Second language communication problems in class

Sometimes all you can do is laugh when you are starting to teach a bilingual class using a CLIL (content and language integrated learning) approach. I have a class of Dutch twelve year olds that I have been teaching my art lessons to, essentially in English, for three weeks now. It’s going OK, but obviously there is still a long way to go and a lot to learn. This learning situation does occasionally throw up funny moments….

toilet door

A boy comes up to me near the end of the lesson, pauses, and then carefully asks in his most considered English:

“Mr. Sansom, can I go to the toilet?”

He’s only a first year so we won’t have the “can I” or “may I go to the toilet” discussion, not just yet. I look at my watch, only two minutes to go until the end of the lesson. I reply slowly and clearly:

“There’s only two minutes to go until the end of the lesson, can you wait two minutes?”

He listens carefully to my answer, a serious look on his face, and then smiles and runs out of the door, down the corridor and disappears through the toilet door without saying a word.

The first weeks of bilingual education is full of this sort of misunderstanding, it requires patience as you laugh inwardly to yourself and think “didn’t I just say that?” or “haven’t you been listening”. The truth is that they probably have been listening, it’s just that joining up the gaps in their understanding is sometimes just that little bit too challenging. That will change though, and soon……..

Learning through not understanding? – CLIL (content and language integrated learning) art project

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Danish visitors

From time to time I am asked to give presentations to and yesterday I did in The Hague so to a group of Danish teachers and head teachers who were interested to hear more about the form of bilingual education that we offer in our schools in The Netherlands.

I’d like to thank them for their active participation in my part of the day. I enjoyed the chance to share ideas and discuss future possibilities.

I promised to make my presentation material available as a reminder of some of the teaching activities I touched on.  The PowerPoint itself is quite brief, so also feel free to take a look elsewhere on this blog and in particular at the CLIL link higher up the page.

Click on the link below for the presentation:

danish-visitors-2017

In at the deep end…

Today is my first day back at school after the summer break and I’m closer than ever before to simply starting with my new bilingual first year classes in English, with none of the pupils’ native Dutch thrown in to make it easier for them. I describe them as a ‘bilingual classes’ but they aren’t really, or at least not yet. They are just starting down the language learning road. Virtually all have a smattering of English already, picked up from tv, films, music and the Internet. Normally the first weeks of the school year are for me and my first year pupils, sessions of constant switching between English and Dutch. So what has brought me to this point where I think I should just start in English and not offer a Dutch language back-up or safety net?

For the last three years I’ve been doing a workshop at a nearby school (where I don’t normally teach) that also has a bilingual stream. I am hired in for an intensive day of language and art activities that results in a presentation for parents.

cuijk

This workshop is also done with first year pupils (aged 12), just beginning their bilingual education. They are actually beginning with a lot of new things at once, it’s a big week. A new school, many new friends, new teachers, a new experience of subjects being taught as separate hours in a timetable and…….a new language of instruction. Could we make it a more intimidating and difficult step for a twelve year old I sometimes wonder.

For the pupils I worked with earlier in the week it was the start of just the second week at their new school, and the second week of wrestling with their new language of communication. It’s also been a week and one day of a huge number of new impressions and challenges for them.

Today was just such an example, verbal word games, poetry, describing activities, group communication games, drawing and illustration, all in a day long project, lead by someone they had never seen before. In short, variation ruled the day as we bounced from one assignment to the next. Variation that is, mixed with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is one of my strong points, and today it was greeted by the enthusiasm of the pupils.

(Click here for examples of the sort of lesson assignments I make use of)

As a visitor to the school I can pretend for a day that I don’t speak any Dutch, and so force them to do all their communication in English. This way I can usurp the natural hierarchy of language in a typical Dutch school. They struggle to communicate with me in English because that is the only way it’s going to work. Rather like when you are on holiday abroad. Just like I was in France during the summer. I struggled to make use of my minimal knowledge of the French language when it was necessary. Yes it was easier of course to leave it to my wife to communicate with the locals with her much superior knowledge of the French language, but the question is, is my French ever going to improve that way?

I don’t think that I’m advocating that all my bilingual colleagues take such a hard line and aggressive language approach. I can imagine in some subject areas it could be more problematic if English was the only language used right from the beginning. But so much of my subject in the art room has the back-up of visual elements, demonstrations and images to support to aid understanding. My workshop earlier in the week was a demonstration of just how far children are able to come when thrown in at the language deep end. It’s all about listening hard, helping each other out when they don’t understand or miss a bit. But above all, and I posted about this a year ago (Learning through not understanding), keeping them stretching and reaching beyond the capabilities that they think they have.

 

Lost Consonants, sayings and proverbs – Content and language integrated learning (CLIL)

A couple of weeks ago I published a post called One Letter Switch that involved a small switch of one letter in the title of an existing film to produce a new and very different movie name. I mentioned in the post that I would also explain a second variation that in some ways follows similar lines.

I should start by underlining that this idea has its root in the extremely quirky “Lost Consonants” images that artist and writer Graham Rawle published in the Guardian newspaper a number of years ago. Rawle’s work was published in the newspaper for its entertainment value and its humour with both a visual and a text-based edge.

Each image was created in a similar way. He took a sentence, like for example, “Every time the doorbell rang, the dog started barking”. He then altered the sentence by removing one single consonant from somewhere in the sentence. So the sentence could become, “Every time the doorbell rang, the dog started baking”. This new variation of the text would then be placed underneath a collage that Rawle made by cutting up magazine images and illustrating the new, mostly somewhat sillier version of the phrase………..

graham-rawle

How exactly to apply the core of this idea to the classroom was the first issue. It occurred to me that potentially any sort of sentence could be used. Because of this it also seemed to offer an excellent opportunity to shine a light on one particularly troublesome area of language acquisition. Sayings, proverbs and other ‘wise’ sayings have their place in all languages. When you stop to consider them carefully it becomes only too clear just how often they are used. They enrich a language, they give it a more playful complexity, they are also quite difficult to learn.  I know this last point from my own experience of learning Dutch. They are some similarities and even some sayings that are essentially the same. There are others that simply have no comparison and if you stop to translate them literally into a second language you often see just how odd they are, a fact that makes you very nervous about daring to use them!

I decided to apply the ‘Lost Consonants’ approach to sayings and proverbs in my lesson. The aim was essentially three-fold:

  1. To get my pupils reading English proverbs and sayings on websites that also provide an explanation of what they mean and how they should be used.
  2. The get the class playing with the language and interpretation possibilities if just one letter was dropped from the proverb. The new version needed to have a linguistic logic, even (and hopefully) if the result was actually a rather crazy literal meaning.
  3. The new version had to work in such a way that it could result in an entertaining and engaging photographic collage put together from diverse sources (it is, after all an art lesson!)

Providing pupils with examples of sayings to look through was easy enough, there are plenty of sites available that offer lists:

www.phrasemix.com

www.smart-words.org

www.knowyourphrase.com

www.englishclub.com

Then the word game starts of experimenting with the possibilities. Just one consonant to be removed, no other possibilities allowed. Some of the sayings offer little or no options for adjustment, but there are plenty that do. Having experimented with this assignment with a couple of classes in the last week, I think it is also important to get the pupils sharing not only their new variations with each other but also the original version and explaining the contexts to one another when it might be used.

Most pupils were quite easily able to come up with three or four possibilities.  Often though the final decision of which one to work with was simply down to which one would make the best Graham Rawle-like collage with the most surreal visual qualities. Below are a few examples from my third years (14-15 year olds).

missingconsonants2

If you would like to see more of Graham Rawle’s work in this area it can be found here:

www.grahamrawle.com

Homophones CLIL Art and English assignment

Fed up with your pupils muddling up words that sound the same, but are spelt differently and have different meanings?  These words are called homophones and are often an area of confusion, especially when starting to learn a language.

Technically the definition is:

Homophones are words which have the same pronunciation, but different spellings and meanings.

Some examples:

pale/pail
ate/eight
alter/altar
band/banned
buy/bye/by
red/read
blew/blue
boar/bore
canon/cannon
coarse/course
fair/fare
genes/jeans
foul/fowl
grate/great
in/inn
hour/our
knight/night
no/know
nose/knows
maize/maze
meddle/metal
rain/reign
sea/see
role/roll
their/there/they’re
veil/vale

To help clear up some of this confusion why not get the art department involved in a little design work?

homophones

Pictograms that illustrate the differences in homophones words

Pictograms are something that we are all so familiar with in our daily lives. They are visual shortcuts in information delivery.  Images that are designed to inform and instruct in a rapid and clear way that is not dependent on language, or at least not conventional language. Pictograms rely instead on a visual language. Think of all those symbols you see around airports directing us to various facilities, or the buttons on your tablet for different apps or within the app or program on your computer helping you to use it without becoming involved with written text.

A well designed pictogram should require little explanation!

When it comes to designing the pictogram it should meet the following criteria:

  • Be clear and not overly complex
  • Be sharp and graphic in its appearance so that it is easily viewed from a distance
  • Have a boldness that allows it to be reproduced on various scales without losing quality

Sets of pictograms also have a ‘house style’, they look like they belong together even though they may be illustrating quite diverse things.

Assignment

Design pairs of pictograms that illustrate clearly the differences between homophones. This could be carried out by hand with ink or paint on a piece of paper, or alternatively be set as a simple computer based design assignment.

Text would not normally be part of a pictogram, but in this case it is also important to include the pair of words underneath the design so that viewers can see and appreciate the subtle or not so subtle differences between the homophones.

Remember, each pair of pictograms should in terms of drawing and style look like they do belong together!

The resulting artworks could subsequently be reproduced and make excellent decoration for the language classrooms at school.