Teaching Portuguese as a Third Language

It’s been a while since I last blogged. I’ve been delving into the literature of vocabulary learning and testing, material development and the role of reading and listening that I hardly ever have any time to sit and write. Besides I got involved with a group of immigrants from Africa two months ago, some of them who have become close friends to our family.


My mother-in-law with our new friends – July 2014

They are all working now and the more in contact they are with Brazilians, more they feel the need to learn Portuguese. Nothing more natural then to volunteer to teach them. In order for that to happen, I had to make lots of decisions on what to teach and how to teach them in order to maximize their learning experience.

The difference between teaching ESL and EFL

These terms don’t seem to make much sense to me because for me both are learning/ acquiring a language other than your native language. But there are advantages to be learning a language in the target country and that could be quite obvious if it wasn’t for a little detail: no matter where you learn it, it depends on how much effort you put into it and how much instruction you receive about the language either in a formal or informal setting. I have blogged before of how much I learned from people around me when I lived in London and in Alexandria. In Alexandria I couldn’t find a school to teach me Arabic but I found lots of people willing to help me learn their language and understand their culture. The UN employee who lived in the building next to mine taught me about the local culture and the DOs and DON’Ts. My ex-husband’s family who could speak English well also gave me their version of DOS and DON’Ts plus preaching me Islam. My neighbors taught me the alphabet, the sounds of the words, how to write and curiously asked away about my culture. But it was with the lady who cleaned and cooked that I learned most of the phrases and vocabulary I needed to get by on a daily basis. I also read the Quran in English and Arabic with help of someone, and discussed it with everyone around me. Mind you I wasn’t a follower of any religion which made me tackle certain uneasy issues like women’s rights just for what it was the women’s right to be treated with respect. I loved Egypt and its people. I wish one day to go back for a visit.

It didn’t take long before I could use the language in basic conversations. In England things weren’t much different apart from the issue of culture which didn’t seem to be so different from Brazil. The process was basically the same, but I attended school and it was much easier to learn English on my own, and asking for help when it was needed as the written system was the same as mine. Going to school was cool!

The advantage is clear contact with the language is really important. However, it is quite normal for immigrants to start working without being able to speak the language and start earning money. They usually live in small communities and the ones who do learn help others in their daily needs. When I moved to both countries I wasn’t in contact with a Brazilian community, but in constant contact with foreigners so I had to learn it in one way or the other.

Whether someone learns it in the target country or not, the motivation or need to engage with the target language needs to be present at all times.

The same thing happens here. Although given the chance to learn Portuguese, few are content to be working, depending on others and play soccer instead of going to class. The ones that do come to class are highly motivated and engaged in the process.


After practicing with flashcards with the whole group, they were divided in threes to test each other. Main aim of the lesson was spelling, expanding vocabulary and learning strategies.

What to learn and How

The importance of building vocabulary is clear to me now. Without vocabulary, grammar can’t really sink in. The more learners are able to understand what they hear and read, the better they will get at undestanding how language works. How I learned English and Arabic never really translated into the classroom as I believed that as ESL and EFL were very different the way to teach would be too. In terms of exposure to the language yeah, but regarding instruction not so much as I have realized now in contact with teachers around the world. In the past, the only way to immerse was through traveling to the country. Nowadays the internet creates all the possible ways for immersion without leaving your sofa. I believe that guidance is important though. Being in contact with the language is cool, but without any instruction the process gets just as long and painful as if you were learning a language in a foreign country. Once we get past through the basics of it and can understand speech, things start to make more sense and knowledge builds itself up. Slowly or fast is just a matter of how much one really wants to master it.

I believe in the role of teaching, either in a formal or an informal environmental, instruction is needed to develop an understanding of the language. I used to ask people around me about things I didn’t understand how it worked and practiced it as much as possible, by listening carefully, noticing when reading and trying to use in speech I developed very fast. You can’t do it without someone who will guide you through it. Videos can do part of the job, but dialoguing is key for the process. I have always being a self-directed learner. I knew what I wanted and I looked for those around me to help me out. I also think that I can be the same for my students if I give them the space they need to ask questions and think together on what to do next.

Paulo Freire and Andragogy

Talking about dialoguing, through Paulo Freire’s work I learned that in order to develop literacy it was necessary to develop a program that consider language that was useful for the group of people (the students) who should not be considered receivers but co-designers. It is through them and for them that teaching is there, so nothing more obvious that take into consideration what they need and want. However, Freire was refering to adults that could already speak the language and that should be given the right to literacy. He believed that being able to read and write were paramount for developing one’s citizenship which I totally agree given the fact that one without being able to read are excluded from the most basic needs in a society like ours. In order to make reading more meaningful and thinking critically about reality, Freire used the group’s own lexical as a starting point.

Although my Ghanians students need to learn the meaning as well as being able to recognizing it in speech, they can do all these while learning to read and write. Paulo Freire’s method of literacy proposes a framework that I found to be very useful.

As you see in the video, the words are related to the students context. For this course I chose vocabulary and phrases that are likely to need in order to get by on a daily basis: greeting, meeting people, going shopping, taking the public transportantion, asking for directions, etc… as they share more and more of what they feel they need to learn in order to fully engage in social interactions, they give me more information of what to include in the program.

How things are going so far

 My husband has been assisting me so I have another pair of eyes and ears which helps me not miss anything. Let me say that having someone there is so valuable. My husband sits on the side and points out things that I have missed or misunderstood, and his feedback after the class is always so important. While I am totally engaged in the teaching, he makes sure that we register moments of it by taking pictures or filming.

So far, so great! :) I’m grateful for such a great opportunity to put into practice all that I have studied in my Pedagogies studies which focus on Literacy for children and adults. I just never thought I would need to make the link between the both – Pedagogy degree in Education and EFL experience.

Connecting speech to written words

Connecting what you hear to how it is written through dictation

Instead of making students copy from the board or give the sentences already written down, how about dictating them?


Photo taken from ELTpics by @CliveSir, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license

Listening and transcribing was at first challenging for my beginners, especially if the sentences were higher in level. It was more challenging for beginners than for learners with more experience with the language, but all students benefited from it no matter what level they were. At first though some got resistent and saw no point, but with time they became more comfortable and it just became part of the class routine, that is, to listen and write instead of copying from the board. I don’t like having students simply copying from the board because they do nothing more than decode and encode without having to even think about its meaning whereas when they are listening, they seem more engaged with the message. Needless to say that I am not against copying from the board, sometimes it is necessary or fits the moment better.

Beginners always find a way to deal with their limitations though, either by asking their classmates about it and copying from their notebooks a sentence or word they don’t know how to write, or they have to ask me for the spelling or to repeat it. Some of them do, others prefer to get help from their peers. When that happens, I might choose to use the board to review spelling as I spell out and write on the board a difficult word and work on pronunciation as well. There is room to do a lot of things.

It helps them focus


Photo taken from ELTpics by Victoria Boobyer, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license

One of the benefits is that they became more aware of the need to listen attentively and match what they hear to how something is actually written. During the listening stage they are attentive and engaged, as they feel challenged. Even simple sentences or rubrics, instructions are taking in with interest.

The sentences or short texts I use are always part of an activity or sequence of tasks. It’s not the activity themselves. And I work in two stages when I choose to dictate instead of hand out the text or write on the board.

stage 1: I dictate the sentences by grouping them into breath groups, then I repeat the whole sentence in natural speed. I never dictate word by word. My learners know the drill. I read the group of words in a natural speed and repeating it up to 3 times. And always leaving few seconds between each time I read out for them to process and have a chance to write. Then, I read the whole sentence again for them to check it out and process. Questions like, “how do you spell it?” sometimes come up but not as often as we would’ve thought, and usually for proper names or words they don’t know. When I didn’t use to do that way, they would ask me to repeat it as we go and this gave them a chance to listen to it more than once and purposely as that became an authentic need but at times very confusing as they had different needs. So I started structuring it a bit more and they become to it as a class routine. They use the pencil and the eraser at this stage.

stage 2: correction stage is about them dictating back to me. It’s checking time. They have to either now, copy from the board the whole sentence if they got it all wrong, or edit with a pen as we go. At this point, they do not use an eraser because we all agreed that editing instead of erasing helps them see what is and what it is not.

I own this to John F. Fanselow who last year encouraged me to give learners the task to listen and transcribe, and then ask them what they thought of it. The response was so positive that made me adopt it as part of my classroom routine. The same goes for not using the eraser during the correction stage.

A summary of John F. Fanselow’s rules we can break, play with and see for ourselves how they impact us and our learners. The extract below comes from an article called English Through Digital Thinking.

“Miss-takes: John doesn’t allow his students to use erasers. Why? Because he wants them to learn from their “miss-takes” and to use them to gauge their progress. John refers
to “miss-takes” as predictions, educated guesses reveal what the learner knows and what
he or she is trying to find out. John likes to have students work together in pairs or in triplets to foster the exchange of information, or to contextualize the learning process in a community setting. Associations are contingent upon experience, but what is the role of
information in this process?” (Cunningham,P.A.)

Retrived from: https://www.rikkyo.ac.jp/academics/…/_asset/…/forum13_088_090.pdf

More links to explore:

Reporting the experience last year I had with my learners and other things

Discussing the Role of Dictation in ELT by Tim Bowen in One Stop English Website

A great blogpost with extra links to explore:

Teaching Listening – Tweaking the CELTA approach by TEFLREFLECTIONS blogger


Engaging learners with Multiple-Path Stories 1

One of the things that most of my students hate doing is reading so giving them a reason to read or presenting it in a way that is interesting is really a must. I have used OneStopEnglish graded readers with audio and even the most simple story like The Well was amazingly well accepted by the teens. I think the trick is delivering it in a way that is interesting and leave them curious at the end of each part of the story. They also like writing down their predictions and comparing with the story and sharing with others afterwards.

I bought some digital copies of The Lost Cup by Atama-ii to give to my learners. As I was assigned about couple of months ago 5 students in 8th grade, and two of them are boys, I thought this reader would just match perfectly the time. Soccer was a popular theme because of the World Cup, so I thought the reader would be really cool input material and would give me also the advantage of working on improving/recycling/reinforcing their vocabulary. Two of the boys are in the fourth semester of studying, one girl has just started this semester and the other girl is in book 2. The girl in book 2 and one of the boys in book 4 have similar language knowledge and skills. But the girl loves songs and pays attention to chunks of the language she hears and reads in the lyrics outside the class. Few weeks later, I got a new girl in the group, she seems also very comfortable with English and so far she has been very participative.

Introducing the story: Lesson 1

On the board: Jules Rimet.

What is it? Their first thought was a person. Then, I showed them the video below.

Brainstorming: After the video, they came up with a number of words related to the event. Naturally some words from the story came up. They were actively using the dictionary to help them find the words they wanted. That was a good start. This is our first class really! Last week it was just to get to know each other.

CAM00641The first part of the story: Focus on Meaning

I asked them to read only the first part of the story and find any word from the text that could be added to the board.

I selected 15 verbs, some were single-word items and some were multiple-word items. As the aim here was to work with dictionary skills mostly, it took 30 minutes for them to fill the glossary accurately. I asked them to look up the dictionary and select the appropriate meaning considering the text. Then, copy the dictionary definition to the glossary.

They also helped each other by giving the definitions that they already found or that they couldn’t find in their dictionary version. It gave us the great opportunity to discuss different aspects and the importance of using dictionaries. Even if they were sure they knew the word or chunk and could fill the glossary with their own definition, I asked them to look up and write the dictionary definition to be more accurate.

Lack of vocabulary kills the story, and I don’t see comprehension questions as enough to check it. I guess like many teachers out there, I left learning vocabulary to chance and thought they would be able to guess from the context and pre-teaching vocabulary was done to a minimum. You know with words I thought they would be most likely not to know. In mixed-levels groups, we don’t have this luxuary. Lexis knowledge varies greatly from one to another. And that was when I realized that things are not as they seem to be. So last year, I decided to sit with learners  and do the reading with the whole group, first by testing their knowledge of vocabulary, then asking them to explain a passage or sentences using their own words. The less words the student knew, less he/she could really make sense of the sentence or passage. I realised that without the words, reading would be boring and daunting. It kills the magical moment of learning about the characters, the story itself. I kills the joy of the moment.

CAM00658Scaffolding the reading process for my learners who attend a mixed-level class and make sure that everyone can enjoy the story became a goal. Using visual and activities that engages them is particular useful. During the brainstorming around Jules Rimet, lots of words came up. As they did, we worked on pronunciation and meaning. Sort of a ping pong approach and going back and forth to review them.

Reminder: Don’t rush into the book. Let them explore the words, engage with the topic of the passage. Create activities that help them connect to the story and the characters.

After working with the passage and a word game, I asked them to role play the first part of the story.


I aim in this class to make sure that learners in all levels either learn the most 1000 words (at least) or become fluent at using them by the end of the year. We have roughly a semester to do that. So, I can’t focus on teaching and testing specific language items as some learners in lower levels are just learning the most frequent words while in higher, they have seen and practiced with them but don’t recall them as fast as they should.

*This post had been in the draft file for weeks. I finally got the time to review and publish it.