Insights on Travel from Costa Rica Expeditions’ Founder Michael Kaye and his Expert Friends.

How Can Guests at Tortuga Lodge Teach English to Local Kids in a Way that is Beneficial to Both the Kids and The Guests?

Last week’s post, How Travelers Can Help Local People, an Alternative to Conventional Voluntourism, sparked some very strong feelings and provocative comments.

I am going to post 2 of the comments below.

Both of the comments come from people who are new to the blog, Costa Rica Expeditions and our lodges.  So I have now learned that I can no longer assume that everyone reading these posts has a common frame of reference. Both of the posts come from people who are actively involved in community service and voluntourism in Asia.

The first comes from Daniela Papi.  You can learn more about her by visiting her blog.  LESSONS I LEARNED, NGOS, Voluntourism, Cambodia & Life Lessons.

My responses are interspersed in blue type.

DP: IF there were a very fast and easy way to learn such a teaching method, it would be really useful for a lot of things, not just “voluntourism”.

MK: Agreed.

DP: There isn’t.

MK: Actually there is:  English speaking adults spending lots of time with very young children.  The success rate is virtually 100%. By the time the children are at most 5 years old they are chattering away and understand a great deal.  I have no idea what the research shows, but it seems to me that by the time they are 10 most kids spoken language skills are almost as good as they will ever be.

Also, as you will see from the comment below, J David Cox feels he has a way that is working in China.

DP: Some people, though they would love to be, are never going to be great teachers. Just because they can speak English, does not mean they can teach it.

Besides this flawed assumption, the three main things that made me uncomfortable with this idea were:

a) the title of this post. In order for us even to be considering this, the post should be called “How Travelers Can Help Local People Who Need and Want to Learn English.” I think this was addressed in previous comments, but teaching English is not necessarily better than building a fence if no one is doing a needs assessment and following up – knowing that this is a need

MK: Here’s where I should have provided more context.  I have been visiting the Tortuguero Community for over 30 years.  We have owned and operated a lodge for 25 of those years.  During the whole time I have been involved with local people working to improve the community.  At this point my doing a “needs assessment” to determine whether kids want to learn English or learning English would be more beneficial than any conceivable infrastructure project within our reach would be like me doing a “needs assessment” to determine whether it would be more beneficial for me to improve my vocabulary or lose weight.  If you are curious about which one, see the recent photo below for a hint.

As a purely personal prejudice, it has been my experience that if you have to do a “needs assessment” to figure out what to do about anything, you’ll probably get it wrong.

DP – and making sure THIS is the most effective and overall positive way to do so.

MK: I have a problem with how one would be sure what is the “most effective,” way to do anything.  In any case I am just trying to come up with something that is a significant improvement over what presently exists.

DP: b) the statement: “What I need is a way for my guests to have the rewarding experience of using only a few hours of their vacation time teaching English…” This shouldn’t start with what WE need.

MK:  Here again, I should have provided more context. What we are trying to do is come up with a way for guests who are visiting the lodge to effectively teach kids English. For this to work what we need, among other things is for the experience to be rewarding to the guests.  Otherwise the guests won’t keep doing it.

So what we need from the readers of this blog is help with answering the questions that I should have asked more clearly in last weeks post: 

Do you have any suggestions for making teaching English to local kids for as little as one session as rewarding as possible for guests?

Clearly it needs to be as rewarding and enjoyable as possible for the kids as well.  To find out how to achieve that, we are asking the kids.

We are presently working on the methodology and plan to test the concept in July. So ultimately both of these questions will be settled in practice, but the more input we have before we start, the further along we will be.

DP:c) my biggest issue with this: why kids?

MK: It is easier for kids to learn a second language than it is for adults.  Also whatever English the kids do achieve will be useful to them over a longer period of time than it would be for adults.

On  a personal note, both of my kids’ first language was Spanish.  They were 9 and 8 when they had there first long exposure to English and they both became fluent and virtually accentless.  My wife who was 27 when she was first exposed to English gets along in one on one conversations, but she is far from fluent.

I was exposed to Spanish as a kid, but was not intensely exposed until I was in my early 30’s.  Not only did I become fluent, but my accent and malapropisms have been an endless source of amusement for literally hundreds of people.

DP: In my opinion, volunteer work and larger NGO projects in general should have a goal of helping people more easily solve these same problems in the future. If the problem is that kids are not learning English and they need/want to, then having someone transient teaching a few of them for a few hours is not helping anyone solve the same problem more easily in the future.

MK:  The plan is to keep having lots of guests at the lodge.  So if all the other necessary aspects work, we’ll have a continuous flow of transient teachers for the foreseeable future.

DP: If anything, why not have the travelers teach the TEACHERS – because at least then you are investing in a resource which can be improved and renewed. (I fear that the answer is that “the travelers want to work with kids” in which case go back to b.) We need to consider child safety issues as well as I’m pretty sure having a stream of visiting foreigners working with kids for short stints will be less beneficial and pose more risks than a well vetted and trained permanent teacher).

MK:  Time for more context.  Worthwhile English teachers in Costa Rica are very scarce even in San Jose, the capital.  We have interviewed supposedly trained English teachers to work with out staff who know less English than our waiters.  Paying enough we could probably get a good English teacher to agree to live in and teach English in Tortuguero.  We would have to be very lucky to get one to stay for long enough to justify the investment.

As a regular reader of Nicholas D. Kristof in the NY Times, I can see why you, living and working in Cambodia, would be worried about the safety issue,.  We have similar problems in Costa Rica, but apparently not nearly as wide-spread as in Cambodia. In this instance the risk is relatively slight—no more than what it is in daily life.

DP: I have a lot more thoughts about voluntourism and potential impacts on my blog. Here is a post about what I have seen go wrong with voluntourism: for sparking the conversation, Michael (and for passing it on Alexia!)

MK:  Likewise.  I appreciate the opportunity to test how we are thinking about this.


In next weeks post we will explain the teaching methodology in more detail.


Below is description of a voluntourism English teaching program in China that J David Cox emailed me in response to last weeks post.  He gave me permission to publish it here and give out his email address. <>

He also offered to, “pass on the ‘Manual’ that we give our volunteers.”

He’s looking for volunteers.  It might just change your life.

Paul was, as usual, good enough to pass on something important to me.  In this case, it was your e-mail.  We should talk.

I have been doing just that for three years now – teaching English in China and Hong Kong.  It is a fabulous program that is mostly in a ‘beta’ phase because the cost for it is entirely borne by a Chinese philanthropist committed to doing the right thing.  His story is a good one, I’ll share it with you some day.

As for the 20 minute course?  That is what we have and that is exactly what we teach with.  It works.  It works better than any curriculum.  And you’ll recognize it immediately.       First off, of course, you have to have volunteers who are Native English speakers and, ideally, are Canadian (Why?  It seems we are internationally recognized for speaking English with the most neutral accent.  Apparently those from New Brunswick are the best).  But any well-spoken, well-read person who has mastered the language without the      aids of ‘unh’, ‘like’, curse-every-other-word and other modern language afflictions will do.  Usually, the younger the better but we have volunteers now going in their 70’s.

The method is to talk conversationally.  It is that simple.  We take Power points and slide shows about our respective lives as introductions, we engage the students in groups of four or five and ’chat’.  We do it for a half hour to an hour and we keep it natural.  In six hours, we talk to many kids and squeeze in a class room hour now and then.  We are more like ‘friends’ than teachers.  And it is wonderful.  

Please feel free to contact me.  I’d love to share this with you more.  And here is the irony: the program has only been running for three years.  About twenty people have gone and returned.  I am still recruiting for this next year (2010 – 2011).  I need at least two young people who can sleep in the one bedroom together and yes, the school frowns on co-habitation unless married or of the same sex.  

“Why aren’t you over run?” We have no budget for advertising/recruiting so I obtained the first recruits from amongst my friends.  But the test period is over and I need to find a      more reliable and steady supply.  

Our teachers go for 6 weeks to two months.  They teach approximately 6 hours a day on school days only.  Maybe one or two hours in a classroom.  Their food is provided by way of a generous allowance.  They have a modern and comfortable apartment on the school grounds (invaluable) and they are given half their airfare (about $500) to get there.  The students are middle school students but, because they are from Mainland China, they are often very poor and a few years behind.  

Our sponsor also wants us to teach Western culture.  He figures that the Chinese Way lacks a bit of creativity and personal independence.  He wants the students to learn how Westerners value that sort of thing.  I have been teaching conservation and ‘going green’ as well.  It has all been well received.

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7 Comments and 0 Replies

  • Great post but I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this topic? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Bless you!
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          • At May 13, 2010
            1:23:31 pm
            Blair Brenner said:

            Hi, Mike:

            First, I want to let you know how impressed I was with the level of service provided by Costa Rica Expeditions. In particular I was blown away by your company’s quick response to a complaint that I expressed regarding service. The level of listening and immediacy with which the complaint was handled exemplified the caveats you and your company display. I’ve long since forgotten why I complained and but am left with the reminder of excellent service.

            My family and I feel in-love with Costa Rica and I look forward to the future when I can live there permanently. I’ve become the president of the Costa Rican fan club, constantly referring friends and strangers to your country.

            I’m intrigued by the idea you presented of using volunteers to teach English to Tortuguerans.

            The quick answer is of course there is a way to accomplish what you proposed and I’d love to help you accomplish your mission, not only in Tortuguera but throughout Costa Rica. During my career as a Speech Pathologist, I concentrated on not only improving language and speech in disordered individuals but teaching English skills to a variety of second language learners. In addition, I’ve created and implemented a systematic literacy approach which is multi-sensory and works. I’ve discovered/developed a needs analysis that quickly assesses skills (less than 5 minutes) to ensure maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

            Currently, I’m working in an urban education school system in a Chicago suburb, with 11-14 year olds, a most challenging age. Throughout my tenure in this district, I’ve worked with children, aged 3- 14, including many bilingual children. I’ve also worked intensively with adults, who wanted to learned English with amazing results, as indicated by their passing the TOEFL, following their work with me.

            Based on my experience, I’ve learned that an intense approach works well since it allows sufficient skill practice to integrate the skills into one’s memory, quickly. Using a multi-sensory system, individualizes the experience, which allows maximum growth. With children, I engage them in lots of “hands-on” activities, such as soccer, running, songs….
            English is used when we eat, play, swim, tell stories, camp-fires….. The adults who wish to “volunteer” could be trained in an hour to three hour orientation session.

            One of the key benefits of working in a school system is vacation-time- This summer I’m done with my professional obligations on 6/4. I’d love to work with you to make your vision a reality. My sons, who are 16 and 12 would also be available to work with the children of whom you spoke. In addition, I’ve many colleagues who might also be interested.

            Looking forward to further dialogue!

            • At May 11, 2010
              3:36:59 pm
              Barbara said:

              Hello Michael,
              I’ve traveled to Costa Rica twice… with your firm and have absolutely loved the experience and Country. I have dreamed of teaching in Costa Rica. I am a retired banker, now teaching hispanic children in Massachusetts. I recently completed a second masters in Education. My primary subject is math, I have been recently awarded a certification and teach math as a second Laguage to English language learners. It is within this context that I am replying to your question regarding the concept of guests teaching English to the children in Tortuguero.

              I think it is a great idea. No doubt there would be great benefit to the community in that Costa Ricans already have a widespread use of English in their country. Over the past few years, I have learned that inquiry based learning is one model that is highly effective in teaching English. As a math teacher, working primarily with English language leaners I have observed how important contextual learning is for children. I think your various tours offer many contextual opportunities to exchange and develo language skills. However, I also understand that increasing and practicing vocabulary is different from attaining fluency. I am certified to assess English Language production and comprehension. In a “revolving educator” environment, I imagine the role more as a guest educator vs a language instructor. Do the chidren study English now? Do they have a classroom language instructor? Do the children study their primary language and attain gramatical fluency and literacy? These are important questions in considering the structure of your “English course/curriculum”.

              There is undoubtedly a lot to consider and discuss regarding this topic. So much, that a blog approach is challenging. Overall, its a great idea and I wish you tremendos success.


              • At May 11, 2010
                1:07:25 am
                Emily Le Moing said:

                I am an American who’s been living in a non-English-speaking country for almost 30 years and have taught English as a second language in the classroom as well as in a more casual, conversation-oriented context. I have also taught teachers how to teach ESL. I think what makes any language program a success is adapting to the local context. Of course it would be ideal to have visitors in Tortuguero teach local teachers, but if that isn’t possible or would take a lot of time to set up, isn’t it better to do what you can with what you have rather than to wait for all conditions to be exactly right? A program like the one in China where native speakers talk with locals in an informal way has the added advantage of creating some friendly ties between teacher and student. My experience of teaching English to non-native-speakers is that when students start to think of their teacher as someone who cares about them as a person, they are much more motivated to learn and much less inhibited about trying to speak the new language.