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Multilingual learners need materials with intrinsic meaning
When young children are new to the language spoken by their teacher, they depend on useful materials to provide content and comprehension for their learning. That’s why I say “multilingual learners need materials with intrinsic meaning.” When children understand the teacher’s language, they may benefit from spoken explanations. But, when a child does not understand what the teacher is saying, they may not guess what is the purpose of the activity … and that blocks both comprehension and skill development.
Consider socks. If you bring out a basket of socks for a multilingual group of young children:
- They know what they are.
- They know what they are for.
- They probably know words for socks in their home languages already so they can easily learn related words in the new language.
- Even if they don’t understand a word you are saying about the socks and skills, they can participate in meaningful independent learning based on their understanding.
- The socks have intrinsic meaning – the material supports learning. Every child can understand that socks need to be counted (you need two because you have 2 feet), the colors should match, and they need to be two of the same size.
- These intrinsically meaningful socks also support home-school learning connections because the child can find socks at home to enjoy counting and sorting for a purpose.
- The familiar characteristics of the socks give each child an invitation to counting and sorting that they can tackle with knowledge and confidence. This is preparing them to confidently move on to expanded content and skill practice.
Consider plastic shapes. If you bring out a basket of red, blue, and yellow plastic things for a multilingual group of young children:
- The children don’t know what they are.
- They don’t know what the plastic pieces are for. You can’t build anything or make anything with them.
- They don’t know vocabulary for the plastic things so it’s hard for them to learn or remember English words with no connection to their prior knowledge.
- If the plastic things serve no purpose and the child doesn’t understand your explanation, they may waste a lot of time trying to figure out what you are saying and what you want them to do so they don’t learn as much as their English-speaking peers.
- You might try to demonstrate to get them to count the items – but why? If they make a bigger pile and a smaller pile, so what? Having more or less of the plastic items makes no difference because you can’t use them to do anything. It’s almost like they are learning to do the skill so the teacher can check off that they “taught” the skill.
- These meaningless plastic items do not exist outside of the classroom so there is no expectation for home-school connection, learning extension, or generalizing skills.
- Even though they are “real”, a bucket of buttons or pinecones doesn’t have much more meaning than a bucket of plastic pieces if it just sits on a shelf BUT…..
- ADD meaningful materials! Colorful embroidery thread on dull needles with examples of bracelets or crowns made with the buttons might invite children to explore different sizes, different lengths, and patterns.
- ADD tools like mallets and magnifying glasses to explore what’s in the pinecones and how they are different or alike.
- ADD paper and markers/crayons for children to observe and document what they are seeing and making.
- ADD to other learning areas for added meaning, like bringing buttons and glue to the art area to add to paintings, or bringing the pinecones to the sand table. Or vice versa!
- ADD related learning materials to provide vocabulary practice, like the Corduroy book about a missing button, or a song about trees and seeds and pinecones.
Insider hint A: Imagine a child was watching your planned activity with your planned materials via video with no sound. Would the activity make sense by virtue of the materials provided? If not – reconsider your choices.
Thank you for considering the idea of “materials with intrinsic meaning”. Feel free to add your own ideas in the comments!