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Little Language Learners

'Head, shoulders, rodillas y dedos del pie'

by Ann Borders

Ann Borders and her students published a multinational cookbook.

The dramatic shift of No Child Left Behind is most apparent in the half-day kindergarten class. Early learning used to be about socializing, getting familiar with school, identifying colors, alphabet letters, and numbers. Now children are expected to read sentences, add to 10, write a paragraph, and know the names of geometric solids.

My biggest challenge in meeting these goals was a recent class of 19 students with 13 bilingual and non-English-speaking children from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. How would we ever communicate, much less meet academic goals?

My first concern was physically not losing any of them. It happened once, years ago, when a child followed her new friend off the bus. The mother called: "Where's my baby?" The principal and I went door to door in the neighborhood, looking for this girl. Fortunately, we guessed right and found her quickly.

Now, I photograph every student individually and with a guardian. Pictures are taped on desk folders, my exit door, and in the substitute teacher folder. Buddies walk and sit with new students on the bus and in the playground.

My first concern was physically not losing any of them. It happened once.

Kindergartners are always happy on the first day of school. (It's the mothers who are outside crying—foreign-born and native alike.) But the second day is a challenge. Parents write down words for "bathroom" and "Mommy will come back" in each lan-guage. Bilingual students from other classes translate in emergencies—mostly bathroom emergencies. Many still face hours surrounded by people talking gibberish.

Fortunately, they soon learn to understand some English. Comprehension always comes first. Speaking in more than one-word phrases takes longer. My second concern: How do we teach English vocabulary?

We have an outstanding reading and writing program but one of the first lessons begins, "Have your students close their eyes and imagine…." After I stopped laughing and crying, I wondered what the students would think if I asked them or pantomimed the lesson. Would they think I was asking them to take a nap? Children often come to me with their ABC's memorized, but when I start to teach them to blend sounds together, it turns out they don't know what "cat" and "hat" mean. We need a common vocabulary.

Music, photographs, field trips, and food give us shared experiences so we can develop that vocabulary. Having the same body parts helps, too: We sing the song "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" in different languages.

Children photograph common objects and actions to make labeled, class books. There's nothing like a child hanging upside down on the monkey bars or sliding gleefully down the slide to teach action verbs.

We visit the farmers' market where children ask the names of fruit, gourds, pumpkins, and vegetables. We buy, taste, compare, describe, illustrate, write about, and graph favorites. This gives us more common words to use in our notebooks, word wall, and phonics and writing lessons.

We cook recipes children bring from home and photograph cooking sequences. We photograph everyone eating, some with wrinkled noses. Over the course of the year, we make recipes and class books for every letter of the alphabet. Hardbound cookbooks with photographs, student writing, and book lists go home with every child at the end. We integrate reading, math, science, language—a little of everything.

We learn simple phrases and counting in many languages. Each child is a teacher. But the primary focus is on English because they all have to take the state test in third grade. By then, they not only have to know the grammar and vocabulary, but also be able to think in English, which is a lot harder.

Ultimately, children make friends, share experiences, and learn English. Most are at grade level by the end of the year, with help from my parents, colleagues, previous students, the English as a Second Language teacher, a local foundation grant, and a supportive principal. It takes hours of extra work, contract variances, stress, and time thinking outside the box.

Is it worth it? Absolutely.

Ann Borders is a National Board-Certified Teacher at Logan Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Photo: Robert Chase

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