The population of English language learners in the United States is growing at a rapid pace, even in states that haven’t traditionally had large numbers of immigrants. ESL teachers are tasked with helping these students understand the English language in an educational setting, but on the ground level, their job often involves much more than this. They help non-native speakers assimilate without losing their culture; they help foster a love for learning and they often become involved in these children’s lives and struggles. It’s a herculean task to respond to the needs of these kids, and it makes ESL teaching one of the toughest jobs in education. That’s why we’ve put together this list of tips that veteran ESL teachers say have helped them be more effective in the classroom.
Speak Slowly and Give Enough Response Time
This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s so critical that it’s worth mentioning here. It’s important to remember that, at this stage, students are processing your words, translating them into their native language, formulating a response and then translating that response into English. Calling on students immediately (or simply repeating the same thing in a louder voice) can send them into a small panic and impede the learning process. Conversely, giving students a few seconds before calling on them allows them to think and process, which can make all the difference.
Non-Verbal Cues Are Essential
This may come as no surprise, but words are only a small part of communication. In fact, according to one famous study, the words we use only make up about 7% of any message. A whopping 55% is conveyed through nonverbal elements and the remaining 38% is made up of vocal elements like intonation. This is a good thing for ESL classrooms. ELL students can infer meaning through body language, visual cues, drawing, gestures and tone, so utilizing some or all of these in ESL lesson plans can be tremendously helpful for both teacher and student.
Don’t Discourage Their Home Language
It might seem counterintuitive to let students speak their native language. After all, they’re here to learn English, right? This is a subject of controversy, but many ESL teachers say they’ve seen more growth in classrooms where students weren’t made to speak English 100% of the time. The reasons are multifold. Students who are forced to speak a foreign language often grow to resent it or see it (and their teacher) as an adversary. Speaking another language 24/7 is exhausting, so having a moment or two in your native tongue can act like a release valve.
Also, English language learners often find parallels between their native languages and English. ESL teachers can use this to their advantage by encouraging students to find these “cognates” (words that share a sound), and share them in class. Some ESL teachers even have their students keep notebooks full of cognates to help them build a bridge between the two languages.
Always Check for Understanding
In a “normal” classroom, teachers may ask their students, “Are there any questions?” and they’ll respond accordingly. This doesn’t work in ESL classrooms. Students may not understand and they may not have the courage to speak up. To make sure every learner is on the same page, teachers should regularly check in, asking for a gesture (like a thumbs up, thumbs down or thumbs sideways) or a verbal response from every student before moving on.
It’s important to make sure that students know it’s okay if they don’t understand. That’s why some ESL teachers use an even subtler method, asking students to answer by putting a post-it note on their desk with a simple response. Teachers can then quickly see if any students in the classroom aren’t following along and them feeling embarrassed.
These regular checks not only help the teachers know that they’re being understood, but they also let the students learn to pay attention to their own understanding.
Learning is tough for any student but ESL students have the added wrinkle of not understanding the language of the classroom, which is a perfect recipe for disengagement. Luckily, the internet is filled with resources for ESL teachers that go beyond dry lesson plans, rote memorization and repetition. Videos, song lyrics (and, of course, fun singalongs), websites, traditional games, social media and even video games can all be invaluable tools for reaching these children where they live and learn.
In fact, many ESL teachers find it helpful to ditch the entire idea of the classroom, abandoning blackboards and worksheets in favor of scavenger hunts, dances, dress up, and competitions.
Get Parents Involved
Parents of ELL students need to be involved, perhaps more so than any other form of teaching. Sometimes these parents might be learning English also and many feel intimidated to participate in school activities. There are several ways to get past this barrier. If the teacher doesn’t speak the same language, they can often find another teacher or translator who does. Having a good translator (and not just the student) at a parent-teacher meeting can make all the difference when it comes to communicating goals and progress effectively.
Here’s another way that many ESL teachers swear by — hold a newcomer’s night with all the school’s ESL teachers, school administrators, translators and, of course, ESL families. Offering a tour of the school, showing off the library, giving practical information and making introductions to faculty and translators can boost participation and ultimately help students be more successful in and out of the classroom.
Teaching ESL is one of the most challenging fields out there, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Hey, if you’d majored in business, you might not have the trials and tribulations that come with teaching ELL students, but you’d also never have the joy of seeing a child flourish or a family finds its footing in this country! Your actions in the classroom (and outside it) not only have a monumental impact on the lives of these families, but they also make our society a richer, more beautiful place.