Navigating the Worlds of ESL and EFL Teaching

Jennifer Shepherd, Wegner Elementary School, West Chicago

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I am an ESL teacher at a public elementary school in the Chicago suburbs. But I am also an EFL teacher in China as I work with about 100 professional Chinese English teachers each summer. I have spent the last five years navigating the worlds of both English as a Second Language (taught in North America) and English as a Foreign Language (taught internationally) and found several key commonalities.
Quality communicative language teaching overcomes a myriad of other challenges.

Each time I look at large class sizes in Asia, special needs of students with IEPs in the U.S., or a wide range of student proficiency levels in either culture, I find it is the use of communicative language techniques that allow all students to be successful with the content. By designing lessons that require real-world communication from students, teachers can increase student motivation and therefore participation with the material.

The same communicative techniques can be used with both elementary and adult learners, with only the content changing. Information gap, discussion, and mingling activities that require academic, content-based language all provide opportunities for real-world communication. Because language teachers are familiar with these communicative techniques, they can be a valuable resource for other K-12 teachers who are now teaching speaking and listening skills to all students as part of the Common Core Standards.
Motivation is key regardless of a student’s age or proficiency.

All students should see the purpose of what they are learning. Learning objectives should be written using language that students understand in order to use students’ metacognitive abilities to motivate their own learning. The technicality of language may look different in ESL or EFL settings, but stating learning objectives is an integral aspect of lesson planning and sets the tone of each class period.

An example objective for a fourth grade language arts lesson would be, “students will be able to discuss the cause and effect of a character’s choices.” This lets the students know that they will need to communicate with a partner about a character, but uses simplified language to allow learners from varied proficiency levels understand the overall purpose behind the task.

It has been my experience that adult learners in an EFL context are much more familiar with grammatical concepts and terminology, so I try to include this language in objectives when applicable. While learning modals and identifying the relative strength of modal verbs, one objective could be, “students will be able to give advice using a modal verb of appropriate strength in a given situation.” Regardless of the language used in stated lesson objectives, when students see the purpose behind the individual skills, motivation tends to increase.
Learn from one another.

Too often we focus on what second language learners can’t do rather than focusing on the unique perspectives ESL and EFL students can offer. Teachers can provide opportunities for students to share from their own experiences by validating the use of native language and drawing upon background knowledge students already have.

One way to validate the use of native languages at the elementary school is to ask parents or students to write something in their native language that could be displayed in the classroom or school. At my public elementary school, we have a map display in the hallway to highlight the family heritage of students, teachers, and administrators. Next to the map is one sentence: “Where is your family originally from?” translated into the 17 different languages represented by families at our school. Students are excited to see a visual representation of their language prominently displayed, and it allows others to see how difficult it would be to learn another language such as Arabic, Urdu, Russian, or Chinese.

For adult learners, validating native language and drawing upon the background knowledge of students includes asking questions to draw out similarities and differences between languages. For example, when teaching about word and sentence stress, students can discuss the rhythmic element of tones in Mandarin. Taking the time to draw these connections and learn from one another allows students to draw upon their rich experiences and strengths while learning English.
Empathy encourages students to continue to negotiate meaning.

More than anything else, it is my experience working overseas in countries where I am not proficient in the language that have shaped who I am as an English teacher. When an ESL family walks in the door at school and has trouble filling out the complex school registration paperwork, I remember how confused I was when merely trying to understand a bus schedule in Chinese. When my students don’t understand, I think of situations in which I could only understand one word in a sentence and when daily tasks became exhausting while communicating in a second language.

Whether I am in an ESL or EFL setting, I try to remember that I am much more willing to take language risks when the person I am communicating with is patient, friendly, and smiling. I would encourage all teachers of second language learners to put themselves in situations in which they do not understand the dominant language in order to become more empathetic with students.
I believe these four characteristics of using communicative language teaching strategies, motivating students by establishing purposeful objectives, providing opportunities for students to learn from one another, and being empathetic in the classroom should be guiding principles of English language teaching, regardless of the country of instruction, age of students, or content focus.
Jennifer Shepherd teaches English both internationally and in the Chicago suburbs.


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ITBE Link - Fall 2014 - Volume 42 Number 3

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