by Karen Nemeth
Have you observed an early childhood teacher who does a lot of talking as she moves around, multitasking throughout the day? She’ll call out, “That’s a nice tower! I like how you guys are sharing” as she is wiping down tables on the other side of the room, or “Keep the playdough on the table. Look at those beautiful balls and snakes!” as she walks by the art table and opens the closet. If you are just listening, you may hear a lot of high quality language going on. If you take a closer look you’ll find something is missing. Children may be hearing interesting words, but how do they know what connections to make with those words?
This is what I call “driveby teaching” I may have invented the term, but everyone seems to know it when they see it. “Driveby teaching” happens when teachers talk while moving around the room without taking the time to see that the children make the right connections with the words being used. It can even be as simple as going on and on about ants on the playground without realizing that the child is looking up at some birds flying overhead. “Driveby teaching” is kind of like reading a storybook to your class while running in circles so they can’t see the pictures.
In order for rich, engaging language to be effective in early childhood classrooms, teachers need to make sure children know what is being talked about. A child who knows the language may gain some benefit as the teacher is breezing by with their comments because their prior knowledge helps them connect what the teacher is saying with what they are doing. A child who does not understand all the words will really depend on additional cues such as eye contact, gestures, pointing, and shared reference to catch the vocabulary and connect it to what’s happening around them.
I hope teachers, coaches, mentors, directors and principals will take a closer look at how language is being used in multilingual classrooms. Encourage teachers to focus and build rapport with individual children – especially the children who face language challenges. Here are some strategies to try:
• Slow down. Take the time to interact directly with each child and notice what they are noticing, talk about what they are attending to.
• Make eye contact more often. It’s the only way to be sure the child is tuning in to your words and showing you via facial expressions whether or not he understands.
• Reduce large group lessons and increase small group time or individual interactions. This is very important to achieve high quality language learning in a multi-lingual and/or multi-level class.
• When you slow down, make eye contact and spend more time interacting with children individually, you will be able to use those all-important language supports like props, pictures, gestures, sign language, facial expression, pointing and modeling.
You can find more strategies like these in my book: Many Languages, One Classroom: Teaching Dual and English Language Learners (2009) published by Gryphon House.