How Do Students Learn English in Chile?

On Friday morning, I was at the opening ceremony of the 2012 IATEFL Chile annual conference for teachers of English and students of English pedagogy. Sitting in the audience, thinking ahead to my presentation with my colleague, Loreto Gomez, about the Spelling Bee for EFL Teachers, my thoughts were interrupted.

As the host of the event, the opening speaker was from Universidad San Sebastian. The speaker was giving his welcome remarks. Usually, I admit, I pay very little attention to welcome speeches, having given more than my share of them. But this day, today, Friday, was different. Why?

In sum, the first speaker had given voice to the frustration that students entering the university were not learning English well in schools – the high schools they were coming from before entering university.

This meant that there wasn’t much that the university could do for the student who came with a low level of English.

Further, the student, and by extension, the country (Chile) missed out on the benefits of being able to communicate effectively in English, considering the fact that we live in a globalized world that uses English as a common lingua franca.

At this, I nodded my head in agreement. “This is true”, I thought to myself.

I remembered a job interview to become the head of a university English training department I’d had in January 2012, in the past summer.

At the interview, the biggest concern shared with me was how to take students who entered the university with low levels of English ability, and improve their ability, practically from beginner status, to the level of the Preliminary English Test (PET), which is B1 on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for languages.

The CEFR is widely recognized, not only in Europe, but around the world as the gold standard upon which to measure your efforts in teaching English or any other foreign language which they have benchmarked.

The CEFR is particularly useful because it quantifies, in explicit terms, what a student “Can Do” with the language at each of six levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2.

Here, I will add that at my school, the students achieve level B1 (PET) in the 8th grade and level B2 (First Certificate – FCE) in 10th grade.
Let’s return to the story. As you can imagine, the frustration of receiving students at university, who have finished 7 years of studies in English at secondary school, is a common concern at universities in Chile throughout the country.

Therefore, as I said before, I nodded my head in agreement with the speaker from Universidad San Sebastian.

The next speaker, however, caused me some wonder. The speaker made the following statement, which I paraphrase: “We don’t know how people learn English.”

My reaction was: “Wait a minute. Yes, we do. We know how people learn English. It’s not rocket science.”

However, in all fairness, my response is from the perspective of a teacher who works with highly successful students, in terms of learning the English language. I do indeed know how people learn English.

Let me repeat myself precisely. I know what works with the students who I work with. There are many variables, yet I will name those aspects which I have found to be of most significance.

Before I begin, however, I will control for the obvious advantage that socio-economic status provides. It has been proven in countless studies, again and again, ad infinitum, ad nauseum even, that students from high socio-economic status have better educational outcomes than those from lower socio-economic status.

Thusly, the more unequal a society is, in terms of the distribution of wealth, the more unequal learning outcomes will be.

To be clear, research has found that, in general, “the richer you are, the better your results.”

Consequently, socio-economic status is a given, and now we can turn our attention to what works – without consideration of financial background, as it has an overwhelming and very significant, positive effect on eventual success.

In my observations and experience, here is what works:

1. High expectations – of teachers and students equally
2. Students get it right at first (Focus on Form)
2. Students get it right in the end (Focus on Meaning)
2. Teachers teach the entire class in English
3. Teachers highly trained and/or highly competent
4. Teachers involved in relevant professional development
4. Teachers share best practices
5. Start early (pre-kinder, age 4, 5, 6)
6. Weekly English Curriculum Hours – Ten (10)
7. Two for One – Teach content in English (Math/Science) CLIL
8. Learning English outside school (Extracurricular English Course)
9. English Activities
(Debate / Public Speaking / Talent Show / Play/ Spelling Bee)
10. Optimal Class size: 20 to 25 (maximum)

** 40 to 45 students in a classroom, for learning English, is hypocrisy. The fewer the better..**

** A teacher of English, who can not speak English, is a contradiction in terms**

**The earlier the better. The younger the better.**

I know. Here in Chile, waiting until 5th grade to begin teaching English is the national policy.

Many strong arguments support that idea – to wait until the 5th grade to begin teaching English in Chile.

However, it overlooks the actual Chilean experience about what works. It is an undeniable fact that the most successful schools in the country all do the same thing: they begin to teach the English language in Pre-Kinder.

In my view, we need to understand how to replicate our own experience. To be clear we must ask ourselves: How can we replicate the results of our most successful schools, on a massive scale?

Again, I contend that it is well within our intellectual capacity to study our own experience, understand it contextually, quantify it properly, and then transfer our knowledge to actual practice.

To finish, I would like to look to the example given to the world from Singapore. Yes, I know. Singapore is not Chile.

Or maybe, I should say, “Why isn’t Chile, Singapore?”

In 1965, Singapore was a Third World country, economically no better off than Chile, and in fact, Singapore was worse off than Mexico and Argentina.

But not today, that is no longer true.

So maybe we should let the person responsible for the Singapore Miracle tell us how Singapore approached its problems.

What did Singapore do, that maybe we could also do, to help us in our pursuit of excellence in learning English…

** Quote: Lee Kuan Yew – “We learned on the job and learned quickly. If there was one formula for our success, it was that we were constantly studying how to make things work, or how to make them work better. I was never a prisoner of any theory. What guided me were reason and reality. The acid test I applied to every theory or scheme was: would it work?”

Lee Kuan Yew: “If it did not work, or the results were poor, I did not waste more time and resources on it. I almost never made the same mistake twice, and I tried to learn from the mistakes others had made.”

Lee Kuan Yew: “I discovered early in office that there were few problems confronting me in government that other governments had not met and solved.”

Lee Kuan Yew: “So I made a practice of finding out who else had met the problem we faced, how they had tackled it, and how successful they had been.”

Lee Kuan Yew: “Whether it was to build a new airport or to change our teaching methods, I would send a team of officers to visit and study those countries that had done it well.”

Lee Kuan Yew: “I preferred to climb on the shoulders of others who had gone before us.” (page 687)

From Third World to First : The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 [Hardcover]



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Connectivism: A Theory of Learning For A Digital Age

Connectivism & Connected Knowledge tells the story of my personal journey from isolation to becoming globally connected to sources of knowledge and expertise, from some of the most brilliant people in my field, education…

It is a personal journey that begins with a proposition: self-improvement that also benefits others.

I go back in time to share this journey with you, certain that it will also benefit you personally, and the members of your personal and professional learning network also.


The International Baccalaureate [Kindle Edition]

The International Baccalaureate [Paperback]

The global search for high-quality education, embedded in high-performing education systems, has taken on mythical proportions, almost resembling the alchemists’ quest to turn common metals into gold.

It is my hope that the present day search for global education, equitable and providing equality of opportunity for all, shall not cease until the “gold” we seek, has been found.

I therefore dedicate this book to all the educators, researchers, parents and students the world over, who strive to achieve this elusive goal,high-quality education for all the citizens of the world.

In this endeavour, it is my belief that the International Baccalaureate merits a closer look, based on their more than 40 year history of delivering consistently excellent results.

I add that all of the reflections and views in this book are mine alone, unless otherwise noted, and can not be attributed to my employer or any other organization I am affiliated with, past or present. For any errors or oversights, I bear the complete responsibility.


Amazon Author Page: Thomas Jerome Baker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He is the Head of the English Department at Colegio Internacional SEK in Santiago, Chile.

He is the Co-Founder and Co-Organiser of EdCamp Santiago, free, participant-driven, democratic, conversation based professional development for teachers, by teachers. EdCamp Santiago 2012 was held at Universidad Mayor in Santiago.

Thomas is also a member of the Advisory Board for the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association (HETL), where he also serves as a reviewer and as the HETL Ambassador for Chile.

Thomas enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. Thus far, he has written the following genres: romance, historical fiction, autobiographical, sports history/biography, and English Language Teaching. He has published a total of forty four (44) books overall.

The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family, his wife Gabriela, and his son, Thomas Jerome Baker, Jr.




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About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
This entry was posted in Connectivism, Culture, Debates, Education, Education Technology, EFL, Higher Education Teaching & Learning, Reading, Reflections, Research, Sports, Teaching Tips, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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