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Inspiring teachers: teaching young learners in Italy

December 02, 2020 by v.dax

In this series we talk to inspiring teachers who use stories and storytelling to set up reading programmes and creative projects, and use the arts and literature to develop their students’ language and literacy skills. We share real examples from real teachers to show how small ideas can make powerful learning activities. When teachers share their techniques and experiences, with us, the first thing we notice is that no matter how diverse our world is, our students are interested in similar issues and enjoy doing similar creative tasks.

Inspiring teachers: teaching young learners in Italy Mascia
Mascia Calcich

This month we talked to Mascia Calcich, who decided to teach young learners after 11 years of working as an interpreter, translator and technical consultant in the worlds of business and law. She completed a specialization course in Language Teaching to Children at the Sapienza University of Rome. Mascia is an Italian-French bilingual. She runs Diventare e Crescere Bilingui, a language school which specializes in bilingual education for young learners from  6 months to spproximately 9 years old. Her teaching focuses mostly on toddlers and 3-5-year-old children.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): What is your relationship with languages?

I'm an interpreter and translator but first of all I am a bilingual French daughter. Languages have always been a ‘natural’ part of me and my life. I strongly believe that languages, foreign languages, are much more than a subject we have to learn and study at school. They are a competence we all have and develop from birth on. I struggled at school with both English and French as the approach focussed on grammar while I preferred natural speech (I learned French through natural daily exposure). If you want young children to be fluent in a language, they should learn it as they learn their mother tongue.

HRB: How did you get into language teaching?

Inspiring teachers: teaching young learners in Italy Mascia Reading
Mascia Calcich

Everything started with a question that disappointed me a bit: How do we learn our mother tongue? It was extremely clear for me since birth that language is acquired in these stages: 1) Listening  2) Speaking 3) Reading 4) Writing. But when I went to school foreign languages were taught in this order: 1) Writing 2) Reading  3) Listening 4) Speaking.

This is the reason why we in Italy have a huge population that has learnt English at school, but has little confidence in speaking the language. After almost 11 years working primarily as a translator, I was offered the opportunity to change and move into teaching. It wasn't an easy decision but in the end I listened to my heart and decided to give my new family, my sons and all the children, parents and families the same big chance and opportunity that I had: bilingual education!

HRB: What is your approach to language teaching?

I love promoting and facilitating both childhood and adult bilingualism in my personal, social, school and professional environment. I want to build awareness of bilingualism and the benefits of early exposure to a foreign language as I was lucky enough to grow up in a bilingual family. That's why I support families who undertake this wonderful yet difficult path because becoming a bilingual family IS POSSIBLE! Meeting children, parents, working with families, sharing my own personal and emotional experiences of a bilingual life, the difficulties I came across and my extreme shyness is something really magic for me.

I always keep in mind that ‘I teach English/a language for use’, since children naturally learn to speak before they read, speaking should precede literacy. In my programs and activities all interactions are carried out in the target language with no reliance on the first language or on any form of translation. The expectation is that through question and answer sessions the language will gradually be acquired. While the aim of an activity might be to learn English, it is important that the activity creates an genuine need for communication, so that the children are developing language naturally and in context, as they would in their native language.

We pay great attention to play-based activities and multisensory learning. Children all over the world love to play. It's one of the most natural and enjoyable things a child can do. When children play, they're exploring the world around them. They're experimenting and figuring things out. They're concentrating and fully involved in the experience. The idea still persists that if it’s too much fun, children are not learning. However, evidence suggests the opposite. Research shows that children learn through play. Play is learning. Young children learn through their senses, actions and movements, so learning English cannot be separated from other areas of learning and development. Providing a context that is appealing and motivating is essential.

HRB: How is your approach to bilingualism different from other language learning approaches?

Bilingual Education is more than simply teaching a language as the language should become part of a family's everyday life. Therefore I also work with and give advice to parents.

I organize and arrange courses in playgroups (mainly for age 0-6) where the parent is 100% active in the activity, with language, action and interaction with the whole group. This represents an important path towards family bilingualism or “just a simple” shared language learning experience that really makes the difference.

In general, all the reading and language workshops end with a craft activity that represents the learning and emotional link to their everyday life. All the activities related to the children's and family's everyday life routines are activated in the target language for real full immersion.

HRB: How do you use stories to motivate children to learn English?

Our mind has a narrative structure. Stories are very important because they teach us about life, ourselves and about others. Stories create magic and a sense of wonder at the world, and children have an innate love of stories. I use stories as a link not only between the world of the group/classroom and home but also between the group/classroom and beyond.

Stories strengthen the child’s understanding of language and this knowledge and experience of language will positively support them throughout their academic life. Children acquire lots of new words easily because repetition is a big part of storytelling. In addition, the performance skills of the narrator actively involve the listeners and they often articulate words or mime the actions together with the storyteller. For this I usually work with stories that can lead children into everyday life situations, emotions, environments, games and experiences.

Inspiring teachers: teaching young learners in Italy children
Children reading Freddy the Frog Prince, a Helbling Young Reader written by Maria Cleary and illustrated by Agilulfo Russo

HRB: Which are your favourite stories to share?

I have plenty of favourite stories [laughing]. I prefer stories that can motivate children in their language learning and that are meaningful to them.

HRB: Do you have any tips to share with teachers who would like to use more storytelling?

I work very hard on the plot. I make a map of it as a memory technique, I figure out (and print) a series of images of the plot and I work on my own version of the story. This helps me feel comfortable with the story during the reading and be better prepared for the children's questions.

During storytelling sessions I vary the volume, pitch and tempo of my voice, adding facial expressions and gestures and using different voices for the characters. I use the space around me if necessary and I never forget to keep eye contact with the group. I start with a little pre-reading activity to introduce the new words and context of the story. After reading there is usually a little post-reading activity and we do some arts and crafts.

Inspiring teachers: teaching young learners in Italy Freddy

HRB: What questions do parents ask you and what do you answer?

Parents usually feel insecure about how they can really help their children. They often feel unprepared, and don't have faith in themselves, and they are worried about their children refusing to use the target language with them. They often don't know how to start and when, how to keep the learning activity interesting for their children, which materials to use and where to find them.

Each family has its own type of bilingualism, its own language learning method by optimizing its own talents and resources. They just need to keep in mind these three words: motivation, perseverance and coherence. I support families in finding and defining strategies that work for them.

HRB: How do you keep yourself motivated?

That's quite easy as my work is my passion; it is my personal bilingual life that I what to share. To keep myself motivated I study and read a lot and I try to be updated on the latest language learning methods and techniques (courses, webinars, workshops, publishing).

 HRB: Thank you for the interview, Mascia!