Theories of Teaching ESL Literacy

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Theories of Teaching ESL Literacy

There are a number of theories about ESL acquisition and ESL literacy acquisition. These theories focus on different ideas of how people best learn literacy in an additional language. The list below introduces a range of theories. While some of these theories are widely accepted today, not every theory listed here will resonate with every instructor. Most instructors tend to collect and use pieces of several theories in their instruction.

The Participatory Approach: This highly learner-centred approach seeks to build literacy through discussion of learners' real-life issues and concerns. Learners and instructors use objects, pictures and written texts to help them describe and examine relationships between the different aspects of the issue they are discussing.The instructor and learner are collaborators. As they clearly articulate the problem, they are able to propose solutions. The instructor is the facilitator of language learning and is an equal participant in the class, learning along with the learner.

The Whole Language Approach: Whole Language proponents believe that language should be learned from top to bottom. This approach considers language first in its whole and complete form before it is broken down into smaller pieces. Language is a social process to be used for the purpose of interaction. Learners, whether children or adults, bring a tremendous amount of background knowledge to the classroom. Instructors must respect and value each learner's personal expertise and use it as a platform for building language skills.

Whole language centres on the needs of the learners and considers the learners to be the driving force in the development of their language skills. Function (the ability to communicate) comes first and form (standardized spelling, grammatical endings, etc.) follows. This approach emphasizes the importance of a collaborative approach to learning.

The Language Experience Approach: This approach focuses on the learner's background knowledge and allows instructors to provide target experiences designed to enrich language learning.

Learners dictate their experiences and the instructor or another language learner writes them down. This text is used as reading material. Instructors can develop vocabulary lists and use the text to produce other activities. There is some debate as to the instructor's involvement in correcting the text; some instructors argue that true language experience stories are entirely in the learners' own words, regardless of mistakes in grammar or structure, while other instructors prefer to help shape the text. However, the majority of the text comes from the learners.

This approach capitalizes on a learner's ability to verbalize his/her experiences and provides a way for reading and writing to grow naturally. This approach also helps solve a common problem in literacy teaching: finding age-appropriate reading material for low literacy adult ESL learners.

The Competency or Performance-based Approach: This approach begins with the instructor asking the question, "What do the learners need to learn?" Instructors create a list of "competencies" or task-based instructional outcomes based on this information, and then instruct and assess each group of learners based on their needs. Learners are evaluated based on whether or not they can perform the tasks on the list. A good example of this approach is theCanadian Language Benchmarks 2000: ESL for Literacy Learners document, which indicates what a learner must be able to do at a given Phase.

The Functional Approach: Life and workplace skills are at the heart of this approach to teaching. A needs analysis allows the instructor to assess which functional skills the learners need to learn. Learner outcomes are usually written as competencies and are sequenced according to priority. This approach focuses on skills the learners need in order to function at home or at work. This approach does not focus on social issues or the development of creativity in language.

The Communicative Approach: Abstract concepts such as when, where, how far, and how much, as well as culturally appropriate communication, are at the core of the Communicative Approach. This approach focuses on functional language such as apologizing, complaining and contradicting and focuses on culturally appropriate communication. It will suit learners who see learning English as a way of fitting in with the society around them.

The Ethnographic Approach: This approach combines the Communicative and Participatory approaches. It considers the socio-cultural aspects of language as well as linguistic and cultural awareness to be the focus of language teaching. This approach helps learners become aware of how people communicate in their own lives and the community in which they live. Instructors use ethnographic strategies to examine the struggles their learners face. Learners become observers of language as it occurs naturally around them: on the bus, in the doctor's office, and in the supermarket. Learners become invested in learning as they identify what they need to learn. This approach is more effective with higher-level literacy learners who have the cognitive and oral language skills needed to analyze the language they hear around them.

The Task-Based Approach: This approach stresses the importance of pair and group work as opposed to instructor-fronted instruction. Learners are involved in tasks that foster genuine and meaningful communication. These tasks are interactive and can be about topics that are new or unfamiliar to the learners. Most effective are topics that involve a problem or ethical dilemma of some kind. Participants must exchange information and opinions with each other and the task must have a specific outcome, such as making a decision or reaching a consensus. Information gap exercises where all learners have information to share with their group or collaborate are also effective because they require all participants to take roughly equal parts in completing the task.

The Project-Based Approach: Learners are involved in lengthy projects instead of short-term tasks. Like the Task-Based Approach, projects rely on pair and small group work and involve solving a problem or producing a product. Learners must communicate clearly and collaborate to achieve their goals. Projects require learners to use both language and cognitive skills to deal with real problems. Language learning has a real context and allows learners to practice skills they will need at home and work.

The Natural Approach: When learners enter the ESL literacy classroom with little or no English, the Natural Approach seeks to help them develop in English in much the same way as they developed in their first language. This approach is meaning-based and allows learners to receive extended language input (listening, and later, reading) before requiring language output (speaking and later writing). Learners begin with single words, then move on to two and three word combinations, and then to whole sentences. This approach requires a safe and supportive classroom setting where learners are encouraged and their mistakes are not corrected.

Total Physical Response: Total Physical Response is a good choice for teaching beginning LIFE. TPR, as it is known, focuses on developing oral language through physical response to commands. It helps learners to remember what they have learned through muscle memory. In the ESL classroom, this approach relies heavily on language in the imperative case: "Sit down. Stand up. Close the door."

While this method cannot fill an entire language program, it can provide variety to a lesson and requires full engagement of the learner. This approach is very common at lower levels because learners are still developing concrete vocabulary.