In fifth grade, the girls just had a test today, so up to this point in the week we have been reviewing the concepts to prepare them. This unit in English was on reported speech, when you say what someone else said (she said that he wanted to go to the store). I helped Miss Mary prepare materials to review the concept, as the girls were having a lot of trouble with details like whether to use ‘said’ or ‘told’ and when to put verbs in the past tense. I’ve also been giving them the oral part of the exam. I’ve been pulling girls into the hallway and showing them a picture with different people and what they are saying, and they have to turn the quotes into reported speech.
I’ve also been working individually with the first grade girls, though only practicing English conversation instead of testing specific concepts. I prepared a few questions to ask the girls, such as, “Tell me about your family,” and “What is your favorite food?” Then I asked more specific questions or changed the wording as necessary so the girls could understand the question and I could see how they answered. Though they are only in first grade, they have been learning in English for several years now, so they have been doing very well. I have also been incorporating questions about what they have been learning in class, asking them to describe how they decorated their weather charts and tell me about things they “have got” and “haven’t got,” a grammar concept they learned about last week.
Working with the girls one on one has really taught me a lot about how to approach students whose first language is not English. From what I have seen in the last few weeks, the most important determinant of how well any student speaks the language is how often she uses it. Because of the structure of the curriculum and class, the girls are heavily exposed to the language. As I mentioned in a previous blog, not only English, but science as well is taught completely in English. In addition, the girls are given access to books written in English and encouraged to speak in English throughout the class. Some of the girls have embraced this and are eager to come up to me and talk to me, as well as each other, while others are quiet or tend to slip back into Spanish when they don’t think the teacher is listening. When I began practicing English conversation with the girls, there was a clear correlation between how eager they were to use the language and how proficient they were in it.
From talking to and observing my teacher, and from interacting with the students myself, I have also directly noted several beneficial strategies when trying to teach students whose first language is not English. Chief among these is patience and flexibility. For some of these students, the only English they experience is in the classroom itself. Therefore, if you have not said a word before, they do not know what it is. You have to be willing and able to slow down and rephrase what it is you’re trying to say. Chances are the students are familiar with the concept, they are just being confused by a single word or phrase that they have never heard before. Going back to the weather, for example, the girls could readily explain what it meant for it to be “raining” outside. When the word “drizzling” was brought up, however, they were at a loss, and the teacher had to explain that drizzle was a type of rain that was very light compared to normal rain.
Really, the same applies for any student in any classroom, English proficient or otherwise. As teachers, we have to use what students already know and bridge the gap to what we want to teach them. We have to start with familiar concepts and build on them in order to expand students’ knowledge and understanding. When the concept in question is the very language being spoken in the classroom, the importance of this practice is made that much more apparent.
At this point, I only have a few more days to experience school life in Spain, but I am excited to see what they have in store for me. Right now, the plan is to post another blog on Sunday when I get back from Rome, and I’ll have my final thoughts on my experience here posted next Wednesday or Thursday, right before I fly home.