Chapter and verse

How one teacher’s commitment to constructivist language-learning meant letting students rap in class

As most IB educators will no doubt know, constructivist teaching involves helping students to create meaning from information, building knowledge based on what they already know and teaching them the skills to do this. It holds that meaning is personal and unique to each student and that a range of tasks and activities will best ensure knowledge is built and retained.

Language learning is particularly well suited to this approach, but applying it in practice is always a challenge.  When I first started working in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 2010, I was assigned to a group of students that was studying in the Russian mainstream: I was warned that their level of commitment to English was low. These Grade 5 students were extremely reluctant to use the language and, according to a survey by the school, English was simply not considered important at home for this particular group.

In order to overcome this, I decided my approach had to be total immersion in English. The first few days were difficult. The students spoke Russian all the time during Units of Inquiry and even during English lessons. At first, my co-teacher, Shyryn Kurpebayeva, had to continually translate my instructions to the majority of the students.

Therefore, I quickly opted to forbid students to speak non-English during this subjects lessons (non-English rather than Russian to respect the culture and background of the learners).

To allow for the different abilities in the class, struggling students were able to speak in Shyryn’s ear to ask what they had to say, while the most competent ones were expected not to use Russian at all, abiding by the constructivist principle that each learner is unique. Soon, even the student who was struggling the most did his homework regularly as his confidence increased.

Based on the results of a survey I’d given my students, it was clear they enjoyed watching pop songs on MTV. As tasks should be authentic, and linked to what students already know, I decided to organize the English lessons by starting the week with a listening centre where they could watch videos, reading along with the lyrics and finding the missing words I removed. Then they could analyse the lyrics or the video and discuss them.

For the last lesson, I gave a dictation from the lyrics and then we played a game where students split into two groups with the lyrics of the songs in hand. I played the video and one team sang along. I then pressed mute while they kept singing, and when the sound was back they had to be at the same word of the lyrics to score a point. They loved the activity and eventually took ownership of it, Friday’s winners deciding the song for the following week.

And this is where I can say that a dynamic interaction between the task, the students and me really took place. I had introduced them to John Lennon; they were introducing me to Snoop Dogg. At that point, captivating debates occurred, in English, about what kinds of songs were acceptable at school. They sharpened their critical-thinking skills during that period. Towards the end of the year, students were creating the activities themselves by choosing the songs and the missing words.

That peer collaboration vital for correcting errors as learners build their knowledge also allowed some of the students with fewer English skills to shine. I remember one in particular researching his favourite singer to present to his group. They agreed to his suggestion and he proudly typed the activity himself.

During a Unit of Inquiry dedicated to Grade 5s exhibition, one of the students, Artem, told a friend in English: Hey! Come and look at this. His peer looked at him strangely and replied in Russian: Why are you talking to me in English? Artem had refused to speak during English lessons for the first two months.

I realized he had spontaneously used English at that moment, I knew I had reached him at last.

By Eric Lalande, Teacher of English as an Additional Language, PYP, Miras International School, Almaty, Kazakhstan.