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FIS Professional Development February 2013

This page consists of a brief summary of the main issues that Dr Keith Folse covered in his keynote speech to Upper School teachers on 24 February 2013. A more detailed discussion of the issues can be found on this website via the links at the end of each section.

Overview:The premise of Folse’s session was that all teachers at FIS can contribute to the language development of the non-native English speakers in their classes. In addition he claimed that the adjustments teachers make to facilitate subject content learning for ESL students are generally beneficial for native speakers too.

One purpose of the session was to raise the awareness of non-language teachers to some of the difficulties faced by non-native speakers learning subject content in their second or subsequent language. A second purpose was to highlight the importance of vocabulary in the acquisition of subject knowledge.

Grammar: Native speakers are usually unaware of the aspects of English that cause non-native learners the most difficulty. Among these are phrasal verbs, prepositions, articles and the present perfect tense. Native speakers generally do not know any grammar terminology beyond the parts of speech (nouns, verbs, etc.).

One small way to help ESL students whose mother tongue lacks articles is to always write new nouns on the board with an article. Students who use articles correctly in spoken English give a small extra clue to the listener who is puzzled by the mispronunciation of the noun: the decade, the revolution, an exaggeration.

Note: Both the ESL department and the US library have a copy of Folse's book about English grammar for non-linguists and prospective ESL teachers. The title is: Keys to Teaching Grammar to English Language Learners.

Types of language proficiency: Linguists differentiate two types of language ability: Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). Broadly, BICS is the language of the hallways and cafeteria, and CALP is the language of the classroom. Unlike BICS, CALP cannot be acquired naturally, it must be taught and practiced.

Two common aspects of CALP are the fronting of adjuncts and the omission of words introducing relative clauses. For example:

Oral language: Spoken classroom language can be very difficult for ESL students; not only because of unfamiliar vocabulary, but also because of the elisions that are common in natural speech. For example, the teacher says First of all and the student hears ferstuvawl. The advice is to pay special attention to the signposting of transitions in the lesson. For example, teachers can signpost in the following way:

Ok, now we're going to examine the three most important causes of the French Revolution. The first important cause was taxation ... [explanation] ... . So, now we've covered the first important cause of the French Revolution let's consider a second important cause ... [and so on].

Vocabulary: Many English words are polysemous. It is helpful for teachers to anticipate (and briefly focus on) the words such as while , like, though, bear that may have a different meaning in the present classroom context to the meaning the students are already familiar with.

Research has shown that readers need to know about 98% of the words in any given text in order to comprehend that text with relative efficiency. Typical native-speakers know 4 times as many English words as their non-native counterparts (even those who have exited from ESL programs).

There are several aspects to knowing a word beyond the obvious aspect (the word’s denotation). These additional aspects include register (the contexts in which the word is typically used – e.g. kids is not a word usually encountered in academic writing) and collocation (the strong association of the word with other words – e.g. heavy collocates strongly with rain and smoker but not but not with sun or trainspotter).

Students (all students) need to work to increase their vocabulary. They should be encouraged to use a notebook in each class to write down new words and phrases. For native-speakers these will typically be the subject-specific words. Non-native speakers should also add general vocabulary and non-subject-specific academic vocabulary. When writing new English words or phrases ESL students should be encouraged to write the translations as well.

It is helpful to have a few key words on the Smartboard or front wall which teachers can use at some point in the lesson. If there is no overt mention of a particular word by the end of the class, the students could be encouraged to ask for its definition.

Assessment: When assessing written work, mainstream teachers may wish to highlight a few of the students’ most common and egregious grammar mistakes, but in general such mistakes should not influence the grade for the piece of work. Research has shown that mainstream teachers assign lower grades to written work that contains a limited vocabulary. It is unrealistic, however, to expect ESL students to be able to produce the varied language that accomplished native speakers are capable of (for example, referring to a problem consecutively as an issue, a dilemma, a predicament, etc.)


Schmitt, N. and McCarthy, M. Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge University Press. 1998.

Laufer, B. and Yano, Y. Understanding unfamiliar words in a text: Do L2 learners understand how much they don’t understand? Reading in a Foreign Language 13(2): 549-66. 2001.

Stewart, M. Teachers' Writing Assessments across the High School Curriculum. Research in the Teaching of English. (17,2). 1983.

Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)