Helping English Language Learners Discover Their ‘Voices’ Through Authentic Experiences

Acquiring a ‘voice’ in a new language is essential for English as a New Language (ENL) learners; without one they don’t exist. Our job as their teachers is to make sure that doesn’t happen by giving them every possible opportunity to cultivate, celebrate and use their new voices inside and outside our classrooms.

What about our ‘new arrivals’ who don’t yet have a voice, but urgently need one? How can classroom teachers best help them to discover their unique voices?

Shift the Instructional Focus to
Facilitating Self Expression

When I first began teaching ENL learners, I attempted to make my students feel more comfortable by learning a few words in their native language; by assigning them a ‘buddy’ who could help translate when necessary; by supporting and celebrating each step of their language acquisition process with appropriate lessons. My instructional goal was to facilitate language learning, assimilation to our culture and progress in our curriculum.

But is this how we learn our first language? Think about when you were a baby and your parents and siblings modeled first one word at a time, then short phrases, then longer phrases and questions. They encouraged every attempt at speech you made, and instead of correcting you, they modeled the correct word or phrase repeatedly. There was constant interaction and encouragement. It should not be surprising, therefore, that ENL students of all ages learn English best through authentic, interactive experiences.

Provide Authentic Opportunities for Developing ‘Voices’

Without regular, incrementally challenging opportunities to express themselves in a supportive environment, ENL students lose confidence, and ultimately their unique voice. Here are some examples of how to encourage your ENL students to build confidence:

      •  Encourage and support their participation in sports events and all other school events and clubs. ENL students often feel like outsiders and lack confidence to join new groups.
      •  Support their efforts to write and illustrate journals, poems and books to share how they experience the world by providing them with ‘mentor texts’ they can imitate. For ENL students, imitation is not a crutch; it is a tool.
      •  Encourage them to ‘step up” their language expression. For example, I am presently coaching a group of ENL high school students, (with ‘developing and expanding’ English language skills), to recite some lines from Walt Whitman that they have rewritten at an upcoming Whitman Bicentennial Festival. Speaking in public is tremendously challenging For ENL students, but results in a huge sense of achievement and belonging.

 

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