As you may have already guessed, storytelling is one of my favorite activities to introduce new languages to children, and it works best when you develop and expand the stories in different directions and contexts. For example, The Red Hen is a great story to use in a unit or context about farms, animals, and plant cycles
– and, since my version of the story includes 7 of the hen’s friends with quite distinct personalities, you can also work on personal descriptions and characteristics.
Step 1: Set feasible goals, but challenge yourself
Whatever topic you choose, set a few learning goals first – this applies to teachers as well as to parent-teachers!
Your goals can be as simple or as complex as your expertise teaching a new language allows. For example, a father that has just started learning Spanish with his four year old may decide that a realistic goal for him may look like this:
“In the next two weeks you (the son) and I will be able to recognize and name at least 15 new objects, people or actions in Spanish but our challenge will be to learn 30. We will also be able to say at least 10 new expressions (e.g. frequently used questions, sentences, phrases), and our challenge will be 20. In order to learn, we will listen to at least one page of the story each day and we will decide what words and sentences to practice aloud…” etc.
A veteran third grade French teacher, on the other hand, may decide that – among other goals – at the end of two weeks her students will be able to read aloud at least two pages in French. They will also be able to ask for help and excuse themselves, modeling after the expressions used by the animals in the story as well as others provided by the teacher (e.g. additional expressions not included in the story such as “Unfortunately, I have to…”).
Step 2: Create some fun activities
A mom and her kids learning Chinese at home may just act out scenes using props (e.g. a hen’s beak, toy cheese for the mouse, etc), play memory games to practice the vocabulary, or other easy activities. She may have to resort to English as they build up their Chinese skills.
Students at a preschool Spanish class can sort “things that belong or do not belong in the farm,” count animal counters, pretend to go on a trip to a farm, sing a traditional Spanish song about farm animals, etc. Students in a fourth grade class may ask questions in Spanish to a partner to find out what animal he or she has. They can explore Spanish art related to life in the countryside, take visual trips of farms in Spanish speaking countries via the Internet, etc.
If you like using technology, take digital pictures or video with your camera next time you visit a farm and create a VoiceThread session utilizing the vocabulary from the story (VoiceThread is very easy to use and kids have a great time with it). Search the Internet to find other versions of The Red Hen story in Spanish or your target language (for example, look for “La gallina Marcelina” on Google), and compare the illustrations, the characters, setting, etc. Write a class or home blog about your experience learning Spanish with The Red Hen. Use one of the many digital storytelling platforms today to create your own version of the story.
Step 3: Check and celebrate that you are learning a lot of Spanish
The greater the challenge the more excited and proud you’ll be of your achievement. This is true for young children as well – as long as we do not overwork them as the hen does with her poor chicks, and keep the process fun, of course!
Creating a checkpoint is important for two reasons: 1) You and your kids will be able to see how much you have advanced; 2) Your motivation will increase as a consequence of your progress (success feeds success).
In the case of young children a two-week learning/check time cycle makes sense – it is a long enough period to do some serious learning and short enough so that your kids can remember and appreciate the difference from the starting point (in the case of teachers this will depend on how much contact you have with your students – the two-week cycle may not be enough time for some of you).
Again, make the checkpoint as easy or complex as you want. A parent may create a checklist titled, “I Can Say the Names of these Things in Spanish,” with pictures of a donkey, a farm, etc., and another checklist titled “I Can Speak with other People in Spanish; I can Say: ‘Good morning,’ ‘I am sleepy,’ ‘Can you help me?’” etc.
Young children love sharing their successes with others, so it is a good idea to save the checklists along with other work on a Spanish notebook (or Chinese, or French) and bring it to grandma and grandpa’s, or they can show it to their friends or other important people in their lives. The same is true of students in a classroom – teachers may want to send your students’ work home so that they can share it with their family.
Whatever you do, don’t call the checklist “assessment” or “test,” and do not give a grade. This will defeat the purpose of the checkpoint exercise, which is to celebrate and encourage learning.
I hope that you enjoyed these tips to teach Spanish, French, or Chinese with The Red Hen.
Ana Lomba is changing the way people think about and interact with young children learning languages. Her Parents’ Choice award-winning books, lively songs, games, stories, and mobile applications are quickly becoming favorites with teachers and parents who want to nurture young children’ inborn language abilities. Key to the success of Ana’s break-through method is a focus on the family as the ideal environment for early language learning – even her signature curriculum for language programs is built with parents in mind. Ana has taught toddler, preschool, elementary school, and college-level Spanish courses, and held leadership positions with some of the most influential language organizations in the US, including ACTFL, NNELL and FLENJ. After graduating with a law degree from Spain, her native country, Ana pursued graduate studies at Binghamton University, Princeton University, and NYU.
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