Scaffolding Lower-Proficiency English Learners to a Gospel Presentation

As a Christian who has taught many ESL classes of lower-proficiency English learners, I’ve always felt a tension between the need to share the gospel personally, heart to heart (not through a translator) and the limited production/reception ability of the English learners.


What if there was a way to “infuse” into an ESL unit the key vocabulary (lexical items), sentence forms (syntactical/clausal units), discourse structures (thought shifts signalled by discourse markers) and concepts (themes: God, holiness, sin, law, judgment, salvation, grace, repentance, faith, redemption) that–taught in the context of a civics unit or a practical daily-life English series–that could serve as scaffolding to build up a learner’s ability to understand a simple gospel presentation–or even carry on a simple conversation on the state of his or her soul and to be able to understand my presentation of the truths of scripture that God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).


What if, over the course of 5 lessons, or 5 units, or dozens of lessons over 5 weeks, an ESL teacher could being an high-beginner to lower-intermediate ESL learner to understand–say, Ichabod Spencer’s 5 essential components of a “deathbed gospel presentation” that he gave to a biblically illiterate young woman?


On the Lexical Level

The course would cover lexical items in the context of civic and daily life in the USA–highly relevant and readily practical vocabulary for, say, shopping, banking, homemaking, family life, school, social life, and food–that nevertheless serve the double-edged purpose of preparing the ESL learner to understand–for instance–the Great Exchange–that “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). That great doctrine of God imputing (accounting) sin to Adam, and imputing (crediting) our sin to Christ, and imputing Christ’s righteousness to believing sinners would be much more understandable (at least on the linguistic level; barring not a scriptural understanding of the absolute need of the Holy Spirit to enlighten even a native speaker of these things) after–for instance–a unit on “Shopping” that goes from a lesson called “At the Checkout Line” through one called  “Exchanging Money” to a “Returns and Refunds” lesson that deals with the amount being “credited” back onto one’s credit card. Embedded in the, say, 50 vocabulary words from this unit could be a dozen or so that, weeks later, would be directly related to the gospel discussion or scripture presentation. The various combinations or forms of this idea (on the lexical level) would be boundless.


On the Clausal Level

But one cannot stop only at the lexical level in this “scaffolding to an English gospel presentation” approach. Clausal forms and relationships would have to be covered–certainly not all of them or all the advanced ones (hypotaxis, like relative clauses, He made him who knew no sin to be sin, so that in him…”; or the many types of adverb clauses, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us; or even the different kinds of Noun clauses, “Whoever believes in him will have eternal life)–but at least the parataxis constructions (facilitated by coordinating conjunctions, like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so: “He was crucified, but God raised Him from the dead”). Clausal relationships, on some level, should be taught–again with the eye to helping the learner to understand a gospel presentation or scripture–and again, with the highly-motivating immediate lesson-form of “talking to your landlord” or “phone conversations” in a civics-related ESL unit.


On the Discourse Level

Being able to follow large trains of thought is becoming a rarer skill–not only among English learners. In the above approach, the ESL teacher should also include lessons on knowing what the “therefore” is there… for–in picking up the thought-flow that traverses across paragraphs, or even from one brief sentence group to another. Not all the discourse markers would be taught in 5 short units/weeks, but certainly the more important ones among the inferential, temporal, elaborative, and contrastive categories–as detailed on this list of Discourse Markers. The metadiscourse stuff can wait, perhaps. Again, these would be presented, say, in a unit on comparing the best cell phone to buy–”This one had a bigger screen, etc., etc… However, that one has a lower monthly data rate”–all with the view to share the truths of the faith later on.


On the Conceptual Level

When all the lexical, grammatical, and discourse knowledge is in place, what good is it if there is not clear concept of sin in the English learner’s mind? In that lesson on cell-phone shopping, we can introduce the concept of iPhone theft; the bad things people do in order to steal them; the covetousness that motivates it. The just need for punishment of these crimes and the fact that the “laws” that regulate these punishments are “good” (Romans 7:12). The concept of our personal sin against God as betrayal; the concept of guilt and our need for salvation; the concept of “redemption” and “paying off your consumer debt” can all be usefully “translated/transferred” to gospel-sharing and scripture-presenting situations.


I’ve always wanted to design units like this–and with resources like the Easy English Bible, it could be all the more easy to do so. There are also countless free ESL resources online. The opportunities for creative curriculum crafting following the above approach are limitless.


What good is it to teach only a language–which will pass away–while leaving the English learner still untouched as a “gospel” learner?