28 Aug, 2019
10 : 00
Hearing a child’s first word is a momentous occasion for parents and family members. A single utterance of "mama" or "dada" can bring tears to a parent’s eye. Often, children are producing language by the time they enter kindergarten (around 3 years old). However, this is not a universal benchmark, as Ms Maria Syzmanska and Ms Catherine Ren – both Kindergarten 2 (children aged 2-3 years) teachers in Yew Chung International School of Shanghai (YCIS) Puxi’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) programme with a combined 36 years of experience working at the school – can attest.
The Language Learning Process
It is important to first acknowledge that children do not all develop linguistically at the same pace. Some children spend more time in a "silent", absorbing phase, whereas others start to produce sounds and words at an earlier stage. However, when the absorbing phase is over, the children will soon catch up to their peers. This initial delay doesn’t reflect negatively on language acquisition either, with many late speakers going on to become fluent in multiple languages. Being aware of the different learning paces of children can help create an environment in which they can thrive as individuals. “We believe that each child is unique, so we support their interests and help them learn based on these things, rather than trying to keep everyone at the same pace,” said Ms Syzmanska.
Creating the Building Blocks
Some of the first signs of children learning to communicate in a language involve listening comprehension. “Children will start responding to the directions we say, but they will do so in different ways. There is no fixed pattern. After some time doing this, they may start repeating what is being said,” said Ms Syzmanska. “If you know the child is listening and doesn’t have any physical problems in hearing what is being said, there’s no need to push him or her,” said Ms Ren. “When they are comfortable with the language they are hearing, children will start using single words, phrases, or simple sentences. We will then start to develop their language skills using these building blocks,” Ms Syzmanska added.
Contextual Learning Is Key
A first step is to help children feel at ease in their surroundings before they can thrive. “We provide a comfortable environment for our students that enables as many opportunities to speak as possible,” noted Ms Szymanska. The development of a child’s language skills in the YCIS ECE curriculum involves everything a child does. It starts when they come to school and have to do simple tasks like moving between classes, going out to the playground, or changing their shoes. The children learn through context, with language attached to their actions, providing a tangible and meaningful experience. “We find mealtimes to be a very good time to attach words to what is happening around the students. At these times the students are motivated to say things like, ‘I want to drink water,’ ‘I want to eat that’, or ‘I want more.’ Throughout the school day, we try to provide meaningful situations in which the students can hear language in context and produce responses as necessary. This contextual learning occurs through interactions – initially with teachers, then with the other children, and, finally, with the other people around them at school,” said Ms Syzmanska.
Repetition Aids Language Absorption
Through repetition of routines, patterns of behaviour, and exposure to familiar objects, such as food items, the children start to absorb the language around them. “Often we incorporate songs into our routines, singing ‘Clean up, clean up’ when clearing the workspaces, or ‘Come together, come together’ when lining up. Repeating these phrases in song form every day at the appropriate times – in both English and Chinese – really helps the children to learn,” said Ms Ren.
How Families Can Support at Home
At YCIS, contextual learning happens in first and second language acquisition, and the learning experience extends far beyond the campus walls. Members of a child’s entire family are encouraged to participate in the learning process. For example, some families who move to China from abroad might all begin to learn Chinese when they first arrive, embarking on a new language journey with their child. Or, a child’s grandparents may not speak English, but they can become role models for learning if they start to learn the language to support their grandchild’s learning. If family members display an interest and can be seen by the child to be making an effort to communicate in the languages the child is learning – even in the simplest ways, such as saying "hello" or "goodbye" – it can have a profound effect on the child’s attitude. “It is important, however, to always remain positive and supportive, and not to put too much pressure on the child. Encouragement is key,” said Ms Ren.
Using Technology to Extend the Learning
Technology is giving teachers a greater ability to share children’s language development at school with their parents. “We use a learning platform called SeeSaw to communicate with parents. This allows them to see what their children are learning through their play by viewing photos, videos, blog posts, and messages,” said Ms Syzmanska. The benefit of such platforms means parents can then take what their child is learning in school and extend the learning into their daily lives outside school. If, for example, the children have been talking about fruit in class, they can practise naming the fruits they see in Chinese and English at the supermarket. This can also provide a mutual learning experience for parents practicing their Chinese or English. “It’s fantastic when parents are also motivated to learn in order to be able to support their child,” said Ms Syzmanska. In addition to communicating through SeeSaw and during formal Parent Information sessions, the YCIS teachers also talk with parents about their child on an individual basis in order to offer them as much feedback and support as possible.
Supporting All Aspects of Development
According to Ms Ren and Ms Syzmanska, the most important thing is to see the development of the child as a whole person. “We look beyond simply learning language for its own sake and instead, we focus on the children’s personal, social, and emotional development, too. When they come to school, first and foremost, we want the children to be happy. Children need to understand what is happening around them in terms of routines and rules, and how to develop social skills. As a result, language is involved in everything we do here,” said Ms Syzmanska. “There are many opportunities to learn language skills along with social development. Our teachers are all in tune with the individual learning experience, so they can adapt to children’s innate curiosity and turn any situation into a learning opportunity,” added Ms Ren.
Yielding Lifelong Benefits
Chinese and English are both complex languages and the learning process can be a life-long endeavour. However, at YCIS Shanghai, teachers see this as an excellent challenge and a chance to help the children in their care to learn to communicate, to explore themselves, form friendships, and to grow up ready to enjoy all of the incredible experiences the world around them has to offer.