In March 2019 I was invited to Graz to present a workshop called ‘Actvities for Young Learners’. After this inspiring introduction to the city and its teachers, it was a pleasure to return for a follow up session in December: ‘Participation in the English Classroom.’ Where the first workshop focused on the teacher’s role from the beginning to end of a typical class, looking at techniques for routines, storytelling and topic activities, the second went deeper into the meaning and importance of active learning concepts within the framework of learning a second language.
It is of course well-known that engagement is the key to understanding, but it can be tempting as a teacher of a second language to spend a great deal of time being preoccupied with the vocabulary and content on a basic level. When we do this we forget that the language itself must be attached to meaningful concepts in order to be memorable in the first place – as it would be when learning our mother tongue. So how do we involve our students in the language without losing them in the process?
The key is in recognizing the role of the teacher in opening the children’s minds by arousing their curiosity. We looked at a range of activities whose starting points were based on asking questions: what is in the box, behind the door, on the cards or in the teacher’s mind? A sense of mystery is a great approach to any activity and can make even the simplest vocabulary exercise memorable.
We cannot forget the power of storytelling as a tool for developing students’ powers of speculation and for understanding concepts higher than their language level may allow them normally. If we add to this their ability to express themselves through theatre and role play, we give them the opportunity to truly experience the language they know and to extend themselves in other ways. Since the roles are based on modeled language, students are generally willing to take on an English persona as well. We looked at some fun ways to set up role plays and what to look for in stories that lend themselves to these kinds of follow up activities.
When discussing exploiting topics in an engaging way, we started by looking at simple techniques for making language learning fun through games, including early writing games using mini-whiteboards, which give students writing practice in a non-threatening way.
The final part of the session involved looking deeper into creating an enquiry-based classroom through the use of group work and open-ended questions and even questions generated by the children themselves. In order to do group work in the language classroom, it is important that tasks are visual and physical and that the key language is available in the surroundings. Also, and perhaps most importantly, a teacher need not feel that all the language must be available for the activity to be worth doing. Just like in real life, there is always something more to learn tomorrow!
Perhaps the main message of the session was that activities still need to be challenging in a foreign language – at the level of the students’ cognitive abilities – since it is through curiosity and imaginations that we ensure that the language becomes part of our students’ identities.
Thank you again for inviting me to your wonderful school and for giving me the opportunity to once again experience the enthusiasm and dedication of your teachers.
written by Karen Elliott