Experiential Development for ESL Students

Ed Van Allen


November 8, 2013

There are many schools of thought (pardon the pun) regarding Experiential Learning and Development and probably just as many opinions and conjectures as to when the philosophy of Experiential learning and development with respect to ESL education first began. The scope of this blog is not to expositorily delve into the philosophies of the concept of experiential learning. There is indeed much to read, explore, and learn along these lines and I will leave it to other, more learned scholars to expound and mine these depths. In this blog we will touch on the development of experiential learning for ESL students, provide a general perspective as to when it may have begun and touch on what may be the most exciting aspect of the concept of experiential learning as it relates to ESL students, it’s effectiveness, benefits and relevance to students in learning the English language. 


As an educator, I was intrigued by the concept of experiential learning long before I knew of it from an intellectual point of view. As human beings, you and I reaped benefits and rewards from experiential learning long before we ever learned to speak a single word of our respective native languages. As a young man, it was experiential learning that taught me the first words of my second language, Spanish, as I was growing up in a largely Hispanic populated neighborhood in the city of Hartford, CT. In fact, I would tell you that I learned more of Spanish experientially outside of the classroom than I ever did in my traditional Spanish courses that I took later on in life.


From my own experience alone I can safely hypothesize that experiential learning has its beginnings from the dawn of teacher/ student relationships. It could be presumed that experiential learning and development as it relates to ESL was infused by educators into their classrooms at about the same time the concepts were more definitively introduced into the teaching profession in a broader sense in approximately the mid to late 1980’s.


Whether or not experiential development is effective in the ESL arena is a matter of opinion and of these there are a wide variety of vigorously defended perceptions on the subject. Those that hold to its tenets espouse its merits vehemently as historically it can be proven that experiential learning, when applied to the ESL teaching/ learning relationship is extremely effective at several different levels. Naysayers, on the other hand, point to a fact that is difficult to refute when posing their arguments. It is an accepted concept that experience is the first step in learning, but in order to put the experience into a mode that is useful in the learning process, it must be reflected upon. This reflection connects the concepts of experience and learning, fostering the development of the foundations of experiential learning. Opponents of ESL experiential learning development cite the limited ability of educators to effectively apply its concepts in the ESL arena for several reasons, not the least of which are the time demands associated with the need for students to reflect and analyze the experiences observed before finally applying them in the process of learning the English language.


The rub between the two opinions is that it seems generally accepted that when the necessary time is provided and proper experiential teaching methods are developed and applied to ESL learning environments, the results can be positive. As with any other education course subject matter the learning preferences of ESL students are just that- preferences. And while development of experiential teaching curriculum and application of experiential principles can be time consuming, comparative to most other teaching approaches, it is best left to the student to decide how effective experiential learning methods are in their learning experience.


One conclusion on the subject can be made with a fair degree of certainty; experiential teaching, learning and development has its place in the classrooms of education institutions the world over and it will continue to be a method that some ESL educators will continue to use going forward.


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