“Remember, the main objective of this class is for you guys to develop speaking skills, so when you’re talking to each other, don’t forget to practice,” Maricela Contreras said to her first-year students at the Superior Teaching College in Hermosillo, encouraging them to speak in English as she passes back graded papers.
She’s been an English teacher for nearly a decade. But this year she’s part of something new. For the first time, Sonoran teaching colleges are requiring every future teacher to learn English, no matter what subject they plan to teach. And they’ll have to pass an English exam in order to earn a degree.
It’s part of a national mandate to help Mexican students learn English.
“Basically I think it’s being in touch with the language and practicing, that’s the way you’ll get better. And that’s what they’re doing here at the escuelas normales,” Contreras said.
The Sonoran government added 21 full-time English professors to teaching schools, or escuelas normales, this year. They purchased new books and materials. And they’re upping the time teaching students spend in English classes.
Contreras and fellow English professor Graciella Corella worked on a new curriculum in their small offices at the teaching school.
“The other day, my students were practicing in the listening part and one of my students says, ‘I don’t understand anything because that’s not the way my teacher speaks,” said Corrella, laughing. “It was very difficult to understand an authentic accent.”
“Yeah, because books have listening exercises but they speak really clear and slow, and well pronounced. And then when you give them authentic material they go crazy,” Contreras said.
Since being selected to be part of the new program they’ve been busy preparing lessons and attending training sessions on English teaching. Contreras was part of a group that spent six weeks this summer in a customized teaching program at New Mexico State University.
“By having this collaboration, we open the doors, you know, for student exchange, which is student mobility, professor mobility, joint research. Once you get started with this, it’s infinite — the benefits you can get on both ways,” said Jorge Ramos, the Mexico liaison for New Mexico State’s international and border programs.
Patricia Langford is the vice director of the Sonoran Center for Teacher Development (CRESON). She said the program is something Sonoran teaching schools haven’t tried before.
“This is something that never happened before. We are very excited and we have great, great expectations on this,” she said. "Other efforts to improve English in Mexican schools in the past haven’t gotten results, so it was time for a change."
“Mexico [is] a monolingual country in which you don’t need to use English, once you step out of the classroom, it is very difficult,” she continued. “Now we are trying to bring this learning up to a higher level.”
The first step is for teachers to have a solid grasp of the English language.
But that doesn’t mean they’ll all teach in English. Outside of official language classes, content areas like history or science won’t be taught in English. Instead, Langford said the idea is for students and teachers to communicate informally in English, even outside of class time.
Focusing on teachers first is one way to start improving second language acquisition, said Katie Bernstein. She specializes in second language acquisition in Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.
“If we’re thinking about that kind of social register of proficiency, then it’s probably great to have all of the teachers able to interact with students in that language,” she said.
But being able to speak to your friends or teachers casually is very different than being able to use a language in an academic or business setting. To prepare Sonoran students for that kind of English would probably mean training teachers to teach other subjects, like history or science, in English too, she said.
“If you wanted to move toward students leaving school with academic registers of language, then the next step might be to think about integrating English into some subject area classes,” she said. “So yes, it doesn’t seem like ... there’s a short, easy way to get there.”
But English language acquisition has to be a priority, especially in the border region, said Sergio Espinosa. He’s the director of international affairs in the Sonoran Education Ministry.
“Teaching English as a second language is a priority internationally, in Mexico and especially in Sonora that, well, we’re at the border with the U.S. So we have to take advantage of that,” he said. “We’re not only competing with other states in Mexico or with the U.S. — we’re competing internationally.”
For students in Mexico, speaking English opens doors to better jobs, he said. And it also helps them take advantage of scholarships and study abroad programs in the United States that often have a language requirement.
Back in the classroom, first year teaching student Jesus Sanchez is practicing to become a middle school English teacher. He said English education isn’t very good in Mexico right now.
“Kids often don’t like English,” he said. “And that’s why I want to be a teacher, maybe, to make them like it.”
He calls English a “must have” for everyone in Mexico these days.
Maricela Contreras said she’s hopeful that the new program is a step in the right direction.
“It is exciting, because it’s what you love to do. And that other people realize that it’s important and they support you, well, it’s the complete package.”
She said she's working hard to make this program effective, but it’s just the beginning of a long road ahead.
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