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A Play on Words

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Albright College junior Elizabeth Bengtsson spent winter Interim in Nicaragua assessing whether a method known as Total Physical Response Storytelling can help children learn English, and if this method would work in American classrooms.

By Hilary Bentman

There are approximately 4.4 million English language learners in American public schools.

That's more than 9 percent of the total public school population, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.

In states such as California and Nevada, popular destinations for immigrant families, the percentage of non-native English speakers is even higher.

Albright College junior Elizabeth Bengtsson knows the stats, and the likelihood that these numbers will continue to climb. Bengtsson also understands how difficult it can be not only to learn a new language, but to learn in a new language.

"As a classroom teacher, how can I help?" she asks.

The early childhood education and Spanish major turned this question into an Albright Creative Research Experience (ACRE), which saw her journeying to Nicaragua to study a different way of teaching English to native Spanish speakers.

Over winter Interim, working with faculty adviser Karen Jogan, Ph.D., professor of Spanish, Bengtsson spent more than two weeks in the Central American country assessing whether a method known as Total Physical Response Storytelling (TPRS) could help schoolchildren there improve their English vocabulary acquisition.

And could such a method be employed elsewhere, including American classrooms?

In short, the answer is yes.

Through La Esperanza Granada – a volunteer organization focusing on children's education in Grenada, Nicaragua – Bengtsson was able to work with about a dozen children in a classroom setting.

Ranging in age from 9 to 11, the children were on break from their normal classes and volunteered to take part in Bengtsson's research. A pre-test of the children showed they knew, on average, just five English words.

Unlike more traditional foreign language instruction – marked by recitation and memorization – TPRS focuses on improving vocabulary by using creative and personalized stories and actions to engage students in recognizing content and functional words.

"The students," says Bengtsson, "are not given a direct translation of the new words they are learning, but instead give meaning through action to the words they are learning in a second language. Words are learned through live actions, visual aids, repetition and practice."

So if Bengtsson was reading a book and came across the word "bird," the students would imitate its flight, an action that helped them recall the word later.

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Elizabeth Bengtsson '16 poses with some of her students in Nicaragua.

"It creates a vivid memory when the kids are flapping their arms," says Bengtsson.

A Mahwah, N.J., native, Bengtsson organized the trip, developed the lessons, and transported all her materials down to Nicaragua on her own.

The school, located in an impoverished area dotted by shanties, does not have the technological resources common in today's American classrooms. So Bengtsson relied on good old-fashioned books, paper and pencils.

"At first the students were not interested or engaged," acknowledges Bengtsson. "But by the third day, they were comfortable saying individual words."

Jogan says the concept of learning through actions has been around for years. In fact, it harkens back to how people first learn their native language. Babies and toddlers hear words, understand their meaning, and act them out, long before they are able to speak.

What is new here, says Jogan, is linking these actions into a narrative or story.

It only took a few days for Bengtsson's students to embrace TPRS, and soon their engagement and excitement transcended the classroom.

During breaks, Bengtsson would find students looking through the English-language books on their own. One student acted out the story for his younger brother, while another rewrote the text in Spanish.

After the lessons ended, Bengtsson administered a post-test on the students, and, compared to the pre-test, found their English vocabulary had improved by 28 percent.

Bengtsson is encouraged by the results and says the technique could easily be implemented in classrooms around the world, including in the United States, and across grade levels. But, she says, it would work best as a supplement to other more established forms of language instruction.

Jogan says language instruction is all about reinforcement: "Some students are more audio learners; some more kinesthetic. The more you combine techniques, the more students you can reach."

Bengtsson, who speaks Spanish – her mother is from Venezuela, her father from Sweden – says the experience in Nicaragua has opened her eyes to a new culture and a different way of teaching.

"I feel more connected," she says. "And I have a better idea of the education system."

That will serve her well when she applies for teaching positions, says Jogan, especially since some of her future students may come from similar environs.

"For her, this is an excellent learning experience," says Jogan. "I am enormously impressed with her initiative."

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