One of my teachers in university constantly reminded us to understand that students (regardless of their age) will be able to perform in any given scenario as long as we modelled some examples prior to the execution of the task, and as long as we had provided them with the tools they need to construct their ideas. Moreover, we were also encouraged to develop learning experiences in which students could personalize information; where students could compare their ideas in order to expand their understanding of a given concept.
Thus, after teaching my grade 6 students (for less than 7 months) in an environment where they describe what they see, while doing research on what they do not know so that they can further their understanding, without a grammar book and without following the traditional sequence of grammar topics books suggest, I cannot be more convinced of how learning the purpose of linguistic constructions empowers students to express truly meaningful thoughts. I used an EFL approach in Spanish where words such as ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘could’, and ‘can’ are presented as auxiliaries that help us convey specific needs (responsibility, suggestion, etc), instead of waiting for the time when a specific tense has to be taught. By doing this, I diminished the stress that learning conjugations causes on students and, instead, they were happy combining verbs and expressing ideas that carried meaning and intention.
The best part of this journey occurred when inevitably, time tenses needed to be introduced and conjugations needed to be studied. The day when I had to start doing this, I asked students to be particularly attentive and engaged as this was going to be a tough class. Interestingly, half way through the explanation of verb forms (conjugations), one student asked me what time ‘the difficult part‘ was going to appear. Pleasantly surprised, I replied that we were right at it, and then I could not feel but see the amusement in everyone’s eyes, as they all said this had been the easiest class they had had.
Therefore, at this point of the course, not only are they able to combine these verb forms that add intention to their ideas (poder, podría, debería, me gustaría + a verb in infinitive form), but also to conjugate verbs accurately. Moreover, if the way contexts have been addressed are added to this experience, all there is to say is that they have been able to construct meaning with the structures they have been taught casually, stress-free and with a clear idea of what they want to say.
Some colleagues of mine, in the present and the past, have said that certain tasks or topics can be tough for children as they are not mature enough to study such themes. Yet, while a student’s age is key to implement the best fit approach for teaching, when we create a context that welcomes the knowledge from other subjects students possess, not only are we encouraging to see how things are connected, but also foster opportunities to explore connections that we might not have thought of.
The task that is presented below is an example where students have addressed the concept of ‘culture’ by studying topics like festivals and celebrations. In this task it is very clear how the tasks we have done in class, and the approach we followed to study and utilize language structures has enabled them to process new information tied to what they know, instead of dealing with isolated information. I regard this outcome as a clear example of transfer.
My job is not just teaching students to throw facts and vocabulary in a foreign language, but also to help them develop abilities to think at different levels, to look at things from different angles, with different ranges of intellectual skills and, above all, to express what they want to express, and to respond to their own questions.