ESL and ELL, Learning Styles

Complex Learning Environments: The ESL Challenge

Complex Learning Environments: The ESL Challenge

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2018 Issue

By Adam Stone

For K–12 teachers of English as a Second Language, the shifting nature of the ESL population is creating a new set of classroom challenges.

As an ESL teacher at Decatur Central High School in Indianapolis, IN, Kameron Packard has seen it firsthand. “The only thing they have in common today is they are not grade-level fluent,” he says. “They are not from the same country. They don’t have the same background knowledge. If you are teaching algebra, a kid who comes from another school can fall right in. In ESL, a kid comes in and the experience is very disjointed, with kids constantly playing catch up.”

Canada’s education officials recognize the complex learning environments that confront many ESL learners today. “These children have often suffered traumatic experiences, and may also be separated from family members. They may have been in transit for a number of years, or may not have had access to formal education in their home country or while in transit,” according to policy documents from the Ontario Ministry of Education.

Against this backdrop, educators have developed a range of best practices for effectively engaging English-language learners, from a focus on family engagement to a growing reliance on educational apps.

Family First

Educators and ESL experts agree that language acquisition happens most easily when subject matter is aligned to personal experience. A fundamental classroom strategy in ESL, therefore, is to seek out and incorporate culturally relevant course materials.

“The more relevant to their experience—immigration, diversity, discrimination—the more buy-in you will get,” Packard said.

Others endorse this approach. “You can pair off two people who are not from the same country so that they have to use their English skills and then they talk about things they already know, about their families, about their countries,” says Bernice Slotnick, former head of ESL at Riverdale Collegiate Institute in Toronto. “The language comes about through these familiar topics, then you go on to useful things, like how to get around the city, how to navigate familiar locations.”

Many in ESL view this kind of personalization as vital to the process of language acquisition. “It is essential that instruction be embedded in authentic language that is both meaningful and interesting to students,” says Lucia Buttaro, Chair of TESOL / Bilingual Advanced Certificate Programs at Touro Graduate School of Education in New York City.

This has direct classroom implications, for example, in the shaping of vocabulary lists that resonate with student experience. “It is important to avoid the temptations to begin and end vocabulary instruction with dictionary definitions,” Buttaro says. “Research shows that ‘student friendly’ definitions support learning, whereas copying dictionary definitions does not.”

This effort to personalize ESL content can begin with the students themselves. Teachers can make use of activities “that explore students’ personal histories and interests,” says Jenna Canillas, Associate Professor of Education at Biola University in Los Angeles. “Asking students to draw a self-portrait about who they are and what is important to them can yield insight into how teachers can integrate students’ interests into content lessons. As an extension to this art project, when students share with each other verbally and then write about their portrait, they practice oral communication and writing skills.”

Extending this concept even further, some say that family engagement can be a key driver in ESL success. They encourage teachers to proactively reach out to parents, to bring them into the curriculum-development process and to use those relationships as a springboard to further engagement with the ESL learner’s home community.

“They can have biweekly curriculum nights where parents work with teachers not just to get to know each other but to build the curriculum. The teacher can say: Here is what we are working on and here is what you can do to help at home. Parents in turn can say: Here are things that are important to our family and our community. The teacher can then work to have those things reflected in the reading,” says Dr. Cristobal Rodriguez, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at Howard University in Washington.

While teachers can take some steps to encourage parent participation, he says, school administrators can also play a role in helping to capitalize on key touchpoints. “When a school has a cultural event for the Latino community, parents will come in and the teachers are there. But the administration too often isn’t there, the PTO isn’t there to engage them. Then there is no official way for anyone to continue that engagement. That’s a missed opportunity,” he says.

By grabbing hold of that opportunity, school officials may see benefits that extend beyond the ESL cadre. “The reality is we have linguistically diverse children in almost every classroom, and we need to recognize that diverse identity,” Rodriguez says.

Tools & Techniques

Family engagement is a major theme among today’s ESL educators, but it is by no means the only arrow in the quiver. Experts point to a wide range of tools and techniques that have proven effective in the process of language education.

Dr. Ellen Skilton-Sylvester, Professor of Education at Arcadia University in Glenside, PA, points to multi-modality as being particularly helpful. There’s something in the nature of language acquisition that requires the learner to engage beyond the printed page. “Embodied practices, in which students utilize their whole bodies in learning—readers’ theater, improvisation activities, role-playing, small group demonstrations with defined roles for participants—are particularly effective,” she says.

Packard has seen this kind of experiential learning deliver positive outcomes. “I give them an assignment to create something using their new knowledge,” he says. “In genetics, I will have them build a person and they will argue with each other: ‘No, that’s a dominant trait.’ That’s not language they normally use, but now they have a safe place to use it because they are just working together and not being answerable to a teacher.”

That notion of safe experimentation is another key building block in the ESL architecture. “Risk-taking is an essential part of language learning,” Buttaro says. “Learners should be encouraged to predict, share prior knowledge, argue a point, make mistakes and self-correct.”

Others take this a step further, encouraging teachers to literally incorporate play styles into ESL instructions.

“Gamification is the use of game elements and game design techniques in non-game contexts,” says Jorge F. Figueroa, Visiting Associate Professor of Bilingual and ESL Education at Texas Woman’s University. By gamifying ESL, the learning experience “becomes more enjoyable and it promotes motivation through healthy competition. [In this model,] class activities become quests, the student becomes a player, achievements are represented through badges and reaching or moving to another experience are part of the classroom tasks.”

Figueroa encourages teachers to consider a wide range of tools for enhancing student engagement. He’s experimenting with emerging Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies as a way to extend ESL beyond the confines of the physical classroom. He also advocates for Personal Learning Environments (PLE), wherein students set their own goals and manage their own learning. This approach may be especially helpful in ESL, where a widely heterogenous group of learners may encounter class materials at varied levels and from diverse perspectives.

Leverage Technology

Technology has been a boon to ESL, giving teachers a variety of supporting tools that help to enhance the classroom experience.

Packard is partial to Google Slides as a means to allow students to work together on visual presentations. The key here is collaboration. When it comes to language learning, “anything that allows kids to put things out there and work with others is great,” he says. “If you have someone who is ready to learn, and you put them together with someone who already knows a little bit more, they can build confidence and learn from each other, especially when they can create stuff together and still work at their own pace.”

A number of apps have also lately emerged in support of ESL education:

  • Busuu offers lessons, vocabulary, and practice sessions for beginning, elementary, and intermediate learners. With text and audio, students can listen and speak, practice pronunciation, and access grammar tips.
  • Memrise uses flash cards as memory aids to help build vocabulary. It seeks to engage students by awarding points for learning new words and completing new levels of achievement.
  • SpeakingPal offers five-minute mini-lessons with an emphasis on fun. Quizzes keep learners engaged and a multi-level curriculum encourages continued forward momentum.

Technologies such as these can help to engage students and reinforce their classroom experience. While teachers may wish to seek out such resources, some say that schools and school districts could be doing more to support those teachers, especially given the present classroom pressures. Rodriguez points especially to the Common Core as being skewed too strongly toward the dominant culture. Teachers need more support, he says, if they are to build an ESL curriculum that responds to a more diverse student body.

“We need to emphasize professional development and team building efforts that focus on aligning the standards with a cultural and linguistic orientation that recognizes those children,” he says. “We can do better systemically to provide better resources. We can do a better job at preparing teachers.”


A seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics.