L is for Language arts

13 08 2017

language arts blackboardAt the very end of an intensive summer of methodology and language analysis, one of my MA TESOL students, who I will call Alice, confessed that it had taken her until that point to realize that TESOL is ‘different’. “You need to understand that I come from a language arts teaching background,” she told me. “It seems that teaching ELLs [English language learners] is not the same”.

On reflection, this insight explained a lot about the struggle Alice had been having, both in her practical teaching classes, and in her written assignments, especially those that required an understanding of how texts could be exploited in class. In her classes she had often used her energetic and engaging manner to focus her students’ attention on unusual or literary features of language, such as idioms and the use of figurative language – irrespective of her students’ level, and at considerable cost to their comprehension.  When her display questions elicited blank stares she seemed to assume it was because they lacked knowledge of the topic, not that they lacked the necessary language – particularly the vocabulary – with which to understand her or to respond. And, in her written assignments, she chose texts or topics for classroom exploitation that were way beyond an average ELL’s capacity to process.

Alice’s ‘epiphany’ made me think that perhaps we don’t do enough – at the outset of the program  – to distinguish between these two very different disciplines, i.e. language arts teaching and language teaching. Because they both involve language, and, specifically, the English language, it is tempting to assume that they share the same goals, methods, and learner profiles. And that the experience of teaching one would be ideal preparation for teaching the other.

But I would argue that there are more differences than similarities.

language arts free expressionTo start with the most obvious: students of language arts are, generally speaking, already fluent in the language of instruction, for most of whom it is their first language. What’s more, they come to class with a receptive vocabulary of several thousand words. They are equipped to understand most everything their teacher says to them, or gives them to read.

ELLs, on the other hand, are seldom already fluent (that’s why they have enrolled in classes in the first place), and have a limited lexicon: the average low-intermediate student may have a sight vocabulary of fewer than a thousand words. Apart from anything else, this makes reading and listening of anything but the most simplified texts an enormous challenge. Hence they need help – not in appreciating the writer’s style, or inferencing the text’s covert message  – but in cracking the code and releasing its literal (not literary) meaning. And they need a teacher who is able to grade her language appropriately to ensure understanding.

Moreover, the kinds of texts they will need to unpack are unlikely to be expressive or poetic ones, but utilitarian, even prosaic ones, such as instruction manuals, legal documents, academic abstracts, and so on. This doesn’t mean that there is no room for expressive and imaginative writing in the ESOL classroom, but that there is little point in having learners engage with ‘higher order’ texts until their basic reading strategies are in place.

language arts libraryLikewise, the goal of language production, whether speaking or writing, is first and foremost, intelligibility. Again, this will require a core vocabulary and a basic grammar – not a style-guide grammar (as in Never use the passive voice when you can use the active) but a nuts-and-bolts grammar (such as Adjectives generally always go before the noun and To make a question, invert the subject and the auxiliary verb).  And, of course, they will need pronunciation and spelling that are comprehensible even if they are unlikely ever to be native-like.

To sum up, then: here are some of the major differences between teaching language arts and teaching language. (Is this perhaps something we should introduce to trainee language teachers on Day 1?)

language arts chart

(This post first appeared on The New School MA TESOL blog Uncharted ESOL in September 2015).

P is for Poetry

10 10 2010


The Lake Isle of Innisfree (by W.B.Yeats)


A couple of days ago I got the following email:

I am a fellow kiwi (like so many, living in Australia) preparing for the DELTA which has led me to read a rather large number of your books (among other authors) which I have really enjoyed and I just wanted to say how interested/ inspired I am to see your frequent examples using poetry in the classroom. I have a fondness for poetry but have always been a bit wary of using it in the classroom especially as even colleagues will label poetry as “elitist” or “obscure” and therefore not fit to use in a communicative environment.

Now, however, I feel ready to sally forth and use poetry in the classroom more frequently, ignoring what my other colleagues have to say,

To which I replied:

Thanks for your message — it’s nice to know that the poetry is appreciated. The fact that poetry is open to multiple interpretations, exploits repetition and figurative language, breaks rules, is generally short, and encodes interesting cultural information, all make it exploitable in the language classroom, I figure.

How, then, would you use a poem in class? Here’s what I said about the classroom use of literary texts in Beyond the Sentence:

Essentially there needn’t be any major differences between the approach to using non-literary texts and the approach to using literary ones. However, you might have to work harder at the pre-text stage, providing any helpful background knowledge (including cultural and biographical information), and you might have to intervene more at the comprehending stage, i.e. the stage where learners are attempting to construct a coherent mental schema of the text. What is important (as with non-literary texts) is that at some point you should solicit the learners’ response to the text, including their feelings about it: did they find it moving, funny, difficult, thought-provoking, etc? And why, or why not? At some point, and especially if the text is a poem, learners should be given the opportunity of hearing the text read aloud. Often … the text doesn’t properly come alive until it is heard.

In order to demonstrate how this might work, let’s take an example by one of my favourite poets, W.B. Yeats:

The Balloon of the Mind

Hands, do what you’re bid:
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.


...that bellies and drags in the wind.... (photo by Saeid Shahin Kiya)


1. Project or dictate the title, and ask “Why is the mind like a balloon?” Brainstorm possible answers.
2. Read the poem aloud, naturally but at an easy pace. Students listen. (Or play this recording).
3. They then write down any words or phrases they caught on this first hearing and compare notes.
4. Repeat stages 2 and 3.
5. Project the poem, or write it on the board. Read it aloud again.
6. Check the meaning of bid (= order), bellies (from the noun belly), drags, and shed.
7. Ask some check questions: Who is addressing whom, in order to do what? What is the object of do? What is the object of bring? What or where is the narrow shed? Elicit a translation, if feasible.
8. Ask “Why is the poem a good example of its own message?”
9. (Optional: Draw attention to the (half-)rhymes and the rhythm (three prominent syllables in each line) and ask the students to practise reciting the poem, in pairs and as a group).
10. (Optional: Ask students to draw an image that “describes” the poem; compare).
11. “Think about a way that the poem reflects your own experience”. Discuss and report.
12. “Hide” the poem, and see if the class can re-construct it from memory.
13. Ask students to write a poem beginning “X, do what you’re bid” – where X stands for any of the following: eyes, ears, tongue, heart, feet etc.

Do you have a “poem lesson” that you’d like to share? Or a favourite poem you have used in class?


Yeats, W.B. (1950) The Collected Poems of W.B.Yeats (2nd edn). London: Macmillan.