Educational Philosophy

Essential Elements for Successful ESL Classroom Teaching



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As an experienced teacher, I feel that the most essential element that needs to be considered when teachers address any class of students is in establishing a comfort-level that assures that students are relaxed enough to want to learn and feel comfortable taking the risks necessary for the most learning possible to take place. I also feel that students are savvy critics, as they should be, and if the teacher is not able to convey the reason or the importance of any given task or assignment, students will not do their best in that teacher's classroom.

When most people consider the idea of "language" they usually think first of words sounds that are uttered that represent meaning for the listener. However, it is difficult for me to isolate language to merely words, themselves, since a large part of communicating a message or a directive effectively also needs to incorporate a great deal of non-verbal communication, to include tone, facial expression, posture, rate, pitch, projection, gestures, and "fillers" such as sighs and pauses. Even my dogs are able to distinguish the varying meanings of the sounds coming from my mouth based on these non-verbals. Therefore, I believe that any ESL course that strives to best meet the needs of all students would need to focus somewhat regularly on a more holistic approach to language learning that includes non-vocal aspects as well as aspects beyond language itself, also addressing social concerns and aspects of being in a new classroom as well as a new country.

I also firmly believe in language teaching that best meets the needs of the diversity of language learners, especially since our students are arriving with a wide array of first language experience and background, and with a variety of learning strengths and preferences. This eclectic approach also allows teachers to take a wider view in dealing with troubleshooting and allows flexibility in order to reach the widest diversity of students. The Communicative Language Teaching approach seems to empower students to be responsible for their own learning and assures motivation and interest. I have had a great deal of success as an English teacher in allowing students to make their own choices whenever possible. At the same time, there needs to be a system in place that is still led by the teacher. Teachers need to beware of random, disorganized student-centered spontaneity which may stray from productive learning. The instructor needs to be sure not to exclude potentially helpful "canned" exercises, grammatical pointers, and other more structured devices readily available to educators.

At the same time, it is also essential for the educator to also custom design lessons and materials that move beyond the textbook. It is unrealistic for any teacher to try to use solely his or her own created materials, due to time constraints; however, it is also unjust to never do so, and any teacher who strictly follows pre-made materials and does not stray is likely to not be considering the individual needs of his or her diverse students.
I do believe strongly in a Cooperative classroom in which students work in pairs or teams whenever possible, sharing and helping each other learn. Interactive classes also allow for more real-world contexts, genuine, meaningful communication, more speaking taking place, and writing for real audiences rather than contrived audiences. Once this cooperative atmosphere is set; however, I also believe that teachers can, albeit cautiously, allow opportunities for healthy competition among teams. This is a successful technique in regular American classrooms, but the ESL teacher would need to consider individual students and their backgrounds before throwing a student into this situation if it is not a part of that student's culture.

Since first language acquisition research shows us that children begin perceiving "wholes" well before "parts", a Top-Down approach seems most logical for students, especially in preventing the "boredom" factor. However, I still see great value in the Bottom-Up approach for dealing with specific language issues that the teacher becomes aware of needing addressed in classes as well as in individual students.

I also strongly believe in regularly incorporating the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing if possible, in every lesson. Any lesson isolated in only one of these areas is difficult of not impossible; however, if teachers strive for a focus on improving all four of these areas in their ESL students on a regular basis, more interest will be generated and more learning will take place.

An awareness of Multiple Intelligences is also of importance to language teachers. It is helpful for a teacher to know which students, given their intelligence preferences and strengths, prefer to work in groups, which are proficient with mathematical concepts, which benefit from hands-on learning, which are more likely to hear the rhythms in language, which are more creative, which are more logical, and which are visually driven. At times, teachers can target specific intelligences to reach the students who are strong in these areas; at other times, it may be helpful for teachers to assist students in working on higher proficiencies in those intelligence areas in which they are not strong, since being able to reasonably cope with a variety of learning environments will best benefit these students in our diverse, challenging and essentially global society. This knowledge of student intelligence diversity can also benefit the instructor in grouping students, based on the assignment. In some cases, it would be more beneficial to have group diversity; in other cases, it may be interesting to have focused groups creating a product or result based on a group who shares intelligence strengths.

It is also extremely important for students to see the use or benefit of their assignments. If their assignments seem like a waste of time, even if they complete them, they will not be putting their best effort into them. Teachers need to remember that it is not always evident to students why certain techniques or assignments will benefit them. Teachers need to consistently explain these benefits, even if what the student is working on is a small, early step in a process, and even if the rewards will not be evident until a later time. As the text indicates, if a teacher is not able to explain the benefit of a task, he/she should question the necessity of the task, itself. Perhaps it is a waste of the teacher's and the student's time.

I firmly believe that if a student is not comfortable or if a student feels threatened in a classroom situation, learning is impeded. Teachers need to establish an environment in which every student feels "at home". This is not easy in an ESL class, or any class, given the diversity teachers are challenged with; but without it, students are less likely to take risks, to voice their ideas, or even to give their teacher their best effort. It is for this reason that teachers need to be as knowledgeable as possible of the theories and practices in education that have been introduced, practiced, refuted, discarded, and replaced throughout the history of education in America in order to have an array of choices in mind when faced with new and challenging situations in the teaching of ESL.

More about this author: Rosemarie Schaut

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