As a teacher at an International School, many of my students were English Language Learners. Even my native English speakers were living in a non-English speaking country. Due to my unique teaching position, I have had some readers ask for tips on teaching English Language Learners. Here is this week’s Tuesday TESOL Teaching Tip:
You know that perfect moment when you describe an old t.v. show or snack food that you remember from your childhood and the other person completes your sentence? For me, it would be something about Roseanne or Saved by the Bell or drinking Kool-Aide and eating soft serve ice cream from the ice cream trucks (Mr. Softy!!!). These are experience that define my childhood and thereby myself. They are my background knowledge - the basis that I use to connect all my new knowledge to. However, they are NOT the same as the background knowledge that my students have. So, while these may be cool things to share with my students, it WILL NOT help them to connect their new knowledge with their previous knowledge.
When we are teaching, it is very easy to use examples that make sense to us, forgetting that our students do not have the same background knowledge as we do. This is particularly true for ESL students and students who come from other countries or households influenced by other cultures. When I was teaching overseas, I often used books and materials that had references to “American culture” without even realizing it.
For example, while doing a Novel Study for Frindle, my students and I had a long discussion about what Dairy Queen was.
During our Magic Tree House Novel Studies, we had an interesting discussion about the availability of public libraries in the US.
When doing a read aloud of Captain Underpants, we segued into a discussion on football games and cheer leaders – a very abstract concepts to my soccer playing, World Cup fans.
Daily Language was also a huge source of cultural discussions. Ask a child who has never watched Sesame Street to complete this analogy: Big Bird:yellow::Elmo:_______.
Or have them label the name of the group when the items include Snickers, Mars, Mr. Goodbar and and Butterfingers, none of which are available for sale in many countries. (This brought on an even funnier discussion because lots of students thought that snickers was the same as SNEAKERS.)
And the ENDLESS baseball references! I can’t even begin to tell you.
While all of these were great times to talk about cultural concepts, they also taught me that if I was the one creating an example or a connection for my students, I better choose concepts to talk about that THEY would connect with. So, when we were talking about supermarkets, we talked about Marjane instead of Walmart. When making sports connections, it was ALWAYS soccer, and I took some time to listen to their favorite music and play their favorite video game – Minecraft – in order to help ME know what would make a good connection for THEM. Believe it or not, Minecraft provides a TON of background knowledge for kids and it’s good for educators to know what the game is all about, because most kids are playing it these days.
So, how do we make sure that our students are connecting what we are teaching with THEIR background knowledge and not just listening to ours?
2. Watch popular kids tv shows, listen to popular kids music, play popular kids video games. Call it market research. If you have kids, you’re probably already in the know. If you’re not, taking 30 minutes a week to check this stuff out will probably save you hours of frustration as your students make sense out of what you are talking about quicker.
3. Have students share connections with a partner, someone who will get their stories and connections! Give students a 2 to 5 minute – timed – break to share their connections with a partner.
How do you help ESL students connect with THEIR background knowledge?