+ from Brazil: What are schools doing to nurture learning?

Yesterday a participant of BRELT chat community on Facebook, Will Eduardo, shared a  link to a video portraying new realities and changes in practice based on sound theory to learn English and promoting interest in learning English, something that doesn’t come natural to all students. I wish I could embed the video here and there were English subtitles to share with a wider community. Because there aren’t, I decided to watch and reflect on the documentary as well as reporting those practices. As it’s a great documentary showing how a few schools in Brazil have changed their way of teaching and why, as well as interviewing researchers to discuss the new demands and the need to continue to move forward toward change, I can’t help but register it in my own blog as it has been something I’ve been trying to do myself.

The documentary starts by affirming that English is everywhere in our daily life and the fact that we might use words and expressions without even noticing that they come from English. They also inform us that the American culture is everywhere through music, films, internet and so on, but learners are still unable to deal with the language on their own. Being Brazil one of the countries that has a large access to English language learning, but one of them with the least effective results, it only makes us wonder why so many learners fail to engage in learning despite the access to it.

Then, they will show successful stories of how teachers in those schools and initiatives being featured are using music, journalism, literature, films, technology, art, drama, etc. to support learners in this endeavor.

Like the school I work for, Pepita de Leão School in São Paulo has its own language institute. Taking these classes is optional and students see it as an opportunity to put the language into practice.
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In Nova Iguaçu, Rio de Janeiro, they have a music club that brings music, literature and history in an interdisciplinary approach. As one of the students interviewed shared it uses material that they like. They like listening to music and watching videos as well as relating it to the school content.
pic2.jpgAnother initiative is to use fan-fiction genre which is a new movement among young people to work with learners favorite characters and authoring for fun. Through this approach learners create their own stories changing the fate sometimes of their favorite protagonists. It involves creative use of language, personalization, use of learners own knowledge about the content and the teacher becomes the mediator of this process. As the teacher Ana Cecilia Fernandes rightly points out, they learn grammar through attempts of using and feedback. It’s not learning grammar because of grammar. It’s learning grammar for a purpose. She also shared in the video that while each learner is creating their own stories, discussing their ideas with other learners and doubts come up, they work on the board or with the learner to promote understanding of how the language works though examples of the language they need to express themselves.
pic3.jpgWhy do WE HAVE to learn English?
This is a fair question and anyone working in a public school you have heard this question many times. We do hear that in private schools as well. In fact only a handful of students in regular schools, and also enrolled by their parents in language courses, understand the importance of learning English. So, their attitudes reflect this lack of understanding and interest that we encounter in every day classroom. This is the EFL picture and I agree with researchers that the affective domain counts a lot in the process. More than we give the proper attention to it.
So, it talks about the importance of learning English for working purposes, but the people interviewed in the beginning of the program shows that they personally don’t believe that fluency can’t be acquired if one does not travel to the target language which I disagree. I know, not only students who started with zero knowledge of the language in 2008 and achieved a very good fluency after 5/6 years of studying the language in our school, as well as teachers who never set foot abroad speaking English fluently. In fact, when I came back from England my accent was pretty British and everyone in England was amazed on how I was able to mimic them (unconciously of course). Then, after spending couple of years almost with zero contact with English few years after I came back from abroad, my speaking skills was kind of rusty. I had to go under training again to get my fluency back and overcome minor pronunciation mistakes. Not saying we are perfect, but I can name a number of people who speak Portuguese, makes mistakes and are native speakers of Portuguese.
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The first person interviewed about the importance of learning English nowadays, Samanta Lucidi, grew up in a house where English was part of the daily life as her mother was an English teacher, but in 1993 she felt that after taken a course for 10 years her English was not fluent enough so she went to California in an exchange program. It’s true that the experience of living abroad is priceless. I have lived in England for 4 years and in Egypt for 1 one and I couldn’t agree more that it is a rich experience especially about learning the culture through the culture instead of talking about it. However, considering that in 1993, more than 20 years ago, the internet wasn’t around really and speaking English in Brazil wasn’t really something people would welcome, it’s fairly understandable her position toward spending time abroad. Nowadays, English is part of her daily life because she works for a multinational company.
pic7The second person interviewed, Gabriel, shows that he only realized the importance of English when he graduated in college. It was far too late to join a course as he needed to boost his English fast and he was losing job opportunities. He felt the need for an immersion and opted to spend 6 months abroad in order to speed things up. This make me reflect on a book I’m reading right now and what the author has to say about language courses not really providing for the needs and interests of people, especially adults, by offering courses that either take too long, do not tackle the knowledge, skills and use of the language that each potential customer need to operate as soon as possible in the real world. Long’s criticism of general courses is a fair one when you consider the needs of learners, but I still question how we are going to provide for such a huge demand when we have a group of people already working/studying in different areas and not really operating or seeing the need to use the language now but look at the prospective of learning it to gain better jobs opportunities. I’d consider that starting as early as possible this contact with the language as a solution for this problem and I agree with the woman who had been interviewed first that this gives children and teens a good leverage when they leave school. That is not to say that later, they won’t need to continue pursuing the competence in that language, but they will start adulthood more independent than most adults starting a course late in their lives. This will indeed, afect their future choices for career as well and new possibilities for studying and working.
pict8When looking back at classroom practice, the documentary also raises the question of whether people are gifted to learn another language or not.
Although we have heard people saying that they don’t really have what it takes to learn English, there are factors that explain why people seem to feel inadequate for it. And here is what they have found out.
How much interest does the learner take in the language? He might be more interested in learning Japanese, Korean, Spanish than English. Who knows? Has someone asked them what language they want to speak as their second language? Can they pursue this interest? Does the school provide opportunities to learn other languages? No, they have to learn English and Spanish for obvious reason. English because it’s seen as a global language and Spanish to be able to communicate with our Latin America partners. Only if we in fact we were to do that when we live school.
Interest in the language is in the affective domain. The way people see the language and relates to it counts a great deal for their learning success. So in other words, learners need to have an opportunity to foster this relationship with a language that is often seem as difficult, unnecessary or boring thanks to schools focusing on grammar instead of the use of language and its importance for global connections.
One of my takes from this program is that we ought to remember that school’s job is to ensure that learners understand the importance of learning English but obviously not by forcing them. When I watched David Crystal presenting his book English as a global language in 1996 in the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, I wondered how long it would take for his predictions to come true.  It came true, but little was done to really change that in practice. I think that bilinguism could be nurtured from early age and in a much more fun and interest way. Therefore, early bilinguism might be a way to foster this interest, but a lot would have to change in schools when children go to elementary school, otherwise it will continue to do just the opposite. The current system tends to create a barrier in pre-teens and teens mind which they take with them for their whole life.
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Those who might fall in love with the language on the other hand even decide to take a B.A in language teaching which often involves preparing to teach Portuguese, English and Literature in both or just one of the languages. Others, will become successful learners and later find a good job but they usually learn despite of the school traditional way of teaching, or joining a language course and of course they invest in learning through the resources available to them.
Patricia de Oliveira Lucas, a PhD in LA in São Carlos (São Paulo) Federal University reaffirms that the affective domain affects the cognitive process of learning. Eliane Augusto Navarro, head of the Deparment of Linguistics course in the same university) not only agrees with Patricia, but also affirms that it’s the teacher’s role  to support learners by helping them to overcome the issues and respect learners needs and interests. She also points out that we ought to take into consideration whether the learner likes to expose themselves in a group. They might even have an interest in the language, but do not feel comfortable in using it in a classroom when they are not confident enough. I totally agree with her. Last year, I had a student in a group  that was an excelent language learner, autonomous and interested in learning not only English but also Korean language which she had been doing by herself through Korean soap operas. For six months she only wanted to participate in class through writing, and when she took her oral test which was for her to talk about her favorite tv series, she did pretty well for someone who had just started the language course. Lucas affirms that the we have to be sensitive to learners as people and to mediate this process in a way that we do not reinforce those barriers but overcome them.
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Cristina Catteneo, pedagogical coordinator, summarizes what I believe to be true for regular schools taking into consideration the little time that students are offered there. So I quote her,
Schools have the most important role in raising consciousness and providing the opportunity for speakers of Portuguese to immerse in the world of English, especially when people don’t have the access to it on their daily life. But the objective isn’t to make them leave school as fluent speakers, but autonomous, able to deal with the demands to use the language in their future and know how to seek the knowledge and skills they need and according to what matters to them.
pic4.jpgSo what is possible to learn about English in elementary and highschool?
According to Vera Lucia Texeira from Federal University in Rio de Janeiro, much more than what they have been learning. She points out that schools should consider working with less students in class, giving more time for them to use the language, and invest on teachers’ continue development to really provide a good learning program in schools. She defends especially teachers continuing education as we face new realities and new demands on how to work with the language and the role of technology in language learning and points out that teachers are still resistent to acknowedge and use digital tools as resources. She agrees that learners can maximize the contact with the language through technology and that should be fostered in class.
For the teacher Katia Tavares using digital devices even without internet is seems as an informal way to promote learning and informality brings spontaneous use, that brings authenticity into the classroom, and therefore meaningful learning.
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