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5 Tips for Effective ESL Speaking Instruction

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Throughout my 15 years in education, I have confronted many obstacles related to teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to Hispanic students in the United States and Asian learners in the United States and Taiwan as a classroom teacher and private tutor. There are five core tips that an effective educator can apply to ensure the progress of K-12 and adult ESL students in small group courses and individual tutoring sessions.

  • Put your students at ease; mistakes are not only acceptable, but necessary. Leaning a new language is intimidating because the process requires the learner to relinquish their expertise as a native speaker of their language in order to acquire the unknown. Students of all ages often experience humiliation if they make a mistake when attempting to pronounce an English word or answer a question with grammatical accuracy. Dr. Stephen Krashen, professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California, has extensively studied ESL students who “over-monitor,” or attempt to grammatically edit their speech as if they are editing their writing, a process that many linguists believe interferes with students’ ability to speak fluently. Based on his research along with other experts in the field of linguistics, many students “over-monitor” or over-correct themselves, which impedes fluid expression. When students are overly self-conscious, they may tend to skirt embarrassment by correcting every mistake or avoiding speaking altogether. Let your students know up front that progress, not perfection, is the goal; missteps are necessary to aid in the learning process. Assure them that they are free and safe to speak openly without judgment when they are working with you.
  • Correct your students based upon three or fewer target objectives.Set goals with your students and work on three or fewer at a time. If one objective is to use articles, such as “a, an, and the” before nouns, then pause and correct students only on this objective. If another objective is to pronounce the letters “r” and “l” correctly, once again, pause to model the pronunciation once they have a finished speaking. “Over-correcting” your students, interrupting them in mid-sentence or focusing on too many types of inaccuracies will only confuse and potentially alienate your students. Keep it simple by focusing on three clear goals that you have established with your student.
  • Model, repeat, and practice in the target language. Charles Berlitz, founder of the worldwide ESL organization, Berlitz, developed the Direct Method or English immersion method of ESL instruction. While the method is sound in some settings, such as small groups and individual instruction, larger class sizes may not benefit from this method alone; Bilingual education has its merits in larger classrooms where individualized education is not always possible. Nonetheless, as a former ESL instructor and curriculum writer for Berlitz and C2 Education, I observed that the principles of speaking in the target language without reliance upon a student’s native language is frequently an effective approach that directs students away from the crutch of having to translate their native language into English. Effective teachers demonstrate or model the objective in English, and then invite their students to repeat; therefore, students learn to directly associate the English word, phrase, or expression to visuals, concepts and ideas rather than rely on translations that are often inaccurate or overly literal.
  • Engage learners with high interest and culturally relevant content.Familiarize yourself with your students’ interests by asking them about or introducing them to images related to their profession, cultural background, family, travels, hobbies, etc. Possibly integrate maps, YouTube videos, graphic novels, and/or illustrated short fiction or non-fiction excerpts into the learning plans of your students based upon what they desire to discuss. Reading and discussing short narratives or newspaper articles is often a simple, yet engaging way to integrate the practical instruction of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation into lessons. For younger or less experienced learners, short videos, visual images, and illustrated books often stimulate their desire to express their interests. Physically modelling an action and naming it in English is also a memorable way to teach verbs as vocabulary. Students may not always understand every word an instructor iterates, but they will eventually apprehend the general idea and acquire more specific target goals over time when instructors consistently express ideas with visual supports and repeat directives in English.
  • Slow down, be patient and build confidence. Developing a new skill in any field of study that requires intense and focused cognition requires time, hard work, and patience on the part of both the instructor and the student. The teacher is tasked with the responsibility to model appropriate pronunciation, expression, and pace during the course of conversation or discussion. Effective teachers model the pace or speed at which words are spoken and exercise patience as their students adapt to the instructors techniques and expectations. Strategies such as speaking slowly, physically demonstrating the tongue’s position to form the “t” sound versus the “th” sound, and modeling and repeating target goals require energy, patience and encouragement “with a smile.” Stipulating high expectations is imperative, but don’t expect your students to remember any one item that they’ve experienced or practiced only once or twice. Many students may need to interact with a particular objective such as a vocabulary word and its pronunciation up to 30 times before they truly learn how to integrate it into their speech. With time and patience, your students will achieve their goals and become increasingly confident and fluent English speakers.

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