One of my favorite games to play with Elementary students is “Telephone.”  Today a friend of mine put as his Facebook status, “There is no greater joy than literal non-idiomatic translation.”  He is a scholar in Middle East studies and therefore speaks reads and writes Arabic, and due to prior interest in Languages also German, and now he is learning French.  He may speak or read others as well that I don’t know of.

Anyway, the ensuing comments on his status were about translation, mis-translation, and creative translation, which clicked a button in my head about what I read yesterday.
As the author of the chapter I read yesterday, Sally Wilkinson, asserted, when language is taught as a purely formalistic non-cultural exercise, it loses meaning, and motivation.
The perfect example is online translators.  They can be helpful when used as a tool, but when used to translate whole bodies of work, they are often trouble ridden.  One student of mine last year turned in a paper that he had poorly typed into some online translator that gave him the following result:
“From out the house seemed that tapeworm one floor, but really tapeworm two floors.”
Taking that phrase and plugging it into a translator you get a phrase that makes a whole lot more sense in Spanish, if you add a few accents:
“Desde fuera, la casa parecía que tenia un piso, pero realmente tenia dos pisos.”
See, in Spanish, tenia (say: TE-nya) means tapeworm and  tenía (say: te NEE ah) means to have in the past tense.  
I caught the student cheating because he didn’t read what he “wrote,” and he wasn’t careful with his own language.  Because he took the exercise without his own motivation, he didn’t make any effort on the final product of his writing, and sadly he made little progress in my class over the course of the year.  He took it as a purely garbage in garbage out exercise, which was a shame.
One of the commenters on my friend’s Facebook status sent us the following link, which puts online translators to the test and creates extremely funny Japlish.    A very high tech version of Telephone, don’t you think?

Use of Language (reading journal)

This morning I began re-reading a book that I read part way through last summer.  It is a book published in the UK about British schools titled, “Use of Language across the Primary Curriculum.”  It it edited by Eve Bearne, but has various authors.  As I read articles/chapters in the book, I’ll note who the authors are.

I bought the book because I am interested in using Language in other subject matter, and in interdisciplinary coursework.  The book offers a different perspective to my own, it being British, and me being American.  Oddly a friend to whom I showed the book, and another I bought which was published in Australia said, “It is amazing how different the American system of Education is even to the British.”
Apparently Education all over the world has changed since we were both in Elementary School.
Anyway, the introduction is enlightening and it gives me the idea that the blessing and curse of Political Correctness has infected British Education as well as American.  The authors go on about the National Curriculum dictating proper usage of Grammar, and how one should not “[suggest] that a child’s own language– and so, by implication the child herself or himself– is intellectually or socially deficient.”(p. 5)
There are so many politically correct aspects to that one sentence that I have to restrain myself from rolling my eyes, although the statement itself is correct.  One should not say that children shouldn’t express themselves any way they like, but stringing jargon and acronyms onto the analysis which says that seems a bit over the top to me.
I say the part about acronyms because apparently not only do we have EFL (Engilsh as a Foreign Language) and ESL (English as a Second Language) but additionally and I will give them, probably more accurately since many children learning two languages also learn another simultaneously in our global village, EAL (English as an Additional Language).
The distinctions are very thin between each of them, though they _do_ exist.  EFL is taught in non-English-speaking countries, because English is taught as much as a cultural envoy as a means to survival.  ESL and one supposes EAL are taught in English-speaking countries to help children learn to speak in the common language instead of their “home language.”  The authors apply the term “home language” not only to Bengali or Spanish, but to the non-standard dialects and accents that children may use at home and out of which children may transfer into when they “…take on the role of a weather forcaster or news reader…”(p. 5 again)
Although I get the impression that the authors will be too gentle/politically correct, I like the general direction in which the book is going.  They talk about the constructive nature of language as contrasted with the probatory version, in other words using language to meet three goals:

* children learning to use language;
* children using language to learn;
* children learning about language.  (p. 3)

That is, they think of language use in the classroom to prove knowledge of but also to construct thought patterns.  They say, “If the new emphasis on use of language is to feed vigorous growth, then it needs to offer the fullest understanding of what kind of environment and nourishment will best support healthy development.”( pp. 3-4)  In other words creating a classroom culture where thought is grown, not just fed.

One way which they enunciate very clearly, the most clearly I’ve heard it expressed, is by valuing the strengths of bilingualism:

If a child is learning two languages simultaneously, or even learning a second language during the early years, the cognitive patterning is similar; the repeated experience of matching an already known word or expression to one in another language sets up a mental framework for other kinds of matching– the kind of analogical thinking which helps the development of mathematics, for example.  It can also lead to the ability reflect more analytically on language.  (p. 6)

This was an idea we talked about in the training sessions for the Language Assistant Teachers in Madrid.  They talked about how there are a few models for brain development, and one of the most prevalent and perhaps wrong ones is that one’s brain can only hold so much information at once, and therefore one mustn’t clog it with more than one language until it is developed enough to analyze the grammar and play point to point matching games.  The argument presented in this book, and to us as Bilingual teachers was the opposite, that teaching analogous systems of thought (languages) at the same time will expand the ability to form other kinds of parallel thought.
I tend to think that the latter system is true.  From my own experience learning a third language after mastering two, the study of grammar and the naturalization of fluency have helped me understand and assimilate French much more quickly than I did Spanish.  It does raise the question if the same thing holds true for unrelated languages, like Asian languages which are of no relation to English whatsoever.
But going back hundreds of years, Greek and Latin have been taught in British schools not only because they are Classical, but because children will better understand logic by learning a complex and related grammar.
Another point which the authors made in the Introduction, which to me is very important, is that, “New technologies offer new possibilities to evaluate learning– both for teachers and learners.”  (pp. 6-7)
Given my own forays into the use of multimedia in my smaller classes, and using art and computers directly in the Bilingual School where I taught, this statement makes me think that the rest of the book will probably touch on issues central to my own interests in Education.
(Citation for the book:  Bearne, Eve (editor); Use of Language across the Primary Curriculum; 1998; Routledge, London.)
(Will cite individual authors as I read and discuss the chapters.)

Why We Record (reading journal)

The unexamined life is not worth living.  –Socrates

The first part of the book Use of Language across the Primary Curriculum  is called “Language and Learning.”  The first chapter is called, “Why do we have to write it down? Young children learning to write and writing to learn.”

The teacher writing it, Sally Wilkinson, is a teacher in Key Stage 1, which I think must be the British equivalent of Lower El(ementary).  She talks about the different reasons that children need and want to write, emphasizing that there is a formal hand-eye coordination aspect, but that is not usually motivation enough for kids to write down their thoughts.  They need to have an emotional or intellectual motivation in addition to the developmental one.
She also, interestingly emphasizes the necessity of allowing children to produce writing independent of teacher assignment.
I have to say from my experience in the two schools where I worked, that sounds about right.  The students in the second school, where they said, “Use red pen for the title.  No, not blue!  Tear out the sheet and start again,” didn’t know how to use the language that we were teaching them, whereas the children in the bilingual school developed writing skills in English as early as Second Grade.  We used to hang out short writing exercises on the wall based on season or topic.  Mostly the written rather than drawn ones were in Third Grade or above, but some words were written by the younger kids.
She goes on to make suggestions of how to motivate children to write.
The first of these is either a Writing Corner, or if space isn’t adequate, a clearly labeled Writing Box filled with good things to write on and with.  By allowing children to use the box in their down time, or even by assigning each child a time to be allowed to visit the Writing Box/Corner, “…[the] teacher [can be] the facilitator for further learning as well as allowing [students] to consolidate and practice [their] letter writing skills.”  (p. 22)
This idea is not far off of the solution I came up with for my Private Lessons in Spain.  I carried an Art-Studio-in-a-Backpack to each lesson filled with things to write/draw with and on, as well as other less traditional materials and a few Art books, in English where possible.  It also brings to mind the reason I decided with some groups of kids, both in schools and out, to make three to four page books, so that the children could look at what we were studying on their own, and thereby develop an independent interest in what we had studied.
That plan backfired a little, or well blew up anyway, one group of private students named their dog Bingo because we’d sung that song so many times, and afterward we made a book just for Bingo the real dog.
Ms. Wilkinson goes on to talk about the relationship to home and school saying, “…written texts they meet in the environment in which they live are likely to be significant to them and may be influential.” (p. 23) and goes on to talk about a boy who wrote in the form of comics and comic books because he had lots of comics at home.  His parents had created an environment in which it was encouraged to read, albeit one particular form of media.  That creation of environment is what I’ve read and written about as the creation of a culture in which learning and/or looking is valued.
There have been studies about the relationship of being able to change registers and children’s exposure to stories, and Wilkinson mentions a study from 1993 by Carol Fox about children “being able to talk like a book” because they’d been read to a lot.  This is how she explains Daryl’s ability to reproduce comic art.
In EFL it is especially important to create “home” opportunities to interface with the second or additional language.  In ESL, where a child is immersed in the Second Language, that opportunity isn’t as important because there is social motivation to get at least spoken fluency, but where a child is in a Foreign Language program, that motivation has to be constructed.  Apparently, I had some success, what with Bingo being so named because my students liked to sing the song so much.  But that isn’t as simple as it sounds.  Motivation is multi-faceted, and ebbs and flows over time.
The most interesting suggestion, and one which I haven’t encountered yet in other places was a “Story Box.”  She suggests putting a few objects in a box and making the children tell you a story that links them.  She says, “With older children it can be tempting to miss out on the oral storytelling and go straight into writing.” (p. 26) That is something that I’ve found to be true with older kids in EFL, in part because they are shy and slow. When we did that kind of storytelling or design activity, I made them talk in groups first and attempted to preserve an English Only class, which proved nearly impossible.
Her section about research is similar to the techniques I used with the older kids to talk about articles and to make designs, but she directed it better than I did.  She had them work in pairs, where I had them in groups, then she had them ask questions, which I did, but in which I didn’t direct the questions enough.  For my own future reference, I need to have a list of things to direct the students what information they need.  And the third part (pre-Final) was something that I didn’t have at all which was to list things known, learned and unknown about the topic at hand.  That is a very clever little key!
Her conclusion is that the job of the teacher is to create an island in which the children have permission to ask questions, make mistakes, and be creative because in having that space to grow, they will become more enthusiastic.  In my experience that is true, the problem is creating and maintaining it is a lot of work for us teachers.  We need to remind ourselves to build that space.
As a grown-up, I still don’t necessarily like to write down non-fiction or non-imaginative writing, but as a grown up who has read and learned a lot from non-fiction, I also know the value of a reflection.

Culture Shock

One thing that I learned quickly as an EFL conversation teacher in Spain, was that routine is key to getting the kids to learn.

I worked in two schools in Spain. The first was a Bilingual Public School, through a program created about six years ago by the Community of Madrid. It was in the countryside outside of the city of Madrid. There, we had five hours of English class every week, and we had an additional five hours of subject classes, variously: Art, Gym, Computers, Music, Science. I saw each of my classes at least an hour a day, and although I only worked four days a week, the kids got used to the routines that we created.

We consisted of me– the assistant– and a Spanish teacher who was the main classroom teacher. They do it that way because they want Native-Speaker teachers, but because of the Government’s rules, they can’t hire anyone who doesn’t have a Degree certified by the Spanish Ministry of Education, and who hasn’t passed their extremely difficult and annoying Certification Test. It is also good for the kids to have a new person who influences their enthusiasm for the new culture as well as the new language.

We worked in the classroom together, except when I took small groups. Towards the end, I sometimes took larger groups, and even in the middle I sometimes created the lesson plans, but essentially I was truly an assistant. I didn’t grade, the only discipline I did was to follow the routines, and really it was the only discipline we needed most of the time.

The second school I worked with is better than the first one, at least on paper. It was a large prestigious Charter School in the heart of Madrid’s Financial District. Charter school doesn’t exactly describe it, but essentially it was a semi-private school run on a combination of funds from the Church, Parental “Donations,” and Public Monies.

But where the first school was small and felt like a family, the second school was huge and a lot of the teaching we did ended up feeling like an assembly line. At that school, the first year I gave classes to Kindergarten and to Third Grade. I had more students in those two grades than were in the whole of the previous school. I saw them less hours a week, even though I worked more hours. Third grade I saw either one or two times a week in a classroom with half the class. One or two because the way we taught was by splitting the class. Kindergarten was the same deal with splitting, but since they only had two days a week of English, I saw each half-group only once a week.

With less hours to see the kids, establishing a routine was next to impossible, so the students didn’t advance as quickly, and there was greater resistance to working in class. In part this resistance was due to the ways in which the structure of my English classes fell outside the normal classroom culture prevalent in that school, and perhaps in Spain in general if my Spanish friends’ anecdotes hold true for the population as a whole.

The children were taught that they had to take notes by copying things exactly from the board. That they had to use the same color pen as the teacher did, and the same color pen for everything. They were not encouraged to think for themselves, only to memorize. And certainly, all Spanish children can tell you the way to say each regional name of a person from any place in Spain, and they can do long division by third grade, but when they are graduating from high school, none of them know how to do Calculus, and they have more personal than philosophical arguments about politics.


In the US, and even in the Bilingual School where I worked in Spain, there is an emphasis on work. Children are given work in the form of projects or spelling words or math problems that they take home, do, and are graded upon. Sure, in High School my teachers seldom corrected my homework, but by then I was (mostly) in the habit of doing it because when I was little, I was given grades on homework. My working habits were continually assessed until it seemed like I was doing enough work to get by.

In my second school in Madrid, the students were only given work to help them do better on their tests. The work was not graded, it was barely glanced at even when they were very little. The tests were not on a select few words from the reading or on a few of the rivers in Spain, the children were expected to spit back verbatim EVERYTHING that the teacher covered in class, which meant that the exams were grueling and long.

So, since I wanted to teach the kids to speak, I gave them applied writing exercises, which they never completed because to them the work wasn’t worth doing if they thought (at nine years-old) that they could pass the test. So then, they failed not only the work, which I graded very lightly, but the exams as well because I took the exam directly from their writing and oral presentation homework.

In the testing based system there is little incentive for the students to work once they know the relevant information since it will not change their grade to do more work. The teacher is left threatening to fail them if they don’t do the work, but without rewarding the good kids who did the work. Then the kids who work don’t see why they should bother working if they don’t get any bonus for it. As my friend Pablo put it, “In Spain, there is no system to reward work, only a system to punish lack of knowledge.” They treat the symptom as if it were the disease.

Tomorrow, I’ll write a little more about how the grading system is different and how this all influenced my ability to teach as an Assistant Language Teacher.