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October 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 5

ISSN 1755-9715

A Brief Practical Guide for L2 Teachers: K-2 American Children Learn Italian

Matteo Greco is a Research Associate at the University School for Advanced Studies (IUSS) of Pavia (Italy). In 2017 he obtained a PhD in Cognitive Neurosciences and Philosophy of Mind at the University Vita e Salute-San Raffaele (Milan). He was a research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania (September 2016 - June 2017) and a visiting assistant in research at the Yale University (January 2014 - June 2014). His main fields of research are theoretical and experimental linguistics. Mail:



The present work aims to provide some good techniques and strategies L2 teachers may adopt in order to obtain better and stronger involvement from the student in the early scholar stage (from kindergarten to second grade). Such techniques are theoretical-guided and support the idea that the whole person is involved in the learning activity. Therefore, the teaching experience has to deal with a multidimensional approach: it should adopt creative tasks, such as painting and drawing, as well as practical ones, such as cooking and reciting; it should adopt unmoving activity, such as singing, as well as moving activity, such as jumping and dancing; it should adopt memory tasks, such as repetition by heart, as well as “out the blue” tasks, such as shouting new words out; it should adopt traditional support materials, such as paper, as well as modern ones, such as videos; etc. Such a multidimensional approach gains excellent results in L2 acquisition and it will be exemplified by a project in which Italian was taught as L2 in a school in the United States.



Teaching a second language is an increasing necessity in a lot of countries due to many factors such as, among other things, the migration flows. Two situations mandate such a necessity: teaching the local language to foreign people and teaching a foreign language to local people. As a primary consequence of this fact, teachers are more and more demanding of successful techniques in order to improve their ability and efficiency. It is well known from Lenneberg's (1967) pioneering studies on the Critical Period Hypothesis, that L2 learners need different input and approaches depending on their age. For example, it has been argued that learners from 0 to 6 years old are able to learn every natural language without any effort and just from direct contact; learners from 6 years old to the end of the puberty gradually lose their natural ability and, therefore, they increasingly need to be overtly educated. Learners after puberty completely lose the ability to learn a language from direct contact alone, requiring deliberate attention and extensive comprehensible input in the target language. Although the Critical Period Hypothesis has been challenged (for a critical discussion, see Muñoz & Singleton 2011 and the references therein), there is an international consensus on the fact that there is a continuous linear decline in the capacity to learn a second language: from the completely naturalistic way of newborns to the completely structured way of adults. Cleary, a teacher who wants to perform his/her courses in the best way should adopt different techniques depending on which phase the students belong to. For example, while the correct acquisition of the phonological components of the L2 is natural during the first phase (Tahta, Wood & Lowenthal 1981), in the last one it is extremely difficult, contrasting with the easier acquisition of the other grammatical components, such as syntactic, semantic and pragmatic ones (Nikolov & Krashen 1997; Isik 2000). 

Crucially, most of the technical literature on L2 teaching and teachers' education focuses on specific programs for adolescents and adults, whereas the L2 education of young children is often overlooked. However, many studies in the last thirty years show that a two-way bilingual education beginning in the first levels of the education system gives very promising results in the long-term academic success of the enrolled students (Collier 1992; Pica 2011 and the references therein), revealing that those students perform as native speakers across all subject areas when tested in the L2 after a four-to-seven year. dual-language program. Learning an L2 during the schooling education also provides several “indirect” advantages, such as performing better in problem-solving activities and showing major respect for foreign languages and cultures (Genesee 1994; Short 1993, 1994; Kramsch 1997; Cook 2005).

This article aims to be a brief guide for L2 teacher education – issue arising a growing interest in the last decades since the pioneering work of Richards and Nunan (1990) (see also Burns & Richards 2009 and the references therein) – moving from some conceptual bases, but with the main goal to discuss the techniques in itself. More specifically, according to the six domains classification proposed by Richards (1998, p. xiv) on the content and knowledge of L2 teacher education, this paper will address the first issue, i.e. general theories of teaching, adopting a practical perspective. This point of view is specifically modulated on the second language teacher needs and profiles (Tarone and Allwright 2005), from novice teachers, who may experience a “reality shock” (Veenman 1984: 143; Farrell 2008) when they start their teaching activity, to the more expert ones, who want to adopt new strategies in order to improve their results.

A school-based experience will be discussed in order to contribute to teachers’ education not just in a general way, but with the specific focus on the second language acquisition and teaching strategies (a là Gebhard 2009). In fact, receiving a good education in L2 teaching methodologies also affects the new generation of L2 teachers since the way in which new teachers build their own methodologies tends to reflect what they saw when they were students in L2-classes (Appel 1995), unless they receive a strong training during the academic period (Kennedy 1998). Such a practical guide is even more important since academic curricula are often considered incompatible with school-based experience reports although it should be an integral part of teacher education (Legutke and Ditfurth 2009: 209).

For all these reasons it is also more important to have a practice-guide like the one discussed in this paper, also because – as Fullan (1993) stated – the “main reason for the failure of teacher education programs is that they are based on extremely vague conceptions. Having an ideology is not the same as having conceptions and ideas of what should be done and how it should be done (1993: 109). This study can be seen as a sort of “reflective teaching” paper, a la Schön (1983, 1987), following a qualitative approach. 

Finally, I’d like to suggest a possible change in the language acquisition common field. It is broadly accepted that teachers in language acquisition move from the theoretical knowledge applying it to the particle field (Sharked and Johnson 2003). Nothing prevents the other way around: from the particle field to the theoretical bases. In fact, the vivid experience in the classroom may suggest new ideas about student’s habits, clarifying whether a given approach works and raising new questions on the cognitive basis of second language acquisition. This is not the major focus of this article, of course, but it can be an attempt to contribute to the great research in the theoretical field as well as in the practical one. Moreover, classrooms are perfect places in which researchers can conduct their studies as largely proposed by many scientists, such as, among others, Doughty & Varela (1998), Harley (1998), Swain and Lapkin (2001); Pica et al. (2006). In fact, “the classroom, with a cohort of learners in place over time, offers a site worth considering, for its validity in informing questions on content and language integration as an aid to language learners in the academic arena. Task-based activities and classroom sites are rich resources for addressing policy and practice concerns about simultaneous learning of an L2 and the subject content it communicates”. (Pica 2011: 264).


Teaching Italian to K-2 American children

Learning additional languages is part of the core curriculum in many countries all around the world (Pufahl, Rhodesm, & Christian 2000; Fortune & Tedick 2008) as witnessed by the continuously increasing number of multilingual classes and projects. The United States of America represents a sort of exception to this trend, inasmuch, according to Rhodes & Pufahl (2009), as the trend is the opposite one: in the ten years from 1998 to 2008 the number of elementary schools offering foreign language classes dropped from 31% to 25%. Even though this pattern is changing, it is still surprising in a country hosting more than 350 spoken languages (based on American Community Survey data collected from 2009 to 2013). Clearly, this high number of spoken languages comes from the high number of communities spread all over the country. One of these is the Italian community and the present project focused on it. Before addressing the core elements of this study, it is worth discussing three aspects that are crucial for the success of an L2 course – and that were crucial for the success of the present program: the context in which it is conducted, the choice of the teachers, and the choice of the students. This preliminary discussion is already part of the original contribution of this paper.

It is well known (see Lindholm-Leary 2007 and the references therein) that the social context, as well as the school proposing the L2 teaching, is crucial in order to gain a good result in second language programs. In fact, “[w]hat works in one community or with a particular population of students or teachers may not work as effectively in another community or with another population” (Lindholm-Leary 2007: 7). This is the reason why the project was conducted in South-Philadelphia where people who have origins from Italy – mostly due to WWII migrations – are the majority. According to Stanger-Ross (2010, 25), “in 1980, over 55,000 Italians in Philadelphia lived as a majority in their own census tracts. Of these, more than 40,000 lived in South Philadelphia, where they comprised more than 80 percent of the population in some census tracts”. Nowadays, most of the Italian-origin families do not speak either Italian or Italian dialects, representing, according to Polinsky & Kagan’s (2007) classification, a heritage language with few individuals who speak it (see also Hornberger & Wang 2008). From this point of view, teaching Italian in South Philadelphia was a way to give back a stronger sense of belonging deriving from “linking one’s own identity to the community of speakers of the language” (Cummins, 2008). This also guaranteed a co-participation of the other members of the family, as well as the students who were enrolled in the L2 class. Besides the city context, the other crucial element of the project was the school hosting the L2 project, i.e. the William M. Meredith School, a public K-8 school located in the Queen Village neighborhood of Philadelphia. This school strongly supported the teaching of second language projects gearing Italian toward kindergarten through second-grade students. The project titled “Il Convivio, the Italian language initiative” was managed by the Italian Consulate with the participation of the Philadelphia School District, the Italian section of the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania and “Il Convivio”, a non-Profit organization. Each grade had a 30-minute Italian class twice a week for 9 months.

The choice of the Italian teacher was the second crucial point in the strategic plan of the project. An increasing amount of studies (see, among many others, Medgyes 1994; Árva & Medgyes 2000; Hinkel 2011 and the references therein) shows that non-native speaking teachers perform very well in L2 teaching since they can understand the students’ struggles with both grammatical rules and idiomatic expressions, they are able to propose self-tested models of language learning, they are also more empathetic toward students’ difficulties, etc. Theoretically speaking, there are two possibilities: teachers are L1 native speakers and L2 learners; teachers are L1 learners and L2 native speakers. Of course, the latter option is the best one, since it puts together the benefits to be a non-native speaking learner with the one to be a native speaking teacher, such as the perfect phonological pronunciation and the knowledge of models of language learning (see also Donna 2011 and the references therein). Moreover, this is also important for what is called interactional competence (see Galaczi and Taylor 2018 and the references therein), namely the knowledge of the social interactions associated with the language used in a given discursive context. For example, the Italian use of lei (let. ‘she’) when the speaker refers to an older or an unknown person or in a formal context, which is pervasive in Italian but absent in many other languages, including English. Moreover, such an L2 teacher would also require an overt knowledge of the theoretical and practical methodologies in teaching (Burns & Richards 2009) in order to be able to correctly support an L2 project. These were the reasons why an Italian Ph.D. student in Linguistics and Neurolinguistics was selected as teacher in the project. This situation allowed to realize the optimal option discussed in Pasternak & Bailey’s (2004) classification: having a teacher with good proficiency in the target language plus good professional preparation (For a detailed discussion on the teacher preparation, see Kamhi-Stein 2009 and the references therein)

Finally, the student’s age was the last strategic point at the base of the project, namely children from 5 to 7 years old. As outlined above, young learners are able to learn every natural language without effort and from only direct contact – particularly for what concerns the phonological components of the language – showing, among other things, several advantages in their academic results (see ch. 1).

To sum up, three fundamental premises were at the base of the project, i.e. the context in which it was conducted, the choice of the teacher, and the choice of the students. Let us consider now the main elements of this paper, namely the practical activities leading the project with some theoretical considerations.


Practical guides and activities in L2 teaching

The following sessions display some activities representing the practicum aspect of the project. Considering these activities, and not others, was not made by chance. Empirical evidence and theoretical studies led to these practices and, therefore, part of the current literature will be discussed – even though in a brief way – in association with the activities in themselves. It is important to recall that these techniques were employed for the specific social and scholastic context described above. They could be ineffective, or less effective, in different situations, for example, if students were adults or teachers were not L2 native speakers. Besides these practical activities, it has been very important to develop some general strategies in order to improve the results of the teaching, such as the full-body engagement in the classroom activities, the “playing” nuance of all the activities, etc. Both the activities and strategies are described in the following sections.


Some Activities

Teaching second languages requires many tools and abilities. Very often, it is not easy to make decisions on how to arrange an L2 course. Theoretical literature is rich in suggestions, but it often lacks practical indications. On the other hand, practical books present many activities without a theoretical explanation for them. This study wants to give some practical indications, based on a theoretical background, adopted during the Italian course outlined above.


Evaluation and use of the similarities between L1 and L2  

One of the first helping tools in language acquisition projects is the evaluation of the similarities between the students’ native language with the L2 (in technical words, the cross-linguistic influence in second language acquisition; see Odlin 2012 and the references therein). A full discussion on this topic is behind the goal of this paper (see Gutierrez-Mangado, Martínez & Gallardo Del Puerto 2019) and I will just assume a well-established principle in this field: people use the knowledge of their L1 to acquire a new language in all the grammar domains (phonetics, lexicon, etc.). An immediate implementation on this point is that it will be easier for students to start from the similarity between L1 and L2. The bottom line of this strategy is to start from the sound and the words that, eventually, are identical in the two languages. In the specific case of this study, it was possible to start from the Italian words the L2 students already knew. Even though the number of English words borrowed from Italian‎ is not completely established, there are likely hundreds. These words come from different domains, such as music and food, and are mostly loanwords, i.e. words adopted from Italian with little or no modification (such as ‘bravo’ in music, ‘ballerina’ in classical ballet, ‘motto’ in literature, ‘pasta’ in cuisine, ‘blue’ in colors, ‘ciao’ as a greeting, etc. (see Haspelmath and Tadmor 2009 and the references therein). Moreover, Italian borrowed many words from English as well. In fact, Italian is extremely rich in English words – hundreds, according to De Mauro and Mancini (2001) – spreading on many aspects of everyday life, such as ‘computer’ in technology, ‘manager’ in industry, ‘pacemaker’ in medicine, etc. A further step was to show that many Italian words resemble the English ones even though they are not phonologically identical (such as, ‘mamma’ /mamˈma/ and mum /mʌm/; ‘fiore’ /ˈfjore/ and flower /ˈflaʊə/; etc.). Such an approach was very effective with young students since they perceived Italian as a familiar language even though they did not know it. Clearly, this approach integrating elements of L1 and L2 was possible just because the L2 teachers knew both languages.


Passive listening

Passive listening is one of the most stable principles in the teaching of a second language since the 1960s / 1970s. The importance of this particular activity passed through different theoretical approaches, such as the behaviorism (Bloomfield 1942) and the innatist view (Chomsky 1965), and it is still considered one of the primary channels thanks to which students – at least, the youngest ones – gain access to L2 (Rost 2011 and the references therein). An application of this principle was the gradual conduction of the class in Italian. Clearly, the use of the students’ native language in the early phase of the project was very useful to make learners feel comfortable. In the last phase, namely after 7-8 months, classes were entirely conducted in Italian with particular attention to repetitively use some of the words the students already learned and knew. Moreover, students listened to a story at the end of a class once a week for just 10 minutes. During the story time, students were engaged in a twofold way: they were very attentive to the tale, focusing on it with passion, and the teacher had the chance to interrupt the reading activity (or the watching one, in the case it was on television) to question and ask clarifications. This was particularly appreciated and efficient in order to increase the vocabulary knowledge, confirming what Elley (1989) proposed: stories repeated three times as well as working on some specific words – such as illustrations and definition – considerably increases the vocabulary learning. Finally, other activities very useful for passive listening were the applied projects in L2. We know from the literature (Wesche 1993, Pica 1997, Long 2006) that the integration of learning subject-specific content in an L2 language and learning that language as L2 gains higher results than a language-only approach. Of course, such integration has to be adjusted based on the student population. For instance, the subject-specific content may be one of the regular classes, such as math (Bournot-Trites & Reeder 2001) or science, in high school or academic environments, but it cannot be the case in the lower levels of education, such as kindergartens and elementary schools. Therefore, the learning subject-specific contents were related to some specific projects, such as cooking and art classes. This also fit very well with the Italian culture, in which cooking and art are very important, helping the students to learn more about the cultural aspects of the language they were learning. For example, in the occasion of the Carnival, students made some masks expressing different emotions: students learned the basic words to describe them – such as happiness, sadness, etc. – and, moreover, they had the occasion to repeat the names of colors they were using and many other words. The final result of these applied projects in L2 was that learners improved their competence at least in listening and communication skills.


Active speaking

Speaking in an L2 is undoubtedly the goal of every L2 course. The final goal of the first-year class – at least, in the present project – is to make students able to perform sentences, however simple, and not just lists of words. This requires a 9-month plan based on the learning of nouns, verbs, and adjectives as well as the learning of small full sentences which may guide the students in building more complex sentences. For example, they learned how to ask permission to go to the bathroom (it. “Posso andare in bagno?”, ‘let. may.I go in bathroom’) and, by doing so, students learned how to ask general permissions, the verb to go and the preposition to in just one time. There is evidence that learning chunks of language as well as singular words increases the fluency and gives better results in a long-term period (Lewis 1993; Carter 2001). More specifically, lexical chunks representing pre-patterned grammatical structures may be replicated by changing the lexical vocabulary (as in the previous example), reducing the communicative stress and improving the knowledge of the L2 grammatical features. The vocabulary was selected within the high-frequency multiword groups and phrases – borrowed from English as discussed in Shin (2007) and Shin & Nation (2008) – including colors, greetings, action verbs, body parts, numbers, etc.

Many activities were implemented to reach this goal, such as pronunciation tasks, repetition tasks, and singing activities. Let us start from the pronunciation aspects. Very often, languages display sounds that are either different or absent in the learners’ mother tongue language. For example, Italian and Standard English differ in the /r/ pronunciation: Italian /r/ is a voiced alveolar trill consonant; English /r/ is a voiced alveolar approximant consonant. This issue is particularly challenging for L2 learners. An easy way to help students is to pay deliberate attention to pronunciation (Trofimovich & Gatbonton 2006), such as looking for some acoustic analogies with such sounds. In this case, some animal sounds, like frogs, are perfect for learning how to trill the tongue in order to make a perfect Italian /r/. This also meets a principle for which it seems to be easier to learn a new sound in a word or pseudo-words that “has no previous associations for a learner, than to learn it as part of a known word” (Nation 2011: 449; see also Nation 2013). Clearly, many other phonetic “tricks”can be used depending on which phonetic feature students need to learn. Luckily enough, the students enrolled in this project were K-2 grades and they love playing with sounds and, more importantly, they were in a perfect age to achieve a perfect pronunciation in L2 (Tahta, Wood & Lowenthal 1981; Nikolov & Krashen 1997; Isik 2000).

Coming to the repetition tasks, it was arranged in multiple ways. Students have to greet in Italian with standard forms and they have to answer some questions – such as, ‘how do you feel today?’, ‘what day is it?’, etc. in Italian – at the beginning of every class. They also reviewed the content of a previous class at the beginning and at the end of each class for at least 3 consecutive times (since they had Italian twice a week, that means that they reviewed the content of a class for two weeks). That assured deep memorization of the lexicon and the small sentences. Moreover, the story times and the applied projects further give the opportunities to review the acquired knowledge. The peculiar position of the memorization in L2 acquisition is well known (see Bygate 2010 and the references therein) and this really gains high results.

Finally, students also sing an Italian song (the same song for a whole month) every time. Songs referred to some lexical-phonological arguments planned for that month and they were all available on the web. For instance, a song on colors was chosen during the month dedicated to colors, constituting a different kind of repetition task. According to the literature (see, among others, Coyle & Gómez Gracia 2014; Ludke 2016), using songs is very useful for better and faster lexicon acquisition, gaining long-term benefits. Moreover, this also increases the emotional involvement of the students, who love singing. Some of the songs were translated from English songs, which were already familiar to the students – such as, “head, shoulders, knees and toes”, a very popular song for kids – further helping the assimilation of new words.


Some strategies

The activities mentioned above constituted the core aspects of the techniques used during the whole language acquisition project. However, their functionality depended on some strategies adopted during the classes, which were associated either to the language acquisition activity or to the teaching activity in general.

One of the key features of the good result of the project was the emotional engagement of the students. It has been obtained following the idea that the whole person is involved in the learning activity and, therefore, that the teaching experience has to deal with a multidimensional and multiple-sensorial approach. For instance, according to Lazaraton (2004), the interaction between gesture and speech during a vocabulary explanation shows that “classroom L2 learners receive considerable input in a nonverbal form that may modify and make verbal input (more) comprehensible” (p. 111) (see Swain & Lapkin 2001; Kaplan 2010 for a full discussion on other techniques).

During the present project many strategies were adopted, for example, dancing and gym activities were very useful for keeping the attention up, learning the vocabulary referred to the parts of the body, and having fun at the same time. Painting and drawing were very useful in learning many things, such as food names. Showing pictures of animals when students were asked to shout out their names was particularly appreciated. Watching videos on Italian handicrafts worked very well in the review activity: videos were stopped by the teacher any time the teacher wants to ask some words or phrases referring to something in the given video frame (movie-talk strategy)

Students were also asked to practice at home with parents and siblings. Parents received a monthly report with the Italian words and phrases students learned in the classes (see Appendix) with the English translation and a link with the sound of the correct Italian pronunciation. That was appreciated by parents and several of them decided to learn Italian, creating the perfect social context in which young students felt to be active learners and teachers as well: in fact, they were the teachers of their parents.

Finally, an important strategy was to arrange the class according to an “8-minute rule”: every 8 minutes the ongoing activity was stopped and changed due to the limited attention span of  young students, mixing the multidimensional and multiple-sensorial activities seen above. For example, the first 8 minutes were dedicated to reviewing (repetition and song); then, 8 minutes were dedicated to crafts and games; and, finally, the last 8 minutes were dedicated to a movie-talk activity. Clearly, such an approach requires great planning attention by the teacher, but it gains great results.


Qualitative results and concluding remarks

The Italian acquisition project lasted for 9 months and was performed by children who never took Italian classes before. At the end of the educational program, students were able to correctly use more than a hundred words and dozens of short sentences in L2. Students also started to greet each other in Italian and the older ones – namely, the second grade students – were able to conduct short dialogs in Italian, such as asking and giving information, either personal or general.

The present work provided some good techniques and strategies L2 teachers may adopt in order to obtain better and stronger involvement from the student in the early scholar stage (from kindergarten to second grade) of an L2 course. The full involvement of the students was the key feature of the learning activity as well as the theoretical-guided multidimensional approach performed by the teacher. Activities were based on listening and speaking strategies, which ranged from creativity tasks, such as painting and drawing, to practical ones, such as cooking and reciting; from unmoving activity, such as singing, to moving activity, such as jumping and dancing; from memory tasks, such as repetition by heart, to “out the blue” tasks, such as shouting new words out; from traditional support materials, such as paper, to informatic ones, such as videos; etc. Besides these strategies, the final ingredients to gain a very good result in this L2 project were the context in which the project was conducted, the choice of the teacher, and the choice of the students.

Of course, this paper is just a preliminary study and its qualitative nature may represent a good starting point for L2 teachers who want to find new strategies in their methodological approach. Future research will arguably give quantitative information on all the techniques discussed here.



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