by Eleonora Pannacci
This summer I found myself in a small village called Golyamo Novo, which is situated in north-eastern Bulgaria. The village is mainly inhabited by Roma.
My task was to teach English at the primary school and my main goal was to experiment a new teaching approach. I wanted to use Easy Read books as a didactic tool to motivate young and disadvantaged students, especially those who are not used to learning and going to school.
It was a challenging and stimulating adventure for me, a young wannabe English teacher, who wished for a change.
School and students
There is only one school in the village of Golyamo Novo. It is built on two floors and hosts grades 1–8 but the building is not in a very good shape.
I worked there at the end of June, which meant that the school term was already over. Children love holidays. As everybody knows who has tried to teach in the summer, it is hard to catch their attention and ignite curiosity. Nonetheless, I and the only English teacher managed to get some of them back to school.
My students’ age range was very wide, from six to twelve years old. What kind of teacher could create lessons which are suitable for each pupil? This experience was therefore particularly challenging for me.
Furthermore, the children had several difficulties in all linguistic skills, especially reading and writing. Their mother tongue is Turkish, and they also had difficulties in understanding Bulgarian, which is the school language.
I am sure you are eager to know what I managed to do at the end of this experience. This is what I achieved by using some of the Easy Read books about Philip by Sabira Ståhlberg and Maria Viitasalo:
Playful didactics works: you learn more when you do not realize you are learning. My method was based on guessing games and fun activities, which involved drawings, physical movements and cooperative learning in pairs or groups.
I also tried the so-called Picasso dictation by writing on the board and uttering clearly some simple sentences, which described Philip in a room. It was a success!
Comprehension techniques such as clozes and jigsaw puzzle activities are simple but effective: after reading the paragraphs aloud, put the sentences of one paragraph in random order and let the pupils find the right one. Then I hid some words and let the pupils guess the right ones.
After knowing what worked, you might wonder: what can be done in order to improve the learning situation? Here are some suggestions.
Motivation is the main driving force of learning. Students need to be stimulated through fun activities and they must believe that school is an important value that can make their lives more worthy. School should be something close to the students’ world and culture, and not perceived as a place where they get bored.
The grammar-translation method, which many teachers I have worked with seem to prefer, is outdated and not efficient. Especially for Roma children, who live in a context in which their native language is different from the language of schooling, it does not work. It does not help the students, quite the opposite.
Empathy and multiple perspectives are the basis for intercultural education, and they are essential in this type of educational context.
Least but not last, I truly believe that innovative and inductive activities are the best way for creating and sustaining learners’ motivation. Cooperative learning, peer-to-peer interaction and assessment are the key words for a proper and up-to-date foreign language teaching and learning.
This experience created more motivation for me. I will keep on working with the Easy Reads, with the goal of finding more approaches and strategies for foreign language teaching, especially for disadvantaged children and children with another mother tongue than the school language.