Improving English For Panama’s First Bilingual Generation

panama bilingue

We couldn’t be more proud to see Teacher Award Winner Pablo Santos continuing to do great work in Panama. Since joining us at IATEFL in Liverpool, he has been on national TV and even met the President, Juan Carlos Varela.

In this article, which was first published on Pearson LearnED, he talks about creating more opportunities for his students through Panama’s Bilingüe program.

Pablo Santos is working to change the way teachers teach English in Panama.

“English is more than a key to professional success, it’s a gateway to the world,” says Pablo, an elementary school English teacher.

Pablo is part of an ambitious initiative called Panamá Bilingüe – a national education program that launched in 2015 to improve English language learning in public schools across the country.

“Most people in Panama do not speak English at home,” says Pablo.

“That’s why it’s so important to provide students with opportunities to engage with the language in the classroom.”

The First Bilingual Generation

Eneida López, Director of Panamá Bilingüe, has worked with the program from the beginning.

“In 2001, the Panamanian government passed a law that made English an official language to be taught in school,” Eneida says.

Panamá Bilingüe is on track to hit a major milestone by 2024.

“130,000 students who began Kindergarten in 2015 will graduate in 2024 as the first fully bilingual generation,” Eneida says.

Pablo says watching his students succeed drives him to make progress in his own life.

“I’m so proud of what my students have accomplished,” Pablo says.

“They inspire me to do my best as a teacher and keep learning – because, ultimately, if we improve, they improve.”

“You Cannot Teach What You Do Not Know”

“You cannot teach what you do not know – and many of our teachers had low levels of English,” Eneida says.

To overcome the language barrier, Panamá Bilingüe partners with American, Canadian and British higher education institutions to help Panamanian teachers improve their English and learn effective, new teaching methods.

There are two phases to Panamá Bilingüe’s teacher training modules.

“First teachers receive training here in Panama,” Eneida explains. “Then, they are sent abroad where they receive language, methodology and leadership training.”

Pablo spent two months at American University in Washington, DC.

“The teachers there inspired me to continue working as a teacher,” Pablo says.

“I learned useful strategies from them that I brought into my own classroom and they have made a huge difference – especially technology-driven innovations.”

“For example, now I organize video calls with teachers in other countries for students to practice their English,” he says.

Pablo in his classroom

Equal Access To Opportunity

Eneida emphasizes that Panamá Bilingüe is more than an education initiative. It is also an effort to bridge a longstanding socio-economic gap.

“For decades, students who attended private schools had greater opportunities than their public school peers because they were taught English in more depth,” says Eneida.

Pablo noticed the chasm immediately when he left private schools for a role in the public school system.

“The difference was obvious,” Pablo says.

“The kids at the private schools all spoke English very well. When I moved to public school, the level was significantly lower,” he says.

Panamá Bilingüe is evening out the playing field.

“Our goal is to provide all students access to the same opportunities – like university scholarships and desirable jobs – that require fluency in English,” Eneida says.

Measuring Progress

Panamá Bilingüe uses the Global Scale of English (GSE) to more accurately measure student success and help teachers select the right lessons and course materials at the right time.

“We use assessments and evaluations to measure students’ mastery of four key skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing,” Pablo says.

Early assessment results show that the program is working.

“The level of improvement among elementary school students is incredible,” Eneida says.

The next step, she says, is to implement a secondary school curriculum to ensure continuity throughout a child’s education.

“When I go to these schools and hear the students speaking English and Spanish, it motivates me to continue this important work,” she says.

Find out more about the Global Scale of English (GSE) and the many ways that schools around the world are using it.

You can also stay up-to-date with all our Teacher Award winners on the blog.

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