Learning a Second Language

By: Jill Klatt
Mrs. O’s picnic setup on the WonderBus.

This Thursday, Mrs. O worked with a student who is learning English as a second language. This student is not yet in elementary school, so the goal is to get her vocabulary built up large enough to keep up with her fellow classmates and teachers when the time comes next year! During this session, Mrs. O had the student playing numerous categorization tasks. Not only does organizing words into categories help the student retain new vocabulary words, but being able to sort and store relating words and concepts makes retrieving that information much easier down the line. Mrs. O pointed out that efficient storage and retrieval processes are vital for learning in all subjects—science, math, even history—not just reading and language. Every time a student is able to fit a new word or concept into an existing category, called assimilation, that student’s neural connections on the subject get stronger!

Before getting into the picnic she had set up, Mrs. O had the student practice separating broad categories using pictures of objects and different colored plates. Some of the objects were lettuce, an elephant, a goldfish, bread, a notebook, and scissors, to name a few. Can you figure out some of the categories Mrs. O was working on from these examples? You would be utilizing your categorization skills correctly if you said food, animals, and school supplies. While organizing the objects, Mrs. O and the student discussed some of the qualities that connected objects in the same category and some of the ways they did not belong in other categories. For example, you can probably find lettuce and bread in your kitchen, but it would be quite a day if you found an elephant in your kitchen! When all the objects were sorted, the student had piles for food, animals, school supplies, jobs, vehicles, shapes, furniture, jewelry, sports, and clothing. These piles may seem random, but the brain assigns almost every word we know into a category, almost like a chapter in a book. This way, when we want to find a word to use, our brain can just flip to the chapter to find the right “page” for the word, instead of reading the whole book! Once the student had all her piles of words, we played a guessing game to practice this retrieval skill. Mrs. O would give the student a hint to the object she was thinking of by telling the student a detail about the category that the object belongs in. When the student figured out the right category, Mrs. O would give the student a more specific detail about the object itself until the student found the correct word. To get the student to find the piece of paper with a pig on it, Mrs. O first said it was something that is alive, then once the student isolated the “animal” pile, Mrs. O said the object is pink and lives on a farm. By manually narrowing down the object like this, each category that the word “pig” belongs in is highlighted—living, farm animal, and pink! This task strengthens the student’s neural pathways with the English language and practices process of elimination skills, both important tools for school!

After practicing broad categorization skills, Mrs. O got a little more tricky with a picnic. This time, instead of sorting through clearly contrasting categories like animals and vehicles, the student had one broad category—food—that she had to sort into more specific groups—like fruit and vegetables. Mrs. O let the student fill up the picnic basket with all the toy foods she wanted (she was especially excited to see chips were on the menu). Then Mrs. O asked the student to set up our plates for us, giving each person a fruit and a vegetable. As the student picked out the fruits she wanted to give to us, Mrs. O had her narrow the category of the object further by describing what color the fruit was, and if it had a stem, leaves, or seeds. Mental categories can get quite specific as vocabulary and knowledge increase, practice naming out loud while also playing with the physical object like this can help keep all of those connections from getting tangled up! Here, the student is also growing her vocabulary skills by naming each food item, which reinforces English nouns, as well describing the food item, gaining and using adjectives.

The student digging through the sensory table to find objects.

As the student grew bored with the plastic fruit, her attention started to go elsewhere to a container of slime she had brought onto the WonderBus with her. Mrs. O saw that the student wanted a bit more hands-on play, but the slime didn’t offer much in the way of vocabulary building opportunities. After covering all of the categories of the blue-squishy-bouncy-slime, Mrs. O directed the student’s energy toward the sensory table. Sensory tables help connect the children’s natural urge to explore through their senses with the neurological processes involved in learning—AKA thinking! Mrs. O has an assortment of small toys hidden throughout a pile of colored rice just for occasions like these. Students are allowed to dig through the rice, burning off some physical energy, while continuing to exercise their “brain muscle” by naming and describing the objects they find. Since Mrs. O wanted to continue practicing this student’s vocabulary and categorization skills, she had the student answer “is-can-has” questions about each object she dug up. These questions come in the form of “what is this object?” “what can this thing do?” and “what other parts or details does this object have?” Mrs. O says that a student has fully described an object if they have covered these three bases. Even though the hidden objects were a little more random than the picnic theme Mrs. O had planned, the wonderful thing about vocabulary is that a student can never learn too many words!

One thought on “Learning a Second Language

  1. My daughter is a bit older but since both of us are trying to learn a new language, I’ll give some of the things you wrote a shot. Though she is the opposite with English being her first language and is struggling a bit with Japanese. I think the concepts you put down are worth emulating.


    Liked by 1 person

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