We are doing a 2 part series on teaching world languages to our youngest students. Last week we talked to Nathan Lutz for his perspective on early language learners. And this week we hear from Amanda Hsiung Blodgett, who teaches Mandarin. She shares her 6 favorite tips for teachers working with young students. Treat yourself to a latte, settle in, and join our Language Latte facebook group to get in on the conversation!
Every episode, I examine issues that world language teachers face when trying to help our students’ achieve proficiency. And this episode is part 2 in a series that focuses on our early language learners. Early childhood and early elementary teachers have different ways and tricks to reach this younger crowd- but what does the research have to say? How can we teach early language learners a new language while they are still developing their first language? If we are meeting students where they are, can we expect our younger students to begin communicating in both languages? What kind of activities are really fun, and keep the kids active and engaged?
Let’s first look at what the research says about early language learners and best practices, and then I’ll interview Amanda Hsiung-Blodgett, a dynamic Mandarin Chinese language teacher who has experience teaching young learners around the world.
Most language teachers have an idea about language development in both monolingual and bilingual kids: of course there are similarities and there are differences.
But generally speaking, monolingual and bilingual children follow the same basic pattern in language development. In both first- and second-language acquisition, a stimulating and rich linguistic environment will support them as they acquire their language. The quantity and quality of the input the children are getting is a great predictor of how proficient the child’s language will be. And that’s why doctors are always recommending parents to narrate everything for their children from birth, and read them at least 20 minutes a day, right?
Let’s look at some basic strategies to teach younger language learners, that are backed by science.
The ways we teach kids in early childhood programs, and primary school, are different than how we would teach older students because they are at different developmental stages. An effective approach to teaching younger children is recommended by NAEYC: developmentally appropriate practice, which should be based on the research on how young children develop and learn. So as teachers make decisions on how we’ll teach, NAEYC advises that we
1) understand child development as a whole.
2) understand unique individual differences in our classes.
And 3) understand what is culturally relevant for our students. In order to meet young children where they are, and help each child meet challenging and achievable learning goals, it is important to have clear communication with the other classroom teachers, as well as with the parents.
To understand child language development a little more, we can look at a recent article by Hassinger-Das and Taub. The researchers suggest 6 principles of language development that are designed to apply to *all learners* in some fashion.
The first principle is frequency: Children learn the words and structures that they hear the most. Teachers- and parents- can increase the frequency of word exposure by tons of repetition, whether it’s re-reading the same stories, repeating the same songs, or intentionally using certain words and phrases again and again.
The second principle in language development is interest: Children learn words for things and events that interest them. Effective teachers capitalize on this interest by choosing stories, games, and activities related to their students’ interests. Teachers can also narrate what the students are playing with in the target language.
Contingency is the third principle to build language learning, and has to do with interactive and responsive environments. Language development thrives when children engage in exchanges with adults that are contingent on and responsive to their nonverbal conversational attempts. What does this mean? When a child attempts to say a new word like “puppet,” the adult can respond in a meaningful way like “yes! We play with puppets! The puppet has red hair, and we read a book with her.” Guided play is an especially good setting for vocabulary growth, where kids can have fun, alongside adult support for a specific learning goal.
The next principle is meaningfulness: children learn best in meaningful contexts, instead of learning vocabulary in isolation. This is really important for kids learning languages that are not spoken outside your class. When presenting new vocabulary, it is beneficial to highlight connections between new words and the concepts and vocabulary that children already have. Kids love to sort and categorize, and finding connections between new information and prior knowledge supports the memory process.
Diversity is fifth: children need to hear diverse examples of words and language structures. One concrete strategy for increasing vocabulary diversity is to read many different age-appropriate books. Another practical way to apply the diversity principle is to invite different native speakers to class, because they will naturally communicate with diverse language structures, vocabulary, and examples.
The final principle of language development is reciprocity. What is reciprocity? This is the back and forth communication between two people, in this case between the children and the teacher. Vocabulary, grammatical, and narrative development are reciprocal processes.
OK, so taking into account the principles of language development gives us a foundation on which to build our lessons. How do we use repetition, meaningfulness, reciprocity and the other principles? First and most important for the youngest learners is through PLAY. All over the world, free play and guided play are tools through which children can learn while they have fun and explore. When kids are engaged, mentally active, interacting socially, and building meaningful connections in their lives, they are successfully learning.
In our pre-literate students especially, a growing body of research focuses on the importance of play. It’s the child who is spontaneously having fun with their peers building and knocking down towers, or making pretend scrambled eggs for their friend, or flying an imaginary plane over and under and around the table. Play is fun, it is flexible, it is voluntary, and play is joyful. Guided play incorporates gentle guidance of an adult to ensure that children are progressing towards their learning goal.
If you can imagine a Venn diagram with 3 circles: play, language, and early literacy, all overlapping in the center. This interaction- where they converge- is the play-literacy nexus. Most language learners only get a short amount of time and exposure to their new language- for this reason it’s necessary to work with the classroom teachers to incorporate a print-rich environment in both their native language and target language. Aside from offering plentiful books in both languages, teachers can set up spaces in their classroom for literacy-rich play such as: writing materials like papers, markers, letter stamps, etc. Theme related items for the kids to use during dramatic play time- in the target language- like menus, wall signs, employee name tags, cookbooks.
One activity that works really well to take advantage of this play-literacy nexus is to act out familiar fairy tales, with a simple, repetitive plot, and a small number of characters. The teacher can read the story in the target language, and through prompting, helps them to enact the story. The teacher acts as a guide, narrator, and sometimes even takes a role, modeling how to act out the roles. Story drama can be used with familiar books as well in shared readings, and doesn’t have to only include children acting out the stories: teachers can use puppets, characters on popsicle sticks, or stuffed animals to reenact the narrated stories. In this way, even if the children aren’t producing the language yet, they are practicing receptive language skills and showing comprehension. Teachers see huge gains in vocabulary for their students when stories are incorporated regularly.
Another activity that promotes this play-literacy nexus is called “play planning.” The class can participate in a process of assisted writing in which the children draw and write a high structure play plan- like a list of what they’d like to do for the day- such as “castle, cars, blocks, and books.” With the teacher’s guidance and help, they create the “schedule” if you will, and decide the order of what they’ll play with together, and they can either draw pictures or write the words to create the list- all in the target language.
I asked some of my friends who teach languages in the younger grades what activities they do in class that engage the students- and keep their attention- while increasing proficiency in the target language. Here are the activities the kids love:
Carla, teaching English in Mexico says: “in my class, my students’ favorite activities reading stories, playing with puppets, singing songs- especially if we use instruments- using the parachute or scarves”
Mikayla teaches Spanish in Florida: “I teach 3s and 4s, and it is very different than teaching the bigger kids. They need a lot of transitions! We do movement breaks and transition to new activities every 3-5 minutes. The little ones lose focus faster than you think.”
Maria teaches French in Toronto: “I only come in once a week to each class, and so I work with the classroom teachers to maintain routines and themes. For example, if they are learning colors, shapes, numbers, animals, then I do similar topics in French. We sit on a rug in a circle, but do some dancing and silly “Simon Says” activities to get the kids moving too.”
Ana Pau teaches English in Spain in primary school and says “stories are my favorite activity because I always have the kids attention. They are just starting to learn English, and need a lot of input before they can speak. We repeat a lot of vocabulary, retell the stories (either the books I read or the videos we watch), act out the stories, answer questions about the stories. I use a LOT of props when I tell stories so kids can hold them up or pass them around. Keep recycling the vocabulary from the previous weeks, adding on some new words each week.”
And finally, Michelle, who teaches Spanish in Seattle says that her favorite activities are typical preschool activities, but just in the target language. She says “playdough, crafts, building with blocks, playing in the kitchen center with dolls and play food, adding animals to the sand table, etc. You can find a lot of finger-plays, or hand-clapping games, nursery rhymes, and other songs in Spanish online too.”
Join in our conversation- if you’d like to exchange ideas about what works, and what doesn’t work- and connect with teachers from around the world, JOIN our Language Latte facebook group where we talk about tips and tools 24/7. If you have a great idea, share it with us so you can be featured on an upcoming show!
And now, we are so lucky to speak with our guest today: the very popular and entertaining Amanda Hsiung-Blodgett. Also known as Miss Panda Chinese, she is a dynamic Mandarin Chinese language instructor and the mother of two young bilingual children. She has extensive teaching experience with children in Taiwan, Morocco, Canada and the United States. Amanda was also the host for “The English Club,” a top-rated language learning program on the National Education Radio Station in Taiwan. I am so excited to talk with you today: Welcome to the show!
1) Tell us about your own language journey. What brought you all over the world? How did you first start teaching little kids?
2) Obviously with all of this experience, you understand what it means to teach young students. I’ve never formally taught this age group- my experience with language learners that are toddlers, or preK, and kindergarten, etc has been with my own children. My daughter Vivi, who is now 13, was in a Spanish mommy-and-me music class when she was 2 years old. ANd we would go in this little room with maybe 10 other moms and toddlers? And the teacher, who was from Argentina, kept us on our toes for the full 45 minutes. We were standing, doing fingerplays, and then singing, looking at pictures, and then playing instruments, and marching, and then making a circle around the parachute. It seems like we change activities every couple minutes? As a high school teacher, the amount of transitions really stuck me as completely necessary for this age group. So since you have such a rich background of teaching these young students, you have come up with 6 tips to help teachers who teach young kids.
3) What are your 6 tips for teachers who teach young kids?
-comprehension and caring.
-showing it off: Mirror mirror on the wall.
-playing is learning
-keeping it short and sweet
4) Do you have any advice or any resources for new teachers, especially those who have never taught younger kids? (see below for complete list of links mentioned!)
5) How is it different to teach kids in preschool or early elementary school, versus those teaching the upper grades?
Organizations that Support Early Language Learners:
Wordless Resources (Books and Films) to Use in Any Language!
Miss Panda’s Mandarin Lessons
Chinese-English bilingual CD/MP3 albums “Let’s Learn Mandarin Chinese with Miss Panda!”
Miss Panda Chinese, on facebook, and two FREE e-books to help parents to start the bilingual family journey in Chinese and English (community language): 10 Basic Chinese Characters, and 15 Basic Chinese Expressions You Can Use Every Day with Your Child
Research on Early Language Learners
Hassinger-Das, B., Toub, T. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2017). “A matter of principle: Applying language science to the classroom and beyond.” Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 3, 5-18.
Hassinger-Das, Brenna, Hirrsh-Pasek, Kathy, and Michnick Golinkoff, Roberta. (2017). “The Case of Brain Science and Guided Play: A Developing Story.” Young Children. v72, n2, May 2017.
Roskos, Kathleen and Christie, James. (2011). “The play-Literacy Nexus and the Importance of Evidence-Based Techniques in the Classroom.” American Journal of Play. v4, n2, p204-224.