How to play with LOTE

I am fired up at the moment to promote play-based learning, and immersion-based language learning. Ideally, I would like them both to happen at once. But it is not always obvious how to set up a structure that can work.

I have just been to visit a wonderful play-based Prep* program at a local primary school. They are doing fabulous things. They dedicate a big chunk of the day to inquiry-led learning using projects that the children invent and then sign up to complete. They have rebuilt their Prep classrooms into proper play spaces, with various stations for different kinds of learning-through-play.

The Prep team – there are five teachers working together – are also responsible for the LOTE* program. The language is Italian. This is not the most satisfactory part of the program. None of the teachers are Italian speakers. Nevertheless, they try to integrate some Italian learning into their morning meeting.

I am very excited by this program. I love to see people pushing to make our institutions change for the better. I love to work with the thoughtful, idealistic, courageous people who push for change and innovation. So I offered to help them with their Italian. Somehow.

Now I have to work out how.

I strongly believe the most effective way to teach a second language is immersion. I also believe that, for young children, immersion should be based around concrete activity. But immersion teaching requires educators who speak the target language. A class with English-only teachers cannot be a LOTE immersion environment, even if someone with fluent Italian comes in to work alongside them.

Moreover, the child-initiated discovery that is the key to this program is not obviously amenable to immersion. Much of the interaction between children and teachers occurs when children have a complex question. A lot of the children’s time is spent working independently. I can see how a program like this could work if all the staff were speaking Italian. Routines and housekeeping conversation could happen in Italian, and provide a good base for developing language. But I can’t see how to jump straight to the complex thinking language at the core of discovery.

I can’t see how this setting can deliver on both my dreams. For now I may have to settle for supporting them to deliver their current Italian program as well as possible. But I am hoping I can work out a way to go a step further than that.

* If you don’t happen to be in Victoria, Prep in our context is the first year of primary school, for children who are about 5 years old.
* LOTE = Language Other Than English – second language program. Most Victorian primary schools offer some kind of second language program. Italian is widely taught.

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