What the humanities teacher needs to know
Whereas science is often the favourite subject of ESL students, humanities In this context, humanities refers to geography and history. is typically the one they find the hardest and enjoy the least. This is no great surprise, because @ humanities courses offer students fewer of the opportunities for hands-on work that are the mainstay of the science classroom. ~
Apart from certain aspects of physical geography, humanities lessons tend to be characterized by discussions and activities of an abstract nature. Much of the necessary input for students in upper grades comes from reading dense texts.
Language researchers have found that complex decontextualized tasks are by far the most demanding for the non-native speaker.
The opportunities for students to activate background knowledge in humanities can be far more limited than in other subjects. A student from Korea studying the American revolution, for example, may have no existing knowledge that could help him to make sense of the tasks he has to perform in class and at home.
Suggestions for ESL student support
Although humanities courses such as geography, and particularly history, are clearly very challenging for many ESL students, it is possible to support the students so that they can learn with success and enjoyment. Here are some suggestions
@@ Encourage the acquisition of background knowledge in the mother-tongue ~~: Since background knowledge is so critical, students should be encouraged to read up on the topic in their own language or discuss it at home with their parents.
Remind students and parents that a significant source of this mother-tongue background knowledge is Wikipedia.
Use visual material wherever possible: For example, as well as showing cartoons and pictures of the combatants in the American War of Independence, extracts from the various movies made on the topic could be shown and discussed. Illustrations could be shown to supplement the reading in dense textbooks.
Draw parallels: Where possible, parallels should be drawn between the topic under discussion and similar events or situations from the ESL student's country or country's history.
Better still would be to have the ESL student's country as the primary focus of the unit of study and then draw parallels with America. Humanities, perhaps more than any other subject, affords the chance to tap in to the cultural and background knowledge of ESL students.
Use cooperative activities: @@@ Cooperative activities, in which students work together to discuss an issue or perform a task, are excellent ways of helping ESL students learn language and content in a less threatening atmosphere than the whole-class situation. ~~~ [ More on cooperative activities ]
Adapt reading texts: ESL teachers can be asked to adapt difficult reading texts so that they are made more comprehensible to ESL students - without watering down their conceptual or information content.
Of course, modifications to existing humanities programs to make the instruction more accessible to ESL students demand extra work of the humanities teacher. But it is almost invariably the case that modifications made for ESL students benefit the other students too.
Read more about the tasks that are most demanding for ESL students.
Here is the information for parents on the importance of the mother tongue.