An American teaching English in the Czech Republic

Coming to the Czech Republic from the United States to teach English has been a very rewarding experience. Having an education in child development and working my entire career with children, I was excited to teach children in a new cultural environment.  I found that developmentally, children are generally the same in the United States and the Czech Republic.  The methodology of teaching a foreign language is different than other subjects in the school setting.  And working with young children, or young learners, requires a knowledge of not only teaching methods, but also of child development.  There are several factors that are important to understand when teaching children between the ages of 6-10 years of age.

Children at this age, in their “mid- Primary” years, are inquisitive about the world around them.  Learning a new language, such as English, allows them to compare a new cultural reality with life in their own country.  They are also more secure emotionally at this age than in their previous years, and the role of social relations are of greater importance.  This age group is less focused on the “here and now” and can concentrate for longer periods of time than when they were younger.

When teaching a new language, it is always important to use the strategies that utilize both hemispheres of the brain: the right-brain, through activities that involve movement and feelings, and the left-brain, which include activities such as logic and sequencing tasks.  Teaching children is no different.  All children have a variety of talents and all of them need to be given the opportunity to succeed and learn.  Learning a language in particular, is a complex process involving cognitive, affective, and social factors- all of which determine the children’s progress.  It is important to incorporate art, games, and music into the learning process at this age.

Because children by this age can communicate in their own language through reading and writing, the four skills utilized to learn a new language- reading, writing, speaking, and listening- can be developed in a more balanced and integrated way.  At this age, their learning continues to be more intuitive than analytical.  These children are still receptive to the idea of fantasy, play, and imagination.  Students at this age are also receptive and generally tend to be easily motivated.  It is also an age where the children can see and reflect on their own progress. A reward system, such as grades, stickers, and even “smiley faces” allows students to feel encouraged about their progress.

Working with children, or young learners, requires activities involving physical movement, such as games like “Simon Says”.  Games are an important part of everyday life for children this age.  Their value includes increased authentic communication within a group setting and promoting cooperation within class members.  Using songs and chants, such as “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”, which also uses physical movement, creates a positive experience for children, as they generally enjoy this type of activity.  They provide repetitive structures, which make the songs/chants easy to understand and remember.  Songs/chants also provide good examples for intonation, word stress, and pronunciation.  Finally, arts and crafts allow children to at this age to use their own imagination to create authentic examples of new concepts and language.  Examples of this are drawing maps, creating their own new animals, or even making collages.

Some activities are done where language learning is not the primary objective.  These activities may also bring into practice logic and deduction, observation, memorization, etc. These objectives give children a framework to make progress and feel confident.  Games, such as “Mother May I?” and “Red Light, Green Light”, allow children to play and practice language, but also develop peer relationships that exceed just learning new language.  Group or class work is also important in developing children’s interpersonal and social skills. The use of textbooks that are age-appropriate and fun, allow students to enjoy what they are learning.  Finally, homework allows students to practice the language they are learning outside the classroom.  This creates a “carry-over” of information and learning between the classroom and the home environment.

Personally, I experienced two main challenges while teaching English to this age group in Prague and Dobříš.  First, as a native English speaker only, as I do not speak Czech. An adjustment period, for both myself and the children, was required.  Because students at this age are at the “beginner” level of learning a language, there is a tendency to revert back to their first language when asking questions, communicating with classmates, and when trying to understand a new concept.  As a non-Czech speaker, I was required to use other methods than verbal language to convey a message.  Body language, pictures, and acting concepts out (modeling) became very important.  The students soon began to understand these methods and utilize them as well.

Second, it was very important to look at the cultural differences of myself and the children.  Although from the beginning we developed a positive, exciting learning atmosphere, it is always important to be aware of the cultural differences. A good example of this are holidays and celebrations.  Many of the same holidays are celebrates in the Czech Republic that are celebrated in the United States, but in a much different fashion.  Fortunately, these cultural differences have also been an exciting learning experience for me as well.

And, although teaching English has its challenges, the rewards outweigh these challenges. The students in Prague and Dobříš are excited, energetic children, with a strong motivation to learn not only English, but about the world around them as well.  These children use their imagination and energy to be receptive to the classroom experience.  They are respectful of their own culture and the new culture and language they are learning.  Teaching young learners in the Czech Republic has been a very rewarding experience!

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