Friday, June 4, 2010

What Works for Adult ESL Students

I came across a great online article that documents an interview with Heide Wrigley entitled "What Works for Adult ESL Students." Heide Wrigley was a principal researcher of a study funded by the US Department of Education in conjunction with American Institutes for Research and Aguirre International. In the documented interview, Heide discusses her findings and implications for curriculum development. The article can be accessed here, but I will highlight a few excerpts that illustrate some key points below. I think these are elements to keep in mind when creating reading and literacy curriculum for ESL students.

What the Research Says about Providing Native Language Translations:

“Judicious use of the native language [makes] a difference in both reading and oral language skill acquisition as shown by results on standardized tests…Students had higher gains when the students in the class shared a language – (in our case, Spanish) – and the teacher was bilingual and used Spanish here and there, to give instructions, or to clarify, or to offer a quick translation of a difficult term…

“The classes where the teacher used the native language here and there had higher gains…Once the instructions are clear, the task becomes manageable.”
“In terms of the native language, we do need to rethink that ‘English only’ idea, and that fear that any minute spent in native language takes away from English learning. That is actually not true. We need to really think about how to provide opportunities for students to have enough time on task really to become fluent in English. This calls for multiple opportunities to use English while facilitating learning by using the native language here or there or, if that is not possible, taking time out to demonstrate or model the tasks or use visual information to get our point across.”

What the Research Says about Using Simple Instructions, Modeling, and Routines:
“The finding…points to the importance of giving instructions that are simple and clear, and of demonstrating and modeling so that frustration and anxiety are reduced and students can focus on ‘meaning-making’…

“Language learners need enough energy in terms of cognitive resource to focus on language learning. If tasks are constantly changing or if instructions contain new words and phrases, learning is really inhibited. So I like to encourage teachers to keep a certain amount of classroom interaction routine when they are introducing new concepts. That lets people focus on the learning rather than on the procedures.”

What the Research Says about Providing Variety and Practice:

“[Teachers] need to provide a sufficient focus on structure and practice. We can’t just assume that literacy students will pick up reading and writing skills on their own, through mere exposure and continued acquisition of English. This may be true for students who have a sound foundation in literacy in the native language, but it’s not true for students who lack these skills…”

“Students need a chance to interact with print, to practice, and to ‘get it down.’ At the same time, they benefit from different kinds of experiences that reinforce language and literacy skills. This kind of balance between routine and variety made a difference in their scores on standardized testing.”

“…Students need practice and they need variety. I think in our emphasis on communicative competence we sometimes forget how much practice is needed before literacy and English take hold and become internalized or ‘automatized.’ On the other hand, if language input and language tasks become repetitive and boring, the brain shuts down and learning slows way down….By the same token, if everything was new all the time, and lots of different activities came at the students without a clear focus on what they needed to learn, they [don’t] do as well either.”

What the Research Says about Providing Opportunities to Transfer Learned Skills to "Real-Life" Reading:
“One of the key findings for reading development was that students learned more, as measured in movement on standardized tests, in classes where the teacher made the connection between life outside the classroom and what was learned in the classroom than in classes that did not…

“…If teachers led field trips where students had to use English; or brought in grocery fliers or catalogues to read and discuss; or used as literacy materials cereal boxes or soup cans to figure out calories, all of which are materials and information that reflected the literacy that students deal with in their everyday lives, the impact was stronger. We called this ‘bringing in the outside.’ Bringing in the outside made a significant difference in reading gains on standardized tests.”

What the Research Says about Connecting Decoding to Students' Lives:
“We found that building on what students are interested in outside of the classroom results in success."

“The findings speak for building a rich curriculum that makes a connection between the language and literacy used inside and outside of the classroom and lets these students see that they are gaining skills that reflect what’s needed in daily life…These materials also form the basis for building fluency, discovering patterns, developing vocabulary, and practicing various subskills. Their use ties back in with the finding about practice and variety.”

Heide Wrigley: What Works for Adult ESL Students. Focus on Basics; Volume 6, Issue C ::: September 2003.

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