Naíonra Choill Mhic Thomáisín is a community-based pre-school which was set up by a group of parents in Kilmacthomas, Co. Waterford in 1982 and operates through the medium of Irish. As our Naíonra is not in a Gaeltacht area, all the children speak English at home as their first language and speak it to each other in An Naíonra too. Over the past 40 years we have had just a few children attending who have a parent speaking Irish or another language which is not English at home.
Absorbing Irish through Songs and Play
In Naíonra Choill Mhic Thomáisín children are immersed in the Irish language where they absorb it naturally through songs, rhymes and play activities. The emphasis is on teanga beo (a living language) as opposed to Gaeilge being taught as a subject (as it is in school). We don’t teach Gaeilge in An Naíonra – the children acquire Gaeilge as a second language effortlessly through play.
The stiúrthóirí (practitioners) speak as Gaeilge, ensuring that the phrases used are in context accompanied by gestures and facial expressions to convey their meaning. Demonstrating and modelling are a key component in supporting the children’s acquisition of a second language. “Children learn a lot by watching the adults around them” (Aistear 2009p35). We narrate what we are doing as Gaeilge, describing our actions as we go about our daily routines as you would do with a young child at home who is learning first words/language.
Children love songs and rhymes and we use songs and rhymes as Gaeilge daily to accompany all the daily routines and play activities. The consistent use of the same phrases ensures that the children pick them up easily and over a period of time and begin to use them in context. We also use puppets and games to enhance our interactions and ensure they are playful and fun. We have a visual timetable and use a variety of visual prompts to support children’s understanding of the daily routine.
Using Aistear As Gaelige
We implement the Aistear Curriculum Framework and firmly believe that children are active learners whose “learning and development takes place through play and hand-on experiences” (Aistear 2009p11). Therefore, we have a wide variety of open-ended play materials both inside and outside. These support children to develop positive learning dispositions such as curiosity, perseverance and confidence as outlined in Aistear (2009), while supporting them to acquire a second language naturally.
As with the acquisition of their first language, children’s comprehension of Irish words and phrases far exceeds their spoken words for the first year in An Naíonra. Usually children will progress to use an Irish word in an English sentence. For example, a child would say, “There’s uisce on the floor.” before using full phrases. Parents often express their surprise at the amount of Irish words that their child knows after just a few months in An Naíonra. For parents using Irish with their children at home outside a Gaeltacht area, An Naíonra is also very helpful as it provides their child with the chance to experience others speaking the language in a fun and supportive environment.
A few years ago, a mother approached me with a query about a song her son was singing at home “Tá Mamaí shot” …. the actual phrase was “Tá Mamaí ag teacht” (Mammy is coming) …it reinforced for us the importance of clear diction and pronunciation!
Supporting Parents to Use Irish
We send parents a monthly Nuachtlitir (Newsletter) with the words of the songs, as well as the daily phrases and new words that we are using that month. We also include other resources that they may find useful, such as irishforparents.ie and gaeilgedonnaionrai.ie and gaeloideachas.ie
Our aim is to support the children’s holistic development while also supporting the acquisition of Gaeilge in a fun and playful way so that it is a positive learning experience (as opposed to the negative experience that many of their parents may have had learning Irish in school).
Máire Ní Chéitinn is the Bainisteoir of Naíonra Choill Mhic Thomáisín. She completed her BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Studies in WIT in 2010. She continued her studies and received a Certificate in Equality and Diversity for Early Childhood Professionals by NUI Maynooth in 2011. She then achieved her MA in ECS in Queens University Belfast in 2013. She has been passionate about providing quality early childhood experiences for young children through Irish for over 30 years.