What the English teacher needs to know

This page has information and advice for mainstream English teachers with ESL students in their classes.


In most international schools, ESL students do not attend the mainstream English/Language Arts class until they have reached a certain level of proficiency in the language.

The English teacher, therefore, does not have to concern himself so much with modulating his language to ensure it is comprehensible to the students. This is different for the science or mathematics teacher, for example. They must ensure that the language of classroom instructions, homework, worksheets and tests is also comprehensible to beginning learners of English.

It is worth recalling at this point, however, that @ it can take learners of English as a second language as much as 5-7 years to catch up with their native-speaking peers as far as academic language proficiency is concerned.~ So the ESL students that have "made it" into the mainstream English class still need extra support.

ESL student support

Clearly, some of the extra support needed by ESL students can be provided by the ESL teacher in ESL class. But it is important that the mainstream English teacher also provides support. For example, by spending a little more time with the ESL students during the discussions that form part of the frequently-used process writing/writing workshop approach.

Another way to help ESL students is to use a graphic organizer to enable them to understand plot or compare characters, etc.

And in some cases it may initially be desirable to modulate class or homework tasks. A simple example of this is the reduction of the minimum word count for a piece of writing.

Another ESL strategy is to replace a novel that even the native speakers find challenging with a shorter one that aimed at younger students but has the same theme. This fulfils the need to balance authenticity and comprehensibility. It can also lead to interesting discussions comparing and contrasting the two novels.

Multicultural themes

As well as being provided with direct support and accommodations, ESL students progress can be enhanced in more subtle but more fundamental ways. In particular, they benefit from themes that have relevance to their own lives and experiences. They appreciate readings that are chosen from their own cultures, not only from the eurocentric canon.

Indeed, @@ all students in the class benefit from exposure to a diversity of cultural perspectives. ~~ The choice of which texts to study is therefore the critical issue for English teachers.

For example, Much Ado about Nothing is a delightful play that may well be appropriate for grade 8 or 9 native English speakers. It is less likely, however, that the ESL students in the same class will derive equal benefit from several weeks studying a text that is linguistically extremely demanding and that, for many, does not deal with themes of interest or importance to them.

Language as a theme

Language as a theme of itself seems to be an excellent choice for the mainstream English class. Students can be made aware of the different ways that language can be used.

They can compare idioms, proverbs and folktales or the various structural features of the languages represented in the classroom. They can discuss the hegemony of English as the world language. All these activities are a very valuable use of English class time.


This is one issue that in my opinion needs special consideration. It is a clear goal of most mainstream English programs to enrich the vocabulary of the students at the various grade levels.

The problem is that ESL students are starting from a much lower base. @@@ Whereas a well-read native English speaker in a grade 6 class may have an active vocabulary of 10,000 - 15,000 words, the newly-promoted ESL student may know 2,000-3,000 words. ~~~

Clearly, the ESL student will not know the words in a text that are possibly new to the native speaker - e.g. sprouted, pasture or furrier - but should she be required to learn these for a test when she doesn't know complained, butcher or harvest*?

I think she shouldn't, but this requires some flexibility (and extra work) on the part of the English or ESL teacher in order to ensure that she devotes time to learning the words that are important to her at this stage of her English development.

Of course, a better approach would be to allow students themselves to choose which words to learn for a test - but not all teachers have such freedom or the time to construct alternative assessments.

* All these words are taken from the first two paragraphs of Zlateh the Goat (Singer, I.), the first story in the Prentice Hall Literature Anthology (Copper), which is used in grade 6 English in many schools. The anthology has a good collection of readings from different cultures.