Insights from conferences and workshops

This page contains information and advice for mainstream teachers based on insights from various online courses, professional development days, workshops or conferences.


This long page contains my accounts of various professional development days, workshops or conferences. The purpose is to focus on those parts of the presentations that have relevance to the teaching and assessing of ESL students in mainstream subject classes.

The information and advice was written for teachers at Frankfurt International School (FIS). But much of it will be useful to all teachers with ESL students in their classes.

Most of the insights overlap with the information and advice given elsewhere on this site. This accounts for the numerous links to the relevant pages.

Online courses

The Coursera MOOC has various courses for mainstream teachers with English language learners in their classes.

Click to go to this site's Coursera index page containing links to key points of two Coursera courses:

Brain-based teaching

Brain-based teaching was the focus of a professional development workshop at FIS presented by Dr. R. Greenleaf.

Following are several quotes from Dr. Greenleaf's presentation. Each quote is following by my explanation of its relevance to the teaching of ESL students.

Go to Dr Greenleaf's website.

"The cognitive learning system can be overrun by the stress response system."

Greenleaf means that students who are stressed for any reason are not likely to learn.

The following extract from 'Questions and answers about teaching ESL students' gives examples of some of the causes of stress for ESL students, and what teachers can do to alleviate it.
Source: What do I need to know about ESL students and culture shock?

Some ESL students at FIS 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 very different school system from the one they have left behind. The effects of culture shock - or to be more precise, school shock - 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 FIS that may be unfamiliar and stressful to ESL students. Of course it is not suggested that colleagues change their teaching philosophy 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. [More on this]

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 FIS.
  • 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 feel for the same reason 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 embarrassed if 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)
  • Some students are from a very competitive educational system. They may be unused to working co-operatively with other students.
  • 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 education systems that follow the practices implied above, and most of those who do will not experience more than a temporary discomfort at the differences in our school. What is common to all ESL students, however, and what is 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:


"No meaning. No memory. Period."

Greenleaf stresses the importance of content and tasks that students find meaningful. Without meaning nothing will be stored in memory.

The following extract explores the problems for ESL students if their cultures and background knowledge are ignored in school.
Source: What is the best way to integrate new ESL students into my lessons?

It is useful if the culture and history of the student can be incorporated into lessons. [More] It is important that students feel teachers respect their cultures as much as the dominant cultures of the school. (The ESL department has a very useful set of materials of the different countries of the world, called Culturegrams. There is also another set in the school library.)

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

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.


"Working together in small groups can integrate the 5 natural learning systems."

The following extract explores the special benefits for ESL students of working in cooperative groups.
Source: How do cooperative activities benefit ESL students?

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 go to 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 more information on cooperative grouping in: Second Language Students in Mainstream Classrooms, Sears, C. (1998) Multilingual Matters. And on this site at: Cooperative learning.]


"The reflective learning system weighs past, present and future projections."

Greenleaf recommends connecting lessons to the ones that precede them and the ones to follow them.

The following extract is a presentation slide from the ESL training workshop for mainstream teachers. It lists reviewing/previewing at the start and end of the lesson as one of the most important ways to help ESL students in the classroom.

Classroom practices conducive to ESL student learning

  • have predictable routines (e.g. review / preview of lesson content)
  • allow wait time
  • disallow shouting out of answers
  • repeat or rephrase student questions and answers
  • write answers / homework on the board
  • have key words on the board at the start of the lesson
  • allow sufficient time to copy from board
  • include opportunities for one-on-one with ESL students
  • provide model answers
  • explicitly teach the organization of the text book
  • provide step-by-step checklists or time lines for longer term projects
  • fill the classroom with posters and key word lists
  • be available after lessons to help ESL students
  • convey to ESL students that their presence in the class is valued
  • assign ESL students a buddy - a patient and sympathetic peer
  • do not allow other students to show impatience with or make fun of ESL students
  • convey positive but realistic expectations


The barn here is the brain. This stresses the importance of activating background knowledge.

"It is important to start with what is going on in the barn. / Students need a context for the building of meaning."

The following extract is a presentation slide from the ESL training workshop for mainstream teachers. It deals specifically with what teachers can do to help students understand difficult texts. The advice about activating existing knowledge is crucial; it is repeated in many other workshop presentation slides and throughout the pages of advice and information for mainstream teachers.

What can teachers do to help ESL students understand what they read?

  • State reading purpose
  • Activate background knowledge
  • Encourage own-language reading/discussion
  • Preteach key vocabulary
  • Outline textbook organization
  • Emphasize the importance of presentational features
  • Encourage students to get help
  • Teach subject-specific genres
  • Raise awareness of internet pitfalls
  • Get ESL advice and support
  • Practice reading strategies


"Allow 3-5 seconds of uninterrupted silence after a prompt to allow students to consider/recall responses."

"Consider pausing after student responses, to allow/encourage additional comment and second responses to support the first response, or to provide additional/other inputs (second wait time)." Greenleaf 2006.

This following extract is from a page of advice to teachers on how to help ESL students understand what they hear in the mainstream classroom.
Source: Helping ESL students understand what you say

Increasing wait time will give students a chance to process what they have heard and formulate answers in their mind. It is particularly helpful to repeat or rephrase questions that are in complex syntax or require more than simple answers. If you invariably expect 2 students in the class to answer such questions before you give feedback, this will add to the amount of time available for the ESL student to formulate a response, even if that response is a mental one that he or she does not yet feel confident to express aloud.


"The learning potential can be up to 50% higher if connected with visual input."

There are many pages on the ESL website where it is stressed how important visual input is in aiding ESL student comprehension of written and spoken language. The following extract is a presentation slide from the ESL workshop which provides a model of assessing task difficulty. Cognitively demanding, context-reduced tasks, which will be most difficult for ESL students, can be made more accessible through the use of visual material such as pictures, videos, graphic organizers.


Explanation: According to this model (first devised by Professor J. Cummins) classroom tasks can be categorized in two ways:

  • according to the cognitive demands they make on students
  • according to the degree of contextual help available to the students.

Most difficult for ESL students will be tasks that are both decontextualized and cognitively demanding. (Quadrant D)

Teachers of beginning ESL students should aim to increase the contextual help without reducing the cognitive quality of a task.

More on Cummins' model and its implications for teachers.


Word acquisition is critical to comprehension.

Greenleaf stressed the importance of a strong vocabulary in understanding academic texts (both spoken and written).

This extract is from a page giving information about English vocabulary and how teachers can assist ESL students learn it.

What can mainstream teachers do to help ESL students learn essential vocabulary?

  • In general, it is very helpful if mainstream teachers also consider themselves to be language teachers and, on occasion, devote a little more attention to key words than just offering a definition. For example, instead of simply explaining that photosynthesis is the conversion of carbon dioxide into carbohydrates under the influence of sunlight, the teacher could ask if anyone knows the meaning of the prefix photo, or if anyone can suggest other words beginning with the prefix. The word exhale could start a similar brief discussion.
  • As well as focussing on the key words, it is necessary to be aware of the importance of the non-subject specific academic vocabulary that the student needs to know - words like duration, sequence, reduction etc. [Read more about this.]
  • It is good, occasionally, to ask non-native speakers what a word is in their own language. This conveys to them that their languages are important. It also enables the teacher to check whether the student has understood.
  • Another possibility is to provide a definition and see if an ESL student can supply the correct word. Students whose own language shares similar roots with English will often come up with a word almost identical to the English one. For example, in mathematics or science the students could be asked to think of the word in their language for the increase in speed of an object (acceleration). French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese native speakers will supply the words accélération, accelerazione, aceleración, or aceleração. Showing an interest in their native language is a simple way to raise their self-esteem and it demonstrates effectively how the mother tongue can be very helpful in learning English.

Source: What teachers should know about English vocabulary



The first link below is to Dr. Greenleaf's own web page containing much of the information from the workshop booklet prepared for the FIS presentation. Dr. Greenleaf's page contains, inter alia, references to research into wait time, question techniques, learner generated questions.

Workshop summary page

The following links are to information on ASCD publications referred to in Dr. Greenleaf's booklet.

Teaching to the Brain's Natural Learning Systems. Given, B. ASCD 2002.
Classroom Instruction that Works. Marzano, Pickering & Pollock. ASCD 2001

This final link is to a source of information on long-term memory and recall:

Learning, Teaching and the Brain. Schenck, J. KNOWA, 2003.


Active Assessment: Thinking, Learning and Assessment across the Curriculum

This was the focus of a presentation by Stuart Naylor of Millgate House Education.

Much of the content overlapped with information and advice given to teachers in FIS ESL workshop units on Helping ESL students achieve academic success.

Introduction: Probably the most important thing that a subject teacher can do to help ESL students achieve academic success (and at the same time improve their English) is to make the content of the lesson comprehensible. If what the teacher says to the students or gives them to read is not accessible to students, then learning will not take place.

Of course, written and spoken text can be made more accessible by changing the nature of that text itself (for example, by the avoidance of idiom or long, complex sentences). However, simplifying the language of content is not the only way to make that content comprehensible. Another, very effective, way to achieve comprehensibility is to prime the students for the difficult language and concepts that they are about to be exposed to. The key strategies in this are activating background knowledge, cooperative activities and visual scaffolding.

Further areas of overlap: One of Naylor's slides, number 7 on page 2 of the handout, was not subject to much discussion during the presentation. It is worthy of mention here, however, because of the 3-way overlap involving the points Naylor was making, the advice to mainstream teachers with ESL students in their classes, and the information we received from Dr. Greenleaf in his workshop on Brain-Based Learning. Specifically, the slide lists 3 points under the title "Generic advice on assessment for learning ..":

An analysis of the importance of these 3 factors for ESL student learning can be read above. The final factor, a supportive climate, is of prime importance for language learning, as well as the learning of subject content. Krashen, the most eminent researcher in second language acquisition, hypothesises that comprehensible input is a sufficient condition for language learning to take place, but only if there is no affective filter. By this Krashen means that the input is not blocked by stress or anxiety.

Naylor neatly demonstrated the stress that arises when students (and teachers) believe that they will have their ignorance broadcast to the rest of the group. ESL students are in a particularly vulnerable position and cannot be expected make good progress if they often experience stress or anxiety in the classroom. [More on Krashen's theory of language learning.]

Johnson, D. W., G. Mariyama, R. Johnson, D. Nelson, and L. Skon. "The Effects of Cooperative, Competitive and Individualistic Goal Structures on Achievement: A Meta-Analysis." Psychological Bulletin 89 (1981): 47-62.

Link to Naylor's website.

The Brain: Learning and application

The content of this FIS workshop presented by the upper school principal showed a considerable overlap in a.) the advice that conference delegates were given about how to promote understanding and long-term memory, and b.) the advice given to mainstream teachers at the FIS ESL workshops on how to optimize the academic progress of the ESL students in their classes.

This overlap is summarized very briefly below.

  1. Activation of existing knowledge and understanding is crucial in the acquisition of new knowledge and understanding. For ESL students the activation of prior knowledge or the acquisition of essential background information before the start of a new topic can be via the mother tongue. The assessment of prior knowledge (also known as formative assessment) can provide the teacher with useful information on which to base pedagogical decisions. [See Naylor presentation above]

  2. For new content to enter long-term memory, that content must have meaning to the student. For example, it must be interesting, personally relevant or important to the student. For ESL students content cannot be meaningful unless it is (made) comprehensible. [More]

  3. Content becomes meaningful and comprehensible when it is taught in more than one mode. Visual input is a vital complement to aural input. [This was named Dual-Coding in the brain conference sessions. In ESL we refer to the same methodology as Visual Scaffolding.] Dual–coding involves, inter alia, the use of images and graphic organizers such as mind maps or KWL charts.
    Text on workshop slide: "When both verbal and visual elements are explicitly and simultaneously represented and actively processed, the formation of memory is more powerful and sustained." [More]

  4. Emotion plays a large role in learning. For example, negative emotion, such as stress or anxiety, impedes learning. [This insight corresponds to Krashen’s affective filter blocking language acquisition.] [More]

ESL students in mainstream classes

This section consists of a brief summary of the main issues that Dr Keith Folse covered in his keynote speech to Upper School teachers on this topic.

Overview: The premise of Folse’s session was that all teachers at FIS can contribute to the language development of the non-native English speakers in their classes. In addition he claimed that the adjustments teachers make to facilitate subject content learning for ESL students are generally beneficial for native speakers too.

One purpose of the session was to raise the awareness of non-language teachers to some of the difficulties faced by non-native speakers learning subject content in their second or subsequent language. A second purpose was to highlight the importance of vocabulary in the acquisition of subject knowledge.

Grammar: Native speakers are usually unaware of the aspects of English that cause non-native learners the most difficulty. Among these are phrasal verbs, prepositions, articles and the present perfect tense. Native speakers generally do not know any grammar terminology beyond the parts of speech (nouns, verbs, etc.).

One small way to help ESL students whose mother tongue lacks articles is to always write new nouns on the board with an article. Students who use articles correctly in spoken English give a small extra clue to the listener who is puzzled by the mispronunciation of the noun: the decade, the revolution, an exaggeration.

Types of language proficiency: Linguists differentiate two types of language ability: Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). Broadly, BICS is the language of the hallways and cafeteria, and CALP is the language of the classroom. Unlike BICS, CALP cannot be acquired naturally, it must be taught and practiced.

Two common aspects of CALP are the fronting of adjuncts and the omission of words introducing relative clauses. For example:

Oral language: Spoken classroom language can be very difficult for ESL students; not only because of unfamiliar vocabulary, but also because of the elisions that are common in natural speech. For example, the teacher says First of all and the student hears ferstuvawl. The advice is to pay special attention to the signposting of transitions in the lesson. For example, teachers can signpost in the following way:

Ok, now we're going to examine the three most important causes of the French Revolution. The first important cause was taxation ... [explanation] ... . So, now we've covered the first important cause of the French Revolution let's consider a second important cause ... [and so on].

Vocabulary: Many English words are polysemous. It is helpful for teachers to anticipate (and briefly focus on) the words such as while , like, though, bear that may have a different meaning in the present classroom context to the meaning the students are already familiar with.

Research has shown that readers need to know about 98% of the words in any given text in order to comprehend that text with relative efficiency. Typical native-speakers know 4 times as many English words as their non-native counterparts (even those who have exited from ESL programs).

There are several aspects to knowing a word beyond the obvious aspect (the word’s denotation). These additional aspects include register (the contexts in which the word is typically used – e.g. kids is not a word usually encountered in academic writing) and collocation (the strong association of the word with other words – e.g. heavy collocates strongly with rain and smoker but not but not with sun or trainspotter).

Students (all students) need to work to increase their vocabulary. They should be encouraged to use a notebook in each class to write down new words and phrases. For native-speakers these will typically be the subject-specific words. Non-native speakers should also add general vocabulary and non-subject-specific academic vocabulary. When writing new English words or phrases ESL students should be encouraged to write the translations as well.

It is helpful to have a few key words on the Smartboard or front wall which teachers can use at some point in the lesson. If there is no overt mention of a particular word by the end of the class, the students could be encouraged to ask for its definition.

Assessment: When assessing written work, mainstream teachers may wish to highlight a few of the students’ most common and egregious grammar mistakes, but in general such mistakes should not influence the grade for the piece of work. Research has shown that mainstream teachers assign lower grades to written work that contains a limited vocabulary. It is unrealistic, however, to expect ESL students to be able to produce the varied language that accomplished native speakers are capable of (for example, referring to a problem consecutively as an issue, a dilemma, a predicament, etc.)


Schmitt, N. and McCarthy, M. Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge University Press. 1998.

Laufer, B. and Yano, Y. Understanding unfamiliar words in a text: Do L2 learners understand how much they don’t understand? Reading in a Foreign Language 13(2): 549-66. 2001.

Stewart, M. Teachers' Writing Assessments across the High School Curriculum. Research in the Teaching of English. (17,2). 1983.

Planning comprehensible instruction for the ESL students in your classroom

This section is a brief summary of content from a second professional development day at FIS, presented by Dr. Keith Folse.

Keynote: Helping your students comprehend your material

Students will not learn your content unless they understand the language in which that content is conveyed.

There are three aspects of English that are difficult for all learners of the language, irrespective of the language family of their own mother tongue. These are: prepositions, present perfect tense and phrasal verbs.*

The rate at which students acquire English (and hence the ability to learn subject content) is based on several factors, some of which teachers have control of. The two most important of these factors are :

Three classroom strategies for mainstream teachers of non-native speakers are:

*  Prepositions and the present perfect tense can be very difficult for ESL students to produce correctly, but generally they do not have trouble comprehending the meaning of the phrases that contain them. For this reason mainstream teachers need not give them any special focus.

Conversely, phrasal verbs, which are extremely common in spoken language, can render oral instructions and explanations incomprehensible to ESL students. It is helpful, therefore, if teachers can identify and explain the phrasal verbs in the key information they convey in class. [Comment added by P. Shoebottom]



The importance of being comprehensible - introduction

How to help students understand what you say

How to help students understand what you give them to read

How to write comprehensible worksheets and tests

Classroom strategies

FAQ on helping ESL students in the classroom

Language learning

Factors affecting the speed of language learning

Difficult aspects of English - general

Language differences: what makes English difficult for our various native-language groups

FAQ on language learning

Phrasal Verbs

Phrasal verbs

Breakout 1: Helping ESL Students Cope With Writing in ESL

ESL students need explicit instruction in how to write in the various genres, since their own writing cultures may have different ways of organising text in those genres.

After the beginning stages of learning a language vocabulary development is of greater importance than grammar development.

Sentence combining practice, using key concepts from the current unit of study, is beneficial in three ways:


Academic Writing (Google Books)

Sentence combining (

Breakout 2: Practical Advice For Writing ESL-Friendly Worksheets And Tests

The session focused on the various features of questions in worksheets and tests that can cause difficulties for non-native speakers. The key recommendations for maximising worksheet and test comprehensibility are:


Preparing ESL-friendly worksheets and tests

Breakout 3: Spelling

English is notorious for the frequent mismatch of spelling and pronunciation. ESL students cannot reliably predict the spelling of the new words they hear. Nor, conversely, can they reliably predict the pronunciation of the new words they read.

For this reason it is helpful if keywords for the lesson are visible to students on the Smartboard during class. Furthermore, homework instructions should be provided in written form, not just conveyed orally.


 Examples of and reasons for the spelling/pronunciation mismatch (Wikipedia)

ECIS-ESL conference Rome 2005

This page was prepared for mainstream teachers at Frankfurt International School in summary of the most relevant information and advice gleaned from the ECIS-ESL conference in Rome 2005.

Among the speakers at this conference were Professor J. Cummins and Professor S. Krashen, probably the two most important and influential researchers in second language acquisition. Below is a brief summary of the information that emerged from their sessions which is of relevance for mainstream (non-ESL) teachers.