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
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:
Since background knowledge is so critical, students should be encouraged to read up on the topic in their own language or discuss it at home with their parents. There is an increasing amount of material in the FIS school library in the students' native languages, including textbooks and encyclopedias. The Web is another growing source of information.
Visual material should be used where possible. For example, as well as showing cartoons and pictures of the combatants in the American War of Independence, extracts from the various movies made on the topic could be shown and discussed. Illustrations could be shown to supplement the reading in dense textbooks.
Where possible, parallels should be drawn between the topic under discussion and similar events or situations from the ESL student's country or country's history. [Better still, of course, would be to have the ESL student's country as the primary focus of the unit of study and then draw parallels with America! Humanities, more than any other subject, affords the chance to tap in on the cultural and background knowledge of ESL students.]
Cooperative activities, in which students work together to discuss an issue or perform a task, are excellent ways of helping ESL students learn language and content in a less threatening atmosphere than the whole-class situation.
ESL teachers can be asked to adapt difficult reading texts so that they are made more comprehensible to ESL students without watering down their conceptual or information content.
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!