Techniques for Building Trust and Understanding with ESL Learners

When educating our ESL learners, we must know and understand the history of our students. Some students come from countries where they went to school every day. They have come to America with literacy skills in another language and need to learn English. Other students come from poorer or war-torn countries where education was not available. They are beginning with no literacy or content skills. Without checking the background of our ESL students, we might lump them into a one program fits all. Students transitioning into a new language and have literacy skills and content will have an easier time than those who are not only learning a new language but do not have literacy knowledge.

We need to be aware of the language the student brings to our country. Students whose first language is Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Arabic or Indian come with a whole different set of educational traditions: Reading right to left, making symbols instead of words and other differences.

There are stages of development in language acquisition for ESL learners. Stage one is Preproduction, which means that students are usually quiet. They are learning by watching others talking. This is the stage in which students needs to learn intonation and vocabulary. The common language is taught in phrases. For example, “No, thank you,” “Where is it?” This survival language is what a student needs to communicate to be understood. It is essential that the teacher understands that a student is cognitively trying to make sense of words and actions. This is when the student begins to build trust in the teacher. The teacher is providing a stress free learning environment for the student by not making them the center of attention.

Stage 2 is early production. This is when the teacher must find out what the literacy level of the student is. This information is available from the district. There is usually an intake system that identifies the students’ levels. It is necessary to see whether the child should be moved ahead academically because of prior skills learned in their native language. The students without prior skills will need to learn literacy skills at a beginning level. This is when the students need to be regrouped. This is an exceedingly crucial time for both groups of ESL students. This is the point where students begin to practice using the language and take tentative steps towards communication. To keep the trust established during stage 1, teachers must continue to maintain a safe environment for the children to practice and learn their new skills.

Stage 3 is speech emergence. This is when vocabulary words begins to expand. Students are able to work in small group activities and express themselves. It is at this stage teachers extend the students’ vocabulary, and ask open-ended questions that the students can answer. The students, at this stage, are not feeling isolated. They talk to their classmates and speak fluently in the common teenage vernacular. At this time, when teachers listen to the students speaking fluently with their peers, sometimes mistake this for comprehending the language. This could not be further from the truth.

Stage 4 is when immediate fluency means the students are able to write, read and answer questions. Skill and content literacy for the one set of students is completed. The students who were not literate in skills and content will continue developing literacy skills in English. These skills will not necessarily be learned in one year.

Most second language students progress through these stages. Studies have shown that some student reach a plateau at stage 3 and have to be helped over the hump at the next grade level.