How Can Parents Help Their ESL Kids Develop Advanced English

Today, I am going to explain how parents can support kids in developing advanced English language proficiency. It is the blogpost for parents of kids learning English as a second language (e.g. French kids in France).

As you are aware, there are multiple ways parents can help kids with their English.
Some of these methods work great, some are less impressive but still kind of work.
Some are completely useless.

The choice of the right method depends on many factors and is not a trivial matter.
It depends e.g. on parents’ English proficiency (the better parents know English, the better they can help their own kids), parental engagement in child’s education (some parents want to teach their kids independently, some parents find a good tutor – they don’t have time, patience or pedagogical knowledge to teach their own kids). Also, the choice of strategy depends on the child’s proficiency in the home language, learning preferences, goals, and many other aspects.

Let’s say that your child needs/will need advanced English for schools, and in the future for universities and professional work and you want your kid each a level of proficiency comparable to an educated native speaker. The level that will allow kids to acquire knowledge through English-language books. Since it is a group of kids with very specific needs, it is easier to provide actionable recommendations on how parents can help.

So what parents can do to support their kids’ English proficiency?

Firstly accept that if you want your kid to learn English well, it won’t happen by accident. Although there are many ways to learn spoken English, developing advanced literacy proficiency (reading and writing) requires very targeted approaches. Listening to songs in English or watching videos on YouTube/TikTok won’t help here. Also, working with some silly apps on the phone won’t help kids develop advanced English proficiency. Since the goal is ambitious, the employed methods need to be carefully selected and optimized.

I would suggest the following approaches:

1. FOCUS ON CHILD’S FIRST LANGUAGE FIRST

If your child is younger than seven, focus first on developing the child’s first language. I know most parents want their children to learn English as early as possible. Otherwise, parents think their kids might miss something important e.g. ‘critical period’. However, there is no evidence suggesting that children starting English classes early have an edge/advantage over kids who learn English when they are teenagers. The early birds don’t always catch the worms.

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that developing literacy in a child’s first language before kids start their schools is highly beneficial for kids’ learning, reading, and thinking skills. If your child is younger than seven, focus on reading aloud to your child in his/her first language, develop power vocabulary, read narrative stories and informational (non-fiction) texts, develop kids’ listening and reading comprehension.

Also, focus also on developing academic language. This term needs to be explained. When parents hear ‘academic language’, they think about the language used by professors at university.

However, kids start to learn ‘academic language’ when they are five-six years old. It is simply a more advanced language of classroom, books, and education. It is the language kids won’t learn in conversations with their friends. It is the language found in high-quality books, challenging but comprehensible texts, and conversations with adults who use more sophisticated language.

Kids need seven-eight years to develop this advanced language in their home language!
It is an enormous job for very engaged parents and teachers. It is an impossible job for parents and teachers who are not aware of the importance of developing academic language in the early years.

Why does academic language matter?

Academic language is a language of power. It allows kids to succeed in the educational system. Kids who understand the language of textbooks learn easier and faster. This advanced academic language will provide your kid with a solid foundation for learning in his/her first language and for developing advanced English later on. Developing advanced proficiency in English is connected to developing advanced proficiency in L1. The better child knows L1 (first language) the more likely he/she is to know English well.

If you do develop an advanced language in your L1 and you still want your kid to learn English early (before he/she is seven), it is absolutely fine. As I said, an early start is not particularly beneficial for kids, but it is not detrimental either. Providing, the acquisition of L2 (second language) does not affect the acquisition of L1 (first language).

2. FOCUS ON READING SKILLS

If you want your kids to know English well, you need to focus on developing reading skills both in L1 and L2. There are several reasons to do so.

First, let’s talk about reading in the first language.

We probably agree that reading is a royal pathway to knowledge. Most of the knowledge in elementary school, secondary school, and later at university and work will be gained through reading. Focusing on reading helps kids become better learners. OK, if you want your child to become a footballer, painter, singer, reading might not be that important, but many good jobs nowadays require excellent reading skills. If you think all kids can read well, you are wrong.  Only 20% of kids develop advanced reading skills in their first language. If your child is learning English as an additional language like Hispanic kids in the US, remember that only 5% of kids develop advanced excellent reading skills. Reading gaps explain why only some kids can learn from texts effectively. Kids cannot learn effectively if they don’t understand texts well.

But what does reading in the first language have to do with learning English? At face value not much. Still, kids who like to read in L1 are more likely to read in L2 (in this case English). Kids who are good comprehenders in L1 are often good comprehenders in L2. So reading comprehension skills in L1 and L2 are correlated. A kid reading an English text might understand 40% of the text because of his/her reading skills in L1. It sounds paradoxical, however, the background knowledge developed in L1 helps kids understand L2.

As far as the English language is concerned, reading is the best vehicle to develop good vocabulary and implicit knowledge of grammar. If your kid reads a lot, she/he develops excellent vocabulary and learns grammar by osmosis. It does not mean that kid does not have to be taught certain aspects of grammar or vocabulary at all. However, the teacher does not have to spend hours doing boring grammar drills. The teacher/tutor does not have to waste time teaching kids vocabulary.

If your kid enjoys reading, learning vocabulary and grammar becomes a byproduct of pleasant activity. The child reads for pleasure and incidentally learns unfamiliar words. You don’t force your kid to learn the language. So yes, reading is crucial for learning advanced English.

3. FOCUS ON LISTENING SKILLS

Develop your child’s ability to listen, enjoy, and understand audiobooks, stories, and podcasts.
Kids cannot learn a second language well without listening a lot.
So extensive reading needs to be complemented with extensive listening.

Of course, the habit of listening needs to be promoted in the same way the habit of reading needs to be nurtured.
It takes time and effort. It is the effort that will pay off big time. S
tart with short interesting or even better compelling stories, you and your child can listen together.

Listening is not a replacement/substitution for reading. Reading is better than listening,  but listening is great too.

Some parents say ‘my kid listens to songs in English’. Great. It is certainly entertaining for kids, however, it does not develop the language and vocabulary needed for reading comprehension and learning at schools. Songs are a significant source of language for conversations with friends, not for academic success.

4. USE VIDEO IN MODERATION

Not all kids like reading and listening. Many kids prefer watching videos. Now watching videos can be a significant addition to reading and listening. It can provide additional modality. It will help your kid learn better since picture and sound help understand the language. On the other hand, kids tend to gravitate to silly videos with little educational value, watching videos negatively affects their attention, so one has to be careful.

I recommend videos in my lessons since I perceive them as a means to an end. They can simply lead to the desired result and in my conviction, the desired result is to make a child an excellent reader and by proxy an excellent learner. Watching videos can help reluctant readers become avid readers. I remember how I watched with my son the movie ‘Maze Runner’ and subsequently he read four books to find out what happened to the protagonist. Parents should try to increase the amount of reading/listening and decrease the amount of watching. Still, kids love video and I would honor that to some extent.

A word of warning.

If you think your kid is a visual learner and learns best by watching, remember that learning styles don’t exist.
There is zero evidence that some individuals learn better by touching, listening, watching, etc.
We all have our preferences, but it does not mean our preferences are the most effective way to learn.

5. FOCUS ON SPEAKING THAT IS CONNECTED TO PRIOR READING AND LISTENING

Finally find opportunities for your kid to speak about the stuff he/she listened to, read, or watched. Most kids need the practice to transform passive knowledge gained by listening and reading into active components of language: speaking and writing.

I know some parents send kids for lessons with a native speaker where kids are supposed to discuss certain topics with no prior preparation.
Kids come to such lessons with empty heads. They have no background knowledge and vocabulary associated with the topic they should converse about. Now, you cannot have a proper conversation about a topic you know little about.

If I asked the student to talk about SpaceX without any preparation, there will be only a brief discussion. It would be a different story if kids read and worked on a book/article about SpaceX. They would have their minds filled with facts and words they could use during the lesson.

6. HIRE A TUTOR WHO UNDERSTANDS THESE FIVE BIG FACTORS

If you want your child to become an excellent reader, great learner, and proficient user of English, who can speak, read and write on a level of an educated native speaker, make no mistake,  it won’t happen by chance.

Your tutor might have the best qualification, be a native speaker himself/herself, use the most sophisticated teaching method. However, if she/he does not understand the value of the first language, neglects independent reading and listening skills, and cannot integrate speaking activities in the framework where high-quality literacy activities are promoted, her/his diplomas, language proficiency, and teaching methods don’t matter.