Sunday, 14 September 2014

Part IV: Teaching illiterate immigrant stay-at-home moms

Part IV: Some highlights from the previous school year

Practising with verbs
Everyone knows that it’s not easy to study if you have small children and you are staying home with them. An ongoing project, organized by the Education Department and the Department of Early Education and Care in Helsinki, encourages immigrant stay-at-home-parents to study Finnish AND bring their babies and toddlers along. The children are taken care of on the same premises by trained staff. Isn't that just so practical and wonderful! No wonder the courses have been popular. The courses are offered at several levels starting from learning reading and writing skills to beginners’ and advanced level Finnish.

For the past two school years, in addition to my EFL classes, I was teaching two groups of illiterate women. I was very excited about this opportunity. I have been a language teacher for ages and I am also a qualified primary school teacher with (remote) experience of teaching children to read and write. So I was interested in putting my experience into practice and finding out how it would be to teach adults to read and write in their second language.

To cut a very long story short, I can say that the two-year-time I was working with illiterate adults was definitely one of the most rewarding teaching experiences I have ever had. I feel my students were truly learning for life, and for me that was the best reward.

Some observations:

  • The mother tongues of my students were Somali, Arabic and Mandinka to mention but a few. At the beginning of the course, the students spoke no or little Finnish. Thus, they were learning to read and write NOT in their native languages but in Finnish. I can’t even begin to understand how challenging this must have been for them. And yet, those students, who participated in the course actively, did it.  At the end of the course they could read and write! I am so proud of every one of them!
  • As in all learning and teaching, I think it is important to create a comfortable atmosphere for learning. It was important that the students enjoyed coming to the classes. If they didn’t, they would simple not have showed up anymore.  
  • The focus was both on the spoken language and learning to read and write.  It was important to practise skills that would help them to cope with everyday situations. As a guideline for my teaching, I used the curriculum for illiterate adults (link in Finnish). 
  • I was very lucky in that I had the luxury of having a school assistant working with me all the time. This is something I have never had as a language teacher. It was great to share the work with another professional. What made things ever greater, was the fact that my assistant was studying Somali. That became really handy when explaining the meanings of some words and phrases. I have to say, it does take quite a bit of creativity to teach without a language in common. In addition, for most part of the courses we also had the services of a social worker available for the students. Together we were able to offer the students individual and differentiated instruction. 
  • At the end of the course we discussed the future plans with each student, and helped them in finding a suitable course to continue their studies. This was easier said than done. Helsinki is a true haven for learning languages but there aren’t all that many courses for students with limited reading and writing skills.
  • On a final note, as I mentioned before, the students took up a huge challenge in learning to read and write not in their native languages but in Finnish. I can’t help but wonder how great it would be if these illiterate immigrants could learn to read and write first in their native language. This would make a world of difference for their learning process. 

To finish off, a few more pictures of the teaching material I used.

Practising with the letter "j"

What's the weather like?

Where are you from? Where do you live?

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