by Jeffrey R. Dalton
Teaching abroad is a job replete with challenges. Put that job in a developing nation and make sure that every student is a second language learner of English and you have my first job as the designated librarian teaching first grade language arts in Pakistan. But if teaching is a rewarding experience, then mine must be twice so.
Taking young children, from ages 4 to 5, who cannot read yet and introduce them to the world of letters and words is remarkable. Last year, my fellow teachers and I took a foundations course in Reading and Literacy through the George Washington University. The goal was to raise our awareness of the teaching strategies of which we have basic knowledge and to learn to employ those strategies with intent and sound method. A noble goal for any teacher, but there were many problems we encountered along the way. Would these strategies work in a bilingual environment? What about children whose parents do not speak English and thus cannot help them do their homework? Most of the teaching strategies we learned about certainly apply across all languages. And well, a parent not helping children do their homework is just one of the many problems we must work around in this profession.
After speaking with some of my fellow elementary school teachers about how they’ve incorporated some literacy-based learning into their lessons I’ve realized that our teachers here at the American International School, Lahore have benefitted immensely from only one course in foundations. On particularly sound strategy our second grade teacher, Miss Wajiha Ghays, told me about takes very little time but its usefulness grows exponentially as each child becomes more aware of the world around them. She would encourage children to take note of street signs, banners, and storefronts and to expand their vocabulary, employing a style we all now recognize as Environmental Print. In spending just five minutes of class, or even pre-class, time during the morning she was teaching them that the world around them was full of riddles and that reading would unlock their meanings. She even took it a step further by labeling nearly everything in her classroom. Oftentimes teachers will label classroom items with a designation such as cubby, door, chair, desk, etc… But this teacher labeled things that you wouldn’t see at first glance. Boxes of markers, colored pencils, and other school supplies had labels. The parts of her computer had labels. Things in her desk, which she would take out for specific lessons, had labels: notebook, flashcard, stamp. I even saw pencils and pens labeled!
Some great ideas I personally ran with included incorporating music and songs in my classes to memorize short and long vowels. After the second month or so of class, I started to notice that my first graders were having lots of trouble identifying long and short vowels and were, thus, mispronouncing words. My kids loved to sing, and they love music so the idea seemed “a no brainer.”
Miss Aneela Sajjad, our third grade teacher, shared some of her observations with me. New to teaching English, Miss Aneela was pleased to learn about consonant clusters and diphthongs. As she now has a word for these concepts she felt she was better able to share her knowledge and instruct her students.
Our grade 4 teacher is Miss Aamnah Zafar. She told me that she is particularly excited about and focused on building her students’ academic vocabulary. She clearly demonstrated understanding all of the most important aspects of vocabulary building. That is to say – her instruction was active, interactive, daily, and varied. She focuses on comprehension and not rote memorization. And thirdly, she employed the words in a real world context.
One fun game she plays with her students is vocabulary musical chairs. She would place flashcards on chairs. On each flashcard there would be a word and directions prompting the student for the word’s meaning, synonym, antonym, prefix, or context (use it in a sentence). She also only assigns a small number of words per week, to ensure retention: 10 language arts words and 4-5 science words. One of her students has a high spatial intelligence (he’s picture smart) and thus responds well to one particular science vocabulary lesson where students draw pictures of words. Also in science class, during the beginning of the year, she would introduce vocabulary words and prompt students to guess the word definition from its context, whether in a sentence or diagram. She also gives fantastic homework assignments, such as asking a student to identify the day’s grammar lesson in a book, newspaper, or magazine. This example she gave me was her lesson on superlatives and comparatives.
Lastly, I asked her to explain how she administers writing assignments. What she described to me was textbook process writing. First she has the students brainstorm and then write a first draft in class. If there’s time or during the next lesson, she has each student revise his or her own paper before giving it out to other students to review. She said she even stresses that each student read for content. She admonishes them not to worry about grammar conventions such as spelling and punctuation. She said she fully understands how important peer-review is and that, if anything, her class suffers from too much group study and group-based activity.
There are as many different methods as there are teachers. And, naturally, knowledge of the abstract strategies is no guarantee of classroom success. Nevertheless, it is rewarding to know that you can take already good teachers and make them into teaching power-houses by giving them the words to better express their ideas, raising their awareness level, and show them how to do what they love even better.
Jeffrey Dalton graduated from New York University in 2006 with a Bachelor of the Arts in Linguistics. He spent 3 years as a junior project manager for a software developer by left in 2009 to pursue a career in teaching. He is currently the school librarian and first grade language arts teacher at the American International School System in Lahore, Pakistan.