10 Tips for Teaching in ESL Classrooms

Students in South Korea

Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) presents a large number of unique challenges and difficulties. Whether you are teaching in a classroom overseas or in one of the many ESL programs right here in the United States, teaching speakers of other languages means that you will be dealing with an array of cultures, learning styles, educational backgrounds and, of course, the challenge of working through a potentially frustrating language barrier.

Despite these challenges (or perhaps partially due to them), demand for ESL teachers is currently at an all-time high. With the English language constantly growing in international importance and an influx of non-native English speakers here at home, qualified teachers are needed to provide a balanced and comprehensive ESL education. Here are 10 tips for successfully teaching an ESL program:

1. Incorporate Groupwork[contextly_sidebar id=”LwDYHo5kad71Eusvn1fSePyrb5vvYlBR”]
Learning a foreign language, even if its roots are familiar, is a very daunting task for students of any age. Learning it alone is even more difficult. To make your ESL students feel comfortable practicing their new language, get them to work in pairs or larger groups so that they can help each other. Lessons become fun, and communicating and learning English becomes more natural when students can work through it together and peer-teach.

2. Maximize Oral Communication
Make sure you keep an oral focus in the classroom. While writing and reading are both important, requiring students to speak as often as possible helps ingrain the sound and feel of the language in a student’s mind. It also helps them learn the verbal cues. Developing a comfort with speaking English in front of other people is crucial to overall ESL success. The sooner they learn to start communicating verbally, the easier and more successful your job will be.

3. Use a Diverse Lesson Plan
ESL students will come from an array of cultural and educational backgrounds. As in any classroom, each student will learn differently. Keeping a lesson plan diverse will help you cater your English teaching to individual learners. Mix reading, writing, observing and listening with your oral focus to create a comprehensive lesson plan.

4. Incorporate Cultural Lessons to Personalize
Making the English language relevant and personal helps your students get interested and internalize the lesson plan. Use their personal experiences and backgrounds to teach the language. You can ask them to tell the class what they did the previous weekend, what their family is like, what their home is like — anything that gets them to think of their personal experiences will help them become more passionate about the words and phrases they learn and use. Also ensure that you teach them while making it relevant to their culture. In doing so, you will help your students find the language interesting and enjoyable.

5. Limit Dictionary Use
Try to limit the amount of time students spend consulting a glossary or dictionary. Asking students to memorize words and phrases is fine, but make sure that the majority of class time is spent putting these words and phrases into practice rather than just reciting words from a dictionary. This can become repetitive and boring, and provides little context to make your lesson relevant.

6. Give Homework to Keep English a Focus After Class
Your ESL students will most likely be going back to a household that does not regularly use English in conversation. This acts as an additional challenge for your students to overcome. While no student jumps at the chance to do more homework, giving your students work to practice on when they are away from the classroom is the best way to ensure that they aren’t completely forgetting the English they learned in your class that day.

7. Try Tongue Twisters
Tongue twisters can be a fun challenge for your ESL students. Asking your students to pronounce phonetically similar words gets them to stop and think about what they are saying and how they are saying it. It also helps them internalize pronunciation. Besides, tongue twisters are funny and will keep things light!

8. Have Students Read Aloud
Your students should practice reading aloud often. This is a great way to blend auditory, oral and reading skills. It will also help them become more comfortable speaking English in front of their peers.

9. Let Students Make Mistakes
Let your students work through their mistakes. Whether they are speaking, writing or reading English, allowing them to correct themselves will help them get a better grasp on the language. It may be tempting to interject with the correct pronunciation or spelling, but if a student can recognize his or her mistake and correct it, they are truly making progress.

10. Teach by Doing
The best way to teach English as a second language is to model each aspect of your lesson plan before asking students to iterate it. Clearly pronounce words and sentences. Read aloud to the class and ask them to repeat. Tell a story about your weekend to help them with syntax and inflection. By modeling your lesson for your ESL students, you will help them feel comfortable with what you are asking them to do.

This post was written by Sarah Fudin who currently works in community relations for the University of Southern California’s Masters in Education Online degree program, which provides the opportunity for students to earn their MA in TESOL. Outside of work Sarah enjoys running, reading and Pinkberry frozen yogurt.
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7 Comments
  1. Carrie,
    Thank you for posting your tips about teaching ESL. I had the opportunity to teach English in China and I found that groupwork definitely helped my students. My students were very shy and embarrassed to make mistakes in English, therefore I created several activities which would require them to work in groups. They seemed much more comfortable making a presentation to the class when they were amongst a group of their friends.
    Thanks again for posting your advice!

    • Hi Shannon,

      It’s my pleasure. I’d love to hear more about your teaching experiences in China. I taught in northern China for three years, and I’m always interested in hearing about how other teachers have managed.

  2. Hi Carrie,
    It’s great hearing from you. I apologize for my delayed response, I now live in Italy and have had many recent visitors. Which city were you in? I was living in Shenyang. It was quite an adjustment living and working in China, buy overall I enjoyed my time there. Over the two years, I taught at a middle school, kindergarten and English Language Center. My students were wonderful. As I mentioned, they were shy but very displined and eager to improve their English. It was my first experience teaching abroad and quite a learning experience! Would love to hear about your experience as well.

    • Hi Shannon,

      Now it’s my turn for a delayed response. So sorry about that!

      I was in Changchun for three years. I think that’s just a few hours away from Shenyang. I spent a weekend in Shenyang visiting the old palace grounds there. It’s a really pretty city, but I can imagine it was a huge adjustment. I remember what Changchun was like in 2003. They didn’t open their first foreign coffee shop until 2004 and we had to wait weeks to get things like cheese and Kraft Dinner in! All in all, though, I wouldn’t change my experience in Changchun for the world. Making the decision to stay away from larger cities was just about the best decision I’ve ever made. It really forced me to learn the language and dig into learning more about my co-workers and local customs. Plus, the students were amazing!

  3. Hello Carrie,

    Thank you for the wonderful advise. This is my first year teaching in South Korea and I am having some trouble getting young learners to speak more often. If you have any specific ideas or games that would encourage these little ones that would help. Also, I am having some trouble getting some “all boys” classes calmed down to learn.

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