For ESL students, television can be a friend indeed. In fact, television can have several uses in the ESL classroom. Besides giving students a break from the everyday, television can aid in teaching English in a multitude of ways.
ESL teachers, without realising it, modify their speech. We speak slower, articulate more, and use more simplistic vocabulary. When you let your ESL students watch television as part of your instruction plan, they get exposure to a more natural language in aspects such as pronunciation, speed of speech, vocabulary choice, and use of dialect.
When it comes to the register, if you have been teaching ESL for a while, you might notice something in your own speech – you know how to avoid using slang. This shift is natural. We want our students to understand us, but avoiding the use of nonstandard English actually hurts your students in the long run. When you use television in your classroom, your students will be exposed to many nonstandard English vocabulary choices including slang, colloquialisms, and less common vocabulary. All of these are good for your students to learn, particularly for intermediate and advanced students.
To give your students this kind of vocabulary exposure, watch a favorite television show and ask them to note any words they heard that they did not recognize, or give them the words beforehand and see if they can guess the meaning from their context. Then make a point of using those words in class and awarding extra credit to students who use them as well.
When it comes to reading comprehension, did you know that letting your students watch the movie before they read the novel isn’t a bad idea in the ESL classroom? It may seem counterintuitive. After all, don’t we want students to understand what they read as they read it? Won’t reading unfamiliar material show us just how much they are able to understand as they read? No necessarily. When ESL students read material in English about an unfamiliar topic, they are facing two different levels of comprehension. First of all, they are facing the challenges associated with a second language. They must understand grammar and vocabulary in the target language. But when a reading selections contains unfamiliar factual (or fictional) material as well, ESL students face an additional comprehension hurdle– the factual material. It is possible to understand the language aspect of what a person is reading but not understand the content, or vice versa.
When you give your students the factual information through a film or other video, they can focus on the language aspect of comprehension because they already have an understanding of the factual information. To give your students this comprehension edge, you can show them a filmed version of a novel you will read, a documentary on a subject they will read about, or any other video that will cover factual material that they will read.
Have students take notes on what they watch and review unfamiliar vocabulary. When students have completed their reading assignment, have them watch the same program again and see how much better they understand what they are watching. Another benefit would be the fact that students can research information without having to read it.
You might want your students to learn about new subject areas. While most teacher’s first resource would probably be a book or an article on a new topic, you do have other choices. There are plenty of video resources (documentaries, informational television shows, etc.) that are good sources for research for ESL students. When you choose to show your class one of these programmes, they will still learn the content that you are targeting, but watching a video as opposed to reading research will challenge a very different set of language skills.
Listening comprehension could also be a challenge for ESL students, particularly when their listening material is a recording on a cassette or CD. Most of the time in real language situations, English speakers have more clues than a simple recording provides. They also get visual clues – facial expressions, body language, and even a visual on pronunciation as well as the greater context of the conversation.
Using television resources in class gives your students a listening comprehension advantage over simple recordings, and this type of listening is more like real life anyway. If you want to use television in class for listening comprehension, try using a clip from the nightly news. The stories are generally short, they often have more than one speaker, and on site reports give great visual clues for comprehension.
Culture is another challenge that always comes up in the ESL classroom. Just because a person is fluent in English does not mean that English speaking cultures make sense to them. There is more to a people group than the words they use. Television is a great way to bring up some cultural issues for your students. If you watch sitcoms, you will often find a relatively realistic portrayal of cultural trends, trends that may be shocking or difficult for your students to understand.
Showing a clip in class is a good way to get the discussion started when you want to address a cultural issue with your students. These issues might include appropriate workplace behavior, the culture of dating, family relationships, or popular entertainment. When you use this type of material with your ESL students, talk about what they saw in the video, how it made them feel or what it made them think, their cultural values and practices on the same subject, and how the two compare. That way your students will have exposure to English speaking culture but will also have a chance to talk about their own cultural values.
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Nelson, e. and Harper, V. (2006) ‘A Pedagogy of Difficulty: Preparing Teachers To Understand and Integrate Complexity in Teaching and Learning’. Teacher Education Quarterly. Spring, 1-3.
Oxford, R. (1990) Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. Boston: Heinle and Heinle.