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More advice about teaching ESL students (FAQ)


Who is this FAQ for?

The primary audience for this FAQ are the mainstream (i.e. non-ESL) teachers at Frankfurt International School. For this reason some of the answers are related to the particular situation at FIS. Some of the links (e.g. to internal documents) will not work outside of the school's intranet. Most of the advice, however, will be of use to mainstream teachers of ESL students in any school situation.

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What's the most important thing I should know about the ESL students I teach?

Who they are! It is essential to know which of the non-native students in your class are ESL students and what level of ESL they are in. This will give you some idea how much English they know and will help you to have realistic expectations of what they will be able to understand and do in your lessons.
Marking the names of the ESL students in your grade book, e.g. using an asterisk and a number for their level, is a good way to identify these students. Many teachers also note down the name of the ESL teacher of each ESL student. This can facilitate the liaison that is a very important aspect of our joint efforts to support ESL children as effectively as possible.

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Should I correct an ESL student's grammar mistakes?

Generally not. Students who answer questions in class are working hard to show what they know or have understood and so they are usually not receptive to any feedback on the grammatical accuracy of their message. Moreover, it would probably embarrass them to have their mistakes corrected in front of the rest of the class. There are occasions however when the content of their message is unclear because the grammar is faulty. For example, a student who says: I am here for one year may mean I have been here for one year, or I will stay here for one more year. In these circumstances, it is acceptable to ask for elucidation and to help them if they do not know the correct way to express their idea.

An indirect way to give corrective feedback is to provide the student with a model answer. So, for example, if he says: Columbus find America in 1492, you could reply: Yes, you're right. That's when he discovered America. There is conflicting research evidence as to whether this kind of feedback is effective, so it's best not to overdo it.

As for written work, once again it is important that feedback is concentrated on the content quality of the answer rather than on its grammatical accuracy. It is discouraging for students who have worked hard to give a good answer to have their work covered in red ink for mistakes that are peripheral to the main purpose of the assignment. There is also the danger that they may get the message that surface accuracy is more important than conveying ideas or showing understanding.

However, written work can generally be corrected without causing the student embarrassment in front of his or her peers, and you may well wish to draw attention to one or two of the grammatical mistakes that could interfere with understanding. It is also not unreasonable, for example, to expect the verbs in a piece of writing about a historical event to be in the past tense.

Consider asking the student what kind of feedback he or she would like. Some students may welcome the chance to focus on their grammar mistakes with a view to eradicating them in future pieces of written work. Other students, however, will just completely ignore your corrections - and you can save your precious grading time!

In general, it is worth pointing out that errors are a natural part of the language learning process. Students who are made to feel that mistakes should be avoided at all costs are likely to become inhibited and learn less quickly.

Understanding mistakes in written language

The consequences of focusing on grammar at the expense of communication

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Should I correct an ESL student's pronunciation mistakes?

Students are usually even more sensitive about their pronunciation than their grammar, so be very careful how you deal with such problems. If possible, it is probably better to pretend you have understood rather than ask the student to repeat himself 3 or 4 times or ask another student what he meant. You could always ask him again in private after the lesson; and help him to a correct pronunciation of important subject-specific vocabulary.

It is very important that you do not allow other students to mock ESL students for their pronunciation or imitate their accents. And of course, you should never be tempted to do so yourself. Even if you are sure that the student in question can take a joke, there may be others of the same nationality in the class who would be offended.

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Should I correct an ESL student's spelling mistakes?

As with grammar, it may on occasion be appropriate to draw attention to spelling mistakes. It is reasonable to expect students to spell correctly the keywords in an assignment. If for example they are writing a homework about the water cycle, they should be corrected on mistakes in words such as evaporation, condensation etc. It may also be helpful to draw their attention to mistakes in common words that they always get wrong. The student's ESL teacher will of course be aware of the problem, and if it is really severe will have suggested ways for the student to practice spelling common words correctly - e.g. by doing the spelling exercises on this site.

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Should I let ESL students talk in their native language in my classroom?

It depends what they're talking about! This is not intended to be a flippant answer. Most teachers will justifiably object to ESL students engaging in a general chat in their own language during lesson time. This excludes the teacher and other students, and switches the students off from the focus of the lesson. However, there are occasions where it can be quite acceptable for a student to speak his or her own language. Stronger students can quickly explain to less proficient students what the latter have not understood or what they have to do - this frees the teacher from constantly needing to check on the progress of the weaker student, allowing the teacher to devote enough attention to the other students in the class.

It can be distracting to everyone, however, if an ESL student is trying to do a simultaneous translation of what you are saying while you are saying it. It is helpful therefore if the lesson contains a number of natural breaks in which less proficient students can be helped to understand the important points you have made or what they have to do next.

In general, it is worth noting how important it is for students to be able to discuss their work in their own language. This not only helps to develop their understanding of the topic, but also serves to develop their mother tongue proficiency. There is more on this in my advice to parents about what they can do to help their child at home.

There is one more point to make: it can be very useful if you yourself speak the native language of an ESL student in your class. You can then use the language to facilitate or check the student's understanding of a task or explanation. It is good for the student's self-esteem to know that you have learned and value her language.

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Should I encourage ESL students to use their dictionaries in my lesson?

Within reason. There are times in lessons when it is essential that a student understands a word in order that what comes next makes sense. On such occasions a quick search in the dictionary can be helpful (or alternatively, a compatriot might be able to provide the translation.) In general, however, students should be discouraged from looking up too many words in class, for two main reasons. Firstly, it does not allow them to develop the essential skill of trying to understand words in context; and secondly, it cuts them off from what you say next. Learning to use a dictionary accurately and effectively is not an easy skill, and many students take a long time finding a word, especially if they are trying to guess its spelling. They may often fail to locate the correct translation of the hundreds of words that have more than one meaning.

If the prop of using the dictionary is to be discouraged, however, it is essential that the teacher makes an effort to make his or her spoken language comprehensible. (See my advice sheet on this topic.) It is also useful if the teacher can write key words on the board so that the student can look them up later in the lesson, or at home with the parents' help.

The above advice refers to the use of a dictionary while a teacher is speaking to the class. The situation is a little different if the student is working individually on an assignment, when looking up words will not distract her attention from the teacher. Once again, however, it is undesirable if it is happening too often. If you see a student overusing her dictionary you might ask her what word she was looking up and try yourself, or ask another student, to give her an oral explanation. Alternatively, a compatriot could help her in her mother tongue.

See my advice to students on the effective use of dictionaries.

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How can I help my ESL students learn English as well as my subject?

The most important advice is: Make it comprehensible! if you do this, the ESL students will not only learn your subject but English as well. Read more on the the theory of comprehensible input.

Professor Krashen, who developed this theory and who in my opinion has the most coherent and convincing account of language learning, has postulated that language is acquired, both in the language and the mainstream classroom, when the student is motivated by the task, feels low or zero anxiety, and has had his or her self-esteem protected or enhanced. If such conditions prevail, then there is no filter or barrier preventing the natural acquisition of language - provided that the input is comprehensible, interesting and relevant.

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Why don't my ESL students look at me when I'm talking to them?

For some ESL students direct eye contact with a teacher is considered disrespectful and could be construed as a challenge to the teacher's authority. This is the reason that Asian students in particular may avoid looking the teacher in the eye, especially when being reprimanded.

Another ESL student behaviour that is sometimes misinterpreted is the brusqueness of their language; for example: "You shut the window!", or "Give me 10 Euros." In most cases this is not rudeness or lack of cooperation but simply a manifestation of their limited English. It is a luxury of native or proficient speakers of English to express their feelings and requests politely, since politeness is usually conveyed in grammatically complex language: "I'm feeling cold. Would you mind shutting the window?", "I was wondering if I might possibly be able to borrow 10 Euros."

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How can I judge if a task or assignment will be too difficult for ESL students?

A very useful way of determining the difficulty of a task is to refer to the model propounded by Professor J. Cummins. ESL teachers are also very happy to advise on the likely difficulty of an assignment for any particular student or groups of students.

My advice sheet Helping ESL students understand what they read contains suggestions on how to assess the difficulty to ESL students of written language.

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What can I do to make it easier for the ESL students in my classes?

This is an essential question and there are many answers. For example, take a look at the list of suggestions made by the ESL students themselves in response to the question, and check out the list of guidelines for mainstream teachers.

It is vital to ensure that ESL students can make sense of what you say in class. For this reason it is helpful if you are aware of the ways in which you can improve their chances of understanding what they hear. See the advice sheet Helping ESL students understand what you say for detailed suggestions on this topic. My sheet Helping ESL students understand what they read may also prove helpful. (These two documents emphasize the importance of activating background knowledge before having students read or listen to complex text.) You may also wish to read the suggestions below on cooperative groupings, which are very important for maximizing the ESL student's chance of producing language in the class.

You can help further by explicitly teaching the study skills necessary in your subject. If you use a course book, you could show students how it is organized, where to find the glossary, how to make effective use of the table of contents, chapter headings, graphics and captions etc.

Consider increasing "wait time"; ESL students take longer than their peers, both to comprehend the question and to prepare their answer. They generally benefit from a classroom where students are called on to reply to questions rather than allowed to shout out answers.

They also feel more comfortable when lessons follow established routines; for example, they are expected to copy the homework from the board at the start of each lesson; the teacher always briefly previews what they will be doing that lesson; or the teacher spends the last 5 minutes of the lesson with quick-fire review questions on what was taught in that lesson.

Alert students to cognates and other helpful mother-tongue equivalents. Asking a proficient student for the translation into Japanese or Korean of an important word you have been explaining often helps a shyer, less proficient ESL student with what she had been struggling to understand. Hearing different languages in the classroom sends an important message to students.

Another way that you can help ESL students is to provide a model of what you are expecting them to do. This is especially useful when the task is to produce an extended piece of writing - but it is also of value when the assignment is a poster or oral presentation. You could prepare your own "perfect" answer or you could keep pieces of work done on the same assignment by students in other classes or previous years. It is often helpful to discuss poorer pieces of work and have students analyse why these don't meet the requirements.

A final suggestion: How about asking the students themselves how you could make it easier for them in your lessons?


Important: ESL students need to have grade-appropriate cognitive challenges. Making things easier for ESL students in the mainstream classroom means making accommodations that help them to do the tasks that the native speakers are expected to do. It emphatically does not mean watering down the cognitive difficulty of those tasks, however well-meaning this might be.

I have produced a graphic to illustrate how a task can be made achievable by ESL students without reducing its cognitive demands - namely, by expressing the task in comprehensible language and by providing appropriate assistance. (This kind of assistance is often  called scaffolding.)

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What can I do to help ESL students do good homework?

Assume that you have followed the advice given in the answer to the previous question, and have done what you reasonably can to help ESL students understand the new information, skills and concepts that you have been teaching them. You now want to set a major piece of homework to deepen or assess this understanding. What final steps can you take to optimize your students' chances of doing a good job in this homework?

In response to this question it is helpful for teachers to know the advice given to ESL students who wish to do good homework, namely to follow the UDS method and ensure that they:

Teachers can assist students in heeding this advice by allowing sufficient time during the class or after it for students to ask for elucidation of the task. Of course, it is helpful to students if the task is written on the board, or on a sheet that is given to them. Students should be encouraged to take notes in their own language as the teacher is explaining what to do. Same-nationality students who have better English can be asked to explain the work to their less proficient peers, using their shared mother tongue.

It is also helpful to show the students the criteria by which the task will be assessed. Giving students model answers or allowing them to analyse the shortcomings of less than perfect work (done, for example, by students in the previous year's class) will also help them to understand exactly what they have to do and the form in which it should be done. Students appreciate being told the minimum length requirements, and they certainly need to be clear on due dates.

ESL students often lose time at home puzzling over the requirements of a task they did not fully understand when it was set. ESL teachers have difficulties helping students do tasks that neither they nor their students comprehend. To avoid this wasted time and frustration, mainstream teachers are well-advised to do what they can to ensure that the students know exactly what is expected of them.

Read the advice to students on UDS

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Should I modify homework tasks for the ESL students in my class?

It depends. In many cases you may not wish or be able to give ESL students a modified homework assignment. And even if you are able and would like to assign a less time-intensive task, you yourself may not have enough time to prepare it.

However, it is important to note that ESL students often need to spend two or three times as long to complete a task as it takes the native speakers in the same class. Some students at FIS regularly stay up beyond midnight to get all their homework done and rarely have the time to recharge their batteries. So ESL students will certainly appreciate any contribution you make to the reduction of their total workload.

There are various ways that you can do this. Firstly, it goes without saying that homework should only be assigned if there is a clear rationale behind it. But even if the homework fulfils a particular learning purpose, you may find it possible to allow ESL students to skip it on occasion or to do it when their homework schedule is currently not so full.

Secondly, you may find be able to reduce the scope of the task; for example, by decreasing the word count of a piece of writing, the minimum length of a science presentation, or the number of questions expected to be done in a mathematics homework.

Thirdly, you could replace a long, linguistically-demanding reading homework text with a shorter, less complex one on the same subject. There are various online resources that provide versions of the same content with varying length and linguistic complexity. [An example is Newsela.] And if you are assigning Google research, you could show students how to filter the results by reading level to ensure that they are not attempting texts that will clearly be beyond them.

Finally, you could determine how long it would be likely to take the average native-speaker in your class to complete the assignment and tell the ESL students to work on the assignment for that length of time, then stop. ESL teachers at FIS are very flexible about allowing extra time in ESL lessons for students to complete other subject work that they had no time to finish at home, or to start the work in class and therefore need to spend less time on it later that evening.

If you feel that any given homework assignment is likely to be demanding and thus time-consuming, or if you are not sure if it will be, you are recommended to contact the students' ESL teacher. He or she will be able to advise on the demands of the task, and will be happy to suggest - and in most cases to prepare - a modified task.

It is clear that ESL students need to spend longer on homework than native-speakers, and may occasionally need to stay up very late to complete it. But it is important that this does not happen regularly. Any excessive time spent doing homework eats into the time when they should be relaxing, pursuing their hobbies, or just reading for pleasure. Students who are tired and stressed because of homework demands and lack of opportunities to "switch off" will not be fresh and productive in the classroom, and may well become sick.

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Why don't my ESL students ask for help in class?

It is notable how often mainstream teachers comment that the students in the class who generally need the most help, namely the ESL students, are the ones least likely to ask for it. There are various reasons why this is the case.

Firstly, the ESL students may simply not feel that their proficiency in English is good enough for them to ask the right questions or understand the teacher's answers. Furthermore, ESL students may feel embarrassed to show their lack of understanding in front of the rest of the class; better to say nothing than have the other students think that you are slow or stupid. ESL students who were proud of their achievements in their previous home-country school may feel it demeaning to now be so reliant on the teacher, and prefer to keep face rather than expose their helplessness. It is possible, finally, that some ESL students believe that by asking many questions or frequently asking for help, they somehow convey the the idea that the teacher has not done a good enough job in teaching them.

The advice to the teacher with ESL students in the class is to structure lessons so that there is some time when students are working individually or in small groups. This allows the student to ask questions or for help without being exposed to the attention and possible derision of the full class. It also allows the teacher to approach students suspected of struggling and discreetly offer help.

Teachers could also make it clear to their ESL students that they are generally available to answer student questions after class or during break and lunch.

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What advice can I give to ESL parents about how to help in my subject?

The best way that parents can help at home is to discuss with their child, in their own language, the work in progress. There is more detailed advice on this on the parents' pages of this website. It would be useful to refer parents to these pages when you call them or meet them to talk about their child's progress.

Additionally, you could reinforce the constant message we ESL teachers give students and parents about the importance of extensive reading in English - particularly of non-fiction texts. As Cummins points out:

"If ELL (ESL) students are not reading extensively and understanding what they read, they have little hope of bridging the gap in academic language proficiency between themselves and native speakers of English."

Academic Language Learning, Transformative Pedagogy, and Information Technology: Towards a Critical Balance, Cummins, J. (2001) TESOL Quarterly, Vol 34, No. 3

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An ESL student is struggling in my lessons? What is the best way I can help her?

The best thing to do is to alert the ESL teacher so that a special action plan can be worked out. You may also wish to tell the parents what they can do to help. See my answer to the previous question.

Before suggesting private tuition, it is recommended that you contact the ESL teacher. See the newsletter article about private tuition if you want to read the advice we give to ESL parents when they ask if this is necessary for their child.

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An ESL student is doing badly in my tests. Why is this?

If a student does poorly in one of your tests, it is helpful to analyse with her the possible reasons. These could be any of the following (or a combination of them):

Obviously, a child who doesn't work hard through the term, or who lacks good test-preparation and test-taking strategies, will struggle to do well in tests, and these issues should be addressed by the teacher. The other reasons listed above, however, are more to do with language ability, and you may wish to adopt a flexible response in order to help the ESL student show what she has learned and understood. For example, you may wish to prepare an ESL version of the test. Alternatively, you could make sure you are on hand during the test to explain what the questions mean. Or you could allow the student to write part of an answer in her own language and then explain it to you or have it translated after the test. ESL students usually need more time than their native-speaking peers to complete the test. It takes the pressure off them a little if they know they will have the chance to continue into break or finish off in the ESL lesson.

Of course, it is very important that the language of the test questions and tasks is unambiguous, so the student can quickly understand what she has to do. [See my advice on how to make tests and worksheets comprehensible.]

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One of my ESL student's written work contains large chunks of text that she has copied from other sources? What should I do?

Plagiarism is quite common among ESL students and can have many causes. Please contact the child's ESL teacher if the problem persists despite implementing some of the advice on how to deal with it.

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What is the best way to integrate ESL students into my lessons?

It is helpful if you know a little about the ESL student's background and interests, since this will enable you to make connections to their personal lives. At the ESL placement interview the ESL teacher finds out this information and then sends it out to all concerned by e-mail. Little things can be important, such as spelling the child's name correctly and learning how to pronounce it with some accuracy. It is also helpful in class to seat ESL students with native-speakers who are sympathetic and encouraging. You can also devise group activities in which the ESL student's contribution is essential to the successful completion of the task. (See next question!)

On a more general level, it is useful if the culture and history of the student can be incorporated into lessons. [More] It is important that students feel teachers respect their cultures as much as the dominant cultures of the school. (The ESL department has a very useful set of materials of the different countries of the world, called Culturegrams. There is also another set in the school library.)

Cummins (1996) has an excellent explanation of the importance of integrating ESL students' cultures and background experiences into your lessons, thereby validating their personalities and identities:

".. when students' language, culture and experience are ignored or excluded in classroom interactions, students are immediately starting from a disadvantage. Everything they have learned about life and the world up to this point is dismissed as irrelevant to school learning; there are few points of connection to curriculum materials or instruction and so the students are expected to learn in an experiential vacuum. Students' silence and non-participation under these conditions have frequently been interpreted as lack of academic ability or effort, and teachers' interactions with students have reflected a pattern of low expectations which have become self-fulfilling."

Cummins J (1996) Negotiating Identities: Education for Empowerment in a Diverse Society Ontario CA California Association for Bilingual Education

Two simple examples of including the non-native speaker's culture and previous educational experience:

[More from Cummins on the importance of affirming ESL students' personal and cultural identities.]

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How do cooperative activities benefit ESL students?

An excellent way of integrating ESL students into your class is via cooperative activities. Researchers have found that language learning takes place most effectively when learners are engaged in interesting tasks that allow plenty of meaningful interaction with sympathetic native speakers. However, it is not enough to just put the ESL student with 2 or 3 others and hope for the best. If this happens, there is a danger that the ESL student will take on a peripheral role - or have it forced on her. Therefore, it is most beneficial if the group activity is so structured that the outcome is dependent on the contributions of ALL the group members.

As an example, consider the topic of pollution. First each member of each group chooses or is allocated a sub-topic. Those having the same sub-topic, say river pollution, meet together to discuss and research that sub-topic. The students then return to their original groups where they report on what they learned in the sub-topic groups. Group members then discuss how to include this information in their final report or presentation.

Using this method, the contribution of each group member is critical to the final outcome. To provide extra support to ESL students, you could arrange it so that they are given an easier sub-topic or task, or that the sub-topic group they go to contains a same nationality peer.

In summary, it can be said that pair or group work is important for ESL students because it gives them the chance to express their ideas and opinions or ask questions (of the teacher or other group members) on a smaller stage than in front of the whole class. It also gives the teacher a much better chance to offer individual and unobtrusive help.

[There is more information on cooperative grouping in: Second Language Students in Mainstream Classrooms, Sears, C. (1998) Multilingual Matters. I have a copy of this book in my room if you would like to borrow it.]

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Where can I find information about the language, culture and history of the countries of my ESL students?

In my room I have a comprehensive set of materials called Culturegrams. These contain information about every country in the world on topics such as: history, language, customs, food, holidays, education system, lifestyle, recreation, and many more. There is a further set of these materials in the library.

[Dr. Else Hamayan has devised an interesting graphic that makes it clear there is more to culture difference than the obvious elements of music, food and dress.]

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I have a student in my class who never says a word. Should I make him speak?

It is rarely productive to try and cajole a reluctant beginner into answering questions in class. There is a well-attested silent period that some ESL students go through in which they are not prepared to volunteer any spoken information. In most cases however these students are learning and will emerge from their silent cocoon some time later with a surprising ability to express themselves orally.

Here is what Professor Krashen has to say about the silent period:

"Very typically, children in a new country, faced with a new language, are silent for a long period of time, their output being limited to a set number of memorized phrases and sentences that they hear frequently and whose meaning they do not understand completely. [...] The child, during this time, is simply building up competence by listening, via comprehensible input. His first words in the second language are not the beginning of his second-language acquisition; rather, they are the result of the comprehensible input he has received over the previous months." Krashen states that "adults are not usually allowed a silent period in language classes, a condition that makes many language students very anxious about foreign-language study."
Krashen, S. 1985 The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications (Longman)

The issue is more complicated for silent students who are in their second or subsequent years at the school. They may in fact desire the opportunity to participate orally, but do not yet have the language processing skills to quickly understand the question and formulate their answer in English. They are disadvantaged therefore in classes with rapid teacher-student interchanges, particularly where the students are not called on but allowed to respond at will.

If teachers allow sufficient processing time, then ESL students may feel comfortable in raising their hand to answer. If they still remain silent, it is reasonable for the teacher to call on the student directly (providing it is believed that he or she will have an answer). This will inevitably be hard for some students, but if it never happens the student may feel the teacher has no confidence in him or her, and the silence will continue*.

A final point: if the course includes opportunities for cooperative activities then the student will be able to communicate orally in a setting much less threatening than in front of the whole class.

* Teachers wishing to review the research on the issue of silent students are recommended to read the following article: Priviliging of Speech in EAP and Mainstream University Classrooms: A Critical Evaluation of Participation Ellwood, C. and Nakane, I. TESOL Quarterly 43/2 2009

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How should I grade my ESL students?

This is a complex issue. In general, students who have reached a certain level of English proficiency (at FIS this means students in ESL2, Advanced or Transitional classes) should be assessed and graded according to the same criteria as the other students in the class. This may mean that for some students their grades are low at first, but nevertheless it is important that ESL students, together with their parents and their ESL teacher get accurate feedback on the standards they are reaching in their mainstream classes. Such a grading policy also helps the ESL teacher to determine at the end of the year if the student is in need of further support in the following year. (It can be difficult to recommend that a child continues in ESL if his grades in the other subjects have been artificially inflated. )

Within the above guidelines, however, it is still possible to treat ESL students in a way that is appropriate to their particular status and needs. Sympathetic is a useful term to describe this special treatment of ESL students in terms of grading and assessment. It means for example that students are given credit for demonstrating understanding even if their ability to express their understanding in clear and accurate English is limited. It means that they are not graded down for grammar and spelling mistakes (unless these are an integral and clearly stated part of the assignment.) It means further that students have the chance to give an oral explanation of answers that they were not able to write down very clearly. It also means that they may be allowed the chance to redo homework or retake tests.

Some FIS students of very limited English proficiency (this means students in ESL1 or Intermediate classes) should be assessed according to the policy set out in the document The assessment of ESL students.

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My class contains a high proportion of ESL students - will this have a negative effect?

It need not, since many of the strategies which are good for ESL students are good for the others, too. This is a situation where the internal grouping of students takes on greater importance. It is generally helpful if ESL students can be paired or grouped with others from a different language background, although it can be useful if beginners can also have the chance to be helped in their own language. In general, the advice is to teach to the native speakers in the class so that the cognitive demand on students is not compromised. There is an interesting discussion of the dangers of reducing the cognitive level in the classroom in Vol. 47/1 of the English Language Teaching (ELT) Journal. (Embarrassment and hygiene in the classroom Mackay, R.) The ESL department holds a copy of this article if you wish to read it.

You may also wish to read my answer to parents who ask a similar question.

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How should I adapt the work I give to the ESL students in my class?

Much of the work that is set in the mainstream (whether to do in class or at home) takes the ESL students much longer to accomplish than the native-English speakers. Of course, mainstream teachers are aware of this and may attempt to adapt the tasks that the ESL students have to do. This concern for ESL students is admirable, but it carries with it two dangers.

The first danger is that the cognitive demands of the task may be reduced, or that the task may be replaced by different, simpler task. ESL students can certainly be helped by making the language of tasks easier to understand, but they have the same cognitive abilities as the other students and should be required to use them in the completion of the same assignments.

The second danger is that the teacher ends up spending so long on regular adaptation of materials for ESL students that he or she does not have the time or energy to devote to preparing engaging and instructive lessons for the class as a whole.

A solution to the dilemma of ensuring that ESL students are cognitively challenged but do not end up working twice or three times as long on an assignment as a native-speaker is to reduce the amount of work they have to do. For example, instead of requiring them to do 20 word problems in mathematics unit, permit them to do 12. Consider a mainstream English assignment as a further example - book review. Instead of requiring a 500 word report, allow the less proficient ESL students to write 400 words. Do not, on the other hand, permit them to write only about plot and not about theme or mood, since this reduces the cognitive challenge of the task.

The ESL department is very happy to advise on the modification of materials to make them linguistically more accessible to ESL students.

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What is the best way to keep in contact with the ESL teacher?

How the liaison takes place is a matter for each subject teacher to determine in consultation with the ESL teacher. Some prefer to have a brief regular meeting to discuss work in progress and students of concern; while other find it easier to keep in contact by e-mail. See the sheet of general information about how ESL teachers can help, containing a list of times that they are free to discuss with you or visit one of your classes.

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How are ESL students placed at FIS?

The decision about the initial placement of a student is made after the student has been interviewed by an ESL teacher who assesses the linguistic competence of the student in the major language skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. (The reading test generally consists of a short story taken from the appropriate grade level literature anthology.) The student's educational and language background is also taken into account. In cases where a student falls between two levels, the wishes of the parents and/or the student are taken into account.

Subsequent placement depends on the student's progress in English as assessed against the ESL objectives. Placement changes can take place at any time, although they are generally not considered desirable in the last two months of the school year. A majority of changes take place between one school year and the next. The placement decision does not only depend on the child's linguistic proficiency, as measured against ESL course objectives, but on such factors as the child's nationality, motivation and ability to work independently. An essential part of the decision-making process is the continuing discussion with the child's subject teachers about her progress in those subjects, including the level and quality of her participation in all of the class activities, her results in tests, the quality of her homework etc. The child's longer-term academic plans are often also taken into consideration after discussions with the parents.

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How can I identify an ESL child who has learning difficulties?

Some of the indicators of a learning disability that are exhibited by an English native speaker are also shown by ESL students in the first stage of their English language development. These indicators include difficulty in following oral instructions, poor eye tracking when reading, inconsistent spelling, limited attention span, avoidance of eye contact, etc. The crucial difference is that the problems experienced by the learning-disabled native speaker are for the most part permanent, whereas ESL students display such behaviours for a temporary period only.

There are significant variations in the duration of this temporary period for ESL students. It is important, therefore, that mainstream teachers are aware that a normal (i.e. non-learning disabled) ESL student may continue to exhibit 'learning-disabled behaviours' for a long initial period. Such students should not be prematurely labelled as having a learning problem when in fact they simply have a temporary language or acculturation problem.

Nevertheless, every so often we have an ESL student who doesn't make the progress expected of him or her, even allowing for the large variations in the speed at which English language proficiency develops. In most cases such a student will have been identified by an ESL teacher, and the 'learning-disabled specialist' will have been contacted in order to undertake a joint diagnosis. This diagnosis will usually include testing in the child's mother tongue. If the child does indeed turn out to have learning problems, then some kind of additional support is offered. This may, at Frankfurt International School, involve the replacement of the child's German class with lessons in Learning Support/Academic Workshop.

If you suspect that an ESL student's difficulties in your class are the result of more than a simple lack of English language proficiency, please collect evidence and contact the child's ESL teacher. It is helpful for the ESL teacher to know, specifically, the types of task that cause the student problems and the kinds of atypical behaviour that the student exhibits.

The ESL program manual of the US Department of Defence contains excellent, detailed information and advice on how to diagnose and respond to the learning disabilities of ESL students.

For a further detailed discussion of the issue, refer to the following article, a copy of which is available in room 289:

Special Education Needs of Second Language Learners Cloud, Nancy. (1994). In F. Genesee (Ed), Educating Second Language Children (pp.243-277). New York: Cambridge University Press.

The topic is given comprehensive coverage in this more recent work by Hamayan: Special Education Considerations for English Language Learners: Delivering a Continuum of Services. (Caslon, 2007).

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How can I communicate effectively with ESL parents?

There may be many occasions in the school year when you will have contact with ESL parents; for example at the International Meal or during Back to School Night or Open House. In particular you may need to talk to them on the phone or during parent conferences to discuss their child's progress. In all of the dealings with parents, it is important to modulate your language in such a way that it can be more easily understood. Of course this does mean not patronising them by speaking more loudly or excessively slowly, or using "baby language". What it does mean is that you may have to repeat or rephrase the important parts of your message. You should also try to avoid most of the idioms and colloquialisms that are typical of natural everyday language between native speakers. Telling a parent that her daughter takes a long time to cotton on and that she needs to pull her socks up is likely to be met by a confused stare!

You should be aware too that much of the school jargon that we use without thinking about it will be inaccessible to ESL parents. For example, it is unrealistic to expect them to know what you mean when you talk about authentic assessment or Learning Center. (More on school jargon.)

You also need to be careful with euphemisms. While they may be appropriate and expected by native-English speaking parents, your message may not be understood by ESL parents. To tell a Korean mother that her son does not take full advantage of the learning opportunities offered to him will probably not communicate effectively what you are trying to telling her. It is often better to say gently something like: Your son is a little bit lazy in lessons, and then give specific examples of how he could participate more. (More on euphemisms) You need be a little careful, however, since some parents may regard the difficulties their child is having as reflecting poorly on themselves and their family as a whole.

You should also know that many ESL parents will feel very uncomfortable if they think that other parents or students can hear what you are saying about their child. For this reason, you are strongly recommended to close the door of the room in which you are having the meeting or conference with the parents.

In general it is important that parents are not left feeling frustrated, confused or embarrassed after meeting with you. Making ESL parents feel valued and welcomed in our school and involving them in the education of their child is an essential aspect of helping the child to fulfil his or her potential.

(More on making language comprehensible : written language   spoken language)

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What do I need to know about ESL students and culture shock?

Some ESL students at FIS suffer from physical, emotional or behavioural complaints that are caused by culture shock. The shock can be caused by difficulties in adjusting to Germany and German culture. It is more likely however to be the result of trying to cope with the demands of a very different school system from the one they have left behind. The effects of culture shock - or to be more precise, school shock - are described in some detail in my article to parents elsewhere on this site. My intention here is to make mainstream teachers aware of some of the teaching practices at FIS that may be unfamiliar and stressful to ESL students. Of course it is not suggested that colleagues change their teaching methodologies to avoid all possibility of discomfiting ESL students. But an awareness of the points below will often be sufficient to prevent teachers drawing the wrong conclusions about the behaviour and attitude of the ESL students in their classes. It can help to alleviate stress if ESL students feel that the teacher is knowledgeable about and sympathetic to their difficulties. Teachers can also help adjustment to the new culture by reinforcing the student's pride in his own culture. (More on this)

Possible sources of school shock

Of course not all ESL students come from countries whose educational culture is different in the ways listed above. And most of those who do will not experience more than a temporary discomfort on joining our school. What is common to all ESL students, however, and probably the main cause of school shock, is the huge mental effort required to work for more than 8 hours a day learning new content in a foreign language. For this reason it is clear that students will benefit directly from any efforts by teachers to make the classroom language and homework tasks as comprehensible as possible. Ways to do this are described in the following articles:

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How should I reply if a student or her parents asks me how she can improve her English?

Many ESL students are very motivated to learn English as quickly as possible. They spend a lot of extra time at home doing language work of one type or another, and often their parents pay for private tuition. Unfortunately, in more than a few cases, this time and money could be better spent. The single best thing that students can do at home to improve their English is to read extensively in the language. It is the best thing because it allows students to engage in an activity that most enjoy - particularly if they are able to choose their own reading material . And it is the best thing because it has been shown* that extensive reading not only improves students' reading skills - as is to be expected - but also has a marked effect on other aspects of their language too, in particular on their writing ability.

There is also plenty of research evidence to show that learners of English who simultaneously maintain and develop their proficiency in the mother tongue do better in school. For this reason parents can be advised on the benefits of their child reading good literature or non-fiction in their native language too.

So if you are asked the question above, please advise students and parents on the considerable benefits of reading in both languages. At the same time, however, it would be good to suggest that they contact the ESL teacher for more specific advice on the kinds and levels of reading in English that the child should be doing, because this will play a significant part in the success of any such program.

* See: Extensive reading and the development of language skills, Hafiz, F. & Tudor, I. (1989) in ELT Journal 43/1

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What do students do in ESL lessons?

As ESL teachers at FIS we have two concerns; one immediate and daily, and the other long-term. The immediate concern is to help students do assignments that will satisfy them and their subject teachers. The long-term concern is to help the students learn enough English that they can function successfully in the mainstream without ESL support. The amount of time that is devoted to each of these concerns depends on the particular group of students and the time of year. So, for example, more time is spent on other subject work with beginning students than with more advanced students. Students generally become more independent as the year progresses, so more time is devoted to general language and skills development towards the end of the year than at the beginning.

Beginning ESL students tend to lose their voice and their personality when they enter the mainstream classroom in the first few months at FIS. They may believe themselves to be or even be made to feel stupid. For this reason we incorporate into our teaching activities that allow students to demonstrate their intelligence, their imagination and creativity, their linguistic knowledge (of their own language) and their personality. Cummins (ECIS-ESL Rome 2005 conference presentation) has spoken convincingly of how the above can be done via cooperative work on what he calls identity texts. There are examples of identity texts in the Dual Language Showcase.

Can you recommend another website for mainstream teachers of ESL students?

Yes! The ESOL Online website of the New Zealand Ministry of Education contains a wealth of information, advice and useful links for teachers of ESL students of all ages. Highly recommended!


Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)