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Different Languages . . . Same Classroom (Anna Timko Hughes)

A number of years ago, I received an interesting call from a concerned parishioner.  The previous week’s bulletin had run an announcement that Church School registration would begin soon, and that parents or grandparents of all children ages four and up should register their children. Our parishioner was calling me to ask me specifically about what the children in the pre-school class would be learning this year. She was especially concerned if the children would be learning their “ABC’s.”  I explained to her that although I knew the instructor often used the foundations of our alphabet in class, “A is for altar, B is for blessing,” and so forth, the primary focus of the class would be for the children to learn their prayers and other basics of our faith. After more conversation, I discovered that she had hoped our pre-school Church School class would be an introduction into English, as well as an introduction to the faith. At home, the family only spoke Arabic and the children had no exposure to English except for what they occasionally heard spoken by parishioners at our Church. With new parishioners appearing every year from countries as far different as Lebanon, Russia, Serbia, and Romania, I soon realized that this was probably not a unique case in our parish. It proved to be a very interesting Church School year. 

The student, for whom the language spoken in the classroom is not their native tongue, brings some unique problems to the Church School teacher. Communication will be a major hurdle to overcome. The child’s inability to read or write in the language of the class may lead to frustration for the student as well for the instructor. Even if the student can hold a basic conversation and read aloud, he or she may not understand the material at the level of the other students in the class. The teacher must be patient when asking a non-native speaker a question--the student must first translate what the teacher has said into their native language, think about the answer, translate it back into English, and then be confident enough to answer the question. How can we make a student with these problems comfortable in a church school classroom?
In the high school where I teach, the English as A Second Language  (ESL) program provides services to non-English speaking learners, transitioning them into the regular classroom environment within one to three years. The strategies used by ESL teachers could be also used be used effectively by church school teachers. Listed below are some practical methods that may be used in the church school classroom.
Wait time:  Because the non-native speaker has a longer processing time, the instructor should employ a teaching tool known as “wait time.”  When a question is asked, allow time to pass before allowing any student to answer the question. The instructor can say, “ Now, I don’t want you all to raise your hand immediately. Let’s think about the question and the answer . . . (and after silently counting to ten say.. ) OK, now does anyone know the answer?”  This allows the student with a longer processing time to get a chance to answer the question.
Comfort Questions: Prior to asking questions to the class as a whole, privately ask the non-native speaker which question they would feel comfortable answering. When the time for asking the question come, the student will feel comfortable answering the question because they will have had time to process the answer.
Visual Cues: Especially with younger classrooms, use visual aids as much as possible. A student may not know what the word “chalice” means; however, when they see a picture of one, they will remember that this chalice was something they saw in liturgy.
Aide in the Classroom: A second teacher, aid, or parent helper who speaks the language of the student, is also a helpful, practical tool for a classroom.  The aide can help translate directions or work out any problems that might occur. Be careful not be have a class within a class.  Be sure to always have the aide participate with all the students in the regular language of the classroom. (We have had bi-lingual teachers in our pre-school and kindergarten classes for over 15 years.)
Think, Pair, Share: Participation and comfort levels in class can be increased by the use of a technique called “Think, Pair, Share.”  With this method, students pair off, either with similar or mixed ability levels. The teacher will then ask a question or state a problem for the students to consider. The students must think about the answer or solution for a specific period of time without talking (this allows for processing time). Then the pairs will discuss their answers prior to sharing them with the entire class.
Group Work:  Small group work is an excellent way to make the non-native speaker feel more comfortable and confident in class. Students are encouraged to speak with their peers and can “try out” new words that they might not be secure in using in front of the entire class.  Be sure that students of varying abilities are together so that all students can learn from the experience.
Music: Our liturgical life and its music can easily be used in the classroom to bridge any gaps between students of differing cultures. Take a basic hymn like the Trisagion Hymn and have the students learn it in the language of the class as well as the language of the native speaker. It can make wonderful connections for all the students.
Don’t lower your expectations:  Do not lower the expectations or level that you are teaching because  non-native speakers are in a classroom. Use complex sentences and speech patterns that are appropriate for all students in the class so that students can learn these structures and imitate them. Be aware that they might not understand everything that is occurring; however, deal with the misunderstandings as they arise.
Our faith is even more beautiful by the wealth we have from the various cultures and people who are part of it. These strategies will aid the church school teacher and help the non-native speaking students to feel comfortable in the church school classroom. By addressing the needs of these unique students, we can make them see that we are all “one in Christ.”  This was profoundly highlighted for me when my husband I traveled to Ireland several years ago. We attended two liturgies at Holy Annunciation Church in Dublin and they were amazing examples of what I like to call the global quality of Orthodoxy.  Members of the church are from all parts of the Orthodox world. The liturgy was primarily served in Greek and English; however, during the reciting of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, five languages were spoken simultaneously: Greek, English, Slavonic,  Arabic and Romanian. One more was added for the children during the Lord’s prayer: Irish Gaelic!  

We were truly all “ one in Christ” that day.


Anna Timko Hughes, is the Christian Education Coordinator, Diocese of Worcester and New England, Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese