As ESL teachers, we sometimes go out of our way to make students feel comfortable and to help them in language learning, as we should.
And those extra miles that we walk are worth every step. But not every strategy for helping our students has to be complicated and difficult. Sometimes the easiest, most simple of steps can make a world of difference for our students. Here are some simple, everyday ways to help students be more comfortable and more productive in the ESL classroom that I have learned through my time as an ESL teacher.
Try These 5 Tips for Helping Your ESL Students in Every Day Ways
Allow Errors to Pass
Some teachers feel it is their job and obligation to correct every error their ESL students make in class, and some students even ask for such thorough corrections. Unfortunately, harping on every error, even for the students who ask for it, discourages both the speaker and their classmates. When students are afraid of making mistakes and being corrected for them, they tend to become timid in their speech. You can make sure this doesn’t happen with the students in your classes by allowing some errors to pass. This doesn’t mean not requiring exact and proper speech and writing in your class. It means choosing the errors you point out. Do correct errors in structures you are teaching at the moment. When students are trying to learn a certain language pattern, they need to know when they are successful and unsuccessful at it. Don’t correct mistakes that involve grammar your students haven’t learned or those that do not inhibit communication. The goal of language learning is communication, and if your students are able to communicate their meaning through imperfect grammar, let it go and focus on the meaning they were able to get across.
Sometimes even ESL teachers who know better can assume that our students understand more than they do. Just because your students are able to answer you or parrot back what you said in perfect English does not mean they understand what you said or even their own answer to you. You can help clear things up for your students by including visual clues when you communicate. Sometimes this is as simple as making eye contact or letting them see your facial expression. Other times, pointing out objects you are talking about can help. It’s always a good idea to write directions and important information out on the board for ESL students as many of them will understand what they read far better than what they hear. The more visual clues you can give your students when you talk to them, the easier time they will have understanding you and correctly following your directions.
Show Empathy to Your Students
Some ESL students are studying in their home countries in a class full of peers who speak the same first language. If you are teaching overseas in this classroom, it may be you who needs empathy more than your students. But many students who are studying English do so overseas – in the U.S., Canada, or the U.K. These students can easily become overwhelmed in a new culture, surrounded by a new language, and absent from their normal emotional and relational supports. Keeping in mind how difficult it is to leave everything you know behind to pursue educational goals may help you be more empathetic to your students. In some cases, you may be the first friend they make in their country of destination. That’s why it’s important for ESL teachers to be kind to their students, show patience, and look for instances where it may be more than language that is distressing your students. A kind word or gesture can make all the difference on a really bad day, and you might be the perfect person to offer it.
How Many Times Do I Have to Repeat Myself?
As many times as it takes, but don’t think that saying the same thing in the same way, even if you say it at a slower pace, will give your students what they need. Not knowing certain vocabulary words can be anything from discouraging to absolutely debilitating to some ESL students. That’s why when you repeat yourself in class, and you should, it’s important to vary the vocabulary you use. Saying the same thing but in different words will have a much greater impact on your students than saying the same thing in the same words. In addition, using different vocabulary in class and introducing synonyms in natural ways such as repeating yourself will actually increase the amount of vocabulary your students know and understand.
Invite L1 into the Classroom
Why would an English teacher encourage his or her students to speak in their first languages? Believe it or not, allowing and sometimes encouraging native language use in your students can actually help them learn English. Allowing students to clarify instructions and confusing points with fellow students who speak their first language will decrease stress in your students and help them perform with more accuracy on the tasks you assign. Allowing L1 conversation can also be essential for clearing up cultural misunderstandings that might otherwise throw some students off. It may be awkward at first to allow and encourage your students to use a language other than English in the classroom, but you may find that ultimately it’s worth making yourself a bit uncomfortable to help your students become better speakers of English.
Allowing students to speak their first language, making eye contact, writing down directions, saying the same things in different words, and showing empathy to our students are not complicated activities.
Some of them take almost no effort at all, and none of them takes more effort than any teacher can put forth even on the toughest of days. As simple as they are, though, they can make a big difference in the minds and spirits of English as a second language students. You probably already do these things, but sometimes we could all use a reminder to be a little more understanding of where our students are coming from. When we are, it can make all the difference in the world and all the difference on your students’ next English exam.