Beyond Fun and Games: Language Learning Begins Early at Ellis

Brenda Martinez’s class might look like fun and games, but spend enough time with her Lower School students as they play and you’ll start to hear a few tentatively spoken Spanish words grow into an enthusiastic Spanglish, and later into fluent conversation in a newfound second language.
She’s often asked whether it's true that language learning is easier when it starts at a young age, to which she answers with an unequivocal “yes.” That’s what makes it so wonderful, she said, that Spanish starts in pre-kindergarten at The Ellis School.

“When you start as a baby, it is the same as when you learn your first language,” said Ms. Martinez, who is from Mexico City. She recalled her own experience learning English as an older student, and how difficult it was to learn pronunciation. “In pre-kindergarten, they are like sponges. They are absorbing and absorbing, so it’s easy for them to play and have fun, but at the same time they are learning. Parents sometimes tell me that their kids start using Spanish words at home. And because they’re learning from a native speaker, the pronunciation is right on.”

Unlike many traditional language learning classes, engaging activities rather than memorization are at the center of each lesson. As Ms. Martinez leads her youngest classes through the cutting and gluing of making a craft, she teaches students the Spanish words for everything they are using and building.

Games become more complex as students progress through each grade level. Ms. Martinez uses bear figurines to teach color, size, and family words; numbered linking blocks become the foundation for little houses, teaching counting and household words in the process. There are interactive Spanish-language memory and matching games, and a rollicking game of pass-the-ball as students stand in a circle and count off numbers in Spanish.

“With the little, little ones it’s amazing because in their first month they have trouble putting the blocks together. They’re learning to manipulate toys as much as they’re learning the language. In that way, the challenges are the same challenges they have in any other class,” Ms. Martinez said.

First-grader Rayhaneh C. said her favorite thing she has learned so far is family words, such as the names for mother, father, brother, and sister. She noted that she has to remember that “girl words”—or feminine nouns—end in an “a” while “boy words”—or masculine nouns—end in an “o.” Her classmate Norma S. enjoys memory games, where students have to solve a matching puzzle by identifying images of food and other common objects and calling them by their Spanish names. Both girls want to keep learning Spanish, and hope to get better and better at it until they can talk to Ms. Martinez in only that language.

“It’s kind of fun to talk to the Spanish teacher in words that I don’t know yet, but I will know them,” Norma said. “It’s just fun that I can do that.”

As students gain experience with the language, Ms. Martinez shifts her focus to study skills. In third grade, students practice how to take notes as they read a text. They build on this in fourth grade by keeping a composition book to practice vocabulary.

“This is something they will use in the next step in Middle School when they move on to research, writing paragraphs, conjugating verbs,” Ms. Martinez said. “Everything we do in this room builds on something.”

They even learn about culture and the environment; Day of the Dead celebrations and the migration of Monarch butterflies between the United States and Mexico are part of these lessons. Students create their own passports and “travel”—imaginatively, and within the safety of the classroom—to Spanish-speaking countries and learn about the cultural traditions, geography, holidays, governments, landscapes, and people of those countries.

Third and fourth graders also participate in a two-year pen pal project with a school in Mexico City in which students from each school share details about their cities, descriptions of themselves and their families, their favorite foods, and more—some students even send jokes back and forth. The students alternate between writing in English and Spanish to practice their translation skills. At the end of fourth grade, the two classes have a Zoom call together so they can meet “in person.”

“This was a fantastic interaction because they are the same age,” Ms. Martinez said. “They are kids! They can see they are all kids, just the same, just in different countries with a different culture.”

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