Teaching Syntax to English Language Learners in California

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.

If you are a teacher of English language learners in California, you will need to teach them English syntax. This lesson explores some strategies you can apply in your classroom to effectively teach syntax to your students.

Being Explicit

Melanie, a teacher in California knows that her students might feel confused the minute she begins to teach English syntax. This aspect of English involves sentence structure principles, including word order. While you are probably familiar with this definition, your English language learners (ELLs) are not. For this reason, Melanie begins by telling her ELLs the definition of 'syntax' and explicitly tells students that they are going to learn the principles that apply to sentences in English, such as word order.

Beyond explicit explanation in ELL classes, you can apply specific strategies in your California classroom to teach syntax.

Locating and Using Texts to Learn Syntax

There is nothing like authentic text present in articles from magazines, newspapers, stories, etc. to get ELLs searching for examples of syntax in English. To locate texts that help your students learn syntax, you should always look for appropriate grade-level texts that, in addition, have simple and easy examples of the syntax you want to teach.

For instance, Melanie focuses today on the word order of subject-verb-predicate in sentences. To make this structure more accessible for her ELLs, she chooses articles that are very basic. The students' task is to highlight a choice of ten sentences and identify each component in them. As students do this task, Melanie monitors by walking around the class and assisting students as needed. However, since the articles have obvious examples of the sentence structure, students do not need a lot of help.

Using Students' Home Language

As in many typical ELL classrooms, Melanie has a mixture of students who speak Spanish, Chinese and other languages. Melanie doesn't speak all those languages however she has become aware of many aspects of their syntax thanks to her years of experience. Melanie often uses her ELLs' home language to develop syntax awareness in English.

Rather than looking at your students' home language as an obstacle, you could look at it as an asset. How can this be? This is possible if you apply the basic principles of contrastive analysis. This is a technique in which teachers assist their learners in making a comparison between their home language and the language they are learning. The principles of this analysis include, first, the fact that language learners do feel confused when they find structures that are different from the ones in their home language. The second principle is that the comparison between home language and second language allows language learners to realize the differences and then become familiar with new structures.

To illustrate, Melanie has a Spanish speaker in her class. The student struggles when a sentence includes an adjective because in Spanish, the adjective is placed after the noun. When Melanie assists the student, she explicitly points at the difference with a practical example. In English, the adjective 'big' will always be placed in front of nouns such as 'house, car, family'. The student realizes the difference with Spanish now and, thus, is able to identify this syntax pattern in English without feeling confused anymore.

Using Students' Knowledge of L1

Even if you know nothing about your ELLs' first language (L1), they do! Your ELLs enrolled in California schools are likely to have some educational background and, thus, knowledge of their first language. You can always use such previous knowledge to help ELLs learn about English syntax.

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