Grammar, Vocabulary, Worksheets… NOT!

Grammar, phonics… whatever my students need is what I want to teach. I can get as excited about the sound of a single letter as I can about an entire essay.

Discovering the full beauty and interconnectedness of a particular subject is always fascinating to me.

This beauty exists in even the most minute details of a language. However, in order for ESL students to master English you will find that grammar, vocabulary and worksheets are not the ultimate and final solution. They are important… but as my story will illustrate, they are not “the ultimate solution.”

Discovering the Full Power of Authentic Written Communication for ESL Students

Step 1 – Learning Words

I began my teaching career in Los Angeles as a substitute teacher. At the time, with bilingual education, many students in the majority of classrooms knew very little English.

Imagine teaching a kindergarten class when they speak no English… and you speak no Spanish. Funny… but not fun. In fact, it could get a little nutty. I had to learn a lot of Spanish words fast so that I could get the kids both working and behaving.

Step 2 – Worksheet Torture… Until I Discovered “THE TRICK”

Living in Los Angeles and loving to surf, once I was teaching full-time I would take surf trips to Central America on my vacation. I would find a Spanish school right on the beach and I would get college credit through an extension course in the United States. I would return from my vacation with a great tan and 9 units of college credit.

My first Spanish school that I attended was right on the beach in Costa Rica. They took their job a little too seriously. In fact… there were tests and homework!

Upon arriving at the school everyone thought I would be the star student. I knew a lot of words and I was not afraid to speak them regardless of how silly I sounded! Everyone else in the class had taken classes. Many had taken years of Spanish classes. Soon I was struggling to keep up with the course work. I knew a lot of words but I knew nothing about the structure of the Spanish language.

One day as I was starting on my second hour of homework, another student who had finished his homework in just 10 minutes said, “Listen… you just need to find what the TRICK is… and then fill in all the blanks using that trick.”

I wanted to learn the language… but once I knew that I could simply use the trick and then go have fun… it was hard not to take advantage of this newfound knowledge. I almost felt embarrassed that for several weeks I had spent hours completing my homework.

Use the trick, pass the test, have fun now, and learn Spanish later! This is the problem with both worksheets and grammar! After all, who is so strong willed as to resist this strategy when sitting just steps from the beach in Costa Rica?

Step 3 – Oral Fluency is Just Barely Competent

As I went on more surf trips and attended more and more Spanish schools, I developed quite a network of Spanish speaking friends. Most of my days were spent practicing grammar in the classroom or speaking Spanish with friends. There were times when my head was spinning so fast with Spanish verbs that it would feel as if I were about to head out into orbit.

You would think that this is what it takes to master a language! However, there was something missing and I was about to discover what it was quite by accident.

Step 4 – The Hidden and Neglected Key for Breaking through to Fluency

With bilingual education on the outs, I rarely spoke Spanish while back home in Los Angeles. However, I had quite a few friends in Central America with whom I would email regularly. I am not a perfectionist but I do try to do things correctly. As such, I poured my heart and soul into most of my emails.

I was expressing “deep thoughts in Spanish!”

I returned to my favorite Spanish school right on the beach the following year and it turns out I had become FLUENT in Spanish since I last attended. EVERYONE would ask, “Where… how… when… did you learn all this Spanish?!”

Authentic Written Communication is the Key with Elementary and Middle School ESL Students

The above learning experience GREATLY increased my use of authentic written communication in the classroom. One key to my success in Spanish was that I took pride in my writing and I wanted it to be correct. I was self-monitoring in my writing.

In order for ESL students to develop this same self-monitoring pride in their writing they must be communicating what they perceive as an important “big picture message.” In other words, there must be structure to their overall message even if it is written with grammar errors and simple vocabulary.

When students take pride in their “authentic written communication” many grammar errors simply will not sit well with them. They will want their masterpiece to be perfect!

Day-by-day your “ESL students” will simply become successful students. Focus too much on grammar, vocabulary, and worksheets and your ESL students will stay ESL students!

Ideas to Walk Away With

1. Vocabulary – A large vocabulary is great. However, when it is time to work in an academic capacity the limitations of just a large vocabulary are quickly exposed.
2. Grammar and Worksheets – These work great for learning “the trick.” It’s true that learning the trick is a part of learning the language. However, the truth is that worksheets are often not done with the true intent of learning at all. Students don’t have an unlimited amount of time to complete their work. As such, students’ main objective often becomes to get their work done as correctly and as quickly as they can using whatever tricks they can.
3. Speaking Fluently – You don’t need to know how a car works in order to drive one… but if you want to become a professional race car driver… you do. We want our students to have a “professional level” of competence in their new language. Students need more than just oral fluency.
4. Authentic Writing – This is the most neglected and among the most valuable tools for teaching ESL in elementary and middle school.  Teachers often think “but my students don’t have the vocabulary to write a lot” or “my students need to improve their grammar before they can write a lot.”  The truth is that this thinking is backwards! Students need a REASON to master their vocabulary and grammar! Authentic writing is this reason!
5. “Pattern Based Writing: Quick and Easy Essay” is a writing program developed by a teacher who has extensive experience teaching ESL students AND by a teacher who has actually learned a second language. “Pattern Based Writing: Quick and Easy Essay” will quickly TRANSFORM your ESL students into shining examples of grade level success stories!

Authentic written communication even with limited vocabulary, and even with lots of grammar errors skyrockets student motivation! Students need a BIG reason to focus on the SMALL details!

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