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Language Learning at GIS

Again and again, researchers have found, bilingualism is an experience that shapes our brain for a lifetime," Gigi Luk, associate professor and language learning researcher, McGill University

Learning to speak a language is a process. One that, depending on the knowledge being built on, can look different for each student, but that always adds character and depth to the educational journey.

Many students come to GIS in preschool or kindergarten having no prior knowledge of Mandarin or German. We also have families who do speak German or Chinese at home, and some who speak a different language altogether at home. Altogether we are a diverse school community invested in language and cultural learning, and combined with an inquiry-based, immersive learning environment, students leave better prepared to communicate and engage with the world.

At the Beginning

In the preschool years, between ages 2-5, students are like sponges absorbing information and learning to function in their surroundings. Capitalizing on this, preschool teachers immerse children in their chosen language track for most of the school day, but are quick to provide help in English when engaging in crucial tasks if the student needs it.

“Social emotional development is most important at this age. We want to be sure they feel good about themselves, have fun, and set them up for success in learning. If they are safe and having fun, this is easy”, said GIS Early Learning Director Daniela Williams.

At GIS there is a lot of play-based and visual learning in Preschool and into Kindergarten, including hands-on activities, books in the targeted language, and fun, engaging songs, dances, and routines that provide lots of opportunities for exploring letters, hearing new words, and practicing new skills.

“A lot of what they are doing at that age is code-cracking,” says Chinese Track Director Martha Ortiz. “Kids are naturally wired to figure out how to communicate with others.”

In the Chinese track teachers use pictograms and exercises to help preschoolers age 2-4 connect characters to words. 

For example the character for “person,” 人, is combined with an exercise where children stand up, putting one leg in front and one back, and looking at their classmates in profile beside them.

The character for “mouth,” 口, is compared to the outline of their mouths.

Routine and learning

Much of the vocabulary in each language track is drawn from students’ daily routines. At snack time, for example, there is discussion about the apples, carrots, and other goodies the children are enjoying and if they taste good, or what preparation there needs to be. It is a natural way for children to incorporate language into their daily lives.

“We are teaching through the language,” said Williams. “It helps to be active in the language.”

Their daily routines obviously also involve seeing and interacting with their peers.

A fun tradition in German preschool is called Namenskoenig, a letter-learning exercise based on students’ names. Each student will have a turn to play king or queen for a day as the class learns the letters that make up each child’s name, with a special crown and song that builds on each letter. Here is a video of one student’s Namenskoenig ceremony.

Building a foundation

At GIS kindergarten teachers add on more structured learning with themed units and targeted learning goals combined with play-based activities that allow time for practice and interaction with others.

Kindergarteners also have reading and writing added into their days, still expanding language skills with art,music, nature, and science activities that are routine-based. For the lower grades, the calendar, seasons, annual traditions and holidays allow for the introduction of a lot of new words and vocabulary that students can see reflected in their environment.

For example in the fall German track kindergarteners are learning about harvest and dormancy, ways that animals and plants are preparing for winter and what that looks like. Here is a kindergarten class practicing a classic German song, "Der Herbst ist da!”, a song about fall leaves.

Two holidays highlighted in the Chinese track include Mid Autumn Festival in the fall and New Year in the winter. Students’ language learning is expanded with all the lyrics from fun, traditional songs performed at this time!

Also introduced in kindergarten are math-centric vocabulary and skills such as measurement and basic operations.

Here is a kindergarten class rehearsing one song for their New Year performance.

Moving on up

The excitement of transitioning into grade school comes with a lot of fanfare for first graders at GIS. They have built a strong foundation for learning, and now can combine those skills with a more structured curriculum.

First grade is when GIS students start having a separate English class, with most of their other subjects being conducted in their chosen language track, German or Mandarin.

The focus for language-learning from first to fifth grade is still shaped by IB units throughout the year as well as incorporating reading and writing with age-appropriate books and essay-writing, creative projects, presentations involving research, and math and science concepts.

The language curriculum progresses in difficulty each year, guided by teachers and their assistants who can tailor lessons and provide extra support where needed.

By the time students graduate from 5th grade, said 5th grade teacher Heiki Ocko, “They should be able to follow class discussion, read and comprehend textbooks, and write in a way so they can share their thoughts on topics we are covering in all their classes."

In the Chinese track teachers also incorporate the website Level Learning to keep students on course with listening, reading, writing, and speaking language skills needed to reach expected proficiency targets.  

Here are a couple of examples of 4th grade Chinese writing from GIS students that demonstrate common language skills at this age.

A bright future

“By the time students have reached the end of 5th grade, students in the Chinese track will have reached an intermediate to advanced level in the skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. They are set up to continue their language studies at advanced levels in Mandarin or have a firm foundation of language learning from which to start the study of an additional language in middle school,” said Ortiz.  

GIS students progress to higher education armed with a skill that will not only help them with future job and college prospects, but a broad worldview and knowledge that communication is a key to success.

As we say in our Mission statement, our goal is to help form bilingual world citizens who value responsibility and lifelong learning.

Here’s a look at two of our recent graduates and their journeys from lower school through 5th grade!

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