ESL 911: 3 Simple Steps for Teaching ESL Students How To Ask for Help

ESL 911
3 Simple Steps for Teaching ESL Students How To Ask for Help

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 10,061 views |

Are you one of those people who likes to sit with a cup of coffee and the daily crossword puzzle to start your day?

There are probably fewer people who do start the day that way than who don’t. Perhaps it is because most crossword puzzles are a real challenge. You have to have an extensive vocabulary and be able to decipher clues to put it all together. Of course, when you have help with a crossword puzzle, it’s twice as easy. You double your resources and likely double your output. That’s why these everyday puzzles are such a great tool for getting your ESL students to work together. Almost everyone needs help with them! When your students ask each other for help, their chances of success increase dramatically. And when they ask each other for help, they are doing more than just solving a puzzle. They are communicating to reach a goal. If you want to challenge your students to communicate to reach a goal, and maybe have fun with a puzzle in the process, try using the crossword for this activity which teaches students to ask for help.

Step One: Review How To Ask for Help

  1. Before your students are ready to ask each other for help in this activity, it’s important to review with them the appropriate way to ask for help in English. It’s important to start with this step since part of asking for help deals with language, and part of it deals with culture. That is, the appropriate way to ask for help in the U.S. (or other English speaking country) may be different than asking for help in other countries. So even if your students get all their words right, they might still be missing the mark. Here is the process students should follow when they are asking for help in English.

  2. 1

    Realize You Need Help and Ask the Right Person

    For your in class activity, the point of all the conversation will be to ask for help. But when your students are not in class, it might not be so clear to them when it’s time to seek assistance. Help your students understand that when a task seems impossible or when it will take more time than you can spend on it, it is time to ask for help. Students will have to decide for themselves when their situation meets that criteria. Once they have decided when they need help, they should think about the right person to ask. Not everyone has strengths in the same area. For example, anyone asking me for help in changing the oil in their car will be sadly disappointed since I know almost nothing about the process. Others, however, are very experienced, and they are the ones to ask. Encourage students to think about who has the expertise they need and who will therefore be able to help them most easily.

  3. 2

    Get the Person’s Attention

    How you get the attention of your potential helper depends on what circumstances you are in. If you are trying to accomplish a simple task immediately, the ideal helper will probably be someone nearby. This might be the case in a restaurant, shopping center, or other public place. In such cases, the part of your request should get the person’s attention. This is easily done with a simple, “Excuse me.” This little phrase will politely draw a person’s attention to you and get them ready to listen to the request you will propose.

  4. 3

    Start with a Polite Phrase

    Now that you have the person’s attention, you should start your request for help with a polite phrase. Including a polite phrase such as, “Do you mind…, would you mind…, could you please…” or other such phrases does two things. It lets the listener know that you will be asking for help and it communicates that you respect their time and skills. Consider the following examples. “Excuse me. Would you mind helping me carry this?” and “Excuse me. Help me carry this.” Both examples start by getting the person’s attention and then asking for help. But the first example is more polite because of the polite phrase “would you mind” that comes before the specific request. It communicates respect and values the listener’s time and abilities. And when you start a request this way, you are more likely to get help from the person you ask.

  5. 4

    Make Your Request

    Now we finally get to the heart of the matter – presenting your request to your listener. The thing you need help with will influence how you phrase your request. Make sure your students realize that if they start with a polite phrase, they will likely use an embedded question for the actual request for help. So the request will look like the first example, and not the second. “Would you mind giving me directions to the post office?” Not, “Would you mind will you give me directions to the post office.” If students haven’t reviewed embedded questions, you may want to do this with your class prior to doing this activity.

  6. 5

    Listen, Make Eye-contact, and Thank Your Helper

    Once you have asked your request of your helper, the hard work is done, but you are not finished. While your helper is answering you, you will need to maintain eye contact and listen carefully. If you have any questions, wait until the person is finished speaking to ask them. Then, when you have all the information you need, thank the person for their help. If you can do these five steps, you are ready to ask someone for help and to move on to the crossword activity.

Step Two: Give Students a Challenge – the Crossword Puzzle

Now that your students know how to ask for help, it’s time to start the crossword activity. It is up to you, their teacher, whether you use a published crossword puzzle such as the daily puzzle from the New York Times (this can be very difficult and I would only recommend for high advanced students) or whether you choose a more simple puzzle. You can find simple puzzles written for children or write your own including clues about the topics your students are familiar with. Crossword puzzles are naturally a great way to review vocabulary, so if you decide to make your own puzzle you might want to use it as a partial review.

Step Three: Let Students Work and Ask Their Classmates for Help

Your students will need some independent time to work on the crossword. Give them a set amount of time to answer the questions they can and to ask their classmates for answers they do not know. They should follow the pattern of asking for help that you reviewed in step one. End the activity when time is up or when your students have finished the crossword puzzle. Spend a bit of time afterwards discussing how their conversations went when they asked their classmates for help.

Getting students to ask each other for help is good for preparing them to use English in realistic situations after their studies are complete. You don’t have to make a crossword puzzle the object of your lesson – almost any big challenge will accomplish the same goal. Tailor the activity for your specific class, and neither you nor your students will be disappointed.

What activities to you like to use when you teach students how to ask for help?

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