by Eleonora Pannacci
Teaching English to minority learners proved to be a challenge, especially when the learners had to get acquainted with new methods of learning at the same time:
- Teaching approaches: when asked to listen to shorter texts such as the haiku poems, my minority pupils showed an increased interest and participation. Otherwise the shared reading methodology was not very successful. This may be caused by the fact that the proficiency in English was too low to understand the general meaning of the chapters. Short poems were more understandable, achievable and therefore stimulating.
- Working cooperatively was something new. A lack of self-discipline soonbecame obvious. Cooperative working needs to be trained. For the same reason, most of the times the activities based on the ludic methodology did not work well. The whole thing turned into a competition, winning at any cost.
- Heterogeneity: the classes turned out to be too heterogeneous to handle them effectively. Although it is obvious that no class could be homogeneous, my students were far too diverse. There were so many age groups, learning and cognitive styles, varying degrees of motivation and interest in the subject, different proficiencies in English, personality traits and levels of self-confidence all merged together in one single class.
Developing language skills
The socio-psychological environment, meaning the classroom atmosphere during the lessons; the interaction among the students and between the students and I, the teacher, and their general motivation and interest in the didactic activities are important factors for the learning process. The Easy Read books lit some involvement and enthusiasm in my pupils and the local English teachers.
The learning activities aiming at fostering listening and reading comprehension skills were more effective than others. The initial exploration of the paratext of the books – cover, illustrations, title – managed to motivate the learners and keep them involved. They were curious about the books, even though they did not know how to say that. The learners also reacted with enthusiasm to the reading comprehension questions of the haiku quiz.
The majority had difficulties completing both the cloze and the jigsaw activities of the chapters of Philip on the ship, but achieved much better results in the reconstruction of shorter texts such as the haiku poems. Also the code conversion activities appeared to be more effective, but the learners needed constant assistance. Being autonomous learners means being learners for life, but becoming one requires training.
The productive skills, speaking and writing in English, were harder to develop. The fear of making mistakes kept the learners silent and they also did not write anything.
On the other hand, the vocabulary activity based on the Total Physical Response and flashcards was a success. The learners were very excited about moving around the classroom to learn English words. Most of them showed great intuitive skills and an excellent visual memory, as they tend to effectively associate picture with words and pictures with paragraphs.
Why such results?
Teaching English to minority learners proved to be a challenge for me. Among thousands of causes, I found some intrinsic and extrinsic causes for my results.
Obviously, my own shortcomings and limitations as a beginning teacher influenced the results. I also overestimated the English language level of the learners and supposed they were used to several of the methods I used. I did not discover until I was in class the pre-existing and deeply-rooted teaching practices, methods and approaches in regard to foreign language education.
In traditional teaching approaches, Teacher Talking Time are usually higher than student talking time, grammar and translation are in focus. For work with Easy to Read books, more flexible methods are needed.
Poverty and lack of family support in the educational process among minority pupils are well-known factors, which lead to early school drop out and to poor school achievement.
The linguistic difficulty at school is according to my observation one of the crucial issues, but it is more seldom mentioned when European or national minority education is discussed.
The fact that the pupils cannot use their first language at school hampers cognitive and language development and all subjects become complicated. The teachers are caught between the requirement to teach in Bulgarian, keeping to a school curriculum created for Bulgarian-speaking learners, and the real needs of the minority pupils.
At the final stages of my Bulgarian experience, I tried to think of possible new directions and ideas for teaching and research on minority learners’ language development. One question became important:
What if we combine a regular use of Easy to Read books as didactic materials to teach English as a foreign language with the extensive reading practice?
The concept of extensive reading lays on three principles:
- learners read easy comprehensible materials
- they read extensively – as much as possible
- they choose what they want to read
Such principles could encourage learner autonomy, boost the motivation to read and learn and increase self-efficacy and self-esteem. Several research studies have shown highly beneficial results in terms of foreign and second language learning for students of any age, language proficiency and socio-economic status.
Using this possibility would give an understanding of the effectiveness of extensive reading programmes in schools with multilingual students, living in disadvantaged conditions, not only in Bulgaria, but across Europe.