Ask Reading Kingdom: What is the biggest challenge in teaching ESL students?


Angela (educator) asks:

What do you feel is the biggest challenge when teaching ESL students?

Dr. Marion Blank (Reading Kingdom founder) answers:

The issues surrounding ESL (English as a Second Language), or ELL (English language learners) play a huge role in our nation’s educational system.  The numbers have been steadily rising. In 2010, 10 percent, or an estimated 4.7 million students were in this category. In some states, the numbers are far higher. For example, in California, the estimates are that ESL students constitute 29 percent of public school enrollment.

The achievement scores for these students are generally below average. This is not unexpected since most of the families are in the lower socio-economic groups and there is a high correlation between economic level and school success. The lack of access to English is unfortunately one more factor that adds to the students’ difficulties.

So schools face enormous challenges in their efforts to help the students. That should not be taken as a message that the situation is hopeless. That is by no means the case. What it does mean is that schools must consider alternatives to what they have been doing since what they have been doing has, in the main, not led to the desired outcomes.

An understanding of what happens in normal language development offers some useful guidelines as to what effective programs should contain. It is often thought that children learn language effortlessly—that the words and sentences just flow when the child reaches the right age. But that is not what truly happens. In reality, there is an exquisite, subtle, steady interaction between child and adult and that interaction offers vital information and feedback to the child as (s)he puts enormous effort into the mastery of language. In the absence of that interaction, progress is minimal and halting. In addition, as part of the process, the child is regularly producing language and getting immediate feedback about the accuracy and usefulness of what (s)he has just expressed.  Many years back, Kornei Chukovsky, a noted Russian children’s writer, wrote a book titled The Child from Two to Five: A Linguistic Genius. He cites many examples that illustrate the process that the child engages in –a process that receives steady support and guidance from the adult. For example, one incident that he relates concerns a preschooler who upon observing his mother breast feeding, asked, “Do you sometimes have chocolate milk in there?” Through verbal productions like these, the child is steadily pulling the adult into situations that keep the language expanding and intriguing.

ESL in the school setting offers few such opportunities. Unbelievable as it may seem, in large classes, the average child has no more than two-three minutes a day where (s)he can speak. And then after any utterance, the teacher turns to another child –in an effort to keep all involved. The chance for even a short round of sustained exchange almost never occurs. Even in what are deemed small groups (of 8-12 children), the situation is not much better.

The clear need is for one-to-one instruction. That idea may seem wildly extravagant, but it is not. Even fifteen minutes a day of effective one-to-one exchange can yield major benefits. And with the phenomenal improvements in technology, sophisticated one-to-one instruction delivered by a computer is now possible. Through voice recognition, the child can talk to the computer and get the feedback that is so vital to effective language learning. And there is no need to be concerned about time limits. The computer and child can interact for long periods if that proves useful.

We have the capabilities to make significant progress in the teaching of ESL. Whether or not we do so depends on our willingness to change, develop, and implement new paradigms of teaching and learning.

RELATED: How to Help Your Young ESL Child Learn English

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