Friday, September 15, 2006

To Speak The Students' Native Language (Or Not)

Last summer during training for TFA many of the Corps Members assigned to teach ESL were concerned that they didn't speak Spanish (or the numerous other languages our students may speak for that matter). They were always asking how crucial it was that they speak the native language of their students. Some of the speakers (second year CMs) would say that it definitely helps but for ESL it is not required. I always spoke up and was adamant about not needing to speak Spanish to teach Spanish speaking students. EVEN newcomers who don't speak a word of English. I had trained the previous summer in a TEFL course that stressed teaching only in the target language (English) and then worked for a year teaching English at a school in Italy where there were big signs on the wall that said NO ITALIAN! Many language schools that I know of prefer if the teachers don't speak the native language of the students. Many of the CMs still remained skeptical.

So far I have worked with my newcomer group three times this week and I am still committed to the idea of not speaking the students' first language. I think that the whole atmosphere of the classroom changes because I have to try to explain things in simple English. For example when the students first come in my room I tell the to take off their backpacks and put them on the floor. I have to say this fairly slowly and demonstrate also. Then we sit on the rug and I tell them how they should sit demonstrating and again using simple language. We quickly begin the lesson and soon a student has to use the bathroom. He says a sentence completely in Spanish but uses the English word 'bathroom' in the sentence. I take this as an opportunity to teach him how to say the phrase "Can I go to the bathroom?" After the lesson is over I tell the students how they are going to walk in line. I say the are going to line up from shortest to tallest. I show this by demonstrating their different heights. Then I use the comparative to talk about who is taller or shorter in the line.

If I spoke Spanish, the environment would have probably been much different. We probably would have come in speaking Spanish. I would give all of my "important directions" that I want to make sure the students understand in Spanish so there is no confusion. Then the lesson would start and we'd switch to English. At best there would be no Spanish during this time. At the end of the lesson we'd probably go back to Spanish to close the lesson and line students up, etc. This is just one scenario but what I'm saying is that when you have no other way to communicate than to speak in the target language you make it work. Some of the ESL teachers I know speak Spanish but don't let their students know that the students can't rely on speaking their native language.

Now, all of the classes that these students are in have a teacher that also speaks Spanish (some as a native language, some as a second). I think that this is really beneficial to the students. When they are in an environment where they are being spoken at all day long in English (that is not tailored to ELLs) it is nice to have the teacher be able to give additional instructions or explanations. The students can also make their needs known this way. As an English teacher though, I think all English is the way to go.

I will say though that it is nice to speak the native language of you students when it comes to communicating with parents. It's so much easier if you don't have to use a translator.

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