Engaging secondary students in learning English in Buenos Aires

Gigi Lynch, Coordinator of the English Department at Colegio Madre Teresa, Buenos Aires, Argentina

In this blogpost, Gigi Lynch captures ways in which the ideas and theories presented in NISSEM Global Briefs, Volume 4: Doing More with Language Teaching can be implemented or translated into the classroom and school community.

What do we do to engage secondary students at CMT in learning English? Colegio Madre Teresa (CMT) was founded 20 years ago, in 2003, in one of the poorest and most vulnerable areas in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. Throughout this journey, the teaching of English as a second language has consistently been crucial in the educational offering to this low social and economic community.

We have utilized, experimented with, and developed various strategies in response to diverse pedagogical approaches. However, a permanent conception and motto have underpinned these efforts: to always consider our students’ identity, feelings, and social context at the center of our teaching.

We firmly believe that all our students have the potential to learn English, regardless of the difficulties or challenges they face in their social and economic home situations. Our initial challenge is to share and instil this belief among the students and their families.

Given the extensive range of strategies we’ve employed to engage students in learning English and making this learning an attainable goal, I’ll highlight just two strategies – each chosen for opposite reasons. The first strategy is one of the oldest approaches used in the English department at our school, while the second is the most recent.

Since CMT opened its doors 20 years ago, teaching English has always entailed investing significant effort into boosting our students’ self-esteem and self-confidence, and reducing emotional barriers to make English accessible and achievable. Consequently, we have consistently prioritized fostering positive relationships with our students and portraying English as a means of communicative expression for describing their own world and ideas. Our students naturally struggle to value their own context and social situation, often feeling rejected by society due to their personal economic circumstances. However, in our Secondary School English classes, we have always genuinely valued our students’ identity and context. This forms the foundation for our lesson development. Engaging students in meaningful English interactions has invariably involved considering their social context, self-awareness, understanding of the world around them, and their native language (Castellano) as prior knowledge for new learning. The pedagogical implications of this stance have been numerous, but I’ll mention just one: ESL teachers at CMT have consistently allowed students to use Castellano Spanish for checking comprehension of instructions and expressing personal feelings, ideas, and opinions. This practice enriches the communicative tasks they must undertake in English. Embracing Spanish in the ESL class at Colegio Madre Teresa has led to a teaching approach in which students’ emotional barriers have largely dissolved. This approach enables students to take pride in their identity and linguistic abilities, confidently comparing both languages and using English fluently to describe their daily experiences in a straightforward manner (most reach A2+ level by the end of secondary school, and some attain B1 level).

In recent years, the focus of the ESL class at CMT has shifted towards viewing it more as a ‘communication’ or ‘problem-solving’ class rather than solely a language class. We now invest more time in planning strategies and activities to foster communicative and problem-solving skills. Developing life skills has become a more ambitious objective for our department than mere English language instruction. In the English class, language serves as the content intertwined with the skills. ESL teachers invest substantial time in selecting the optimal communicative context or problem where language can be introduced and applied. Replicating real-life scenarios and teaching communicative strategies, such as information-gathering through listening, seeking clarification, and using nonverbal communication, are pivotal aspects of our English lessons. Constructing meaningful problems that demand solutions in English has proven to be highly motivating for teenagers. This holds true for cross-linguistic mediation activities, which we’ve recently incorporated more frequently into the ESL class. To illustrate this strategy, consider a mediation activity: one student might assume the role of an English-speaking tourist who struggles to understand a Spanish text (e.g., a menu in Castellano at an Argentine restaurant). Another student then aids ‘the tourist,’ mediating the menu by drawing on their knowledge of both Spanish and English. Mediation activities are valuable for introducing communicative problems, and students engage swiftly when presented with practical situations in which they can assist others. They take pride in utilizing their full linguistic repertoire and cultural knowledge to solve problems.

Both strategies I’ve presented exemplify the great importance we attach to establishing positive and affectionate connections with our students in ESL lessons. Our recognition of their inherent potential to learn English as a second language, coupled with our commitment to contextualizing our teaching, forms the core of our approach.

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