18 May, 2018
10 : 00
How do first language skills transfer into second language skills? In other words, what skills did you learn in your first language that help you learn a second language? When two languages are similar like English and Spanish, it may be easy to imagine how knowledge in one helps when learning another. For example, many words in Spanish are similar to words in English. But what if the two languages are very different? It may be hard to imagine which language skills could transfer.
During the week of April 16th, I took part in the Year 6 Xian Trip. During this week, my Year 3 students had a chance to work independently on the new Narrative writing unit. During this unit, students were challenged to write an original story on their own. My past experience told me that when students start a new genre, it is often the genre itself that causes students difficulty. Students must not only learn new English terms, they must also understand content knowledge that the genre brings with it. For example: What is a newspaper? Why do we write instructions? What makes a fairy tale a fairy tale?
Therefore, after introducing students to narrative features including character, setting, problem and solution, I allowed students to complete a story first using their Mother Tongue. I also contacted parents through Class Dojo to let them know that students might benefit from encouragement or support at home.
When I returned from Xian, I collected the Mother Tongue Stories and questioned each student, asking them to tell me about their stories. I found that students could all talk about their characters, settings, problems and solutions.
“Now,” I explained, “you must write a story in English.” Instead of looking confused, stressed or worried, students were attentive, engaged and ready to get started. They quickly jumped into their planning with a confidence that I had not seen with the other genres. The students were very clear about the goal and what their end product should look like and were well motivated.
There were issues, of course. Although each student had a strong plot problem, several students failed to create a good solution to the problem. However, as soon as I showed them the mistakes, each student was able to immediately edit his or her story and fix the problems.
The question of skills transfer between languages is important for both teachers and parents. If we know that first language experiences transfer into second language learning, we can help students fill in those gaps by encouraging students to read books in their Mother Tongue. Smart discussions about what students have read will stimulate students thinking about what they read and encourage them to read more.
A second example of skills transfer: This week, I introduced Imagist poetry to a small group of year 6 students. As I described the format of the poems, one student raised his hand and said, “Oh, it’s like a famous poem we all know.” Then the Chinese students translated and explained the meaning of this famous Tang poem to the teacher.
“Yes!” I said, “That is an Imagist poem.” It was their knowledge of poetry in their own language that helped them to quickly understand a poetry style in English—and be able to create lovely English poems on their own.