To Be Or Not To Be Literate

Living abroad as an expat is hard enough for some, especially if the reason for the move is not out of personal choice, but when children start coming then you add the second language dilema, and when they reach primary school age, then another layer Chinese writingof complexity appears, Literacy. [Read more...]

Bright, colourful and musical Spanish language learning

Tren de vocalesLong gone are the days of chalky fingers and monochromatic lessons delivered in a monotone voice heavy with the local accent. Just like the monkey-man in 2001 A Space Odyssey set up a long chain of events when he realised that using rock as a tool was a lot cooler than trying to open a coconut with his teeth, language geeks all over felt the Eureka moment when the first computer entered their homes.  [Read more...]

The Myth of Early Literacy or Memory at Work in England

One of the main worries of most parents just before their children enter school is the level of Literacy of their children. There are more and more systems to get your child reading quickly, earlier, a lot of the systems even claim that they can help children to start reading at the tender age of 3 or even earlier. This reminds me of that crazy but lovely 80s movies where Diane Keaton plays a power-driven New York tycoon who inherits an orphaned toddler and soon starts bringing her to toddler classes to boost her intelligence.

The thing is that your kid may be reading at age 3 and other kids will be reading at the age of 8, by the time they are 11 you will not see the difference between one or the other. One of my kids started walking at the age of 10 months the other 14, my nephew did not walk before he was 18 months old. You can’t tell the difference now.

Bilingual ChildrenA recent study from the University of Otago in New Zealand has presented quantitative evidence that there is no advantage to learning to read at 5 instead of 7, for instance.

So, with so much evidence cropping up everywhere, from alternative education methods, to home education, to other school systems, why do we insist to force-feed letters to our kids? There are many factors, but in the UK I can think of one of the most important ones, the one that everybody knows there is something wrong with, but nobody dares speak out about, the elephant in the room.

The End of Reception

The last day of reception, almost at the end of July, while all our European cousins have been on holidays for over a month, parents gather at the gates and look expectantly at the teacher’s report. Some will post happy picture and comments on their Facebook pages and comment how their kids can read fluently. Over 80 % of parents will reserve judgment, as most kids struggle to keep up with the draconian levels set by the government.

Are our kids different? No, of course not. That is the main reason why most kids in British primary schools are and will remain for most of their compulsory education years permanently “behind”. They are not really behind, they have had the misfortune to find themselves in a system that is wildly out of sync with normal cognitive and physical development.

Language immersionWhile Otago’s study sheds some light into this issue, one could think that it is just one study after all, more are needed. However, we have plenty of real life examples to support our suspicion that something is wrong in the Kingdom of Britain. When our little 5 year olds, let’s not forget that some of them will still be 4 until the 31st of August, are required to read and write full sentences that start by a capital and end in a full stop, count up to 100, do addition and taking away, because the following year they will have to learn multiplication, their European cousins will be still playing most of the day, filling out worksheets to develop fine motor skills, at the most learning letters and numbers up to 10 or 20. And let’s not forget, they have longer summer holidays.

Parents whose children are fluent readers meeting the government’s targets will swear by the school and the system, while most of the others will probably complain about the school and the system in private, but may think that it’s just the way it is for their child. However, from my own observational experience, most of the kids who become fluent readers early have either extra coaching at home or were eager and ready to learn long before they were 4.

Many children are early readers naturally. Many of them have good visual memories and remember things easily, those few would have learnt to read with or without school. However, those who do need proper, well planned and age appropriate tuition, are those who are failed by the system. Instead of developing a logical, structured, phonics based system from age 6 or 7 and work in the early years 4-5 on setting a good strong base, the current system focuses strongly on memory. Although officially the government pushes for phonics teaching, the truth is that when working with children that young teaching proper phonics takes time, and so to meet the targets a lot of work is done on memorisation of official lists of spelling words, and a lot of the work consist in reading books that are not based on phonics.

Although your child is and will always be the most precious thing, however they are, with the current system it’s no wonder that sometimes parents may feel disheartened and assume that the issue lies with their child rather than the system. More parents should speak up and demand a more age appropriate curriculum, full and adequate phonics training, and teachers that are not just familiar with the systems used in primary school, but that have a deep knowledge of English and how the rules work. Most of us should look at the spelling lists from schools and then we would realise that most words can be worked out phonetically if taught properly. We should demand that “good memory” is taken out of the equation by adapting the teaching to the right developmental stage, provide comprehensive phonics training to both teachers and children, provide plenty of practice opportunities and rely on the logic of the English language where over 70 % of the words can be worked out following spelling rules.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

Introducing language at home with a granny-aupair

Nowadays most people have heard at one point or other the term “aupair“. Originally from the French, meaning “equal to”, it defines a foreign worker who in exchange of board, a small salary and the chance to immerse themselves in the local language offers her or his services looking after the children and doing domestic tasks. [Read more...]

Teaching to read and write in English

If you are an English speaker living abroad, in a non-English speaking country, you may well have to be the one to teach your children how to read and write in English. Don’t panic! It´s not as difficult as they would have us believe. You don´t have to be living abroad either, maybe you want to teach your little one at home for other reasons. First Reader Schlafly [Read more...]

Learning in a British school and the foreign perspective

bilingual brain

Lifelong bilingualism is good for your brain says new research.

It is quite normal for everybody, all over the world, to complain about their national school system, it’s either useless, teachers are inept, there is too much homework, or too little, not enough practical activities or too many, and the list goes on. It seems that there is no one single system that we can call “perfect”. School by its own definition will always be imperfect, given that every single individual is very different, and with 25 to 30 kids in a classroom, you can imagine that it’s virtually impossible to really adapt the learning to every single child. It is also true that a lot of what teachers and staff do in schools has nothing to do with education or learning, but has more to do with the necessity of controlling the crowd, setting boundaries and rules, so they don’t end up with 25 kids running riot around the classroom or 500 hundred in the canteen!

I think most parents accept that to an extent, and we also draw from our own experience in school. However, it is quite shocking the difference of expectations and opinions that one can draw from different cultures with regards to education and schools. In Britain especially the expectations of foreign born parents and British born parents can be quite different. Foreign born parents remember their school years through the textbooks, homework and tests, they remember getting their textbooks at the beginning of the year, caring for them, and paying an ocasional fine when they failed to return the book, or they damaged it. They expect the same for their children, to have a book, a basic tool, that they can use at home. They would like to be able to sit with their child, look through his workbooks, his annotations, the teacher’s comments and support their child, do the homework together, revise the last lesson, have a look at the index to see what their child is going to learn that year. Of course, that is not possible currently in the British system, textbooks are not used, and although parents are constantly asked to support their child in school, there is virtually no homework (compared to what we used to get in the old country). Foreign parents are at a loss, “there is no textbook? No workbook?” – “what am I supposed to teach him at home?” British parents, on the other hand, are happily unaware of the existence of school systems where people can easily, actually at a glance by reading the index, know what it is that their child is going to learn that year, without having to get constant email updates from the school. It doesn’t seem to worry them as much as foreign parents the fact that they can’t sit with their children to do homework or revise their workbook, because it’s all in school. Homework is done on worksheets or photocopies, and that’s fine, there is no need to read from the textbook or summarise it. They sigh with relief when foreign parents tell them about the piles of homework the children do in other countries.

 

What is the right answer? Well, a bit of both, I suppose, not piles of homework, but more than they get, and textbooks, please. In a way for foreign families, bilingual families, it is very important to actually have a textbook or a manual for each subject or topic. Isn’t that a bit prescriptive? – Some may ask. Well, yes and no. If you are a good teacher, you can still plan our lessons properly, having a textbook only means that your students, especially your foreign students, can go home and read more, revise what they have done in class. For foreign students, EAL students (English as an Additional Language) as they’re known in the UK, it’s actually a good tool to have. Given that they are new to the language, listening to the stuff in class doesn’t mean it’s going to stick, unless you have 100% recall ability… which I haven’t yet met anybody who does! To a certain extent we all need to re-read things a few times before we are able to recall it, but for foreign students it’s also about language acquisition and learning new terms that are specific to academic subjects.

unschooling?

Is unschooling the ultimate form of natural education or an unrealistic fad?

One of the main issues that schools face these days are “false native speakers”, as I call them. That is children who were either born in the country to foreign parents, or who came into the country when they were very young. These students pass for native speakers, they speak with perfect accents, they have mastered the young adult’s language and turn of phrases, however, they speak a different language at home, and they only time they use “academic” or “school language” is in lessons, with teachers. Most of the time these students go through the system unnoticed, apparently doing well, especially since the UK educational system lacks any examination system that means students need to achieve a certain level before they move on, they just simply trundle along happily. Happily, that is until they get to the dreaded GCSEs, the first official examinations taken in England and Wales, at 14 and 15. There is when problems start popping up, your regular student suddenly realises that he lacks the body of linguistic knowledge necessary to understand and write at the appropriate academic level. This is the plague of the GCSE teacher and his “false native” speakers. Is there an easy solution? Well, yes and no. Nick Gibb, the current Minister of State at the Department for Education, supported the report drawn by Tim Oatesone of the world’s foremost experts on the school curriculum, Why Textbooks Count. Tim Oates emphasised the need for curriculum coherence and the return of quality textbooks to British schools. I think most foreign born parents will read the paper and agree with most of it, or at least think it’s actually a common sense idea. Like most of reports written for the government, we could have said the same thing if asked, without the expense incurred! However, it’s not surprising either that most of the news articles about this paper are riddled with criticism and derisive comments from “well meaning” posters, given the irrational fear most locals have towards textbooks.

Textbooks, in my opinion, good quality textbooks used adequately, will solve a lot of the problems of the school system, to start with, it would give bilingual students a good chance to become acquainted with the specific language used for different academic subjects, as well as in different contexts. Instead of having to draw it from different sources, bad quality photocopies, and notes copied from PowerPoint presentations, often riddled with spelling mistakes, they would have a basic tool that they could use to build on. They would also be useful for native speakers and their parents, who rather than “guess” what the content of the subject is, given that now the schools’ tendency is to keep all work and books in school, could then read the book, pick any topic they feel unsure of or they want to learn more about and do some research. However, I can see one issue, well, two issues really, firstly is the recalcitrant attitude many parents and teachers have developed towards textbooks, a total irrational fear towards something that has for so long held the knowledge of humanity. The second issue is money, of course, in other countries September can be a very difficult month financially, as one has to cough up the money for the textbooks, in other areas the schools simply provide the books on loan for a year, and if you break it you pay for it. In Britain, the tendency has been for schools to provide all learning materials, so parents would resist the idea of having to pay for anything, and although apparently there is money for expensive interactive whiteboards and projectors, that are used mainly, solely, to project PowerPoints and educational video clips, there is no money for actual textbooks.

What are your views on the topic? Are you for or against textbooks? Do you love or do you hate the current education system in your country?

5 activities to support foreign or second language acquisition

The secret of learning a language is that there is no “secret”, basically a language is a tool for communication, and the best way to learn it and practice it is communicating. However, this can be difficult on a day to day basis, especially if both parents and children are busy with work, school, after school clubs and their social lives. So, this is when we really need our imagination and crafty hands to come up with interesting and fun activities that don’t look too much like “school” work.

Craft with bilingual children

1. Stop-motion and modelling clay day: I got this idea one day at my local library. A couple of youngsters working in a local association had put up an activity for the arts week. Basically they were using a load of modelling clay and crafty bits so children could make their own monsters. Later they would set up the characters in front of a camera, with a background and record a stop-motion movie. I did this activity with my French group and everybody loved it, the children got engrossed in creating little monsters and the parents helped them later on with a short movie. All the time everybody was speaking in French, and children heard and learnt new words, while at the same time meeting new and old friends and having a great time. We only did a very, very short movie, but the experience was very interesting especially as all the kids were under 5. You can check our movie out here.

You only need some modelling clay, crafty bits like goggly eyes, a bit of cardboard, pipe cleaners, or even short spaghetti (that I’ve just learnt can be used to make hedgehogs sticking them in a bit of modelling clay). For the software, we used an iPad and downloaded a very cheap app, it was only 5.99. With it you could record the movie and even record voice.

The feedback was very positive, given that everybody had fun, they felt they were doing something meaningful, and on top of that we covered the main aim of our group, getting the children immersed in the French language!

 

2. Music and rhythm: This is an activity I learnt from a reception class in a British school. In the UK kids start reception when they are 4 years old, so you would have 4 and 5 year olds in the same class.

The idea is getting them sitting and listening while doing something with their hands and feet, active learning. So, create a rhythm, ask them to clap their hands, then clap faster, then slower, then ask to skip one, so for instance first kids claps fast, next kid slow, next kid fast, and so on. You can repeat this with tapping feet, or any other movement or action you can think of. The idea is creating something like a rhythm and sequence. You can add musician instruments in the mix.

This way you will use language that the children will think it’s meaningful, as when you say “clap your hands” they will do this, so they know there is immediate reward, to get it right, join in and have fun. It is a nice way also to learn parts of the body and names of actions. You can adapt it to your own language. For instance, if there is a difference in how you use a word when it’s just one and when there are two, you can use this difference, “do this with one hand, now do these with two hands”, and so on.

3. Show and tell: In some groups this may work very well, if they kids are already speaking your home language. Also, shy children may be encouraged to speak, or even in they don’t this time, they may get the idea and have a go the next time. Ask children to bring something to the meeting, for instance their favourite toy, or something that they really like. They have to show it to the others, talk about it and answer questions.

4. Christmas card recycling: You can do this activity either after Christmas, or ask people to give you their old Christmas cards and keep them for the following year and do the activity before Christmas. Get the kids to bring their old Christmas cards, cut them up and you can get them to do a collage. Individual collages are a good idea, so they have something to show at home, or you can do a group one and show it as an example of collaboration.

Use the activity to encourage the use of vocabulary, by saying out loud what people are doing and what they have to do, for instance, “now we are cutting the cards”, “Peter is gluing the card”, “we have many different things, a Christmas tree, a flower, etc.”

pencil-color-2-1406545-m

5. Bookmark making activity: Laminators are simple but great inventions. With a few sheets of craft card in different colours, a few pictures cut out from magazines, dry flowers and any other bits and pieces people like, you can create amazing bookmarks. Just get the kids to glue their items on a bit of card that you have previously cut in the shape of a bookmark. Get a few together, place them in a laminating pouch, laminate and voilà, your bookmarks. Now you just have to cut them individually and punch a hole with a hole punch. Threat a bit of wool or ribbon through the hole, tie it up and that’s it.

Again as in the activity above, you can use the crafty time to encourage children and parents to talk in the language and use the vocabulary related to that activity. You can decide on a topic, so it could be animals, so children could practice that vocabulary, or it could be something else, you decide!

 

These are just a few basic ideas, it is by no means a comprehensive list of things that you can do to boost your children’s language acquisition. But what it is, however, is an example of how “normal” activities, those that you would do at any playgroup or even in a play date with friends, can be converted and adapted to language acquisition, even language learning in the foreign language classroom.

 

Do you have any other ideas that you would like to share with us?

 

 

 

 

 

Foreign or second language learning through craft

Craft with bilingual childrenThe secret of learning a language is that there is no “secret”, basically a language is a tool for communication, and the best way to learn it and practice it is communicating. However, this can be difficult on a day to day basis, especially if both parents and children are busy with work, school, after school clubs and their social lives. So, this is when we really need our imagination and crafty hands to come up with interesting and fun activities that don’t look too much like “school” work. [Read more...]

Mum, what is sweet in Chinese? 5 Steps to ease your child into a foreign language

Chinese writingWell, I don’t know, sweety, but we can find out… I never thought that it would really get to that point where they actually “think by themselves” and start showing interest in other languages. Of course, it was going to happen, but when you hold your little bundle of joy for the first time, be it in hospital or at home, you just think about protecting it and what you can give it, you don’t think about what they may ask in the future! I don’t really push other languages and I don’t really intend to send them to formal language lessons, unless they want to go, of course. At the moment, making sure we keep the balance with three languages is hard work enough. Also, personally, I don’t believe that acquiring two or three languages when you are a child gives you a wand that magically makes you learn another language effortlessly when you wave it around. [Read more...]

Children’s theatre in Spanish

Stories and storytelling are very important for children. Of course, they love cartoons, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love theatre or plain story telling better when presented to it. If you have the chance to travel abroad to the country where the language your kids are learning is spoken, find out about local venues for children’s theatre. It’s a great experience.

Screenshot 2014-08-18 09.10.03In Madrid I’ve just discovered a little venue in the centre, Lavapies, called “La Escalera de Jacob“, where they put up small plays for children as well as adults. They have two small stages, and a café upstairs. It’s great if you want to take your child to see a play, but your friend or partner doesn’t feel like going, or he needs to stay upstairs with the baby, as they can stay cosy in the bar upstairs, or sitting outside on the “terraza” during summer.

[Read more...]