When people ask me what I do, and I tell them, I always get an interesting response. After all, I suppose I am in kind of a unique situation – my primary responsibility is Spanish department head and Spanish teacher for advanced electives, but I do spend quite a few minutes a week teaching my little people, from preschool 3’s through first grade. So I get the students at both ends of the spectrum. It’s amazing how much they’re different, but it’s amazing how much they are alike!
One of the great differences between my older and younger students is how much time I get to spend with them. With my preschool 3’s and 4’s, I see them for 15 minutes a week. With kindergarten and first grade, I get a whopping 20 minutes. That’s it. Waste of time, you say? I’ve heard that before – and thought it myself. But as time goes by I am finding more and more that with targeted immersion, any amount of time can accomplish something. (See some encouraging success stories here and here.)
When I added my elementary responsibilities, it was for purely pragmatic reasons. We wanted to move our elementary teacher into spending more time with middle schoolers, and I needed to add enough hours in a week to be classified ‘full-time’ for the purpose of receiving a tuition cut. But all my training and experience is in high school. I have never been very good at talking to little people for educational purposes. My first year at my current school I dabbled in kindergarten and first grade, and looking back, it was a learning disaster. We all had a reasonable amount of fun, but they learned absolutely nothing.
So of course I turned to the place I always turn to, my PLN. Marcela Summerville @PreKLanguages sent me her phone number and told me to call her anytime. I did. And she gave me a 30-minute crash course in teaching language to young children, help that has been invaluable in ensuring my kids are actually taking something away from my precious minutes with them. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Forget the crayons
My preschool teachers tell me the teacher before me would come in, explain what the Spanish word for a color or number was, and then give the kids a color sheet.
I cannot stress enough that unless you see elementary kids every day, you do not have time to waste with coloring sheets. If you must (and sometimes I do), leave them with the teachers to do later or send home with kids.
Immersion is the only way
Trying to explain Spanish to a preschooler is like trying to explain photosynthesis to a preschooler. You might get something through, but the best you’ll do is prep for future understanding. Like, way in the future.
Speaking Spanish from the minute you walk in to the minute you walk out not only sets up students for comprehensible input, it also creates a “magic” environment. My kids spend a couple of months asking me why I “talk funny” and it takes them that long to discover I speak English.
Sing and sing some more
Everyone knows children learn through singing. Choose fully Spanish, repetitious songs that reinforce something you’re teaching. With my preschoolers we sing “Qué bonita bandera,” “Buenos días,” “Los pollitos,” “En la granja de mi tío,” and others. Albums I highly recommend are Fisher Price ABC and Cantemos todos juntos, De colores by José Luis-Orozco, and one of my favorites for kindergarten and up, Mi guitarrí by Joel Valle (for Calico Spanish)*.
Have a clear goal – and just one goal – maybe half a goal
I think my big mistake my first year playing with teaching elementary was that I really didn’t have a goal, or maybe I had too many goals. I thought if I just told them a story (Very Hungry Caterpillar) week after week, they’d pick something up. What? I don’t know, something.
Set your goals, and then sequence them. Divide them if you have to. In preschool my goals consist primarily of increasing comprehension and eliciting specific language, including colors, numbers 1-10, the answer to “how are you,” some animal words, the answer to “cómo se llama,” distinguishing niño and niña, and so on. On any given class day, my goal may be to get to the point in the story where I introduce something yellow, and then walk around the room identifying yellow things. That’s it. No numbers. No blue. Just pointing to things and saying amarillo.
Tell a story
How do children acquire language? Parents talk to them. And lots of research says that the children with the most advanced language and literacy skills are the ones whose parents read to them.
It doesn’t really matter what your story is, as long as it’s 1) simple and 2) interesting. For preschool, our fall story is about a chick who takes a walk and meets some friends. In the spring we have a clown who lives in a circus. Kindergarten works with cats, mice, and other animals that go different places. First grade involves a group of animal friends including a turkey and a duck named Diego.
Whatever your story, stick with it. Start at the beginning with a detail and work with that detail (with a goal – is it a chick? the chick is yellow? singing Los Pollitos?) and then add a detail. Keep adding details as students are able to build the story with you. You must try this – at every level, storytelling is magic. Life is a narrative and our social minds crave it.
Get them moving
Children need to move. Sometimes people think my 15 minutes with little people is pure chaos, but it’s not – it’s carefully orchestrated movement and play. Children do not learn language by studying language. Children learn language by playing. Memory sticks all the better when they’re walking around, making song motions, jumping to count, etc. Seriously, you know 3-year-olds aren’t going to sit still anyway – you might as well use their movement.
Access the routine
Children thrive on routine and if they are in a classroom setting believe me, they know the routine. There are very few routine actions that I can’t get them to understand in Spanish from the very beginning. Sit down, switch places with her, raise your hand, walk fast, walk slow, let’s sing, come here, draw this, all of it is very easy for them to apprehend in the target language, particularly if you pattern your classes to take the most advantage of the routine.
Ask questions, expect responses
Aside from storytelling, the other way people primarily communicate with children, and that results in successful language acquisition (first or second), is questioning. Think about when you talk to a child – what’s is your name? is that your Daddy? what is this animal? what does a cow say? do you like the cow? what is your favorite? We ask children questions incessantly. It’s no different in second language acquisition. Do it the same way you do it with the first language – you know they don’t understand the question, so offer answers, then give them the answers. When I ask my kids, “What color is the house?” they learn very quickly that I’m asking for the color and that my suggested answers – “is it yellow? is it green?” are all wrong. Then I offer the right answers and yes that is the color. Before too long they are listening for the right answer and answering yes and no with me.
Research shows that people need to hear or read a word in context many, many times before it becomes a part of their active vocabulary. When your time with students is as limited as mine is, that means you need intense patterned repetition. We do the same story in fall for preschool because they just need to hear it that many times. I don’t have time to change the story. By the end, we will have talked about that little yellow chick every single week since the beginning of the semester. Sometimes I think they might get bored with it, and then I remind myself that I tell the story six times in two days, but each child only hears me 15 minutes per week. I can’t bore them.
A little story about repetition: at the beginning of every class, we sing “Buenos días.” After the song, I tell the kids, “Bravo, bravo” and we move into our story. For 4-year-old preschool graduation, the children sing this song as part of the ceremony. The music teacher this year told me that many of them, when the song ended, told themselves, “Bravo, bravo.”
This year we had the first annual Kentucky World Language Showcase, an opportunity for students to prove their proficiency and show what they can do with language. For the regional showcase, we were able to enter elementary performances. I invited some of my 4-year-olds to come and help me “tell” the story. For me, to sit there and watch them help me tell this story, completely in Spanish, appropriately responding to questions they had never heard in English, this was proof that by taking full advantage of even short amounts of time with very young children, you can really accomplish something.
*full disclosure disclaimer – I do some consulting work for Calico, which has nothing to do with how awesome the Mi Guitarrí album is
photo credit Saul Mora