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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Cross-Cultural Issues in

Alaskan Education Vol. I



V.A. Wilson
Alaska Native Language Center
University of Alaska, Fairbanks

(Ed. note: Adapted from a thesis presented to the University of Alaska by V.A. Wilson, August 31, 1976.)

Natives in Alaska want to revive and maintain their languages. Members of each community now realize that extinction, of their language will be sure and swift if their children do not learn it. Therefore, they have turned to the schools, which have been a powerful force in suppressing Native language, to reverse the process and save the language by teaching it to the children, many of whom have not learned it at home.

Is it wise to expect so much from schools when their record for teaching competence in second-i.e., foreign-languages is abysmally poor? Do people realize that children can really learn Native language only by using it at home and in the community? Dependence on a school program to teach the children Native language if adults in the community continue habits of speaking only English, is sure to hasten the extinction of the language. It is essential, then, that people concerned with the survival of the language ask how, where, and by whom can Native language be taught. The best answer is simply that home, school, and community all teach by the only sure method for learning any language, using it in all facets of communication. In many communities, however, this method has become an impossibility as a generation has already grown to adulthood without command of their Native language. In other communities, it would be a process of extreme frustration for adults and children alike to begin to try to communicate in a language which the children do not understand. Most speakers of a language can only use it, not teach it or even understand how it works. The problem, then, if communities do want to use the language, is who should teach it to the non-speakers and how.

All Native speakers should be teachers of the language, in the home, in the community, and in the school; but this means that they need to learn how to teach it as a second language. If the community truly wants to maintain a viable language in active use, then it must assume the responsibility for learning how to teach it. No longer can language workshops be only for bi-lingual teachers; they must be for all speakers in the community. Everybody will learn to read and write stories of their experiences, memories, ideas, and feelings. And, most important, everyone will learn some way to teach their language as a second language.

People need a way to teach that is easy to learn and seems fairly natural to use. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate an active method for teaching a second language through real communication and to suggest procedures for developing effective lessons and teaching materials. The activities suggested are most effective in groups, however the terms “teacher” and “class” should not suggest limiting the use of these techniques to the school. A class can be any group of children, teen-agers, or adults; and the teacher is any Native speaker who is willing to undertake the discipline of leading the group. Classes may be held in school, homes, or the community center.

An Active Method for Teaching Real Communication in a Second Language

(All material printed in italics is to be expressed in the Native language.)

To be effective, second language teaching should involve teacher, students, and Native language speakers physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially in learning experiences that will make them feel good about themselves, each other, the language being learned, their capacity for learning, and the value of communication. A good first lesson is:

I’m Ginny. You are ______

The teacher, or leader, sits in a small circle of students and gets them to identify themselves and each other. Then the teacher points to each one, asking:

Who is this?

After this lesson it is not difficult to proceed with further identification:

I’m a woman. This is a man. Are you a man or a woman?
I’m a teacher. Are you a teacher or a student?
Are you Eskimo or Indian?

Soon it should be possible to go around the circle with everyone identifying themselves in various roles, the teacher beginning:

I’m Ginny. I’m a woman. I’m a teacher.

Afterwards each participant recalls what someone else has said:

You are _____. You are...

Of course there are a number of possible ways to identify yourself, such as My name is ______ , or I’m called______ . Beginning with I’m _____, however, enables a teacher to expand the use of subject pronoun and linking verb to add vocabulary that has real meaning for the participants so that from the first lesson they are communicating, not just mimicking or naming things.

Lessons progress in a sequence of increasingly complex grammar objectives. Each lesson typically includes: (1) teaching activities for presenting a new grammar concept; (2) talking activities introducing new vocabulary; (3) making books to illustrate open-ended, emotionally involving questions; and (4) social activities to stimulate use of the language in the community.

Teaching Activities

Teaching activities physically involve students with actions, objects, and people at the same time they are learning the words describing them. These activities are brief, only continuing long enough for students to be able to say what the teacher intends for them to learn and to understand what they mean when they say it.

Talking Activities

These activities, such as interviews or talking about pictures, get students mentally involved, associating the language with mental images of actions, people, and things. There is considerable mental involvement in all the activities of this method-the active thinking necessary to generalize the use of the language to create new utterances or use familiar ones in new situations.

Activity of Making Books

The open-ended questions add a dimension of emotional involvement as they deal with what people like to do, what is important to them. Answering open-ended questions requires a vocabulary which teachers cannot anticipate. Therefore, it is suggested that students make quick drawings to illustrate their answers. This activity ends with a conversation circle in which all participants, including the teacher, share their answers to the question, illustrating their meaning with the pictures they have drawn.

Social Activities

Social involvement with Native-speaking members of the community is sought by asking students to find out answers to a variety of questions. Such assignments are usually directed toward a student’s parents or grandparents. Since some students may not have Native-speaking families, it would be of great value for the teacher to help such students “adopt” Native-speaking grandparents. Daily activities requiring active use of the language in the community are vital to the success of the teaching program and to the very survival of languages in danger of dying out of use. Planning such activities and having them reported in the class are of utmost importance.

Choice of Language

The lesson modeled here is printed in a combination of roman type and italics for the purpose of discriminating between the language that students will learn to use in the lesson and other teacher-talk-directions, commands, conversation-that students may understand only in a very general way. Everything written in italics in the model lesson is instructional material-to be expressed in simple, direct Native language which teachers will expect their students to learn to understand and use rather well. Teachers’ directions to students should also be in the Native language but they will vary according to the students’ previous experience with the language. Teachers can experiment with making themselves understood with gestures, pictures, and demonstrations. They should be very careful to make students feel comfortable and secure in understanding-at liberty to say “I don’t understand.”


Behavioral objective: Students describe physical activities; respond to commands.
Grammar objective: Students use:
“I’m, you’re, he’s/she’s ______ing”
Construction like to. . .


Introduce the vocabulary and the verb conjugations by demonstrating a physical activity, saying what you are doing, and then telling someone to do it. Students can recognize commands by your gestures.

I’m walking. (Student A), walk!
I’m running. (Student B), run!
I’m jumping. (Student C), jump!
I’m crawling. (Student D), crawl!

While the students continue the various activities, ask:

Who’s walking?
Who’s running?
Who’s jumping?
Who’s crawling?
What is
(Student A) doing?
(Student A), what are you doing?

Continue with all students. Change persons doing activities and give everyone the opportunity to act and talk. Seat students in circle with activities around the outside of the circle. If the class is large, make two circles, one inside the other. Have the outer circle do the activities and the inner circle talk; then reverse positions.


With teacher and students sitting together in a circle, ask some questions about what students like to do. New vocabulary can be explained by gestures, demonstrations, or pictures. Encourage the students to ask each other and you.

Do you like to walk or do you like to crawl?
Do you like to run or do you like to jump?

Continue with other activities, indicating the action by pantomine.


In a conversation circle, ask the open-ended question:

What do you like to do?

Since the students will not know the words to describe the activities they like, let them draw pictures. Give each student paper and drawing materials and have them draw pictures of what they like to do. While they are drawing, walk around looking at the pictures and asking:

What do you like to do? Ah, you like to (name of activity).
Do you like to...?

Let the student answer and then write under the picture:

I like to (name of activity).

When the pictures are finished, form the circle and ask the question, letting all the students show their pictures and answer. Then have the students recall all the answers:

(Student’s name), you like to (name of activity).

The teacher participates also, with a picture and an answer. When the activity is finished, collect all the pictures and fasten them together with a cover, making a book for the library shelf.

The emphasis is on the personal use of the language-being emotionally involved with the significance of words and structures. Therefore, the class environment is most helpful if there is a comfortable atmosphere of acceptance and a wiIIngness to experiment.


Have students ask five people in the community what they like to do. The next day, in a conversation circle, get students to report what each person they talked to likes to do. Afterwards each student recalls what another student said.

Development of New Lessons

Native speakers can learn to create new lessons and audio-visual materials; however, they probably need the help of a linguist to discover what are the basic grammar concepts of their language. They need to think about how they ask and answer such questions as:

Who is this?
What is this?
What is_____doing? What did ____do? What is_____going to do?
Who is doing it?
(Singular, dual, plural)
Who is he (are they) doing it to?
(Singular, dual, plural)
How? When? Where? Why?

They need to decide in what order to teach the grammar concepts and what vocabulary to use, taking into consideration what is necessary to beginning conversation anct the degree of difficulty for the learner. The greatest difficulties teachers face are limiting their own language to what their students can understand and limiting their teaching to one grammar concept at a time. This can best be done by working out a detailed lesson plan for each day.

New lessons can be patterned after the model by following these steps:

  1. Determine the specific grammar objective-that is, the prefix, verb, stem, postbase, verb ending, noun case, etc.- that students need to learn.
  2. Determine the behavior objective for the kind of language situation to be mastered.
  3. Think of specific physical actions that will demonstrate the meaning of the word or concept and give students the opportunity to use it over and over again with questions and answers for each of the three persons I, you, he/she.
    Example 1

    The teacher sits with a few students in a circle and hands them small tools.
Teacher: Student:
Mike, give me the screwdriver, please.  
Who gave me the screwdriver? Mike gave it to you.
Mike, ask me for the wrench. Give me the wrench, please.
Did I give Mike the wrench? Yes, you gave it to him.
Mike, did I give you the wrench? Yes, you gave it to me.
  1. Plan interviews, games, or other talking activities that will involve students with each other using the new vocabulary and grammar concepts. Talking activities develop mental involvement. They broaden the scope of the lesson from what is simply available in the immediate surroundings to things that may be of more interest to students or more appropriate to Native culture. Audio-visual materials- dialogs or stories with illustrations-are very effective. These are recorded and used with questions and answers that help students to discern the various components of sentences and words.
    Example 2
    Project a picture of a young Eskimo working on his snow machine, and play the tape or language master: Roger’s working on his Sno-go.
    Teacher: Recording: Student:
    Who’s this? Roger’s working on his Sno-go. It’s Roger.
    What’s this? Roger’s working on his Sno-go. It’s a Sno-go.
    Whose Sno-go is it? Roger’s working on his Sno-go. It’s Roger’s.
    Is it Roger’s Snow-go? Roger’s working on his Sno-go. Yes, it’s his Sno-go.
    What’s Roger doing?   He’s working on his Sno-go.
    Who’s working on his Sno-go?   Roger’s working on his Sno-go.

  2. Think of an open-ended question that will require the use of the grammar concept just learned-a question that will be a good theme for making a book. Personal questions, such as those in the following example, get students emotionally involved.
    Example 3
    What do you like to do?
    What do you have that makes you feel good?
    Where do you like to be?
    What makes you happy? Sad?
    What do you do very well?
    What bothers you or makes you angry?

    When did you learn to_____(a number of accomplishments)?
    When did you first___ (activities)?
    What have you done that made you feel good? When did you do it?
    What has someone done for you that made you feel good? What have you done for someone that made them feel good?

    What does someone tell you to do? Who says it, and how does it make you feel?
    What did someone used to tell you to do?
    What are you going to do tomorrow? What would you like to do tomorrow?
    What are you going to do next summer? What would you do if you could?
  3. Make up grammar-practice questions to use with books that students make.
    Example 4
    From the student-made book What Do You Like to Do? the teacher reads:
    I like to fish.
    Who is this?
    What is
    A doing?
    In the picture, is
    A fishing?
    A fishing now?
    B, ask A if he is fishing.
    C, ask A if he likes to fish.
    A like to fish?
    D, ask A what he likes to do.
    These questions and answers make good worksheets if they are written out, leaving words or parts of words blank for students to fill n, as in the following example.
    Example 5
    Mary likes to fish.

    Who is this?
    What is Mary doing?
    Is she fishing?
    ____ Mary fishing?
    Mary, are you ____?
    Mary, what____ you doing?
    Do you like to fish?
    Mary, what ____ like to do?
    Does Mary like ____fish?
    Who likes to ____?

    Sam likes to dance.

    Who is this?
    What is Sam ____?
    Is ____ dancing?
    Who’s ____ ?
    Sam, do you like to dance?
    ____ Sam like __________?

    This is ____
    She’s fishing.
    Yes, ____ fishing.
    Yes, ____
    Yes I’m ____ .
    Yes, I____ to fish.
    She likes ____.
    Mary______ fish.


    This is ____.
    He’s dancing.
    Yes, ____.
    Sam’s ____dancing.

    Worksheets are made for each class of verbs so that morphological or orthographic changes ate observed by contrast, as in fish: fishing; dance: dancing. If worksheets are made for each grammatical structure, using such conversational topics as those in Example 3, then students will write their own grammar workbooks.
  4. Plan social activities that will motivate students to talk Native with people in the community and learn from them. Each question used to make a book can be used for homework activity as well. Have students ask five people in the community and return to class to report what they have learned. Invite people to come to the class for an interview or to talk about their interests. Exploit the resources of the community to make the use of the language as lively, interesting, and stimulating as possible.


These lessons will help Native language speakers teach language in a functional way and use it in simple, but real, communication with beginning students. A series of such lessons for learning Inupiaq Eskimo have been written and used successfully at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. They have also been used in the Barrow schools and translated for use in the Nome-Beltz High School. Similar lessons are being incorporated into a curriculum for teaching Yupik as a second language from kindergarten through high school.

So far, however, there has been little training for teachers in developing and using such lessons and no wide-spread training of all the speakers of any community in teaching their language to non-speakers. The need is great; only if every speaker is teacher and every child is using the language will the survival of Native language be assured.




Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
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Last modified October 7, 2008