While the numbers of ESL learners in English-speaking countries is vastly increasing, the numbers of qualified ESL teachers is not meeting this growing demand.
Despite “formal” qualifications and ESL specific training, what skills are most important to make a difference for these students? As a regular classroom teacher and ESL teacher in several ESL programs both here in the US and abroad for over three decades, I wanted to share with you a few insights. You will not be surprised. Most of these qualities are what make good teachers no matter what subject or population of learners being taught.
1. A Genuine Relationship with Students
Researchers Deiro (1996) and Noddings (1992) found that teachers who genuinely care about their students have a significant impact on the students’ attitudes, motivation and behavior. These students work harder and are more successful learners. They learn English faster and display stronger skills. Think of a teacher who you knew really cared about you as a person. How did this affect your classroom performance and the success you had in that class, which in turn impacted your future success as a learner? The relationship between a student and teacher is the most important factor difference for ESL students.
2. Understanding of a Student’s Cultural Background
A teacher who openly welcomes students and accepts the cultural differences can help with an easier acceptance by the school environment. When a student feels valued, he/she is more apt to assimilate into the English-speaking culture, to make friends and increase opportunities to use English. Students who engage in more conversation and activities with native-born English speakers, acquire English skills quicker which help to boost more skills.
3. Training in Second Language Education Techniques and Approaches
Quality professional training development opportunities need to be available to help these teachers and other staff members who teach culturally and linguistically diverse students. Instruction needs to be ongoing and offered in a whole array of learning formats from short workshops and one-time inservices to online classes and those that stretch over longer periods of time. These educational opportunities should be available for free or low cost, possibly with added incentives to the teacher. They should be available in the most convenient settings and at times to accommodate the “busy” teacher who is already pulled and stretched beyond what most careers expect.
4. Understanding the Individual Needs of Students
It is helpful to assess the student’s language proficiency and educational history. The design of the classroom lessons can then be individualized to focus on each student’s functional English level in the areas of listening, speaking, reading and writing. This ongoing student assessment helps the teacher obtain current functional levels so lessons can be targeted towards maximum growth. They can zero in on exactly what the student needs. It is pronunciation of a sound or letters? Is it vocabulary?
How about writing? Can they write a sentence or do they need help with outlining or research? Do they have study skills? It is common to have five reading levels in a classroom (i.e. two reading levels above the grade level and two reading levels below); can you imagine the levels of language ability in ESL learners? Ongoing assessment will support daily instruction and targeted learning needs of a student will help that child acquire language quicker and build self-confidence.
5. Encouraging English Conversations & Involvement Outside the Classroom
Students who more actively engage outside the classroom in extracurricular or community activities cultivate friendships and interests which help with broadening language acquisition. When students feel more confident and have some degree of language skill, they can be encouraged to join other school- and community-related activities. These can be based on the students’ interests. Maybe a student enjoys the outdoors and scouting is a good option; sports, music and art might be other avenues; some students might be befriended by native speakers who invite them to participate in something they are engaged in. Another suggestion is joining groups and clubs that build on an international focus like language clubs and service organizations. Being active and also volunteering to help towards some larger purpose can also build relevancy to learning and involvement.
6. A Willingness to Connect with Communities
Teachers need to analyze what skills are most important to learn at any given time, and then teach those. As students progress through a hierarchy of skills and meet success, their learning will soar. Lessons that are built on high interest and tied to the present needs of the students work well. I remember when I taught ESL students who had just arrived in America. On Friday afternoons, we would take walking field trips downtown not far from the elementary school that housed the district program.
We could walk to any number of bakeries, toy stores, bookstores, restaurants, a library and museum, and a few parks. I’ll never forget the day we toured the art museum and I asked the kids to stand by a painting they liked the best. One little girl didn’t move. I tried to explain to her what was expected of her. But she could only shake her head “no”. When I asked her why not, Maya just said that the paintings all were so beautiful. I knew then that the students were gaining so much more out of these experiences than I could imagine.
Sometimes I would call ahead to a specific place and tell the business owners, etc. we would be coming. Other times, our class would venture out to explore without a schedule. The outpouring from the businesses was something I will never forget. The kids were invited to make pizzas, frost cakes, take a painting class from an artist, and dine in a fancy restaurant. The opportunities for rich language growth filled these afternoons to overflowing.
So much that a recent student of mine, Jimmy called to say hello. I asked him if he needed anything and he replied, “No, I’m fine. I just found a note in which you wrote that if I needed anything, I should call. So I’m calling to tell you that I don’t need anything. I’ve just graduated with a degree in English Literature and I’ve accepted an internship for my master degree.” Here’s to making it relevant!
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