Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Second Language Learning

Recently I spent about three hours visiting our Kindergarten Spanish immersion classes, listening in with what little Spanish I have, but mostly observing the teaching moves of the teachers and the engagement of the students. It was similar to watching a movie with the sound off - I noticed different things than if I'd completely understood what was going on.

Three things really stood out to me:

1) When I didn't understand the language, the importance of gestures took on a whole new meaning. If the teacher asked a question, she pointed at the chart to help the children see the source for the answer. When counting tens strips on the calendar, she exaggerated the counting motions. When reading aloud a book, she pointed at the part of the picture she was discussing and made "guitar-playing" motions when an unfamiliar instrument was mentioned. As a second language learner, I relied heavily on these clues to understand what was going on.

2) Repetition of concepts and terms took on a whole new level of importance. At one point the kids sang a song and I had no idea what the song was about. I did notice that at one verse the kids shouted, but otherwise it was a wall of sound to me. As a student I might have mimicked some of the words, but had very little understanding. However, after the song the teacher pulled up a small student and repeated words from the song while pointing between her short companion and her taller self, helping me to understand that the song was about opposites. She did this multiple times, asking the students to repeat after her. The same with the calendar pattern of small, medium, and large balls. The kids made small, medium and large circles with their fingers over and over, all while repeating the words after her. I began to understand the concept, and was even able to say the words, though I need more repetition because I can't recall them now.

3) Finally, being surrounded by an unfamiliar language was exhausting! I found I spent the first 10-15 minutes concentrating well, but after that I began tuning out, looking around the room for something I could more easily understand. As I spoke to the other observing teacher in English about what I was seeing, I realized I was doing exactly what we get frustrated with our ELL students for doing - mentally drifting, talking off-topic (or even on-topic, but just not listening to the lesson), and missing the intent of the lesson. No wonder students with very little English appear to have attention deficit problems - simply attending to what sounds like Charlie Brown's mom ("Whaa whaaaa whaaa whaa") is very tiring!

Not many of us get the chance to experience life as an ELL learner, and yet MANY of us have ELL students in our classrooms. If you have the chance, I'd urge you to put yourself in this position and then stand back and watch your own reactions. It's enlightening, and could have an immense impact on how we work with the second-language learners in our schools.

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