An interview by Martina Bednáriková
Learning is the journey that the young learners have to depart on. Let them navigate and explore it on their own, for they know more than we teachers often see. Our ELT Forum presenter Beatrix Price also advises to support their thinking and allow them to struggle. Push them to explore and watch them discover… and do not forget to encourage them in the meantime.
Slovak Chamber of English Teachers (SCET): As a Young Learner Specialist, you are an expert on children’s learning processes. Have kids changed over the years, i.e. are young learners today more difficult to handle than when you started teaching? Taking into account your rich experience in teaching all over the world, is there still anything that surprises you during your lessons?
Beatrix Price (BP): This is a very complex question. I could start with the famous quotation by Socrates on young generation: “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”
A couple of hundreds and thousands years have passed, and it is still the same, so you can’t really reflect on this issue in your own lifetime. There always have been problems with bringing children up and it’s still the same.
If you ask me about my own experience, I can tell you a story: When I started teaching, I worked in a ‘giga-school’, in a newly built suburb of Budapest; we called it a ‘Children Factory’. Most of the teachers dropped out after a few months or they might have endured it for a year. My headmistress used to say, ‘If you teach for a whole academic year at my school, you can go anywhere in the world and succeed.” It was tough. I stayed for two years and then I fled. A few years later I heard that the biggest bank robbery in Hungary was committed by some of the youth whom I had taught at that school. I survived and a learnt a lot there.
Since then I’ve taught in different settings, from kindergarten children to adults, from language schools to company courses, some teacher training sessions, too. But I’ve always taught children, either in alternative (you could say elite schools) or in the state sector. And I can tell you that teaching in state schools, especially in the upper middle grades, is still a challenge, after so much experience.
Why is it like that? We can all agree that in our accelerated world information can be attained within seconds. The network of data covers our whole life. This raises a few questions for us. First of all, who possesses ’information’ and ’knowledge’ today? How long does it take to get access to information? And most importantly, what do we do with it afterwards? How do we use it and what do we use it for? Children are today very much aware of this phenomenon and yet schools lag behind our real world.
SCET: Do schools change and adapt according to the pace of modern life? What sort of teachers do we need today? What do we have to learn? And what do we have to teach?
BP: Teachers have to rethink their role at schools and give a new direction to their quest.
One last perspective is that there is so much change in the last few decades due to the boom in information technology that we are not even able to diagnose the symptoms of growing and misbehaving children. Parents today don’t have time to give attention to their children. Kids are constantly on some sort of electric babysitter, watching TV, DVDs, playing online games or fiddling with a smart phone or another gadget. These are all very attractive and work well for a while, but not necessarily good for children. During the school years then dyslexia with all the other ‘Dys’-es, ADD, ADHD are diagnosed and cause so much extra work in our profession. No wonder that this year a DysTEFL project won an ELTons award for ‘Excellence in Course Innovation’! “The judges described the winner as “a much-needed course for teachers and one that addresses a gap in the market.”
(The ELTons is a celebration of excellence in English Language Teaching, recognising significant and innovative advances in the theory of ELT learning, teaching and research worldwide. This new ELTons award category joins the long-established group of British Council Innovation Awards.)
My approach to teaching children is therefore a preventive method. If we consciously focus on the developmental stages of children, we must provide suitable and meaningful activities for their healthy growth.
SCET: Apart from having more fun, how do your students benefit from learning English through various games?
BP: My starting point is that teaching a second language to children is not an explicit teaching /learning but rather an acquisition, a similar process to acquiring one’s mother tongue. I assume that it is possible to take LA2 (Second Language Acquisition) as a delayed LA1 (first Language Acquisition, i.e. the mother tongue), if the conditions for teaching a foreign language strive towards providing similar circumstances to LA1.
In my teaching I use games that have been played by children all over the world for centuries and are not only entertaining but have educational value, too. They have a magic element borrowed from the authentic language environment of the English-speaking world or the traditional playgroup culture of other nations.
There are lots of advantages to using games, songs and rhymes: the variety of the range of learning situations; maintaining pupils’ motivation with the pace of the lesson; ‘hidden’ practice of language patterns; giving confidence by encouraging pupil participation and of course many more.
We all know that children learn best in a motivating, challenging environment. Games represent this positive motivation for them, and while they are fully engaged in the timelessness of games, they can both serve their physical development and support flexible, mobile thinking.
SCET: In what way is it more challenging for teachers to work with young learners than with adults? On the other hand, what are the advantages of it?
BP: I’ve taught the whole spectrum of ages, from kindergarten age to adults. I must admit that my favourite age group is the latter one; no discipline problems, no motivational tricks, a much more energy-saving teaching mode. On the other hand although teaching YLs is very demanding; it is still an immense joy to teach them.
When teaching young learners, one has to work from back to front. First to decide what to achieve and then break down into smaller chunks what to teach and how to approach it. Young learners need a lot of movement accompanied activities in the language lessons. They love the rhythm, the repetition. They enter into the mood of the language through movement and express meaning with gestures through the feet, arms, head, facial expressions, voice and tone.
Stamping and clapping, hammering or tiptoeing, carry rhythm into their limbs – they all help to remember words, expressions or the melody. You probably all have verses or songs from your own childhood that stay with you for a lifetime, sometimes even without knowing the meaning of these rhythmic patterns. They might even contain some sensory impressions, e.g. colours, temperature, sounds, taste or smell.
During the teaching process this first step of enjoyment has to be lifted onto a higher, more conscious level, a clearer level of understanding. Step by step the children cut down the text into smaller units, first chunks, expressions, phrases and then finally words, when they arrive at the meaning, the core words, the content.
So from a more dream-like, joyous repetition we guide the learners to a more conscious, wakeful practice, first in chorus, later in smaller groups (e.g. boys and girls), pairs and finally individually.
This is a fairly long but delightful journey for the child, full of excitement and challenge, from movement to understanding, from the whole to the unit, from a global, universal totality to the individual.
SCET: In what way does art actually help English teachers? On the other hand, what is the benefit of art for students of English? How do you implement art into your own lessons?
BP: The teacher is a professional educator and at the same time an artist, too. There is a deep longing to achieve artistic teaching in our profession but teachers often have low self-esteem. “Oh, yes, I would like to do it but I don’t know how”; “I’m not good at it”, I’m not talented”, etc. are the excuses.
When it comes to serving the child’s needs, then it might change. “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” (Pablo Picasso)
Using arts can help motivate learners to use one’s creative side to stimulate language acquisition and enhance language learning.
Both for teachers and students it’s easy to develop artistic awareness by trying to get rid of mental blockages, starting to see the world with an artist’s eye, increasing creativity and most of all, developing a deep love for art.
What kind of artistic activities have I used in my ELT classroom?
- visual arts: painting, drawing, graphic art, photography
- literature: reading graded and original books, creative writing, poetry, short stories, artistic biography
- performing arts: rhythmic games, improvisational games, classroom plays, play-acting, miming, singing, music, dancing, circus games.
There is only one problem with using arts in ELT: there’s never enough time. 🙂
SCET: Tell us more about mELTing Pot, the magazine of IATEFL Hungary. What does your work entail and what do you like about it? How can in your opinion an ordinary Slovak teacher of English benefit from “melting” as far as their professional career is concerned?
BP: IATEFL-Hungary publishes its professional magazine, called mELTing Pot three times a year: two electronic and one printed issue. The magazine is free for all IATEFL-Hungary members.
We publish different articles dealing with practical classroom issues, methodology, pedagogy, technology, language and linguistics, teaching resources, professional and personal development.
Most articles in our mELTing Pot are between one and three pages in length, between about 1,500 -2,500 words.
The authors share their inspiring thoughts with us in either experimental or instructional articles. We can read about general ideas in teaching, trying to capture insight or inspiration or their love for the language.
I have been the editor-in-chief for the last couple of issues of mELTing Pot. It’s a great journey to collect all the articles, find the right people, connect to them. By the end of each issue I’ve got a new ‘ELT family’.
I’d like to encourage our Slovak colleagues to write for us either about their passion in ELT or to connect to the 2014 conference with the title: ‘English for a change’.
Before our annual conferences we ask the plenary speakers concerning our profession, their personal and professional development.
With our teacher’s magazine we try to inspire our colleagues.
We all agree that inspiration and creativity are key concepts of our profession, our very deepest being, the inner drive, the motor, the pushing force that make the difference… It all starts with a tiny seed, an image or a thought, a sentence, a meeting, a spark or a smile, which develops both in time and space, like a spiral, both vertically and horizontally. All impressions and contacts enrich it on its way and it spreads energy as it grows. That’s how we professionals ‘function’ with each other. We share ideas, give and take, nurture both ourselves and each other.
SCET: Can you tell us more about your studies of Steiner/Waldorf Education in Sussex, England? In what way were these studies different from all your other studies, and how did they help you in your career?
BP: I spent 3 years as a full time student at Emerson College; I did the Foundation Year, the Teacher’s Training Course and the English Course.
These years were some of the most influential years of my life. This is a centre of education for adults that addresses the need for human approaches to today’s urgent questions. It provides opportunities for learning and transformation through education, practical initiatives, research and community building.
There were students from all the continents, from 33 different countries. I spent my time in an incredibly beautiful surrounding, where birds, squirrels and rabbits were equal friends, and learnt respect for the multicultural diversity of nations and gave me a basis for understanding other cultures, characters, customs, traditions, etc.
I had an ongoing opportunity to develop, practice and share ways of working and living with others that encouraged free thinking, imagination and responsibility in the world. The depth I experienced during my studies there gave me foundation for the rest of my life. Theoretical study was combined with practical and artistic work to integrate learning through head, heart and hands.
The artistic highlights of my time there were singing in Mozart’s Requiem and playing Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much ado about nothing.
My teaching career has had a lot of inspiration from that time. I’ve always tried to bring real experience to my students, in which they can grow not only in their cognitive but the social, emotional and ethical/moral parts, too. I firmly believe that in such education learners can recognise their own tasks in life, facing challenges with responsibility, courage, enthusiasm and wisdom.
Beatrix Price is a teacher at the British Council Budapest, Young Learner Specialist, Teacher trainer and the Vice-President and the international network coordinator of IATEFL-Hungary. She teaches young learners at the British Council, she is an online English teacher for Katedra Language School Budapest and works at a primary school in Gödöllő. Bea’s interests include holistic education, using art in foreign language teaching, mother-tongue influence in second language acquisition, language teaching methodology and child and teacher development. She has recently given workshops on Jane Austen’s world in the light of the 21st century both in Hungary and abroad.