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Teaching language or teaching through language? (by Tatiana Sobral)

10 Tips from a Brazilian Bilingual Teacher

I’ve been teaching at the primary section of The British School of Rio de Janeiro since 2002. About 80% of our students are Brazilian Portuguese native speakers, and the other 20% come from many continents across the globe, mainly Europe, North and South America. A percentage of the teaching staff are native English speakers who also come from overseas.  I am bilingual but I teach all subjects in English, which languagewise makes me feel I’m a full time EFL teacher. My experience working in an international school has reinforced my belief is that language should work as a vehicle for learning, as opposed to being the learning objective by itself.

This whole mix of nationalities has built our unique multicultural identity in this shiny city. Living in this parallel second language world has uncountable pros, and it takes a great deal of planning and dedication to create a learning environment that will promote the development of all language strands – reading, writing, speaking and listening. We all have our own class organization standards, and that includes providing a variety of clues and resources for every learner, but we need to get to know who are the people we will teach and how they learn. For example, when it comes to their individual achievements, before I even start to teach, I like to present personality quizzes to find more about pupils’ learning styles. This is a fun and helpful icebreaker task. My classes are usually split into mixed abilities, so when they have to work in smaller groups each individual’s contribution is equally appreciated.

One of the strategies I use during my literacy lessons is to compare some common sentences and expressions in the two languages. Discussing these differences is valuable because it allows learners to explore and use language for meaning while taking the cultural aspects into consideration. This is also a good moment to clarify doubts and reinforce learning. They recognise the enormous impact of language on relationships, attitudes and communication. Drama activities should be highly valued if we are to encourage this type of understanding.

Whether the outcomes are below or above the year group expectations, I always run short daily plenary sessions so to review and discuss the highs and lows of our lessons. As an extra exercise I like to film and photograph students on task, and this makes our discussions alive and more relevant. After a few months this simple collaboration routine made me realise that sharing the films had helped students sharpen their ability to criticise constructively.

A group discussion could easily become mere brainstorming if we overlook the mistakes learners might make for the sake of communication, so I believe teachers should play the role of facilitator during this process. When students express themselves and present their point of view to an audience in a second language, they will invariably (and hopefully) have precious doubts that will make your input matter. My advice to that is simple. Listen, reflect, rephrase. Whilst at discussion, elicit examples and mediate opinions. Most importantly, never underestimate students’ potential to peer assess and self assess.

In my opinion, as far as teaching goes, none of these tips are doable without consistent planning. All lessons ought to suit every child’s needs and a school of digital natives assigns us the extra mission of linking digital life and school life. Whether we teachers like it or not, technology is everywhere so, from my own experience I’m all in favour of the use of technology as a challenging means of learning rather than teaching isolated skills.

Update yourself. Be daring. Teaching for life requires matching our lessons’ goals to the context our students live in, not otherwise. Not only the variety of online teaching resources may help us with our daily planning struggles, but the social media tools on the web also have a lot to offer to ourselves and our students. My experience using Twitter as a PLN resource has brought me here through Barbara, and it will certainly attract more teachers eager to do better. That’s the motivation behind teaching: teachers should be life long learners.

Contributing to this website and exchanging ideas with so many great educators has been helping me keep it fresh on my mind what I love the most about teaching: the undeniable fact that a teacher’s job is never done.

I am a primary teacher at The British School of Rio de Janeiro. I have been in charge of the primary English curriculum, and I have recently accepted the post of Student Voice coordinator. You can contact me via Twitter or The Educator’s PLN Ning for more information on my work as an educator. Thanks to Barbara for this great opportunity to share my experience with her readers.

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8 Comments

  1. Hobie Swan says:

    It’s so cool to read about how you run your class, Tatiana. Many of the things you say and do make me wonder if you’ve ever heard of mind mapping. I helped bring it into some low-income schools in New York, with great results. Whne you have different languages and learning styles represented in a classroom, mind mapping can help unify the class. Maps are very visual ways to capture ideas and information. To your point about looking at syntax, maps kind of avoid syntax by using key words and sentences to capture meaning. this can help students not get bogged down in the minutiae of sentence building and focus on larger themes. Also, since the maps are so visual, they can really help students who are overwhelmed by a page filled with text.

    If you would agree that one goal of education is to teach kids to put different pieces of information together in order to gain a broader understanding, then mapping is a great tool. It can be way fun too! You might want to check out my blog at http://mapthink.blogspot.com/. If you’re interested, I could send some free licenses your way so you and your students can give it a try!

    Keep up the great work. These students are lucky to have such a dedicated teacher.

    1. TatianaSobral says:

      Thanks for your comments – much appreciated!

      Your blog is now one of my favorites – I’ll take the time to read it through. Btw, I’ve used bubbl.us for mind mapping last year and it was a good learning experience for my students. I did feel it gave them some extra confidence to keep on track and share ideas.

      Thanks for your tips – keep in touch!

  2. Barbara says:

    Thanks, Tatiana!

    I love the idea of language as a tool rather than as a subject. Its value truly is in what you can do with language–not just how good you are at language.

    My students like the personality quizzes, too, but for them the quizzes are motivating reading material. Then, of course, they can’t wait to compare results, so we get speaking, too :)

    I will strive to be a daring life long learner!

    1. TatianaSobral says:

      You’re welcome, Barbara! :)

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by barbsaka: New guest post by @TweeTeaching (Tatiana Sobral) Teaching language or teaching through language? http://bit.ly/aZBTEJ #edchat #efl #esl…

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  5. Duke says:

    “language should work as a vehicle for learning, as opposed to being the learning objective by itself.”

    exactly.. only a small percentage of humans care about grammar construction, but almost everyone uses language to learn things, or even to just have fun or express their feelings

  6. [...] Learning Language or Learning Through Language by Tatiana Sobral [...]

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