Helping disadvantaged children to learn English

Under communism Czech society was highly institutionalized and an unhappy legacy from that time is the disproportionately large number of children growing up in children’s homes. By way of comparison, there are fewer children in institutional care in Britain than in the Czech Republic, even though the country has nearly six times the population. Children growing up in homes often end up with huge social and educational disadvantages, and this was what motivated the Faculty of Education at Prague’s Charles University to carry out a project aimed at developing after-school teaching activities for children in children’s homes. The project focused on English teaching. David Vaughan reports.

Children from a euphemistically named “foster home” near Prague, practice their English with a group of fourth year students from the Faculty of Education. The project was led by Dr Marie Hofmannová, from the faculty’s English Department:

“All the coordinators, who are present here with me, took turns visiting all the foster homes. We were talking to children, we were trying to prepare needs analysis, and we were looking at how life actually goes on in those institutions, as we didn’t have any idea.

“We were surprised with the level of English – from non-existent to very high levels, surprisingly – and on the other hand with the lack of social skills. So the project’s aim was not only to focus on the developing of speaking skills in the English language, it was also somehow to embrace the topic of learning skills and social skills to be learnt through those English-speaking activities.”

Is the aim, in a sense, to take the place of learning in the family?

Dr Marie HofmannováDr Marie Hofmannová “Indeed. We were trying to make it as natural as possible. We had to approach our main task from a different perspective, eliminating all the topics that describe the family, family background or even travelling – travelling abroad – because we realized that these children would probably never be able to go abroad, or they don’t want to talk about family. One girl, when she was asked a simple question, ‘How many brothers and sisters have you got?’ started counting using her fingers, and we thought, ‘Is she retarded?’ and then I realized that she is counting her real brothers and sisters and all the friends in the foster home. That was a new thing for me to discover.”

So it is important not to make the children feel excluded from the start…

“Indeed.”

Barbora Boříiková was one of the students working on the project. This was her first contact with the reality of the life faced by children growing up in institutions, and she was shocked by what she saw. She sees the core of the problem in the very fact that children are being deprived of a family environment.

“It’s shocking. It’s something terrible. They don’t have a home. It’s a basic need to have someone who cares about you. Of course it is shocking. And it’s such a huge disadvantage for them. As a start for life it’s terrible. So I just hope that we did something useful for them.”

The outcome of the project is two-hundred pages of material – a practical source for teachers and staff at foster homes to use with the children in helping them to practice their English. The children and foster home staff I met when the material was launched last week were enthusiastic. But it is clear that this project is little more than a drop in the ocean. The words of one of the songs that the children sang in English went: “And if they can’t hear us, we shout it louder.” They could not have been more apt.