Helping ESL Students Achieve Their Greatest Potential

More and more classrooms are seeing a portion of their students coming into the classroom with only basic English-speaking skills. These children are fluent in one, and sometimes more, languages but have recently come to this country and may have been exposed to English for the first time.

These students are placed in specialized classrooms until they learn the language but it has been found that integrating English as a Second Language (ESL) students in the mainstream classroom helps accelerate the process of not only language acquisition but also in integration into American culture.

More teachers are finding it necessary to find a way to make sure ESL students get the education they deserve. These teachers, however, often have no training that helps them know exactly what tactics to use.

Here we are going to cover the most important ways a mainstream education teacher can help her ESL students achieve their greatest potential. Let’s take a quick look at the challenges first.

Challenges of Teaching ESL Students

When language is a barrier, teaching becomes more challenging. Sometimes there is a tendency to become frustrated and treat the student like they are slow, forgetting they may be fluent in at least one, and sometimes two, other languages.

You have to avoid things like talking down to the students, especially if they are older. If they are the only one in the family that is currently being exposed to English, they will be reverting to their native language outside school, giving them less chance to practice.

Interacting with parents can be difficult and the child may have to act as interpreter. Cultural differences will also need to be taken into account. This is particularly important with regard to how the student has been taught to interact with authority figures. A third major challenge is the evaluation of your student’s progress.

We’ll discuss some ways to recognize possible gifted students later but it is also important to recognize the student who may be struggling with more than just language. Now, let’s see what you can do to increase your chances of making this a positive experience for everyone involved.

Basic Teaching Tactics

These are the main tactics that will help your ESL students benefit from the teaching you are doing with your regular students. If you have tried all these and still find you are having difficulty with a particular student, reach out to the school’s ESL teacher or have the principal call in a specialist to answer questions. Most teachers who specialize in ESL welcome the chance to help.

1. Respect the ”silent period”. Many students will hesitate when it comes to speaking up at first. They are afraid of making mistakes and being laughed at. Respect their need to start verbally participating at their own speed. Don’t force this student to speak in front of the classroom until they are ready. Gently encourage talking but don’t push the issue.

2. Use visuals as much as possible. Pictures are so often universal in meaning. Use of charts, graphs, picture labels, and other visual material will help the student make associations that could otherwise get lost. This can be especially helpful with things like schedules or other classroom routines.

3. Avoid slang, idioms, and sarcasm. These things are unique to the American culture and a student just learning the language may take them literally, causing great confusion. Limit your use of these until the student has become more familiar with the language.

4. Speak naturally. While it is helpful to speak slower, avoid talking to your students as though they are younger than their actual age. Don’t raise your voice. Speaking louder won’t make them understand more. Keep your voice regulated as you would in any normal conversation.

5. Keep sentences short. When speaking, focus on the nouns and verbs, adding descriptive language gradually over time as the English skill increases. Don’t use any unnecessary words, especially when giving directions or teaching new concepts.

6. Use gestures. Acting out what you are attempting to convey can sometimes add enough information for everything else to fall into place. For example, point at locations on maps, hold up three fingers when talking about 3:00 or demonstrate writing when you want something written down.

7. Encourage questions. Emphasize the fact that questions are welcome. Let the student know there is no question too minor to ask and make it clear you would rather they ask a question than feel lost and confused. Don’t show any kind of irritation toward questions. If your time is scarce, you might try pairing up the student with one of the more advanced students in the class to help them with any questions.

8. Work in pairs or groups. This helps in a variety of ways. First, it gives all the students a chance to get to know and interact with each other. It also gives the student a less intimidating environment in which to ask questions as asking another student is sometimes easier than asking an adult. The smaller group also allows each student to contribute where their strengths are, creating a feeling of accomplishment.

9. Ask questions to assess understanding. Once you have given instructions, don’t simply as if the student understands. Most likely, they will tell you Yes even if they don’t. As questions such as, “What is the first step?” or “Where do you put the leftover number?” These will help you assess whether or not the student truly understands.

10. Correct positively. This is one area where you can take a hint from a toddler learning to speak. If the toddler holds up a shoe and says “Du!” you know what they are saying and reply, “Yes, that is a shoe.” That is a positive correction. When the student uses an incorrect word or form of the word, find a way to reply with the correct usage. The student will pick up on it and be more willing to keep trying because they are not feeling negative about making a mistake.

11. Use repetition. The more a student hears something and the more forms are used to relay that information, the quicker the material will be absorbed. You don’t have to make repetition boring. Try to:

  • A. Play review games. Once a week, make up a trivia game or other review game that covers the week’s material.
  • B. Spend the last 10-15 minutes reviewing each day.
  • C. Spend the first 10-15 minutes each day reviewing the material from the day before.

12. Give instructions in steps. If something requires several steps, try giving the student one step at a time and allowing them to finish that step before giving the next one. This will help keep the child from feeling overwhelmed with trying to comprehend and remember at the same time.

13. Have students explain things to each other. This helps you see how much of your instructions were understood and it allows you the chance to make any clarifications if necessary.

14. Be culturally sensitive. Every culture has unwritten rules that can cause issues if not understood by the teacher. Being culturally sensitive goes beyond ordering a pizza without pepperoni for a Muslim student. For the ESL students in your classroom, take time to learn these unwritten rules as they may apply to your interaction with the student. For example:

  • Some cultures find eye contact with authority figures taboo. The student may not feel comfortable looking you in the eye when you speak. This does not indicate a lack of attention.
  • Some cultures find punctuality unnecessary. You will see this in both the student and parents. Try to explain to the student how and why being on time is important for your classroom and be patient until being on time becomes a habit.
  • In some countries, questioning an authority figure can have bad consequences. Your student may not understand that you can’t know when there is a problem if they don’t speak up and ask questions. Encourage questions.
  • In some places, there is a collective mindset. This translates into two major issues if not recognized. First, the student may have learned that the needs of the group outweigh the needs of the one. This student may feel that asking questions causes undue stress on the rest of the students, so they won’t ask. They also may not have had the chance to work independently. You will need to work up to this gradually over time.
  • Some cultures rely on subtle hints for expressing wants and needs, while others don’t mince words and will ask directly. Learning about how the child’s culture expresses itself will help eliminate your feeling the child is rude for bluntness and will help you recognize the needs of the more subtle child.

15. Allow some use of the child’s native language. By allowing the student a chance to perhaps speak with others who share his native language or write in a journal in his native language, you help alleviate some of the stress that comes from being totally bombarded with a strange new language and lifestyle. By alleviating some of this stress, it allows the child more energy to concentrate on the English subjects when necessary. It also gives the child a chance to explain things that may not readily translate into English.

Evaluating Progress

Typical achievement tests can’t give you a true picture of the child’s mastery of subjects until they are fluent in the language. You will be able to see the progress made in learning the language easily, but what can you do to help a struggling or gifted ESL student get the proper education they deserve?

Struggling students may:

  • Act out when certain subjects are presented.
  • Become easily frustrated.
  • Not picking up the language as quickly as all his peers.
  • Miss class often.
  • Not make an effort to “fit” in or participate in group activities.

Gifted students may:

  • Acquire language quickly
  • Be able to negotiate between cultures.
  • Have advanced translation skills.
  • Display leadership qualities.
  • Read beyond grade level in the native language.
  • Problem-solve in creative, nonconforming ways.

It is important to be able to catch both of these students as early as possible so that they have the greatest opportunity for success. Initial placement may have to be adjusted one or more times as English language proficiency increases.

Final Thoughts

As more and more students enter classrooms from different cultures, both teachers and students have the opportunity to begin operating on a higher level in a world that is quickly becoming borderless regarding language and culture.

Giving your ESL students the best chance for success also gives your native English-speaking students a chance at growth and understanding that will put them further ahead in the world than students who don’t have this opportunity.

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