The Educational System of Costa Rica and English Instruction Within It

This topic submitted by Lindsey Stegh ( at 10:10 PM on 5/15/05.

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Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University

The Education System of Costa Rica
English Instruction
Within it

GLG 412/512

Lindsey C. Stegh

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Costa Rica - Background

Majoring in Science Education myself, it seemed more than suitable for me to do my paper on the educational system found in Costa Rica. Having never traveled to the country myself, or anywhere else out of the United States with the exception of Canada, attainment of information regarding education there, in most cases, would be purely text book-based. However, I am fortunate enough to be acquainted with people, teachers, who have first-hand experience in teaching in Costa Rica, therefore, in addition to well-known facts, personal occurrences will be included.

When confronted with the words “Central America,” most Americans think Sandinistas, guerilla warfare, and poverty. In other words, a volatile, violent, unsafe place, especially for Americans. Costa Rica, however, with the exception of poverty, embodies none of these characteristics. Since its civil war in 1948, “it stands as one of the oldest democratic republics in Latin America” (Ramey 346). The country possesses no standing army, but rather relies on over 7,000 rural guardsmen (police) to keep its approximately 3,200,000 residents in check. About the size of Kentucky (19,575 square miles), Costa Rica has universal health care for all its citizens, a 93% literacy rate, and natural resources that attract well over 1,000,000 European and American visitors each year.

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The relatively high standard of living the country has obtained is due to three major items: coffee, bananas (hence the nickname The Banana Republic), and tourism. A few years ago tourism unseated coffee as the country’s largest money maker. Each year, tourists flock to see virgin rain forests, tropical dry forests, cloud forests, active volcanoes, and beaches on either the Pacific or Caribbean coasts. The government, quickly becoming reliant on this booming industry, has reacted appropriately and with a sense of environmental awareness, setting aside 12% of its land in one of its 15 national parks. Here, visitors can see sloths, tapirs, wild boar, monkeys, jaguars, pumas, and “more species of butterflies than in all of Africa” (Ramey 352). Costa Rican people are easier going than Americans and this attitude they possess inevitably affects their approach to education.

Costa Rica’s Educational System

One of my contact persons, Scott Adkins, was a volunteer for World Teach and taught in the city of Liberia, in Costa Rica, during the country’s 2001/2002 school year and he filtered most of the basic information that I was seeking. The basic set-up of the Tico school year differs dramatically from that of the States. The equivalent to our summer vacation occurs during the months of November, December, and January, and the students are off these three months completely. This is the peak of the dry season, and weather is the nicest. The country also celebrates “Quince Dias” (Fifteen Days) during the first fifteen days of July; students are off two weeks at Christmas and Easter, along with various other legal holidays. With all of these vacation days and various other “festival interruptions,” it is easy to see why Costa Rica is rumored to have the shortest school year in the world.

When they are in school, all Tico children wear the same uniform. Elementary students wear white shirts with blue pants/shirts and all other grades wear blue shirts with blue pants/skirts. This uniform remains constant regardless of location and whether a student attends public or private school. Children must attend school from kindergarten through sixth grade. Grades seven through eleven are known as “colegio,” and they are optional. All of this schooling is free of charge, paid for through income tax. After colegio, a student may attend a two of four year university. As in the States, cost of such institutions vary.

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The actual school day contrasts greatly when compared with the United States. It starts at 7:00 a.m. with students arriving mostly on bicycles, foot, or via public transportation. For elementary students, the day ends at 12:45 p.m; colegio students stay until 2:05. Scheduling of the school day varies widely depending not only on grade level, but also public versus private. A typical elementary student’s day consists of two forty-five minute periods, followed by ten minutes of “recreo” (recess), two more periods, followed by twenty minutes of recreo and finally two more periods. Lunch is provided, for a fee, and lasts around forty-five minutes. A good friend of my family, Larry Luciano, currently a 9th grade English teacher in my hometown, observed and worked in a colegio called “Teocali,” which happened to be private. The students there attended five classes a day, each lasting one hour and twenty minutes. No break was provided; however, the students did have a forty minute recreo period in addition to a lunch break.

The actual subjects covered in schools differ very little from those in the States, while the arrangement of them did so greatly. Each day elementary students took Spanish, English, math, science, and history. On alternating days, these students also took physical education, music, and computer training. This same arrangement is found in the colegio, with one addition; students took French twice a week.

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Larry also observed in an elementary school, Escuela de John F Kennedy. This particular school was laid out much like an American school, where, in the courtyard, a large statue of Kennedy stood. Students who attended even wore shirts with pictures of J.F.K. embroidered on the sleeve. Most classes here had between thirty and thirty-five students in them, as well as in Teocali. Both schools also had extra-curricular activities ranging from an English club to football (soccer). Students at J.F.K. received report cards once each semester (twelve weeks), however, Teocali did not assign letter grades; it only reported percentages based upon homework (10 %), projects (20%), two partial exams (30%), and a final (30%). A passing grade for grade eight was 65%; for grades nine through eleven, anything lower than 70% was failing, a 10% difference from the States. According to Scott, most teachers at the elementary level were female and the ratio became more equal at the colegio level. Parent involvement supposedly was fairly high at all levels, especially in Teocali.

Interestingly enough, Costa Rica has its own version of a proficiency test. The “Bachillerata” is given at the end of the eleventh grade year; the entire month before is spent preparing the students for this national exam. In addition to the core subjects, an English section is also present. Here, reading comprehension, vocabulary, word recognition, and a student’s ability to write are all tested and graded before a student may receive a diploma. My contact people agreed that, as in the States, student anxiety runs high for the exam. Students are able to retake the exam if they fail.

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English Instruction in Costa Rica

Scott Adkins taught English in Escuela de John F. Kennedy elementary school, six classes a day, from kindergarten to sixth grade. His preferred method of instruction was the communicative approach, which was derived from English linguist Noam Chomsky’s cognitivism, which focuses on acquiring the targeted language. This “communicative approach is, “an umbrella term to describe methodology which teaches students how to communicate efficiently and which also lays emphasis on the teaching of communicative value and, in some cases, the teaching of language function [grammar]” (Harmer 38).

Scott uses this approach at each grade level. In each of his classes, he began with greetings (What is your name? How are you doing? ...etc.) both formal and informal. Then, depending on the grade level, he and the class would listen to responses and he’d encourage the students to direct a question back to him. While some of these students were sixth graders, they may have only had English language instruction for only two to three years, some were even at the level of a kindergartener. Scott explained to me that one of the reasons for the grade level and experience level conflict was that there was no set curriculum from year to year; thus, one of his major tasks was attempting to figure out just how much English his students learned the year before he received them. “Our largest problem was no set curriculum. They [the school] didn’t keep records from year to year. I didn’t know where to pick-up. Sometimes, it was like the program was treading water.”

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Additionally, student motivation played a key role in their development. Those who attended public elementary school, for economic or personal reasons, would not go on to the colegio; their families simply couldn’t afford to have them not work. As a result, they didn’t really see the need to learn English; for them, it wasn’t something that would aid them in their futures of farming and laboring.

About World Teach

World Teach is a private, non profit organization whose goal is to provide quality English education to countries around the world. The organization’s board members are all faculty at Harvard University in the Department of Education. During the time that Scott Adkins was volunteering, it had programs established in six countries, including Costa Rica. It had forty-five college graduates then, whose degrees ranged from law to marketing. At that time, they were paid $3,500 to volunteer in Costa Rica for one year. In return, they were provided a place to teach and a host family (Host families, then, received $40 a month to defray costs). The Costa Rican government paid each volunteer an additional $35 a month at that time; however, the volunteers didn’t receive that money until after they returned to the States.

When I asked Scott why he decided to participate in the program, “I wanted to show them a positive image of an American and teach them some English.”


Works Cited

*Text Resources:

1. Glassman, Paul. Costa Rica, Moscow: Passport Press, 1984

2. Harmer, Jeremy. The Practice of English Language Teaching. London:
Longman Press, 1986.

3. Ramey, Caitlan. Central America on the Loose. New York:
Berkeley University, 1993.

*Web resources:




*Personal Contacts:

I interviewed World Teach Volunteer Scott Adkins and 9th grade English teacher, Larry Luciano, of Mentor, Ohio.

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