Free English classes give schoolchildren in Heredia a leg up
At the beginning of every February, Costa Rican students find themselves preparing for the start of another school year. Summer holidays in Costa Rica typically line up with the start of the tropical dry season, running from mid-December until early February. Recognising this free time as a period for great potential for student development, Projects Abroad teaching volunteers took the opportunity to offer free English classes to any students wishing to attend.
Volunteers, along with students from the State University of New York (SUNY)-Cortland College of Education, lead the classes held at Escuela Braulio Morales Cervantes in downtown Heredia. The purpose of the classes is to give local schoolchildren an opportunity to interact with native English speakers. At the same time, it gives volunteers valuable hands-on experience leading classes and communicating across linguistic and cultural barriers.
As volunteers work to learn the students’ language and the students work to learn the language of the volunteers, they create an environment ripe for mutual learning. It provides a sharp contrast to the typical lecture-style classroom dynamic, as the language barrier places teachers and students on the same level.
I want them to experience what it’s like to be an ESL student,” states SUNY-Cortland group leader and education professor, Valerie Widdall. “Hopefully they’re going to bring their own struggles that they had here and use that to help their own students in their own classrooms. I want them to go outside of their comfort zone to grow professionally, emotionally, and socially.”
In Costa Rica, a huge premium is placed on a person’s ability to speak fluent English. The influx of foreign businesses that provide the majority of jobs for Costa Rica’s middle class, as well as an extensive tourism industry require employees to possess strong English skills. For that reason, children begin learning English from a very young age, and it remains a core part of the curriculum during both primary and secondary education.
While English is vital to career success, the public education system in Costa Rica struggles to consistently find English teachers with significant experience. As a result, lessons often suffer from mispronunciation and a lack of practical knowledge.
“The idea of having volunteers in the classrooms is basically to take advantage of having native speakers of the language,” states Andres Mendoza, regional English director for the Ministry of Public Education in Heredia. “So with the volunteers, we are able to bring the language to Costa Rica for free, and our students are exposed to other cultures, to other customs, to other traditions. Basically to listen to the correct pronunciation of the English language.”
This is the second year that teaching volunteers have been able to conduct these special sessions during school vacations, running for one month in January and two weeks in July. Recognising the growing importance of English proficiency in career opportunities, the Ministry of Public Education is making further strides to promote English language learning among its students.
Following the initiative of former volunteers for the US Peace Corps, the 2015 school year was the second for the Ministry of Public Education to hold English-language competitions among public school students reaching the national level. The competitions included a traditional English Spelling Bee, where students competed by orally spelling words in English. In the most recent competition, an “impromptu speech” portion was added where students recited a speech and were judged on grammar and fluency.
The competition began at the classroom level, but ultimately became nationwide at EARTH University in Guapiles in November 2015. Prizes were awarded to participants, including scholarships to language schools and local universities.
Projects Abroad provided sponsorship for the regional competition, and teaching volunteers participated by filling the roles of announcers and judges at the classroom, school-wide, and district-level competitions. However, beyond direct participation in the competitions, teaching volunteers provided the education necessary for their students to gain a sufficient level of English to compete. Seven students from Projects Abroad partner schools won the district competitions and advanced to the regional level.
Perhaps one of the most fundamental aspects of learning another language is the cultural connection that comes with it.
“The support from volunteers is essential because they don’t only help us in English,” adds Mendoza. “They help us to talk about other subjects like history or nature or globalisation. We have seen how they participate in activities, how they really deliver and the respect and care that they give to our students. Without a doubt, their help has been very important in our schools.”
Find out more about volunteering on a Teaching project overseas.