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How to Teach ESL to Diverse Language Speakers

written by: lkjones • edited by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • updated: 9/11/2012

Many ESL teachers have the pleasure of serving students from very diverse language and culture backgrounds. Reaching a whole ESL class when there are few common languages can be a challenge. This article gives several strategies for empowering all students in the classroom regardless of language.

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    Teaching ESL usually means tailoring your teaching methods to a variety of learning styles, language levels, and even ages. But how do teachers of ELLs deal effectively with a diversity of language backgrounds, which the teacher may or may not share with the students? The answer is a combination of solid ESL pedagogy and creative ways of engaging students.

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    Dictionary Skills

    Empower students with the ability to answer their own questions and build their own vocabularies by focusing on dictionary skills in the classroom. These include being able to effectively use bilingual and English dictionaries, Encyclopedias, and Thesauruses. Many students rely on bilingual teachers to fulfill their dictionary needs during class time which may make students who don’t share a common language with the instructor feel lost and helpless. This way, all students know where to find the answers!

    Tip: Don't neglect to teach all students how to effectively use an English-only dictionary. Bilingual dictionaries may not always be available and students who rely on having a bilingual dictionary at their fingertips may be overwhelmed when asked to use a monolinguistic dictionary instead.

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    Capitalize on Visuals

    All ELLs benefit from the liberal use of visual aids, gestures, and kinesthetic activities. These are even more essential when dealing with a very language diverse class. Rather than supplying students with only verbal definitions of new vocabulary, consider providing explanatory images and encouraging students to use their own English vocabulary to describe what is happening in the pictures. When taking vocabulary notes, students also retain information when they illustrate and translate meanings in their notes.

    Some students may not have access to a bilingual dictionary in their native language. For these students, pictoral dictionaries are extremely useful. Students should also be encouraged to build their own dictionaries using a template that includes a picture, sentence, English definition, and translation. Making a wordwall using these images allows students to benefit from the collective knowledge of the class.

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    In cases where multiple students share a language, try to make sure that beginner and immediate speakers have access to other students who can clarify information and share ideas in their native language. Avoid isolating too many students into language-homogenous groups because it can encourage off-topic socialization. However, students who share languages can and should be a valuable classroom resource. Also consider language levels. An advanced student who is skilled at explaining new concepts in simple English may make a more effective language partner to a beginning ELL than another beginner.

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    Integrate Phonics

    Many teachers are accustomed to teaching students whose languages share many phonetic characteristics with English. These students will have less difficulty acquiring pronunciation and spelling rules than students from highly dissimilar language backgrounds. Depending on the level being taught, it may be useful to focus on phonics and play phonics games. For intermediate to advanced learners, incorporate phonics mini-lessons for frequently mispronounced words. Use call-and-response, modeling, and repetition when introducing new vocabulary. Phonics flashcards are an excellent resource for independent practice and can be assigned as homework for a student who is struggling. Starfall is also a great resource for home or classroom independent study.