English of a new language.A good example

English language learners learn formally, through instruction, or informally.

Which is best? This lesson identifies the differences between the two and discusses the benefits of each to help you understand best practices for language development.

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Learning a New Language

Imagine you’re going on a trip to Europe, maybe to see the Eiffel Tower in France or eat some pasta in Italy. Or maybe you’re moving to Spain for a new job. Would you enroll in a class to learn the language, or would you try to learn by observing and interacting with the environment and people around you? If you chose to take a class, you would be engaging in formal language learning. If you chose to learn by doing, you would be engaging in informal language learning.

English language learners in your classroom will also likely be exposed to formal and informal language learning. What if a new non-English speaking student, Julio, arrives in your classroom Monday morning? Maybe he’d learn best by immersing himself in informal language that is spoken naturally in unstructured learning times, like at recess, hanging out with friends, or even on TV. Or, would it be best for him to have formal language instruction with more structured learning time with a tutor or teacher? Which is best? Let’s take a look.

Formal Language Learning

Students who don’t speak English as their first language are referred to as English language learners or ELL students. Not being able to communicate or understand English can hinder their learning.

Educators of ELL students have a primary goal to provide instruction in English, so they can become proficient learners. How can they do this?One way is to provide formal language instruction. Formal language instruction for ELL students includes:

  • An established, consistent schedule of ELL classroom instruction
  • Specific goals and objectives for learning set by the teacher
  • Time spent outside the classroom with an ELL teacher

ELL teachers might also support the student in the classroom or help the classroom teacher modify instruction to accommodate the ELL student.

Informal Language Learning

ELL students often receive structured support in school where they learn how to speak, read, and write in English, but they also learn English from other sources, like friends, media (such as TV), hearing conversations in public, or other informal opportunities. Learning informally is not structured like we saw with formal learning – there aren’t specific goals, objectives and structure.Informal language learning is more relaxed and focused on the student experiencing the language in its context, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it happens outside the schoolroom.

When ELL students are in the mainstream classroom, they are also learning informally, often by inferring what words mean by their context. For instance, a child might understand the phrase ‘clap your hands’ when he sees other students clapping their hands in response to the command.

Formal ; Informal

Back to our new student, Julio – which method of instruction will best meet his needs? Many educators believe a blend of formal and informal instruction is necessary for ELL students to fully learn the nuances of a new language.A good example of blending formal and informal language learning takes place at language immersion schools, which are becoming a popular way for English speakers to learn other languages.

Language immersion schools teach a second language by providing the majority of instruction in that language. For example, if Sarah, an English-speaking student, attends a French immersion school, she may:

  • Attend core classes taught in French, like math, science, or social studies, at least 50% of the day
  • Be taught by teachers proficient in French
  • Speak English at times during the day which are clearly marked
  • Receive formal French instruction for part of the day

In other words, immersion schools use a blend of formal and informal language learning with the majority of instruction conducted in an informal way. In the same way, Julio will naturally learn words by being exposed to them. He’ll learn ‘ball’ and ‘game’ at recess, names of students and teachers, and words for everyday items like ‘fork’ and ‘spoon’ just by watching and observing his everyday world.However, Julio needs to be taught academic language by a professional.

These terms include words he’ll likely only encounter in school like the words ‘fraction’ or ‘infer.’ He’ll need time to work on and reinforce speaking skills that are different in his language, like verb tense or agreement. Finally, by using formal methods of instruction, he is less likely to slip through the cracks.

Educators set goals for him and monitor his progress towards them, formulating specific instruction to support what he needs.

Lesson Summary

English language learners, or ELL students, typically learn best when they receive both formal and informal language instruction. With formal instruction from ELL teachers, students learn academic language and the rules of grammar, as well as getting feedback on skills in speaking, reading, listening, and writing.

ELL students also learn English by informal language learning, exposure during non-structured times, such as recess or hanging out with friends. This helps them to practice language and pick up everyday words and phrases. Both informal and formal language learning benefit ELL students.


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