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Learning any new language can be difficult for many new comers coming to another place, especially if they already speak their native language, but learning English may be harder than learning other languages because our language is constantly changing and we have many rules on how to pronounce some words. In English, even though we have 26 letters in our alphabet, those letters actually make up anywhere from 40-45 different sounds, which is more than most languages (worldiq.com). These sounds in the English language are referred to as phonemes. Phonemes can often complicate the language for those trying to learn how to speak and write it. Learning a language could be easier when the phonemes transfer across language, it is a positive transfer, but when they don't, it is a negative transfer, an ELL person may find it difficult to make the transfer. The video gives the example of positive sounds as /s/ which is the same in both the English and Spanish language, making the sound the same in certain words. But, with a negative transfer of phonemes, an ELL person may have a harder time developing the English language. Something as simple as a phoneme, in the formation of language, makes a huge difference when it comes to conveying the meaning of words and when communicating with others.
So how do phonemes affect the students in my class? In order for a student to be able to function in the classroom, and the world, he/she has to be able to read, and in order to read one once have some sort of phonemic awareness. As a teacher, it is my job to teach students the necessary skills to decipher words. Because some students have a language with sounds different from the English language, it may be difficult for them to master certain sounds because it simply is not in their own language (www.colorincolorado.org/). Therefore, in order to teach certain sounds, I often have small group lessons based on the needs of the individual student I am working with. It is not unusual for me to spend an entire reading group working on just phonemic strategies and not do any reading from a book if that is what my student needs. Another useful resource I use is the leveled readers in the Reading A to Z program at our school. This program lets a student read books which permits them to work at their own level on certain skills. Another program I use with certain kids is Imagine Learning. This is a program that also works on certain phonemic skills at a student's level. With Imagine Learning, the student is given pictures to look at and they must match them up to certain sounds and if they are correct, they get to play educational games. So, as one can see, teaching phonemes is necessary if an ELL child is to develop reading skills and learn the English language.
Another important idea is the semantics of the English language. Semantics is the meaning of words or how they are used in sentences. When it comes to teaching semantics, I know I have to teach grammar (sentence structure) which is often a difficult thing for ELL students to learn. In English, we can say "John is watching TV" or" John watches TV," (O'Neill..) both sentences have different meaning and an ELL students must be taught how to look for clues within a sentence to understand it's meaning. To me, teaching an ELL student grammar is a very difficult thing and takes lots of planning. Like the video states, as educators we cannot assume they know things, we have to go in with the knowledge they are an empty slate and need to be taught the basics. Certain strategies I use include: looking for clues as we read, drilling vocabulary, modeling writing, one-on-one conferencing, and in the Write Tools program, (Greiner, A) there is a great lesson on building better sentences. I always use this lesson at the beginning of the year to model how to take a picture and build a sentence from it. It's amazing how the students, even ELL students, can build grammatically correct sentences. Therefore, semantics is an important idea in the development of reading and writing from the ELL student.
A third idea I found important is the pragmatics of language, whereas "it's not what you say", but rather "how you say it!" To me, pragmatics is how we communicate based on the situation we are in. As a teacher, I use different pragmatics in the classroom based on how I want my students to react. When I am teaching a lesson, I like to use hands or facial gestures to get certain points across. I also like to use peer groupings to help students learn to communicate in English as well as their own language. I also model the correct way to interact with each other. Pragmatics need to be taught as soon as possible, this will allow students to feel comfortable in their surroundings, while learning English at the same time (Bardovi-Harlig, K.) Pragmatics is similar to Cummins BICS, where they both state, social communication is needed to learn a new language.
I am not sure how I was taught proximity as a child, but I don't recall having a teacher teach me the rules for conversations when it comes to communicating with others. In the expressive portion of the lessons, it goes on to state how near or far we stand from someone while in conversation is different from culture to culture. And even though I was not taught this in school, it is a very important social skill that all people need to know. ELL students need to know when speaking to others the proper distance should be about arms lengths away. They also need to know how to take turns and use facial expressions. I remember as a child, one of the hardest things I had to learn to do is to use eye contact when speaking, for some reason I probably felt intimidated by adults and always looked elsewhere when speaking to them. So, speaking from experience, I use many activities where my students have to interact, maintain eye contact, and speak not only to their peers, but to me as well. Kagan is a great program to use when you want interaction (Kagan 2009). Many activities, include "pair-up" where students walk around and pair-up with someone to answer questions, "time-pair-share," where students share ideas on a subject. Kagan has an entire book of activities for ELL students to interact and learn the rules for conversations.
Finally, in the contrastive analysis lesson, I was able to learn the difference between language and dialect. It's funny, because when I speak I never think about if I am how I am speaking or what it might sound like, I just assume that whoever I am speaking with understands what I am saying 100% of the time as oppose to under 80% of the time. I would also assume that if another person did not understand what I was saying, that maybe I am speaking in a different language than they speak, therefore I think it would be a different dialect than what they are used too. That is why an ELL student might have difficulty learning a new language, because they have to take all they were taught and throw most of it away and start learning all over again. For an ELL student learning English, it's like listening to someone speak a different dialect, until they learn the words needed to communicate with another in English, and then it becomes a language and no longer a dialect. Once an ELL student learns the rules of English, the meaning of words, they will be able to communicate in a language different from their own.
In the classroom, the best way for students to learn English is to hear it and use it. There are many activities I use in the classroom to teach English. Of course I drill vocabulary, I use pictures, I model speaking and writing, I use Kagan for interaction, and so much more. Just like anything else ELL students need exposure to things, including speaking, if they are to be successful in learning a new language.
I am hoping as an educator to have both immediate and long-term results from using these ideas in the classroom. First of all, whenever you can get an ELL student to interact, you will have won half your battle in them learning to speak English. Any of the above mentioned ideas can and should be used every day in the classroom and not just for ELL students but for all students. A lot of these ideas are the basis for communicating in the real world (long-term effects) and the sooner a child is taught how to speak the sooner they will be able to communicate and succeed in life. When a teacher teaches the basics in phonemes, semantics, pragmatics, proximity, and language, any child can learn what they need to speak a new language and establish the linguistic foundations necessary for writing and speaking English that will help them through-out their educational career and life.