The Partnership for 21st Century Skills asserts that – beyond the current subjects taught in schools – students should also master the four C’s: Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity. Second language acquisition contributes to all these skills, and an early start gives students the time needed to achieve high proficiencies.
Heritage Hall students have the rare opportunity to begin frequent, sequential second language acquisition in lower school. Spanish teachers Russell Ray (Profe) and Rachel Chavez (Señora) teach kindergarten through fourth grade classes by using Comprehensible Input Methods (CIM) to ensure that students comprehend the essence of what they hear, even if they don’t understand every word. Students have fun on their feet throughout their 20-minute daily language sessions as Profe and Señora use visual cues and gestures, restate contextual material, and encourage playful expression in Spanish. In their supportive and interactive classes, Ray and Chavez focus on the content of what students say, rather than on technical accuracy of expression. The teachers’ comprehensible inputs combine with the students’ reinforced learning through physical actions, creating a powerful formula proven to promote memory retention.
A visit to Mr. Ray’s lower school Spanish class reveals attention to key factors associated with brain-based learning: he provides an immersion environment where students are alert for challenges and have time to process what they learn. Students learned on the first day that their teacher would only speak Spanish during class time; they also discovered that his gestures and positive, playful attitude would help them understand Spanish well enough to communicate with him and their classmates.
Profe begins class by getting students moving on their feet; at times they stand in a circle and copy his motions while singing or responding to him. Other times, they form an impromptu parade and wind through the room, all the while using gestures that reinforce what they’re saying. He skillfully retains students’ attention as he changes from one character voice to another; uses books, props, and puppets; and alternates his speaking style from his normal voice to sing-song to whispers to emotional exclamations.
Ray says repetition is key: with only 20 minutes for a class, he must ensure that students use each term as many times as possible. One example is having the students chant “Cabeza, cabeza, cabeza” while they pat their heads; within a few minutes, they’ve identified other body parts and created a catchy string of repetitive chants that even an observer unfamiliar with Spanish can appreciate.
Profe also engages his students individually – if he notices someone is looking away, he gets the child’s attention and gestures for the student to look at his eyes. In this non-verbal way, he shows interest in having each student keep up with the class. Any errors in speaking are silently noted by Profe; he will either recast the wording so the student hears the correction, or he will highlight the correction in a future lesson. Profe’s enthusiasm and gentle reinforcement yield so many dozens of successes in each short class that students are comfortable participating and eager to demonstrate their abilities.
If you ever struggled during a language class, you can appreciate how these students are aquiring language differently. CIM classes don’t rely on charts, worksheets, or textbooks. Younger students learn grammar by listening and practicing, while older students add to that by reading Spanish texts. The specialized Spanish children’s literature relies on repetitive elements. For example, the first three-quarters of a story might only use third person, past tense (very repetitive); when the tense changes near the story’s end, students recognize the difference in pattern and learn the new perspective. Similarly, students discover the use of number and gender in Spanish grammar through listening and practicing. Over time, and with positive corrections, students learn when to use, for example, “unos” or “unas,” “un” or “una.”
Although the technique may not have been labeled at the time, it’s thanks to comprehensible input methods that we all learned our first language as babies and toddlers: we were immersed in the language; we listened to identify patterns; then we processed, repeated, and used the language ourselves. Our parents were delighted that we were speaking, patient to give positive reinforcement. And years before we learned to read, we were accomplished communicators.
As the use of CIM is adopted in other Heritage Hall language classrooms, our students will become conversant at much younger ages. Thanks to our consecutive and sequential language classes – unique to this region of the country – Heritage Hall students will have opportunity to develop high-level proficiencies in one or more world languages besides English.