Creating Rich, Engaging Contexts for Young Language Learners

At Sonrisas Spanish Schoolwe talk a lot about creating rich, fun, and engaging contexts for children learning language. It is one of the reasons we are advocates for using authentic children’s Spanish literature which so naturally does the job of giving students a rich and engaging language-learning experience. It is also why we have always had success with the structure of the Sonrisas lessons—Circle Time, Story Time and Art Time. These three segments of our classes create a diverse context in which students engage with Spanish in rich, meaningful activities. We believe that creating these types of contexts for young language learners not only makes lessons more fun for them, but it also gives them a more authentic language-learning experience. So if our students are learning about colors, they sing and play games about colors, they read about colors, and they create art projects that focus on colors.

The findings in a study published last year in the May issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, seem to reaffirm this idea. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University found that language learners make a best guess about a new word’s meaning based on the context in which they initially encounter it, and hold onto the meaning unless it is clearly found to be wrong. This suggests that language learners benefit more from encountering vocabulary in rich, engaging contexts rather than from trying to learn them from repetitive excercises such as worksheets or flashcards. It also suggests that the use of abstract media such as videos or computer programs does not help children learn language at all—something we have written about a lot in this blog. Click here to read more about the study.

Creating rich and engaging contexts for your young language learners is not difficult. It is simply a matter of putting the language in the context of the things that children already love to do—play, music, stories, art, drama, etc. If you can do this while giving your students useful language to learn and use in these contexts, then your students will learn, and they will have fun while they are doing it.

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