Constructivist Methods in Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL)


Constructivism is an important approach in education, particularly in foreign-language education where the classroom goals are focused on integrating all the components of communicative competence (i.e., grammatical, discourse, functional, sociolinguistic, and strategic). Moreover, with the constructivist approach, foreign-language teaching strategies are designed to engage the learners in the authentic, pragmatic, and functional use of language for meaningful purposes. To get students involved in real-life interpersonal conversations, teaching is done by integrating the four language skills: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Mastery of these skills is essential if the learners are to become accurate and fluent speakers of the second language.

For example, in my Cross-Cultural Conversation classes, the students were paired as conversation partners, one native speaker of English and one English as a Second Language (ESL) student in each group, from the beginning of the semester. Native speakers, who served as small-group conversation mentors, gained experience working with students from a variety of cultural backgrounds and languages while the ESL students were able to practice conversational English and thus improve their speaking, listening, and pronunciation skills in a natural, informal setting. Each group met in person and/or on Zoom for one hour at different times during the week. I joined each session separately. I also engaged some retired faculty members and volunteers in this partnering activity, which also was a great opportunity in terms of community-student gathering and interaction. One student said:

“This class was fantastic! I do not need it for my major, but was very interested in learning about different cultures and talking with English Language Learners each week! Dr. Gul gave us great topics to discuss each week and excellent ideas to watch.”

It was not only the students who praised this application but also the participant retired faculty members:

“I retired from a forty-year career as an academic…and I have never encountered a course quite like this before. It is a highly imaginative concept for a course and poses considerable challenges to the designer of the course for a successful execution. Not only must the student and volunteer be carefully matched, the materials must be judiciously chosen and paced. I am happy to say that Ms. Gul skillfully accomplished these goals.”

What a positive experience it was to be part of…Cross-Cultural Conversation during Fall 2021! As a retired professor…, I enjoyed the opportunity to connect with the campus, and specifically with a current student, by participating as a conversation partner… I commend you for the course design and content, as well as the organization of the Moodle course site. You have created a course that is of tremendous value to our campus and community… And what a gift to any community members, like myself, to be a part of the conversation.

In a constructivist classroom, students ultimately need opportunities to use the language productively outside the classroom. Because such contexts will be unrehearsed, it is important to equip the students with the skills necessary to communicate in those contexts. In that regard, I tried to use topics that are contextual and situational to the ones at that time while I was designing activities and assignments. For example, if it was the week of Thanksgiving or before the Thanksgiving break (as can be predicted before the class begins), then the questions and contents for the week are designed accordingly.

Sometimes, however, the context is an unexpected topic that I quickly embed the context into the weekly program for better and long-lasting learning. For example, students were frustrated with the response to a police-student encounter on campus and the administration held a speak-out event where everyone democratically and freely shared their reactions and feelings with others. I took my students to that speak-out event because we were discussing the issues, such as cultural differences, discrimination, hatred, racism, kindness, understanding, and respectfulness in the Advanced Conversational English course that week. The students had experiences that transcended those included in the course topics, such as speaking openly and freely, and democratically in front of the administration—an activity that is not allowed in the home countries of some of my international students. One international student wrote:

“In this event which is SPEAK OUT was an opportunity for students to discuss bias and discrimination experienced by students in life. I learned how important it is to speak out to each other and know the situation…I was very happy that I could join this event. In my home school we don’t have this kind of event. However, I believe doing ‘speak out’ is a great step to understand and share the feelings.”

These are only a few examples of the constructivist methods that I applied in my classes and had positive experiences, particularly with my ESL students.

Arzu Gul, Ph.D
Arzu Gul, Ph.D
Arzu Gul, Ph.D. is currently the ESL Program Coordinator at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Plattsburgh. She has a master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) and a doctoral degree in Curriculum and Instruction, both from Kent State University. She has experience in teaching ESL courses both in Turkey and the United States over 30 years. She worked in the Ministry of National Education in Turkey and served on the committee that wrote the textbooks for English language learning used in Turkey’s public middle schools. She has been tutoring and co-teaching conversation sessions for adult language learners for Literacy Volunteers of Clinton, Essex, and Franklin Counties of New York State.


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