Number one for English language teachers

Italy: Two letters

Primary school teacher Monica Vittadini and language assistant Suzanne McCallion reveal their thoughts on training and diction.  

Letter 1: Primary school


I am a primary school teacher in a state school and I have been teaching for twelve years, since English in state primary schools was a brand new experience both for teachers and pupils. In those days there was a lot of excitement about the English classes and very simple activities gave the best results in terms of feedback and pupils’ satisfaction. At the time I remember having ten classes with 250 pupils in three different schools, and I could rely only on a very good textbook with its cassettes and on everything I could gather around during my summer holidays in England. As far as teachers were concerned, there were very few of us mostly because we were there on a voluntary basis with a university degree in English and an endless love for this language. Let’s say that the institutions have never granted us any concrete help despite the fact that we had an incredible high number of pupils and more than one school to reach.

Nowadays things have changed (?)
Due to the fact that from 1992 at least one European language is a compulsory subject in state primary schools, there has been an increasing need for foreign language teachers.

How could it be possible to find out a sufficient number of teachers of English who were at the same time primary school teachers in order to meet all requests? The answer is that to gather sufficient “manpower” the Ministry of Education decided to run 500-hour training courses also for those teachers who had no experience at all of English but wanted to have a try… Moreover, the Ministry also planned to divide primary foreign language teachers into two categories: “specialista” (who teaches only the foreign language in six or seven classes) and “specializzato” (who teaches the foreign language together with other subjects in no more then two classes).

You can easily imagine how chaotic the present situation is: there is no real common background among teachers (500 hours experience compared with a lifetime of studies) and it is almost impossible to find a shared basis to develop a common approach in terms of the amount and the quality of language that should be offered in a primary school. Then the difference between “specialista” and “specializzato” adds another subtle unspoken gap. Those who teach English together with another subject rarely spend the prescribed 3 hours a week for the foreign language. In fact, feeling pressed by the common opinion that Italian, History and Math are more important, they prefer to develop these subjects instead of English.

However, pupils are now more aware of foreign languages due to satellite TV programmes, the Internet, and magazines, and it is more and more difficult to satisfy their needs and interests and find out something really new and exciting: a song or a game they haven’t already experienced in the international fun club of their hotel during the last summer holidays, a cartoon or film hero they haven’t already met on TV or in his official site. Moreover, parents have a lot of expectations because speaking English is seen as a “must” for your life and your job.

The point, therefore, is that it is time that primary English teachers changed their general approach to the subject. It is time to consider the whole matter seriously if we want to rely on a good reputation. It is time to measure our efforts and the results we get from our pupils. It is true that we must not forget that we are teaching children and this means that our main purpose is to make them love the language through pleasant activities, nevertheless we must also begin to build a real competence through vocabulary, easy structural items and correct pronunciation and spelling. This will only come out from exercise and a little bit of study at home. Only through this mechanism will we be able to make our students build a tangible and measurable competence which the next school stage (i.e. scuola media) will deepen and develop. Otherwise, what is the point of an early beginning if at 11 they must start everything again?

Last but not least, the subject of refreshment courses. Useless to say that from the Ministry we have almost nothing. Once we have been judged “able to teach” then it is up to us. This means that we have to pay for books, conversations classes and courses abroad and, obviously no difference is made between a teacher who is willing to keep herself updated and the one who has never been abroad and just keeps on using the same book for years.

I am aware that the picture I have given is far from being “nice and clean”, but this is what I experience day by day and, above all this is the environment in which many tireless teachers who are really fond of this language and its culture try to operate.

Monica Vittadini

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Letter 2: Four different schools 

I am a language assistant from Ireland and I have been teaching in Italy for the last nine months. I teach between four different schools, one is a Scuola Superiore and the other three are Scuole Medie. I also have private lessons once a week in a private language school and my first experience of teaching English was in this type of school. I arrived in Italy in June 2002 and straight away I found a job teaching privately in the afternoons. I did this for 2/3 months while having a look at other private schools and what they had to offer. I went to various schools for interviews or to simply introduce myself and give them my C.V. After a while I lost interest in the private school scene as it was badly paid and the hours were long. So I started to search the secondary schools and luckily I found a school who desperately needed a language assistant every other week to work 22 hours a week and the pay was good. I started there in October and I really love it here in. I enjoy teaching groups of teenagers as I trained in Ireland to be a secondary teacher and this is the type of teaching I am used to.

After a while I started looking for private Italian lessons in a school near to where I live and they asked me could I do some work in the Scuole Medie in exchange for Italian lessons. I agreed as I had every other week free so I started teaching there in November. So as you can imagine I've had a taste of all the types of schools in Italy in such as short space of time.

Is there a difference, in regards to teaching English, between the different types of schools?

Yes there is. As Monica Vittadini explained in her letter (also about Italy), English has become a compulsory language in schools in Italy. Kids from as young as four or five are learning it in Scuola Elementaria. Italians realise how important English has become - and you will often hear it being expressed as a passport to the world. However, at the moment there is a big learning gap between Scuola Media and Superiore. Most of the Medie where I am living are situated in small towns or villages on top of the hills and the areas all speak their own particular type of dialect. The children are lively and mostly undisciplined but at the same time they are enthusiastic about learning English. There are some teachers in the Scuole Medie who are very well spoken and trained to a high level to teach English and then there is the other side of the coin-teachers who don't even understand me after nine months of teaching by their sides simply because they haven't learned English very well themselves. I've learned a lot reading Monica's letter, for example that there was a shortage of English teachers in the past so the posts were open to anyone willing to give it a go. And to stress her point again, there is no common ground for English teachers at this level as they all have different levels of English themselves. This inconsistency is then carried on through the pupils into Scuola Superiore.

When pupils arrive at Scuola Superiore level they have to restart learning English all over again as they picked up bad habits from Scuola Media or simply took a disliking for the language. This is frustrating for the teacher as he or she has an even tougher job to do, undoing common mistakes and at the same time trying to move their English forward. I work with five teachers at Scuola Superiore and all of them say the same thing. The first years are the toughest to teach. One teacher told me she dreads going into teach her first year class because after the class she is completely exhausted and drained.

My opinion as an outsider looking in:

I really believe there should be more of a learning curve between Scuola Media and Scuola Superiore. At the moment it resembles a car jump starting. Pupils start learning English at Scuola Media and then start learning it again from the same point at Scuola Superiore. It leaves me wondering whether they should be learning it at Scuola Media at all!! At Scuola Media I try to teach British, Irish and American culture through English but it nearly proves to be next to impossible. I believe that a language should be spoken in the class as much as possible at any level so pupils can begin to absorb it quicker. I am a musician also so I think the ear is a very important tool to train, especially listening for different sounds-for example pronunciation and sentence structures. At Scuola Media teachers don't really exploit this. They tend to give in and talk to the pupils in Italian. This makes English more of a passive subject rather than an active subject and pupils tend to get bogged down in the book. If they have to listen rather than see the written word they tend to tune out, as I have encountered on many times.

Of course it is not all negative. I have been encouraged to see some of the weakest pupils or some of the least interested pupils completely change their attitude towards learning English since the beginning of the year. A little thought I often have to tell myself is that a teacher cannot change the world but they can give a little everyday, even if it is only to one person, and that can go a long way.

Suzanne McCallion

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