ESL Teaching

The following is a summary of Chapter 9 from Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Isabel Beck, Margaret Mckeown, and Linda Kucan. If you teach young or ESL students, I highly recommend this book as it is immensely practical and backed by research.

English as a second language (ESL) students must go on a journey before they can find academic success. They tend to have a smaller vocabulary, weaker semantic connections, and less word part knowledge than native speakers (Verhoeven, 2011). This creates a hindrance and barrier to learning academic content. It generally takes ESL students between 1-2 years to become conversational on everyday topics. But it can take 5-7 years for ESL students to pass the “lexical bar” of cultural and academic language (Cummins, 1994).

It has been proposed that when students are at the early stages of being conversational (a simple, everyday conversation) that they should be exposed to explicit teaching with tier two words. A key qualifier is that students must already understand the underlying concept. For example, all students will understand the word, ‘hungry’. So, you could teach students the meaning of ‘famished’. One key reason we should teach our ELL students tier two vocabulary is that they are unlikely to be exposed to it in oral conversation. Another is that a lack of vocabulary drastically inhibits reading comprehension (access to knowledge).

The good news is that what research has shown to be effective for native English speakers is equally effective for ESL students.

This means that we should strive to

  1. Provide multiple encounters with target words in multiple contexts involving analysis and target word use in both a written and oral format
    1. Improves word knowledge (Snow, Lawrence, & White, 2009)
  2. Promote active processing
    1. Supports depth of word knowledge (Carlo et. al, 2004)

ESL students and native speakers can improve their vocabulary at similar rates. However, this will not help close the vocabulary and corresponding comprehension gap (even with interventions) since ESL students start with smaller vocabularies. But, interventions are very helpful nonetheless because studies have shown that without them, gaps in vocabulary, reading comprehension, and test scores expand (Kiefer, 2008).

In order to further supplement the vocabulary development of ESL students, consider teaching lexical morphemes. Lexical morphemes are the root of the word. For example, with ‘press’ we have depress, compress, oppress, etc. By looking at the root of the words, it may improve students’ semantic connections. This could be furthered by teaching students about the morphological relationship between English and Latin. This could prove beneficial as many English words have their root in Latin.

In order to further help your ESL students (and every other student) make sure that your classroom procedures are clear and known. This follows not just for transitions, but also for instructional patterns. For example, students should know what to do when asked to identify and explain a word’s prefix. If students have this procedural knowledge, then their working memory will be freed up to focus on learning the content instead of how to perform the task.

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