Earlier this week I did a poll on my Facebook page and asked you all if you spoke more than one language or not. The majority of you are at least bi-lingual, which is amazing! I'm in the process of learning German, and know a little bit of Spanish, but am by no means fluent in a second language.
Being bi-lingual is a great tool for ESL teachers, and not just so that they can speak to their students in their L1 (first language). Knowing how languages are learned and the amount of work that goes into the journey is an incredible thing for teachers to know.
If you think about how you learned your first language, you'll probably come to the conclusion that it was often without any thought or consideration. You didn't sit down at 3 months old and ask yourself how much exposure you should aim to be getting per week. And your parents probably didn't plan out your language experiences during pregnancy.
Adults who learn a second language often have to put in more intentional time and effort because it's less likely to be freely given. This means that the journey to fluency seems much harder and longer than when you were a child. It's easy to be discouraged.
I want to offer you a few tips and tricks on how to help your students learn English faster and more efficiently. While you can't expedite language learning, you can certainly make changes in how you ask your students to use English in the classroom, the type of language they encounter in the classroom, and the amount of exposure and practice they get outside of the classroom.
Student Language in the Classroom
One of the first things to do to improve your students’ English is to change how they use language in the classroom. Most children don’t speak until 18 months or so. That’s a year and a half of pure listening and observation. Most second language learners, especially adults, are encouraged to begin speaking from day 1.
There are definitely pros and cons for learning through speaking, and I’m not proposing that your students stay silent for the first 18 months of their language learning. However, there is a lot of language that can be learned through pure listening, and you may want to consider incorporating some silent learning periods.
When children do begin to speak, they also begin to learn songs. ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ and ‘Head, Shoulder, Knees, and Toes’ are just two examples of the type of songs we teach young children during their language learning journey. Learning language through songs allows individuals to blend their voices with others’ and practice speaking in a non-threatening way. Many adults are expected to speak independently, a task which seems easy to fluent speakers, but which is, in fact, terrifying for language learners.
Teach your students a song in English! Simple songs are great to sing in the classroom and to target specific aspects of English, and pop songs are great for students who are “too cool for school,” or who enjoy learning about English-speaking culture. Either way, give your students opportunities to speak or sing together. It’s way less threatening!
Another way to improve your students’ English quickly is to pay attention to how you respond to students’ spoken errors, and compare it to how you respond to young children’s errors. While many parents will correct their children, many will make no mention of the grammatical errors or errors in pronunciation if the meaning is understood.
A stronger focus on meaning, instead of accuracy, can increase student confidence, fluency, and relationships! How would you like to be interrupted every time you make an error? That being said, if you don’t understand what your students’ are trying to say, make sure to seek clarification.
Teaching Language in the Classroom
Students aren’t the only ones who can make changes to improve language! The way that you, the teacher, speak to students can make a big difference in how quickly your students’ pick up the language. It’s already been established that language learners are exposed to less English as adults than as children, but the type of language that they are exposed to is also different. When language is learned purely in a classroom, as opposed to on the playground; television; or at home, the language is typically more formal than everyday, conversational speech.
This is why it’s important to bring more examples of everyday language into your classroom, as well as make your language more informal. Realia (objects or materials from everyday life, for the purpose of teaching) is a great place to start.
Try to incorporate newspaper articles, brochures, menus, recipes, or other pieces of text that you or your students may encounter in day-to-day life. Use them in your activities, as opposed to scripted and forced language from a textbook.
Textbook English isn't the best, but sometimes it's all you've got.
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Text written specifically for English language learners are great resources at times, and it’s a great way to make sure the language is at an appropriate level. However, when you use text that native speakers use, it becomes more applicable to your students. Not only will these pieces of text give your students a better example of language they’ll encounter, it will also give them more confidence to decipher the text when they encounter it on the internet or in a restaurant or any other scenario.
Teaching English is a really big responsibility because you’re equipping your students with the ability to communicate to an entire demographic that they otherwise would be unable to communicate with. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to how you speak to your students.
If you only ever teach and speak in the grammatically correct or more formal way, then that is the language your students will be most comfortable with. However, it isn’t the way that most people will communicate with them.
In addition to using more casual language, you can also use video clips, movies, or news clips to expose your students to this type of speech. One of my favorite resources for more casual English is Rachel's English, a YouTube channel that produces both formal and informal or vlog-style videos to teach pronunciation.
If you follow me on Facebook, you may remember me sharing a few resources from Visual English School. This website focuses on using short films, and sometimes silent films, to teach English. It's aimed towards ESL students, but I think it's a great resource to use in the classroom as well. There is a wide variety of types of spoken English used within the videos, which makes it a great tool for exposure!
Language Outside of the Classroom
So far, all we’ve talked about are the changes that you can make within the classroom to help your students improve their English. But there’s only so much that can be learned in a classroom. No matter what you do, it’s still a controlled language environment, unlike the real world.
Children learning their first language have thousands of hours of language exposure before they even speak their first word. And after that first word is spoken, language exposure is increased through so many different mediums, but adult learners may only get a few hours a week. A few hours which probably all take place inside the classroom.
If your students want to improve their English quickly, they’ll need to increase their language exposure outside of class. It’s mostly up to them, but a little encouragement from their teacher (you!) can go a long way.
One way that you can encourage your students to continue learning outside of the classroom is through equipping them with resources, such as Rachel's English and Visual English School, and assigning beneficial homework tasks. Homework should be more than just worksheets or grammar exercises. Require your students to watch a tv show entirely in English and write about the experience. Have them listen to a song and break down what it means and what it means to them.
Novels are a great place to encounter "real world" English!
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If your students live in an English-speaking context, ask them to go to a public place and use English. Then, have a time to share about it in class. These types of exercises will increase your students’ learning opportunities, skyrocket their confidence, and encourage them to continue learning inside of and outside of the classroom.
If your students are hesitant to talk to people in the community in English, don’t pull out your hair. Many adult students will use their first language in their daily life and avoid English as much as possible because it’s more comfortable! It’s entirely normal and understandable, but encourage your students to step outside of their comfort zone.
There are a few ways that you can encourage your students to use English. Try taking a class field trip. Go to a museum, the library, a park, etc. and encourage your students (as a class) to speak to others. Or bring a few members of the community into the classroom to speak with students. If they won’t go out to the opportunity, bring it to them!
Equipping your students with the vocabulary and confidence to use English outside of the classroom can be really helpful. If you want students to use English in the grocery store, do a unit on food shopping. Introduce useful vocabulary, do a few role plays, practice listening comprehension, and talk about popular or common phrases they may hear.
Learning a second language is hard and it’s scary. Unfortunately, the best way for students to improve their English quickly is to get uncomfortable. If your students are frustrated and feel like they may have plateaued, talk to them about some of the topics in this article.
Improve the way that you’re presenting and using English in the classroom by bringing the “real world” into your class. Ask your students to listen more and use songs to pick up the rhythm of English. And stress to them that they can only learn how to use the language by using the language outside of the classroom.
I Want to Hear From You!
Are your students hesitant to use their English outside of the classroom? How have you overcome that road bump?
What are some types of activities you've done in class to bring in more "real world" English?