My latest guest blogger is Michelle Worgan, who lives and works in Jerez, Andalucia.
Jerez is of course synonymous with sherry, and the city’s name is the origin of the name of the drink. When I first read Michelle’s blog, I was transported back to my own year working up the road from Jerez in Seville. Ah, happy days…
I was also delighted to discover that Michelle is a soccer fan, a supporter of Stoke City. As I write, Stoke are preparing for an appearance at Wembley in an FA Cup semi-final against Bolton Wanderers.
I’d like to wish Michelle and Stoke City the very best in their attempts to reach the FA Cup Final. I’d also like to thank the Potters for losing to Fulham both home and away this season, generously gifting us six points, without which we’d be bottom of the Premier League.
Content in the Primary EFL Classroom
When Ken invited me to write a guest post for his blog before Christmas, I accepted immediately. What a privilege to be given a slot on one of the most popular ELT guest blogs around! I am a regular reader of this blog and have enjoyed reading guest posts from many teachers from all over the world who have had some amazing stories to tell.
And then I thought: hang on a minute! What am I going to write about? I don’t have any great stories to tell! When I do have something to say, I post my thoughts on my own humble blog. How am I going to live up to those dedicated teachers brimming with enthusiasm for drama and literature that are my predecessors?
Thinking of tweeting Ken to say “Thanks but no thanks, maybe some other time”, I went back to the book I was reading about Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) and suddenly thought: why not write about my own experiences of trying to implement this approach in the classroom?
I teach students of all ages in a private language school in the south of Spain. The students come to our lessons in the afternoons and evenings, when they have finished their day at work or school. Over the last couple of years, I have realised that the part of my job that I have come to enjoy most is teaching young learners, more specifically the under 10s. However, I was not particularly enjoying the materials available for these learners and I decided to do something about it.
For successful language learning, there are a few essentials: the most important being (in my opinion) that the level of the materials and tasks is appropriate and that the students are engaged and motivated. Look at most course books aimed at six-year-olds and you will find that in each unit around six to ten new vocabulary items will be presented (yes, only six new words for several weeks’ work!), there are lots of colouring activities in the workbook and a set of flashcards with the new vocabulary are provided. The flashcards can be used in a variety of ways, but often these are “games” that really are just disguising yet another drilling exercise.
But is naming a picture on a flashcard really engaging for a six-year-old? Surely it would be more appropriate for a three-year old. Just as listening to someone’s voice listing vocabulary items on the audio CD and having to point at them on the page is not at all cognitively challenging for a child of six. As a way of introducing new words, fine, but most of the activities don’t go much further than that. Children may find these activities fun but they will soon get bored if they are not challenged sufficiently.
CLIL is being implemented in a large number of state schools here in Spain. I don’t want to go into much detail, but as its name suggests, CLIL is a way of learning a language through content. It is not just teaching Science or Geography in another language, since the learners don’t have enough language to do so. It’s all about using subject content to teach both the content and the language.
I am a language teacher and my job is to teach the English language. But what better way of teaching a language is there than to build on the learners’ existing knowledge in both L1 and L2?
We cannot separate our L1 and L2 selves, and so why not use that knowledge? Including content from other disciplines into language lessons makes them more interesting and engaging. Learners will be adding to their knowledge in both languages.
Most published materials focus on language and knowledge that learners already have in their mother tongue, meaning that the only motivation learners have is to know how to say something in the second language. Very young learners don’t really understand the concept of another language and so why would they want to learn how to speak one? If we introduce content from other subjects into our lessons, we are using English as a vehicle to take us to new information and knowledge. The children are not just learning English, but improving their knowledge in other areas, which they may be more interested in.
For all these reasons, I decided to change the way we were doing things with one particular class. We are following a topic-based syllabus that I have designed myself, where we look at topics such as mini-creatures, our world and growing. The lessons are based around a story, a song, an experiment, a video or a craft activity.
The focus of each lesson is on content as much as language, and the learners are provided with the language they need in order to complete the main task or activity. The activities range from cognitively undemanding to demanding and require a range of thinking skills suitable for six-year-olds – and they rarely include just pointing at or naming an object!
A lot of language that we use is emergent language that comes up as we go along – the language we need to say something relevant or to complete a task.
Many of the activities we do can often be found in a language classroom, but the focus is more on meaning rather than form. When we read the story of the Three Little Pigs, this was not to learn specific vocabulary or structures as it would be in the traditional language classroom, but to think about the problems that occurred in the story and how to solve them.
We looked at different building materials and compared them. We discussed which pig had been more intelligent and why. We discussed how important it is to think about consequences and plan carefully. And yes, we did this in a mixture of L1 and L2, but this was not detrimental to the children’s progress in English. In fact, this encouraged the children to use English as much as they could, using their previous knowledge as well as new language that emerged and which I provided them with in L2.
This approach may not be suitable for all language learners but I think it lends itself particularly well to primary-age students. These learners are hungry for knowledge, and if this can be integrated with the learning of English, all the better! Why not do a project on the Vikings or dinosaurs, if that’s what your learners are interested in? Have learning objectives first, which then determine the language objectives that are necessary in order to participate in the lesson effectively.
If your school enforces specific language objectives throughout the course, try to fit them in as they would come up naturally. For example, the past simple tense could easily be incorporated in either of the two previous examples as the learners will need to use it in order to talk about both topics.
Whether the focus is more on language or content, I think that choosing content and activities that will challenge learners to some extent on both a cognitive and linguistic level is important to have engaged and happy young learners.
If you would like to know more about this project, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Michelle’s blog is called ‘So This Is English’ and you can find it at inspireyourlearners.blogspot.com
Whenever someone mentions Jerez or I hear the word ‘sherry’, I remember the incomparable Leonard Rossiter as Rigsby the landlord in the TV sitcom Rising Damp. He constantly lusted after one of his tenants, Miss Jones, played by the equally wonderful Frances de la Tour.
In one of his more feeble attempts to impress her with his sophisticated taste, he offered her a glass of sherry. “It’s good stuff from Cyprus,” he explained. “None of that Spanish rubbish.”