printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Chapter 7: B-3. An Educational Approach for Teaching ESL Students


Share


Many classroom teachers may lack confidence in teaching ESL students, thinking perhaps that without specific professional preparation or background experience, they are inadequate to the task. While there are differences in the acquisition of first and second languages, there are also many similarities which can inform our teaching of language and hence our teaching of ESL students. Effective language teaching for both ESL and other students focuses on meaning-making, rather than on recall of vocabulary words. In all language teaching, consideration should be given to the development of a positive classroom environment that will support true interaction and collaboration between teacher, student and parent and between the students themselves.

Differences in the acquisition of first and second languages have to do with numerous factors, including attitude, experience and expectations. According to Damico (1999, p. 3) differences are seen in the following areas:

  • Motivation: initial language development is motivated by a desire to communicate and make sense of the world; motivation for second language learning is different because the learner is already able to communicate in a first language.

  • Setting: first language acquisition happens in a natural setting; settings for second language learning are usually more formal and contrived.

  • Amount of Exposure: exposure to a second language is usually less than for a first language.

  • Factors: first language acquisition takes place during all conscious hours, whereas time devoted to the acquisition of a second language is limited.

  • Models: second language learners often suffer from a lack of good language models able to use the new language with native-like proficiency. In international schools, however, this will depend on the composition of the student body and teaching staff.

  • Interference/Transfer: second language learners have a previous language system which may interfere with the acquisition of the new language. • Cultural Interference: learning a second language includes learning the culture

  • Cultural Interference: learning a second language includes learning the culture transmitted by that language, and second language learners may have difficulty in deciphering culture-bound concepts, including time references and social hierarchies.

  • Expectations: first language development is focused on meaning, whereas second language programs are often focused on grammar and vocabulary. While we do not expect young children to produce perfect language, expectations for second language students are often different.

  • Reinforcement: first language development is encouraged with positive feedback and sometimes "mistakes" are even taken on in the lingua franca of the family. Second language learners receive less descriptive feedback and sometimes even experience negative attitudes towards their home language and culture.

  • Education 1: oral language development is usually complete by the time the student is exposed to written language, whereas the second language learner is expected to handle oral and written language (narrative and expository) simultaneously.

  • Education 2: second language learners are sometimes excluded from various elements of the curriculum until they develop adequate facility in the second language.

These differences illustrate the favorable conditions surrounding first language development and suggest that these same conditions can act as deterrents to second language acquisition if student experiences are negative. However, as teachers become aware of student needs, many of the negative experiences can be circumvented. Similarities in the processes of first and second language learning are such that all students will benefit from rich language experiences. Damico (1999, p. 3) outlines the similarities as follows (emphases in the original):

  • both require meaning laden environments for maximal acquisition: individuals will acquire language more quickly when their environments are orchestrated to provide opportunities for making meaning, rather than simple recall of new vocabulary or other facts. Whereas previous ESL programs focused on teaching students the surface structures of language, i.e. the grammar, vocabulary and syntax, and focused on student conversational production as the major target, currently, the major focus is to help students use language in the development of meaning and of knowledge.

  • both require appropriate cognitive, social and affective factors: language acquisition takes place more quickly when there is appropriate cognitive challenge in a supportive, affective environment, when conditions which produce threat and anxiety are reduced.

  • both require comprehensible input: the message should be understood, regardless of the level of language development or second language proficiency (Krashen, 1982). Generally, this means the message needs to be communicated in language that is pitched just beyond what students can produce themselves.

  • both exhibit periods of predictable errors during the acquisition process: there will be errors in production of both first and second languages, and these will be reflected in the surface structures of the language used/produced.

  • both require motivation for maximal progress: relevance to student interests will certainly help to motivate the learning of a second language.

Based on the similarities in language acquisition in both first and second languages, all students will benefit from an effective language program that is rich in opportunities to construct personal meaning from course content. To achieve an effective language teaching strategy, opportunities for learning must also be relevant and beneficial to the student and effective in helping him/her overcome problems. In a recent example of irrelevant language learning, a 9th grade student emerged puzzled from a foreign language class and explained to his parents that he was learning how to ensure there was appropriate heating when he rented an apartment in Paris. Living in Africa, this student had never experienced a winter, nor could he foresee a time in the near future when he would be called upon to rent an apartment in Paris. While relevance can be mediated, clearly, this had not happened for this young man.

Damico (1999, p. 11) identifies five practical components to achieve an effective language teaching strategy for both ESL as well as other students in the regular classroom:

  1. Select situated or embedded contexts to carry the opportunities for learning:
    Classroom situations in which students are focused only on the learning of language (e.g new vocabulary words or the conjugation of verb tenses) are artificial and students find it difficult to derive meaning from them. Language should be regarded as a tool to make sense of something else, rather than an end in and of itself; thus curriculum content can provide the contexts in which language is learned. As much as possible, these contexts should be varied, natural and authentic, so that students are working on real tasks. Activities which lend themselves to language learning and which can easily be incorporated into lesson planning formats are: reading and writing activities, academic tasks, experience stories, conversational formats, representational play, hobbies, excursions, themes, problem solving, research activities, story enactments and preparation for authentic tasks (e.g. job interviews, work). "Since academics is the primary business of schools, the classroom context and academic activities should be a primary intervention target and agenda for any school-age child (Damico, 1999, p. 12)."
  2. Target the actual skills and strategies needed by the child to become a more effective meaning-maker:
    Within the framework of the curriculum, teachers need to assess two issues in the language classroom. These are: a) the academic skills needed for success and how they might be developed and b) the student's present level of functioning in the uses and manifestations of language. There is no single published test adequate to the task of determining student language proficiency, but teachers can focus on student behaviors as a means of determining whether the meaning of what is said in the classroom is understood. Careful observation of student language use, problem issues, strengths and adjustments will help teachers gauge functioning levels and specific needs. Identifying student needs can inform the planning of different curricular components.

Check constantly that students have understood what is being said: ask questions, ask for feedback, give visual as well as verbal reviews, and develop a classroom atmosphere in which it is all right for students to make mistakes.

Teach study skills explicitly: do not assume that students already know how to take notes, how to organize ideas for an expository essay, study for a test or use a homework diary. Teach these skills explicitly, and check that students are writing down notes appropriately.

    3.    Select materials that will enhance pragmatic mapping: In the language of speech and language therapists, pragmatics refers to that dimension of language
            pertaining to the use of language in its social, communicative context (Wiig, 1989). In the language classroom, this means materials should be culturally and/or
            experientially relevant to students, reflecting real life issues and problems. This will allow students a way into the cultural aspects of language as well as provide
            good models for written text. "It is important to remember that the primary emphasis should be placed on the ability to utilize language for meaning transmission
            and construction rather than learning actual content. That is what creates an educative experience (Damico, 1999, p. 14)." Materials must be well-written, well- 
            organized sequentially and temporally, and selected from a variety of genres.

    4.    Create an empowering learning environment: Many of the suggestions for developing a positive learning environment in which students are encouraged to take
            risks are relevant here, particularly those to do with team learning and cooperative/small group work. These strategies provide an environment for ESL students
            in which learning can be mediated and scaffolded and which encourage high levels of interaction among students. Students will learn more easily in
           environments in which anxiety is reduced and self-confidence and self-esteem can be developed.

Specific suggestions for creating an empowering learning environment for ESL students include:

  • Expect and respect a "silent period" in beginning ESL students (Damico, 1999; Sears, 1998). This silent period is often a source of worry for both teachers and parents because students are not yet producing language. They are, however, listening actively, and expressing themselves non-verbally. Depending on factors that include the individual student's personality and previous educational experience, this silent period may last a few days or the better part of a year. Students who have come from classes of 30 to 40 students and who have been taught in an authoritative manner may find the expectation of class discussions to be daunting. It is also important for teachers to remember that speaking is a result of language acquisition, rather than the reverse.
  • Use wait time: As previously mentioned, deliberately allowing students time to process questions and answers works well for all children, whether they are ESL, LD or Highly Capable.
  • Develop non-verbal ways for students to demonstrate knowledge: Drawings, art work, role plays, charades and other interactive games are examples of how students might be able to express knowledge non-verbally.
  • For students new to the class and to the English language, try to take time to address the student on a one-to-one basis each day, as it is unlikely that students new to English will be able to understand instructions as they are delivered to the whole class. Take care to speak clearly and slowly at all times and adjust the level of English where appropriate; be conscious of using body language to get meaning across.
  • Carefully select a "buddy" for the new ESL student: An assigned peer will have a good understanding of the behavioral expectations of the school and will be able to communicate these expectations, even non-verbally. In addition, the "survival skills" needed when attending a new school (e.g. where the toilets, canteen, principal's office are located, what the bells mean, how to move from one class to another) are more effectively communicated by a peer than a teacher.
  • Share out classroom tasks and responsibilities immediately: Assigning students to do tasks will help them develop a sense of belonging in the class as well as help them understand class routines and culture. According to Sears (1998), involving young second language learners immediately in classroom tasks is useful because it brings children into the heart of class life, helping them to be viewed as full members of the social group, and offering opportunities where language learning takes place best.
  • Remember that students used to another script often prefer to read English in print (Sears, 1999): Sometimes, students who have not been used to the Roman alphabet may find it easier to read English in print form rather than cursive script.
  • Encourage students to discuss academic topics at home in their native language: Student intellectual development must go on at the same time as they are learning a new language. Parental help in this area is invaluable, ensuring the student's conceptual understanding of the topic as well as the "comprehensible input" mentioned earlier.
  • Be aware and accept that in the beginning, homework may come back looking "perfect": Teachers will be aware that ESL student homework may be returned completed at a level beyond that which students are able to perform independently. For the first few weeks or months, this should not be a source of concern, as ESL students are frequently working with parents on their homework, or simply copying from other resource books to produce such a standard. As with the discussion of academic topics with parents in the home language, doing homework in such a way will help to ensure comprehensible input. Also, for many high achieving ESL students who have been used to presenting work of such a standard in their native language, such a homework "bridge" helps them to feel a sense of accomplishment in the first few weeks of school - when otherwise, achievements might be few and far between. Parental help with homework will decrease as ESL students gain in self-confidence.

    Also be aware that once past the initial settling in phase and once ESL students have begun to communicate orally in English, there may be a tendency among teachers to lower expectations for the written work of older, more experienced ESL students because English is not their first language. A colleague has found that the explicit use of a variety of assessment criteria allows ESL students to experience success in terms of grades while receiving realistic feedback on language development. A 7th Grade social studies class developed their own range of assessment criteria with one of the explicit objectives being to ensure the inclusion of a new ESL student and to ensure that she achieved success on a regular basis - it worked!
  • Find ways to value the home culture and language (Sears, 1998): Especially for younger second language learners, this is an effective strategy to help integrate new students into the classroom. Parents of ESL students are often very amenable to coming into class to provide an art demonstration, teach a lesson, or to read a story to the class in the home language. In a particularly successful example of this strategy, the mother of a new 4th grade ESL student read a Korean folk tale to the class, some four weeks after her daughter had joined the school, and the story was then translated by the student to her classmates.
  • Use instructional methodologies which are active and which focus on learning by doing and higher level thinking processes (Damico, 1999): Readers may refer to the earlier part of the chapter on the "role of the teacher" regarding the development of critical thinking skills in students for suggestions in this area.
  • Focus on meaning, not form (Damico, 1999): Effective language teaching focuses on transmission of meaning and development of concepts, rather than correct grammatical form. Second language learners will monitor their production and self-correct when they have had time to think about the linguistic rules in the new language.

     5.   Implement consistent and valued teaching/learning strategies: As in the case of LD youngsters, use varied teaching strategies that will speak to the different 
           learning styles of the ESL students in your class. Specific academic strategies to aid in the development of language follow (from Damico, 1999):

  • Reading aloud: Regardless of age or grade, students enjoy being read to. Reading aloud is an effective way to help students develop assumptions about the functions/uses of language; second language proficiency; concepts of books and the structure of written language; positive attitudes toward reading; reading strategies; opportunities for vocabulary development; and provides vicarious opportunities to gain knowledge of the world (Damico, 1999).
  • Paired or reciprocal reading: This is an excellent and effective strategy that provides students with a direct model of good reading as well as on the spot mediation as necessary for unfamiliar words or meanings.
  • Voluntary or free reading: Encouraging students to select books to read at school or at home is another effective strategy for vocabulary development and grammar and also encourages overall reading practice and ability. According to Damico (1999), free voluntary reading is one of the most powerful tools that we have in language education. Print material should be varied in structure And of different genres.
  • Dialogue journals: Another effective strategy to encourage students to give voice to their emotions, dialogue journals are private and confidential, and provide two-way communication between the teacher and student. In this atmosphere, teachers may ask questions to clarify the meaning or intent of the author, but usually do not correct for grammar or spelling. Students will often show more mistakes in grammar as they become more comfortable with their writing and their audience.

Again, readers will note the similarities between suggestions provided for highly capable, LD and ESL students. The issue in teaching exceptional students in inclusive classrooms is to provide opportunities for students to experience success, whatever strategies need to be implemented. There is no recipe that will provide an answer for all exceptional students, but teachers can be assured that what is "good teaching" for regular students will also prove to be "good teaching" for our exceptional population.



Back to Top
Sign-in

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.