Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Studying vocabulary: plurilingualism, work stations and a field trip

In Finland, most Finnish as a second language teachers rely on the method of teaching Finnish in Finnish. In fact, this is often the only alternative when there may be dozens of different mother tongues in the same classroom, yet not a single language that everybody would understand, so the only option often is to use only Finnish, alongside with visual cues and, of course, acting out :)  This time, however, I wanted to try a different approach in learning the somewhat difficult vocabulary relating to Finnish society. This, in brief, is what we did.

Previous week we had studied some basic information on Finnish society and now it was time to revise the vocabulary. I arranged four work stations in the classroom and the students worked their way on them in pairs or in small groups. I didn't set any time limits for each stations. I was hoping the working would proceed smoothly and that the students would chance stations when they were ready for that. 

Our worksheet with vocabulary
Before the students started working at the stations, they teamed up with a student with the same mother tongue or with a student who shared a mutual language to communicate with. They then talked through a pile of Finnish terms in a language they knew well. Now I know that some of my fellow teachers might frown upon this because I deliberately allowed the students to speak in a language other than Finnish. However, I truly felt it was important for them to get support from their peers and to define the somewhat challenging vocabularies in their own languages or second languages before dealing with them in Finnish. The conversation was lively to say the least. The downside of this was that I couldn’t evaluate how well or poorly they defined the terms as I don’t speak the same languages as they do. Anyhow, if there were any mistakes, they got straighten out at the work stations. My aim here was, again, to encourage the students’ plurilingualism and make it a resource in their learning processes. I would be very glad to hear if you have any ideas on how to make the students' plurilingualism a resource in the classroom. Please share them with us.

Some terminology

Once the students were ready to carry on, they could in their own pace start working in pairs or in small groups at the following stations:

1)   Online writing practise: What do you know about Finland? Here the students practised writing sentences in Finnish. Now bear in mind, that this is a beginner’s Finnish course so the task was rather challenging. What I really enjoyed noticing was the lively conversation in Finnish that took place when they were discussing the spelling of the words and the formation of the sentences. We used OneDrive for writing and saving the texts, and we’ll carry on working with them later on. What I would love to have in my classroom is higher work desks. It would be great if the students could stand at some stations. This would also make taking turns in writing easier.

Students forming sentences together

2) Vocabulary practise: I’m a fan of word clouds, they are pretty, you can vary the font and the colours and you can use them for a variety of purposes. Creating them is an easy way to check how well your students know the vocabulary being practised. Again, the conversation was lively also at this station. It was great to follow how the students corrected each other and commented on each other’s work. This time we used a programme called Word it out

3) Speaking: Questions about Finland. Here the students had a chance to practise talking some key points we had studied the previous week and thus revise the vocabulary. 

4) Mind-mapping: The students used Popplet for mind-mapping the key aspects of what they had learned about Finnish society so far. We used the version that doesn't require registration. Perhaps that's why there is "your name" on each popplet...?

Popplet created as teamwork - still to be finished off

The best part of the introductory lessons came the same week: We visited the Finnish Parliament House. What is so incredibly great about these tours is that you can ask for guidance in different languages, in our case, the language was selkosuomi which means simplified Finnish. Our guide Lotta was great, she really made an effort to give her presentation in a way that was understood by the students. I believe they learnt a lot during that one-hour-tour. It was also great that the same words we had practised in the classroom came alive in a real world situation.  

Getting out of the classroom

What I liked about these lessons was that they included several aspects that I find important in learning and teaching:

  • taking into account learners' previous experiences and skills
  • working together in creating something new
  • using the power of co-operation
  • communicating with the target language
  • practising IT-skills
  • getting out of the classroom
  • using the language in real life situations

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Encouraging students’ plurilingualism

It’s been one of my busiest school year so far. Since my last posting, there’s been so much progress in the language and studying skills of my students in the preparatory class. For my new readers: After nearly 20 years of teaching EFL in high schools, I am now teaching Finnish as a second language to 17 to 25-year-old immigrants preparing them for basic education, along with other school subjects such as, for example, English, Mathematics, introductory courses to societal studies and natural sciences. The students come from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and in September they started learning Finnish from the beginning.

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out ways in which they could truly use their full potential and personality to help them in the face of the enormous challenge of learning Finnish and adjusting to their new home country. With this object in mind, I also took an online course on multicultural learning and teaching (arranged by Open University of Jyväskylä, which, by the way, I can highly recommend to anybody interested in the topic, the information is in Finnish).

In a truly multicultural and plurilingual school, the appreciation of different cultures and languages doesn’t limit just in theme weeks or projects, but instead multiculturalism is a natural and visible part of every school day. I'm now working on how to take this into account in my teaching and make multiculturalism a resource in learning and teaching. To remind the students that they already know many languages and have many skills, we started off by creating a poster in which each student wrote Hello and Thank you in all the languages they knew. They also asked me to add these words in Swedish since Swedish is the second official language in Finland. Later, they found flags of their own countries and glued them on the poster.

Hello! Thank you!
The following day we started with khmer which is spoken by some 16 million people and is the mother tongue of my student from Cambodia. She kindly taught us how to say hello, goodbye and thank you in khmer. The pronunciation was easy, but the writing was a huge challenge. This is how it looks like (copy pasted from Google translator, my handwriting wasn’t very presentable :) 

hello ជំរាបសួរ 
goodbye លា 
thank you សូមអរគុណអ្នក

What a great reminder of how difficult it is to learn to read and write with the alphabet you’re not familiar with! Just imagine the challenges for students who are not familiar with the Latin alphabet!

For the coming two weeks or so, we’ll be using these three words whenever possible making the effort to really learn them. After that we’ll take another language until all the languages in the classroom are covered. Three words doesn’t put too much strain on anybody nor does it take too much time from learning Finnish. What I am hoping it does, is to show appreciation of each student’s mother tongue and culture. It also reminds the students that they are the native speakers and experts of their own languages. It’s great that they can, in turn, be teachers and guides and show their expertise. I hope that this will further increase their motivation to attend the classes and carry on with their language studies. All the information the students give also integrates well with the introductory geography course we are about to start.

I've already tried out some other ways of taking the students’ plurilingualism into account in their learning processes and in my teaching. More about this in my next posting. I would be very glad to hear any experiences you might have on the theme.