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4 Ways to Foster Classroom Communication (in English)!

Korean Students

"Puis-Je aller aux toilets?"

I don't remember much from high school French class, but I'll never forget how to ask to go to the bathroom.  Why is that?  

Because it was the only way I would get permission to go!

ESL Challenges

One of the great crises of teaching ESL in South Korea is that many students don't need their English skills.  Sure they may be required to use them on a test and on the college entrance exam, but most of them don't need to use their English in any immediate, tangible way - except in your class.

Most English classes require student attendance, yet many of them do not require students to use English.  Many Korean English teachers are quick to translate any English instructions.  They accept questions in Korean and will allow lower level students to converse in Korean to be understood.  Sadly this is often necessary to complete classroom activities as outlined by course curriculum.  Classes at all ages contain students who show a wide range of ability and aptitude for learning English as a second language.  Yet the only hope to get students to speak even rudimentary English is to require it for their basic needs.

4 Tips to Teach Students Classroom Communication

1. Hit the ground running: after struggling to communicate with my first grade elementary students for 6 months, I resolved to end the arduous struggle immediately when my new first graders arrived in the spring.  For four weeks we learned 15 basic words and expressions in English.

That's it.

No ice breakers, no writing, no alphabet, no phonics.  Communication was my only goal.  All basic stuff a teacher would require for teaching in a classroom. Which leads to my second point.

2. Meet them at their level:  Even first grade students show an enormous disparity in ability when it comes to English.  Some are incredibly quick to adapt to tasks, while others struggle to grasp tracing letters.  Yet, all are required to communicate with the language we learned in the first four weeks.  It's important to use simple communicate language, but meet students at their level.  It's important that students know these expressions are useful and can be used in a meaningful way.  High level sixth graders have the ability to speak in sentences, so push for that.  Low level second graders are likely struggling with vocabulary, so stick to simple words and phrases.

With my first grade students, I stuck to one to two word phrases: "stand up/sit down," "clean up," "be quiet," "listen," "no fighting." These were their first English words and using them in a multitude of activates and lessons allowed them to begin using them immediately.  Even with no previous exposure to English, my new first grade students responded well to the regimen of expressions used in class.

2b. Hand signs are your friends: For young learners especially, movement makes memories!  All the most basic communicative expressions can be expressed with non-verbal cues.  By using these cues you can help students understand your meaning faster and memorize communicative English by mimicking gestures.  Additionally, gestures can easily spring forth fun and funny games for students to enjoy, much like Simon Says without too much talking.  Get creative, have fun, and students will soon learn what you're saying when you ask them to "sit down."

3. Use communicative language immediately: The other aspect of this introductory period was to force students away from using Korean in the classroom.  That is to say you should punish students for using Korean in your class, but demonstrate it is necessary for communicating.  Show students that they need to speak English to get your attention (and your praise).  Young students especially crave attention and individual guidence in the independent work they do.  As soon as they realize "여기에" won't get you to come to their desk, they'll soon remember to say "come here please" instead.  If a student fails to remember, either I or his fellow students will remind him, gradually getting the student to speak more useful English in the classroom.  

4. Use communicative language consistently:  I've come to learn students aren't always lazy, but they love to cut corners.  Almost every day I hear one or two students ask me "batwoomb pwee!" I'll cock my head and look confused.  "BATWOOMB PWEEE!" they'll repeat. I'll shrug and continue to look confused or call on another student.  Eventually, a higher level student will swoop in and whisper in their ear, emitting a hasty "Bathroom please!" from the student.  It can be tedious, but students respond well to consistency in communication the same way they respond to consistency in classroom management.  If they know what to expect they'll quickly adapt to it.  The security of knowing which words and expressions elecit responses to their needs give students the confidence to speak more English in class.

Success in the Classroom

Teaching students classroom communication is vital to their success as well as yours in the classroom.  For those ESl teachers who don't teach with a native co-teacher, this language is essential for delivering instructions and teaching lessons.  Simple communicative language can be folded into a teacher's classroom management strategy and help mediate misbehavior.  There is no downside to forcing students to speak English to communicate in the classroom.

In working with my new first graders, I've found that since beginning them with communicative language they are infinitely more successful than my previous students in speaking, writing, and listening.  Each day they see me and use their communicative words to ask for bathroom breaks, water, pencils, or high fives, they are getting one step closer to becoming fluent English speakers.

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