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Communicating with a native

Andrea Pérez asks Simon Whitehouse how his role as a ‘fellow’ of the Colombia Bilingüe programme is helping his teenage students gain confidence in their spoken English

You have been working as a ‘fellow’ – a native-speaker English language teacher in the Colombia Bilingüe programme – in the Institución Educativa Técnica Comercial del Valle in Palmira since January. How did you come to enrol with this programme?

I enrolled through ESL Starter, one of the partner recruitment agencies. They are helping Volunteers Colombia and Heart for Change to supply native speakers, such as myself, to the programme, which is run through Colombia’s ministry of education.

Can you describe your typical day?

I work in a public-sector school serving one of the poorer neighbourhoods in Palmira. The ministry is trying to have a positive impact on English teaching in schools like this where families do not have the resources to send their children for private lessons.

The school operates on two shifts, morning and evening, and although I can have classes throughout the day I mainly teach in the morning. Most days I wake up at 4.30am to get to school by 6am. In total I work for 24 hours a week in class, always with a Colombian teacher. This means that the students have two teachers for their English language lessons.

They have their usual Colombian teacher with me supporting them as a co-teacher. I am not a teacher in the UK, although I do have a Celta qualification. This means that while I am learning skills from the Colombian teachers, they have support with their language skills and the pupils have the chance to practise their English with a native English speaker. I also have fourteen hours a week planning time and an hour each for working with teachers on their English and running an English club with the students.

Who are your students?

The students that I am helping to teach are mainly in Years 9 and 10, which is the age group that the ministry of education wants us ‘fellows’ to concentrate on. Class sizes are similar to those in the UK and are between twenty and thirty students per class.

How would you assess English proficiency in Colombia?

I would say that English proficiency in Colombia is largely at an elementary level. This is especially true of spoken English. Most pupils have been shy and lacking in the confidence to speak English, and it is a large part of the role of us ‘fellows’ to model English speaking and encourage the students to practise speaking with us.

What are in your opinion the main challenges with English language learning in Colombia?

I think the main challenges for English language learning in Colombia are geography, recent history and attitude. Colombia is a country that doesn’t have a close neighbour in which English is widely spoken. Also, recent history has meant that relatively few English-speaking travellers have visited the country. This has meant that Colombians have not had much chance to practise speaking English with native speakers. This could have contributed to the Colombians’ attitude towards learning English.

Although it is increasingly important to speak English in a globalised world, Colombian students tend to have a closed mind towards learning the language. Young people growing up in Palmira will not have much exposure to English outside the classroom and may not understand its importance until later in life. I have spoken with a number of Colombian adults who regret not having better English. Although they can lack confidence when speaking, non-oral activities often demonstrate that students have a wider vocabulary and better grammatical understanding than is initially evident.

Already after just six weeks we are starting to see students become more comfortable when speaking to us, and we hope to build on this to make the sort of significant improvements that the Colombian ministry of education aims to achieve through the Colombia Bilingüe programme.

You can follow Simon’s experiences of living and working in South America on his blog: www.packing-it-all-in.co.uk

Pic credits: Simon Whitehouse (in green) says that while he’s learning teaching skills from his Colombian colleagues, they are getting support with their language skills from him (Courtesy Simon Whitehouse)