Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Doing More than Teaching English Language

The Expanding Role of the Elementary ESL Teacher: 
Doing More than Teaching Language
Article written by Jodi Crandall, It was taken from Accent, Volume 10, Number 1, October 2003.

Today, elementary Teachers of English as a Second Language may be required to teach initial literacy, provide the major language arts instruction, introduce academic concepts, promote academic and social language development, and help students make up for missed prior schooling, as well as serve as counsellor, interpreter, and community and school liaison. All these objectives have led to a more challenging role for elementary ESL teachers, who may be expected to shoulder greater responsibility for the overall education of English-language learners.

Teachers of English as a second or foreign language to young children must impart English skills at the same time that they foster socialization; heighten an awareness of the self, the immediate classroom community, and the community beyond the school; introduce content concepts; and expose students to art, drama, literature, and music. They must accomplish these objectives through enjoyable activities that address the whole child—the child’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. (Schinke-Llano and Rauff 1996)

Three are the goals for ESL instruction (according the new TESOL standards):
1. To use English to communicate in social settings
2. To use English to achieve academically in all content areas
3. To use English in socially and culturally appropriate ways

Children may be able to acquire social language without much assistance from the ESL teacher, but understanding social studies textbooks, reading and working math word problems, and following directions and completing science reports are likely to require the assistance of the ESL teacher, who can provide comprehensible yet meaningful opportunities for children to interact and converse in that academic language as they explore new ideas, relate these ideas to prior learning, and react and respond to each other.

And for an elementary ESL teacher to be able to help students to achieve academically in all content areas requires that the teacher become very familiar with the goals and curriculum of other content areas and be able to align or integrate ESL instruction with the core curriculum.

Content-Based Language Teaaching in Elementary ESL (CBLT)

Content-based language Teaching (CBLT)— which focuses on the language of academic content areas, as well as core concepts and strategies for learning these—provides a means of achieving the integration of ESL instruction with the core curriculum. In a 30-minute pull-out class, an ESL teacher might survey students on their favourite foods, colours or pets and have them construct a graph recording their results, integrating learning the language of numbers and comparisons with an important mathematical concept. Or, over the course of a semester or year, students might plant seeds and chart their growth, noting the effects of sunlight or darkness and water or drought. In discussing and recording their results, students might use the future tense to predict the outcome, the past tense to confirm or disconfirm their predictions, and appropriate measurement vocabulary as they chart their plants’ progress. To integrate key vocabulary, concepts and learning strategies from several content areas and to foster opportunities for including multicultural literature and other types of texts, the teacher might build an instructional unit around a theme such as families, animal babies, fossils and dinosaurs, the planets or food.

A free form web from
Thematic teaching also provides opportunities for a number of different activities. Games, chants, songs, total physical response (TPR) activities, role plays, stories and drills are still part of the elementary ESL teacher’s instructional repertoire, as are software programs and electronic ―keypals‖ or ―sister classes‖ which link students across miles. But in a thematic unit, these activities are all integrated and interconnected through an interesting and motivating theme. CBLT, by integrating language learning with science, mathematics and social studies, helps smooth the transition for the English-language learner to the mainstream classroom, and thematic teaching helps children build on their prior learning and relate what they are learning to the larger context of their lives and world.

A sample thematic unit on trees (see below) illustrates how academic content and skills across the curriculum are developed within an ESL class. In this unit, students begin by discussing what they know about trees, filling out the first part of a KWL chart on which they record what they already know about trees, what they want to know about them and, later, what they have learned. This KWL chart will serve to mark their progress throughout the unit. They may go outside and collect leaves to press and describe in a class book, or spend time in cooperative groups studying one tree—how it looks, what it feels like and how it smells. They may use their impressions of that tree to write a diamante or cinquain poem, or collect pieces of bark or leaves and use them in a shape poem that they write about the tree.

Following this, the teacher and students may engage in shared reading of a book such as The Great Kapok Tree (Cherry 1990) or The People Who Hugged the Trees (Rose 1990). Follow-up discussion might focus on the value of trees to people and other living creatures, the threat of the loss of trees and what people can do to meet their needs without overharvesting. A culminating activity might be the planting of a class tree in the schoolyard, with follow-up activities throughout the year in which students document the changes and growth in the tree over time. Sensory adjectives, the names for the parts of a tree and a leaf, and comparatives could all be taught within this unit, which integrates scientific knowledge, social responsibility and academic English through a variety of oral and written English activities. As this unit demonstrates, thematic teaching can also activate and appeal to most of Gardner’s multiple intelligences through opportunities for movement, singing or chanting, storytelling, drawing and describing pictures, giving and following directions, and engaging in projects and experiments.

Thematic teaching can also be effective in plug-in ESL programs, in which the ESL teacher co teaches with the mainstream teacher. For example, in one Wisconsin elementary school, the author observed ESL teachers working in small groups in the morning (usually during a portion of their language arts module) on vocabulary, grammar and other aspects of English and, in the afternoon, co teaching with the mainstream teachers, who often bring several classes of students together for longer periods to accommodate science experiments or social studies projects. In one particularly memorable afternoon, all the Grade 1 students—with their teachers, the ESL teacher and some teacher aides— participated in a unit on peanut butter that began with small groups engaged in shared reading of Peanut Butter and Jelly (Westcott 1987) and a discussion of favourite foods.

Some of the students had never eaten peanut butter, and few had any idea how it was made. So they engaged in an experiment in making peanut butter. They hypothesized about the taste and texture of peanut butter at various stages, followed directions to help make it, then tasted and talked about it as their teachers recorded their impressions on a large chart. Finally, they voted on whether or not peanut butter tasted good and whether it was better when it was chunky or smooth. In sequencing, predicting, confirming or disconfirming the predictions, comparing and contrasting, the children used the academic language and skills that will be needed for other scientific experiments and in other comparative activities. By having the ESL teacher in the mainstream classroom, the children not only had the benefit of a greater number of supportive teachers in the classroom, but the mainstream classroom teacher also had the opportunity to observe how the ESL teacher adapted instruction to make it more comprehensible to the English-language learners.

Thematic teaching is also possible in EFL contexts. For example, a unit on farm animals might begin with a discussion of pictures of these animals, followed by teaching songs such as ―Old MacDonald Had a Farm  or ―There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. ―Old MacDonald‖ provides a delightful opportunity to focus on pronunciation of English long vowels (E-I-E-I-O) and singular–plural distinctions (duck–ducks, dog–dogs and horse– horses) with the appropriate pronunciation of the plural ending (s, z, iz). I have also found that children have a great deal of fun making the sounds of the animals in English and in their own language(s) while singing the song. Cards with pictures of the animals and their names can be made by the students and used in games such as Concentration, Go Fish or other memory card games. This unit can be followed by a unit on zoo animals, with a focus on similarities and differences among the various animals. A trip to a farm and a zoo, of course, would make all this even more engaging and memorable for the children. Thematic units, while taking more time to develop and present, may offer a more engaging and productive use of the short EFL class than a series of activities that are not related to a central theme. The theme helps students develop cognitive schema about their world as well as the language to discuss and learn more about it.

One of the challenges of CBLT for Elementary ESL is to develop Thematic Units. 

How to do that? Do not miss my next post!!

  • Cherry, L. The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. 
  • Fathman, A. K., and M. E. Quinn. Science for LanguageLearners. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall Regents, 1989. 
  • Rose, D. L. The People Who Hugged the Trees: An Environmental Folk Tale. Niwot, Colo: Rinehart, 1990. 
  • Schinke-Llano, L., and R. Rauff, eds. New Ways in Teaching Young Children. Alexandria, Va.: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), 1996. 
  • Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). ESL Standards for Pre-K–12 Students. Alexandria, Va.: TESOL, 1997. Available at k12standards/it/01.html [accessed September 23, 2003]. 
  • Westcott, N. B. Peanut Butter and Jelly: A Play Rhyme. New York: Dutton, 1987. 
JoAnn (Jodi) Crandall is a professor of education, codirector of the ESOL/bilingual program and director of the doctoral program in language, literacy and culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

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