language and literacy

Throughout the years, we’ve held classes with a great variety of children, hailing from of all manner of nations, races, religions and creeds. With such diversity, there are bound to be occasions when language becomes an issue. More than once, we’ve held classes with children for whom the area’s dominant language—usually English—was a second, third or even fourth language. In some cases, materials are readily available in their mother tongue; in others, we’re lucky to find a translation of the short obligatory prayer.

Teaching across a language barrier in a Baha’i children’s class is a challenge, but it can work. It’s important to understand the children’s language level and to work at their speed. When a few children read, write or speak at a more basic level than others, it helps to involve another teacher to make sure everyone is given the opportunity to learn according to their own capacity—similar to what we do when a class has age gaps. Although we may deal with each child according to their capacity, we try to avoid creating artificial divisions within the class based on literacy, so that no child feels singled out for having different needs. Regular home visits can be especially helpful for children who struggle with language, as they can then receive further support and encouragement outside of class hours.

When many children in the class have language difficulties, special activities can be integrated into lesson plans on a regular basis to help them focus on language building. The vocabulary builders on this site are one example; these and other written exercises are available on the downloads page. Longer, more complex quotations can be replaced with shorter ones that convey a similar message. With the help of various memorization aids, the children should be able to commit these quotes to memory more easily.

More generally, there are several simple techniques we can use to help foster language comprehension:

  • Speak at the children’s level: clearly and slowly enough that the majority of the class can understand us when we give instructions, give the lesson, read the story, etc. This doesn’t mean we should be patronizing or “dumb down” our lesson—children can still understand longer words and complex concepts if they are explained properly. Rather, it means we should tailor our speech and our language to help that understanding come easier.
  • Use gestures, facial expressions and non-verbal cues to embellish speech, as appropriate. We already do this when teaching songs, but it can be equally effective during other parts of the lesson: when telling a story, or even when illustrating a word or concept in a quote.
  • Pictures are especially useful in helping match words to concepts. We can use them when learning new words from a quote: for example, the word “path” in “Tread ye the path of justice…” could be paired with a picture of a stick-figure walking along a road. We can also draw or print out pictures to help illustrate the main points of a story, like a storybook; the children could then colour them in as a reward at the end of class.


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