Effective Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners

By: Karen Pellino

Students with English as a second language (ESL) constitute a significant percentage of the population of our nation's schools. This population continues to increase more rapidly than that of native English speaking students (Shore, 2001). The language minority population has a high drop out rate. These students are also among the lowest ranking in academic achievement and expectations. They represent an at-risk population faced with a wide range of challenges (Thompson, 2000).

This presents a unique challenge for teachers as we strive to help these students achieve in learning the English language and the academic material specified in our content area learning standards. Every teacher who teaches subject matter in English to ESL students is not only a teacher of the content area but is a teacher of English as well. As educators, we must continually reflect on our teaching and update our practice to address the needs of this population, placing a strong emphasis on the human side of teaching. We must continually focus on these students and find effective ways to arrange their learning to help them achieve.

This tutorial is a summary and critical analysis of four recent journal articles on the above subject. The articles focus on the challenges ESL students face and how they translate into challenges for teachers. Following the summary of articles, strategies that teachers can use to help overcome these challenges will be discussed.

Learning English and Learning America: Immigrants in the Center of A Storm (Olsen, 2000)

This article considers the challenges faced by language minority children at school as they experience what is referred to as "language shock," a struggle to learn the English language and be accepted in a society that is not always accepting and not always willing to embrace diversity. These students are in a strange land trying to maintain a sense of identity related to their native culture and also become American. What a heavy burden for a young person!

Social and political issues surrounding immigration and diversity in our nation complicate the seemingly basic task of learning English. The role of schools in the Americanization of immigrant students is formally identified as making them fluent English speakers.

Hence, our schools label and serve these students based on their ability or inability to speak English. However, ESL students encounter many obstacles in their efforts to become proficient in the English language. They often come to realize that in order to be fully accepted, they must abandon their native language, surrendering an aspect of their identity. They are caused to feel they must either speak English or nothing at all. Thus, they become caught in a painful power struggle over the use of English and their native language.

As educators we need to realize that education occurs in the context of a social climate. The relationships between students and accompanying range of social behaviors have a major impact on how well ESL students learn English and how well all students learn overall. Children cannot achieve in an unwelcoming, hostile environment. Many children are made fun of when they try to speak English and also when they speak their native language; so they end up silent and withdraw from participation. This further interferes with their learning and achievement.

The English that ESL students are taught is academic English. They often lack the ability to interact in social settings with English speaking peers because they are in separate classrooms and often have limited opportunity to interact academically or socially. They often have great difficulty learning the "slang" and social English because they have no one to learn it from. These children come to prefer English out of necessity, often abandoning their native languages to fit in. They end up without comfort in either language and may end up losing the ability to communicate with family members and friends in their native land.

The author of this article concludes that our ESL students will remain torn between two worlds until society truly embraces diversity and the notion that biculturalism and bilingualism are assets. What is needed in the education of ESL children is the development of English and maintenance of their native language.

Barriers to Meaningful Instruction for English Learners (Meyer, 2000)

This article focuses on effective ways teachers can help ESL students overcome barriers to meaningful instruction. Teachers can use strategies based on social interactionist theory, such as that of Vygotsky, to create classroom conditions that foster learning by modeling, scaffolding and helping students to construct understanding, with the eventual goal of becoming independent thinkers and problem solvers. The author identifies four loads as barriers to meaningful instruction: cognitive load, culture load, language load and learning load; and she states teachers must be skilled at lowering these barriers and sparking student interest and curiosity by developing a creative, wise and passionate curriculum.

Cognitive load refers to the number of new concepts embedded in a lesson. It is critical that we consistently assess prior knowledge of all students, ESL students particularly, and look to identify the concepts and skills the students do and do not possess. We must then fill in any conceptual gaps by trying to relate new concepts to life experiences of ESL students. Thus, it becomes more critical to get to know and understand these students.

'Culture load' refers to the way language and culture are related and the amount of cultural knowledge required to comprehend meaning or participate in an activity. Meanings of words are determined by the uses of words within linguistic and cultural settings, never the same in any two cultures. English learners need to learn the words in English as well as the cultural background that gives the words their English meaning. They need to learn words in context to understand the meaning. Additionally, the information conveyed in our textbooks and lessons is culturally embedded. Some texts or topics can actually be culturally offensive. Culture load also refers to how teachers expect interaction to occur in a classroom. This would include when to speak, when to stay silent, when to raise hands and when to write. These expectations vary from one culture to the next. English learners are often expected to determine the classroom behavioral norms independently.

The author offers several strategies to help teachers lighten the culture load for students. Teachers should treat English learners with respect, not judgment, and try to build personal relationships with students, their families and communities. Teachers can use information gained through these relationships to develop lessons and activities that help students understand the American culture while still respecting the culture of the student. By demonstrating respect for students, teachers allow a door of trust to open that can serve to further deepen a nurturing teacher-student relationship.

The next barrier, the 'language load,' refers to the number of unfamiliar words encountered as an English learner reads a text or listens to teacher or peer academic talk. Teachers can lighten this load by rewriting or explaining text material. Complex sentences can be broken down into comprehensible parts. Academic vocabulary can be presented at the start of a lesson and highlighted. Several different texts can be available covering the same content but at different reading ability levels. Additionally, teachers should model both academic and social language and scaffold its appropriate use to help the learner acquire it, use it effectively and move to more sophisticated levels of speaking and writing.

The 'learning load' represents what teachers expect students to do with English in the learning activities. An example offered by the author is brainstorming, an activity that is oral and fast-paced, with few visual examples and minimal clarification in the initial stages. An English learner would have difficulty following such an activity, let alone participating. Thus, teachers must carefully consider the learning load of all activities involving English learners, making adaptations and offering supports accordingly. One such strategy is the language bath. This strategy involves the teacher doing the initial talking about a new topic and students listening before any brainstorming or other activity is assigned. This strategy is also effective with English speaking students. It prepares students to participate by helping to familiarize them with vocabulary and develop their thoughts on a topic.

The last concept discussed is what the author calls the "yearning goad," which is intrinsic motivation, a drive to know and learn more. This needs to be cultivated by teaching, whenever possible, through topics of high student interest. Teachers should also endeavor to broaden student interests by sharing their passions with students. Critical selection and creative implementation of curriculum are also important. By lightening even one or two of these loads and arranging meaningful learning for students, teachers can motivate students and facilitate learning of both the English language and content. This can help ESL students avoid being misinterpreted as unmotivated or resistant to learning.

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