Monday, June 25, 2012

Teaching with the Language Experience Approach

Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce you to this week’s guest blogger: Natalie of Teach ESOL. She’s going to explain the Language Experience Approach, which is a great method for English Language Learners, but really works for all learners.  I’ve used it myself in lots of different settings. If you like what she has to say, please take a minute to stop by her website and check her out.signature_thumb1


At the beginning of my first year teaching English learners I was terrified I would never get them to utter a word without just mimicking what I said. I was also baffled as to where I was supposed to access this all-important yet elusive “background knowledge” I kept reading about. I mean they just smiled and nodded or stared at me blankly whenever I asked a question. After much frustration, charades, laughter, self-doubt, and tears I finally landed on something that worked for us! Whether you teach native English speakers or English language learners, you are undoubtedly teaching children language. The way children communicate outside of school is more than likely completely different from the way they are expected to communicate in school. I happen to teach English language learners, but even if you do not, methods that work well for English learners can also work wonders for any student. The Language Experience Approach (LEA) is particularly useful for any student who struggles with academic language. While I advocate for maintaining home languages and dialects, I must concede that there is a standard variety of English that will help students succeed in school and in life. I have found success in helping students produce this “standard English” (just any English at all, in my case) and academic language by using LEA.

I know that at some point in graduate school LEA was at least mentioned and written on a list of terms to know for my teacher certification test. Nevertheless, when one of the essay questions asked how I might incorporate LEA into my teaching all I could think was it was just one more acronym I didn’t know the meaning of. Of course, the first thing I did after the test was to read all about LEA! Now I am thankful that I was stumped on that test because I have enjoyed the process and the results of using LEA. If you are not familiar with this approach to teaching language or reading, here is my take on LEA in a nutshell.

First of all, oral language is the first domain of language to be developed, so before asking students to read unfamiliar stories or even words, it is helpful to engage them in activities where they can listen and speak using the target language. After the students have used the language orally, they then dictate the activity to the teacher. The teacher writes what the student says (verbatim, including errors) and then the student reads what the teacher wrote. By using this approach, students are building a bridge between the spoken and written word. The teacher could also skip the activity part and just write about any personal experience the student wants to talk about. I don’t often do this though, because at the beginning of the year many of my students have little to no English, and later in the year, I want to focus more on academic English, which they are not likely to use when telling personal stories.

One of the easiest and most fun LEA activities this past year was with my K-2 students about the parts of a plant. The very first thing we did (the boring part) was to draw a big flower on chart paper and label the different parts. The students practiced pronouncing the words. We also talked about the things a plant needs to survive and drew and labeled those things. The next day, I gave the students pre-cut pieces of construction paper to make their own flowers. They then used the chart from the day before to help them label their own creations. Their final products looked like this:

Plant Project for English Language Approach

While making the flowers the students had to produce the language when asking the teacher for a stem, some soil, the petals, etc… and follow spoken directions of how to place the parts and draw their own roots. The students then explained to the class how they made and labeled their flowers, using the new vocabulary. Many students wanted to say “stick” for “stem” and “dirt” for “soil”, but by the end of the day they were all using the new words with little difficulty. The next day was the fun part: planting our own flowers. Each student got some seeds and soil to plant in a plastic cup. I poked holes in the bottom of the cup while discussing the importance of letting the water drain, and the students ran their fingers through the soil, while using their previously learned adjectives to describe what they felt. We planted, discussed a good location to put them, and then came back inside to get down to the business of reading and writing. Students first summarized the activity of planting their flowers as a group while I wrote what they said on chart paper. After that we took turns reading what they “wrote” together. Finally, the students used that model to write their own activity summaries. Kindergarteners were able to use the model to copy difficult words, while second graders were expected to elaborate with more adjectives. The final performance was to read what they wrote back to the teacher and their classmates.

As you can tell, when using LEA, students get practice in all four language domains of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Best of all, the students they are usually happy and excited all the way through the lessons. I know all children have limited attention spans, but combine that with the inability to understand most of what is being said and it’s a monumental struggle to maintain attention and order. While the activities are often a little dirty and loud, it is worth it! I hope other teachers, especially those that have some English learners in their class, will find this method helpful. This example was from the elementary level, but I also teach middle school and find ways to sneak in a little LEA with my English learners. It is often too much like fun for the middle school administration mentality though. If you are interested in discussing middle grades more, please contact me!

Natalie of Teach ESOL

Teach ESOL - a Teaching Blog for Teachers of English Language Learners