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What the humanities teacher needs to know

Whereas science is often the favourite subject of ESL students, humanities is typically the one they find the hardest and enjoy the least. This is no great surprise, because humanities offers students fewer of the opportunities for hands-on work that are the mainstay of the science classroom. Apart from certain aspects of physical geography, humanities lessons tend to be characterized by discussions and activities of an abstract nature. Much of the necessary input for students in upper grades comes from reading dense texts. Language researchers have found that complex decontextualized tasks are by far the most demanding for the non-native speaker. [More on this.] The opportunities for students to activate background knowledge in humanities can be far more limited than in other subjects. A student from Korea studying the American revolution, for example, may have no existing knowledge that could help him to make sense of the tasks he has to perform in class and at home.

Although humanities is clearly a very demanding for subject for many ESL students, it is possible to support them so that they can learn with success and enjoyment. Here are some suggestions:

Of course, modifications to existing humanities programs to make the instruction more accessible to ESL students demand extra work of the humanities teacher. But it is almost invariably the case that modifications made for ESL students benefit the other students too!


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