Young Language Learners Aided by Webster Practicum Students

Webster student Brad Wilhite explains a lesson--in Spanish--to a St. Louis Language Immersion Schools kindergartner.

It’s common knowledge that small children soak up foreign languages like sponges.

That language readiness has been a boon for several Webster students of Spanish and French who have done pre-student-teaching practicums–mainly with kindergartners–at the St. Louis Language Immersion Schools.

Senior Amber Swepson helped kindergartners learn Spanish in the fall semester. “I learned so much,” she said. “The children’s abilities to comprehend Spanish at such a young age really blew me away.”

Swepson said speaking the language with 23 children for 90 minutes twice a week improved her own Spanish-speaking abilities. She added that the only negative part of the experience was saying good-bye at the end of the semester.  “You just want to take them all home, because they are all so darned cute.”

Graduate student Brad Wilhite is currently doing a practicum with the same kindergarten class. “Going into the practicum, I was unsure what to expect,” he said. “How can kindergarten students understand Spanish? It took me five-plus years to learn.”

“…they are very fast learners and their comprehension is astounding.”

Wilhite found that the children were quick studies. “Although they may not speak Spanish much or very accurately—the kindergarten students, anyway—it turns out that they are very fast learners and their comprehension is astounding.”

Wilhite, who has undergraduate degrees in Spanish and International Business, said he started to realize that he could “push the envelope in math” with many of the children. With teacher Maribel Martinez’s approval, he has been giving math lessons (in Spanish) that would be considered second-grade level by Missouri standards.

Juliet Salih did her practicum last semester in José Manuel Chavez’s kindergarten class. “It was a good experience and I enjoyed it,” Salih said. She added, however, that she sometimes felt a little frustrated that she was not able to explain Spanish grammar and mechanics: The kindergartners would not have understood.

Chavez said Salih helped out with children who had fallen behind in their studies. He said his class looked forward to seeing Salih and got along well with her.

Webster practicum students “have a lot of energy.”

Martinez agreed that Webster students have been a welcome addition to her classroom. “They’re young and they have a lot of energy,” she said.

The young adults also convey to the kindergartners that it’s possible to learn a foreign language well, Martinez said. “They look at the Webster students and think, ‘They’re Americans and they’re learning a language like I am.’”

Department of International and Languages (ILC) Spanish instructor Mercedes Stephenson has supervised Swepson’s, Salih’s , and Wilhite’s practicums. She has high praise for the St. Louis Immersion Schools.  “I cannot say enough good things about the schools,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson pointed out that although the immersion schools’ students come from diverse backgrounds, including Hispanic, Bosnian, and African-American, the children acquire another language with ease. “It’s a great educational experience,” she said. “I find it amazing that this is totally immersion.”

Currently, Stephenson is supervising Swepson and Salih as they student teach in area middle schools. “It is very rewarding for me to have taught Juliet and Amber in Spanish classes and later watch them as they teach the language,” she said. “What a treat!”

Practicum students learn how “to keep it lively.”

Arline Cravens, an ILC French instructor who supervised a fall-semester practicum, said that teaching young children presents special challenges for practicum students. “They have to keep it lively,” she said.

Practicum students also need a lot of preparation to teach in an immersion classroom, Cravens said. She added that the experience is beneficial for these future teachers in that it “generates a lot of tools.”

Paula Hanssen, ILC chair and assistant professor of German, said the department is pleased to be able to offer practicums with young language learners. “We’re very grateful here at Webster for the opportunity our students of language education have to assist and to teach at the St. Louis Language Immersion Schools (SSLIS),” she said.

The partnership with the charter schools offers benefits for all involved, Hanssen said. “These students bring their expertise in language to the community through the SLLIS, where the apprentice teachers and their pupils can take inspiration from each other.”

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