Progress in ESL classes is often excruciatingly slow for adult refugees because it is so difficult for them to retain information from one day to the next. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that their education has often been "interrupted" by war or other civil unrest, resulting in low education levels and study skills; they simply do not know how to study on their own and are completely dependent on teacher instruction. Another reason for their slow progress is that the war or civil unrest in their native countries has left most of them traumatized to some extent, and trauma has a negative impact on short-term memory.
What this means for ESL instruction is that the need for review is constant and ongoing and needs to be woven into every aspect of classroom planning and instruction.
Here are some simple rules to effectively teach adult refugees and immigrants:
Rule #1: Keep the information load down. As a Cambodian student once told me, "You teach just a little, but I learn a lot."To help you keep the information load down:
Rule #2: When you introduce new vocabulary, use old, familiar grammatical structures.
Rule #3: When you introduce a new grammatical structure, use old, familiar vocabulary.
Rule #4: Review, review, review. Every day should contain a review of the previous day, and the previous week, and the previous month. Vocabulary and grammatical structures should be constantly recycled, and should spiral to reinforce learning and keep information fresh in your students' minds.
Rule #5: Application is important to set new information into memory, so allow students to get plenty of oral and written practice, and minimize teacher talk.
In order for our adult ESL students to use English effectively when they leave our classrooms, they have to get lots of opportunities during class to practice using English. Every ESL program recognizes this critical need of refugee and immigrant students and encourages all ESL teachers to "minimize teacher talk" in their classroom so that student talk can be encouraged. The more opportunities students have to practice and get feedback on their use of English, the better for them.
Easier said than done, however, many beginning ESL teachers would say. Next month we will look at a strategy for helping your students to talk and you to stay quiet!
In the meantime, remember: you are a very small part of their learning to speak in English and survive in this country. However, you are a very BIG part in forming relationships with the students and helping them realize that someone cares about them.