By: Roberta Porter
Dated: 18th June 2015
When I commence my clinical teaching I am likely to teach eight-year old children the subject of English language. (These children will be third graders according to the American system or year four in the British system). In the Costa Rican schooling system June will be half-way through the school year. During the school year, we will probably do a unit on vocabulary and text comprehension strategies. Introduction to this unit will be at the end of a class. As a class, we will brainstorm the topic of a page-long passage that will be given to students to read as homework (with parental assistance or peer collaboration if necessary). This brainstorm is the first step in the K-W-L (Know, Want to Know, Learned) Reading Method. In the next class I have described below the learning profiles of some of my imagined pupils at four different stages if English language acquisition.
Learner 1: Pre-Production
Olivio is a student who has recently arrived in Costa Rica from Colombia. His only contact with English prior to this has been learning a couple children’s songs in his previous school, which was not an immersion school. Both his parents speak Spanish at home although they both use English on occasion at work and have a good command of the language (high intermediate level). Olivio’s parents are thus in a position to assist him in his English acquisition with a little guidance. Right now Olivio is unable to express himself in English, though after five months of lessons in English he understands much more than he can convey.
The metacognition strategies of brainstorming and reading of the passage prior to class are aimed most specifically at helping students in the pre-production language acquisition stage prepare to read the passage and answer comprehension questions about it in class (although of course these exercises benefit all students). No comprehension questions will be provided to the children when the passage is sent home with them as homework. This is purposely done to prevent parents doing homework for them and inadvertently stunting their learning. As such, parents will not know from what angle I will be approaching the passage: this will only be revealed to the students during the following class. E.g. a passage about birds nesting could be examined with the goal of increasing vocabulary on animals, the weather, the outdoors or any number of aspects, even with eight-year olds. Early in the school year I will meet with Olivio’s parents to provide them with some fun materials and extra homework games to develop his English that can be done as a family and to request they read such homework passages with him. Providing Olivio with more opportunities to practice his English and hear English may be the best way we can help him come up to the same level as most of the other pupils in the class. This will be accomplished through extra homework and small group activities. I would recommend Olivio get a vocabulary journal that he can use for new words and encourage him to draw colorful pictures of the meanings of the English words rather than simply writing the Spanish translation.
Learner 2: Speech Emergent
Palmiro is a Costa Rican student who I suspect may be experiencing some as yet undiagnosed learning difficulties. Both his parents are native Spanish speakers and Spanish is his home language. His parents have an intermediate level of English. Immersion in English begins in first grade, but Palmiro joined our school in second grade. So he is in full swing of his second year of study in English, yet he is still at the speech emergent stage of English language acquisition. Notwithstanding this, there are many hints that he will soon begin to gain some fluency. Although he is likely to regress a bit in his language and academic abilities during the two-month winter break prior to the start of next year’s classes, I expect that he will catch up soon once classes resume. I predict that as soon as Palmiro passes this speech emergent stage his English will improve rapidly.
The main assistance I would like to provide to Palmiro is to first have a specialist teacher and psychologist assess him in Spanish to see if he has any identifiable learning or other difficulties. Such a specialist teacher would need to be familiar with the academic program at our school. They would need to know not to expect Palmiro to be at grade level in Spanish even though it is his mother tongue, because with the initial 70%-30% dual English-Spanish immersion program (which is reduced to 60%-50% from grade 7 onwards), the Spanish development will naturally lag a bit at first, but the child catches up and even surpasses their monolingual peers after the initial years. I would not want Palmiro to be erroneously diagnosed as having a learning difficulty when it was only the language program he follows at the school which is to blame. Pending the special needs evaluation and any recommendations provided by it, I would try to tutor Palmiro separately on his English and employ more visual, tactile and kinesthetic approaches in the classes for his benefit. Such approaches will increase his motivation and mental engagement in the lessons. I will ensure that the reading passage provided to the class has two or three colorful and relevant pictures on it. Palmiro – having some understanding of spoken English and being in the speech emergent stage of acquisition – will benefit the most from my direct teaching (explicit instruction) of the word analysis strategies in this unit (i.e. dissecting words into prefixes, roots and suffixes) and learning about the underlying meaning of many word roots that is common across many languages (e.g. photograph (English) = fotografía (Spanish); photo/foto = light; graph/graf = drawing). In addition I will point out to the class ways to easily identify important words: important words are often highlighted by the writer putting them in bold or italics. The world analysis exercises will be done at the start of the class in which the passage will be read. Immediately thereafter, students will be told about using the strategy of highlighted or important words for comprehension when reading the passage. After reading they will be able to suggest possible meanings for these words as a whole class exercise. At that time we will look at placing these words in different English sentences and contexts to further clarify the meaning and link them to the students’ lives.
Learner 3: Beginning Fluency
Sofía is a Costa Rican student from similar background to Palmiro, except that both her parents are at an advanced fluency level in English. She has been with the school since the first grade (which is the first year offered). Sofía is at the typical level of English language acquisition expected of students in third grade, after having had two years of dual immersion (70%-30%) in English and Spanish. Sofía has gained a lot of confidence in English and initiates conversations in English. She demonstrates good tolerance of ambiguity and understands most of the lesson content. She is not afraid to lead activities in English.
During this teaching unit students will learn how to spot clues about the meaning of a word from both its origin, structure and from the grammatical features such as tenses (e.g. –ing, -ed, etc. to name a few). Sofía – being in the beginning fluency stage of language acquisition – will benefit from my direct teaching (explicit instruction) of the vocabulary building exercise in this unit where I will provide the meanings and examples of usage of certain words that appear in the passage and definitions of certain specific terminology (academic or scientific terminology). E.g. in a text on birds, a new vocabulary word might be “bird-watcher” and a new scientific word might be “ornithologist” (someone who studies birds). The vocabulary and language development exercises will be done immediately after the basic word analysis strategies are taught because these strategies will be useful to decode much of the specific terminology. During small group reading of the passage, there will be a comprehension questionnaire for students to complete using short answers. This will be followed by a very short composition to be done individually. The production aspect of this exercise will push the limits of Sofía’s language capabilities and increase her manipulation of the text and the language.
Learner 4: Advanced Fluency
Rubén is a bilingual student who is half Costa Rican and half Welsh (British). He speaks both Spanish and English on a daily basis at home and started school already fluent with native-level pronunciation and grammar in both languages. As a result of Rubén’s advanced capabilities in both languages he is at risk of becoming bored in class when we are going through some of the more basic techniques unless I find a way to ensure he is fully engaged in the lesson. The unit on vocabulary and text comprehension strategies is great because it can be used equally by both language learners and native speakers. It should be pointed out that Rubén can still benefit immensely from these lessons because even though he is fluent in both languages, he still has the vocabulary of his age-group, i.e. that of an eight-year old. I will show Rubén that there are words in the passage that are not in his useable vocabulary. (E.g. I doubt many eight-year olds know the word “ornithology” whether native English speakers or not.) After being exposed to new terminology at the start of the lesson through explicit instruction, Rubén’s challenge will be to identify and manipulate these words by using them in different contexts. No more than ten new vocabulary and five new terminology words will be introduced in any given text. Of these five terminology words, I will explain the meaning of the three most difficult words and let students figure out the meaning of the other words from the context, which is yet another language development strategy. I will convey to Rubén that he is expected to employ some or all of the new vocabulary and terminology in his short essay, as a modified rubric for his level of fluency.
Besides this, the best way to keep Rubén engaged is to completely exploit his language skills by using him and the other bilingual students as my helpers, without per-se elevating their status in the class. I will group Rubén with other students – perhaps even with our struggling student Olivio – in a form of peer-assisted guided reading, which is a metacognition strategy that will benefit them both. During this collaboration students will be forbidden to speak Spanish. I will try to make it into a game, so Rubén and other students must help each other to understand the meaning of the passage without translating it – which is against the rules. Pupils are however allowed to act out the meaning and use props (similar to Pictionary or Charades) to convey the meaning. There will also be consequences if the rule of ‘no translation into Spanish’ is broken.
After the group activities and completion of the structured answer questionnaire, I will read the entire passage to the students and in this way model proper English prosody, intonation and pronunciation. If a student wishes to read he or she may do so. At this point the class will discuss some of the things they found interesting in the passage. Students will be asked what more on the topic they might like to know (the “W” in the K-W-L Reading Method) and to write about that. Pupils will then complete their individual short essay on the topic. In the next class, we will use elements from all students’ essays to create a story map and thereby create meaning from the context. We could use information and communication technology (ICT) tools such as ImagiStory to create our story map. At this point we will complete the K-W-L Reading Method by discussing what we learned.
The British School of Costa Rica. (n.d.). http://www.thebritishschoolofcostarica.com/general-information/
Van Gyn, Geraldine. (2013.) The Little Assignment with the Big Impact: Reading, Writing, Critical Reflection, and Meaningful Discussion. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/instructional-design/the-little-assignment-with-the-big-impact-reading-writing-critical-reflection-and-meaningful-discussion/