“But they don’t understand!” part two

One of my very first classes consisted of Japanese, Chinese, Israeli, and Dutch children.  Only one of them was American, and so the great challenge of communication with these children was immediately apparent.  How to talk with children who hardly spoke any English?  Obviously, translation was not one of the possibilities, so I quickly put together a bag of tricks that I ended up using, again and again in the years that followed.

What follows is a few of those tricks, together with some pros and cons of each method.  It’s hardly a comprehensible list, so if you have other ideas you’d like to share, please do so!

Trick #1: charades

This one doesn’t need any preparation, but on occasion it does require me to set my dignity aside as I act out what a monkey, elephant, or leaping kangaroo is.  The good news, however, is if I’m leaping around the classroom, the children often join in the fun.  Then we are all leaping kangaroos for a minute or two.

Trick #2: flashcards or power points

Obviously, this requires some forward thinking.  What words will we be introducing during this lesson?  What pictures will most clearly explain the concept to the children?  Flashcards are quite versatile and can be used for a load of games during circle lessons, but their visibility range is limited, depending on the size of the cards used.  Power points are less versatile, but are large enough to be visibe even at the back of the classroom.

Creating explanatory flashcards or power points is not nearly as easy as it sounds.  When I create (or occasionally receive) flashcards, I test-drive them on my own children to see how they react.  They have seen scary squirrels, mothers with vacuum cleaners in hand (how stereotypical!), and “dirt” that looked more like a pile of doggy doo (Yuck!).  Other pictures can have double meanings, or are so funny that they detract from the learning process.


Trick #3: labels with pictures

In my classroom, everything is labeled in English, often with accompanying pictures, so that everyone understands what they will find in each drawer or on each shelf.  It does take a couple of hours to do this, but once hung, the labels will last quite a while (maybe even a few years, depending on the quality of the labels).  I also have flashcards with basic classroom rules on them, to remind children of what behavior I expect from them.

So much for the easy stuff.  What to do when the concepts get more difficult?

Trick #4: the pupil translator

In every class I’ve had so far, there has always been one pupil who understands the word(s) in question, who is more than happy to translate everything I say into L1 for the rest of the class.   This quick and easy solution, however, can lead to a case of “lazy ears”, which I referred to last time.  It also puts the child in question into the role of the living dictionary.  For some, this leadership role is novel and exciting, but as the teacher, I warn the others that each has to think for himself, and that this child may only be asked for help as a last resort.

Trick #5: the picture or bilingual dictionary

For the younger classes – with children between 7 and 10 years of age – I allow use of picture dictionaries.  These dictionaries group words according to theme, and children enjoy spotting the words they already know, while picking up words they didn’t have yet.  At this point, most of the new words are easy, concrete things like nouns, verbs, and a few simple adjectives – concepts easily encompassed by picture dictionaries.

Older children, however, start needing more difficult words.  At this point, I introduce the bilingual dictionary.  This always requires a certain amount of guidance, as even the best bilingual dictionaries can offer some rather odd answers.  I’ll never forget the time a Yugoslavian man found that a “wallet” was actually a “suitcase”, thanks to his Yugoslavian-English dictionary.  Like I said, a certain amount of caution is always useful.  Google images also can also be of help.

Do the children always understand you?

The answer to that is simple: no, they don’t.  And it’s perfectly alright for children to not understand every word I say, just as it’s okay for babies and young children to not understand everything they hear, either.  I always ask myself, what is the worst thing that can happen if they don’t understand me?  Usually, it means that the first time we play a new game, the class has a difficult time playing by the rules.  So we stop the game, explain again, and try again, until it works the way it’s supposed to.  This takes time, but it’s part of the learning process.

Or perhaps, the children will miss a bit of the instruction.  This in turn leads to new learning experiences.  The children learn that it’s okay to not understand everything, to be patient with themselves as learners, and to see what they do know and understand.

It’s also important that I, the teacher, aim my teaching and speech to the class’ zone of proximal development (ZPD) – that bit between what they can do on their own and what they can’t do – that bit that they can understand with help.  In this case, the bit they can understand given visual support, clear demonstrations, and my own body language.  There is no point in giving children a learning activity about, for instance, world climate change if the entire range of vocabulary needed is outside their ZPD.  Just as there is no point in expecting children to understand a game with 10 different, difficult rules.  The trick is to make the learning activity interesting, challenging, yet reachable, given that what the children understand.

For the very young learners, that may mean that I will ask “where is red?”  Then while they sit there looking mystified, I go off in search of something red in the classroom.  When I’ve found that red object, obviously happy with this red block, that’s when the first faces will light up with understanding.  Once we’ve mastered the concept of finding red things, we can move on to other colors.

For older learners, that may mean pulling out the picture dictionary, and demonstrating its use.  Showing the table of contents, finding the correct page, then looking for new words, as though discovering this book for the very first time.  I do the same with bilingual dictionaries as well.  It also means allowing time for rough drafts of their work, sharing examples of success with the rest of the class, so that others learn from those experiences.

Most importantly, it means allowing space for failure,

using mistakes as a learning opportunity,

and allowing children to start over

in order to reach that success.

Useful internet sites:

Here are a few sites I’ve found with free visual materials for the classroom:

Here are a few sites with online picture dictionaries:

And some for classroom management:


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