Using objects with English language learners

By Jenny Wei

I work at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. But I spent last year teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in a public elementary school in rural Taiwan. Why would a self-proclaimed museum nerd leave the Smithsonian to spend a year in a classroom?

Museum educators love to use objects, artworks, and live collections to make connections to the past, with a different location, or to get a glimpse into the mind of another person. Trained as such, I was really curious how I could use objects to cross cultural and linguistic divides. I loved how the tangible solidness of objects could tell stories in America, so why not see how far I could stretch it?

I imagine that what I learned about using objects for English as a Foreign Language would apply to English as a Second Language (ESL) and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students in America, as well.

  • Coins Lesson 3A picture’s worth a thousand words: When having a shared vocabulary is a problem, photographs can serve as important springboards for conversation and sharing content. I know many ESOL/ESL teachers are challenged with conveying subject content (like history or science) to students who are behind in English language skills and images are one way to share information without having words as a boundary. For my students, this meant using photographs of my childhood Christmas celebrations to give them a cultural introduction to me, rather than needing to translate a description of what Christmas was like for me. 
  • Inspiring questions: Whenever I used objects in my EFL classroom, I was surprised by how many questions I would get. I was especially excited when students who usually sat quietly in the classroom were tempted to ask a question based on my object. With an object in hand, a student could ask a question with a limited vocabulary. For example, without a flower in hand, a student wondering “What do you call the green part on the bottom of a flower?” would have to have the gumption to ask a long question and the grammar to make it happen. With a flower in hand, the student can point and ask “What’s that?” and communicate with only two words. Objects provide an alternative to questions with a lot of vocabulary, which can be helpful in some situations.
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  • Real stuff and really useful words: By starting with a real object, there is a really practical application for your vocabulary. I felt that using real objects, I was able to build extra motivation for my students because the vocabulary was being applied to something in the real world instead of a clipart flashcard, a vocabulary list in a book, or a cartoon character in the textbook. Take the word “shoes,” for example. If you use a flashcard with the word and a clipart image of shoes, the student will only see the flashcard during your class period. But if you use the shoes on her feet, she might think about her new English vocabulary when she’s taking them off at night, or pouring the sand out of them after recess.

For all the fully-trained ESL/EFL/ESOL teachers out there, what do you think? Do my ideas bear out in your own classrooms? Are there other advantages or disadvantages to using objects in your classroom?

Jenny Wei is an education specialist at the National Museum of American History.