Teaching Matters: How adult ESL students can learn like children again


“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.”

~Marie Curie (1867-1934), Polish physicist and chemistry pioneer


How do people learn their first languages? What are some barriers to learning a second? Finally, how can we, as ESL educators, bridge the gap between them?

Educator Robert William McCaul, writing for the British Council’s Voices Magazine, discusses this in “Can we learn a second language like we did our first?”, a  breakdown of renowned (and controversial) linguist and USC professor Stephen Krashen’s theories on the “natural order” of language acquisition. In the late 70’s, Krashen defined language as an acquired skill, and one which children can only “acquire” once they understand meaning. The acquisition is cultivated through careful listening and interaction, and this context is crucial to fluency, and even to scoring high on grammar tests. Why? Because building language skills this way means building on a solid foundation with all the materials on-hand, as opposed to receiving new material little by little and building as we go.

Yet, even in 2016, the latter is how much of academic language learning is structured. We teach language in segments, with a heavy focus on grammar – and the order of these segments can greatly affect our understanding of the larger whole. Too often students are expected to digest a certain amount of information at the same pace as everyone else. This approach clearly doesn’t account for individual learning styles and places significant pressure on students. Fortunately, McCaul says that it doesn’t have to be this way – and we agree! By making all assignments meaningful, and basing lessons around a variety of fluency-focused, communicative lessons,  ESL educators and tutors can reduce Krashen’s so-called “affective filter” by forming a rapport with students – and open a gateway to more compelling conversations!

What do you think? Is this a method you would implement as an educator?

For more on fluency-focused ESL education, check out free sample chapters from the Compelling Conversations series at both compellingconversations.com and chimayopress.com!

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