by Rosa Flores, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • September 1993

It is often said that the best way to develop students? English language skills is to totally immerse them in an all-English environment in which they hear, repeat, read and write English only. Of the many recent studies regarding second language learners, none support this common misconception. On the contrary, research shows that the most effective way for non-English speakers to develop both an understanding of academic concepts and English language proficiency is through their first language. IDRA’s experience in the field supports this; the teachers with whom we work often state that students with previous educational experience who are given content in their own language seem to do better academically than language minority students placed under an English-only curriculum.

First language instruction provides the comprehensible input students need to develop academic concepts. The reality is, however, that many second language learners in middle schools and high schools do not receive instruction in their native language. These students face learning both a new language and required academic content at the same time. This reality has serious implications for the way in which instructors teach language skills.

The needs of the second language learners in our secondary schools are unique. The following suggestions can be used in the development of effective English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) instructional activities that specifically address those needs. These suggestions delineate and discuss the key indicators presently used to evaluate effective ESL instructional activities. An ESL instructional activity is successful when it meets the following criteria:

  • Emphasis is placed on second language acquisition rather than on language learning. Krashen (1982) clearly distinguishes between “language acquisition” and “language learning.” Second language acquisition, he propounds, is similar to first language acquisition where there may not be conscious awareness that learning is taking place. In other words, language acquisition is not a learned process; rather, it is an acquired skill. “Language learning” he applies to that system of language instruction in which learning grammar rules, by such techniques as paper and pencil activities, occurs prior to students internalizing the new language.
    Language acquisition is aided when the teacher gives comprehensible input by providing opportunities for hearing and using the second language in a natural, low-anxiety environment. While rote memory exercises and paper and pencil activities may minimally increase the students’ proficiency, second language learners tend to respond much more readily to meaningful conversations and game-like activities. Excellent opportunities for language redundancy can be found in everyday songs and chants. Songs and chants give second language learners opportunities to engage in practice with the appropriate “native-speaker” stress and intonation, can help make the new language meaningful, and can reinforce the vocabulary and specific structures according to situational contexts. Excellent instructional materials are available that contain songs, raps and chants for the second language learner that can make this type of activity fun and relevant for the student. Initial physical activities such as Asher’s Total Physical Response (TPR) should be incorporated whenever possible. To introduce new language concepts, TPR uses oral and written commands to initiate students’ physical movement, somewhat like the game “Simon Says…” The relaxed TPR environment provides real-life situations with lots of natural, comprehensible input and engages students in a variety of listening activities to expose them to the sounds of the new language. As students receive meaningful messages, they begin to respond with one or two word answers; these short responses become the building blocks for their later use of phrases and sentences. Using the objects around the room, the school and the community can be a particularly profitable strategy for secondary school students since most are ready and able to transfer knowledge from the first to the second language. In using the world around them as a learning tool, students focus on labeling or giving new names to objects and concepts they’ve already learned. Teachers have found that the labeling of objects around the classroom easily provides significant results. Additionally, field trips have proven an exciting and effective way to help students acquire a new language naturally. Concepts new to the students and/or the student’s culture requires opportunities for hands-on learning. Students need to see it, hear it, and touch it, whenever possible. Unfamiliar concepts should be introduced experientially in a meaningful and relevant format using age-appropriate materials. If a concept is unfamiliar even in the students’ native language, it is best presented in the native language first if possible. The use of ESL methodology can be used to introduce unknown concepts by teachers lacking proficiency in the students’ native language. Meaningful second language instruction provides the opportunity for students to become more proficient in the target language. Vocabulary is learned most easily when it is integrated into a significant context-related setting. Language transmits meaning best when it is tied to concrete, physical objects or activities. For second language acquisition, content area instruction should be an all day effort that takes advantage of every opportunity to infuse the new language with meaning. Teachers may be the only English-speaking models to which the student have access. It is important, therefore, that teachers model correct usage of new language while allowing students to make the mistakes that are an inherent and important part of language acquisition. Every new step takes the second language learner closer to the goal of proficiency, so students should be praised for their efforts and achievements; they should never be made to feel embarrassed by a lack of skill in the target language. Game-like activities make provisions for second language learners to feel comfortable taking risks in using their new language. Instructors should ensure that students understand the important concepts and key words used in each activity. By focusing on the key elements and vocabulary, the teacher not only provides students with opportunities to use the target language, but opportunities to quickly acquire meaning as well. Better end results can be obtained when textbook content has been extracted to produce lessons specifically adated to target language acquisition. The whole language approach focuses on learning from the general to the specific, or from the whole to the part. This style of instruction provides the meaningful contexts that help students grasp new concepts. Techniques such as Language Experience Activities (LEA), Total Physical Response (TPR), chants, drama and other performances, word banks and journal writing can contribute to the creation of meaningful context for the students. When students are actively involved in whole language development, they acquire the target language naturally. Integrating a thematic curriculum centered around interesting themes can help students engage. By linking content area subject matter to theme-related topics, the instructor can facilitate students’ transitions from one subject to the next.
  • Natural redundancy in the use of language is used to reinforce language acquisition.
  • The whole body is recognized as an excellent tool for language acquisition.
  • Concrete examples and objects in the environment are used to encourage second language acquisition.
  • New concepts are presented contextually in a participatory manner with extensive opportunities for practice.
  • Instruction for language acquisition is focused on meaning.
  • Students are encouraged to take risks in order to acquire the new language.
  • Teachers establish a background and context for the natural acquisition of language.
  • Whole language strategies are used as an excellent means for teachers to meet the needs of second language learners.
  • Holistic, integrated, thematic instruction is best used to provide language-enriched learning.

Teaching a second language can be an arduous and painful task, or it can be a fun and rewarding experience. Second language learners can be apathetic or enthusiastic students depending on their classroom experiences. As teachers, we set the tone with our attitudes and expressions as well as with the activities in which we choose to involve our classes. The criteria presented can help you choose fun, informative activities that provide students with meaningful learning of content as well as second language acquisition toward increasing their English language proficiency.


Asher, James J. (1982). Learning Another Language Through Actions: The Complete Teacher’s Guidebook. Los Gatos, CA: Sky Oaks Productions.

Cummins, J. (1986). “Empowering Minority Students: A Framework for Intervention.” Harvard Educational Review, 56 (1).

Krashen, S.D. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergomon.

Krashen S.D. & T.D. Terrell. (1983). The Natural Approach. San Francisco, CA: The Alemany Press.

Langer, J. A. & G. R. Tucker. (1990). “Construction in School Literacy Tasks.” American Educational Research Journal, 27, 427-471.

Rosa Flores is an Education Associate in the IDRA Division of Training. Comments and questions may be directed to IDRA via e-mail at

[©1993, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 1993 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]