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From confusing homophones to nonsensical idioms, English can be a notoriously difficult language to learn, especially for younger students. But thanks to modern technology and the Internet, language educators now have the tools to offer students a more immersive, multimedia learning environment that can help to bridge the gap between cultures.
Like general learning, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for English language learners (ELLs). The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that approximately 10 percent of public school students in the United States are ELLs. They come from diverse backgrounds and cultures, with varying levels of proficiency and at different stages of the language acquisition process.
In addition to the many cultural considerations that come into play for students in the classroom, ELL students acquire English language skills in graduated stages. The fives stages of learning English as a second language include:
The Silent Period – Students have little to no fluency or understanding of the language at this stage, and are most responsive to visual and non-verbal commands and information.
Early Production – As they become more confident and comfortable speaking out loud in front of the teacher and fellow classmates, students begin to use one- or two-word phrases and simple sentences to communicate.
Speech Emergence – At this stage ELL students begin to develop basic reading and writing skills in English, and can verbally communicate with longer and more complex sentences.
Intermediate Fluency – When first learning a new language, students think in their first language and work in a sort of translation with the second language. As fluency progresses, they can think in the second language with greater comprehension and complexity in both written and verbal communication.
Advanced Fluency – At this stage, the student has achieved near native mastery of the second language, which can take an average of two to 10 years, depending on the student and their individual circumstances.
Making allowances for where each student is on his or her journey to learning English as a second language and taking a creative approach to a curriculum can help to engage and set students at ease, especially in the earlier stages when the language and cultural customs may be completely alien and overwhelming for a new learner.
There has always been (and will probably always be) debate about the best approaches to teaching in any subject area, and acquiring a new language is no exception. There are a few methods for teaching ESL students that teachers have found valuable.
Emphasize Visual Learning – Even though an overwhelming majority of people are reported to be visual learners, most teaching approaches rely heavily on auditory (oral) instruction. Language curriculums are no different (if you’ve ever wondered why infographics and YouTube learning have exploded, this might help explain the phenomenon!) Visual commands and materials are especially effective for ELL students in the silent period.
Total Physical Response (TPR) – Like visual tools, the TPR method combines physical actions in the language acquisition process (waving hello, thumbs up or down, high five) to engage the students and forge visual and verbal connections with the material.
Group Work – Allowing students to work in small mixed groups can take the pressure off of new language learners and allow them to practice in a low-pressure setting and developing their confidence by engaging with other English language speakers.
Give Advance Notice – Handing out materials in advance gives students time to review and become familiar with the work, even if they don’t completely understand it.
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