My big kids!

The efforts and limits of the 5th and 6th grade students

~ By Lizzie

VolunQuest has been operating for 3 years now in Isla Mujeres, and this year, for the first time, we have expanded to teach all grades in the primary public schools. The 5th and 6th grades have had no English education whatsoever, and I’ve found their classes to be both the most challenging and the most rewarding.

I’ve seen the students who want to learn advancing in leaps and bounds in the two months we’ve been together. In an immersion classroom for early beginners, total comprehension is not reasonable or expected, but it is truly gratifying when the students understand directions or correctly answer a question. I have some students who constantly raise their hands to ask, “how do you say this in English?” or “what does this mean, teacher?” This is an advantage of teaching older children. The 6 and 7 year olds are less curious; they understand the lesson but don’t think to reach for new ideas and connections.

It is unfortunate that they have started learning a second language so late (though it is no later than an American public school where I didn’t start Spanish until 7th grade). Some students find it too overwhelming and give up before they start. In college I took a course on language acquisition and learned about the Critical Period Hypothesis. Many linguistics believe there is a critical period for language learning; it’s easiest to pick up your second or first language the younger you are, and by the time puberty begins, it becomes very difficult to be fluent in the target language. Young children learn language without even trying. As teenagers and adults, we really have to work hard to advance in speaking a second or third language. I believe that many of my 5th and 6th graders are working really hard to learn English because they see the advantages speaking 2 languages can bring in their futures, either here in Isla Mujeres, or beyond.