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Going beyond “Repeat after me”

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Recently, I had the experience of observing several English classes at Czech elementary schools. Although I was warned in advance that in some of the classes the children hadn’t been exposed to English at all before the first grade, I was surprised by how well, for example, one class of third grade children understood and responded to instructions in English when they were presented slowly and clearly. In the lesson I was observing, the third graders practiced several short plays that they were going to perform for their parents at the end of the year. They were able to recite their lines from memory and in some cases, even “ad lib” a bit, telling a few jokes in between the plays. Considering that some students had started from scratch three years ago, I was impressed both by their language abilities and by their willingness to communicate orally.

As I continued to observe classes in other elementary schools in the Prague 6 district, I noticed that when the children were taught through song and games, with multi-media such as clips from cartoons or You Tube and under a curriculum with an interactive emphasis, a majority of the children were able to actively use their new language skills. The liveliness of the lesson often correlated to the children’s willingness to speak aloud. Children with English several times a week naturally made more rapid progress, particularly when they were placed in situations where they needed to speak or to respond with physical actions.

In the Czech state school system, English education is mandatory three times a week from the third grade. In the first and second grades, English education is offered by many, but not all schools. However, through grants from the city or in cooperation with private language schools, many Czech elementary schools are beginning to offer optional English education three times a week or more from the first grade. Parents are also increasingly seeing the need for their children to learn English from an early age, and private language lessons are common for children as young as preschoolers.

In Prague, there is a wellspring of private kindergartens in English, and not just those that cater to foreigners or the expat community. There are also a number of private language projects that have begun to be integrated into the Czech system in order to offer additional English lessons taught by native speakers in the Czech schools, quite often even during regular school hours.

After my daughter Anna Lee had her first few English lessons in first grade, I realized that for her the classes wouldn’t be very useful unless I provided some independent work to supplement the curriculum the school used. Luckily, the teacher agreed. Now in the second grade, Anna Lee and her bilingual classmate are often used by their teacher to model the pronunciation for the lesson. They seem to like this role, and the teacher appreciates their different “native” accents, one being American and the other Australian.

Two years younger than Anna, Oliver thoroughly enjoys his preschool English classes, I expect, on one hand, it’s because he’s able to excel. He comes home from class singing English songs, some from the curriculum teaching basic greetings like “Hello, hello how do you do?” Other are pop songs, like the theme from the Lion King or the recent hit by Lenka, “Everything at Once,” which utilizes simple metaphors such as “sly as a fox” or “strong as an ox”.

When Oliver had his preschool English performance, the children performed two songs and sang their names in a call and response song with the teacher. Although Oliver’s teacher gives directions and explanations in Czech, it is still clear that the children are learning how to actively use the English that they’re learning. Some of the children even greet me in the locker room with “hello” or “goodbye,” since they know I’m an English speaker.

As a mother I was proud of Oliver and his class, but as a TEFL teacher, I was more impressed that the children, who had only just begun to come into contact with the English language, could actively use it. During my formative years in French class, my teacher occasionally showed us a video or played a cassette tape, but we didn’t have the advantage of watching French cartoons, listening to actual French children’s songs or using the computer to find appropriate interactive activities for our competence level.

Times have changed and so have the type of language instruction children receive. It’s encouraging to see steps being made here in the Czech Republic to bring a more active approach to English language instruction. Next year, my children’s elementary school is offering a pilot “bilingual” first grade classroom through cooperation with a local language school. Within this class, the children should have about half of their daily instruction in Czech with one teacher and the other half with a native-speaking second language teacher. In order to earn a place in the 20-person class, students had to take a language competency test. Tuition is charged for the program, still there were over 60 applicants for the 20 spaces.

In the end, we didn’t register Oliver for the class since we couldn’t find enough information about the project on the website to convince us that it would be the right step for him next year. Still, I’m hopeful that the project will succeed, and that in the future this type of English-language instruction might be offered more frequently in state elementary schools.

Educating children in language acquisition often takes a different approach than teaching adults. From my experience TEFL teaching, children are more willing than adults to take risks, approach learning with a creative spirit and to take pride in their own linguistic advancements.

With my youngest son entering Czech preschool in the fall, I’ve begun my own search to find an English teaching position that will give me the opportunity to lead lively lessons with the focus on learning to speak and to respond to real-life situations. As I’ve been learning to speak Czech alongside my children over the last years, I know that we adults can also get just as excited about language learning when we’re properly motivated.

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