George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I wanted to talk to someone. But who? It's moments like this, when you need someone the most, that your world seems smallest. -- Rachel Cohn, Dash & Lily's Book of Dares

Let's face it -- everyone has something to say some time or another. ESL learners are no different. As a teacher of either online English or classroom ESL instruction, it is important to make your students feel comfortable speaking. They may feel embarrassed about their inability to speak English fluently. Or perhaps they are just shy. As an instructor, you need to ask yourself how you are impacting the learning environment:

  • Are the students afraid to make mistakes?
  • Is your instruction on their level?
  • Do you state clear instructions with examples?
  • Do your lessons incorporate exciting material and ways to teach?
  • Are your students motivated and interested to learn?

After you ask yourself these questions and alter your teaching based on honest self-evaluation, you can incorporate more ways to encourage your students to learn English.

1. Build Fluency

The most important thing to remember is that your students need to be speaking English as much as possible. The more they practice, the better they speak. The better they speak, the more confidence they will gain. And this cycle will continue to build fluency. Don't make the grammar lessons the focal point of your instruction. Don't do too much teacher talk and lengthy explanations. Choral responses where the students recite the same "response" -- whether it be a word, phrase, sentence or dialogue -- are an effective tool to build vocabulary skills that lead to comprehension. This method helps to build success for all learners. So get your students to talk, and keep them talking!

2. Focus on Individual Needs

With the current educational journals consumed with such topics as Differentiated Education, Meeting the Needs of All Learners, Maximizing the Disconnect Between the Real World and the Classroom, etc., it is important that you, too, focus on each student. Choose those skills that are the most important for him or her, and tailor your instruction accordingly. While Student A may be struggling with learning the alphabet and initial sounds, Student B might be reading at a fourth-grade level. I'm sure you get the point. Challenge all of your students with material at their own level to ensure language progress. My own teaching mantra is, "All learners can learn if we but know how to teach them." The onus is on you as a teacher. That is the unique skill you have to offer.

3. Provide High-Interest Engagement

We all learn more when we are engaged. Think of times when learning was the most enjoyable for you. Try to emulate those teaching styles. Was it how the teacher interacted with the class and how you were treated with respect, fairness, patience and acceptance? Maybe the teacher planned lessons that involved more than just passive learning. Perhaps there were learning activities with movement, which allowed for maintaining the students' attention levels and increasing their classroom participation. Did you have a creative teacher who used a variety of materials like flashcards, games, magazine and newspaper articles, pictures, photos, fieldtrips, projects, technology, role plays, guest speakers, simulations or question-and-answer sessions? Did they mix it up when it came to working individually and in small groups or whole-class instruction? Did they allow choice in student learning and ask for input as far as needs and interests?

4. Model

How you talk in your lessons, when both focusing on instruction and relating with your students, will increase their language ability. Speak slowly and clearly so that the ESL student will understand. Choose words that are easier for them to grasp. Use visuals whenever possible so that students can also read the directions at the same time. Teaching with two or more modalities heightens understanding and learning. Offer repetition and review until your students have mastery. Always be positive toward them, and continue to praise them for speaking to encourage more speaking. Develop a strong, open and caring relationship toward each of your students, and in turn they will strive to be the best students possible. I guarantee you will have a more successful classroom of ESL students.

5. Allow Time

Learning a language is developmental. There are endless factors in acquiring a language, so it is important that you put this in perspective. When you talk to a student, allow wait time for the response. When they struggle with a certain skill or concept, help them over this hurdle. Everyone learns in different ways, and once you embrace this idea, you and your students will be more apt to enjoy the learning process together.

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Marc Anderson's picture

I think song, games and drama are other great ways in which to engage and teach students English. Thanks for the comments, please also my company blog for additional articles for EFL students and teachers.

Alina Moran's picture
Alina Moran
Curriculum Design & Edufeedback Specialist

Between the late 1980's and 1990's I taught English in grades 2-12 at a highly competitive bilingual school in the Caribbean. Some subjects were taught in English and the others in Spanish.
All students were required to take French beginning in fourth grade and Technology since first grade.

Back then the school lacked a Foreign Languages department. Our school population had a high % of Taiwanese, South Korean and Bulgarian students. The students would be tested on their mathematical levels and placed in the corresponding grades. This worked pretty well with numbers, equations, shapes and figures. However, word problems were extremely unpleasant for the kids for they could not recognize the English or Spanish languages.

The rest of the time these students attended classes in English and Spanish... sitting there silently counting the minutes for the bell to ring and rescue them. It broke my heart and drove me bananas to see good kids sit as lumps in classrooms because we lacked a department to help them learn these new languages and cultures. So I took it upon myself to tutor these kids on the far stairs of the last building during my lunch period. The students began to progress. In spite of the tininess of their progress a connection had been made. The parents contacted me through their embassies and hired me to tutor them three days a week. Before the school year ended these students were understanding enough to participate and score well on assessments. By the time they took PSAT's and SAT's they had learned enough to outscore the other students as well as native English speakers in the Continental USA!

This was done by preparing a notebook with basic English vocabulary and using their school books. After basic vocabulary was taught and referenced we moved to working with their mainstream English text-books. Whatever chapter they were on I'd have them learn how to fish the answers from the content. They became so good at this that they were able to participate in class and take tests successfully. They worked tirelessly and always with a smile. I was doubly pleased to watch them succeed academically as well as socially. I believe that it was with these very special and cherished kids I really came to be an effective ELL educator.

eflsensei's picture

I completely agree with #1 Build Fluency. EFL students need time to speak English without fear of making mistakes. Once they are better speakers and have more confidence, then they can try working on accuracy.

I like to use role plays, group work, and speaking games.

Jennifer Gonzalez's picture
Jennifer Gonzalez
Blogger at Cult of Pedagogy

I think point #5 is so important, and often overlooked, especially by those outside the ELL field. Another angle on #2 is the fact that a good number of the ELL population is also functionally illiterate, so their oral language skills may develop at a different pace from their reading and writing skills.

I recently interviewed Kim, an ELL teacher, for my site's podcast and learned so much about the struggles and nuances of working with English language learners. I think anyone currently working with these students, or considering it, would find the interview really interesting. You can listen to it here: (I should note that I titled it "ESL" because I thought that would be more easily recognized, even though Kim explained to me why ELL is a preferred term!)

One concept Kim kept coming back to was giving students direct instruction and practice with academic language -- providing sentence stems and regular practice with the vocabulary and phrasing we expect to hear in academic discussions and see in academic writing.

She also talks at great length about the heartbreaking challenge of knowing your students and their backgrounds so well, then having to hand them over to a content-area teacher who doesn't, and may never bother to.

Anyway, thanks for the article, Marc. I took a look at talktocanada and it seems like a fantastic company. Hope to see you over on my site as well.

Wei Lee's picture

I'm a non native English speaker who is now trying to help my son get better in English. I was lucky enough to study in an English speaking country in my 20's, and my English improved greatly during my stay. Since then I have settled down in my home country and I have started to realize how hard it is to create the right environment for my son to teach English.
I agree wholeheartedly to the point that fluency can only be achieved by speaking with people who are more fluent than you, without worrying too much on grammar. Problem is there aren't a lot of English teaching programs that do this, other than a few like Spoken English Practice. So you end up with the same old methods you have been trying all your life like memorizing grammar rules. And, you see very little improvement.
I hope more and more ESL teachers read posts like this and improve their methods of teaching. There needs to be more awareness around English language teaching. Technology is a must, and so is a fresh thinking towards the whole language teaching process.

Bryan's picture

Thank you for your article. It is so helpful for our homestay hosts of who give a language lesson for students at their home. They need some useful teaching tips! Thank you.

Dhanesh Rathore's picture

Me being an ESL student, it was hard to train myself in English. So my language training institute, inlingua New Delhi asked me to make English part of my language. This really helped me leaps and bound to speak English fluently. It helps us to get out of the ESL mindset and get going.

CD's picture

Thank you for the great tips! I work in a diverse district and have definitely had some challenges "reaching" my ESL students and feeling like I am not giving them enough. I've also read about the benefits of play in helping ESL students break out of their shell and communicate with their students. As a kindergarten teacher I have seen some of ESL students (and shy native speakers) feel more confident in play time with their peers.

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