I bring you another interview in the series "Interviews with English teachers". This time round, it´s Isabel de Francisco (no, we´re not married or related!). Let´s learn more about her...
My name is Isabel. I was born and raised in Segovia and started off teaching English language at primary school level in Madrid ten years ago. I have been teaching children aged between three and twelve and have particularly enjoyed eight-year-olds.
For the last five years, I have been involved in the “Comunidad de Madrid” bilingual school programme having taught several subjects, besides English language, such as Social and Natural Science or Arts and Crafts in some different state schools. I am currently teaching these subjects in Primary 1 and 2.
Isabel, when did your interest in English arise and why did you decide to go into teaching?
I have been very interested in English since I was very young. When I was at school, the subject was taught in Primary 6 for the first time. As my family was very concerned about my education, they wanted me to learn English before doing it at school. Because of this, my mum herself decided to teach me English. As a result of taking English lessons at an early age, I used to score brilliant marks. The better my marks were, the more motivated I was. Therefore, it became my favourite school subject.
Then, at high school I had excellent English teachers and without realising it, they became role models for me. Not only those English teachers at high school actually inspired me, but also the ones at the “Escuela de Idiomas”. Since then, I knew that my professional life was going to be closely related to the English language.
How was your experience as an “Oposiciones” candidate? Do you find that system adequate or lacking?
My experience as an “Oposiciones” candidate was not bad at all. I passed the whole process six years ago after two attempts. Although I did not pass it until the third time, I could work as a teacher. Along those years I learnt a lot of things and improved my teaching skills.
As far as the system is concerned, it is very different from some regions to others. In Madrid, the “Oposiciones” system changes every year. It cannot be denied that in the case of English, we as foreign language teachers, have to be highly qualified, otherwise students will not achieve their goals.
However, I reckon that the “Oposiciones” system, from about five years ago onwards, is turning into a candidate-eating monster rather than a fair selective process. An example of this was the listening exercise candidates had to do in Madrid in June 2015. It was a radio interview with an English teacher on the BBC. A large number of candidates who took the exam have stated that the recording was speeded up in comparison with the original one. If this really happened, we may come to the conclusion that the aim of that exercise was far from just assessing candidates´ listening skills. You can have a look at the web page and listen to the interview in the listening exam http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04fzd9h
The system definitely has its strengths and weaknesses, and whenever is modified, it should be done in a crystal clear way, taking into account the whole educational community´s points of view.
You´ve been teaching at primary school level for a few years, what differences have you noticed when teaching children as opposed to the way teenagers are taught?
As I mentioned before, I have been teaching at primary school level, specifically the first grades for nearly ten years.
So far I have realised that the earlier stages are crucial for children because if they lay the foundations for basic contents, they are very likely to succeed in their future learning. For this reason, it is very important to cater for children´s learning needs.
One of the main differences between teaching children in contrast with teenagers is that young learners need more visual aids and teacher´s guidance. In fact, visual materials such as flashcards and realia are a must-have in every English primary teacher´s professional life.
In addition to this, children are believed to learn by playing so primary teachers often take advantage of this and make use of games. There is a wide range of games worth using which enable children to learn English.
Another difference I have noticed concerns grammar. In the case of teenagers, they are usually taught grammar rules because of being mentally prepared for their comprehension. However, it is not the same with young learners, teaching grammar rules is not effective. The best way of teaching grammar is noticing it by reading books or through a PPP (Presentation, Practice and Production) method. Actually, production is the most important stage of the process but somehow is neglected. Because of this, pupils should have the opportunity to produce more.
What do you think of the much-criticised bilingual education in Spain?
Bilingual education itself in Spain does not exist. We should refer to the fact that some “Comunidades autónomas” have set up their own bilingual education programme.
As I work in a “bilingual school” in Madrid, I am going to relate my own experience and opinion. In bilingual schools, the number of English lessons is five a week. Also, schools can choose among some other subjects like music, PE, Arts and Crafts or Science to be taught in the English language. Most schools teach Science and Arts and Crafts in English.
In all the bilingual schools, there are some language assistants employed by the “Consejería de educación” during a school year. These language assistants are English native speakers who mostly come from Great Britain and the USA. They work sixteen hours a week and their functions range from helping teachers out in class to making classroom displays. There is approximately one language assistant per every two class groups of the same level.
Regarding school staff engaged in the bilingual programme, English language teachers can only teach English. With respect to those subjects taught in English, they are the responsibility of teachers who have passed an exam called “Habilitación lingüística” or achieved an ability at C1 or C2 level. So, it may occur that Science and English are taught by different teachers.
Pupils in year 2, 4 and 6 of Primary have to take external examinations. When they are in Primary 2 , they take Trinity GESE 3. In Primary 4, Trinity GESE 5 and in Primary 6, KET exam.
To my mind, Madrid´s bilingual programme has some positive aspects, like the good results children tend to achieve in the external exams or the high level of involvement and enthusiasm most teachers engaged in the programme show.
Nevertheless, it is lacking; the programme is not designed to cater for children with learning difficulties. Besides, preparation for external exams is time-consuming and stresses teachers out; somehow teachers have the feeling of being assessed too.
What can you tell us about your school and colleagues?
My school is located in the north of Madrid city. There are over 200 children aged between three and twelve enrolled. Most of my colleagues have been teaching in this school for more than ten years. This implies that the school staff is relatively stable which results in a highly professional and friendly environment.
How successful are your students in the official English exams they take? Are students more motivated to learn when they know they can get a certificate?
Up to now, my pupils have been successful in their official English exams. I´m used to preparing Trinity GESE 2 and 3 that consists of an unscripted conversation with a Trinity examiner and lasts between 6 and 7 minutes. The lesson plans focused on preparing the exam are communicative and enjoyable activities which let children learn without noticing it. Moreover, in order to prevent any pressure I don´t speak to them about the exam until one week before it takes place.
I understand you are doing the “Estudios Ingleses” degree course. Would you like to teach at a secondary school in the future?
The reason why I am doing the degree course in “English studies” is that it provides me with a deeper knowledge of the Anglophone world, its language and literature. So far, I haven't made up my mind about teaching secondary school in the future.
Do you speak any other languages?
Yes, I do. I studied French at high school but didn’t improve my command of the language so it could be said that I´m just an eternal beginner. When I went to France I was able to get by and that was enough for me.
What are your hobbies?
I really like jogging, walking and swimming. I am also interested in reading, creative sewing, driving, baking, drawing, listening to music and travelling.
Thanks so much, Isabel. Enjoy the rest of your summer holidays!