10 November 2009

Teaching Children a Second Language - Add American Sign Language (ASL) to the mix?

An increasing number of families are realizing the benefits of introducing their children to second (or more) languages from an early age. In this day in age it is becoming more and more possible to raise children bilingually. What an incredible gift!

Choosing and sticking with a plan for what is best for your family in regards to how to go about creating a bilingual home life can be quite challenging. When I bring up signing with a baby/child, a concern I often hear from parents who speak more than one language at home is “Will adding yet another language to the mix (American Sign Language) be too much? Won’t this be confusing for my child?!”

While this is a very natural way to feel, the answer is NO! In fact, using ASL signs with a child of any age who is learning more than one spoken language actually aids in the acquisition of the second language. This happens for a couple of reasons:

1) Signs serve as a visual cue of the new word’s meaning - Signs are often visually representative of the concept they represent. For example, when you sign BALL and say “pelota”, the sign is a great cue as to the meaning of the word because the sign for BALL actually looks like a ball! This is true for many signs.

2) Signs serve as bridges helping children to find commonalities between languages - In other words, a child may learn very early on that when you put your hands together (like the sign fore MORE) that means MORE! When you ask your child in the second language “Quieres Mas?” the first several times you might get a look from your child like “huh?!” But if you say “Quieres Mas?” while signing that familiar sign MORE, a light bulb will go on!! Instead of “huh?” your child will likely be thinking “I’m really not sure what mom just said, but I know that sign means MORE and yes, I want MORE!” Over time as he hears “Quieres Mas?” and simultaneously sees the sign MORE, he will connect meaning to the phrase, increasing understanding and thus use of the new language.

Adding signs to the mix will not confuse your child! Rather, it facilitates the process of understanding and using a new language. The is not only true for babies but for older children as well. This is just one of the many benefits of signing with a child!

What are your thoughts? Has anyone experienced that “light-bulb” moment mentioned above when they paired a sign with a “new” word? Would love to hear your stories!

29 October 2009

Is your child using Spanish outside the classroom setting? Things to look for...

The ultimate goal of learning Spanish is to indeed use it outside of class time! It can seem like a long wait, and getting "nothing" to the question of "What did you do in Spanish today?" can be so frustrating and worrisome!

However, seeing Spanish move out of class and into the rest of your child's life is truly just a matter of time, which varies from child to child AND with the kind of instruction they are getting. Play-based, communication-based lessons where the children are actively engaged and using Spanish to participate in activities is likely to produce faster results than a more passive class where children simply look at flash cards, repeat words, and color pictures of the objects.

We frequently see children in our classes using Spanish at home in the following ways:

1. Private practice.
Some children will play with Spanish sounds and words when they are playing or spending time alone. They may or may not be 'trying' to keep it secret or private. Some children just play at it quietly - almost subconsciously - while others are actually putting effort into practicing sounds and/or words by themselves, but not feeling confident or sure enough to share with others.

2. Inventing Spanish words and phrases.
I get lots of comments from parents... You know, she sounds like she's speaking Spanish, although I have no idea what she's saying! This may be 'real' Spanish or invented. Either way, it's appropriate, common, and fabulous!

3. Singing class-time songs.
If you haven't heard HOLA-HOLA yet, you might ask your child how it goes. If s/he can't remember how to start it on the spot, try putting your hand up by your face like you are going to wave hello and start to slowly say HO-LA. This often prompts our students to start singing the song. If that doesn't do it, don't worry! The cup may still be filling - it will runneth over!

4. Isolated words or phrases come out of nowhere.
Outside of class, a child might see an object that we are practicing the vocabulary for, or hear a word that sounds like a Spanish word from class and be inspired to say what they know out loud.

5. Active, conscious effort
to say or practice Spanish words or phrases outside of class. A child may (randomly or routinely) make Spanish part of their playtime with friends or decide to order in Spanish at a restaurant (Yo quiero ___ por favor = I want ___ please). This kind of use shows real mastery over what they are learning in terms of functional communication. It need not be perfectly pronounced or demonstrate perfect grammar. The idea that they recognize when to use Spanish and what words to use for a given situation shows their control of the language. Not to mention their interest and enthusiasm!

Whatever your child might be demonstrating in terms of Spanish at home is very likely to be a tiny fraction of what s/he does in class. They are bombarded during class and in being so, are in "Spanish mode." The familiar setting, materials, and routine activities of class help them access their spoken Spanish skills. Using their Spanish skills outside the class is what we always love to see and hear about, as it shows the cup filling up, enthusiasm about learning Spanish, and a growing mastery of its usage!

What have you seen your child do outside of class time?
Do you have questions along these lines?

We want to know so share below!!!


Why does my child say he learned "Nothing" in class?

Once in a while, I get a parent who mentions that their child doesn't seem to use Spanish outside the classroom and no matter what they try to prompt him/her with, they can't get anything out of them.

One reason for this "nothing" answer is the same reason your child answers "nothing" to many other questions such as "What did you do at Mary's house?" OR "What did you learn at school today?" OR "What did Sally say about the class guinea pig?" Children, at the moment we ask them a given question, often have their mind somewhere else... looking out the car window, playing with a toy, walking down a flight of stairs. Thus, we probe further... "Well, did she like the guinea pig? Was she scared?" and we ask leading questions for more information. I suggest you do this with your children to see what they are learning in Spanish as well.

Young children - as a general rule - do not approach learning foreign language the way we do as adults. As adults, we go to class and as we get new information, we file it in our brains - comparing it with what we know in English - with the express intent of being able to find it later.

The younger the child, the less s/he is going to use this mental organizational approach. Children learn in the moment, hands on, during meaningful and motivating experiences. In our classes, they are hearing and using Spanish constantly. The younger the child, the fewer active, mental comparisons they are making between English and Spanish. They are simply recognizing what works and using it. In addition, we put a lot of emphasis on empowering children with useful phrases, and not only isolated vocabulary words (I want xyz please, Where is xyz?, Here's the xyz, It's big/small, etc)... Phrases that children can drop vocabulary into as they learn it. We focus on speaking the language, versus memorizing it.

Because our approach to teaching is rather seamless (that is, our activities incorporate Spanish as a natural part of participation), students sometimes aren't overtly aware of how much Spanish they are actually using. True story: I had an 8yr old girl in a class and she was an extremely quick learner, retained information well, and was a leader in the class. One day, about halfway through the semester, she said "I love this class! Last year, we took Spanish with this guy, and he made you like - learn things. Like you had to learn words and then weeks later you'd have to remember them. In this class, you don't even have to like, learn!"

Ha! I was half-insulted at first, but quickly realized that this gal, who was the most advanced in the class, wasn't entirely aware of all that she was learning and using! It surprised even me, because I could often see her gears turning, trying to use her Spanish is a variety of ways. But with the natural incorporation of language into our games, in addition to using our visual cues, etc. it can truly be "seamless" learning.

That aside, it does take a certain amount of the cup filling up and then spilling over before children will use new language outside of class. In class, being in the same place, at the same time, with the same teacher, and with similar materials all help put them in "Spanish mode" and subconsciously activates that part in their brain where their Spanish is. The younger the child, the more s/he will rely on this context to find and activate the Spanish s/he has in her brain.


If you want to know specifics, you kinda have to 1) be realistic about what to expect, and 2) get specific with your questions. In our classes, we provide parents with lesson summaries that detail what words, phrases, books, and activities the children do in class. I would suggest asking questions like: "Did you read a book today? -- was it Title A or Title B?" or "It says here you did something with frogs & a parachute. What was that?" If you aren't looking at a lesson plan, ask "Did you like the games in Spanish today? The unit is about animals. What animal toys did you play with?" This may help your child focus their thoughts and remind her of the lesson.

Try to remember this as well... Recall on-demand, is not necessarily the most valid sign of learning or your child's functional ability to use the language. That is, being able or unable to pluck a vocabulary word out of the "Spanish area" of our brain doesn't indicate our ability to use it for a useful purpose when the occasion arises.

Getting the "nothing" answer can be so frustrating (especially for us teachers who know and see that they truly are learning)! But be patient and understanding of the many cognitive demands your child is sorting through each day. Little by little, you WILL see Spanish come out around the house and the like.

Is your child using Spanish outside the classroom setting? Things to look for...
(click above!)


27 October 2009


Today, I taught a small group of five elementary school girls at The Madeleine School. We gathered in the room and the girls got out their pre-lesson snacks. While they ate, they updated me on their day at school, whose birthday it was, the Halloween candy their teacher had given them, etc.

All of a sudden, the following conversation took off with no input or participation on my part. To follow, you may need to know that

Hay = There is/There are

No hay = There isn't/there aren't

(holding out an empty container) Look! No hay strawberries!

But hay strawberries in my mouth!
(laughter all around)

Amelia: Well, hay strawberries in your belly!

No hay snack! (referencing the fact that she had no snack today)

Hay strawberries in my belly now!

(holding up an almond) No hay más snack! (and pops the almond into her mouth)

I was scribbling this all down, of course!
I tell you, this is the stuff the truly makes my day. To see Spanish come out naturally and with such excitement! They were laughing and so easily using hay/no hay. Almost racing to be the next to say something with their Spanish. It was delightful to see!

16 October 2009

Parent Emails

Monday, Monday....
It's always a bit hard for me to get out of bed in the gray morning hours and go up to my computer. But this week, I'm starting with a smile on my face, reading some positive emails parents sent us last week. Just 4 lessons into the school year, I'm delighted that our families are delighted!

Yesterday, Maia told my mom “suave” when she was working on a project with her. So awesome, she’s thinking in Spanish!! -- mom of 5yr old

Joshua is having so much fun -- he's decided that Monday is his favorite day because of Spanish!! -- mom of 7yr old

[The instructor] is so warm and amazing with the kids. You have a wonderful program and I've been so impressed with how these classes are run. -- mom of 7 yr old

Makes the Monday rev-up a little easier with some good fuel in the tank!


14 October 2009

Caminando, caminando, caminando - PARA!

Today, I taught a group of 10 K-3rd graders at Opal School. This is an active, eager group of children and today was class #4.

As we finished class and walked down the hall to the space where parents pick up the students, Eliza spontaneously started saying "Caminando, caminando, caminando..." (This means "walking, walking, walking" and is part of a game we've played at every class -- a kind of Follow the Leader type game.).

I was thrilled! Within seconds, all the other children were chiming in, "Caminando, caminando...." Suddenly, Jackson called out "¡Paren!" (Stop!) and all the children stopped in their tracks. They continued like this for a good way to our pick-up spot... Caminando, caminando, ¡Paren!.... Caminando, caminando, ¡Paren! Until Tyler, again de la nada (out of nowhere) calls out, "¡Marchando!" and the whole group starts marching and saying "Marchando, marchando, marchando...." in unison.

Then, as they were picked up by ones or in twos, they screamed goodbyes to each other (with an almost alarming amount of enthusiasm!) "¡ADIOS!" and "Adios Danny! Adios Jazlie!"

It was exactly what we hope for as teachers: concrete "proof" that the children find our activities intrinsically motivating, AND that these activities also help us achieve our ultimate goals:

1) Have fun & foster motivation (this game IS fun!)
2) Build confidence (whether its participating as a group member or taking lead)
3) Speak Spanish (especially outside of the class setting!)

It made my day!

12 October 2009

Establishing a Tantrum Routine

Tantrums are inevitable. There's no way around it. They are a part of the developmental process, and something most children must go through in order to grow. I used to work in a great preschool years back. I started my career in the 2 year old room. WOW. WOW. Yeah, multiple tantrums with multiple children... daily. It wasn't always a constant, but only by developing some understanding of the process AND developing a coping strategy for myself, did I make it through without being completely exhausted or losing my sanity!

It seems that once a child starts in on a tantrum, she is stuck in a downward spiral and cannot pull herself out... as if her body physically craves the continuation of this emotional extreme. Thus she continues to spiral. It's important to remember that while the initial start of a tantrum appears intentional ("throwing a fit" because she doesn't get her way), most children are really experiencing what I call a "developmental" tantrum. They are trying to balance their growing sense of independence with their emotions, and still learning how to temper or regulate their reactions and self-soothe.

There are many approaches to coping with tantrums, this is simply my 2 cents. My hope is that you find some nuggets that stick with you and make your life a bit easier.

I suggest creating a tantrum ROUTINE. Just like a bedtime routine, bath routine, any other routine you have. In establishing a routine, you help your child predict the pattern, which helps her work through her tantrums more quickly, with less severity.

Step #1: Take care of YOURSELF FIRST.

Those emotions are SO overwhelming for both your child and you! Figure out what you need to do to ground yourself and keep calm. Maybe tell him -- while he's taking one of those stuttering breaths -- "I need to calm down too. I'll be in the other room if you need me." Then leave him there (as long as he's safe) and go and take some deep breaths!

This models appropriate behavior for him, AND it's important he knows you are not ignoring him. Knowing you are available when he eventually is able to accept your help, is important.

Step # 2: RELOCATE if necessary

I might say:
"I see you are so frustrated and need to cry. But it's too noisy for the living room. Let's go to your room."
"I see your frustrated, but throwing things is dangerous. Let's go to your room (or wherever you find best)."

It's okay if it seems he's not listening. He'll at least know your not ignoring him.

Do your best to remain CALM. When I stopped wishing tantrums wouldn't happen, and accepted them as inevitable, I was able to keep my emotions more neutral and keep a clearer head. We're more or less successful on given days, given our own stress and emotional reserves, but you do your best!

Take him to his room (or wherever you choose). You may have to carry him - even kicking and screaming - until your routine becomes established. When you get to his room, you might say "I want to help you feel better - can I give you a hug?" He may or may not let you.
If he does, hold him until you sense he's basically got himself under control. Then say something to address the situation like, "Gosh, those tantrums can be scary for me. Are they scary for you?... I'm so glad it's all over. That hug really seemed to help.... I'm so glad it's all done now because we still have time to brush the dog/go for a walk/etc." If he's not ready to receive a hug, move on to Step # 3.

If he throws toys across his room, bangs his head, or does otherwise dangerous things to himself or others, you have to make a call - seeing what's happening in the moment and knowing your child's reactions - whether to

a) hold him firmly while quietly saying " I don't want you or me to get hurt so I'm holding you. When your body is safe/not throwing things/banging on the floor, it will be safe to let go. Maybe then we brush the dog together." It may appear he's not hearing you at all, but with persistence, your talking & touch will likely help pull him out of his cycle and help him re-center.


b) move on to step #3.

Say "I want to help you feel better - can I give you a hug?" He may or may not let you. If not, say something like: "I'll be in the kitchen. Let's brush the dog together (or whatever he likes) when you're all done crying."

Step #4: REPEAT Step #3

Pop your head in every 5-8 minutes to repeat the "I want to help you feel better - can I give you a hug? I'll be in the kitchen. Let's brush the dog together when you're all done crying." You may have to repeat this a number of times before your child is able to receive a hug (or whatever you think is most appropriate). However, with time and repetition, the hope is that your child will be able to find comfort in the predictability of the pattern and thus be able to shorten the process and/or skip steps to get to the end.

I wouldn't worry about a hug or brushing the dog seeming like a "reward" for misbehavior. Kids feel terrible when stuck in a tantrum too. Time together afterwards gives you a chance to reconnect on a 'good' level and give words to what you both were feeling: "Wow, that was a tough one wasn't it?!!" or "I'm so happy you're all done crying because we still have time to brush the dog!" Or "That was a little scary, huh? I feel so much better now."

Establishing a routine can take a lot of effort up front and it demands stamina on your part. But armed with a consistent plan, you may find yourself feeling more in control, empowered, and better able to work through your emotions as well!

Okay, so that was like -- 89 cents instead of 2 cents. But hopefully it will resonate with you or another mom.

Any thoughts, comments, or things that you've done that have worked for you? Post them here -- we'll be sure other families get the word!


09 October 2009

New babies in the PELP family!

As many of you know, we "lost" 2 of our Spanish Language in Play teachers this summer. Both Lauren and Nina become mothers, giving birth to Lucy & Jude. Here are a few pictures of the adorable moms before AND their beautiful newborns.
Aren't they so sweet?!!

Nina on left, Lauren on right

Nina & Matthew's son Jude Marley
rn June 9th
8 lbs, 1 oz.

Lauren & Dustin's girl Lucy Fitzgerald Weaver:

Born August 11th
7 lbs, 12 oz

15 July 2009

VIDEO: Guatemala campers play marimbas

Sarah & I had such a marvelous time during our Pasaporte a Guatemala summer camp. More than half of our campers were Guatemalan-born & adopted by American families, and we thus heard lots of interesting stories about moms (birth moms & life moms), kinds of families (rich/poor, big/small, single moms/same sex partnerships/moms&dads), and the state of affairs for Guatemalan people today and several years ago.

I especially loved that as Guatemalan campers shared their true life experiences, our non-Guatemalan campers did the same... Sharing what they knew about their own births or of being a baby, etc. A whole lot of common ground being established while appreciating the differences. These kids were exceptional listeners and question-askers, I must say!

These children were really earnest, eager, and friendly. They were kind to each other. Helped each other complete projects. Took turns with weaving boards. Goofed around and made each other laugh. They were all interesting, fun, and good-hearted.

We had a weeklong afternoon art project: making marimbas. The kids sanded all of their pieces, painted them, and put them together over the course of 4 days to create their own instruments. It was so so so fun! The kids put a lot of work into them and enjoyed playing (ahem... some boys' 'playing' techniques may have looked and sounded more like 'banging-until-their-keys-fall-off-when-the-teacher-isn't-looking', but all in the name of fun, eh?!). Here, they tap gently away, to a traditional Guatemalan folk song about a milkman. Just a very sweet moment.

28 June 2009

VIDEO: Preschoolers Spanish Camp - active reading

So, I'm back with another video! Here you get a quick little view of how eager these 3-5 yr olds are to participate in active reading (in Spanish!).

This is a traditional Panamanian folk tale ("Conejito" - Little Bunny) that we read during our Spanish Immersion camp last week. Aside from participating in group reading, some children would "read" this book to each other, retelling it with key phrases in Spanish included!

I love my job =)

21 June 2009

Cutest Video Ever - campers singing "El Tambor de Alegria" Panamanian folk song

I know... I'm a little out of control with the videos... But just look at this brief video of the kids singing a Panamanian folk song!

Lorena - one of our great teachers this past school year & who lived in Panama while working for Peace Corps - came to sing some songs on our last day.¡Gracias Lorena!

17 June 2009

VIDEO: Snack @ Spanish Immersion Camp

So, I just have to say that it's the 3rd day of our 6-9yr old Spanish Immersion Camp, and I am just amazed by these children! We've got a variety of levels and experience in this small camp, and they are all speaking so much Spanish I can barely stand it!

That said, you'll note in this video how ATTENTIVE the kids are.
They enjoy hearing each others' Spanish, understanding it, and then using it! This comes from the children 100%... We have not prompted them to speak only Spanish or to speak one at a time in any way.

Maestra Sarah does a fabulous job of letting them know they're being understood by repeating their requests. She also asks children for further information: "¿Quieres una galleta o dos?" (Do you want one cracker or two?)... "¿Quieres uvas verdes o uvas moradas?" (Do you want green grapes or purple grapes?)
Sooooo fun and so inspiring!!

Isn't it so exciting??!


13 June 2009

YOU: Dad singing "hola-hola" with your son in New Seasons, ME: delighted!

So, my husband, Dominick, went in New Seasons NE 33rd on Wednesday or Thursday of this week, and came home practically breathless with excitement. He told me that by the soups and deli counter, he heard the Spanish Language in Play theme song:

Hola, hola
¿Cómo estás?
Bien, bien
(to hear this one, click here and scroll all the way to the bottom post)

Dominick turned to see a dad and his son having a quasi-raucus time singing together. Dad was asking his son "How does it go again?" and Son would sing again. Dad would sing, making "mistakes" and they would just crack up!

Dominick said it was hilarious and so adorable... and exciting - like hearing your own song on the radio!

I can't get enough of these tiny, tiny tidbits of what happens outside of class... Without your stories and comments, I wouldn't know what's happening out there!

Who was this dad and son? Was it YOU?? If not, do you have any story to share? These stories can make our day, helping us know we seem to be moving in the right direction with our kids =)

29 May 2009

Thanks & VIDEO: Kids playing Tengo, Tengo

Well, this week & next mark the end of Spanish Language in Play classes for this school year, and I am so pleased and satisfied and proud of our students and teachers!

And I have a serious pang of that bittersweet feeling...

Joyful Noise CDCs were our very first preschools that we offered Spanish classes to, back in Fall 2006. This week, I said goodbye to children who have been in my classes since the beginning, starting when they were just 3 years old! Now, they are going off to Kindergarten or first grade! And they are so grown, and smart, and READY!

It's another of those "wow" moments that marks the passing of time. Three years we've been doing Spanish Language in Play. It is still a small endeavor compared to many, but has changed my entire life... Thanks to all of our amazingly supportive families.

And I'm just so grateful to our families. Amazing teachers. And wonderful, wonderful kids. Wishing "my" kids good luck, hugs, certificates, and the sweetest "I'll miss you" from Elsie just twists my heart up!

So GRACIAS for making this a super-fulfilling year for us, and helping us do what we love to do!

This video is of our Joyful Noise class playing "Color Escondido" (aka "Tengo, Tengo") -- a favorite of many kids! They are so independent in playing this game, it's great!!

Have a wonderful summer everyone!

13 May 2009

ART HOP on Alberta! THIS Saturday May 19

Kara here!

So, one of "our" moms is a small business owner here in Portland. Perhaps you know her or her business: Grasshopper on Alberta?

I buy some of our best toys there and am on the mailing list. This came in today from Kara (her name is Kara too!). A great family fun opportunity!

Bring the family...its art hop on Saturday
11-6 on alberta st.
The street will be closed to traffic
There will be great food and music
The parade @ 3:00
grasshopper will have a sidewalk sale
And guess what it is going to be sunny

Hope to see you.

I'll be there with my niece, Mazli, wearing a bright orange sunglasses, so if we bump into each other, please say hi or introduce yourself!!


12 May 2009

Baby Sign... E's 'HAT'

Christina here!...

I want to share something that happened in our Series C class today (well, it was "today" when I wrote this post, but it's taken us a bit to get it up here!).

First of all, let me say that it is a fabulous class to teach because a) all of you families are amazingly fun to spend time with and b) all of the kiddos are signing. It's really powerful to be in a room full of signing babies!

Anyway... I noticed baby E (who is 14mos old) looking out the window towards the sidewalk. I couldn't see what she was looking at, but she signed HAT to me. When I mentioned it to her mom, she told me that baby E loves her bicycle helmet and refers to it as her HAT.

Baby E was peeking out the window at her mama's bike and her helmet and wanted to tell us about it! It sounds so simple, but is really so empowering & confidence-building for her to start a "conversation" and be understood. It's these moments that blow me away every time!

These little glimpses into what our kids are thinking are so fascinating!

Do you have your own story to share? We LOVE to hear them!

VIDEO: We have a blog!!

Soooo, Christina and have been talking about a blog for... well... a long time, let's just say. Finally we are here and excited to have a place where we can post some things we think you all might find interesting, and we're even more excited to see the comments, advice, and questions you all post.

So WELCOME! ¡BIENVENIDOS! Come on in, throw some words up here, and let's get started!

(Here's a video of some of our Spanish Language in Play campers singing our infamous HOLA-HOLA song: Hello, Hello, How are you? Fine, fine, thank you!)