As President Oscar Arias’ administration stalls on a national plan to improve English instruction, private groups are stepping in to help teachers hone their craft.
The Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center organized its 24th annual three-day conference this week for about 650 English teachers, mostly from Costa Rica.
They attended workshops on classroom tools such as film, software, storytelling and Feng Shui.
As more high-tech companies settle here and English becomes a requisite for job seekers, English teachers are under pressure to improve their instruction.
“When we open the help-wanted ads, we see English is no longer (just) a plus. It determines whether students get a job…or get promoted,” said Arturo Muñoz, the center’s academic director.
The teachers select nine of 110 workshops, in addition to attending four keynote speeches by lifelong teachers from England, Panama and Guatemala, and a storyteller from the African country of Benin. Teachers paid $50 to attend the conference, whose $35,000 cost was largely shouldered by publishing houses, the U.S. Embassy and the cultural center.
The biggest obstacle to English instruction, said Education Minister Leonardo Garnier, is that many teachers do not speak the language well. Because of an English teacher shortage, the ministry is giving oneyear positions even to instructors who fail the English diagnostic test.
President Oscar Arias is expected to present a long-awaited plan March 11 to teach English to English teachers who do poorly on the tests. Teachers will likely be removed from the classroom for weeklong trainings, Garnier said, while their students watch English movies or read books.
The plan hit a snag in September when Planning Minister Kevin Casas, its head author, resigned abruptly over a scandal.
Garnier now insists that come March, English will become a “priority” for the Arias administration.
Three regional English advisers for the Education Ministry did not want to wait.
Sitting in on classes, they noticed that English teachers did not speak enough English, and they didn’t have good materials. Their solution won them a $500 prize from the U.S. Embassy, presented yesterday at the conference.
Yasmín Mayorga, Esmeralda Montero and Carmen Jiménez started meeting four times a month in late 2005 to create materials for English classes. They enlisted native speakers from Europe, Canada and the United States to read texts from newspapers, then they wrote exercises testing students’ comprehension.
Drawing from their own wallets, the three women distributed CDs and texts to seventh-grade teachers last March in the northern provinces of Guanacaste, Puntarenas and Alajuela. They also recorded material for eighth and ninth grades, and they will ask the Education Ministry for funding to package and distribute it.
The work is meticulous and extensive.
The CD for ninth-graders, for instance, has more than 100 short clips about sports, nature, technology, music and other topics.
As students listen, they complete true-false, fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice exercises, compiled in a 62-page document.
“One of the big problems is that the teachers are speaking Spanish,”Montero said “If they don’t want to (speak English) or can’t, well, here’s the material.”
But even with self-starters like Montero, the public education system comes up short, and young professionals are increasingly turning to private English lessons.
The cultural center has an average of about 6,000 students, about twice the number as four years ago. The center has opened five new sites throughout the country since 2005.
Students come with a sense of urgency, Muñoz said.
“People say, ‘I need to learn English in two months,’” he said. “That’s not going to happen.”
Speaking at the conference, acting U.S. Ambassador Peter Brennan said the language’s quirks make learning it tough. Quoting the U.S. comedian George Carlin, he said, “If people from Poland are called Poles, why aren’t people from Holland called Holes?”
Garnier said studying would pay off, and not just in job prospects.