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These days, ESL instruction comes in all shapes and forms, from social media mini-lessons to individualized intensives. Effective teaching practices vary widely, depending upon the context of the teaching. In the classroom, however, certain configurations prevail, and certain methods qualify as best practices for ESL teachers.
ESL Program Models
- Self-Contained ESL Classrooms: This approach is often used by districts and schools with large influxes of immigrants every year and with many beginning ELLs. Students first do academic work in their core subjects with other ESL students. Afterward, they are mainstreamed for non-academic subjects and noninstructional parts of the day, such as physical education, art, assemblies, study hall, library, computer lab, lunch, and recess. Classes usually contain students at mixed levels of English proficiency, meaning that the instructor must level instruction and plan small-group and whole-group lessons accordingly.
- Integrated 50/50 ESL Classrooms: Similar to the dual-immersion model’s emphasis on classrooms evenly split between use of home languages and English, the integrated ESL model contains 50 percent native English speakers and 50 percent ELLs, who might have a variety of home languages and varying levels of literacy in them. The instructor often combines native English speakers with ELLs in classroom activities, so that ELLs have the opportunity to work with fluent speakers.
- Integrated Group Classrooms: When schools have only a small number of ELLs, or if the number fluctuates from year to year, administrators sometimes integrate students into the general classroom. ELLs enter their grade levels, and instructors use specially designed academic instruction in English (SDAIE) techniques to ensure they have comprehensible input.
- Dual-Language Programs: The dual-immersion model has broader goals than simply helping students master English skills while learning core content. The highly structured program combines native English speakers and English Language Learners, sometimes in a 50/50 ratio. Students work in English for a designated percentage of the school day and in another target language (often Spanish) for a further percentage of the school day. The percentage of time devoted to each language shifts from year to year, with students ultimately spending half the day working in one language and half the day working in another language. Students typically have two teachers, who complement each other’s instruction without repeating content.
- Sheltered Content ESL Instruction: When ELLs enter the secondary classroom, they face many academic challenges. They must gain fluency in English while also learning grade-level content in several academic areas. For this reason, many schools offer a sheltered-content model that integrates core academic courses with SDAIE strategies and an intense focus on language development. Sheltered-content instructors must assess students frequently to determine gaps in knowledge and target language needs. Because of this diversity of needs, many teachers in this context use group activities, cooperative learning, graphic organizers, multimodal forms of input, and hands-on activities to offer ample opportunities for building vocabulary and increasing interaction.
Techniques for Teaching Speaking
Typical strategies include listening to fluent English, building receptive vocabulary through repetition and schema building, using gestures to show comprehension, and choral reading. Students might read structured dialogues or practice short phrases or sentences repeatedly for fluency. As they build listening comprehension and vocabulary, students can move onto lessons that demand slightly higher levels of interaction, centered on skills such as:
- using common social greetings
- engaging in community-building activities such as describing schedules and pastimes
- discussing current events or pop culture
- expressing an opinion
- explaining why they did something
Incorporating English Vocabulary in Speaking
ESL teachers can build the vocabulary of ELLs through motivating activities. Direct vocabulary instruction has its place – particularly when students must master grade-level content – but authentic instruction is more meaningful to students. Some best practices for building listening and speaking vocabulary include:
- having short, targeted discussions about interesting themes
- sharing images or objects that spark conversation
- watching short videos on art, music, dance, science or other relevant themes
- reciting rhymes, jokes, and poetry
- using music, rhythm, songs, tongue twisters, or a mnemonic device that reinforces the meanings of challenging words
- playing games such as charades that pair an action or gesture with a vocabulary word
Incorporating English Grammar in Speaking
The most powerful tool ESL teachers have for teaching correct grammar during speaking activities is their own English fluency. Modeling correct sentence structure and grammar gives students ample opportunity to hear and rehearse the target language. If more advanced speakers or native speakers are integrated into the classroom, instructors should use their language abilities as models as well.
In essence, by over-correcting students’ pronunciation, vocabulary, or grammar during speaking, teachers increase students’ affective filters. Krashen uses this term to describe how students under pressure to produce correct language cannot fully engage in conversation.
One method ESL teachers employ in situations such as these is to note repeated errors and design mini-lessons around them after the discussion has ended. Rather than single out which student made what error, ESL instructors model and reinforce correct usage.
Incorporating English Pronunciation in Speaking
- Clap out syllables in longer words.
- Practice stressing the correct syllable when speaking.
- Use visual aids such as phonetic spelling, accents over stressed syllables, and color-coding of vowels sounds
Techniques for Teaching Reading
Reading takes many forms in the ESL program, which is why modeling how to read for different purposes is key. Beginning ELLs read words from the board, graphic organizers, simple instructions, and beginning or pattern books. More advanced ELLs read their own and other students’ writing, as well as textbooks, reference books, online information, and fiction and nonfiction of different genres.
The multiple uses of reading mean that ELLs should receive structured lessons that build their literacy skills while concurrently getting support for their English language development.
Building English Vocabulary Through Reading
- words critical for comprehending the text
- terms students will see in other areas of the curriculum
- high-frequency words that feature common prefixes, suffixes, and root words
- multiple-meaning words
- figurative language
- abstract terms
Building English Grammar Through Reading
ELLs benefit from hearing and reading grammar in meaningful, comprehensible contexts. Teaching grammar without practicing or using it in context is too abstract a method for ELLs. Instead, use reading selections to highlight and practice correct English grammar.
- Listen to Comprehend: The instructor reads aloud a text containing a repeated grammatical structure, and students listen for it.
- Listen to Notice: The instructor reads aloud a text. Students listen for the grammatical structure and then do a gap-fill exercise in which they write down the grammatical form as they heard it read.
- Understand the Grammar Form: Students read sentences or excerpts from the text, all of which contain the target grammatical structure. They use the examples to determine the grammar rule that applies to them.
- Correct the Grammar Form: Teacher give ELLs a written passage with errors in grammar. Students must identify and correct the errors.
- Apply the Grammar Form: Students use what they have learned about a target grammatical structure to produce writing or oral examples that integrate it.
Developing Reading Fluency in ELLs
ELLs must first have speaking fluency before they can have reading fluency. Then, ESL teachers can employ a variety of methods to build students’ skills.
In another version of Repeated Reading, a teacher reads a short text, typically selected by the student. Several stages follow:
- The teacher tracks the print with a finger while reading aloud.
- The teacher reads the text aloud, while the student follows along, tracking the print with a finger.
- Both read the text aloud together, while the teacher tracks the print.
- Both read the text aloud together again, and this time the student tracks the print.
- Finally, the student alone reads the text aloud and also tracks the print.
It is important to note that, while the text selected for repeated reading should be stimulating and challenging, it should not include more than five words that are unfamiliar. No amount of repeated reading will illuminate the meaning of unfamiliar words. Developing reading fluency is about the students increasing their reading speed and their smoothness of delivery.
Increasing Reading Comprehension in ELLs
As students learn to read fluently, it can easy to assume they understand what they read. However, ESL teachers must use specific strategies to build reading comprehension.
General Strategies for ESL Reading Instruction
Some teaching strategies for ELLs address all the reading areas of vocabulary, grammar, fluency, and comprehension. Some best practices include repeated reading of words, sentences, and stories; using cognates and synonyms to explain unfamiliar words and concepts; and summarizing text.
Techniques for Teaching Writing
Just as ELLs read for multiple purposes, they also write for multiple purposes. Beginning ESL student might mostly copy text or fill in blanks with words from a word bank. However, they quickly build their skills enough to write definitions of vocabulary words, write examples that support a grammatical structure, create short passages, record information on graphic organizers, answer test questions, and compose text to read aloud to the class.
Building English Vocabulary Through Writing
Several writing activities promote the development of English vocabulary. Firstly, there is the act of copying a list of words learned in a lesson, or of unfamiliar words for which to find meanings. Students can slowly compile lists of words that they organize alphabetically and keep in a personal dictionary. Beginning ELLs might add pictures, color-coding or other cues to remind them of the meaning of vocabulary words.
- expand students’ verbal vocabulary
- choose writing themes with vocabulary and concepts that reflect their students’ diverse backgrounds
- give students the opportunity to copy a genre they have read
- use teacher-made and student-made word banks for their writing
Teaching English Grammar Through Writing
Because context aids in the learning and reinforcement of new grammatical structures, writing projects provide an ideal avenue for practicing grammar. Students can write sentences or whole passages that incorporate assigned grammatical structures. However, ESL instructors should confirm that students have a solid understanding of each form.
One way to keep grammar instruction varied and challenging is to vary students’ purposes for writing and the genres of their writing projects. Poetry assignments might require certain patterns of words, syllabication, or sounds. A lesson involving the writing of a narrative might include a focus on how to write in the past tense or how to create and punctuate dialogue. An assignment to compose a brief nonfiction piece can incorporate academic terms and structures.
Integrating Speaking, Reading, Writing in the ESL Classroom
Language development is most profound when instruction combines the skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Students witness the possibilities of expression in language, and have the opportunity to practice new skills. The practices and projects listed in this section use an integrated method to impart ESL skills.
The Writing Process
The writing process has many forms and permutations. A solid approach for ESL students entails spending more time in the pre-writing stage. Students brainstorm ideas for writing, referring to their portfolios, journals, or teacher-provided prompts. During brainstorming, they might fill in graphic organizers such as K-W-L Charts, word webs, mind maps, or basic outlines. This process helps students organize their thinking and also gives teachers a chance to review gaps in schemas, vocabulary, or grammatical patterns the student might need to fill in to complete a first draft.
In writing a first draft, students use information from their graphic organizers, supplemented by their own experiences as well as by guided research done in class. Students then read through their work alone, with a partner, in a small group, and/or with the teacher in order to learn ways to revise their work. In revising, beginning writers can focus on smaller issues, such as writing complete sentences, varying sentence structure, or organizing ideas into paragraphs. More advanced writers can do additional research or work with more complex ideas and sentence forms.
Assessing the Progress of ELLs
Teacher-made tests that integrate skills from lessons are a common assessment method. Many instructors complement these types of tests with forms of authentic assessment, such as creating student portfolios. In this approach, teachers guide students through assembling portfolios of their work, often having students choose examples of their best work to demonstrate their progress.
Instructors also perform quick assessments during lessons, independent practice, and group work. Among these types of assessments are:
- doing short interviews with students and jotting down their responses
- listening to students read aloud and noting their reading speed or common errors
- using rubrics for longer papers or projects
- maintaining observation logs
Employing best practices in teaching ESL means that students have the opportunity to interact, participate in authentic tasks, and have ample practice in the basic skills required to master verbal and written English. No single technique or approach works for every student, but ELLs tend to succeed when they are invested in the process and motivated to participate. They will make progress when lessons are interesting and varied, and when students are encouraged to learn more about each other and the world through the medium of a new language.
Teaching conversational skills can be challenging as not only English skills are required. English students who excel in conversation tend to be those with outgoing personalities, as well as students who are very self-motivated. However, students who feel they lack this skill are often shy when it comes to conversation. In other words, personality traits that that dominate in everyday life tend to appear in the classroom as well.
As English teachers, it's our job to help students improve their conversational skills, but often 'teaching' is not really the answer.
Generally speaking, most English learners feel that they need more conversation practice. In fact, over the years I've noticed that the number one requested skill by students is conversation practice.
- Students don't have an opinion on the subject
- Students have an opinion, but are worried about what the other students might say or think
- Students have an opinion, but don't feel they can say exactly what they mean
- Students begin giving their opinion, but want to state it in the same eloquent manner that they are capable of in their native language
- Other, more actively participating students, feel confident in their opinions and express them eloquently making the less confident students more timid
For this reason, I find it helpful to first focus on building skills by eliminating some of the barriers that might be in the way of production. Here are some suggestions to help 'free up' students in conversation.
Focus on Function
It's important to help students become familiar with language functions rather than focusing on a grammar based approach when developing lessons to help with conversational skills. Start off simple with functions such as: Asking permission, stating an opinion, ordering food in a restaurant, etc.
Explore grammar issues by asking what linguistic formulas should be used to achieve the desired results. For example, if you are comparing two side of an argument which forms might be helpful (comparative, superlative, 'would rather', etc).
Implementing this approach can begin slowly by providing students with short role plays using cue cards. Once students become comfortable with target structures and representing differing points of view, classes can move onto more elaborated exercises such as debates and group decision making activities.
Assign Points of View
Of course, this is not to say that students should not express their own opinions. After all, when students go out into the "real" world they will want to say what they mean. However, taking out the personal investment factor can help students first become more confident in using English. Once this confidence is gained, students - especially timid students - will be more self-assured when expressing their own points of view.
Focus on Tasks
Focusing on tasks is quite similar to focusing on function. In this case, students are given specific tasks they must complete in order to do well. Here are some suggestions on tasks that can help students practice their conversational skills:
- Create student surveys to gather information
- Team work activities such as treasure hunts
- Board games - especially games that require
- Build something - group activities such as a science project or presentations allow everyone to join in the fun
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