Just over a quarter century ago, I was attending a grade school which specialized in language instruction. My sister was in the French track and I was in the Spanish track. My parents both spoke Spanish, but when I was in third grade my family moved to a different neighborhood, necessitating my transfer to a different school the following school year. My new neighborhood was predominantly Puerto Rican, and I remember being excited at the start of fourth grade when I had learned that the new school offered ‘bilingual’ instruction.
But the term was a misnomer. It was unidirectional language instruction for only native Spanish-speaking students learning English. Native English-speaking students with some Spanish background like myself were excluded from these classes, and my classmates in the non-‘bilingual’ classes did not speak Spanish in the classroom or in the social settings in which I interacted with them. As a result, my Spanish proficiency suffered. Jana Echevarría, MaryEllen Vogt, and Deborah J. Short reveal that “students have a greater chance of mastering content concepts and skills when they are given multiple opportunities to practice in relevant, meaningful ways” (2013, p. 175). My second elementary school denied me such opportunities, and I am now trying desperately to regain the language that I lost so many years ago.
As a teacher I always make an effort to learn some degree of the languages of the students in my classrooms. While I do not do so with the expectation of attaining fluency before the children leave my care, I feel it is important for my students to have exposure to languages beyond English, and the more I can do to help facilitate children learning the languages of their peers the better. As Echevarría et. al. point out, “When we know students’ backgrounds and abilities in their native language, we can incorporate effective techniques and materials in our instructional practices” (2013, p. 4).
Of course, as an early childhood educator, I have students that may not have complete mastery over their native language either. Certain academic terms, such as the days of the week, are still difficult even for native English speakers in my classroom, due to the nature of the concepts to which they refer. These are some of the items that I focus on learning in the children’s home languages. As Echevarría et. al. suggest, “if we can give them the gist of what they will be learning in English beforehand through their native language, we can then build on that (new) prior knowledge, and, with careful lesson planning, advance their language skills and strengthen that content knowledge” (2013, p. 47).
Such efforts to learn the students’ home languages have added benefits beyond merely the instructional purposes in the classroom. Echevarría et. al. point out that “teaching from a culturally responsive perspective is especially important” (2013, p. 66). By learning some basic elements of students’ home languages I am able to take limited steps toward crossing some of those cultural barriers, and the students’ families certainly take notice, as can be seen in the following reflection I wrote following a home visit with a 4-year-old Vietnamese student:
Jason’s home visit today was a little bit awkward in the beginning. The language barrier impeded, but his mother’s English skills were sufficient that it wasn’t an extreme impediment. I think when I used the little bit of Vietnamese that I know (to say the days of the week when I was counting with Jason how long until the field trip) helped her feel more comfortable knowing that she wasn’t the only one who was struggling with a new language. She was impressed by the little bit that I did know.
For Jason’s family, the fact that I had taken the effort to learn even a small degree of their language made a huge difference in the remainder of the home visit. However, for this to happen, the challenge arises as to how to learn those bits of the language. I spoke in my August blog post about my attempts to learn Amharic by attending Ethiopian restaurants. But sometimes resources can be much closer at hand in the form of co-workers and even students with more advanced English skills. Echevarría et. al. support the need for “clarification of key concepts in students’ L1 by a bilingual instructional aide, peer, or through the use of materials written in the students’ L1” (2013, p. 157).
The use of written materials is an important element. Even though my preschool students are as yet unable to read, exposing them to the written forms of their home languages is crucial. When, in a home visit with Jason’s classmate Jessica, her Ecuadorian mother asked her what her favorite book at school was, Jessica responded that her favorite book was Nieve (Mayer, 2006), a Spanish language book that I had recently read to the class as written while also translating key elements of the book into English for the students who did not speak Spanish.
Indeed, I make many efforts to include books in the classroom that represent a wide variety of languages. I recall at one point having three versions of Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See (Martin, 1996) in the classroom, including one which had Vietnamese translations alongside the original English (Martin, 2003).
Echevarría et. al. state that, “Students should be active in developing their understanding of words and ways to learn them” (2013, p. 75). I decided to take advantage of the classroom’s diverse literature to help build the children’s awareness of language and activate their curiosity and exploration of linguistic features. We did not have a Spanish version of Brown Bear, but one day as I read the English version to them, I translated as much as I could into Spanish, asking Jessica to help me fill in the names of the animals that I didn’t know. A few days later, I made an attempt at reading the Vietnamese version of the book. While I could not understand a single word that I read, I relied on the fact that Vietnamese is mostly phonetic in its written language. Every time I paused to check my pronunciation, Jason confirmed, amid his laughter, that he could understand everything I was saying.
By engaging in readings in multiple languages, I was helping the students to make associations between their native languages and other languages they encounter in their daily lives. By doing so in relationship to books that the children enjoy, I was also exposing children to “Authentic, meaningful experiences [which] are especially important for English learners because they are learning to attach labels and terms to things already familiar to them” (2013, p. 43).
Next month I will most likely be looking at The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker (2002). If you have a book that you would like me to discuss in this blog, please comment on the Recommended Reading page.
Echevarría, J., ME. Vogt, & D.J. Short. (2013). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP® model, Fourth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Martin, Bill Jr. (1996). Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? (E. Carle, illus.). New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
Martin, Bill Jr. (2003). Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? English and Vietnamese Edition. (E. Carle, illus.). London, UK: Mantra Lingua.
Mayer, C. (2007). Nieve: Observemos el tiempo. Portsmouth, HN: Heinemann.
Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, NY: Penguin Books.