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Questions from ESL teachers

What do I need to know about asking a question?

From time to time I get questions from teachers who visit this site - usually from fellow ESL teachers. Some of my answers may be of interest to other site visitors, so they will be published here. (The questioner will remain anonymous.) If you have any questions, I shall be happy to hear from you. But I have a couple of requests.

Firstly, if you have a question about the ESL programme at Frankfurt International School, please review my information for FIS parents on the Parents section of this site. You may find an answer to your question.

Secondly, please bear in mind that I am a teacher with 4-5 ESL classes a day. I may not have time to answer immediately or comprehensively.

Lastly, please let me know if you find my advice useful. I take time to think about and answer questions, so I find it a little discouraging if I don't get some kind of reply. In particular, I'd like to know if my suggestions or comments have been helpful.

Should young learners be asked to focus on grammar mistakes?

The first question comes from a teacher who was concerned about an activity in which young non-native speakers were asked to point out the grammar mistakes in sentences written on the board. She was concerned because she thought that incorrect language might reinforce errors that are already in the students' heads.

My reply: Thanks for your question, which is a very interesting one. Certainly, there was a time that teachers held strongly to the view that learners should avoid hearing and reading incorrect English and at all costs avoid speaking incorrect English. This approach is most closely associated with the Direct and Audiolingual Methods.

The current thinking is somewhat different. There has been a lot of discussion recently about the importance of language awareness (including of course grammar awareness). It is thought desirable to focus from time to time on language itself and not simply use it as a vehicle for conveying meaning. In this context it would be perfectly acceptable to ask students to point out the errors in a piece of text and ask them to suggest a corrected version. This seems to me to be essential training in getting them to recognize the errors in their own writing.

It's difficult for me to say however whether the practice is helping the students in your school. For a start they are young, and have not mastered their own mother-tongue to a sufficient extent to be as generally language aware as a 7th grader. Secondly, it would depend on the kind of mistakes that the teacher is exemplifying. Obviously, if the kinds of mistakes are those which would challenge the native-English speakers they will probably be way beyond the grasp of English learners. And thirdly, it would depend on the kind of discussion that follows the identification of the mistakes - this may also be well beyond the comprehension of the ESL kids.

My web pages, and my teaching - of older kids - includes some examples of mistake finding, but these are aimed at non-native speakers from beginning level. This is not the case in your school so this kind of work may be problematic. (If you are interested in my views on teaching grammar, see my page at: http://esl.fis.edu/grammar/general/about1.htm The page also contains a reference to an article summarizing research that found that learners like to do grammar exercises in complementary pairs, e.g. recognizing whether the use of the present simple in a sentence is correct or whether the present continuous should be used. This is a kind of language awareness exercise using error recognition.)

I am sorry I can't offer more specific advice. I myself have not taught below grade 6 level and am reluctant to be too dogmatic about situations that I'm not familiar with!

What is the minimum English language proficiency for students entering Upper School?

This question comes from a teacher who was asking about the minimum standards of English required of students admitted to FIS Upper School.

My reply: As far as our program is concerned, we accept complete beginners through to the end of grade 8. Thereafter, they are supposed to have at least rudimentary English, but in practice the school is unlikely to turn anyone away. What is more likely is that they will tell the student to do a 3-month intensive English course at a language institute before joining.

The issue of having ESL students doing IB is a difficult one. Some of our students quickly reach a level of English that allows them to compete on equal terms with native speakers, but others of course achieve lower scores than they are capable of simply because they don't have time to learn the necessary language. There is no easy answer to this other than to be honest about the situation with the students and parents, and make clear to them the very demanding task they are facing. I very strongly recommend to them (and to the mainstream teachers) the importance of reading about and discussing the work in hand in their own language, so that they can build a strong conceptual base. Without this they are going to have enormous problems extracting meaning from the English language texts they have to read.


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