Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Virtual Language Camp by Cultural Bytes

Virtual Language Camp by Cultural Bytes

The following is a sponsored post in collaboration with Cultural Bytes. This review is written by MommyMaestra reader and homeschooling mom, Nisha Congrove. 

Online Language Learning

Virtual Language Camp (ViLaCa) is a set of online Spanish immersion courses for elementary school aged children offered through Cultural Bytes. Classes meet Monday through Thursday (1 hour per day) for an entire month. Each class is designed to stand alone, so you can pay per individual class ($10 each), or for the entire month ($60) and attend as many classes as you like within that time period. For the month of April, class met 17 times, so that worked out to be about $3.50 per class. 

There are two levels available. A younger class is directed towards kindergarteners and first graders, and an older class is geared for those in the 2nd through 4th grades (per ViLaCa’s website), although director Jackie Amaya said the younger group could work for ages 4-6 and the older one for ages 7-12. I did try the “Little Kids Group” with my 4 year old (nearly 5), but it was not ideal. The level of the vocabulary, the amount of written text and the length of the class (1 hour) made it a stretch for her. It was, however, a great fit for my first grader. A mature kindergartener might benefit from the class, but personally, I would recommend it for 1st grade and above. 

While I am on the topic of who this class is directed towards, please note that this camp is for students who already have a fairly high proficiency in Spanish. All materials and information are presented in Spanish by native speakers and the only reference to English is a brief “glosario” at the end of each class. While children don’t necessarily need to have strong skills in speaking Spanish, they should be able to comprehend it at a high level or they will likely be frustrated. 

Virtual Language Camp

What we enjoyed about our experience 

My favorite part about this camp is the approach that it takes toward language teaching: Content Based Instruction (CBI). Students are presented with interesting new content in the target language. For example, one course we attended was all about the guaraná fruit. My kids were introduced to where it grows, how it is eaten, its presence in indigenous myths, and medicinal properties. The benefit of such an approach is that the students are gaining new information (which is inherently motivating!) and which keeps them engaged as they are being exposed to large amounts of input. This approach worked, for I noticed that my kids were excited to share what they learned later with friends and family. 

In addition, the content presented in ViLaCa is not only appealing for kids, but also culturally relevant. Topics all relate to the Spanish-speaking world, which made me as a mamá quite happy. Besides the guaraná fruit, my kids learned about Andean bears, a national park in Colombia, and a couple games played in the Spanish-speaking countries. This prompted me to pull out pictures from my own travels in South America to share with the kids, so I greatly appreciated the chance to make these connections with them.    

Another aspect of ViLaCa that we loved were the teachers. We got to experience two of them, and both were excellent. They interacted on a personal level with my kids and quickly adapted to their differing ages and language abilities. They were cheerful, funny, and seemed to take genuine interest in my children. 

In addition, as advertised, the classes were certainly “cozy.” Classes are capped at 10 students per level, but the week we attended I saw no more than 3 students per class. In fact, a couple of the days we got one-on-one attention! 

Finally, the classes made effective use of multimedia. They typically included a short video or two, visually appealing slides, plenty of pictures, background music, and crafts. This variety helped keep the students’ interest. My kids took note of fun details such as animations and the ability to use the screen sharing function to color slides.  



What we'd like to see in future classes

Consistency in the level of content 
It seemed to me that the difficulty of particular classes widely varied. For example, the class on games had very manageable content for my 1st grader. The PowerPoint slides had a reasonable amount of text and contained mostly familiar language with unfamiliar vocabulary sprinkled throughout. In contrast, the class on the Andean bear (oso de anteojos) went into so much scientific detail that individual slides often had numerous terms that needed explaining. The difference in difficulty of the text affected student interaction, as seen in my next point. 

Interactivity 
While the classes were certainly interactive, I would have preferred even more opportunities for my kids to give oral responses. On some days the amount of text on the PowerPoint slides meant that the teacher needed to spend significant amounts of time reading or going over the information on the slides, which necessarily limited questions and responses.  

Creativity of crafts
I appreciated the effort to include a craft or two each day. (Parents are emailed a link to documents that can be printed out). My children enjoyed the coloring pages and creating objects out of playdough. This seemed to be the extent of the crafts, though it's possible that the crafts change each week. While it didn’t bother my children to repeat these activities each day for a week, I doubt they would have been as interested to continue in the same vein for an entire month. I think more development in this area would increase the effectiveness of the class.

Conclusion

       For Spanish-speaking elementary school kids this camp is well worth your while to check out! Its approach to teaching language is solid and effective. The camp is also very reasonably priced with quality teachers. Kids will leave it having gained greater knowledge of the world, been exposed to large amounts of rich input, and established positive cultural connections to the Hispanic world. With a few tweaks to the content and crafts, this great program might be even better, but for the price we were quite happy. 

To try a class on your own, visit Cultural Bytes to sign up today!

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Disclosure: I was given a week of free classes for review purposes. All opinions are my own. 

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Nisha Elena Congrove is a second-generation homeschooler and mom of 4.  She is currently bilingually homeschooling a 1st grader and a preschooler. She also holds a B.A. in Spanish education, and an M.A. in TESOL and Second Language Acquisition. 

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