A rough guide to teaching when you are completely unqualified

11 Mar

English language assistants are quite lucky in that we are all (for the most part) ‘experts’ in our subject, without even having to try. At least this works when you’re teaching young’uns like I am, where a basic knowledge of how to conjugate the verbs ‘to have’ and ‘to be’ is enough to create at least half an hour of work for a class of 9/10 year-olds. Any time you’re not doing grammar or laying down the basics of English, you can always talk about cultural differences between Italy and England as this always fascinates the children.

Last week I spent over an hour answering the kids’ questions about education in the UK. They were outraged that English children don’t have to go to school on a Saturday, and classes start slightly later (usually 9am instead of the Italian 8.15, 45 minutes makes a surprising amount of difference). Sometimes my knowledge doesn’t quite stretch as far as my students’ demands though eg. ‘Who was the architect of every different landmark in London?’ Italian children seem to be slightly more culturally curious that their British counterparts.

Sometimes they really surprise me, like a few weeks ago when I mentioned how the Italian elections were coming up and one young boy went off on a rant about politics and Mario Monti, which threw me slightly as most English children probably couldn’t tell you more about our politicians other than ‘Boris Johnson is a funny man with very blonde hair’.

Another subject students really enjoy is learning about British money. I brought in my English purse and let them have a proper look at all the coins and the only note I had with me which was a 20. Some of the great comments I heard include ‘Wow the Queen looks really manly’ and ‘But you don’t ACTUALLY use these as money do you?’. When I explained that no, this isn’t Monopoly money, it’s the real deal, the little girl rolled her eyes as if the UK is the spoilt brat in the playground who wants to have their own special toy to themselves instead of joining in with all their other European friends. Maybe we are to some extent, but the pound has worked pretty well for us so far.

The idea of the English/Scottish divide also came up when talking about money, as I explained that Scotland has it’s own currency which is still really the pound. I tried to use Michael McIntyre’s ‘legal tender’ joke to explain the slight tensions between the two countries, but British comedy doesn’t translate very well and went down like a lead balloon.

Here’s a quick tip for other assistants: if you have any £ notes, teach the kids the happy/sad queen trick. They absolutely love it. Another activity to fill in the time is to give them all an English version of their name. If you really can’t think of an equivalent, let them pick their own name.

One of the biggest problems I have for teaching English is pronunciation. Italian is a phonetic language, so the children read out words as they are written using Italian syllables. This can be a little frustrating as they don’t quite grasp the idea that English pronunciation makes absolutely no sense at all and there is usually little connection between spelling and pronunciation…just think how the following words are said: through, tough, though. You see?

Even when they have learnt to pronounce words really well from just hearing them, as soon as they find out how it’s is spelled they go back to trying to say it the ‘Italian way’ eg. favourite becomes ‘fah-vo-rit’, republic becomes ‘reh-poo-blic’. The most you can do here is get the class to repeat the correct pronunciation a few times to try and get it to stick. If they are a bit older, you can try writing a ‘suggested pronunciation’ using Italian syllables eg. write republic as ripablik, but only do this if they are old enough to understand this is just a pronunciation guide and not the actual way to spell it.

Another big problem is the letter h. In Italian, it isn’t pronounced at the beginning of a word, in English it (mostly) is. As it isn’t a naturally occurring sound in Italian you need to really over-emphasise the ‘aspirated’ sound of the h for words like his, her, house, hello, or you’ll hear a lot of ‘is’, ‘er’, ‘ouse’ and ‘ello’. Strangely, I also hear a lot of ‘h’s being added to the beginning of words where it doesn’t exist. A common example of this is the sentence ‘It is raining’ which becomes ‘Hit his raining.’ I don’t know if this is hypercorrection because they think you say h at the beginning of all words starting with a vowel, or they just can’t tell whether they’re saying h or not.

There is a similar issue with words that end in a consonant, especially -t, -d and  -s. In Italian most words end in a vowel so it is tricky for the children to finish with a consonant, which is why the stereotype exists that all Italians speak-a like-a this-a. The -s one is especially a problem because it can make or break whether a word is plural. I’m not sure how to deal with this one, so if anyone has any advice please let me know.

Sorry those last few paragraphs were pretty dry. On the lighter side, one thing I love about teaching is how cute the children can be. I’m quiet lucky as, being a short-term assistant and not a full-time teacher, I basically have diplomatic immunity. This means that I never have kids get angry or shout at me personally, and on the occasion when they’re being too rowdy or just don’t want to pay attention I know I can whip out the old ‘If you don’t want to listen then I don’t want to teach you, I’m just going to go now’ to which the reply is a chorus of ‘Nononono staaaay’. The cutest thing is turning up to teach the younger years and being dump-tackled by a gaggle of little girls who all want a hug. Adorable.

I like to think that no child is inherently evil, and if they’re acting out there’s usually an underlying reason, as opposed to them just wanting to ruin your morning. In the class I talked about a few weeks ago, where there was a girl who refused to do any work or even talk, I decided to try chatting to her at breaktime to see what was up. It turned out she was just sad that no one would play with her, so we gathered up some chalk and started a game of hangman on the board, and soon a few others noticed and wanted to join in. Result: sullen grumpy girl becomes talkative happy girl. Mission accomplished.

I realise this post has gone slightly off track from the title and is more anecdotal than helpful…however if I do think of any groundbreaking teaching tips I’ll write another post about it.

In the classroom

This is a very ‘me’ problem, but I’m sure you’ve all experienced when you repeat a word to yourself too many times and it loses any meaning? Well this happens to me all the time when I’m teaching, so I’ve had many many embarrassing moments where I’ve gone to write on the board how to spell something simple like ‘colour’ and gone ‘Shit…is that actually a word? That doesn’t look right’. Cue awkward googling to check I’m right. Some of the teachers must think I’m an idiot.

A weird phenomenon I noticed in a year 3 class at one school is that there are LOADS of twins. Way above what should be average. I was also told that two of the boys where actually part of triplets, but the girl one goes to a different school. There must have been something in the water back in 2005.

Another embarrassing fact is that all of the kids are way cooler than me. They are all really well dressed and have awesome high tops and haircuts, while I had a 20kg weight limit coming here so my rotation of school-appropriate clothing is small. One fashion-conscious 4 year old even told me that he didn’t appreciate how I was wearing a chequered shirt undone over another top, and was very concerned as to why I hadn’t used the buttons.

Sights of the day

I love all of the little trinkets and drawings I’ve been given by students. Here are a few bits and bobs:

A pen holder...which at the moment only contains a cocktail stirrer,

A pen holder…which at the moment only contains a cocktail stirrer,

A ladybug/'coccinella' paper weight. In Italy ladybugs are said to bring good luck,

A ladybug/’coccinella’ paper weight. In Italy ladybugs are said to bring good luck,

I had completely forgotten that scoubidous exist but they were all the rage when I was in year 7, and apparently they're still going strong here.

I had completely forgotten that scoubidous exist but they were all the rage when I was in year 7, and apparently they’re still going strong here.

DSC00252 DSC00248 DSC00251


3 Responses to “A rough guide to teaching when you are completely unqualified”

  1. Emma in Euroland March 16, 2013 at 09:01 #

    My kids are a lot older. In some ways that’s easier, in some ways it’s not. But it does mean they have a lot more of an attitude and if they don’t want to do something, thats it, there’s no way their doing it! It’s interesting hearing the different problems the Italian kids have. Obviously, the problems my German students have are different. Pronounciation is hard though. Any word which is essentially the same in English and German (and there are a LOT) they will only ever pronounce the German way, no matter how many times I correct it :S. I must say, I sometimes struggle to hold in my frustration 😉

  2. Turz May 3, 2013 at 10:41 #

    The -s one is especially a problem because it can make or break whether a word is plural. I’m not sure how to deal with this one, so if anyone has any advice please let me know.

    1) Tell them there are many words in Italian (or pseudo-Italian) which end by a consonant: lapis (pencil), hotel, virus, autobus (bus), ribes (currant), gas, bancomat (ATM machine), nord/sud/ovest/est (north/south/west/east), etc.
    So if they can pronounce “autobus” instead of “autobu” they should be able to pronounce “tables” instead of “table” when needed.
    2) Explain them that different languages have different ways to express plural: as they are puzzled if you say “domani non vengo a scuole” (tomorrow I’m not coming to schools) the same applies to “the books is on the table”.

    Generally speaking, whenever the same concept exists in both languages, there is an easy way to explain a mistake by reversing roles.

    Difficulties arise when the concept is simply not there in the native language of learners, but that’s another topic 🙂

    • louiseineurope May 3, 2013 at 15:27 #

      Great, thankyou for the advice! They understand plurals for the mostpart, it tends to be a problem mostly when they are reading off sheets. Strangely, even the woman I teach privately who has a very high level of English tends to knock off the -s when reading from an article. It’s as if she can’t see the -s until I correct her then she realises and goes ‘oh yes!’ and says it correctly.

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