Promoting Comprehension of English Variations for ESL Students

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

ESL students need to understand different accents, intonations, and ways of expressing the same idea in English. This lesson identifies some strategies that can help ESL students understand English wherever they go.

Beyond Standard Spoken English

Christina is an English as a second language student (ESL) whose teacher is from Cleveland, Ohio. Cristina is used to her teacher's way of speaking and finds the English audio very easy to understand. When Christina's teacher goes on leave, a substitute from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, fills in for her. Christina begins to feel overwhelmed and starts to worry about her English language abilities because she can barely understand him. This example illustrates what can happen when ESL students are suddenly exposed to new English variations.

English variations are the different accents, intonations, or diverse ways used to express the same idea. Exposure to several English variations is important for ESL students so that they can adjust to different situations and people.

Let's take a look at some strategies for exposing ESL students to English variations.

English Variations: Strategies for ESL Students

ESL teachers often find the audio that accompanies English language learning material very convenient: it's ready to use and usually spoken in a standard fashion that students understand. However, you can and should use materials with English variations.

Raise Awareness from the Beginning

Whether your students are new to the English language or not, you can begin your first session by telling them about English variations. So that your students do not find this information overwhelming, address it from the perspective of their first language. For example, Christina's ESL teacher asks her students about the different ways people sound back home when they speak Spanish, French, German, etc. ESL students are likely to understand that the same variations in sound holds true for English.

Afterwards, you can move on to talking about the accents, intonations, and terms that people from different English-speaking countries use. This way, new ESL students develop an immediate awareness about English variations.

Use Audio as a Key Material

You can train ESL students to recognize English variations by using audio that's different from the usual materials that accompany textbooks. For instance, you could use interviews with English speakers from different parts of the U.S. or from different English-speaking countries, available online. For example, Christina's ESL teacher shows an interview in which Princess Diana talks about her life in Buckingham Palace. The teacher then explains in what specific aspects Princess Diana sounds different from speakers of American English and provides students with a list of questions aimed at checking for comprehension.

Differentiate Between Types of Variations

ESL students can benefit enormously from understanding the different types of variations found across the English-speaking world, due to historical factors. There are three basic approaches you can use to highlight these variations.

1.) Use models for English instruction: when speaking about these models, emphasize the ''standard'' aspect of audio ESL materials in the U.S. as well as the ''received pronunciation'' (RP) in England. These are the dominant models in ESL learning.

2.) Discuss regional English and refer to specific areas of the world, such as Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand.

3.) Highlight the countries where people speak English, in addition to their native tongues, including India, Singapore, and Kenya; the key is to give examples. For instance, Christina watches a video where an Australian speaks about tourism sites in Sidney.

Use Movies as a Resource

Use movies or video clips to inspire your students to use English variations naturally. To make sure that students are prepared for these variations, explain that some of the characters in a movie are speaking with a southern or a British accent. For example, Christina watches the movie The Princess Diaries. The teacher emphasizes that the princess is an American as she was raised in the U.S., but that her father has an English accent because he is British.

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