products and toys, and in some families an overall erosion of those social niceties (such as a family dinner each evening) that would traditionally support face-to-face conversation and expression of ideas (read: parents sitting at the dinner table texting, talking on their cell phones or browsing the Internet - but who among us has not been multi-tasking and caught ourselves doing this!) When children do not have the ability to interact effectively, and to think and speak creatively in their first language, it's truly challenging to teach them a new language. Worse, many students rely on Google Translate or gadgets to perform what they believe to be the purpose of language acquisition - simply mechanical translation to overcome the inconvenience of something being written in the "other" language. Add to that the fear many children have of "sounding stupid" if they mispronounce a word or say something that "sounds funny" to their peers - and what you end up with is a very, very difficult set of students to teach language to.

So if that's a problem you are facing, we hear you. You are not alone, and it's okay to teach a little differently if your students are so "hooked" on digital content that they appear unable to join in the game of language-learning as a fun, creative group activity.

Two suggestions, that approach the problem from two different directions:

First, unplug everything in the classroom. No Smartboard, no computer, no Internet, no iPads, nothing electronic. No DVD, no audio CD, no cassette tapes, no 8-Tracks, no vinyl 33RPM LP records (remember those?), not even reel-to-reel audio tapes. No Internet. No phones. If necessary, turn off the electric lights.

Next, take away all the books, worksheets, grammar cards, cheat sheets, and any other "learning aid" posted around the classroom. Take away all the pens and papers and pencils and art supplies. Hide the dictionaries. It's okay to leave the maps and any posters with photographs or visual images on them.

Now what? Now let's talk. The teacher asks questions, the students answer. The students ask eachother questions and take turns answering. We work together as a single classroom group, then we divide into teams and play a dialogue game. Any of the QTalk Dialogue Game card-based products would support this, and there is no end to the types of dialogue games you can create on your own, or invent with the help of the students.

Of course when we talk, we need to listen. And instead of correction, "No, you don't say it that way, you say it THIS way, " we just keep saying (in the target language) "Excellent. That's good. Yes," and if necessary we repeat the sentence with the correction included, and believe us, the students will pick up after a few repeats, without being embarrassed or stifled as they would have been if the correction had been offered directly.

So, that's one approach.

The second approach comes from the other direction - the digital content. Whatever they are doing - listening to music, watching movies, chatting with Facebook friends, etc. -- now they must do it in the target language. Without depending on Google Translate - you can show them a few hilarious mistranslations to illustrate the weakness of even the best "computer translator" tool. So now you incorporate these experiences into the talking. I like music. Yes? What kind? Well, if they have been listening to music in the target language, they'll be building up vocabulary to tell you the name of the band or the genre of music. Help them figure out how to pick out the words in context so that they can express their likes and dislikes, or tell a story about something they experienced.

Have fun teaching, and soon your students won't be able to help having fun learning their new language. Without their gadgets, and with their gadgets, and at some point they'll need to find for themselves a way to balance all this digital content for themselves, so that they will be able to stay on track not only in language class, but in life.