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Costa Rican and U.S. Teachers Face Similar Challenges

TESOL President Shelley Wong Attends Costa Rican Affiliate Conference.
From July 2 to 4, TESOL’s Costa Rican affiliate, the Asociación Costarricense de Profesores de Inglés (ACPI-TESOL), held its annual convention at the Universidad Estatal a Distancia in the Sabanilla district of San José. The theme of the conference was “Global Challenges: Empowerment in Teaching English Innovations,” which reflects the growing interest in examining social issues in English language teaching. This year ACPI-TESOL was celebrating its 48th anniversary, and I had been invited to give two plenary presentations on this very special occasion.

Instead of splitting the convention into smaller breakout sessions, ACPI-TESOL meets as one large plenary session for the entire event. President Ana Cecilia Madrigal Rímola explained to me that the conference organizers have found that teachers prefer to stay together so that they don’t miss any of the sessions. All the teachers staying together has many advantages. The participants develop a sense of continuity and the feeling of a common experience, and they can explore the links that emerge between the sessions as the conference unfolds. Although ACPI-TESOL meets in one large session, the presentations are supposed to be interactive. This requirement can be quite a challenge for presenters, especially at the end of a long day: The group comprises 150–200 teachers. Despite the challenges, I found that the presenters and participants were highly motivated and professional, and it was a great learning opportunity and honor to represent TESOL.

My two plenary presentations were titled “Empowerment in Teaching Innovations Through Dialogic Pedagogy” and “Meeting Global Challenges Through Dialogic Pedagogy,” and I found many common threads between the dialogic pedagogy that I discussed in my talks and the other plenary presentations.

Norma Flores, from the University of Veracuz, led a plenary session titled “Let’s Warm Students Up.” Warming students up fosters a positive feeling about themselves and about learning, and enables them to build on prior knowledge to learn English as an additional language. Lonnie Dai Zovi, from the United States, gave a presentation titled “Enduring English Through Engagement and Enjoyment.” When we design our classrooms as communities of practice and engage students, they find learning both enjoyable and meaningful. Paul Stufkens, coordinator of the Language Center at Zamorano Agricultural University, presented “What’s in a Song.” Throughout the conference he proposed many active and experiential ways of learning by doing, including using cricket to teach language. I saw a great deal of congruence between the pedagogical frameworks of the various presentations with emphasis on meaning; making explicit connections between use, form, and function; and attention to metacognitive strategies.

Stéphane Lacroix, from the University of Quebec, Canada, gave a talk titled “Teaching English in English,” which provided many creative and practical strategies for teachers to model English in the context of teaching English as a foreign language. To address the challenge of students being afraid to use English or not having the opportunities to use and feel comfortable with it, Norma Flores’s second plenary session “Oral Practice Activities for Beginners” offered some valuable and interactive tools in working with beginning students. Olda Cano, from the Universidad de Chiriquí in Panamá and a very popular presenter in the region, demonstrated Web-based materials that could be used for more advanced language learners. Ángel Bonilla continued the theme of supporting students as they wrestle with English. An academic editorial consultant for Macmillan Publishers, he had two sessions: “Meaningful Learning” and “Critical and Creative Thinking in the Classroom.” I found that his workshop “Meaningful Learning” had much in common with dialogic approaches.

Two other presenters offered complementary frameworks for scaffolding student learning. Mary Scholl, an English language teacher from the United States, discussed the ECRIF framework. ECRIF stands for Encounter, Clarify, Remember/Internalize, Fluently use, and teachers can use it to analyze how learning happens so that they can support learning in each stage. This framework, which is a nonprescriptive method for designing and reflecting on lessons, has been very successful. It has been used in more than eight countries, including a ministry of education and a number of language schools. Jonathan Acuña Solano, a consultant for Oxford University Press, offered another perspective that supported the conference theme. In “Understanding the Pragmatic Nature of Functions: Improving TBLT Instruction,” he showed how to improve task-based language teaching (TBLT) by “understanding the extrinsic and intrinsic elements” of the assigned tasks. He encouraged teachers to focus on the “pragmatic/functional” aspects of the target language, which students have to master to become competent communicators.

The conference participants comprised a broad cross-section of Costa Rican teachers. There were beginning, experienced, and long-term veteran teachers from elementary, secondary, and university contexts in rural as well as urban areas. As one way of learning more about the teachers in Costa Rica, I asked them to write on an index card their greatest challenges. Teachers related a broad range of professional issues. One high school teacher wrote that “students feel afraid of participating and speaking in the target language.” Another high school teacher wanted “to make my students speak English not only in class but also outside. We need to create an English culture, which is hard. The worst of all is that my Ss’ proficiency in English is high!”

I was struck by the commonalities between the challenges that Costa Rican teachers expressed and the challenges that U.S. teachers face when students have had their schooling interrupted because their parents have had to move to find work. Many teachers were concerned about the academic achievement of Nicaraguan students whose parents had migrated to Costa Rica in search of work. An elementary school teacher described her students’ situation outside the classroom: “Some students spend most of their time alone (at home, at the park, or around the streets) because their parents have to work and their schedules make them arrive home late. Students eat, study or go to sleep by themselves.”

Poverty was another important concern for these teachers. As one teacher pointed out, “Many students cannot buy school materials to present their homework or work in the class because they are so poor.” Another teacher lamented, “Broken homes. Single mothers. Economical status—no books, materials, food, uniforms. Illiterate parents.” And a teacher from a rural public elementary school described the situation of her Nicaraguan students: “Students from Nicaragua with hunger, families with many children, . . . . Parents from Nicaragua don’t know how to write and read but want a better future for their children.” A number of teachers who taught in rural areas also talked about students who dropped out of school seasonally because they were needed to work.

Another teacher stressed the problem of discrimination in the classroom based on race and accent, a problem that U.S. teachers are very familiar with: “Challenge: helping students to tolerate and accept differences concerning linguistic aspects related to Nicaraguans.” Others expressed similar concerns: “We have a lot of Nicaraguans so other students like to tell racist jokes about Nicaraguans. Some of them feel frustrated.” And “In the context where I work, there is discrimination against Nicaraguan people because of the way they speak Spanish.” One teacher pointed to the devastating effect this discrimination has in the classroom: “Students make fun of others—just by their tone of voice; which makes them feel uncomfortable and unable to speak.”

These teachers share yet another common challenge with teachers in the United States: differentiating instruction to meet the needs of students at varying levels of ability, including students with special needs. When I asked how many teachers had students in their classes with special needs, almost every teacher raised her or his hand. Many talked about the increasing number of autistic children. One secondary teacher wrote: “Non-sensitive students. Non-tolerant students with students with learning disabilities. Racism against Nicaraguans. Poor emotional intelligence.”

English language teachers, researchers, and teacher trainer all over the world need to find better ways to address issues such as discrimination and poverty in the classroom. Awareness of the sociopolitical and socioeconomics of English language teaching can help us strengthen ELT as a force for economic and community development. I was fascinated to learn more from conference participants about their efforts to link English language teaching to local economic and community development and empowerment. In addition, many of the teachers discussed ways to address sociolinguistic aspects of pedagogy in L1 (Spanish); accent discrimination related to poverty, social class, and nationality; and the gap between educational achievement in urban and rural areas.

Ana Cecilia Madrigal Rímola and her board extended their gracious hospitality, and I deeply appreciated the opportunity to join in the dialogue with many dedicated professionals from around the world. I was grateful for the chance to learn firsthand from TESOL educators on the front lines in diverse contexts, and I was inspired by their energy, insights, and commitment to their students, their communities, and the profession.