[Note: I first posted this on my mindfulness blog in June of last year, 2021.]
This week I finished my fourth year working as a native ESL (English as a second language) teacher at a private school in the Izmir region of Turkey. I spent two years in kindergarten and two years in elementary (1st, 2nd, 3rd & 4th grades). I also ran weekly clubs and vocabulary lessons in 5th grade.
It has been a valuable learning experience.
I was lucky to work directly with a great teachers and interact with some lovely and amazing children.
As I reflect, what has been on my mind in the last week or so is the different levels of learning-readiness of each student. They are Turkish and all have parents very eager for them to start learning English with the hope of eventually becoming fluent. There are some who have unhelpfully high expectations.
Many of the students have been participating in regular English lessons since they were 4 years old.
Quite a few have come from other schools (where English lessons either didn’t exist or weren’t that effective). So they have begun their English learning at a later age. Some newbies come in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade.
As a teacher, it is rewarding to see any child slowly but surely gain confidence with their speaking ability. But it is extra exciting to see those new children starting from scratch. You see them not understanding much more than “Hello” at the start of the year. Then, in less than 10 months, they are conversing in full sentences.
Here is what I find interesting from my experience – a child who has been receiving regular English lessons for longer doesn’t necessarily have an advantage over a newcomer.
In fact, it can often work against them.
If a child is forced to sit in on English lessons before they are ready, they might develop negative emotions regarding learning English as a 2nd language (and possibly learning in general.)
They get used to not listening & watching what is going on:
- They might get taught too many grammar rules and new vocabulary too quickly.
- They might have an extreme fear of making mistakes.
- They might be bored or just not interested in English.
- They might take it for granted.
- They might be thinking about running around outside or any other preferred activity, instead of sitting in a classroom for 8 hours a day.
Any reasons like these can act as a barrier for them to be emotionally ready and open to having the energy & attention needed to develop their speaking skills.
On the other hand, a student who comes in fresh might not have any preconceptions or negative past experiences. They still see learning a language as fun, as it should be. So they watch and listen intently.
I witnessed this time and again at all age-levels.
Of course, I also witnessed the complete opposite – that is, kids who had been receiving lessons for years had indeed made the most of their opportunity, and also other newcomers who felt overwhelmed and not quite able to gain enough traction with their learning.
My point is that we as teachers and parents shouldn’t expect a child to reach a certain proficiency – whether it’s learning a 2nd language, reading, mathematics, writing, spelling, whatever – just because they are a certain age.
This idea is difficult for many to accept.
Unfortunately, this overbearing expectation is inevitably felt by the child which only compounds their challenges or negative feelings toward learning.
Child-led homeschooling, or unschooling, recognizes this – it provides time & space for a child to explore & discover in their own time, when they are ready and actually interested.
And this is when children are most receptive. As John Holt said:
“We learn things when we’re not being forced to learn things.”