Can language development tips help ESL learners learn English?

Living and working in the multicultural area that is the Inner West of Sydney means we often work with children who speak English as a second (or third or fourth) language.

We’ve written about the difference between true language delays and English as a second language (ESL) issues.  In our experience, some children have both issues.  We’ve also dedicated several posts to explaining evidence-based principles for language therapy for children with language delays.  But can these principles also assist children with ESL issues?

A team of researchers from the United States says “yes”.

In a paper published in August 2014, Haruka Konishi from the University of Delaware and her colleagues identify 6 principles of language development that have implications for how we should go about helping second language learners.  The paper uses a fair amount of abstract language and jargon.  Paraphrasing its core message into Plain English, the researchers advocate building 6 language development elements into ESL teaching:

1. Increase the amount of language the child hears.  For ESL learners, more exposure to fluent English is more likely to help them acquire English skills than less exposure.  This does NOT mean that you should stop speaking with your child in his or her first language – especially if you don’t speak fluent English yourself.  But, if there are opportunities in your local area for your child to participate in English speaking playgroups, sports teams, or other social activities where English will be spoken by native speakers, seize them!

2. Use the child’s interests to facilitate their learning. One reason our client questionnaire contains lots of questions about your child’s interests and hobbies is that it allows us to tailor therapy activities to their interests.  Research supports the idea that appropriately aligning therapy to your child’s natural interests is more likely to lead to better language outcomes, which makes sense for ESL learners too.

3. Teach the child by interacting with him or her. Don’t just rely on passive drilling techniques like flashcards.  We’ve written about the limits of flashcards and worksheets.  It’s far better to help children with language delays, then to constantly test and re-test them.  Play-based activities that capture children’s attention through action can often give children more opportunity to acquire language in a functional way that transfers more readily to the “real world”.  Teaching key verbs through action involving the child is a good example of this.

4. Do activities that require your child to communicate with you meaningfully. Don’t just drill grammar in a vacuum.  Set up the environment so your child has an incentive to use the target words and grammar in a way that has some meaning to them in the real world (e.g. requesting something he wants but can’t reach, or describing something only she can see).

5. Children need lots of different examples from different people in different places to learn. Hearing different words and grammar used by several fluent English speakers in different contexts helps children learn language.

6. New words (vocabulary) and grammar (syntax) should be worked on together. Learning more vocabulary enhances a child’s knowledge of syntax/grammar, and vice versa.

The authors conclude by asserting that “putting these principles into practice will increase language competencies on ESL children and will thus put them on the path to greater academic success”.  In my view, most of the principles summarised above are sensible and are unlikely to detract from any ESL program.  Most of these principles are no doubt part of most education and speech pathology professionals’ practice.

It’s worth remembering that ESL issues and language delays are very different beasts, even if they can present with similar features in English.  This means that treatments that target language development may not always achieve the same results for children who are not language delayed.

And, at the risk of repeating myself, this study does not support sacrificing a child’s first language at home to improve his or her English skills.

Related articles:

Principal source: Konishi, H., Kanero, J., Freeman, M, Michnick, G., & Hish-Pasek, K. (2014). Six Principles of Language Development: Implications for Second Language Learners. Developmental Neuropsychology, 39(5), 404-420.



Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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