Occasionally I will have a parent of one of my early elementary students express concern that his child is not using grammar correctly when speaking Spanish that he/she has learned in class. Many times this comes from the student using incorrect noun-adjective agreement or incorrect verb usage or conjugation. This gives me the opportunity to remind the parent that at this early level of language learning, communication is the key.
In the first place, students are not learning any explicit grammar at this level. This is by design. Rather than teaching explicit grammar, students benefit much more from having the opportunity to hear and use the language in fun, age-appropriate activities such as singing, games, literature, drama, and art projects. This is why the Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum is based on these types of activities.
Secondly, it takes many repetitions of grammatical structures before a student is able to consistently use them correctly. This is why it is important that the teacher is using Spanish the majority of the time throughout her lesson and consistently modeling correct grammar. Students will get there; it just takes time.
Thirdly, the most important outcome of any foreign language education is that the student can communicate in that language. If a student is able to communicate, albeit with incorrect grammar, it is important that the teacher positively reinforces the communication while providing a model for the correct grammar. Many times this can be done by simply acknowledging the communication and then repeating what was said with correct grammar. Example: If a student says, “Mi casa es amarillo.” The teacher can respond, “¿Sí? ¿Tu casa es amarilla?” Or if a student says, “El sol está un círculo.” The teacher can respond, “Tienes razón. El sol es un círculo.” The last thing we want to do is thwart a child’s sincere attempts at using their second language by constantly correcting their grammar. This will only cause fear and negative connotations of the language. Young students have plenty of time to learn grammar, and they will. For now communication is the key.
One of the best things about teaching Spanish to young children is how much fun you can have with them. Of course we have goals for our students, and we want them to achieve the objectives for our classes, but sometimes you have to step back and look at the big picture. Part of the big picture is that children have a positive experience learning a foreign language. This will increase the chances of them becoming life-long language learners. You can give your students a positive foreign language experience by having fun with them in class and by expressing your sense of joy and excitement with the language.
A lot of this depends upon you. It depends upon the attitude you bring to class. It depends upon your smile and your enthusiasm in class. It depends upon how you react to beginner language learners. A lot of this also depends upon your curriculum. We have always designed the lessons in the Sonrisas Curriculum with fun in mind. During Circle Time you have ample opportunity for fun: sing the songs with joy, laugh while you play the games, and react with positive reinforcement when your students use Spanish to communicate. During Story Time, read the story with enthusiasm and use your best story-telling skills to bring out the beauty of the language. Most students love Art Time, so while they are working go around and converse with them in Spanish about what they are doing, and give them lots of positive reinforcement when they use Spanish to talk about their art project.
Having fun in Spanish class also has the benefit of putting students’ minds in a more receptive state for learning. Simply put: when you are having fun, your teaching is more effective. Plus it makes your job more enjoyable and rewarding. At this time of year when you are finally settled into your routine, and you are starting to see some results in your Spanish class, take a step back and remember to have fun.
In general, children thrive when they have routine and structure. Every Sonrisas lesson consists of the same structure: Greeting and Roll Call, Circle Time, Story Time, Art Time, and Good-bye. Having a consistent routine and structure for your classroom will not only benefit your students, but also make teaching easier.
Establish a consistent routine and structure for your Spanish class. Language acquisition increases when children are able to take risks and experiment with language—and that happens when they are in a safe and comfortable environment. You can create this environment by establishing a consistent routine and structure. Students can then predict what is going to happen next, and they know what is expected of them. Establish your routine at the beginning of the year and communicate your expectations for behavior. Even within the structure of the Sonrisas lessons, you can establish your own sequence of how you do things to establish a routine. For example: You might start every Circle Time by taking roll and end it by introducing the book you are going to read. You might start every Art Time by going over the vocabulary for the art supplies and end it by having the students share their work with the class. You might begin or end every class with the same song. Regardless of how you do it, the important thing is to be consistent. This also has the obvious benefit of increasing the effectiveness of your classroom management. Your students will be less prone to act out if they feel safe and comfortable and know what is expected of them in each part of the lesson.
Use repetitive language within your routine. We cannot stress enough how effective this is. If you have an established routine in your class, your students can easily achieve fluency with repetitive language that is given meaning by the context of the routine. Essentially, you make it easier for yourself and your students to use Spanish consistently by using it for regular classroom tasks. For example: If you close the door each day after greeting your students, you can begin to have one of your students do it by saying, “Juan, cierra la puerta por favor.” This can become part of your routine, and you can have a different student do it each day. You might introduce Roll Call each day by stating, “Vamos a ver quién está aquí.” As you get ready for Art Time each day, you might assign a helper by asking, “¿Quién quiere repartir las tijeras, el papel, etc.?” The opportunities for this kind of repetitive language within an established routine are many, and once students achieve fluency with this language, it becomes easier for them to apply it in new contexts.
Adapt the structure of the Sonrisas lesson to your scheduling needs. One of our biggest challenges in developing our curriculum was to meet the many different scheduling needs of preschool and elementary Spanish teachers. Every Sonrisas lesson consists of the same structure: Circle Time, Story Time, and Art Time. We have found that there is a great deal of flexibility in this structure because each part of the lesson can be taught independently, and the lesson can therefore be adapted to many different scheduling situations. Although the Sonrisas lessons were designed for a two-class-per-week schedule, they can easily be adapted to other types of schedules. For example: If you teach once a week for 30 minutes, you can take two weeks to teach one Sonrisas lesson. One week you could do Circle Time and Story Time, and the next week do Circle Time and Art Time. Or, you could do a 30-minute Circle Time one week, and do Story Time and Art Time the next.
Probably the greatest flexibility comes with Circle Time. Once you have established a repertoire of songs, games, and activities from the lessons, Circle Time can be 5 minutes or 25 minutes. The benefit for you is having an established structure in which to develop a consistent routine, while also having the flexibility to adapt it to different scheduling needs.
At Sonrisas Spanish we have always resisted the idea of using technology to teach Spanish to young children. This of course goes against the strong national trend to incorporate more and more technology into education. It is not that we are anti-technology, but rather we feel that it is very important that technology is used appropriately for language learning—especially for young language learners. What this means to us is that technology is not used to take the place of a teacher.
We feel strongly that language learning for young children is most effective when students are taught by a human. The core of an effective foreign language lesson involves communication between humans. Communication, and in turn language acquisition, occurs when the learner has the opportunity to negotiate meaning. Negotiation of meaning requires social interaction, and social interaction requires human interaction. Negotiation of meaning is going to be nil or extremely limited if the interaction is media-based.
This is why the Sonrisas Curriculum does not include videos or internet components. It is also why we explicitly recommend that teachers use our CDs to learn the songs and then sing them with their students. It is also why we hate to see schools choosing programs such as Rosetta Stone over effective curriculum where content is delivered by a teacher. The bottom line is that using technology is not only NOT the best way to teach young children language, but it is also simply not necessary. Children acquire language so naturally and easily when they are given the opportunity to interact with a talented teacher using effective curriculum. This is the environment we strive to provide at Sonrisas.
Sonrisas Spanish creates, publishes, and sells preschool and elementary Spanish curriculum. The Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum consists of fun, effective, standards-based Spanish lessons for children.
We have written a lot about reading children’s Spanish literature, but the subject bears repeating. Spanish literature has always been a central component of the Sonrisas Curriculum. Just as many children learn a lot about their first language through reading, so too can your students learn a lot about their second language through reading. The power of reading Spanish to your students lies in the ability of a story to deeply connect students to the content of a lesson by engaging their imaginations in an authentic Spanish experience. Children love being read to; they easily enter into the realm of imagination through stories. When their imaginations are engaged, their minds are open for language acquisition at a deep level. They are not only acquiring the language through the comprehensible input in the story, but they are also connecting to the language on an emotional level. They develop an innate “feel” for the language without any conscious effort. When the content of a story reinforces the content of a lesson, then students are given the opportunity to connect to that content at this deep level. This is the power of reading Spanish to your students. It should never be underestimated.
Sonrisas Spanish School creates, publishes, and sells preschool and elementary Spanish curriculum. The Sonrisas Spanish Curriculum consists of fun, effective, and standards-based Spanish lessons for children.
Teaching preschool and elementary Spanish is a journey. We always want the best for our students, and our expectations reflect that. It is important to realize that second language acquisition is a long-term endeavor. Your students’ success in Spanish class depends not so much on each individual lesson, but rather on the experience of being in a Spanish class with an effective teacher through the grades. Goals are achieved over time. Through repetition, structure, routine, the use of Spanish consistently, and implementation of effective curriculum, your students will learn Spanish.
Sonrisas Spanish School creates, publishes, and sells preschool and elementary Spanish curriculum and Spanish music for children. The Sonrisas Curriculum consists of fun, standards-based lessons for the most effective language-learning experience for kids—one based on human-to-human interaction.
We continue our discussion on using repetition in the Sonrisas Curriculum:
The Sonrisas Spanish School Curriculum makes it easy to repeat previously-learned material each lesson through songs, games, activities, and stories. Frequent, everyday repetition should occur in each lesson that you teach. This is simply a matter of reviewing performance guidelines taught in previous lessons in each subsequent lesson. The review can occur through the repetition of songs, games, and activities and through using shared reading strategies. It’s amazing to see how this kind of repetition solidifies comprehension and language usage—students rely less on imitation as they acquire fluency with repeated language structures.
Another benefit of this kind of repetition is students’ ability to apply new vocabulary and concepts to known routines. For example: The first lesson in Sonrisas Level I is the Me llamo lesson. Students do an activity where they throw a hacky sack to each other and ask, “¿Cómo te llamas tú?” and then respond with, “Me llamo ____.” The first few times that students do this, they are just imitating the teacher. As they repeat the activity many times in each lesson, they begin to use the vocabulary and phrases with fluency. Once they have mastered this, the teacher can then introduce a new question/answer into the routine such as, “¿Cuántos años tienes tú?” and “Yo tengo ____ años.” As you build a repertoire of songs, games, and activities from the lessons, you can switch back and forth between them, choosing those that focus on the language concepts that need attention.
Teachers using the Sonrisas Curriculum should also repeat songs, games, and activities from Level I in Level II. Your Level II students can continue to benefit from the repetition of songs, games, and activities learned in Level I. Use them when you feel there is a need. These activities become well-loved, and your students will enjoy returning to them.
We have posted before on the importance of repetition in preschool and elementary Spanish, but the subject itself deserves repetition. The following is an excerpt from the introduction to the Sonrisas Spanish School Curriculum.
Repetition in language learning is critical. Every Sonrisas lesson includes a communication objective with performance guidelines for achieving the objective. It’s not realistic to think that second-language learners are going to integrate the performance guidelines into their comprehension and language usage immediately after completing any given lesson. This is where repetition comes in. Annual repetition, as well as frequent, lesson-by-lesson repetition, must occur for students to achieve the communication objectives.
We strongly recommend that each level of the Sonrisas curriculum be taught for two years. Students’ level of language acquisition will increase profoundly with this annual repetition; further, teachers don’t have to repeat each lesson exactly with the same content. Most Sonrisas lessons include several book suggestions for Story Time, and there is usually more than one art project from which to choose, so teachers can teach the same theme while they vary the content of the lesson from one year to the next.
To illustrate the benefits of teaching each level for two years: In Sonrisas Level I, the lesson on Familia includes the following performance guidelines:
- Students identify family members in Spanish.
- Students comprehend the question, “¿Quién es?“
- Students answer the question using the phrase, “Es mi mamá/ papá/ hermano/ hermana/
abuelo/ abuela/ tío/ tía/ primo/ prima.”
The first time students do this lesson, they may only demonstrate the first performance guideline, identifying family members in Spanish: mamá, tío, abuelo, etc. The following year, when the Familia lesson is repeated, teachers have the opportunity to engage students’ prior knowledge of the subject matter, focusing on the second and third performance guidelines.
Annual repetition also increases language acquisition by helping students feel more comfortable, confident, and excited about the lessons because they are familiar with them. It puts their brains in a more receptive state for learning. When we’ve begun a familiar/repeated lesson, we’ve often heard our students exclaim, “Oh, I remember this! I love this lesson.”
When you stay in Spanish in your class, your students will be more motivated to learn Spanish because they will see, through your example, that Spanish is fun, useful, and has many purposes. This is why it is so important to make speaking Spanish fun for your students. One of the joys of teaching Spanish is that speaking Spanish is fun. Whether you are a native Spanish speaker or it’s your second language, it’s important that you convey your excitement and interest in Spanish—by your attitude in class, by connecting your students to the Spanish-speaking community in your town, and by talking to them about the many advantages of knowing a second language.
We are very proud of the Sonrisas Spanish School Curriculum because all of the games, activities, stories, songs, and art projects make it easy to create a fun and exciting environment in your class in which you are able to stay in Spanish at least 90% of the time.
If you are worried about keeping your class entirely in Spanish, just remember: You are teaching Spanish! One of the most effective ways to do this is simply to provide a model of using Spanish for everything you do in your class. Again we refer to Helena Curtain’s article “Teaching in the Target Language,” for these very useful tips:
Make the language comprehensible.
- Use simple, direct language and choose vocabulary and structures that incorporate a large amount of material that is familiar to the learners.
- Break down directions and new information into small, incremental steps.
- Use concrete materials, visuals, gestures, facial expressions, and movement.
- Model every step of the process or the directions being presented.
Monitor and assess target language use.
- Keep track of student language use.
- Make sure that oral language use is part of student assessment.
- Make target language use a part of the classroom management system and an integral part of the classroom culture. Possibly use a reinforcement system to reward students for a short period of time to get them in the habit of using the language.
Check for comprehension.
- Students can use signals to indicate their response to a comprehension check. They can hold their thumbs up or down for “yes” and “no,” and wiggle their thumbs for “I’m not sure.”
- Students can draw pictures to signal their comprehension or write on small whiteboards. They can act out behavior or imitate the performance that the teacher has demonstrated.
Separate English from Spanish—avoid translation as a first resort.
- If the students know that the teacher is going to use both languages, they will not engage with the target language and will patiently wait for the English.
- If the teacher plans to repeat or clarify in English, he or she may not expend as much effort to make the target language comprehensible.
- Sometimes students who have understood directions or new vocabulary may call out the English, either as a way to help their classmates or to show the teacher that they have understood. It is important not to encourage or reinforce this practice, because if it becomes a habit, the language lesson can turn into a translation game.
Separate English from Spanish—use a sign.
- Using a sign on which one side indicates English and the other side indicates the target language reminds teachers and students to stay in the target language.
- The sign can help the teacher make a transition to using the target language more frequently by keeping the teacher and the students focused on using the language for longer periods of time each day.
- Of course, beginning students cannot always conduct themselves entirely in the new language. Teachers can respond in the target language by rephrasing what students said in the target language and then responding in the target language.
Hopefully you will find it useful and easy to employ these strategies just as we do in the Sonrisas Spanish School Curriculum. There will be one more part to this series about staying in Spanish next week.