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
General program models for teaching English language learners (ELLs) include content-based integrated, content-based self-contained, and dual-immersion approaches, leading to a variety of classroom configurations. The Clark County School District English Language Learner Program website outlines the typical configurations of ELL classrooms in public schools in the United States:
- 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
In 1979, language acquisition theorist and professor Dr. Jim Cummins developed the terms BICS and CALP. These terms refer to Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. For beginning ELLs, the focus is on the first set of skills, or BICS. This entails ELLs developing enough fluency in English to comprehend what is being said so that they can respond. Comprehension comes before the ability to produce language, which is why ESL teachers of newcomers might pose a question only to see a complete lack of response among their students. Stephen Krashen referred to this time as “the silent period.” Also known as pre-production, this silent period might last anywhere from several weeks to a year. During this time, instructors must immerse their students in diverse language experiences and provide many cues to support comprehension.
In Hayriye Kayi’s “Teaching Speaking: Activities to Promote Speaking in a Second Language,” from the Internet TESL Journal, the author states that interaction, even at this beginning level, is the key to learning. The question is, how does interaction look in a classroom in which people are in their silent periods, unable to produce language?
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.
An issue arises when ELLs and even fluent speakers have grammatical errors in their spoken language. Educators debate the value of corrective feedback in the context of speaking English, particularly for beginning ELLs. This issue has been discussed extensively by linguist Stephen Krashen, who opines, “Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.”
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
Listening to fluent English in a variety of contexts (teacher presentation, native English speaker presentation, recorded dialogues, songs, comprehensible video clips) is one of the best tools for teaching pronunciation. Kate Dobson, writing in TESOL Connections, points out that accent reduction is a separate issue from pronunciation. She argues that instructors and students should focus on intelligibility. Rather than isolating sounds, students need interaction and practice so that they can make themselves understood.
In writing for the TESOL Blog, bilingual educator Sandra Rogers outlines best practices for increasing intelligibility:
- 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
Suzanne Irujo summarizes the findings of the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority and Youth and determines that ESL teachers must target different vocabulary for ELLs than for native English speakers. Among the areas of focus are:
- 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.
Rod Ellis, author of “Current Issues in the Teaching of Grammar: An SLA Perspective,” describes in other articles an approach to teaching grammar in the context of reading by taking students through several levels:
- 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.
The Language Experience Approach calls for the student to dictate a story or observation. The teacher writes down the work in the student’s exact words. The teacher then reads the work aloud, and afterward gives it to the student to practice reading aloud. This technique is powerful because it puts the focus on the student’s experiences rather than on the teacher’s. The text relies purely on the schemas and vocabulary of the student.
The simple technique of Repeated Reading builds both fluency and comprehension. “Repeated Reading Works,” published in Language Magazine, describes this process with a few variations. The simplest involves a student selecting a text at his or her own reading level, or slightly above it. The student reads the text and times how long it takes. Repeating this exercise several times, the student notes how both the time and the reading improve.
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.
Background knowledge is the crux of listening and reading comprehension. For this reason, teachers of ELLs should devote extra time and materials to building students’ schemas. Nigel Stott, in “Helping ESL Students Become Better Readers: Schema Theory Applications and Limitations,” describes pre-reading strategies such as naming the genre, describing special features of that genre, noting the text’s structure, and examining any accompanying illustrations or graphics. If the text is nonfiction, particularly from a textbook, then further points for discussion arise, including textual cues such as subtitles, bullet points, photographs, captions, timelines, and charts.
In addition, veteran educator Dr. Monica Bomengen, in her article “ESL Teaching Strategies: Improving Vocabulary Improves Reading Fluency,” highlights the importance of using images, realia, diagrams, and graphic organizers to build background vocabulary. Teaching vocabulary specific to the text also builds students’ schemas.
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.
ESL Teacher and coach Raeann Pugliano suggests that ESL teachers:
- 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.
Students practice receptive, written, and oral language skills in this simple series of lessons. First, the class reads a story, utilizing whatever comprehension techniques are necessary to master the content. Then, the teacher leads students in a cooperative activity in which they write a script based on the story. This process can happen as a whole group, in small groups with each group responsible for a section, or in two-member groups with partners. The class compiles one or more scripts and practices repeated reading of their lines. During the final presentation, students hold their scripts and read their lines to the rest of the class. More elaborate versions can feature sound effects, costumes, or other theatrical elements. In “The Impact of Readers Theater (RT) in the EFL Classroom,” Ng Chin Leong Patrick notes that this type of group storytelling gives ELLs practice with vocabulary, grammatical structure, pronunciation, and reading fluency.
The Writing Process
One of the more powerful language learning tools is to engage in all stages of the writing process, though not every piece of writing must go through this multi-step, multi-lesson process. For example, students might keep daily journals or do brief homework assignments that do not require intensive editing. Meanwhile, instructors can guide students in identifying written work that could benefit from further exploration or refinement. For a more directed approach, teachers may choose to guide students through every step.
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
In “Assessing English Language Proficiency: Using Valid Results to Optimize Instruction,” the authors point out that the notion of English proficiency is an abstract one. There is no single point at which a student can be deemed proficient in English, as skills come at different times, vary in complexity, and may peak and plateau. To stay current with students’ needs, instructors must employ a variety of assessments. In order for these assessments to effectively reflect student learning and competence, they should arise naturally from lessons taught in class. For this reason, standardized tests are not typically the most effective measure of skills mastery.
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.