Surefire Tips for Motivating ESL Learners

Teach ESL

Those who have already obtained a master’s degree in ESL may have the upper hand, but TESL students and the vast majority of other teachers have limited knowledge of how to work with English as a Second Language (ESL) learners, also called English Language Learners (ELLs). At some point in their career, almost all teachers will have a student whose native language is not English. Engaging with ELLs does not have to be an uphill battle — in fact, it should be an enriching experience for the teacher, the ESL learner, and the rest of the class.

As with all teaching, going the few extra steps to prepare engaging lessons — namely by injecting your own personal experiences and incorporating those of your students — will do wonders to interest your students in the curriculum. You can also draw inspiration from and use these teaching resources and tools. Says one teacher, “Teaching ESL is about 1/3 knowing the ins and outs of the English language, 1/3 being a good communicator, and 1/3 being a good actor. You really need to be excited in this job.” Here are 10 tips for motivating ESL learners and elevating the educational and cultural environment for everyone involved:

Tip #1: Create a cultural dialogue.

This suggestion tops our list because it is offered by every teacher who has worked with ESL students. Learning in an English-speaking classroom doesn’t mean force-feeding American patriotism. It must be a two-way street. Create an environment that embraces your students’ own cultures and backgrounds. Show a real interest. Ask the students to teach you phrases in their own language, especially positive phrases like “Good job,” and use these phrases interchangeably with their English counterparts. Do presentations on their culture’s history, food, and background, and encourage the students to formulate their own demonstrations. Invite the parents into the classroom, even if they don’t speak English, to participate and get to know the entire class. This approach helps teach all your students that having a family that speaks another language is something to be celebrated.

Tip #2: Engage with your students’ special occasions and interests.

On a related note, many American teachers develop special activities for holidays— Halloween, Passover, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and so forth — as well as American pastimes — baseball, lemonade stands, overconsumption. Ask your students to share their own holidays and interests, and incorporate these ideas into your classroom. One of the best ways to get a child or adult talking is to ask them about their personal life. Whipping out a handout that includes something that relates meaningfully to their lives will strengthen their interest in the classroom community and the material itself.

Tip #3: Use scaffolding techniques to help students accomplish tasks.

Scaffolding is the support given during the learning process that is tailored to the needs of your students. Since ESL learners generally need a new kind of support, it can be helpful to think of scaffolding as divided into three categories:

  1. Verbal scaffolding: slowing speech, enunciating words, paraphrasing, rephrasing, using “think-alouds,” etc.;
  2. Procedural scaffolding: one-on-one teaching, coaching, modeling, small-group instruction, partnering, and pairing; and
  3. Instructional scaffolding: use of pictures, regalia, graphs, graphic organizers, audio-visual aids, and so forth.

Being aware of how you use these tools in the classroom can help you better plan for the needs of your students. Eventually, the goal is for the student to figure out the task at hand on their own and no longer need the additional support.

Tip #4: Maximize inter-student interaction.

Cooperative learning is proven to be effective for ESL learners. Students see the teacher as the authority figure. Getting them to speak in front of you or in front of the whole class can be difficult, but they usually feel more comfortable interacting with their peers. Ask your students to teach one another simple playground games, like tag or four square. You could even have the class interact with and help each other use some of these apps for learning English as a means to facilitate conversation, learn, and have fun. When planning group or pairing activities, design different groupings depending on the needs and purposes of the lesson. This interaction gives the ESL students a chance to practice English in a less threatening setting. Although they shouldn’t feel threatened at all, because you should always…

Tip #5: Correct errors with compassion.

Your ESL students will make mistakes, and you should let them. After all, we learn best through making mistakes. And if you’re interrupting your students to correct them every five words, they’re going to get frustrated, lose their train of thought, and feel attacked. Give your students time to think and respond, and let them realize they’ve made a mistake and try to correct it themselves. Everyone has opinions, and everyone wants the floor to speak them occasionally. Give them the space they need to formulate ideas.

Tip #6: Speak clearly.

It may seem obvious, but it is important to ensure your students understand what is expected of them. At the start of each activity, go over both the content and the language objectives; with both children and adults, these objectives can be simple and straightforward. At the end of the lesson, review the objectives to ensure they’ve understood everything. One teacher even suggests recording snippets of your class for your own review. He says, “It’s amazing how many times you’ll find yourself saying words that are natural to you, but might throw off the students (think about how many times you say ‘ya know,’ ‘like,’ ‘well, ya see,’ ‘the thing is,’ so kind of extra words with no meaning.” Recording yourself to make sure you’re being crisp, concise, and to the point.

Tip #7: Use hands-on and project-based activities.

This is actually applicable to all teachers in all disciplines: Students like hands-on and project-based activities, and effective teachers use them to help their students engage in learning through exploration. Hands-on activities generally include scaffolding components, and project-based activities often incorporate the students’ own interests and cultural backgrounds. There’s no need to stick to a monotone reading of the textbook. Think outside the mold with the goal of experimental fun. One teacher suggests an activity that involves setting up a “marketplace” in the classroom and asking students to buy, sell, and trade different items. This hits a few key objectives, including inter-student interaction and the practical art of negotiation. A number of teachers suggest using music in the classroom — sing pop songs together, create songs for vocabulary lists, and so forth. If you play an instrument yourself, by all means, bring it into the classroom!

Tip #8: Be adaptable, but maintain high expectations.

A challenge like learning in a new setting is just that: a challenge. It doesn’t mean you should lower your expectations or give out A’s for effort. Outline realistic benchmarks and assessments, and take into account the students’ needs for time, support, difficulty, and product. Adapt the amount of time for completing a task; adapt the amount of scaffolding; adapt the task (for example, by allowing use of a dictionary or simplified instructions); and adapt the type of response such as permitting drawings, a verbal response, or a translated response. Students want to respond to their teachers’ high expectations positively, so if you foster a positive classroom environment while maintaining your high (and realistic) expectations, your students will rise to the challenge.

Tip #9: Encourage students to speak in their native language.

Some teachers make the mistake of telling their ESL students that their native tongue is not allowed in the classroom. But maintaining and developing this native language actually helps their acquisition of academic English. According to a 1995 study by Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas, dual language models of schooling have a substantial effect on student progress, “enhancing student outcomes and fully closing the achievement gap in second language.” Support of the primary language is therefore critical to helping your students succeed both in your class and in the years to follow, and ideally, instruction occurs bilingually — that is, the “curricular mainstream [is] taught through two languages.”

Tip #10: Seek resources.

When you need advice or ideas, or if you simply want a sounding board, sseek assistance from full-time ESL teachers or even general teachers who are bilingual themselves. Identify and recruit volunteers from your personal and professional life, or any of these ESL and TESOL Twitter accounts who speak the students’ language. Administrators can even work with community leaders who are involved in community development with immigrant families.

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