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Teaching English as a Lifelong Journey

March, 2008
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 IMG_9850 Asked what he enjoys most about teaching English for nearly 20 years, Jon Nordmeyer, a teacher at Shanghai American School (SAS) replied: “Thinking about how language works and how languages relate to each other- in order to help students develop their own voice in English. It is exciting to see my students do new things with English- like writing a great persuasive essay, joining the school drama production or debating in history class.” Meanwhile, as a teacher of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), helping students to bridge different cultures in the ESOL classroom lets Nordmeyer learn more about the world.

  With a Master of Arts in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, and certification in K-12 English and K-12 ESL, Nordmeyer started his teaching career in 1990. He taught in The Hague, Taipei, Istanbul and Seattle before coming to Shanghai. During these years he had the chance to study Chinese, Greek, Turkish and French. “I love languages,” he joked, “but English is the only language I can say I speak well.”

  Nordmeyer joined Shanghai American School in August. Currently he is the K-12 ESOL coordinator on the Pudong campus, teaches a 9th grade academic literacy class and provides ESOL integration support for mainstream classes.

  ESOL classes at SAS focus mainly on academic language skills, with an emphasis on expository writing, vocabulary development and the ever-popular grammar. Nordmeyer helps students understand themselves as language learners, develop healthy study habits and learn to use the process of writing to improve. In addition to writing, skills in vocabulary acquisition, literary analysis and research are emphasized in high school. Nordmeyer has noticed that many students find it challenging to read critically and organize relevant ideas to write a cohesive essay. He explains, “it is like the difference between learning to ride a bike and learning to take a bike apart and put it together again.” In order to express complex ideas, students need sophistication in grammar and precision in vocabulary.

  To support the students in this area, SAS has a high school Writing Center on both its Puxi and Pudong campuses, where students can improve their academic writing on assignments from English or any other subject. Students usually come to the Writing Center during study hall, lunch or after school for assistance, so Nordmeyer and his colleague Lucinda Edmunds need to be there every day.

  “I always wish we had more time for the students at the Center,” said the ESOL teacher, pointing out the major challenge now is staffing, since the Center serves all high school students at Pudong already. “Students visit the Writing Center almost every period of the day, and we look forward to the 1000th visit some time this spring.”

  According to Nordmeyer, he and his fellow ESOL teachers collaborate with colleagues from other departments to promote language acquisition. Since every teacher at SAS teaches English language learners, they have opportunities to help students develop academic English proficiency. Specific workshops, teaching strategies via email and on-going collaboration with ESOL specialists help teachers to make the challenging curriculum accessible for all students and integrate academic language development into all classes. For example, in a science class the teacher can point out difficult vocabulary and explain the meaning of common prefixes and suffixes.IMG_9865

  “Teachers here at SAS are wonderfully open and collaborative,” Nordmeyer said. “When I work with colleagues to support English language  learners, we try to "see" the academic English needed in a lesson or assignment - kind of like noticing the air all around us - in order to help students develop or practice specific language skills.”

  Language learning is an on-going, developmental process, he believes. Although social English skills may develop within a year, research has consistently shown that academic English takes five to seven years to develop. And this development transfers from one language to another. “Strong first language skills support learning a second language. And when students successfully learn a second language, learning a third language will be easier as they have a metalinguistic awareness about how language works and understand themselves as language learners,” said the ESOL teacher.

  ‘I think language learning is a lifelong journey,” said the ESOL teacher. “I myself, as a native English speaker, still look up words in a dictionary from time to time.” He envies his 3-year-old son Atticus who has a “sticky brain” that lets him hear a new word once and remember it. “I need repetition: I repeat new Chinese words in my head and subscribe to a-word-a-day sites (like the "gadget" on iGoogle),” he added.

  As for his own language learning, Nordmeyer also feels that interaction is essential. When he is in a market or on a bike trip, he tries to practice using new language in real situations. “In an authentic context, new vocabulary words are easier to understand – and more useful.” He also likes to find connections between languages - common roots or borrowed words- and enjoys listening to subtle variations in pronunciation (like some Chinese dialects) or just the “music” of a language. One of the first words he learned in Turkish was “gidiceksiniz” (you are going). “It had melodic warmth that I loved to hear every time someone asked me where I was going,” Nordmeyer said.

Advice for Students and Parents:

  Nordmeyer thinks that one thing the students can do to improve their English is to read: it is valuable for vocabulary acquisition and improving writing skills. Another way for students to improve is to see errors as natural learning opportunities, and carefully read a teacher’s feedback- do not only focus on the grade.

  What Can Parents of English Language Learners Do to Help?

  • Be supportive and patient! Remember that academic English skills take five to seven years to develop. “For me, learning English is like a bath – you have to soak in it for a long time!” (SAS student)
  • Encourage and model good reading habits! Reading at home can help a child improve reading and writing skills as well as develop vocabulary. Consider a family reading hour for everyone.
  • Bring English into your home! Make English-language books, magazines, newspapers and movies available for your children. Visit the bookstore together.
  • Maintain and develop your home language! Parents should speak the language in which they are most comfortable at home. Skills in a first language have a direct, positive impact on learning a second language. Research shows that literacy in a one language supports academic proficiency in a second language.
  • Stay informed! Please contact an ESOL teacher in your child’s school with any questions about your child or the ESOL program.

By Xing Yangjian

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