Lingo Bus Trial!

I have taught English in quite a few different contexts: group classes, one-on-one classes, online classes, classes in the U.S., classes outside the U.S., etc. I have also been a language learner myself, and I have taken group classes and one-on-one classes. I think each context provides something new, and I can take something new from it to help me be a better teacher in any situation. This past week, I experienced a new context…mom watching her daughter take a language class! As usual, there was plenty to learn and take away from the experience.


My daughter had her first Mandarin class with Lingo Bus, which is the VIPKID version of Mandarin classes for English speaking children. It was a great experience, and my daughter loved it. I would highly recommend giving the free trial class a try. We had Teacher Steve, and he was excellent.


There were two things that really stood out to me while I was watching the class. First, the importance of a constant smile. My daughter was nervous at first. She didn’t crack a smile for at least the first 15 minutes of the class. However, the teacher maintained a constant positive expression, which eventually allowed my daughter to relax and get comfortable. She was very nervous about making a mistake, and the positive reinforcement really helped her gain the confidence to try.


Obviously, we all know that smiling is important! VIPKID teaching materials all remind teachers that smiling is essential. However, watching it from a mom’s perspective really drove it home. I will be recommitted to a BIG SMILE throughout the whole lesson, especially with the little ones.


Second…incidental language. Again, VIPKID training workshops and videos all remind us that incidental language is a big no-no. However, it can be really hard to cut it out. What is incidental language, and why is it so bad? Incidental language is basically all the extra words that we use to transition, introduce, or describe things…all the words that the student does not yet know and are not target words for the class. Incidental language is made of filler words, and we generally use a lot of them by habit. For example, “I want you to circle the letter A.” Or, “Let’s see….” “First, I want you to…” A brand new student does not know those words, so you just sound like the teacher from Charlie Brown. For the first example, all you need to say is “circle A,” while either circling it on the slide or perhaps on your whiteboard. You could repeat it by making a circle in the air with your mouse. Your actions should be conveying the message here because the words are not helpful. The other examples should just be cut out completely.


I thought that I was doing a pretty good job of not using incidental language, but after watching Teacher Steve teach the Lingo Bus class…I can see that I have some room for improvement. He used almost ZERO incidental language. Practically none! In the past, I have always taken language classes with a teacher who speaks English or as a student with some knowledge of that language. Watching the Mandarin class as someone with NO prior knowledge of the language, I realized just how much incidental language completely confuses the beginner student and throws off the lesson. Teacher Steve did a great job getting my daughter to complete all the activities through TPR and facial expression. After watching this class, I’m going to use the following as a guideline for incidental language and brand new VIPKID students: Would it be helpful if my daughter heard this instruction in Mandarin…or would it just be confusing and intimidating?


If there are any VIPKID teachers out there with young kids, I highly recommend doing a Lingo Bus trial and watching carefully. From this new perspective, you will absolutely learn something that will make you a better teacher. And, there is a good chance your son or daughter will have a great time and want to sign up for more classes!

Online Learning…scammy or nah?

Sometimes change is scary, and change in the field of education is no exception. People have a fear of their livelihood being taken over by a screen or a robot. It is an understandable fear. So, what is the deal with online learning? Scary? Scammy? Should we shake our fists like a grumpy old man and tell it to get off our (metaphorical) lawn?

This is a topic I delved into pretty deeply when I was in grad school and working toward an additional digital literacy certification. I remember the teacher bringing up a fairly humorous quote from Socrates about how the new-fangled approach of writing in the classroom was hurting the students’ ability to memorize. Kids these days! And though out history, you can see similar handwringing and worry about any change or new technology in the classroom. Personally, I’m the type of person who likes the feel of a real book in my hands and the idea of a physical teacher in the classroom. So, I was fairly skeptical of all this online learning business.

The first thing I had to get my head around was that there is actually a difference between simple “edu-tainment” (yes, a made up word…that’s how language works my friends) and digital literacy in education. That’s not to say VIPKID doesn’t prioritize a fun and, yes, an entertaining learning experience.  However, there is a distinction between simply taking a plain old boring worksheet that you might have in a classroom and putting it in digital format on a screen for the student to complete, and actually utilizing digital media to change (dare I say, improve!) the way we educate. The first is basically putting busy work on a screen and hoping that the screen somehow makes the busy work more exciting for the student. The second concept is so much more than that. It is reading for knowledge, thinking critically, and actually communicating using different media platforms. It builds on traditional forms of literacy, and despite the reliance on technology, it is people-centered at heart. For a really basic overview of what digital literacy is, Wikipedia to the rescue. For a much more comprehensive understanding, check out Paul Gilster’s book Digital Literacy. It is an essential topic for any teacher, but it is especially relevant for those of us who teach online or in non-traditional forms.


So, what about VIPKID? Is it simply taking busy work and putting it on a screen to make a buck? Short answer, no. It isn’t. VIPKID has taken the digital literacy pedagogical approach to design a curriculum with multiple parts, allowing the student to develop their language skills using multiple platforms. Even though the native English speaking teacher is half a world away, student-teacher communicative interaction is still there. Technology isn’t replacing the teacher, it is instead providing a medium for the student and teacher to interact and engage. VIPKID also uses concepts of the “flipped classroom” (more on that later!) to maximize the opportunity to learn by communicating with the teacher after the basics have been overviewed outside the class. In that sense, we can see how the technology is working in conjunction with traditional forms of education (regular old homework). Additionally, VIPKID also has Chinese Learning Partners, Chinese teachers who are able to interact with the students and parents.


Basically, VIPKID is taking a puzzle-piece approach, with each piece complementing and supporting the other to help the child develop their English communication skills. Pretty cool, actually. And not so robots-taking-over-the-world, when you really examine it. Humans, and our desire to have meaningful interactions with each other, is still at the core. So, when you wake up at 3 AM, all bleary eyed and exhausted, and open up your laptop to see the happy (hopefully!) face of a cute little person on the other side of the planet, you can feel pretty good about your contribution to the puzzle, knowing that they are expanding their own ability to communicate, engage, and participate in the world around them though the gift of a second language.