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[Herald Interview] ‘Strong foundation of mother tongue important in learning English’

SJA Jeju principal stresses importance of play in children’s education

Korean parents’ emphasis on education, in particular their keen interest in early English language education, are well-known.

Teaching children a foreign language while they are still learning their first language may raise concerns. However, Stacy Molnar, the head of the elementary school at St. Johnsbury Academy on Jeju Island, said it is crucial to build a foundation for children’s mother tongue in order for them to more effectively learn another language.

St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju Elementary School Principal Stacy Molnar (St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju)
St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju Elementary School Principal Stacy Molnar (St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju)

“When I have parents asking me what they can do for their children to prepare for our school, I tell them to keep up a strong background of their own native tongue,” Molnar said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Friday.

While her institution is an international school with most of its classes taught in English, nurturing a strong foundation in their own native tongue is very important for young children, she said.

“There is research backing this idea, that if a child can read and write in their own language, they are able to make connections and transfer the knowledge into another language easier and quicker,” Molnar said. “I tell parents (of my school) to read to their children in Korean, speak to them in Korean, and watch TV in Korean.”

She highlighted that there are cases in which students do not have a strong grasp of their own first language -- and some children end up never becoming fluent in either.

SJA Jeju offers Korean language classes, five times a week, for grades one to five just for that reason, she said.

Molnar, who had taught children for more than two decades, also explained the Reggio Emilia Approach and the importance of play in educating young children.

The pedagogy, which originated in an Italian town, Reggio Emilia, after World War II, focuses on experiences. It seeks to allow them to go through trials and errors, conflicts and reconciliations, she said.

And students choose what they want to do and follow their curiosity, rather than following strictly planned classes for academic learning.

“We want them to be curious. We want them to be explorers, investigators and natural problem solvers. We want them to build the social skills as well as academic skills in a play-based environment,” Molnar said. “So the idea behind Reggio Emilia is really allowing students to find passion in what they want to learn more about and giving them the avenues to facilitate that.”

Molnar visited the Italian town in April last year to participate in a five-day international workshop session, along with 450 other participants from all over the world.

“One of the things they really focused on was those 21st century skills. It’s about the problem solving and critical thinking,” she said. “We can teach content, (but) content is available for everyone in their phones nowadays. What we need to teach children now is how they can synthesize and use that information, and what valuable information is.”

And such learning experiences of playing and exploring at a young age are very helpful, as they develop self-awareness for the first time, she added.

By Jo He-rim (
Korea Herald Youtube