Zuzana Straková: A Safe Environment for Young Learners

SCELTConference, ELTForum.sk, eltforum.sk 2013, Interviews, Main, Reflections on Teaching and Learning, Slovenská komora angličtinárov, The Slovak Chamber of English Teachers

An interview with eltforum.sk speaker: Zuzana Straková

by Martina Bednáriková

If you teach young learners, you are well aware that dealing with a room full of fidgety, busy 7-year-olds who would rather be playing requires a different plan of action than, say, dealing with a businessman. Exactly how does a teacher channel that energy, and get young learners involved and interested at the same time? Zuzana Straková has some practical ideas on that that she’ll be sharing in her workshop at ELTForum.sk in June. We talked to this university professor – who often seems to reflect the bubbly busy-ness of her YLs more than the staid atmosphere of academia – to find out more.

Sue Strakova - Strbske Pleso

SCET: Zuzka, your research is in teaching English to young learners (TEYL). What’s the story behind your involvement in TEYL? What does your research involve and what do you personally like most about it?

Zuzka: I have always wanted to work with young learners so I found a way to work with a primary school here in Prešov. I have been involved in a variety of research projects, such as developing reading competence with young learners, language acquisition, enriching the learning environment for young learners, and developing their metacognitive learning strategies. I, personally, find the development of reading the most appealing since it is rather underestimated in our schools.

SCET: Can you tell us more about your YL classes? Where and who do you teach? What is your teaching approach based on?

Zuzka: I teach at a state primary school and I usually teach only one class of pupils. This year, however, is an exception: I teach two first-grade classes. In my teaching, I try to expose young learners to the target language as much as possible and keep them actively involved in their learning process. I work together with my university students – future teachers of English – who function as my assistants and group-leaders. The project is a win-win situation for everyone involved: I gain experience; my students learn how young learners respond to certain teaching strategies; and our young learners are given more chances to use the target language.

SCET: What do you think are the most important features of a successful and innovative YL classroom?

Zuzka: I think the most important thing to understand is the difference between learning and acquisition, especially in the first years of foreign language experience. Young learners cannot understand language as a system – they will have enough time to master that later. They need to become aware of how language functions and they need a lot of opportunities to try it out in a safe environment which leads to the automatization of certain processes. It is a challenging task to help children immersed in English but that’s the only way how we can do it right.

SCET: What’s your most recent project as far as TEYL is concerned?

Zuzka: Recently, I have focused a lot on piloting what I call ‘reading programmes’. I strongly believe each learner should be reading. And reading programmes need to be considered a legitimate part of the school educational programme starting in year three. It cannot be a one-off experience but rather a systematic and regular activity, specifically tailored to the needs of the learner.  I’ve noticed considerable progress in learners’ abilities to work out the meaning of words from context and I’ve seen their vocabulary grow. I’ve seen their confidence grow as they experience finishing “another” book in English. So, I believe we should pay more attention to this area.

Sue Strakova and some of her older pupils

SCET: Based on the current situation in Slovak education as well as your teaching experience at the Faculty of Arts, Prešov University, how do you see the future of English teachers in Slovakia?

Zuzka: I always try to see things from a positive perspective so this is no exception. I believe that teachers who choose this profession will not get discouraged by the complications of the system around them but will love the job because of the joy and fulfilment it can bring.

SCET: As a university instructor, you are doing many different things. Which of all the positions you hold is your favourite (or do you have one)?

Zuzka: I prefer the creative aspects of my professional life which basically means I love teaching and training – all ages.

SCET: I am wondering whether you find any free time in your busy schedule. What do you like doing when you are not teaching?

Zuzka: I love reading books, spending time with my family, walking my dog Zara and I simply love being at home.

Sue and ZaraZuzana Straková is a TEFL specialist and has been teaching and working with pre-service trainees, trainers and in-service teachers since 1991. She is the head of English Language and Literature Department at the Institute of British and American Studies at the Faculty of Arts, Prešov University. In recent years, her research has been devoted to TEYL. She has supervised several successful TEYL projects and has piloted several innovative approaches in her own YL classes. She has conducted numerous lectures, seminars and workshops for pre-service and in-service English language teachers. Zuzka is also a member of the Slovak Chamber of English Teachers Advisory Board.