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Second Language Acquisition It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop. - Confucius
How to Teach ESL Students in a Culturally Diverse Classroom
Fancy yourself on the first day of school as a student in a brand new school. You are in a beginner English class with thirty other students. Amidst the uproar and confusion, the teacher begins to make her way to the head of the classroom. Language is buzzing around you, but you can only catch some words and phrases. The teacher asks everybody to pull out a sheet of paper and take five minutes to write about his or her summer. You begin to think of familiar words in English and try to phrase them together into simple sentences. You are not sure which verb tense to use, and whether fish is plural or singular. Your teacher asks that each student read a line from his or her writing and she starts with the student at the end of your row. Your hands begin to sweat, and you’re afraid to read your sentence. You do not know if you have used the right words. It is your turn. You silently mutter, “We went and catched fishes in the river by the house.” The other students are quiet. The teacher smiles cordially, and moves on to the next student.
As the student in this scenario, you fear the reaction of the students and the teacher because you are unsure of your language. You feel a deep insecurity knowing that your language skills are inferior to those of your peers. As the teacher, you have suddenly realized that one of your students is going to need a lot of extra help. Many questions are running through your mind: Why is this student in my classroom? Should this student be placed in a special class? How can I teach writing to a student who needs to learn English at the same time?
Although the term of choice today is TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), ESL broadly refers to academic settings where non-native speakers learn English. This essay should serve as an introduction to teachers of ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Its purpose is to assist teachers who are teaching straight writing classes and have a few ESL students in their class. Its function is to inform teachers of the challenges faced by ESL students, to familiarize teachers with the different approaches used in teaching ESL, and to help teachers to understand and help these students.
Although teachers unaccustomed to teaching ESL students may worry about the students’ ability to learn and fear that the inferior speech and writing habits of the student will bring the rest of the class down, ESL students can benefit the classroom. They bring linguistic diversity and a richer cultural environment to the class. Teachers must be sure to avoid locking ESL students into an ethnic or cultural stereotype.
It is important to be sure that the ESL student in your classroom is proficient enough to be placed into a class of native speakers. Thus, the teacher should evaluate the student early on in the semester. One way to do this is to administer an in-class writing assignment early on to assess the abilities of the ESL student. In evaluating, the teacher should consider the student’s ability to communicate in English (rhetoric) and their grammatical competence (syntax). It may be helpful to place the student into one of four categories: (1)plus rhetoric/plus syntax, (2)plus rhetoric/minus syntax, (3)minus rhetoric/plus syntax, (4)minus rhetoric/minus syntax. Those students in categories 1 and two will probably be able to continue the class with native speakers. Students in category two may need extra help with grammatical mechanics of writing. Students in category 3 may just need encouragement to begin to use their knowledge of the language to communicate. For these students, you may want to assign simpler assignments to help them sharpen their skills and then allow them to join the class syllabus later in the year.
If the student lacks the proficiency to participate in the class, another arrangement should be made for the student. It may be possible to place the student in another class more appropriate for their level of proficiency. If this is not a possibility, the teacher should put the ESL student on a syllabus geared to his or her level.
We learn various rules of English in a specific order. Later stages of the process cannot be mastered before earlier stages. Therefore, it will not be productive to the ESL learner to be given tough assignments when they need to learn simpler tasks. Thus, students in category four should be placed in a different class.
In the past, teachers have attempted many approaches in teaching language. Some have emphasized grammatical accuracy by translation, some have placed emphasis in natural conversation and assumed grammar would be learned inductively, some concentrated on reading to learn vocabulary and grammar, some emphasized listening to learn the language and giving the nonverbal response, and others concentrated on learning rules of language. The approach taken at present is the communicative approach. It views language as a means of communication. It is organized around social situations of language rather than around linguistic structures and integrates speaking, listening, reading, and writing. This approach tends to elicit more language from learners and frees them up to worry less about mistakes. However, the ESL student needs to learn grammar in the context of their speaking and writing. The best approach seeks a balance in which communication is emphasized, especially at the beginning of the language learning process, and teaching of grammar is added as the student gains confidence and fluency.
Teaching ESL students can be very challenging because not every approach can be applied to every student. Chances are good that each ESL student will come to you with a different knowledge base. The majority of writing teachers will not speak the native language of their ESL students and must give explanations in English. Consequently, there is always the possibility that the student may not understand everything you’ve said because of his or her language barrier. The ESL student should be encouraged to develop fluency in the language. Premature attention to issues of accuracy can strangle fluency and confidence on the part of the student. However, ignoring issues of accuracy can also lead to problems. We don’t want ESL students to become stuck in patterns of errors and solidified in bad habits. It is a challenge for teachers to find this balance in teaching and to make sure they don’t allow themselves to get so wrapped up with ESL-specific difficulties that they lose sight of the bigger classroom picture.
Teachers need to be aware of the challenges faced by ESL students. Students who have were educated in another culture may have different ideas about good writing style. In the United States, teachers tend to prize directness and linear development of ideas in academic writing. Other cultures may prefer a more subtle and indirect development of ideas. Teachers may even be introducing ESL students to a form of writing they have not previously used. ESL students struggle with learning socially appropriate modes of communicating. They cannot rely on the direct translation of their native language to English because different cultures use different communicative approaches depending on the social situation. Teachers also need to be aware of emotional difficulties. Recent arrivals are probably experiencing culture shock. Some students will identify with the host country, and others may experience strong antipathy for the host country. The system of schooling of the native country may be very different from our system in the United States. Keep in mind that your ESL student may be dealing with some of these issues while facing intellectual challenges as well. The ESL student may need extra encouragement, support, and praise. Often the biggest problem is the student’s insecurity with the language.
Despite their cultural and language differences, ELS students should be encouraged to immerse themselves in writing the same way native speakers do. They should work with the same process as other students with meaning as central concern, followed by attention to structure, style, and correctness. ESL writers and native speakers will struggle with some of the same problems in composition: formulating the thesis statement, writing with compelling details, and organization. They will both benefit from being taught together. However, teachers may want to consider ESL difficulties in some assignments. For example, timed writing is very challenging for the ESL student. The ESL writer needs to concentrate on writing in which there is time for proofreading, revising, and intervention of the teacher or peers during the process. ESL students will probably need more time to proofread and correct errors in compositions than the native speaker. If the ESL writer is struggling with composition issues and a different syllabus becomes necessary, the teacher may want to include assignments that favor fluency, such as journals and short narratives. It may be best to separate assignments to enhance fluency from assignments meant to enhance accuracy and correct errors. The ESL student may become overwhelmed if he or she must concentrate on all the aspects of composition at one time.
Reading is also of great importance in teaching the ESL learner. It provides content for discussion, a model for good English text, and an expanded vocabulary. However, it’s important for the teacher to choose a text with a controlled vocabulary. Students who must constantly leave the text to search for words in the dictionary are not likely to learn the meanings of the word or understand the text. Teachers may want to provide the ESL learner with a list of contextually appropriate definitions in advance of the reading so that the student can read the text efficiently.
We need to remember that ESL students are mainstreamed because they can be successful in a regular writing classroom. They just may need some extra encouragement and support. Hopefully, this introduction to ESL will help teachers to understand and teach ESL learners in their straight writing classes. ESL students in the classroom can be a challenge, but they can also be a lot of fun. Encourage them to participate creatively within your classroom and enjoy their input. The other students in your classroom will enjoy the diversity and be interested in helping that student learn effectively.
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