As Mexican education officials expand English classes from junior high to primary schools, they are relying on technology until enough teachers can be trained to speak and teach English well.
The Ministry of Education this year piloted a program that uses a computer loaded with interactive language software and an interactive board to teach English in the 5th and 6th grades in 150 schools.
Preliminary reports show the program is working. An outside evaluator found that beginning learners who used the system progressed well in entry-level English, even in classrooms in which the teachers didn’t know any English, said Lorenzo Gómez-Morin Fuentes, the undersecretary for basic education for Mexico’s Education Ministry.
“I don’t think that technology can substitute for the teacher forever,” said Mr. Gómez-Morin. “But the reality in terms of Mexico, given the size of our educational system, with 14 million children in primary school and 6 million in lower secondary, is that finding 150,000 teachers who could teach English is not easy.”
He said the ministry has plans to expand the use of the interactive language software to all 5th and 6th grade classrooms. It also hopes to extend the program to junior high students. All Mexican students are now supposed to begin to study English in 7th grade.
Traditionally, Mr. Gómez-Morin said, Mexico, like many other Latin American countries, has assigned even teachers with limited English skills to teach the language. “That really doesn’t work,” he said.
“English is the language we use to communicate with the rest of the world,” said Mr. Gómez-Morin. “Children know when they have access to software and the Internet that if they don’t speak English, it becomes an obstacle to make good use of the information.”
Other countries are also tapping into technology to make language learning more widespread and effective. The European Union has set up an eLearning initiative to help citizens in all its 25 member nations learn two languages in addition to their native tongue, beginning at an early age.
The initiative includes providing schools computers equipped with multimedia capacity, training teachers in using digital technology, and developing software and other resources to allow schools and teachers to network using computers.
In Alberta, Canada, the government allocated $6 million last year for a videoconferencing program to make second-language programs more accessible to rural schools. The province also offers foreign-language courses through its virtual schools and other online initiatives, according to Tim Chamberlain, a spokesman for Alberta Education, the government agency that oversees schools.
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Technology Becomes Substitute for English Teacher