Teaching children to read, and talk

One of the key aspects of teaching Year 1 anywhere in the world is most likely to be teaching children to read. This was definitely the case in Finland, where during my two years of teaching, I was able to teach in my mother tongue, children to read in their mother tongue, since majority of the children I taught had Finnish as their first language. Also the children in my classroom back in Finland were ready and eager to learn to read at the age of 7 and had been exposed to the language for their whole life. Many of them already read by the time they stepped into my classroom. Without sounding too naïve, I dare to say that teaching children to read in those circumstances was relatively straightforward.

Now let me give you a short summary of where I found myself after I relocated to the UK. I now teach in my second language a group of children of whom majority did not speak English as their first language either. The children are two years younger, had not been exposed to one culture and language for the first years of their lives but instead often to a mix of cultures and languages. I teach them a language (English) that by all measures is very demanding phonetically.

No wonder, teaching children to read in my new job turned out to be a bit trickier than in Finland.

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The schoolbooks I once had

Finland really is the promised land for schoolbook publishers. I wasn’t able to find any real data for this, but I feel confident to say that a very large majority of primary schools use schoolbooks in their teaching. Every subject had its own book series and teachers followed them quite happily. Students are very proud of their books, especially the first Finnish book that you get to keep as a memory from the first year of school. Things are changing in Finland with the new curriculum and the call for active and multidisciplinary teaching, but the books are still there and don’t seem to be going anywhere. At Central however, they are long gone.
It’s not really one of the things you’d come to think of to ask in your job interview. “I do have one question. Do you use schoolbooks in your school?” Coming to think of it, maybe it should be, since the answer can make quite a difference to your job as a teacher. I had some colleagues back in Finland who took a job in a school that was experimenting with bookless teaching. I heard their stories and thought, that’s a lot of work, and not for me. Only to find myself a few years later in that exact situation.

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A day in Year 1

I search for the ID badge from the bottom of my purse while I press the code to open the gate. In the foyer the screen beeps and signs me in at 7.31. I walk through the quiet corridors and say good morning to a colleague passing by. I open the door to my classroom. It’s dark and it feels big and quiet, like it’s not in its’ natural state.

I switch on the computer and write down the few things that popped into my head on the way to school. The to-do list is getting longer and longer. I get up and stare at the white board. I move the names on the sunshine level back to the green level in the positive behaviour chart and look for today’s subjects to stick on the visual timetable. While placing the label for PE on the wall I already dread the afternoon.

I sit back down and open the registration programme, the teaching slides for today and my school email. While waiting for things to open I search for the worksheets we need for today. I’m lucky to find the worksheets trimmed but not so lucky when I realise that the worksheet planned for Maths needs to be adjusted because of the lesson yesterday. So I open Word and start typing the date and objective at the top of the worksheet.

On my way to the printer I stop by to talk through the day with my colleague and to ask if she wants a copy of the new worksheet. I spot her phonics worksheets on the desk and realise that I still have to check my phonics slides and I’m once again running out of time. I stop by at the printer and leave the pile of the new worksheets on the table. No matter how early you get in, there never is enough time, I think to myself.

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Diversity at Central

You are going to find this hard to believe, just like I did when I first heard it during my job interview, but that’s exactly why I’m going to tell you this. Here it goes:  92% of the children at Central Primary school speak another language than English at home. Yes, you read correctly. Let me say it again in a different way. Only 8 % of children that go to our school speak English at home as one of their mother tongues [1]. We have children arrive into our classrooms, who know only one or two words English. One might be “hello”, one might be “toilet”. It takes a while to get your head around that fact and then to imagine what other things relate to language: religions, customs, festivities and traditions. Central Primary really is diverse.

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