Lower Division Language Students “Learn By Doing,” through Film, Art, and Play

Lower Division Language Students “Learn By Doing,” through Film, Art, and Play

What makes St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s lower division language program stand out is the unique approach each teacher takes to instruction. As teachers of young children—the language program begins at age 3—teachers Deb Jordan-Levy (French), Elizabeth Ortega (Spanish), and Peng Zeng (Mandarin Chinese) are all unified in their mission to provide a contemporary, immersive, and age-appropriate learning environment for their students. Drawing from their diverse professional and personal backgrounds, they cultivate successful programs that celebrate the fun in learning.  

Foreign Films

Ms. Jordan-Levy uses her own personal passion for film and videography as a teaching tool. “Children remember language better when it becomes physical, and placed in context,” she says. With this in mind, Ms. Jordan-Levy and her students create short videos for each unit, with students acting out the scenes to better understand the language. Ms. Jordan-Levy frames a script around the vocabulary they are working on, using curated props and a plot-specific setting (via green screen) to drive the narrative that the children learn and perform. 

“We learn as a conversation, rather than learn to have a conversation,” Ms. Jordan-Levy says. 

Art and Song

In Ms. Ortega’s lower division Spanish classroom, the children explore Spanish through song and arts and crafts. Ms. Ortega believes that utilizing art and song to interpret the Spanish language in a hands-on manner is an ideal way to reach young learners. These songs and projects change depending on the seasons, holidays, and the current vocabulary. When they aren’t singing, Ms. Ortega’s students are reinforcing their new vocabulary by creating visuals, such as detailed calendars with the correct days, months, and holidays in Spanish. They also illustrate adjective books to better comprehend the vocabulary.

Ms. Ortega grew up in a Spanish-speaking household but attended a monolingual school; she would actually get in trouble for speaking Spanish. “As a person of color, and someone who grew up speaking Spanish, I learned at an early age that this was not a productive approach to learning, nor was it a nurturing environment,” she says. “I encourage speaking in both languages because using English helps build context and curiosity in Spanish.” Ms. Ortega’s use of visuals, games, and songs allows children to encounter and explore the target language organically and with confidence.

Bodies in Motion

Similarly, Ms. Zeng grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese as her first language. As a college student in China, she majored in English, and she discovered a passion for literature, teaching, and connecting cultures while working at The China Institute. 

As a child, Ms. Zeng also was educated in a very traditional manner, rooted in memorization. “I didn’t think this was the ideal way to learn,” she says. Instead, Ms. Zeng embraces a multi-sensory approach, often sharing traditional Chinese games such as “tiao pi jin.” 

She also focuses on kinesthetic learning, encouraging students to use their whole body to physically learn the language. For example, to master Chinese characters, Ms. Zeng encourages students to use their limbs to create actual strokes to form the pictographs. Instead of playing a board game to learn vocabulary, Ms. Zeng’s students will create their own living “board game” on the rug. When Mandarin-Chinese students learned the story Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? to help cement their animal vocabulary, Ms. Zeng created a physical grid with squares representing each animal. The children rolled the dice and then acted out the animal based on the Chinese name they rolled. 

Likewise, to help learn numbers, the children play hopscotch mapped out on the rug, chanting each number they land on in Mandarin Chinese. Ms. Zeng finds that this physicality helps anchor the words they learn and imprint the language in their memory.  

All three language teachers, though unique in their individual techniques, are united in their shared passion for teaching language in a way that is fun, age-appropriate, and challenging. They meet bi-weekly to collaborate, consistently inspiring one another and sampling each other’s techniques—all to cultivate their students' love of language.