On a Thursday afternoon, more than a dozen students gather in the Orr Center to take turns spelling words picked at random from a dictionary. Some struggle to offer the right combination of letters; others find success more easily. But in this study group, it’s hard to hide the fact that everyone is having a good time. The laughter and high fives are dead giveaways.
“The conversation circle is truly helpful for us, but also it’s very funny,” explains Hortensia Almansa. “It’s like our moment to learn English, but also we are relaxing.” Almansa is a native of Panama and a student in the University’s Intensive English Program. She and 40 other students from all over the world are working toward the same goal: to improve their English, and, in many cases, earn a degree. They spend around 20 hours a week building their writing, grammar, listening, speaking and reading skills in a variety of ways in and out of the classroom. Which brings us back to the dictionary.
When part-time language teacher Debbie Yoder challenged her Level 4 reading students to create a learning project involving the entire program, they came back to her with a new idea, a twist on a longtime school staple – the spelling bee. “I thought, ‘wow, that’s really an excellent idea’,” Yoder recalled. “They have created the rules, they have created the vocabulary list, so this has all been completely student led and student driven.”
Unlike a traditional spelling bee, Almansa and her classmates decided to make their competition a team event, pairing students with little to no English skills (Level 0) with more advanced speakers (Level 6). Though each student spelled individually, it took a team’s collective effort to advance to the next round.
"I think this contest is a good opportunity to communicate with the other class students," said Level 4 student Erina Tamura, who moved to the United States from Japan two years ago. Tamura earned a bachelor’s degree in special needs education in her home country and now teaches at the Southern Indiana Japanese School in Evansville. After completing the Intensive English Program, she plans to work toward a master’s degree in English.
“I think everything is possible if I practice more and more… The word possible is (a) good word for me, I think,” Tamura said. A good word, indeed. She spelled it perfectly in the opening round of the spelling bee.
The bee is just one example of the Intensive English Program’s creative approach to language learning. Dr. Mokhtar Al-Zuraiki challenged students to create a tool like this video to market the program and University; Jean Matheson’s students performed a play. Each project is meant to make the students’ experiences more well-rounded and enjoyable.
Almansa, who helped organize and develop the spelling bee, thinks that plan is working. “It’s very interesting for us, and that makes us feel comfortable and confident because it’s a great way to learn English. It’s helped us in the pronunciation,” she explained. But the benefits don’t end there. Students also learned organization, teamwork, presentation skills and how to submit a proposal – all tools that will translate into many other scenarios -- at USI and beyond.
Photo Credit: Erin Meyer
Intensive English Program students, teachers and staff pose following the program's first-ever spelling bee on Monday, December 3