By Shuangye Zhu
As a child in China, I was encouraged to know facts and to have the right answer. As an early child educator now in the US, I am interested in ways to encourage critical thinking in young children. Specifically, now as an immersion early child educator, how does one develop critical thinking in young children ages 2 or 3 when a second language is just being imparted? This interest led me to explore the theory and compare it to the practice I have been part of at HWIS.
1) It is possible to scaffold children to answering more open-ended questions but an approach of seeding the basis for understanding must be developed. Pre-teach students the vocabulary of a story first making sure they understand the vocabulary in different contexts. Then when asking questions of “How”, “What Happened” and “Why” students can be engaged and think about the situation.
2) Use the knowledge of the first language to help unravel the puzzle of the second language (Garcia, 2009) — when communicating, teachers can sing a song or tell a story that children are familiar with in one language but when told in another language the familiarity with the tune or storyline with visuals helps to scaffold second language comprehension. Also, when students speak in whichever language is easiest, teachers can comprehend the message and continue the communication in the second language. This enables children to use their critical thinking skills to communicate in whatever way is possible.
3) Questions can be categorized by four levels with increasing challenge on critical thinking. Teachers need to understand the knowledge level of students when formulating questions.
4) Make the thinking process visible – teachers can use graphic organizers to outline and organize ideas. This helps students listening to a teacher also visually see how the teacher is “thinking” thus aiding in the process of development of critical thinking.
As a teacher of 2-year old Mandarin immersion students, I have seen children develop their critical thinking even though their language output is still in development during the silent period. In the first 2-3 months children are using their senses, watching peers, using context clues in listening comprehension and demonstrating understanding through movement and gestures. Half-way through the year children begin to use one or two-word phrases in meaningful contexts to ask for water, or snacks. Towards the end of the year, children are putting together grammatically correct phrases or sentences to describe things such as “I would like a cookie."
In our daily discussions, I try to encourage critical thinking by posing interesting questions that show that as a teacher I am also wondering and continually seeking information. We want to instill a sense of curiosity in children, and an approach that says we are all working together as a team to better understand the world.