Key Lesson Principles

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I’ve written here a few key principles behind teaching EAL students. I’m sure (and I hope!) that people will disagree, and even add to the list, so please comment below. I’ve adapted this post from one I wrote two years earlier on a different blog of mine, and I’ve realised that in those 2 years my ideas have changed substantially as a result of my teaching experiences, the things I’ve read and the people I’ve talked to. Doubtless, in two years I’ll have to change what’s below too! But for now, here are 4 key principles, in no particular order.

1. Use Content and Language Outcomes

Lessons need to have both content and language outcomes. Something like:

  • Content: students have written notes and drawn diagrams to show four ways that mountain ranges are formed; they can explain one of these ways to a partner
  • Language: students can use passive verbs accurately (e.g. the land is pushed up); they can use lexis to describe mountain formation (e.g. tectonic plate, mountain range, push up)

2. Teach Language through Content

Teach language through content that is (hopefully!) interesting to pupils. Of course, this depends on how interesting your curriculum is, and the extent to which a teacher has the autonomy to make the content interesting. Preparing the students for a test on what they have learned is going to make for a somewhat less interesting lesson than one in which students have to create a project or a presentation or a video about what they have learned.

There is certainly a case for explicit language lessons. In schools that use the CLIL approach, most would advocate explicit language lessons, and many international schools operate pull-out language lessons. Explicit language lessons can have the effect of ‘priming’ students in a particular language feature, so that if they come across, say, the second conditional in a content-based lesson, they’ll have already been alerted to it. They also provide the opportunity for more personalised language learning. However, an alternative case can be made for simply slotting in an explicit focus on language within a content-based lesson. For example, the teacher notices that a few students are getting some aspect of language wrong, so the teacher stops the lesson for 5 minutes and goes over this language with the whole class, or even with a few students. Or before students are engaged in a particular activity, the teacher goes through a particular language feature that students will need to use. It’s a brief focus on language, sometimes referred to as a focus on form.

The key principle is that content should drive language; language shouldn’t exist in a vacuum.

3. Massive Input

Lots of reading and listening are essential for students in the early stages of learning English as an additional language. This can come from a huge range of sources: texts and videos are obvious, but the role of the teacher and other students should never be forgotten or underestimated. This is why collaborative group work is such a powerful language learning approach.

In an ideal world, language should be ‘just about’ comprehensible. This allows language to be taken in by EAL students. Some people make a case for only using authentic texts when learning languages and that eventually students will pick it up. In my ongoing attempts to learn Russian, I’ve tried authentic texts. I’ve listened to Russian radio and ‘read’ Pushkin; the language is just noise. It’s frustrating, it’s demotivating. Comprehensible language means, for example, that a written text is just difficult enough so that the language a student doesn’t know can be worked out using the context; in spoken text, fairly detailed meaning is clear even though a student might not know all the language it contains. In other words, meaning comes first.

Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world, and classrooms are probably not ideal places to learn languages, especially classrooms with more than, say, 12 students in them (i.e almost all classrooms!). Providing ALL students with comprehensible input is technically impossible for a teacher – it’s possible in theory, but given the limits to a teacher’s time, energy, motivation and resources, it’s not practically possible. So you have to employ a kind of scattergun approach: shower the class in enough language, at varying levels of difficulty, and you can be fairly sure that over time, all students will have received enough comprehensible input to make a significant difference to their learning.

But also bear in mind the vital role that motivation plays in language learning. If I’m really into a particular topic. I’ll want to read a text about it in Russian even if I understand no more than half the words. If I really want to get at the information a text contains, I’ll make damn sure I use all the language tools and language knowledge at my disposal to understand it. That’s why the kind of dull or abstract texts and dialogues found in many coursebooks are lousy: I don’t want to read about someone’s trip to the supermarket, even if the text is easy. In other words, if a student is interested in the topic, they’ll work harder to make it more comprehensible for themselves.

4. Language Output

Input is essential but not enough. Students need to use the language, because only language use forces students to think about the language they are using and only language use forces students to pay attention to language form (and to get feedback on it from someone else, such as a teacher or fellow student). So EAL students need opportunities to speak and write English. One good forum for this is through collaborative group work.