Teaching ESOL Students About English Language Variation

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.

When you teach English to speakers of other languages it is often necessary to refer not only to formal expressions but also to slang, jargon, and other forms of English your students are likely to come across in daily life. This lesson is about how to approach those language variations.

Why Teach Variations?

Imagine your students leave class having learned the textbook content for English to speakers of other languages (ESOL). Then, right outside of class they hear someone say ''That ain't fair!'' Your students are confused because ''isn't'' is the only word they can think of that would make sense in that context. This is precisely the reason why teachers of English to speakers of other language should approach English language variations in class. English language variations are the set of different word choices, expressions, and accents that native speakers adopt across the English-speaking world. The reality is that your students are going to leave the class and find English variations. Thus, if you cover variations in class, your students will be better prepared to understand them and to respond appropriately.

English Language Variations

To teach your students about English language variations, first make sure they understand why English language variations happen. A good way to do this is to ask them about their native language and answer if every single person speaks the same way at home. This way, your speakers of other languages will understand how variations happen in English. To be successful, you not only plan different lessons to concentrate on pronunciation and accents, formal language, and slang. You also add a specific activity for your students. This ensures English language variations register with your students. Let's begin with each aspect.

Pronunciation and Accents

The best way to introduce variations in pronunciation and accents is to specifically refer to regions where people adopt different pronunciation and accents in English. A good example to begin with would be how people in Boston drop the letter ''R.'' You can tell your students that the British also drop the 'R' and explain how this was an influence in Boston. You could then illustrate this particular English variation by showing students some video clips or audio so they can actually listen.

So that diverse pronunciations and accents register in students' knowledge, it is important to also give them a context for studying them. The context should be an activity in which students produce work either by speaking or writing. For instance, Sonya is an English teacher who gives her students a listening exercise so they get familiar with British accents in London. The listening exercise her students have to do is fill in the blanks in a worksheet as they listen to the audio.

Formal Language

To get your students familiar with how formal language fits specific situations, you can give them examples through a variety of sources. These sources can include:

  • Oral formal language: this can be presented to your students through dialogues in a variety of formal situations (e.g. a job interview, a business presentation).
  • Written formal language: this gets very well illustrated if you give your students some real examples of written formal language so they can read it (e.g. a cover letter, a journal article).

To make sure the formal expressions people use in specific contexts register with students, you should always give students a purpose for listening to or reading formal language. For example, when teaching oral formal language, Sonya gets students to act out a formal dialogue in which they use the expressions they learned. Similarly, her students write a cover letter for a job they would like to get.

Informal Language

As a teacher, you probably don't feel comfortable telling your students you are going to teach them some slang. Instead, you can introduce slang by giving students a definition along with an example. Then, you can give your students a reason why it is important to understand slang. The main reason is that your students will eventually come across some sort of slang, and they need to be able to understand it and feel comfortable when faced with informal language.

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