Author: Louise Kearns, English Language Specialist Teacher
In March 2020 International Primary School Almere, along with all other schools here in the Netherlands, went into lockdown for three weeks. Three weeks, we thought? Let’s put together some revision packs of what we’ve learnt recently and email them home!
Needless to say, it became apparent very quickly that the situation would not last for just three weeks. However, the three-week project-based learning period gave us teachers time to familiarise ourselves with Microsoft Teams. We were then able to use Teams to send home assignments and also to conduct group calls with children, to ensure that they had social time with their peers and teachers.
But what about those new to English learners? This was a pressing issue for us as a school, as most of our learners have English as a second or third language and sometimes are the only English speaker at home. We needed to ensure that they continued to hear and speak English whilst schools were closed.
The Learning Village was invaluable throughout the period of distance learning, which ultimately ran from 16th March to 11th May 2020 and then, more recently, from 4th January to 8th February 2021. As the EAL teacher at International Primary School Almere, I was able to call new to English learners one to one, or in small groups, through Teams and could share my screen to show the Learning Village. The learners had been using the Village with me in school and were therefore familiar with the layout and the games, allowing me to replicate some of the ‘classroom feel’ that they were missing.
We were thus able to pick up where we had left off and focus on the next stage in their English language learning. For some children, their one-to-one sessions were where they made the most progress, as they felt safe to try, and safe to make mistakes, in these sessions. This creation of a secure environment was attributable to the use of the Learning Village, to the presence of a familiar face in the teacher, and to the fact that they were at home in their own environment, behind a screen.
The Learning Village made it incredibly easy for me to provide the teacher input required, just as I would in the small-group sessions in person. I would begin by playing as the ‘demo learner’ and by removing the words above the images to assess what the children already knew. From there, I would teach the sentence structure we were focusing on. The live lessons were all speaking- and listening-based. As the learners were so familiar with the games on the Village, they were able to instruct me on the shared screen function to press the correct answer. For example, they would say the correct colour box – as opposed to holding up the correct colour card – or would say the word(s) themselves, which further improved their confidence with the pronunciation of the new vocabulary.
The children being home, often in their living rooms or bedrooms, also gave me a unique opportunity to link the learning to something quite personal to them. For instance, when focusing on colours, asking ‘Is it blue? Yes it is or No it isn’t’, I was able to ask about things in their home, which the learners particularly enjoyed. I’m sure we all experienced being shown an array of toys, pets, teddies and various other items that the children were eager to show us, which also gave rise to speaking and listening opportunities using previously taught sentence structures, such as ‘Has it got…?’ and ‘Whose is it?’.
In addition to the academic aspect, the Learning Village ticked the ‘social and emotional’ box throughout distance learning. As previously mentioned, it provided children with the ‘classroom feel’ and with an opportunity to speak to a teacher, but also allowed them a less public and less pressurised social time with their peers than their class-based social times. This took the form of scheduled online sessions for the children to compete against each other using the interactive games on the Village. This was arranged through Teams, so that children had the video call aspect, but did not have the pressure of speaking socially for a prolonged period of time. They played the games, celebrated when they won, laughed together when I came last – and all within the comfort zone of the Village.
Again, familiarity with the Learning Village for the new to English learners was instrumental for their independent work. It truly meant that they could complete some work on the Village without assistance, as they knew how to access their library and complete the corresponding lessons. This independence was great for their learning and their confidence, but was also welcomed by their parents, who were overcoming their own challenges and changes to work whilst homeschooling. The Learning Village provided the new to English children with a completely separate curriculum to follow, taking pressure off the main class teachers and allowing me to make links to their in-class curriculum. This curriculum-based work reinforced the vocabulary and sentence structures previously learnt and, where appropriate, built on the speaking and listening aspects delivered through the live teaching to allow them to progress onto written tasks.
I think that every profession and business has learnt a lot over these past twelve months – and continues to do so. For me, the biggest learning curve during this time was the importance of communication between the parents and myself. This was my first year leading EAL and my focus up to this point had been on bridging the gap between English intervention groups and the learning in the classroom. I had spent much of my time focusing on the communication between myself and the teachers. During distance learning the importance of communication with the parents, and the potential for family learning, was strikingly obvious. Parents were learning alongside their children and adopting the new sentence structures into the family home. This really inspired me to think about the opportunities for family learning (once we can invite parents into school) and about how the Learning Village can be a vehicle to support a parent’s English language learning – in turn, allowing them to support their child in what can be an overwhelming journey.