Working with English Language Learners

Environment, motivation, and good support predict that children coming to the United States will learn English. How quickly, how well, and how felicitously this learning happens depends in large part on the support the child receives in school. Contrary to the commonly held belief that immersion in an English-speaking environment -- the sink or swim approach -- is sufficient for success, evidence indicates that instructional support is a critical factor (Reyes, 1992 Schmidt and Frota, 1986). While social and environmental forces work in favor of the child's language learning, this learning needs to be supported and faciltitated by the teacher through directed instructional practices. In other words, there is much the teacher can do on an everyday basis to assist the child's English language learning as well as his or her adjustment to the culture and practices of school.

In school, children learn language -- both first and second -- by studying content, understanding and articulating concepts, and through socialization. These processes are mediated and augmented by what the classroom teacher says and does. Children learning English as a new language can benefit from what goes on in the classroom with some additional teacher support. That is, in addition to the kinds of thoughtful communicating teachers do as a regular part of their day, there are additional ways of talking with and responding to ESL children that will not only help them feel more at ease, but will support their English language development.

This INTERACTIVE TABLE outlines some of the basic beliefs about second language learning that have emerged from the theoretical developments and research efforts of the past three decades. Suggested corresponding practices for mainstream classroom teachers that complement this knowledge are provided: Mediation Techniques -- things that can be done on a continual, daily basis -- and Supportive Discourse -- sample utterances that illustrate these techniques are provided. Click on any of the 'hot' items in the table for more information.