Rank and File: How to Help ESL Students Stay Organized

Rank and File
How to Help ESL Students Stay Organized

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 3,516 views |

It’s fair to say that, with the advent of affordable personal devices such as laptops and Ipads, student note-taking and organization has reached something of a crossroads.

Increasingly, courses are taught with entirely digital materials, and the days of handing out stacks of worksheets, and receiving a pile of assignments on paper, may be numbered.

That said, a student’s ability to stay organized, and to keep their work neat and tidy, is inarguably expressed by the state of their paperwork. A dog-eared notebook, a chaotic folder, or a backpack whose lower depths are crammed with screwed-up handouts, are all signs of a larger problem: poor self-discipline. If a student cannot take good notes and keep them tidy (whether in a traditional or an electronic format) this indicates an area where teachers might have a positive influence.

I made a similar point once about the connection between lateness and other personal problems; for me, poor notes and untidy folders are a symptom that our students are lacking focus, and might not be giving their work the attention it needs. Here are some thoughts on how to address this problem:

Use 10 Wonderful Ideas to Help ESL Students Stay Organized

  1. 1

    Begin on Day One

    Along with the other good habits you might encourage your students to adopt from the beginning of the semester, make a point of asking them to bring a notebook, a file folder and pens to every class. If you’ve gone entirely digital, your task becomes complicated by the notes (and their files and folders) being invisible to you, unless you have access to your students’ electronic work. Similar rules should apply, however; neatness and good organization can apply to digital files as well as to paper.

  2. 2

    Provide a Good Example

    A great resource, if it’s available, is a really excellent student folder from the previous semester, so your new students can see what’s now expected of them, and have something to aspire to. Stress that students who are well-organized tend to learn better, achieve fluency more quickly and (this may appeal to many) achieve better test scores.

  3. 3

    Make Routine Checks

    Every class, choose a student or two who will show you their folder and notebook. You’re not trying to embarrass anyone, only to encourage good habits.

  4. 4

    Make Organization Part of Your Assessment System

    Continuous assessment  is a great way to bring into the students’ final results elements other than test scores. Grading the state of their notebooks and file folders incentivizes the forming of good habits.

  5. 5

    Show Good Organization In Action

    Your own lesson plan book can be another, constantly developing example of how proper organization yields good results. Often, students are rather fascinated to see how the teacher handles their work; I’ve had a lot of students peeking at my plan book when I’m not looking, curious as to how it’s organized.

  6. 6

    Develop a Buddy System

    Accountability is quickly built by having someone other than the teacher to whom the student will be responsible. A weekly check of the folder belonging to their ‘File Buddy’ will catch problems before they become serious.

  7. 7

    Establish Routines

    From day one, and every time it’s relevant, make sure your students follow these routines.

    • If it goes on the board, it goes in their notebook.
    • If it’s handed to them, they write their name and date on it, and file it in their folder.
    • If it’s a homework assignment, they note down the details, including the due date.
    • Sections of their folder can be kept separate, depending on the content of your handouts. For example, my classes have a section for puzzles and quizzes , another for readings, another for their own writings, and so on.
    • Choreograph the placing of these handouts in the folder. You may need to lay your hands on a hole punch, which the students can pass around. This ensures that the handout is (at the least) ready to be placed in the folder.
  8. 8

    Incentivize Good Habits

    I don’t see anything wrong in rewarding students who have immaculate folders and notebooks, with all the information clearly available and all their handouts neatly filed. Consider which incentives might work best for your group.

  9. 9

    Use Sanctions, but Be Careful

    Neatness is a hard-earned quality; for many of us, it takes years to habituate a response to our tendency to simply throw things in a pile. Some of us aren’t interested in alphabetizing or neatly filing information; we have to respect human variance when it comes to personal organization, rather than try to impose a ‘one size fits all’ policy.

    Gentle encouragement and good humor are much more effective than public castigation or yelling at those who won’t bend to your will. Ultimately, it’s the students’ choice how they organize their lives and their work.

  10. q

    Keep Checklists and Spare Copies

    Throughout the semester, I build a checklist of all the information my students should have in their folders. Because we’re all human, and things jus go missing sometimes, I keep spare copies so that students can fill in any blanks. This is best done during the daily (initially) or weekly (down the road) checks of the state of their folders.

Your students may try to pull you into a debate on the relative virtues of electronic and hand-written notes. I’ve never had a student who possessed a laptop and didn’t claim it represented a better study method than pen and paper. You will have your own views on this, but I encourage you to stick to them, rather than have your classroom policies dictated to you. With the best will in the world, your students are generally young and not very experienced, whereas you’re a classroom professional who has been thinking about these issues for months and years.

I refuse to engage in these debates, and simply apply my rules fairly and with good humor; whatever the digital age may bring, there will still be a place for showing focus and care by having a neat, tidy folder of well-organized notes.

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