Reading and Writing Skills for Beginner ELL Students

There is debate whether or not to teach beginner students reading and writing skills before their oral language has developed. I say yes! Go for it! Even though my ESL students did not know any English, I began teaching them letter names, sounds, basic sight words as well as phonological and phonemic awareness skills from the very beginning. Since the ESL teacher’s goal is to catch ESL students up to their peers as quickly and effectively as possible, there is no time to waste! Also, I never encountered any problems with teaching all four skills right from the beginning. In addition, oral and written language often overlap since beginners are reading and writing simple sentences that reflect how we speak. For example, ESL students can learn common sight words from the simple sentences they learn from grammar instruction such as I, am, is, are, come, from, can, like, have, etc. In addition, students read these words in simple texts at their instructional reading level as well as write these words in writing pieces.

Total Physical Response

Teaching the English language is a systematic and purposeful process. When you teach English, you build and expand on what the student already knows.

Total Physical Response (TPR), is a good example of systematic teaching. TPR is a teaching method where the teacher states and demonstrates basic commands and the student follows each command by copying the teacher. Examples of commands include simple verbs such as walk, read, write, open, close, draw, color, line up, etc. After the student has learned a list of commands, you can then combine each command with a school supply or classroom furniture vocabulary word that the student already knows or is learning. Examples are “walk to the door” or “line up at the door”, “write your name”, “open the book”, “close the book”, etc. This is an example of systematic teaching where you are building or expanding on what the student already knows. You are also teaching beginners authentic language, or common commands, that they would hear in school. When the student feels comfortable to speak, he/she can state commands for the teacher and their peers to perform.

Grammar Translation Method

Grammar Translation Method is a method of teaching language through translation.  This method requires learners to translate texts from English (in this case) to the student’s native language.  Some of these texts may be literary works.  I have seen some teachers use this method to teach English and you may be tempted to use this method with beginners, but Grammar Translation Method is an ineffective method for teaching the English language!  Here are the reasons why:  

Translating from one language to another does not reflect authentic communication and how we interact with one another.  Communication is meaningful, spontaneous, natural, and requires other forms of communication such as speaking and understanding, not just reading and writing.  In order to effectively communicate with English speakers, English language learners need to use all four skills of the English language (understanding, speaking, reading, and writing) in a variety of situations with a variety of people.  This model of teaching is called Communicative Language Teaching.  Grammar Translation Method does not reflect this model. 

The only type of thinking involved in Grammar Translation Method is translation only.  There are no other ways of thinking while learning English.  Thinking about how to translate from one language to another does not reflect how we think when we are communicating through language. 

 There is too much emphasis on the student’s native language instead of the focus being on English.  If ESL students need to learn English, then students need to use English as much as possible. 

Some vocabulary words do not translate directly between two languages. 

Grammar Translation Method is boring and students need to be motivated to learn any language!