Thursday, 29 September 2011

S is for Sponge

I'm back to working in an academy after a break of a few years, and it's that time of the year when parents come in to ask about courses. This week, I was asked to speak to a father about his 5 and 8 year old. Now, silly old me had forgotten the mad (IMHO) questions people ask. I remember in my first year of teaching I was asked "When will my child be bilingual?" I kid you not. This child was four and was coming twice a week for 50 minutes. I remember being amazed at this question at them time. I was even more amazed when I found out that the parent in question was a teacher! 

Where do people get the idea that children, especially young learners between 3-6 are "sponges" when it comes to language learning and what does that mean exactly? Why would a child be a "sponge" at learning a foreign language but struggle in their own language? The mind boggles. 

Getting back to the father in question, he asked me, if after a year, his five year old would be able to "defend" himself in English. When I told my boyfriend this, he fell around laughing saying what did he want me to teach him. Basically, he was aksing if his five year old would be able to answer questions and have a conversation after a year of English. 

I spent about ten minutes explaining that he would be able to produce between 50 and a 100 words and have a passive knowledge of classroom instuctions, that he would be able to sing some songs in English and that he would improve his ear. After my long and honest explanation, he said that he would have to go away and think about it. I haven't seen him since.

Children are like "sponges" it is said, yes, they suck it up without fear and then it slowly leaks out!

Anyone teaching any "sponges" ?


  1. It doesn't help when the director of the school actually tells people that young children are like sponges so that they start them as early as possible (a new paying customer until the 4 year old is 18!). Children may well be sponges when they are living in an environment where English is spoken all the time - certainly more than adults are, but people (parents) unfortunately don't seem to realise that 2 hours in English out of the child's 80 plus waking hours per week is not going to produce a bilingual child. Crazy when you think about those figures, isn't it?
    Oh the joys of defending yourself to parents....

  2. Nice joke at the end. Don't ever go into advertising - you're too honest.

  3. Hi Michelle,

    How are you? I've survived first week back in an academy!

    I forgot what it's like to have to explain myself to parents. I also forot the completely unrealistic ideas they have about language learning. I also forgot that school owners talk nonsense just to get 'em in the door and keep 'em.


  4. Hi David,

    What can I say? You gotta tell it like it is!

  5. Honestly, I think managing parent expectations is far more difficult than teaching the children. One of the biggest complaints I hear from parents is that "my child isn't learning anything", yet most of these parents can't understand English themselves, so it baffles me as to how they even make that assessment. Actually educating the parents on what to expect, how to see results, how children learn, and why teachers teach the way they do is a very difficult job for both teachers and administrators..

  6. Hi Nick,

    Nice to see you here. How's it going? You're in China now, right?

    Yes. Managing expectations is a very difficult job. Perhaps it should be an #ELTchat topic.


  7. I think the penny is starting to drop as parents seek out other additional language experiences for their kids, like having an English speaking babysitter and watching TV in English. But even so isn't it surprising that the same parents who spend 1000 euros a year on their 2 kids having lessons are not prepared to sit them in front of English speaking telly or DVDs for even an hour a week (which costs nothing).

  8. Duncan has reminded me of a mother of a five-year old who came to speak to me last year because her son had said we used Spanish in the classroom. When I explained that the children were allowed to express themselves in whatever way they could (English, Spanish, a mixture of both) she told me that what she really wanted was for her son to listen to a native speaker for two hours a week. I explained that I was a teacher and that my job was to make sure the children learned some English, not stand there speaking to them for an hour!

  9. so..I'm not the only one facing parents with such expactations!
    here's my blog post on what I go through as a manager of a school and a teacher at the same time in Greece

  10. so, I'm not the only one facing such parents!
    Here's my blog post on what I go through while being a teacher and a language school manager at the same time in Greece, unrealistic expactations!

  11. HI there,
    I have far fewer 'sponges' this year in my after-school groups and although it's not the best thing financially, I'm finding it soooo wonderful to have small groups (one of 3 and one of 5). They are also a bit of a mix n match age-wise but they're really working well together and giving me the chance to experiment in a more 'relaxed' atmosphere.
    The 2 that really stood out last year are continuing to 'soak up' anything and everything but it's also because their parents only put on cartoons or DVDs in English and so they are far more receptive to the attempt at 'English only' that we have agreed on as they are used to it. Parents really need to realise that they have a huge role to play.

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  13. Hi Everyone,

    Sorry I haven't had time to reply. I've been busy doing nothing and worrying about my poor finances. The sponges are fine. I have a group of four year olds that are very cute! I'll be writing shortly about what we have been up to!

    Thanks Clare for stopping by and thanks Nora (I've but your blog in my Google reader)
    Thanks for the kind offer Tarun, I will have a look and see what we can do.

    Take care