The transition from home to school, wheather it occurs at a preschool
or in kindergarten or grade one, marks an important turning point in terms of language development. At home, children develop both their physical and con-versational skills in unstructured circumstances. The greater part of their experience is often with one caregiver. Even when more than one is involved, the number is usually limited and they are delighted to focus exclusively on the child. Learning, although it is spontaneous and unstructured, is nevertheless steady and involving for the child. The function of schools is to broaden children’s range of experiences, introduce new possibilities, systematize the process of learning, help develop thinking skills and, ultimately, empower students to take responsibility for their own learning.The strategies children have developed at home to make sense of their world, to talk about their experiences and to wonderabout what is new or imaginary continue to beeffective. These strategies should not be supplanted by the school but augmented byteachers skilled in helping all children discover their potential.Gordon Wells told us that knowledge cannot be transmitted in isolation, but must bereinvented as the learner brings to each newsituation his own previous experience and background and interprets new informationfrom that perspective. By the time childrencome to school, they are already successful communicators. They know what language is for and how to use it competently. As they experience new situations and interact withnew adults and children, they continue to uselanguage to interpret, ask questions, negotiate, comment and wonder. With skillful guidance from and the understanding of teachers, chil-dren’s language continues to grow and blos-som in the school environment. “Meaning-making in conversation is a collaborative activity,” Gordon Wells wrote. Thewise early childhood teacher knows how tocreate an atmosphere in which children’s experiences outside school are valued and talked about, where their ideas and comments are lis-tened to with respect, and where they learn toreflect on what they know. Language is the keyto creative thinking, solving problems and col-laborative learning. The growth and development of language is a lifelong activity, anessential component of successful living.
Learning a second language
Although they may not be able to express themselves in English very well, the young ESL children you are meeting for the first time are, in fact, experienced language users. Cog-nitively and linguistically, they are as well developed as their English speaking counterparts, but this development has taken place inanother language and culture. Now they mustbegin the process of transferring what theyknow to a new context and continuing theirdevelopment in two languages.First, however, here are some facts aboutlanguage that are important to keep in mind:Language is a human universal.All culturalgroups have a language system that theirmembers master in order to communicatewith each other.
Language is systematic.Every language has itsown characteristic way of combining sounds,words and sentences.No language is wholly regular.Exceptions tothe rule are found in all languages. All languages enable speakers to create newutterances. However, these utterances mustconform to the rules established over the centuries by speakers of a particular language.Language is both creative and functional.Aspeaker of any language can both createand comprehend an infinite number ofutterances based on a finite number ofrules. These utterances can cover a multi-tude of functions, such as requesting, refus-ing, promising, warning, denying, agreeing, disagreeing and expressing emotions. Languages change.For example, new wordscan be created to meet the scientific and tech-nological demands of the modern world.Human beings have an innate capacity tolearn language. All children, unless they areseverely neurologically impaired, are capa-ble of learning a language.Language can be non-verbal as well as verbal. Facial expressions, gestures and other bodymovements may convey messages, themeanings of which are culturally specific.Language and culture are closely related. Customs, traditions, values, stories, reli-gion, history and other manifestations ofculture are transmitted to a large extentthrough language.Language and thought are closely related.Children and adults use language to sharetheir thoughts and to expand and clarify concepts. Although there are many similarities between the way first and second languages areacquired, there are also important differencesthat cannot be ignored. Young English-speaking children do notknow another language; ESL/EFL children do.They have mastered many of the skills involvedin listening and talking. They know what language is and how to use it to request, demand,invite, socialize and much more.All young children are highly motivated tolearn language. Surrounded by love and atten-tion, encouraged and complimented for all theirvocal efforts, they continually make every at-tempt to communicate. Children learning a
second language, however, may not feel thesame urgency to communicate in English astheir English-speaking counterparts. They canalready make themselves understood in theirhome language. Their initial efforts to speakEnglish at school may be met not with praiseand encouragement, but with misunderstandingand ridicule. In addition, they may hear Englishonly at school, never at home, so that their ex-posure to comprehensible input is limited.When young children attempt to use lan-guage at home, their adult caregivers try veryhard to understand the meaning of their utter-ances and pay little attention to its form. For ESL/EFL children, the opposite is too often true. When they attempt to use English atschool, the teacher often pays more attentionto the form than to the message.Young children learn their home languageslowly over a number of years. There is no pressure; every advance is enthusiastically welcomed. When it becomes necessary for childrento learn English to communicate at school, theatmosphere is very different. There is considerable pressure on them to learn the new language quickly. This pressure does not necessarily come from the teacher, but may originate with other children, the school system and their parents. Encouragement of children’s efforts should include praise for making progress, which is often phenomenal. Concepts and language development gohand in hand. All young children develop concepts of shape and color at an early age. Someof these ideas transfer easily into another language. Others, however, are different and cancause confusion. For example, the color spectrum is not divided the same way in all cultures. Yellow and green are separated by vocabulary into two colors in English; in some other cultures, one word describes that range of color. On the other hand, there are some notable sim-ilarities that help teachers as they plan activities. For example, the concept of round—a circle—is universal; only the vocabulary is different. All children need to hear English modeledby both adults and their peers in a variety ofsituations. In both languages, there is a role forimitation. Although not all the phonemes, orsounds, of English are not found in other lan-guages and vice versa, all children benefit fromactivities that highlight different combinationsof sounds. For example, in the song, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” each verse introduces a new animal sound. In English, the cowsays, “A moo-moo here, and a moo-moo there.”But this approximation of animal sounds isnot the same in all languages. A Chinese cow,for example, says, “Woo.”All children need to play with language, tryit out, test it, receive feedback and try again.This is the way children test the rules andadjust them to their own world view, a processthat prevails among all language learners.All children need to have adult languageadjusted to their level of understanding and,finally, all children learn faster when languageand content are combined. Language is a toolfor learning.
Learning a concept is not a one-shot deal
Children need a variety of experiences witha concept in a variety of situations with a vari-ety of people. Each new experience will resultin some modification, extension or limitationof the concept.The following are some of the clusters ofconcepts that young children should becomefamiliar with over time: Identificationof objects beginning with thosethat are immediate and personal, such asbody parts, clothing and objects in theclassroom. Classificationaccording to color, shape, size,number,function and kind, again begin-ning with what is immediate, personal andconcrete; comparing and contrasting these.Spatial relationships such as near and far, infront of and behind and under and over. Inevery classroom, opportunities abound forboth the informal and formal teaching ofspatial relationships. For example, activitiessuch as games, handicrafts and tidying upcan all involve opportunities to develop chil-dren’s awareness of spatial relationships. Temporal relationshipssuch as past, presentand future, before and after, and since andduring. Because time is less concrete thanspace, it represents an increased level of difficulty for some children. Some aspects oftime, such as attitudes towards the futureor the keeping of appointments, are cul-ture-bound. Emotional and familial relationshipssuch aslove and hate, happiness and unhappiness, loyalty, family, kinship, self and others,including both other children and adults. Many of these concepts are culture-bound.In North America, for example, far more emphasis is placed on the individual than onthe group. As another example, some cul-tures differentiate between an uncle on themother’s side and an uncle on the father’sside. Unless teachers are aware of these differences, they may confuse the children.Orderingwhich can evolve from one of theother concept clusters. For example, itemsthat have been classified as big or little canbe arranged in order from biggest to littlest,or yesterday’s field trip can be reviewed inchronological sequence by talking aboutwhat the class did first, next, and so on.Equivalencywhich involves recognizing that although things may differ in somerespects, they may in fact be the same—orequivalent—in others. For example, different shapes may enclose the same area, ordifferent shaped vessels may contain thesame amount of liquid. Practical experiencewith containers of the same or different sizehelps develop the concept of equivalency.
Early literacy, a term widely used in currenteducational literature, describes how youngchildren gradually become aware of the uses ofwritten language in their environment. This ever-increasing awareness of writing and read-ing is now considered an integral part of children’s early language development. Before this theory emerged, researchers thought language development in the earlyyears was only a precursor to the acquisition ofthe essential skills of reading, encoding and de-coding. It was widely believed that the so-calledreadiness skills (letter recognition, recognitionof the sound-symbol correspondence, etc.)that preceded the act of reading could betaught only when children were developmentally and physically ready to absorb them. Thisreadiness, it was believed, occurred as a resultof maturation after children began formalschooling and were ready to be taught the specific skills that would enable them to read.
In most preschool and primary settings,learning centers, sometimes called activity centers or play areas, are used as an organizational structure for the classroom. These centers provide a variety of learning experiencesand materials, encouraging children toexplore, experiment, discover and socialize intheir individual ways. As the children do so,teachers can observe differences in learningstyles as well as children’s responses to stories,songs or field trips. At first, some ESL/EFL children may beoverwhelmed by the variety of new materials,the freedom to choose, which may be strangeto them, and their inability to play as theywould like to with other children because of alanguage barrier. Their responses may be quitedifferent: some may withdraw silently, othersmay wander aimlessly from center to center,and still others may choose one area, such asthe water table, and refuse to move. Sensitiveteachers will be sympathetic to their need fortime to adjust to the new environment. The number of learning centers in a classroom varies with the needs of the children, theimagination of the teacher and the limitationsof the space. They are all useful for involvingchildren in different activities, for extendinglanguage and thinking and for encouragingsocial interaction with different groups.Learning centers give teachers a chance toobserve ESL/EFL children closely as theyinteract with others, and to make note of theirlinguistic, cultural and social needs. If theirEnglish is to develop so that it can keep pacewith their cognitive development, teachersneed to ensure that the progression is logicaland continuous, that language support is visual, aural and emotional and that stimulation isappropriate and consistent.
This area, like the others, provides oppor-tunities for learning through play. It gives teach-ers a chance to observe the concepts ESL/EFLchildren have already developed in their firstlanguage, ensure that they have an opportuni-ty to express these concepts in English, andplan for extension.Number, order, shape, size, space and mea-surement are only a few of the concepts ESL/EFL children may have already developedin their first language. Age is not always a reli-able measure of what children know: observ-ing children as you interact with them is much more informative. For example, teachers mightsay things like, “This is a circle. Can you find atriangle?” “Let’s put the triangle on top of thecircle.” “Where is the triangle? The circle?” The possible extensions are endless, but they should be organized, not haphazard, so thatESL/EFL children are guided gradually towards expressing concepts appropriate to their stage ofdevelopment. In addition to mathematical con-cepts, many other kinds of concepts can beintroduced and extended during play in theblock corner. For example, this center providesan ideal vehicle for integrating studies in variousareas of the curriculum, such as science, socialstudies, literacy and mathematics.
Art or creating center
This area offers children the opportunity to create, experiment and respond personally to ideas and events.The things children produce at this centerprovide insights into what they are thinkingbut cannot yet express in English. Discussing work-in-progress or completed work with thechildren gives teachers a chance to praise, in-vite appreciation from others and build chil-dren’s self-confidence. Equipment at this center will include ma-terials such as modeling dough, cookie cut-ters, paints, brushes, paper, coloring pens andpencils, fabric scraps, glue, easels and tables.Signing their art work reinforces the children’s concept of one of the functions of written language—labeling.
Dramatic play center
Perhaps more than any other, this centerprovides both children and teachers with thebest opportunities for learning. As children reenact a story, role play in the house corner,choose costumes from the dress-up box orexperiment with items from the prop box, theyengage in many different cognitive activities: solving problems, hypothesizing, predictingand sequencing are but a few. Their dialogue with other children or a teacher helps them use language to clarify these thinking skills. This center, popular with most children, isparticularly appealing to ESL/EFL children. Here, they can become someone else, use Eng-lish as another character and let their imagina-tions soar. Teachers watch and learn, participating only when required.
Sand or water table
The presence of one of these centers doesnot preclude the presence of the other. We are treating them as one, however, because the activities they encourage are similar only the medium is different. To conserve space, some teachers set up a sand table for a month ortwo, then switch to a water table. Equipmentat both should include utensils for measuring, pouring, scooping and digging, and toys, such as cars, trucks, bulldozers, boats, balls, animals and people. Children discover for themselvesthat different-shaped containers may hold the same amount, that some objects float and others do not, that sand can be molded but water can not, and so on.
In some early childhood education classrooms, the library is a center, a cozy, inviting corner where books are kept on shelves within easy reach of children who want to sit quietly to look and read. When children gather for circle or story time, this corner is often used. Although the library is located in a specific area, it is so integral to all the learning activities in some classrooms that children constantly carry books to other areas to use as references. Whatever the design, the library is important for ESL/EFL children. They need to be encouraged to look at books, choose stories forreading, listen to tapes while following alongin the books and borrow books to take home. They should also be encouraged to sharebooks from home with other children. If the books are written in another language, it is a wonderful opportunity for the other children to see and learn about a different system of writing. The illustrations, too, may be very different from those in English books.
Like the library, the writing center, too, is portable. Reading and writing are integral to language development and must be included in the activities of every classroom every day. Very young children learn to do things like write their names on their artwork, read labels on class-room objects, manipulate the day, month and date on the calendar, choose the appropriate words to describe the weather, and recognize the month in which their birthdays occur.
ESL/EFL children should not be excluded from these activities. No matter how proficient they are in English when they enter the program, written representation should be part of their daily routine, because all four language modes —- listening, speaking, writing and reading -- are interrelated and develop concurrently.
The science center changes constantly to keep pace with the children’s varying interests and the changing seasons of the year. Whether it is gathering colored leaves in the fall and observing what happens to them, looking at pictures of birds to help identify them whenon a field trip, melting snow in winter, or planting seeds in the spring, the list of activities is endless. The purpose of the science cen-ter is to pique children’s curiosity and encourage them to observe, question and draw conclusions. At this center, they learn to dothings like make graphs and charts, record their observations and interpret data.
This learning area often has a variety oftoys and equipment, all of which need a flat surface for manipulation. They may include small cars and trucks, dolls or animals, puzzles and games, and scissors and paper for cutting out. Centers like this encourage the develop-ment of hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills, as well as providing a respite for
ESL/EFL children who may want to play quietly on their own for a while.
The music center has a fascinating array of instruments that can be used to create different sounds and rhythms. They may be commercially created or homemade, whatever the teacher can provide ukuleles, drums, marimbas,recorders, flutes, sticks, etc. Some centers havea record player or tape deck that may be usedin large or small group activities. The uses of the music center vary with everygroup. Sometimes, it is the focus for a sing song accompanied by a rhythm band, sometimes one or two children use it to listen quietly to a record or story on tape, or sometimes a childwants to play with one or more of the instruments, experimenting with ways of making different sounds. Music is not usually confined to a specific area. Songs are used at transition times, at clean-up times, for group activities, and for saying good-bye. ESL/EFL children respond well to songs because it is often easier to sing something in another language than to say it.
FromTeaching the World’s Children: ESL for Ages Three to Seven by MARYASHWORTH and H. PATRICIAWAKEFIELD. ©2004 by Pip-pin Publishing Corporation. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved