ESL: Why Teach English In Context?

Paul Romani

If Canadian Parents Think Their Kids Work Hard, ESL Kids Work Doubly Hard!

For children new to Canada, it can be a stressful transition to not only learn to speak English, but also keep up with school work.
Without much English, an ESL child will fall a long way behind his/her classmates. Therefore, learning English is critical to an ESL child’s educational prospects in Canada.
The two most common methods that ESL kids learn English are through formal instruction (i.e. the Grammar Method) and the Immersion Method.

Immersion Method: Sink or Swim

Immersion Method: Sink or Swim //

Immersion Method

The Immersion Method has a notorious reputation. It involves throwing ESL kids into an English speaking environment. The teacher has no ESL training and uses authentic English-language materials in class. For very young children this method can work. However, for older children, the complexity of vocabulary and grammar is overwhelming – far too high for an ESL student to be expected to learn in.

Grammar Method: Too complex for young ESL students

Grammar Method: Too complex for young ESL students

Grammar Method

The Grammar Method involves teaching the ESL child the basic of English vocabulary and grammar in a progressive-level approach from beginner to advanced.
There are three key problems with this method:

  1. For the student to reach a high-enough level of English, it could take years.
  2. The vocabulary is generally designed to meet the needs of the level of English being taught, but not the type of English required for the school subject matter.
  3. The child needs to understand the concept of grammar in their own language, which very young (and even older) children will not have learned.

In either case, the Grammar Method teaches English, but will not help the ESL child with their school work. This will likely lead to the child becoming stressed from the frustration at falling behind.
It’s not enough for a child to learn basic English vocabulary. He/She needs to learn language relevant to their school work.

English in Context: At Pear Tree, students learn by doing and by using pictures with words.

English in Context: At Pear Tree, students learn by doing and by using pictures with words.

So What About English in Context?

The objective of English in Context is to allow the ESL child to study school subjects and English simultaneously.
English in context has similarities to the Immersion Method, but with some key differences.
English in Context involves the ESL child learning English using school subject materials that have a large amount of visuals and graphics.
Too much of traditional school material is simply text, text, text. At Pear Tree, we get to see the materials that teachers, in many schools, give to their students. It’s horrendously text based. And, often, the text is so convoluted that even a native speaker would struggle to understand it. This is useless for an ESL student, and it’s not very helpful for many native speakers either; after all, most of us benefit from visual materials.
With pictures, the student can start anticipating the context. The vocabulary then becomes more meaningful.
Of course, initially, ESL students aren’t likely to understand materials as deeply as native speakers, but that is beside the point. The intention is for the ESL student to get the gist of the vocabulary, topic, ideas, and context. More nuanced / abstract concepts will take longer to develop. Besides, such abstract ideas are often tied to cultural understanding, which will also take time to form.
While ESL training for teachers is certainly beneficial, it isn’t essential. English in Context means that the teacher learns to empathise with the needs of his/her students.

  • English text is fairly easy for native speakers to understand, but not for ESL students = Use photos/drawings/videos to illustrate words and ideas so that ESL students get the gist.
  • It’s better to DO than to discuss = You can talk and read about something all you like, but there’s no substitute for hands-on learning, i.e. learning by doing.
  • Technical English is easy for teachers and trained experts to understand, but not for others = Use photos/drawings/videos to illustrate/demonstrate such terminology. Use visual diagrams (with words and pictures).

It’s also important for the students to use the same method as the teacher. Students, too, should illustrate words/concepts. They should create diagrams.

English in Context: Happy and unstressed ESL students

English in Context: Happy and unstressed ESL students

Through English in Context, the student doesn’t need to suffer in their school classes or have to be pulled out of class for separate ESL classes. They are able to study successfully with their classmates. At the same time, native speakers will benefit from the more modern teaching approach.