29 October 2009

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!)


1 comment:

  1. Another note I'm sure all you parents can relate to that has to do with the "nothing" answers.

    Yesterday, I spent 3 hours with my 4yr old niece, Mazli. We walked to the market to get cocoa, spent a LONG time making a cake from scratch, eating the cake, and playing "catch-me-I'm-falling-off-the-couch."

    Her mom arrived to pick her up:
    Michelle (mom): Did you have fun?
    Mazli: Yeah.
    Michelle: What'd you do?
    Mazli: Nothing (but with a smile at least).
    Michelle: Really? You spent all this time with Tia(Auntie) and didn't do anything?
    Mazli: No (giggling).

    Even after having done only 3 real things, my niece gives the "nothing" regarding what was a very special afternoon for me, as I love baking with her... and I believe she really likes it too.

    Was I insulted? Frustrated? Not much. It's just the way it is for now!!