The Challenge of Teaching English as a Second Language

With the number of non-English speakers in US classrooms on the rise, and literacy scores sinking lower and lower, it’s becoming more important that these students receive the training they need to succeed in school. The debate over how to best educate English-language learners is a complicated one. For starters, agreeing on a method has proven difficult. At least four standard approaches (English as a Second Language, Transitional Bilingual Education, Developmental Bilingual Education and Dual Language Education) are part of the discussions, and have all been implemented with varying degrees of success. In many cases, they are abandoned before given time to work.

So, how have educators been successful in teaching English to non-English speakers? An article in The Huffington Post outlines several methods that have worked for schools. The first is data collection. Often, when long-term research is being conducted, data is collected only a few times a year. At Geddes Elementary School in California, reading assessments were originally taken twice a year. By bumping the collection up to every two weeks, teachers were able to keep much closer tabs on the progress of individual students and create appropriate learning groups that teach to each level.

Another successful tactic – that may seem obvious – is to have instructors in place that have had at least a bit of training. Much like a science teacher may on occasion need to know just what math skills a student has (and be competent in those skills himself), someone teaching English to a non-native speaker will need to know what skills that student has in his own language and be able to adapt the lesson accordingly.

The last piece of the puzzle is parents. When non-English-speaking parents and teachers are able to communicate, not only can they share information about how the student is performing, but the teacher can impart to the parents the importance of supporting them at home and at as early an age as possible. Research shows that students who are good readers in their own language are much better equipped to learn English at school.

These methods have proven helpful, but there is still not a perfect solution. Do you have experience teaching English to non-native speakers? What has it been like?

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