Tuesday, February 26, 2008

English Dictionary Skills for ESOL Learners

A dictionary is a very useful resource for ESOL students when learning new English vocabulary. A dictionary not only provides information about word definitions and parts of speech, but it also provides information about the pronunciation of a word, including the phonetic sounds used to correctly produce a word, word stress, and syllable division.

It is important, however, that you teach your ESOL students that in language learning, the English dictionary is not intended to be used as a crutch: Students should not look up every unfamiliar word without actively using their knowledge and cognitive skills to predict spelling, pronunciation, and meanings of words first. Using a dictionary appropriately to confirm these predictions, however, may be quite instrumental and at times necessary to facilitate, rather than impede, the learning of new vocabulary. For example, not all words in English decode perfectly, but 94% closely follow the dictionary pronunciation; therefore, using the dictionary can be a useful tool to confirm students’ pronunciation predictions.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

ESL Pronunciation Tip: Word Stress Predictability

While there are many exceptions to the rules of syllable stress in English, some helpful guidelines exist that can be used to predict stress. Use the following guidelines when you are teaching ESL so students learn how to predict stress as you see fit. Ensure that your students understand the concept of syllables prior to teaching word stress to facilitate the teaching of these principles. Also, it may be necessary to explicitly teach your ESL students what word stress is, emphasizing that every word that is two or more syllables contains one syllable that is stressed higher in pitch, longer, and louder than the other syllable(s) in the word. This is referred to as primary stress. The syllable that receives the second most stress is referred to as secondary stress. Although secondary stress could also be acknowledged when teaching your students word stress predictability, the information contained in this document refers only to primary stress.

Two-syllable Words

Use the part of speech as a guide:

Most nouns and adjectives receive stress on the first syllable.
      EXAMPLES: mother, table, garden, happy, easy, famous

Some verbs and prepositions receive stress on the second syllable.
      EXAMPLES: arrive, explain, begin, between, below, across

NOTE: Most two-syllable words receive stress on the first syllable. Twenty percent of two-syllable words receive stress on the second syllable. In general, stress the first syllable of two-syllable words. Very few nouns and adjectives have stress on the second syllable. Verbs and prepositions may have stress on the second syllable. But be aware that there are many exceptions to this rule.

When learning vocabulary through reading, stress is not heard. Consult a dictionary to learn word stress or to confirm word stress predictions.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How Do You Say "Factitious"? - English Pronunciation Questions

One thing I love about teaching ESL is that I learn many things about the English language that I never knew before--things like pronunciation of English words and grammar structures that I never had to consciously think about before I began teaching ESL because I had intuitively picked these things up as a child during my first language acquisition years.

For example, I am signed up for dictionary.com's "Word of the Day." Today's word is "factitious." Yesterday's was "abominate," and the word from February 11th was "ersatz." Do you know how to pronounce these words? Specifically, where is the syllable stress for each word? If you pronounce these words "fak-TISH-uhs," "uh-BOM-uh-nayt," and "AIR-sahts" (or "UR-sats"), you are correct! So if you were correct, HOW did you know that? If you're like me, you probably just had an intuitive sense for it. But let's say you were teaching a non-native English speaker new vocabulary and they asked you how to pronounce the word. What would you tell them? You’d likely pronounce the word for them. But could you tell them why you pronounce it that way?

As a native speaker of English, I take for granted the fact that I know intuitively how to pronounce English words with relative ease. Non-native English speakers who are learning new vocabulary words for the first time, however, have to learn both segmental pronunciation (the individual sounds of a word) and suprasegmental pronunciation (syllable stress, word stress, rhythm, intonation, etc.). When I come across a particularly challenging unfamiliar word not stored in my present lexicon, however, I experience something similar to what ESOL students experience when they come across unfamiliar words in their reading: I have to consciously think about how to pronounce the word. I'm usually pretty good at sounding out the word (segmental pronunciation), but the syllable stress (suprasegmental pronunciation) can be tricky. Of course, being a native speaker of English, I can usually intuitively figure it out without much thought. But what about our non-native English speakers? Are there any rules we can use to help them?

Unfortunately, English doesn't have many hard and fast rules for suprasegmental pronunciation like it does for segmental pronunciation (i.e., phonics rules). There are, however, some guidelines that can be used to help predict word stress.

I wrote a segment on "Word Stress Predictability" and have included it in a separate blog entry that can be accessed here. See if the words "factitious," "abominate," and "ersatz" follow these rules…

You may also be interested in the blog post entitled, "Syllable Stress and the Schwa".

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

ESOL Instruction from the Bottom-Up: Using Reading Strategies

While engaged in a silent reading task, a student in my ESL class raised his hand and asked, “Teacher, what does f-i-a-n-c-e mean?” spelling out the letters because he was unable to pronounce the word. He had encountered this unknown word in his reading. And rather than guessing the meaning from context and moving on, a reading strategy I had so often engrained in my students with the intent of helping them develop autonomous learning habits, he wanted his prediction confirmed right then and there. “FiancĂ©…?” I replied inquisitively in preparation to move into an eloquent but simple explanation and definition of this French word adopted into the lexicon of the English language. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “FiancĂ©? Never mind. I know what it is now,” and he looked back to the text on his desk and continued his silent reading…satisfied. He only needed to know how the word was pronounced—specifically, how it sounded—in order to attach meaning to this unfamiliar looking—but familiar sounding—word.

I realized at that moment the importance of providing my ESL students explicit instruction in phonemic awareness in context of other kinds of reading strategies I had so often neglected—bottom-up strategies. Bottom-up strategies incorporate the lower-level processes that teach students to construct meaning from the most basic units of language, including letters, letter clusters, and words. Essentially, the bottom-up approach maintains that students make meaning of a text by building on a foundation of analyzing the smallest units of meaning. As I self-reflected on my own teaching, I realized I was quite effective at teaching top-down strategies, which included helping my students generate meaning by employing background knowledge, expectations, assumptions, and questions, and engaging my students in pre-reading strategies, such as previewing the text, predicting, and activating background knowledge. But what was I doing to help my ESL students learn the bottom-up strategies they needed to become fluent readers?

I had been taught the importance of top-down strategies in my teaching methodology classes as a graduate student, and I had even studied language learning strategies quite extensively during that time. But why did I not learn how to teach bottom-up strategies as well? Were they important to my future ESL/EFL students? Since I was not taught how to teach bottom-up strategies in college, should I assume that teaching only top-down strategies was sufficient in helping ESL/EFL students achieve the goals of reading comprehension and fluency?

By doing a little informal research on the topic, I learned that English-language learners do need explicit instruction in low-level strategies that native English-speaking readers use to read most efficiently (Birch, 29). In fact, “ESL and EFL learners need to acquire the knowledge base of English phonemes so that their aural discrimination of sounds can proceed effortlessly, quickly, and unconsciously” (Birch, 53). ESL/EFL learners who have phonemic awareness are better readers because they are able to connect sounds with symbols and attach meaning to sounds, a process which is sometimes easier than attaching meaning to printed text. Furthermore, if readers can associate the sounds of words when learning the meaning of new vocabulary, they are able to remember the new words better.

While I acknowledge that explicit instruction in top-down strategies is crucial, the embedding of bottom-up, decoding strategy instruction is an important supplementary aspect to second and foreign language reading instruction, even though the teaching of these decoding skills is often neglected. David Eskey asserts that second language reading literature promotes a “top-down bias…[that] produce[s] a somewhat distorted picture of the true range of problems second language readers face” (95). He also issues the caution that “even educated guessing at meaning is not a substitute for accurate decoding” (97).

Although I had the best intentions to help my ESL students guess the meaning of unknown words from context to promote autonomy through top-down strategy use, I learned two salient lessons from my student’s silent reading experience regarding reading strategy instruction. First, I learned that sometimes ESL/EFL students know the sounds of words, but they do not have the skills to accurately decode them. Second, I learned that developing fluency in ESL and EFL readers requires more than just top-down strategy training, even though it is top-down strategy instruction that teacher-training courses and second- and foreign-language instruction courses tend to emphasize. Very simply put, it is essential to keep in mind that sometimes top-down strategies just aren’t enough.

For more articles like this one, read this article by Robin Schwarz, Using Phonemic Awareness with ESL Students.


Birch, B. M, (2002). English L2 Reading: Getting to the Bottom. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Eskey, D. (1993). Holding in the bottom: An interactive approach to the language problems of second language readers. In P. Carrell, J. Devine, & D. Eskey (Eds.), Interactive approaches to second language reading (pp. 93-100). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The "Homeless Wanderer" - Teaching English

Xin nien kuai le! (Happy New Year!)

Nine years ago, I spent Chinese New Year in Taiwan. I was an undergrad teaching English as a foreign language to children and earning internship credit through the linguistics department at Brigham Young University (BYU). In addition to earning linguistics credit, I was also taking a World Religions class which required me to document my time spent observing at Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian temples. I recently found my write-ups for the course, and thought that in honor of Chinese New Year this week, I would insert a portion of the write-up as I feel that it captures a significant element of the culture associated with the New Year holiday in Taiwan.

The following excerpt comes from my observation at a Taoist temple during Chinese New Year:
The time is 10:30am on January 30, 1999, two weeks before the Chinese New Year. The day is sunny and humid, and the temperature is warm. The place is Feng Yuan, Taiwan, Republic of China, at a popular Taoist temple downtown. Today is a special day. Many people are here on this special day to celebrate the gods. It is the day designated to worship Mazu, a female god, to give thanks to her for a peaceful and blessed year past, and also to pray for specific blessings for the next year. Although this is a Taoist temple, worshippers of all faiths are welcome and in attendance—including Buddhists.

Mazu is a goddess of light and direction. In ancient China, a ship carrying Chinese seamen was tossed on the sea, but a light seen in the distance on an island directed them to safety. Mazu, the goddess, was holding this light, leading them from danger. She is the principal goddess of this temple; thus, she is receiving much praise. This is a day preparatory to the New Year. Perhaps the worshippers are praying to the gods for wishes similar to making New Year’s resolutions.
Taoists take yellow paper with red ink patterns—counterfeit, paper money designed for the purpose of burning—and toss it into a furnace. Traditionally, counterfeit money is burned in a large furnace at the temple to provide means for worshippers’ deceased relatives to live in prosperity in the after life.

The temple is full of smoke from the incense sticks that many people burn, as well as from the furnaces where people burn money. It smells like a campfire, quite frankly. People wave the smoke out of their faces as they make their way through the thick, gray haze.
Near the furnace stands a woman, homeless and disabled. She wears a white patch on one eye and holds an old, small, yellow bowl. She is begging for money, holding the bowl out to people as she lifts her shirt to expose her stomach which bears a scar, perhaps in hopes to earn the pity of those whose attention she captures. She is saying something in Chinese as she shuffles around with her arm outstretched holding the bowl, perhaps begging the worshippers who burn money for their ancestors to give her money for her own sustenance. She stands at the furnace where people burn paper money deliberately. She sees an abandoned plastic grocery bag containing some kind of food. She looks in, decides the contents are not to her pleasure, and moves on. Her begging continues.
Another kind of begger is present here at the temple today…a Buddhist monk…a “homeless wanderer”—a female with a shaved head and a long, mustard-colored robe. She also holds a bowl—her begging dish. She sits patiently, counting her Buddhist beads, in a conspicuous place at the entrance of the temple in hopes that passersby will give her of their substance, either money or food. She wears a solemn expression, with downcast eyes as she counts her Buddhist beads. She sees a man on crutches pass, perhaps homeless, and looks a bit concerned. Then, as if to catch herself staring, she quickly looks away. Another Buddhist nun is present and is likewise holding a begging bowl. This nun is receiving food. The homeless wanderer looks over in curiosity and almost concern—concern that she herself is not receiving such provisions herself. But she does not display a look of jealousy. Rather, she displays a look of humility.
I contemplate the contrast between the two beggers: the scarred woman and the Buddhist nun. Both are “homeless wanderers,” but I consider the contrasting motives. Interesting…
All of us are "homeless wanderers" in some regard; we're all dependent on others in one way or another. Most of us, however, are not dependent on others for our immediate needs, such as food and shelter. But there are other basic needs that we earn or are given that are just as sustaining, though they may not be as ostensible. How much do we give and how much do we receive? How do we respond to others who give? How do we respond when we see others receive?

In the teaching profession, we see firsthand the contrasting motives of those students we teach. Some students receive well, while others resent what they are given. Perhaps we can learn from the "homeless wanderer" as we contemplate the humility involved in witnessing others' receiving while not always feeling that we receive ostensible rewards. The rewards associated with teaching are generally intrinsic, such as those of the "homeless wanderer" who sits humbly counting her Buddhist beads.

Friday, February 1, 2008

What's the Difference: ESL, EFL, ESOL, ELL, and ESP?

I was at the ProLiteracy conference in Alexandria, Virginia last November standing at the Reading Horizons booth when a woman approached me and asked, “What does E-S-O-L stand for?” (She was referring to the “ESOL” acronym that was on the booth display.) “Oh!” I said. “It stands for ‘English for Speakers of Other Languages’.” She nodded and said, “OK. I’ve been wondering for awhile what that stood for. Thanks.”

She is not in the English language teaching profession, but I realize that even those of us who are within the profession may not be clear on the difference between the acronyms that have surfaced to describe our jobs. When I first heard about the profession of teaching English to speakers of other languages, I heard it referred to as “ESL.” Since that time (which was about 13 years ago), other acronyms have been brought to my consciousness (e.g., EFL, ESOL, and ELL) that are essentially getting at the same thing, but they’re used with the intention of providing more distinction between the different learning environments.

So, what is the difference between ESL, EFL, ESOL, and ELL? This is what I’ve learned from my experience.

“ESL” (English as a Second Language) is learning English in a country where English is dominantly spoken, or where English is the official language. For example, students from non-native English-speaking countries who come to the U.S. and Canada for an extended period of time learn English as a second language. They acquire English as a means to communicate in the dominant language spoken in the community where they reside. For example, I taught ESL to adults at the Cubberly Community Center through Palo Alto Unified School District in California. It was a heterogeneous classroom with students from all over the world who had moved to California. They were participating in free English classes so they could communicate. I had a husband and wife from China, he formerly a professor and she a doctor in China, who had relocated to Palo Alto where they were living with their daughter and her American husband and helping to care for their granddaughter. I had two students from the Ukraine whose husbands were recruited to work for a local U.S. company. I had a couple young high school graduates, one from Japan and another from France, who were applying to American universities and trying to polish their English skills. These are examples of students who were learning English as a second language (ESL).

Contrast that with when I went to Taiwan to teach English to children in Feng Yuan and Houli, Taiwan. These students were learning English as a foreign language (EFL). English is not the primary or dominant language spoken in Taiwan, so English is considered a “foreign” language rather than a second language. “EFL” (English as a Foreign Language), then, is learning English in a non-English-speaking country. I also taught legal English to Chinese prosecutors and judges in mainland China. These students were also learning English as a foreign language because these students were learning English in China where English is not the official language. If they had been in the U.S. learning English, however, it would have been considered English as a second language. Get it?

A more generic term has surfaced, however, as an attempt to generalize the ESL/EFL distinction: English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). This applies to both ESL and EFL contexts. Another reason why this term was created is because some individuals argue that when students are learning English in a native English-speaking country (ESL), these students are not necessarily learning a second language. It could, in fact, be a student’s third or even fourth language. English as a second language, then, is limiting and not fully comprehensive in its description. English to Speakers of Other Languages, “ESOL,” is a more accurate description. This was true of my Ukranian students in Palo Alto who spoke both Ukranian and Russian fluently prior to learning English. English was actually their third language. In this case, ESOL is a more fit description than English as a second language.

A final acronym that is used often is English Language Learners (ELL's). This is commonly used in K-12 environments. It has been brought to my attention, however, that some school districts prefer to use the term ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) to describe their student population. For example, when I was observing a phonics training in the Dade County school district in Miami, Florida, they use the term ESOL in their district rather than ELL. This could simply be a preference issue.

I also wanted to touch on one more acronym that is often used in the field. “ESP” stands for English for Special Purposes. Students who learn English for Special Purposes are learning English in context of a certain field, profession, or topic. For example, when I was teaching legal English in China, I was teaching English in context of law. These students were learning English in preparation for studying law through an American University where the professors were all native English speakers. These students were learning the English necessary to sustain them in their studies of law. They were learning the terms and concepts in English in preparation for their actual enrollment in the law school program. This is an example of English for Special Purposes (ESP).
Hopefully this provided some clarification on the different terms used in the English language teaching profession. I should mention that these views are based on my experience and informal research on the topic, and they are certainly not comprehensive. I’m confident there are other ideas not mentioned here that shed even greater light on the topic. But at least here are a few.

For me, the difference between the terms used is not as important as the difference that teachers make in the classroom, regardless of whether they're teaching ESL, EFL, ESOL, ELL's, or ESP. What's the difference? It's the teachers' vision and dedication. In my opinion, that's the real difference.

Take my poll to share the abbreviation/s you use most often when referring to your non-native English speaking students.

(A few of the ideas represented here are adapted from Decoding Strategies for Literacy Development, published by Reading Horizons, and are used with permission.)

For a comprehensive list of additional English teaching abbreviations, click here.