Questions and answers about teaching ESL students
This page contains my responses to questions I have been asked over the years by grades 6-12 mainstream teachers with ESL students in their classes.
The information and advice given here is based on my long experience as an ESL teacher at Frankfurt International School (FIS). It is also based on my understanding of current research into second language learning.
Although I am now retired, I am happy to continue to respond to similar requests for information and advice. Send your question or comments via the Contact page.
Note: If you click the Expand All button top right, you can view all the answers at once without having to click the questions one-by-one.
I use the term ESL student here to refer to non-native English children who are learning school subjects in English. ESL students have extra English instruction called ESL lessons.
A mainstream teacher is a teacher of one of the other school subjects such as science or drama. In other words, the term mainstream teacher refers to all teachers who are not ESL teachers.
There has been a debate in recent years as to the appropriateness of these terms. Several alternatives have been suggested for students learning in a language other than their mother tongue.
For a discussion of the issue and why I continue to use the term ESL, see The terminology of English language learning.
Who they are! It is essential to know which of the non-native students in your class are ESL students and what level of ESL they are in. This will give you some idea how much English they know and will help you to have realistic expectations of what they will be able to understand and do in your lessons.
Marking the names of the ESL students in your grade book, e.g. using an asterisk and a number for their level, is a good way to identify these students. Many teachers also note down the name of the ESL teacher of each ESL student. This can facilitate the liaison that is a very important aspect of our joint efforts to support ESL children as effectively as possible.
Generally not. Students who answer questions in class are working hard to show what they know or have understood and so they are usually not receptive to any feedback on the grammatical accuracy of their message.Moreover, it would probably embarrass them to have their mistakes corrected in front of the rest of the class.
There are occasions however when the content of their message is unclear because the grammar is faulty. For example, a student who says: I am here for one year may mean I have been here for one year, or I will stay here for one more year. In these circumstances, it is acceptable to ask for elucidation and to help them if they do not know the correct way to express their idea.
An indirect way to give corrective feedback is to provide the student with a model answer. So, for example, if he says: Columbus find America in 1492, you could reply: Yes, you're right. That's when he discovered America. There is conflicting research evidence as to whether this kind of feedback is effective, so it's best not to overdo it.
As for written work, once again it is important that feedback is concentrated on the content quality of the answer rather than on its grammatical accuracy. It is discouraging for students who have worked hard to give a good answer to have their work covered in red ink for mistakes that are peripheral to the main purpose of the assignment. There is also the danger that they may get the message that surface accuracy is more important than conveying ideas or showing understanding.
However, written work can generally be corrected without causing the student embarrassment in front of his peers, and you may well wish to draw attention to one or two of the grammatical mistakes that could interfere with understanding. It is also not unreasonable, for example, to expect the verbs in a piece of writing about a historical event to be in the past tense.
Consider asking the student what kind of feedback he or she would like. Some students may welcome the chance to focus on their grammar mistakes with a view to eradicating them in future pieces of written work. Other students, however, will just completely ignore your corrections - and you can save your precious grading time.
In general, it is worth pointing out that errors are a natural part of the language learning process. Students who are made to feel that mistakes should be avoided at all costs are likely to become inhibited and learn less quickly.
Understanding mistakes in written language
The consequences of focusing on grammar at the expense of communication
Students are usually even more sensitive about their pronunciation than their grammar, so be very careful how you deal with such problems. If possible, it is probably better to pretend you have understood rather than ask the student to repeat himself 3 or 4 times or to ask another student what he meant. You could always ask him again in private after the lesson. And help him to the correct pronunciation of important subject-specific vocabulary.
It is very important that you do not allow other students to mock ESL students for their pronunciation or imitate their accents. And of course, you should never be tempted to do so yourself. Even if you are sure that the student in question can take a joke, there may be others of the same nationality in the class who would be offended.
As with grammar, it may on occasion be appropriate to draw attention to spelling mistakes. It is reasonable to expect students to spell correctly the keywords in an assignment.
If for example they are writing a homework about the water cycle, they should be corrected on mistakes in words such as evaporation, condensation etc. It may also be helpful to draw their attention to mistakes in common words that they always get wrong.
But it's not a good idea to overdo it. Covering a piece of science or history writing, for example, with a lot of red corrections may well discourage a student who has in fact given a thoughtful and factually correct answer.
It depends what they're talking about! This is not intended to be a flippant answer. Most teachers will justifiably object to ESL students engaging in a general chat in their own language during lesson time. This excludes the teacher and other students, and switches the students off from the focus of the lesson.
However, there are occasions where it can be quite acceptable for a student to speak his or her own language. Stronger students can quickly explain to less proficient students what the latter have not understood or what they have to do. This frees the teacher from constantly needing to check on the progress of the weaker student, allowing her to devote enough attention to the other students in the class.
It can be distracting to everyone, however, if an ESL student is trying to do a simultaneous translation of what you are saying while you are saying it. It is helpful therefore if the lesson contains a number of natural breaks in which less proficient students can be helped to understand the important points you have made or what they have to do next.
In general, it is worth noting how important it is for students to be able to discuss their work in their own language. This not only helps to develop their understanding of the topic, but also serves to develop their mother tongue proficiency. There is more on the importance of the mother tongue in my advice to parents about what they can do to help their child at home.
There is one more point to make: it can be very useful if you yourself speak the native language of an ESL student in your class. You can then use the language to facilitate or check the student's understanding of a task or explanation. It is good for the student's self-esteem to know that you have learned and value her language.
Within reason. There are times in lessons when it is essential that a student understands a word in order that what comes next makes sense. On such occasions a quick search in the dictionary can be helpful (or alternatively, a compatriot might be able to provide the translation.)
In general, however, students should be discouraged from looking up too many words in class, for two main reasons. Firstly, it does not allow them to develop the essential skill of trying to understand words in context. And secondly, it cuts them off from what you say next.
Learning to use a dictionary accurately and effectively is not an easy skill. And many students take a long time finding a word, especially if they are trying to guess its spelling. They may often fail to locate the correct translation of the hundreds of words that have more than one meaning.
If the prop of using the dictionary is to be discouraged, however, it is essential that the teacher makes an effort to make his spoken language comprehensible. (See the advice on Helping ESL students understand what you say.) It is also useful if the teacher can write key words on the board so that the student can look them up later in the lesson, or at home with the parents' help.
The above advice refers to the use of a dictionary while a teacher is speaking to the class. The situation is a little different if the student is working individually on an assignment, when looking up words will not distract her attention from the teacher.
Once again, however, it is undesirable if it is happening too often. If you see a student overusing her dictionary you might ask her what word she was looking up and try to give her an oral explanation. Or ask another student to do so. Alternatively, a compatriot could help her in her mother tongue.
See my advice to students on the Using a dictionary.
The most important advice is: Make it comprehensible! If you do this, the ESL students will not only learn your subject but English as well. Read more about the theory of comprehensible input on the page The most important advice for mainstream teachers.
Professor Krashen, who developed this theory and who in my opinion has the most coherent and convincing account of language learning, has postulated that language is acquired, both in the language and the mainstream classroom, when the student is motivated by the task, feels low or zero anxiety, and has had his or her self-esteem protected or enhanced.
If such conditions prevail, then there is no filter or barrier preventing the natural acquisition of language. but this assumes that the input is comprehensible, interesting and relevant.
For some ESL students direct eye contact with a teacher is considered disrespectful and could be construed as a challenge to the teacher's authority. This is the reason that Asian students in particular may avoid looking the teacher in the eye, especially when being reprimanded.
Another ESL student behaviour that is sometimes misinterpreted is the brusqueness of their language; for example: "You shut the window!", or "Give me 10 Euros." In most cases this is not rudeness or lack of cooperation but simply a manifestation of their limited English.
It is a luxury of native or proficient speakers of English to express their feelings and requests politely, since politeness is usually conveyed in grammatically complex language: "I'm feeling cold. Would you mind shutting the window?" or "I was wondering if I might possibly be able to borrow 10 Euros."
A very useful way of know how challenging a given task is likely to be for an ESL student is to consult the model proposed by Professor J. Cummins: Assessing task difficulty. This model categorizes tasks according to their cognitive demands and the amount of contextual help that is available to the student.
My advice sheet Helping ESL students understand what they read contains suggestions on how to assess the difficulty that ESL students may have with written texts.
ESL teachers are generally very happy to advise on the likely difficulty of an assignment for any particular student or groups of students.
This is an essential question and there are many answers. For example, take a look at the feedback from ESL students page in response to the question. And check out the list of guidelines for mainstream teachers.
It is vital to ensure that ESL students can make sense of what you say in class. For this reason it is helpful if you are aware of the ways in which you can improve their chances of understanding what they hear.
See the advice Helping ESL students understand what you say for detailed suggestions on this topic. My article Helping ESL students understand what they read may also prove helpful. These two documents emphasize the importance of activating background knowledge before having students read or listen to complex text.
You may also wish to read the answer to the question How do cooperative activities benefit ESL students? elsewhere on this page. Such activities are very important for maximizing the ESL student's chance of hearing and producing language in the class.
You can help further by explicitly teaching the study skills necessary in your subject. If you use a course book, you could show students how it is organized, where to find the glossary, how to make effective use of the table of contents, chapter headings, graphics and captions, etc.
Consider increasing "wait time". ESL students take longer than their peers, both to comprehend the question and to prepare their answer. They generally benefit from a classroom where students are called on to reply to questions rather than allowed to shout out answers.
They also feel more comfortable when lessons follow established routines. For example, they are expected to copy the homework from the board at the start of each lesson; the teacher always briefly previews what they will be doing that lesson; or the teacher spends the last 5 minutes of the lesson with quick-fire review questions on what was taught in that lesson.
You could ask a proficient student for the translation into Japanese or Korean of an important word you have been explaining. This will help a shyer, less proficient ESL student with what she had been struggling to understand. Multilingual teachers can point out cognates or helpful equivalents in the student's mother tongue. Hearing different languages in the classroom sends an important message to all students.
Another way that you can help ESL students is to provide a model of what you are expecting them to do. This is especially useful when the task is to produce an extended piece of writing - but it is also of value when the assignment is a poster or oral presentation.
You could prepare your own "perfect" answer or you could keep pieces of work done on the same assignment by students in other classes or previous years. It is often helpful to discuss poorer pieces of work and have students analyse why these don't meet the requirements.
A final suggestion: You might want to ask the students themselves how you could make it easier for them in your lessons.
Important: ESL students need to have grade-appropriate cognitive challenges. Making things easier for ESL students in the mainstream classroom means making accommodations that help them to do the tasks that the native speakers are expected to do. It emphatically does not mean watering down the cognitive difficulty of those tasks, however well-meaning this might be.
The following graphic illustrates how a task can be made achievable by ESL students without reducing its cognitive demands. Namely, by expressing the task in comprehensible language and by providing appropriate assistance - the column on the left.
This kind of assistance is often called scaffolding.
Assume that you have followed the advice given in the answer to the previous question, and have done what you reasonably can to help ESL students understand the new information, skills and concepts that you have been teaching them. You now want to set a major piece of homework to deepen or assess this understanding. What final steps can you take to optimize your students' chances of doing a good job in this homework?
In response to this question it is helpful for teachers to know the advice given to ESL students who wish to do good homework. Namely to follow the UDS method and ensure that they:
- Understand exactly what they have to do
- Do exactly what they have to do
- Show that they have done exactly what they had to do
Teachers can assist students in heeding this advice by allowing sufficient time during the class or after it for students to ask for elucidation of the task. Of course, it is helpful to students if the task is written on the board, or on a sheet that is given to them.
Students should be encouraged to take notes in their own language as the teacher is explaining what to do. Same-nationality students who have better English can be asked to explain the work to their less proficient peers, using their shared mother tongue.
It is also helpful to show the students the criteria by which the task will be assessed. If you give students model answers or allow them to analyse the shortcomings of less than perfect work (done, for example, by students in the previous year's class), this will help them to understand exactly what they have to do and the form in which it should be done. Students appreciate being told the minimum length requirements, and they certainly need to be clear on due dates.
ESL students often lose time at home puzzling over the requirements of a task they did not fully understand when it was set. ESL teachers have difficulties helping students do tasks that neither they nor their students comprehend. To avoid this wasted time and frustration, mainstream teachers are well-advised to do what they can to ensure that the students know exactly what is expected of them.
Read the UDS advice to students on how to get good grades.
It depends. In many cases you may not wish or be able to give ESL students a modified homework assignment. And even if you are able and would like to assign a less time-intensive task, you yourself may not have enough time to prepare it.
However, it is important to note that ESL students often need to spend two or three times as long to complete a task as it takes the native speakers in the same class. Some students regularly stay up beyond midnight to get all their homework done and rarely have the time to recharge their batteries. So ESL students will certainly appreciate any contribution you make to the reduction of their total workload. There are various ways that you can do this.
Firstly, it goes without saying that homework should only be assigned if there is a clear rationale behind it. But even if the homework fulfils a particular learning purpose, you may find it possible to allow ESL students to skip it on occasion or to postpone it until their workload is less heavy.
Secondly, you may find be able to reduce the scope of the task. For example, by decreasing the word count of a piece of writing, the minimum length of a science presentation, or the number of questions expected to be done in a mathematics homework.
Thirdly, you could replace a long, linguistically-demanding reading homework text with a shorter, less complex one on the same subject. There are various online resources that provide versions of the same content with varying length and linguistic complexity. An example is Newsela.
Finally, you could determine how long it would be likely to take the average native-speaker in your class to complete the assignment and tell the ESL students to work on the assignment for that length of time, then stop. ESL teachers at FIS are very flexible about allowing extra time in ESL lessons for students to complete other subject work that they had no time to finish at home, or to start the work in class and therefore need to spend less time on it later that evening.
If you feel that any given homework assignment is likely to be demanding and thus time-consuming, or if you are not sure if it will be, you are recommended to contact the student's ESL teacher. She will be able to advise on the demands of the task, and will be happy to suggest - and in most cases to prepare - a modified task.
It is clear that ESL students need to spend longer on homework than native-speakers, and may occasionally need to stay up very late to complete it. But it is important that this does not happen regularly. Any excessive time spent doing homework eats into the time when they should be relaxing, pursuing their hobbies, or just reading for pleasure.
Students who are tired and stressed because of homework demands and lack of opportunities to "switch off" will not be fresh and productive in the classroom, and may well become sick.
It is notable how often mainstream teachers comment that the students in the class who generally need the most help, namely the ESL students, are the ones least likely to ask for it. There are various reasons why this is the case.
Firstly, the ESL students may simply not feel that their proficiency in English is good enough for them to ask the right questions or understand the teacher's answers. Furthermore, ESL students may feel embarrassed to show their lack of understanding in front of the rest of the class. Better to say nothing than have the other students think that you are slow or stupid.
ESL students who were proud of their achievements in their previous home-country school may feel it demeaning to now be so reliant on the teacher. They may prefer to keep face rather than expose their helplessness.
It is possible, finally, that some ESL students believe that by asking many questions or frequently asking for help, they somehow convey the the idea that the teacher has not done a good enough job in teaching them.
The advice to the teacher with ESL students in the class is to structure lessons so that there is some time when students are working individually or in small groups. This allows the student to ask questions or for help without being exposed to the attention and possible impatience of the full class. It also allows the teacher to approach students suspected of struggling and discreetly offer help.
Teachers could also make it clear to their ESL students that they are generally available to answer student questions after class or during break and lunch.
For a more detailed analysis of the reasons why Asian students may be reluctant to ask for help, see The Quiet Girls (Greenwood, Cathleen F.. The Quiet Girls. The English Journal 86.6 (1997): 82-86. Web.).
The best way that parents can help at home is to discuss with their child, in their own language, the work in progress. There is more detailed advice on How to help your child learn faster page. You can find links to much more information for parents on the Parents index page. It would be useful to refer parents to these pages when you call them or meet them to talk about their child's progress.
Additionally, you could reinforce the constant message we ESL teachers give students and parents about the importance of extensive reading in English - particularly of non-fiction texts. As Cummins points out:
"If ELL (ESL) students are not reading extensively and understanding what they read, they have little hope of bridging the gap in academic language proficiency between themselves and native speakers of English."Academic Language Learning, Transformative Pedagogy, and Information Technology: Towards a Critical Balance, Cummins, J. (2001) TESOL Quarterly, Vol 34, No. 3
The best thing to do first is to discuss the issue with the ESL teacher. It may well be that the student is still adjusting to the increased demands of learning subject content at the same time as learning English. In such a case, time, patience and support will be enough to solve matters.
If the problem persists, then further action could involve discussions with the counselor and the parents. At any event, it is recommended that the ESL teacher and the counselor be contacted before suggesting to the parents that private tuition is necessary.
In general, however, it is worth considering if the instructional practices can be further optimised to meet the needs of the ESL students in the class. This site is full of suggestions on how to do this. Two examples:
Helping ESL students understand written texts
Helping ESL students understand what you say
If a student does poorly in one of your tests, it is helpful to analyse with her the possible reasons. These could be any of the following (or a combination of them):
- She never did (or understood) the work in the first place
- She did and understood the work, but she didn't study for the test
- She understood the work and studied for the test, but she didn't understand the question(s)
- She understood the questions, but didn't know how to answer
- She understood the questions and knew how to answer in her native language, but couldn't answer in English
- She (thought she) knew how to answer in English but she didn't give the right answer or she didn't give the full answer
- She didn't check her work carefully before turning in the test paper
Obviously, a child who doesn't work hard through the term, or who lacks good test-preparation and test-taking strategies, will struggle to do well in tests. These issues should be addressed by the teacher. The other reasons listed above, however, are more to do with language ability. In such cases, you may wish to adopt a flexible response in order to help the ESL student show what she has learned and understood.
For example, you may wish to prepare an ESL version of the test. Alternatively, you could make sure you are on hand during the test to explain what the questions mean. Or you could allow the student to write part of an answer in her own language and then explain it to you or have it translated after the test.
ESL students usually need more time than their native-speaking peers to complete the test. It takes the pressure off them a little if they know they will have the chance to continue into break or finish off in the ESL lesson.
Of course, it is very important that the language of the test questions and tasks is unambiguous, so the student can quickly understand what she has to do. See my advice on preparing ESL-friendly tests and worksheets.
Plagiarism is quite common among ESL students and can have many causes. These are covered in ESL students and plagiarism. That page also suggests what can be done to help students avoid plagiarism.
If the problem persists or if the plagiarism is severe, you are recommended to contact the child's ESL teacher.
It is helpful if you know a little about the ESL students' backgrounds and interests, since this will enable you to make connections to their personal lives. At the ESL placement interview the ESL teacher records such information, which is available on request to the student's teachers.
In general, little things can be important, such as spelling the student's name correctly and learning how to pronounce it with some accuracy. It is also helpful in class to seat ESL students with native-speakers who are sympathetic and encouraging.
You can devise group activities in which the ESL student's contribution is essential to the successful completion of the task. This is explained in more detail in the next section, which deals with cooperative activities.
It is also useful if the culture and history of the student can be incorporated into lessons. It is important that students feel teachers respect their cultures as much as the dominant cultures of the school.
Cummins (1996) has an excellent explanation of the importance of integrating ESL students' cultures and background experiences into your lessons, thereby validating their personalities and identities:
".. when students' language, culture and experience are ignored or excluded in classroom interactions, students are immediately starting from a disadvantage. Everything they have learned about life and the world up to this point is dismissed as irrelevant to school learning; there are few points of connection to curriculum materials or instruction and so the students are expected to learn in an experiential vacuum. Students' silence and non-participation under these conditions have frequently been interpreted as lack of academic ability or effort, and teachers' interactions with students have reflected a pattern of low expectations which have become self-fulfilling."
Cummins J (1996) Negotiating Identities: Education for Empowerment in a Diverse Society Ontario CA California Association for Bilingual Education
Following are two simple examples of including the non-native speaker's culture and previous educational experience:
- In the mainstream English class where Romeo and Juliet is being studied, the teacher could ask students if there are similarly celebrated stories of thwarted love in the literatures of their cultures.
- In mathematics class the teacher could ask non-native speakers how they have learned to do a particular operation, e.g. the division of one fraction by another.
Read more about curricular issues - written for administrators.
An excellent way of integrating ESL students into your class is via cooperative activities. Researchers have found that language learning takes place most effectively when learners are engaged in interesting tasks that allow plenty of meaningful interaction with sympathetic native speakers.
However, it is not enough to just put the ESL student with 2 or 3 others and hope for the best. If this happens, there is a danger that the ESL student will take on a peripheral role - or have it forced on her. Therefore, it is most beneficial if the group activity is so structured that the outcome is dependent on the contributions of ALL the group members.
As an example, consider the topic of pollution. First each member of each group chooses or is allocated a sub-topic. Those having the same sub-topic, say river pollution, meet together to discuss and research that sub-topic. The students then return to their original groups where they report on what they learned in the sub-topic groups. Group members then discuss how to include this information in their final report or presentation.
Using this method, the contribution of each group member is critical to the final outcome. To provide extra support to ESL students, you could arrange it so that they are given an easier sub-topic or task, or that the sub-topic group they are a member of contains a same nationality peer.
In summary, it can be said that pair or group work is important for ESL students because it gives them the chance to express their ideas and opinions or ask questions (of the teacher or other group members) on a smaller 'stage' than in front of the whole class. It also gives the teacher a much better chance to offer individual and unobtrusive help.
There is a more extensive discussion in the following article, which also contains a wealth of other useful information: Strategies for Involving LEP Students in the Mainstream Classroom.
Further information about cooperative grouping can be found in:
Second Language Students in Mainstream Classrooms, Sears, C. (1998) Multilingual Matters.
Wikipedia has an entry on every country in the world. The pages contain comprehensive information on sub-topics such as history, demographics, politics and culture.
Similar information is available from CultureGrams.
Dr. Else Hamayan has devised an interesting graphic that makes it clear there is more to cultural differences than the obvious elements of music, food and dress.
It is rarely productive to try and cajole a reluctant beginner into answering questions in class. There is a well-attested silent period* that some ESL students go through in which they are not prepared to volunteer any spoken information.
In most cases however these students are learning and will emerge from their silent cocoon some time later with a surprising ability to express themselves orally.
Here is what Professor Krashen has to say about the silent period:
"Very typically, children in a new country, faced with a new language, are silent for a long period of time, their output being limited to a set number of memorized phrases and sentences that they hear frequently and whose meaning they do not understand completely. [...] The child, during this time, is simply building up competence by listening, via comprehensible input. His first words in the second language are not the beginning of his second-language acquisition; rather, they are the result of the comprehensible input he has received over the previous months."
Krashen states further that:
"...adults are not usually allowed a silent period in language classes, a condition that makes many language students very anxious about foreign-language study."Krashen, S. 1985 The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications (Longman)
The issue is more complicated for silent students who are in their second or subsequent years at the school. They may in fact desire the opportunity to participate orally, but do not yet have the language processing skills to quickly understand the question and formulate their answer in English. They are disadvantaged therefore in classes with rapid teacher-student interchanges, particularly where the students are not called on but allowed to respond at will.
If teachers allow sufficient processing time, then ESL students may feel comfortable in raising their hand to answer. If they still remain silent, it may be reasonable for the teacher to call on the student directly - particularly if it is a closed question with a short answer†. But in general this should be done only if it is believed that the student will have a correct answer, and not if he is generally shy or lacking in confidence.
So, there is not one rule that fits all students. Shy students will feel very stressed in class if they believe that the teacher may call on them at any time. Conversely, some students may feel the teacher has no confidence in them if they are never called on.
A final point: if the course includes opportunities for cooperative activities then the student will be able to communicate orally in a setting much less threatening than in front of the whole class. See my answer to How do cooperative activities benefit ESL students? above.
* Teachers wishing to review the research on the issue of silent students are recommended to read the following article: Privileging of Speech in EAP and Mainstream University Classrooms: A Critical Evaluation of Participation Ellwood, C. and Nakane, I. TESOL Quarterly 43/2 2009
You will find detailed advice and recommendations on Assessing ESL students in the subject classroom elsewhere on this site. But in short, both formative and summative assessments will often need modifying in order to make them fair and reliable ways for ESL students to demonstrate knowledge and skills in your subject.
Other accommodations, such as allowing extra time to complete the assessment, may be necessary. Students whose English proficiency is as yet limited may need different assessments altogether than the rest of the class.
ESL teachers can advise on the language demands of a given task, and suggest modifications and accommodations to make it a fairer and more accessible way for ESL students to demonstrate content knowledge and skills.
You are recommended to read the advice on Preparing ESL-friendly tests and worksheets.
This is a complex issue, and closely related to the previous question about assessment. In general, students who have reached a certain level of English proficiency should be assessed and graded according to the same criteria as the other students in the class.
This may mean that for some students their grades are relatively low at first. But nevertheless it is important that ESL students, together with their parents and their ESL teacher get accurate feedback on the standards they are reaching in their mainstream classes.
Such a grading policy also helps the ESL teacher to determine if the student is in need of further ESL support in the following school year. Artificially inflated grades make it difficult to recommend to parents or counselors that the student is not yet ready to join the full mainstream.
Within the above guidelines, however, it is still possible to treat ESL students in a way that is appropriate to their particular status and needs. Sympathetic is a useful term to describe this special treatment of ESL students in terms of grading and assessment. It means for example that students are given credit for demonstrating understanding even if their ability to express their understanding in clear and accurate English is limited.
It means that they are not graded down for grammar and spelling mistakes (unless these are an integral and clearly stated part of the assignment). It means further that students have the chance to give an oral explanation of answers that they were not able to write down very clearly. It also means that they may be allowed the chance to redo homework or retake tests and given extra time to do so.
It need not, since many of the strategies which are good for ESL students are good for the others, too. This is a situation where the internal grouping of students takes on greater importance.
It is generally desirable if ESL students can be paired or grouped with English native speakers. But beginners should also have the chance to be helped by more proficient native-language peers. This presupposes flexible grouping within single lessons and across a series of lessons.
Basically, the advice is to teach to the needs of native speakers in the class, so that the cognitive demand on students is not compromised*. The essential proviso here is that what you say to the students and what you ask them to read is comprehensible.
Note: A similar question is often asked by parents. You can read my answer on the Parents questions about helping language learners page: There are many other students of my child's nationality in her classes. Will this stop her learning English quickly?)
* There is an interesting discussion of the dangers of reducing the cognitive load in the classroom in Vol. 47/1 of the English Language Teaching (ELT) Journal. (Embarrassment and hygiene in the classroom Mackay, R.)
Much of the work that is set in the mainstream (whether to do in class or at home) takes the ESL students much longer to accomplish than it does the native-English speakers. Of course, mainstream teachers are aware of this and may adapt the tasks that the ESL students are set. This concern for ESL students is admirable, but it carries with it two dangers.
The first danger is that the cognitive demands of the task may be reduced, or that the task may be replaced by a different, simpler task. ESL students can certainly be helped by making the language of tasks easier to understand. But they have the same cognitive abilities as the other students and should be required to use these abilities in the completion of the same assignments.
The second danger is that the teacher may end up spending so long on regular adaptation of materials for ESL students that he does not have the time or energy to devote to preparing engaging and instructive lessons for the class as a whole.
There is a solution to the dilemma of ensuring that ESL students are cognitively challenged but do not end up working much longer on an assignment than a native-speaker. Namely, to reduce the amount of work they have to do. For example, instead of requiring them to do 20 word problems in mathematics unit, permit them to do 12.
Consider a mainstream English assignment as a further example - a book review. Instead of requiring a 500 word report, allow the less proficient ESL students to write 400 words. Do not, on the other hand, permit them to write only about plot, since this reduces the cognitive challenge of the task. They should write about the theme or mood, for example, as required of the other students.
The ESL department is always happy to advise on the modification of materials to make them linguistically more accessible to ESL students.
Note: This answer is based on how non-native English speakers are 'placement tested' at one particular international school. Procedures are likely to be similar in most schools which have an ESL program.
The decision about the initial placement of a student is made after the student has been interviewed by an ESL teacher, who assesses the linguistic competence of the student in the major language skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. (The reading test generally consists of a short story taken from the appropriate grade level literature anthology.)
The student's educational and language background is also taken into account. In cases where a student falls between two ESL levels, the wishes of the parents and/or the student are taken into account.
See the next question for information about the subsequent placement of an ESL student.
Note: This answer is based on procedures at one particular international school. These procedures are likely to be similar in most schools which have an ESL program.
Placement changes (i.e. moving up an ESL level or exiting from the ESL program) can take place at any time, although they are generally not considered desirable in the last two months of the school year.
A majority of changes take place between one school year and the next. The placement decision does not only depend on the child's linguistic proficiency, as measured against ESL course objectives. It also depends on such factors as the child's nationality, motivation and ability to work independently.
An essential part of the decision-making process is the continuing discussion with the child's subject teachers about her progress in those subjects, including the degree and quality of her participation in class activities, her results in tests, the quality of her homework, etc.
In making placement decisions, the child's longer-term academic plans are often also taken into consideration after discussions with the parents.
Here is a short video for parents on the question Will my child continue in ESL in the new school year?.
Some of the indicators of a learning disability that are exhibited by an English native speaker are also shown by ESL students in the first stage of their English language development. These indicators include difficulty in following oral instructions, poor eye tracking when reading, inconsistent spelling, limited attention span, avoidance of eye contact, etc.
The crucial difference is that the problems experienced by native speaker with learning problems are for the most part permanent, whereas ESL students display such behaviours for a temporary period only.
There are significant variations in the duration of this temporary period for ESL students. It is important, therefore, that mainstream teachers are aware that an ESL student who has no problems in his own language may continue for a long initial period to exhibit some of the behaviours that typify native language learning difficulties. Such students should not be prematurely labelled as having a learning problem when in fact they simply have a temporary language or acculturation problem.
Nevertheless, every so often there will be an ESL student who doesn't make the progress expected of her, even allowing for the large variations in the speed at which English language proficiency develops. In most cases such a student will have been identified by an ESL teacher. And the 'learning-disabled specialist' will have been contacted in order to undertake a joint diagnosis. This diagnosis will usually include testing in the child's mother tongue.
If the child does indeed turn out to have learning problems, then some kind of additional support is offered.
If you suspect that an ESL student's difficulties in your class are the result of more than a simple lack of English language proficiency, please collect evidence and contact the child's ESL teacher. It is helpful for the ESL teacher to know, specifically, the types of task that cause the student problems and the kinds of atypical behaviour that the student exhibits.
The ESL program manual of the US Department of Defence contains excellent, detailed information and advice on how to diagnose and respond to the learning disabilities of ESL students.
For a further detailed discussion of the issue, refer to the following article:
Special Education Needs of Second Language Learners Cloud, Nancy. (1994). In F. Genesee (Ed), Educating Second Language Children (pp.243-277). New York: Cambridge University Press.
The topic is given comprehensive coverage in this more recent work by E. Hamayan: Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners: Delivering a Continuum of Services. (Caslon, 2007).
There may be various informal occasions in the school year when you have contact with ESL parents, for example during Open House. In particular, you will communicate with them on the phone, by email or during parent conferences to discuss their child's progress.
In all of the dealings with parents, it is important to modulate your language in such a way that it can be more easily understood by parents whose English is not so strong. This means that you may have to repeat or rephrase the important parts of your message.
You should also try to avoid most of the idioms and colloquialisms that are typical of natural everyday language between native speakers. Telling a parent that her daughter cottons on very quickly or that she needs to pull her socks up is likely to confuse.
You should be aware too that much of the school jargon that we use without thinking about it will be inaccessible to ESL parents. For example, it is unrealistic to expect them to know what you mean when you talk about authentic assessment or the Learning Center. Even words like homeroom
You also need to be careful with euphemisms. While they may be appropriate and expected by native-English speaking parents, your message may not be understood by ESL parents. To tell a Korean mother that her son does not take full advantage of the learning opportunities offered to him will probably not communicate effectively what you are trying to telling her. It is often better to say gently something like: Your son is a little bit lazy in lessons, and then give specific examples of how he could participate more.
You need be sensitive, however, since some parents may regard the difficulties their child is having as reflecting poorly on themselves and their family as a whole.
You should also know that many ESL parents will feel very uncomfortable if they think that other parents or students can hear what you are saying about their child. For this reason, you are strongly recommended to close the door of the room in which you are having the meeting or conference with the parents.
In general it is important that parents are not left feeling frustrated, confused or embarrassed after meeting with you. Making ESL parents feel valued and welcomed in the school and involving them in the education of their child is an essential aspect of helping the child to fulfil his or her potential.
You may wish to read Helping ESL students understand written texts and Helping ESL students understand what you say. The information and advice in these pages applies to communication with ESL parents too.
Note: This answer references non-English speaking students joining an international school in Germany. Their experiences are probably shared to a greater or lesser extent by all students joining a new school with limited proficiency in the language of instruction.
Some ESL students joining the school suffer from physical, emotional or behavioural complaints that are caused by culture shock. The shock can be caused by difficulties in adjusting to Germany and German culture. It is more likely however to be the result of trying to cope with the demands of a different school system from the one they are used to. This is exacerbated by the strain of learning in a language other than the mother tongue
The effects of culture shock - or school shock, to be more precise - are described in some detail in my article to parents elsewhere on this site. My intention here is to make mainstream teachers aware of some of the teaching practices at the school that may be unfamiliar and stressful to ESL students.
Of course it is not suggested that colleagues change their teaching methodologies to avoid all possibility of discomfiting ESL students. But an awareness of the points below will often be sufficient to prevent teachers drawing the wrong conclusions about the behaviour and attitude of the ESL students in their classes.
It can help to alleviate stress if ESL students feel that the teacher is knowledgeable about and sympathetic to their difficulties. Teachers can also help adjustment to the new culture by reinforcing the student's pride in his own culture. (See the question above about integrating new ESL students into your lessons.)
Possible sources of school shock
- Students may be used to acquiring a large number of facts by rote; and unused to discovery learning, analysis or critical thinking as practised at the new school.
- Students may feel threatened by the amount of participation expected of them in class, preferring to remain silent for fear of showing off or losing face by giving the wrong answer. They may also perceive a wrong answer as causing the teacher to lose face and, for the same reason, feel uncomfortable with the idea of asking questions or for help.
- Students may not wish to share opinions or beliefs, regarding them as private.
- Students may be severely embarrassed if reprimanded or excessively praised in front of others.
- Students may be unused to mixed classes or being taught by teachers of the opposite sex.
- Students may find it difficult to come to terms with the open and friendly relations between teachers and students. They may be uncomfortable with the amount of noise in the classroom.
- Students may be uncomfortable with some expectations regarding teacher-student behaviour (e.g. looking the teacher in the eye when being spoken to).
- Students may be from a very competitive school system and unused to working co-operatively with other students.
- Conversely, they may come from an educational background in which grades do not have the importance to students, parents and teachers that they do at our school.
- Students may believe that having fun in the classroom is incompatible with learning.
- Students may feel uncomfortable at being involved in deciding on learning goals and how they are to be assessed, considering it to be the teacher's job.
Of course not all ESL students come from countries whose educational culture is different in the ways listed above. And most of those who do will not experience more than a temporary discomfort on joining the school.
What is common to all ESL students, however, and probably the main cause of school shock, is the huge mental effort required to work for more than 8 hours a day learning new content in a foreign language.
For this reason it is clear that students will benefit directly from any efforts by teachers to make the classroom language and homework tasks as comprehensible as possible. Ways to do this are described in the following articles:
Many ESL students are very motivated to learn English as quickly as possible. They spend a lot of extra time at home doing language work of one type or another, and often their parents pay for private tuition. Unfortunately, in more than a few cases, this time and money could be better spent.
The single best thing that students can do at home to improve their English is to read extensively in the language. It is the best thing because it allows students to engage in an activity that most enjoy - particularly if they are able to choose their own reading material. And it is the best thing because it has been shown* that extensive reading not only improves students' reading skills, as is to be expected. But it also has a marked effect on other aspects of their language too, in particular on their writing ability.
There is also plenty of research evidence to show that learners of English who simultaneously maintain and develop their proficiency in the mother tongue do better in school. For this reason parents can be advised on the benefits of their child reading good literature or non-fiction in their native language too.
So if you are asked the question above, please advise students and parents on the considerable benefits of reading in both languages. At the same time, however, it would be good to suggest that they contact the ESL teacher for more specific advice on the kinds and levels of reading in English that the child should be doing, because this will play a significant part in the success of any such program.
* See: Extensive reading and the development of language skills, Hafiz, F. & Tudor, I. (1989) in ELT Journal 43/1
Note: This answer is based on ESL lessons at one particular international school. It is likely that ESL programs in other schools will be similar.
ESL teachers have two major concerns: one immediate and daily, and the other long-term. The immediate concern is to help students do assignments that will satisfy them and their subject teachers. The long-term concern is to help the students learn enough English that they can function successfully in the mainstream without ESL support.
The amount of time that is devoted to each of these concerns depends on the particular group of students and the time of year. So, for example, more time is spent on other subject work with beginning students than with more advanced students. Students generally become more independent as the year progresses, so more time is devoted to general language and skills development towards the end of the year than at the beginning.
Beginning ESL students tend to 'lose their voice' when they enter the mainstream classroom in the first few months at the new school. They may believe themselves to be or even be made to feel stupid. For this reason we incorporate into our teaching activities that allow students to demonstrate their intelligence, their imagination and creativity, their linguistic knowledge (of their own language) and their personality.
Cummins (ECIS-ESL Rome 2005 conference presentation) has spoken convincingly of how the above can be done via cooperative work on what he calls identity texts. There are examples of identity texts in the Dual Language Showcase.
Note: This email question comes from a teacher who was concerned about an activity in which young non-native speakers were asked to point out the grammar mistakes in sentences written on the board. She was concerned because she thought that incorrect language might reinforce errors that are already in the students' heads.
My reply: Certainly, there was a time that foreign language teachers held strongly to the view that learners should avoid hearing and reading incorrect English and at all costs avoid speaking incorrect English. This approach is most closely associated with language teaching methods such as the Direct and Audiolingual methods.
However, many linguists now claim that it is desirable to focus on grammar. Their research findings and recommendations are summarized in Focus on Form/Focus on FormS.
For these linguists it is perfectly acceptable to ask students to identify and correct the errors in a piece of text and suggest a corrected version. I personally regard this as helpful training in getting students to recognize the errors in their own writing.
In the page Information about the grammar advice and quizzes you can read my views on the explicit teaching and learning of grammar. The page also contains a reference to an article summarizing research that found that learners like to do grammar exercises in complementary pairs. For example, recognizing whether the use of the present simple in a sentence is correct or whether the present continuous should be used. This is a kind of grammar exercise using error recognition such as you may be describing.
However, it's difficult for me to say whether the practice is helping the students in your school. For a start they are young. They have not mastered their own mother-tongue to a sufficient extent to be as generally language aware as middle or high school students.
Secondly, it would depend on the kind of mistakes that the teacher is exemplifying. Obviously, if the mistakes are those which would challenge the native-English speakers, they will probably be beyond the grasp of English learners.
And thirdly, it would depend on the kind of discussion that follows the identification of the mistakes. This may also be beyond the comprehension of the ESL learners.
I am sorry I can't offer more specific advice. I myself have not taught below grade 6 level and am reluctant to be too dogmatic about situations that I'm not familiar with.
Note: This question comes from a teacher at a different school asking about the minimum standards of English required of students admitted to Frankfurt International School. The answer is based on the current situation (2012) at FIS. However, the situation is likely to be similar at other international schools.
My reply: As far as our program is concerned, we accept complete beginners through to the end of grade 8. Thereafter, they are supposed to have at least rudimentary English, but in practice the school is unlikely to turn anyone away. What is more likely is that the student will be advised to do a 3-month intensive English course at a language institute before joining.
The matter is complicated for students joining in grade 9 or above with low proficiency but wishing to do the International Baccalaureate (IB). Some such students quickly reach a level of English that allows them to compete on equal terms with native speakers. But others of course achieve lower scores than they are capable of simply because they don't have time to learn the necessary language.
There is no easy answer to this other than to be honest about the situation with the students and parents. They need to be aware of the very demanding task the student will be facing.
In such cases, parents need to offer various kinds of support to their child. One thing they can do for example is to ask the child to explain, in the mother tongue, what they have learned that day in their biology or history class, for example.
Fluency and accuracy in the spoken language can be regarded as relatively the least important of the various proficiencies that an ESL student needs in order to achieve academic success. We have had many students over the years who have gained good grades in their classes and in formal exams while still being a long way from native speaker levels of oral fluency.
An obvious reason why speaking is not such a significant skill is that in most non-language subjects students are generally tested and graded on written not spoken answers.
In fact, it is much more important that students are effective listeners since that is what they do for a majority of lesson time. It is also essential that they can read and write well. Furthermore, in many ways the first prerequisite for academic success is a large English vocabulary - particularly academic vocabulary.
Study after study has shown the very strong correlation between reading ability and academic success. And there is an equally impressive number of studies showing the strong correlation between vocabulary size and reading ability.
In summary: If you can speak English fluently but not read with good comprehension, you will probably not achieve academical success. Conversely, a lack of oral fluency will not prevent you from being successful if you have a strong academic vocabulary and can hence read and write well.
Note: This is a summary of my answer to a participant in an ESL training workshop who asked a similar question.
Consider firstly the totality of an Upper School student's academic work, including the time spent in class and the time at home doing homework assignments. Consider secondly the major modes of academic learning: speaking, listening, reading, writing.
It is impossible to give any precise breakdown, but I would predict that students spend much more of their academic learning time listening, reading and writing than they do speaking. Certainly, the most important ways of gaining knowledge are through reading and listening; and the ultimate method of demonstrating knowledge and understanding (and hence achieving academic success) is through writing.
On this basis developing the oral abilities of the ESL students is of lesser importance in achieving the goal of passing exams than helping them to be better listeners and to read and write well. This accounts for the relative lack of emphasis on speaking in these ESL workshops.
Nevertheless, many of the workshop sessions contain advice that, if followed, will increase the opportunities for ESL students to speak in the mainstream class, and to feel comfortable doing so.
For example, ESL students are encouraged to participate orally in class if they are given enough time to process the teacher's question and formulate an answer. Lessons that are interesting and incorporate aspects of the personal or cultural backgrounds of the ESL students are more likely to promote a willingness to participate.
Another important factor is a non-threatening classroom atmosphere where the teacher is tolerant of the hesitancy of ESL student answers and of grammar/pronunciation mistakes. Collaborative groups in particular are an excellent means of allowing ESL students to talk in a less threatening environment than in front of the whole class.
Mainstream teachers who want to maximise their ESL students' chances of improving their conversational English can encourage them to join a lunch or after-school club where they are mixing with native speakers in an activity that is interesting and enjoyable to them.
An excellent example would be to join a drama production. As far as academic spoken English is concerned, teachers could tell the student that he or she will be asked a specific question in the next day's class, thus allowing the student time to prepare and, if necessary, practise the answer.
It is helpful also if mainstream teachers are aware of the advice given to ESL students advice given to ESL students about what they can do to develop their oral proficiency.
In summary: Of course speaking is important and of course students learn to improve their speaking competence in their ESL classes. However speaking is probably the least important skill in achieving academic success (which generally means passing written examinations) in non-language subjects. Hence it has not been given too much emphasis in these workshops.
Clearly, it is important that ESL students be helped to understand a majority of what they hear and read in the classroom. But the amount of time that should be devoted to this is not easily quantifiable.
Basically, mainstream teachers should neither water down the cognitive demands of the tasks they expect their ESL students to do, nor slow down in order to make sure every ESL student is 'on board'. If they do this they risk not covering the syllabus.
Nevertheless, there are various ways that teachers can make their lessons comprehensible to the ESL students without compromising the planned learning outcomes of the lesson for all students.
The suggestions made elsewhere on this site (linked to below) can be followed in good conscience by mainstream teachers because they are, for the most part, beneficial to native-speakers too. And they neither reduce cognitive demands nor brake syllabus delivery.
ESL students whose English is not yet strong enough to benefit even from these accommodations can be helped in the mainstream class and in ESL class by an ESL teacher.
Helping ESL students understand written texts
Helping ESL students understand what you say
Most teachers like to include jokes and anecdotes in their lessons. They help build rapport with the students and make lessons more enjoyable. But jokes, especially language jokes such as puns, are often incomprehensible to ESL students as they lack the necessary linguistic or cultural knowledge. So a constant stream of jokes, at which the rest of the class are laughing, is likely to have an exclusionary effect on ESL students. And this is a problem.
The advice is not to dispense with jokes altogether, but to mitigate the exclusionary effect by taking the trouble to explain, or by having other students explain, the meanings of one or two of the jokes you tell. This will make the ESL students feel included, and in a small way will contribute to the development of their linguistic and cultural knowledge.
Note: This question was from a teacher whose previous school did not have an ESL program.
At Frankfurt International School English is the language of instruction for every student in every lesson. So students at our school are exposed to English all day. They hear it and read it; and they must also speak it and write it.
In such situations a large amount of English grammar and vocabulary can be acquired naturally in regular classes such as science or drama, without any explicit language teaching.
However, students joining the school with little English proficiency would typically have a very hard time in classes such as science and geography without help from an ESL specialist in an ESL class. The students do not yet have enough English to be able to learn English efficiently and enjoyably simply through exposure to it (even if the subject teacher takes considerable pains to make her teaching comprehensible). Nor will the students learn the subject content and skills at the same rate as their native-speaking peers.
Note: Such situations where students are fully immersed in the mainstream program without special English support are often referred to as sink or swim.
So, a good ESL programme helps students learn English and keep up with the work in the other subjects. But it is not only ESL students that benefit from such a programme. Their mainstream teachers, parents and the other students in their classes benefit indirectly too.
Here you can read about this in detail: Academic success for non-native English speakers in English-medium international schools: The role of the Secondary ESL department.
Note: This question was asked at an ESL training workshop for mainstream teachers. A participant commented that she did not have the time to submit all the work she sets to intense scrutiny for its 'ESL-friendliness'.
No teacher should feel inadequate for failing to scrutinize all assignments in the way that has been practised in this workshop. However, it is reasonable to expect careful scrutiny of 'high-stakes' homework or tests. It is important that ESL students have a fair chance to show what they know and are not impeded in this by the unnecessary incomprehensibility of the texts they have to read.
The student's ESL teacher will be happy, as part of the department's support services, to review the linguistic demands of mainstream worksheets or tests, and to suggest modifications that make the tasks more ESL-friendly.
Teachers might also wish to give students sufficient time in class to read through homework worksheets so that they can ask if there is something they don't understand.
You may fail to understand a student's statement or question for four main reasons:
- the grammar is incorrect
- the wrong words have been used
- words have been wrongly pronounced
- the intonation is non-standard.
If you can identify the cause of your incomprehension as 1-2 above, you could pinpoint the problem to the student and ask for clarification. In the case of problems 3-4 you could ask for a repetition of what the student said.
Of course, this may not work and at some point requests for clarification or repetition may become embarrassing. This embarrassment need not be overwhelming, however, if you show an encouraging attitude to the student and convey to her that mistakes in grammar and pronunciation, etc. are a normal part of the language learning process.
Here are three strategies that you might wish to employ if you still don't understand after the student has repeated what he said:
- make an educated guess at he probably means, and respond accordingly
- ask a native-speaking peer with better English to interpret - it's a good idea to make sure that both students concerned are happy for this to happen
- ask the student to see you after the lesson when you have more time to help him express himself clearly.
It's worth repeating that students should not be made to feel embarrassed about not being understood. It happens to everyone who is communicating in their own language too.
Note: This is a summary of my answer to a participant in an ESL training workshop who asked a question about displays of cultural variety in the school, as expressed inter alia through assemblies, dances and cabinets of artefacts.
At first glance it would seem an excellent idea to have periodic assembly performances involving the non-majority cultures of the school. For example, Indian students could demonstrate Indian Classical Dance. And the display cabinet could be full of Japanese prints or kimonos, followed a few weeks later by Greek musical instrumets and photographs of Ancient Greek monuments.
However, presentations of this kind run the risk of 'exoticizing' the cultures in question. They can be exclusive rather than inclusive practices if they are seen simply as a short-lived chance for the majority cultures at the school (i.e American/German) to engage with the surface aspects Surface aspects include the proverbial 'food, festivals, and famous people'. of the cultures of minority groups in the school (Japanese/Korean/Swedish, etc.). After all, the display cabinet is never populated with cowboy hats and pictures of Hollywood film stars as representative of American culture.
In my opinion, it is better if the goal of a truly multi-cultural school is achieved first and foremost through the curriculum and the daily learning experiences of the students in the classroom.
Read more about the multicultural curriculum.
There are more questions and answers on this topic in the page for parents.
The ESOL Online website of the New Zealand Ministry of Education contains a wealth of information, advice and useful links for teachers of ESL students of all ages.
The article What teachers need to know about language contains the minimal knowledge all teachers should have about the nature of English - especially in academic contexts.