Teaching ESL students
Advice for parents and educators
Teaching is hard, period. You know this whether you’re a public school teacher or a homeschooling parent. You take on an enormous workload, pull long hours with little or no compensation, and always need to present yourself with a fresh face, whether you’re truly happy or not. And yet there are some things about the process that you won’t even know you’ve been taking for granted until you have to go without them. One of those things is a common language.
Working with students who are learning English as a second language, or ESL, presents a unique problem, because whether they’re a child you’ve adopted or a student in your classroom, you likely won’t share a language with the child you’re teaching. This can be extremely difficult to work through, but if you work diligently, it’s doable. We’ll try to explain the best way to go about teaching ESL students in this post.
The pitfalls of conventional teaching techniques
Right off the bat, teaching ESL students is not like teaching any other students. ESL students are more than just non-native speakers of English; they’re often also very insecure about their lack of fluency in the language, and that might creep into your lessons in ways you don’t anticipate. Communication takes many forms, and it’s much more complicated than the grammar of the language you’re speaking. It’s important to keep that in mind, because you might get less mileage out of your standby teaching techniques when you use them with ESL students.
For instance, it’s standard practice in American teaching to expect students to respond to questions you ask, and to explain what they don’t understand if they’re pressed. ESL students, though, might not know exactly how to respond to your questions, and that might frustrate them to the point that they check out. Then, if you ask what they don’t understand, you’ll be dealing with someone who’s substantially less receptive to your teaching than would be normal.
In my experience working with ESL students, they will often develop a dependency on your teaching. This is a problem for teachers in any configuration of languages, but it’s a particular risk for ESL students. Like I’ve outlined above, you might find that your usual Socratic techniques are not working. Your ESL student is not following your questions or has trouble responding to them, so you resort to working through problems with them on a very minute scale. At some point in this, the dynamic might switch to you supplying them with the answers. At that point, you’re just nurturing dependency in the student. Their English is not going to improve, because you’re effectively speaking for them, and they’re going to find it harder in the future to work on their own. In all the teaching you do, that’s the scenario that you should try hardest to avoid.
So what are you supposed to do? If your basic repertoire of teaching techniques is not available, how do you reach an ESL student? There’s no easy answer to that, but there is one rule of thumb I can always recommend.
If your basic repertoire of teaching techniques is not available, how do you reach an ESL student? Click to Tweet
Focusing on the language
The key to teaching ESL students is to remain extremely focused on their needs. Always remember that their mastery of English is the most important thing. (ESL students tend to excel in math and science, where the language barrier is lower.) So when you’re working on reading and writing with them, make sure that you stop and work through every grammatical construction at whatever pace you need.
You will probably wind up learning a lot about English. It’s a nice perk of teaching ESL: you learn to explain things like when to use a definite article, when to use an indefinite article, and when to use no article, which you have probably never really thought about as a native English speaker. At first these things can be devilishly difficult to explain to a child who has grown up speaking Korean or Amharic, but it’s important that you work on it, because otherwise your student will develop a lot of linguistic gaps. You want to prepare your students as well as possible for the world they’re about to enter, so you owe it to yourself to slow down and work on the language at a granular level.
Obviously, this is easy if you’re homeschooling than if you’re in a conventional school. Being able to work on things for as long as you need without a district-mandated sword hanging over your head is one of the great advantages of homeschooling. Teaching ESL in a conventional school might require you to organize a special study group for ESL students, or use some quiet reading time to work with your ESL students. In a perfect world, the district would hire a dedicated ESL teacher, but if you’re being asked to teach ESL students yourself, you’re going to need to fit in dedicated language instruction where you can. Try to stay extra-involved with the students’ parents, who will likely be anxious that their children receives the best education they can. But whether you’re in a homeschool or a conventional school setting, remember that the most important thing is to make sure you’re working towards independent, confident English. If you can get even some of the way toward that goal, you’ve done an excellent job.
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