Work in English for developing life skills

Written by:
Valentina Angelova, In-Service Teacher Training Dpt, “Dr. Petar Beron”, Varna
Svetla Trendafilova, Varna University of Medicine

“The only disability in life is a bad attitude”
Scott Hamilton

Foreign language learning is a natural way of achieving self-awareness, it is also one of the most viable vehicles for communication between people representing different cultures. The European Year of Languages 2001 comes as celebration of the recognition that “there is a need to increase popular knowledge and understanding of the diversity of the languages of Europe, and of the factors affecting their maintenance and growth. There is a need to generate a greater interest in and curiosity about languages. There is a need to enhance linguistic tolerance within and between nations.”

Foreign language teaching and learning is an ongoing process both in the public and the private sector of Bulgarian education. It is common practice for parents to send their children to learn a foreign language both at the state school and a private school. There are, however, children who are motivated to learn a foreign language but their families cannot afford the tuition fees.

The Beginning

An association was founded by a group of Bulgarian teachers of Arts, Computers, English, French and German who, sponsored by a Japanese businessman, set up a private school in Varna with the aim to cater for the needs of children from disadvantaged families and to provide opportunities for them to attend extra lessons in Foreign Languages, Arts and Computers for free. The name of the school is Ocarina and it is the only one of its kind in Bulgaria, but part of a chain of schools in Armenia, Albania and Macedonia. The “experimental phase” of the project was in May-July 2000 and starting from October 2001 the school is doing its best to help disadvantaged children in their whole person development.

Classroom environment

A favourable classroom environment was created, “a clean, well-lighted place” with a warm, pleasant atmosphere with a whiteboard, posters on the wall that are periodically renewed, pictures, decorations made by the students, a cassette recorder and a video. Children can be immersed in the language and feel good. A number of resource books with supplementary materials were purchased including audio and videocassettes, paper, coloured pencils, some CD ROM materials, etc.

Recruitment Procedure

All schools of this type have agreed on the principle of teaching the 8-18 age group.  The members of the association in collaboration with social workers, directors and form teachers were responsible for the recruitment of these children. The schools approached were all in Varna: Gavrosh, a school for Roma children, the School for Children with Health Problems, Nadejda Orphanage, and a few middle and secondary schools situated in close proximity to Ocarina. All students fill in documents giving the family status in compliance with other Ocarina schools.

Group Profile

Most of the children already learn English at school using coursebooks such as Venture, Go, etc. The language level varies leading to a range from absolute beginners to pre-intermediate level of English in one group. The children generally have a positive attitude towards English language learning but most of them have a very short attention and concentration span and lack confidence and self-esteem as well as skills for autonomous learning.

All children need a lot of attention and understanding. Some of them come from single-parent families and tend to be aggressive and very egocentric, others have health problems to cope with. A very high level of intolerance to “the other”, “the different”, is observed at times, especially a couple of 11-12 year old girls who sometimes tend to be very aggressive. Some children have a very strong “can’t do” attitude that the teachers are trying hard to change into a positive one.

Upon analysis of all characteristic features, both subjective and objective, it was decided to form 3 groups of approximately 10 children each. The existing 2 groups of the first month were regrouped into 2 groups with 8-13 year olds who have classes of 2-hour lessons twice a week and one group of 13-18 year old students comparatively more advanced in English, with a longer concentration and attention span who have a 4-hour lesson each Saturday.

Aims and Objectives

In this particular classroom alongside with the learning of the foreign language one of the major aims is to help develop the whole person by building new relationships outside the traditional classroom where most children seem to be underachievers or at least feel disadvantaged. Building a positive attitude, flexibility and tolerance to each other seems to be another major aim. Life skills like communicating with each other, turn taking, sharing with others, problem solving, conflict resolution come to the fore in the teaching process.  Simple everyday activities like learning to write on a whiteboard, cleaning the floor, decorating the room, working with a cassette and a video recorder, punching and organising materials in a file, stapling, fiddling with the blinds, etc. are all skills that students imperceptibly acquire alongside the language skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Methods and Approaches

Starting with the communicative approach with a clear focus on developing the oracy skills we are trying to establish a classroom full of spontaneity, negotiation of the syllabus and generally a child-driven learning process as much as possible. More often than not Curran’s counselling approach is being applied in the process of teaching and each individual child’s needs are taken care of.  “Learning is viewed as a unified, personal and social experience.” Community language learning advocates a holistic approach to language learning since “true” human learning, also termed whole-person learning, is both cognitive and affective. Elements of language awareness raising are constantly present in the process allowing both teachers and older learners to have insights into the way English and Bulgarian correlate and work.

Since students do not attend classes regularly for various reasons Project Work has turned out to be vital for establishing a meaningful progress. After November each lesson was focused around a small scale project aiming at a tangible product that also involves the development of communicative competence and the whole person of the learners.

Here are some of the completed mini-projects:

  • make a snowflake (all the instructions given in English);
  • make a Xmas angel, an activity involving drawing, cutting out, glueing, decorating, singing, etc.;
  • make a Xmas cracker which involved writing wishes (according to the level and the pace);
  • make a Xmas postcard with wishes and a song;
  • organising a Xmas party and shooting a video of it;
  • St Valentine’s songs and wishes;
  • making a postcard for Baba Marta with appropriate wishes;
  • learning a poem and a rhyme for Easter that implied colouring and cutting out Easter bunnies, demonstrating the action rhymes as well as describing them;
  • making an Easter chick and decorating an Easter Egg;
  • celebrating St Patrick’s Day;
  • writing a letter to a 9-year old child in Britain who has cancer and sending him a Martenitza;
  • drawing and describing their flat, their room, etc.;
  • working on a rhyme, a song and a play on the topic Going on a picnic and actually organising a picnic.

There is an ongoing informal assessment especially of oracy skills while watching films, eg fairy tales. Individual students insist on getting marks and have produced special grids for the teacher to put a mark for their homework or performance in class. The process of teaching involves a lot of praise and positive feedback. Constant negotiation in terms of students’ language and personal improvement allows them to discover their own selves and abilities as well as to further develop skills that they already possess.

Extra individual work is done with children who have problems with their assignments at school and related to their preparation for a forthcoming test in English.

There were some “extra-curricular” meetings with children from the School of the Blind and Visually Impaired Children for the Xmas and Spring parties and the picnic that further helped in establishing a more tolerant and understanding attitude to others.

Conclusion

Each time a memorable experience both for teachers and learners is offered related to children’s life experiences. English language learning is viewed as an awareness-raising process of self, of others and of the language, an enriching life experience.  It helps students feel useful members of society, makes them more self-assertive, “can do” persons.

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