For most learners, ESL programs don’t work

When you look at the content of most language learning programs and the way that content is presented, it’s not hard to conclude that most TESOL teacher training programs and most ESL curricula don’t understand the difference between the two independent symbol systems that every language uses, nor the different ways we learn them, and therefore the very different ways we need to teach them.

Learning to READ the visual written form of a language is an intellectual skill. It’s something that you can do silently, which means it’s a cerebral process.  You can be profoundly deaf and never experience the sound or feel of speech, yet still be highly literate.  Most ESL programs are text-based and analytical, so most of the learning activities are exercises in applied linguistics.

Learning to SPEAK the very different aural form of a language is not a skill you can learn just by thinking about it, only by DOING it. It’s a psychomotor skill, a physical thing, a combination of mind and body, and that takes a very different kind of learning process.  Spoken language is the foundation for all linguistic communication, and almost every human child in the world learns to speak their native language fluently before they are five years old – with no formal tuition. Many millions of those children never get the opportunity to go on learn to use the written form of their language, so they go through their whole lives with no idea how to decode all those squiggly little symbols that visually represent the language they can articulate verbally with ease.

It’s true that some people need to learn English so that they can read documents published only in English, or so that they can communicate or correspond in writing with English-speakers, but they are in the minority.  Most people who enrol in an ESL course, want to be able to speak English with some degree of comfortable fluency, not just to be able to read and write it.

Making notes, reading, writing, filling in missing words in sentences, answering test questions – these are typical activities in most language classes, and they will help you acquire sufficient understanding to be able to read, and perhaps also to write the language you are studying, but they won’t help you one bit to learn how to speak that language. Only guided repetitive speaking practise can do that.



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