Who does the talking?

The EAL learner has to speak. Speaking allows students to practice the articulation of words, sentences and extended explanations and arguments. No one learns these by silently listening.

Recently I had to work with an enthusiastic young lady who just couldn’t seem to get her handle on spelling. Initially it didn’t make sense, since she was so eager to speak and learn. When I pulled her aside, however, I discovered that she could not pronounce any of the new vocabulary correctly – in fact, she had developed the habit of skimming past words to hide the fact that she couldn’t pronounce them. How could she possibly spell words if she couldn’t articulate them!  Unfortunately, in her earlier learning, there wasn’t a focus on actually pronouncing her words aloud which had led to her developing bad habits to hide the fact.

When I worked with newly arrived immigrants who had just a few months of exposure to English a few years ago, I kept a basic principle in mind – I would only talk for no more than ten minutes before getting the students involved in the talking. My classes were never quiet. Students were constantly working in groups, talking about their learning in one way or another.

The classroom dominated by the teacher speaking will not allow the EAL learner to speak.  So what can the teacher, who feels the need to impart all that knowledge, do to build a classroom where students speak to learn?

With my early learners, the recognition of some of the hurdles they faced in learning helped guide my principles. Firstly, these students were teenagers who often already brought knowledge into the classroom – they just did not have the language to articulate their thoughts. The key, on my part, was to provide them with the language they needed to access and articulate their learning.

To manoeuver across this hurdle, I would usually introduce vocabulary and structures as information was imparted, then get students to discuss or work with the information in segments which would allow them to practice using the new language they had been introduced to.  Recently, when teaching the causes of World War 1 to my history class of grade 9 EAL learners, I found that having given them a brief overview of the causes while putting up the key words up on the board as I used them enabled the students to then use the appropriate vocabulary themselves when they were called upon to use the language in a group activity soon after.

These words were revisited often and whenever possible in the weeks that followed, and it was quite clear every one of the students were very comfortable articulating their thoughts by the end of the term. This ties in to the second guiding principle when working with EAL learners. They need constant reinforcement of their learning – especially vocabulary – otherwise they will revert to using the easiest words that are not really suitable for the context.

One way to revisit these words and ideas is to place them up on the word wall or as posters. This way, they can be easily referred to. Often, to spice up the learning with some kinesthetics I’d get students to move up and choose the most appropriate word from the word wall. That gets the whole class involved, and prolonging the selection reinforces the learning for students as they engage with the words.




Reader’s theatre

Implementing Readers Theatre as an Approach to Classroom Fluency Instruction by Chase Young and Timothy Rasinski in The ReadingTeacher 63(1) 2009, discusses the success seen through the use of reading theatre in a grade 2 class. “Accuracy, automaticity, and prosody lead to good comprehension”. Reading theatre encourages students to improve on their reading speed without adversely affecting their attention to meaning. It is in the nature of reading these scripts that students also work on discovering meaning, and how intonation and stress naturally develop that meaning for their audience. It is in the nature of readers theatre that no props or costumes are required. However, some of the scripts I have used do allow for the use of masks. This suits the needs of some of my less confident students.

I’ve just come across this website, “Readers theatre all year” offering reader’s theatre scripts. The scripts are interesting and of varying durations so that I can differentiate in the classroom. My students and I have enjoyed working on short scripts in class before but I haven’t until now found scripts that weren’t childish.

The challenge I have is in finding themes that can appeal to my mature 18 year olds as well as my younger 13 and 14 year olds all within the one class! On the whole I find I have to steer away from animal centred texts that don’t appeal to the teens.

Another website that offers reader theatre scripts is the super teacher site. Check out these others too. “The best class” at http://www.thebestclass.org/rtscripts.html has a huge range directed at grade 2 level. Teaching heart.net has scripts that are slightly more difficult. I have modified a couple for use. And I love using the materials from “a-z learning”.

Last term I had students work on performance poetry for their assessment. This term I’ll be using readers theatre. I think the opportunity to work with peers and the culmination of a term’s word on decoding and phonics will be harnessed through these activities. And students do enjoy the creativity of working on these scripts.

Some tips to see the smooth running of the programme:
-choose a range of scripts and explore the texts in class before students actually choose their role.
-ensure the scripts have difficult words modified prior to students seeing the script. It can be frustrating finding huge chunks of unwieldy text to deal with.
– some scripts had long unnecessary segments that confuse students. Adapt the script when necessary.
– work on pronunciation throughout the preparation stage. When students are performing in front of an audience, you want the best from them.
– part of the value in using such scripts and allowing students to choose their own roles is that students develop a realistic perception of what they can and cannot do. Some of my students choose difficult scripts, sometimes with just difficult pronunciation being the issue, and then make up their own mind to look for something more suitable. I think this development of self awareness is healthy.

Looking at esl learning

I came across this article on the teaching of French in an intensive setting. It embodies all the philosophies I have held about how the intensive language centre for English should be. I’ve ordered the research articles it is based on and look forward to receiving that.

I’ll look at one principle here and that is the need for authentic communication. Many of my students are older and have had learning in their own languages. Place an older esl learner in the same classroom as a 13 year old who has not been exposed or has not developed ideas to the same extent and there can be a great deal of disparity in their needs. However, this can also lead to some great opportunities for authentic conversations as older, or more knowledgeable students guide the younger or less experienced ones towards learning. The common factor for them is that they all need the language to access the knowledge.

Currently, I ensure my students work towards preparing some spoken task every week. The task may be linked to any of the content subjects but it allows students to internalise and use language learnt for the topic.

The powerpoint makes another suggestion that I will have to look into. The suggestion made is that there should be a routine of beginning each day with an interactive activity. I can see how valuable this would be but I will need to look at how this can be incorporated into the very very busy schedule we already have.

Another area I want to look at is my students own interests. Many of my students crave to communicate their feelings and knowledge, but feel frustrated when they are hindered by language. I’m looking at ways to open up this communication.

One new lesson component I will be introducing next term centres around the use of pictures to elicit talk. I have collected a range of photographs mainly from magazines and newspapers and will be using these for speaking segments. These photographs will allow students to acquire vocabulary but also develop their own responses as they share their perspective on the images.