April 13, 2015

The Opportunity to Learn

In the Dominican Republic, language instruction supports both students and teachers.

In schools across the Dominican Republic, English instruction sometimes has a salsa tempo. At other times, it feels more like merengue. In both cases, EDC’s English for Latin America (ELA) program is helping to drive the beat through songs, games, and interactive instruction.

Last fall, teachers in 185 schools in the Dominican Republic began using ELA to teach English to seventh and eighth graders. They’re finding that not only are their students becoming more fluent, they are actually enjoying English class more.

“The ELA program is really good for this population of novice speakers,” says Emma Salvador, a teacher in Santiago. “It is entertaining, and it motivates adolescents.”

And since teachers only need an MP3 player and a rechargeable speaker to deliver lessons, ELA can be used in almost any urban or rural community.

“One advantage of ELA is that it allows students to learn quickly,” says Israel Sepulveda, a teacher from Hato Mayor del Rey, a town in the eastern countryside. “In my case, as a rural area teacher, we have many obstacles—but this program brings my students the opportunity to learn English on par with anybody else.”

Building skills

Schools in the Dominican Republic have been implementing Level 1 of ELA, which consists of 100 lessons. The lessons follow a similar format: a 40-minute audio component for the students and then 15 minutes of teacher instruction. Vocabulary words and phrases are set to song, and games help students review what they have learned. Level 1 was designed to move novice English students through a standard first year of instruction as measured by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

“With ELA, students learn to speak because they are speaking to each other,” says EDC’s Kit Yasin, who oversees the project. “Talking to a peer who is listening and responding gives them more feedback than online or traditional textbook-based language programs, which often stress reading and writing.”

She adds that ELA does build reading and writing skills, but the emphasis is on listening comprehension and speaking. ELA’s focus on listening and speaking skills has a practical purpose, too.

“There are lots of people in Latin American countries who can pass a written test in English but who can’t have a conversation with a tourist,” she says. “ELA solves that problem by continuously prompting conversations between students, the teacher, and the audio characters in a fun way.”

The lessons are built around culturally familiar themes. Woven through the interactive audio program is a fictional narrative about a teenage boy in Latin America who guides two English-speaking American kids through their stay in his country. The characters do things that are common to students’ own experiences, helping them relate to the story. The music is authentic, too, with musicians in both Latin America and the United States recording all of the songs for the programs.

Irasmo Torres, the director of foreign languages in the district of Moca, has seen firsthand the impact of the ELA approach, and he likes what he has seen.

“One of the best things is that the students are interacting,” he says. “Students feel like they want to communicate.”

Supporting teachers

ELA’s audio-based approach also helps address one challenge faced in most countries in Latin America: teachers who may themselves have limited knowledge of the language they are teaching. Using ELA, the teachers learn English along with their students, and the program gives cues in Spanish to help teachers facilitate the lessons. The ELA materials also provide teachers with wrap-up activities they can use independent of the audio recording to bring together what students have learned.

This teacher-centered approach sets ELA apart from English language programs that treat teachers more like proctors than educators. ELA supports all teachers—whether fluent in English or not—as instructional leaders in the classroom, explains Yasin.

“We want teachers to view the program as a tool, not as a replacement,” she says.

The program has earned praise from teachers and students alike, and Yasin’s team is now hard at work developing Level 2 to build on the program’s early success. With other countries planning on implementing ELA soon, the music will only grow louder throughout Latin American schools.

“Teachers are thrilled because they are suddenly able to teach English,” says Yasin. “And they know their students will love the program because it is so relevant.”