A balance between all four domains of language learning— Reading, Writing, Speaking, & Listening— provides the most effective, engaging language learning!
On this episode of The Arsenio Buck Show (a high-energy ESL Podcast, on which I’m grateful to be a regular guest), Arsenio and I discuss examples of balanced activities I’ve used while teaching English in the U.S., Greece, and Panama. Most of these English language learning strategies can be adjusted to serve English Language Learners of all ages. (I’ve taught all ages, from kindergarteners to adults.)
I’d say the foundation of all of my graduate school studies (my program was a Master of Arts in Language Teaching with a TESOL concentration) in language acquisition was:
Language teachers’ lessons must contain a balance of all four domains of language learning–reading, writing, speaking, and listening– to be most effective.
Teaching Based on Students’ Needs
I constantly seek student feedback to guide my teaching. Arsenio and I regularly discuss the need for students to be advocates for themselves. I often ask my students to respond to the following prompts:
1) What’s difficult for me about learning English is ______________
2) I could learn English better if ________________
3) I want to learn more about ________________
Even if teachers don’t ask, students should still share this feedback with the teacher.
For example, often students are most interested in daily interaction experiences, such as: how to order cheese from the grocery store counter, how to speak to a taxi driver, and understanding pricing.
Students need to understand that it’s necessary to ask for help. Being that asking for help (and other times in communication when we put ourselves out there) can be difficult, practice the Mindfulness concept of noticing sensations in the body and pausing. Check out our podcast about Mindful Communication for more examples of how to be at ease when communicating.
One Word is Better than Nothing
Often times language learners know lots of vocabulary, but don’t know how to put the known words into grammatically correct sentences. This can stop students from attempting to speak. Use the couple of words you DO know, along with hand gestures, even if it’s just a word or two in isolation. One word is better than nothing.
I was working in Panama one summer, four hours outside of Panama City, not built up for tourism. I was one of several U.S. English teachers in an embassy program in which we were consulting Panamanian English teachers about innovative English teaching methodologies. There were times that taxi drivers tried to take advantage of us foreigners, and quadruple the price for a fare that we knew. We need to stand our ground! Argue your point, even if it’s using just a word or two that you do know. Or use your native language if you don’t know words in the target language. Express that you know you’re not being treated fairly– even if you don’t know the correct words! As Arsenio says, “it’s not the price, it’s the principle.” Putting aside the self-consciousness has priceless benefits. Fortunately, there are activities that can build speaking confidence!
How Can Teaching Grammar be More Fun and Effective?
Arsenio and I both hate teaching grammar in isolation. It’s so boring! Instead, grammar can be taught through engaging texts and fun, collaborative activities:
One of my favorite, well-rounded activities is Readers Theaters, which I describe in the blog post, The Best Cooperative Learning Projects for English Language Learners: Readers Theaters. I use classic, fun books, such as Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry.
I start the Readers Theater process by reading the book slowly while explicitly teaching reading comprehension strategies. This includes graphic organizers in which students draw pictures about what they understand, and write captions for their pictures. They also do visual vocabulary activities. I also have the students ask and answer reading comprehension questions about the text verbally and in writing. This engagement with the text allows students to feel more connected to the text. Students can then perform it with greater understanding and expression.
While students work on writing and reading comprehension activities, I circulate amongst students, conferencing and supporting them with pronunciation. They practice performing in partners before practicing with the whole group. Students must listen carefully to their classmates’ lines of the Reader’s Theater script, to be ready for when it’s their turn to speak. Above all, Readers Theaters are a performance of speaking with careful pronunciation and engaging expression. These same activities that can be fun for elementary students can also be fun and relevant for adults. (Feel free to check out some of my Readers Theaters scripts on my Resources page.)
I start most of my English classes with a writing and speaking prompt. The prompts can be as simple as:
Today I am feeling _____ because _____.
Depending on the level, I don’t immediately put students on the spot with speaking. I ask them to write to the prompt first so I can go amongst my students helping them individually with the prompt. I can individualize my teaching, as is the main point in a Writer’s Workshop. Students get much more speaking confidence (and produce more) when they have time to prepare their thoughts in writing first. They can reference their writing as they’re speaking. This writing is also what my students study the most at home. (They remember words best when the content is personal.) These prompts bring out the topics that my students most want to learn about, such as how to talk to the neighbor, bus driver, cashier at the store, etc.
Daily Interaction Dialogues: Partner Speaking Practice
Arsenio asked about partner practice, and I am such a proponent of partner and small group work.
I ask my students on a regular basis what they want to learn. I hear requests such as: speaking to my child’s teacher, ordering food through the Burger King Drive-Thru, asking for help in the grocery store, and Calling 9-1-1. This is amazing feedback because I know what my students are really interested in, so it makes it easier to create engaging lessons. You can find Daily Interaction Dialogues on the Resources page of my website. You can read about how I use these resources in my blog post, Daily Interaction Dialogues: Improving Speech for English Language Learners. I also make recordings of these resources on my YouTube channel because my students request support with pronunciation.
Like, speaking prompt writing, partner speaking practice is also time for the teacher to circulate amongst students, ask questions, and share feedback. The students built confidence in partners before presenting to the class.
Strengths & Weaknesses Between the Four Domains of Language Learning
Most language learners do NOT have balanced abilities between the four domains.
In general in Greece, my Greek students were stronger in Speaking and Listening. The Greek students were generally outspoken and not afraid to ask questions or express complaints. On the other hand, my students from China were stronger in the Reading and Writing Domains of Language Learning. However, it took months to get some of them to even repeat after me, or speak in the whole group setting.
This drastic difference between the Greek students (strong in Speaking & Listening) and Chinese students (strong in Reading & Writing) made it even more imperative that I taught every lesson with a balance of all Four Domains of Language Learning: Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening.
Most language learners need to be exposed to the new language first, before attempting to speak– hearing it being spoken in natural contexts, and just getting used to it general. The silent period can be confusing, as it may seem that students don’t understand anything. However, the fun part about the silent period is that students may surprise people when they speak all of a sudden, and it may be in entire phrases or complete sentences quite suddenly.
What are your favorite activities that balance the four domains of Language Learning?