When teaching English, there will likely be times when you encounter difficulties helping learners understand complex ideas. For example, how can you help them understand something written in a health report like “increased risk of cardiovascular disease is a complication of smoking”?
When you look at your class members and see blank stares, it may be time to incorporate a strategy or two to help them get the idea being conveyed. At the same time, you’ll be facilitating thinking in English. And since our goal as ESL teachers is to develop language acquisition in learners, this can be an effective tool toward that end.
Over the years, I’ve run across this issue repeatedly. So, here are a few ideas that may help you in similar situations.
1. Use High-Frequency Vocabulary
Use common words while avoiding cultural idiom (e.g. use fast car instead of muscle car—a term we use in the U.S.), and remove idiom or slang. So, from our example above about cardiovascular disease, we would avoid using clarifying terms such as a bum ticker, cancer sticks, sludge in the veins, or the like.
Instead, you could use common wording:
Heart problems instead of cardiovascular disease;
More dangerous, instead of increased risk;
Result Instead of complication.
Now, these are only examples. You’ll need to gauge what your learners understand or not from your interactions with them. Their levels will also be a factor for what you might consider high-frequency vocabulary.
The point is that you use recognizable vocabulary to help them understand the vocabulary that is not. By doing that, you’re exercising what Stephen Krashen calls, i + 1, in his Monitor Hypothesis Theory. That means you take learners in a gradual step from what they know ( i ): e.g. heart problems (or even sick heart, if needed), more dangerous, and result (or even what happens) to what they don’t know—the new vocabulary. Now that you’ve changed the words, you can begin to break the concept down.
2. Break It Down Piece By Piece
This is taking the concept and separating it in concrete chunks. It requires tackling the idea noun by noun, descriptive by descriptive, gerund by gerund, or verb by verb, etc. In our example idea, it means breaking it down like this:
… increased risk …
… of cardiovascular disease …
… is …
… a complication …
… of smoking …
You can write these on a board where everyone can see them. Then, below each point, show the meanings.
Depending on the class level and your observations of their needs, you may need to do this by using the native language for each phrase. You can also use simplified vocabulary (high-frequency vocabulary). Or you can even draw pictures to represent ideas. It really depends on what the needs are. But, in the end, you will be able to match the phrases with known concepts. You can even create a matching activity where class members connect the concepts to the meanings.
Another approach could be for you to number the concepts. Even though it’s not a procedure, you can break it down like cooking instructions to help learners see the individual ideas. Whether numbered or not, after each idea is clear, now you can put it all together. You might see a few light bulbs come on after that.
3. Use Google or Other Translators
Google Translate works pretty well. A few other online translation tools you can use are, DeepL, Linguee, iTranslate, babylon, or Bing Translate. However, one thing I’ve experienced over the years: Don’t try to translate an entire statement. The translators still cannot seem to overcome the nuances and semantics of wording as a whole.
Therefore, avoid translating long statements. Break long statements into comprehensible chunks of information much like the previous step. After translating each phrase, you can show your students the meanings. After that, put it all together and the full concept may be clearer.
4. Use Google or Other Images Can Help
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But in this case, let’s be happy if we can use the picture to help people grasp 10 words that might be a little tricky. Sometimes a person will understand more through images, so let’s use the resources we can to help people do that.
One way is to search for each sub-concept through images. For example, instead of typing the whole statement, “increased risk of cardiovascular disease is a complication of smoking,” start with concrete ideas—the nouns. You can show an image of cardiovascular disease. After that, you can try the adjectives, then the verbs.
5. The Learner Should Also Bear Responsibility
Finally, there is something that seems to get lost in the shuffle of strategies and approaches in teaching English. Learners have individual responsibilities to put forth effort to understand. They are paying for it, spending time learning it, and need it for their goals. That means they have personal stakes in acquiring English. So, that may require consulting a dictionary at times or simply participating in activities designed to help them improve.
Unfortunately, there are times when class members seem to want to be spoonfed answers. But that isn’t always the best way to achieve language acquisition in students. Just like the old adage says, no pain, no gain. Learners need to be reminded on occasion that they have a vested interest in developing their English skills, and sometimes the teacher cannot always give the answers.
These are five ways to help language learners acquire complex language. You can use higher-frequency vocabulary as one means. That pretty much goes without saying. But you can also combine higher-frequency vocabulary with breaking down the statement into digestible chunks. You can use translators and images as well.
However, don’t neglect the obvious: learners have responsibility to learn. That may sound a little insensitive, but it is a necessary part of learning. Unless someone puts effort into acquiring English as a language, they’ll only end up with a mind filled with information.
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