Tips for Working with ESL Students

Tips for working with ESL students:
● As with all students, worry about higher order concerns first.
● It is common for grammar errors on first drafts to impede meaning. So, when working with lower-order concerns, attempt to identify patterns of error and address the most serious problems first. Try to limit it to about 2/3 lower-order concerns per essay.
● Prioritize discussion of grammar issues according to which ones most affect meaning. After that, ask yourself what problems occur the most? Even though we cringe when a student forgets articles (a/an/the), is that the biggest problem in the essay? Can you mention the articles, but not fuss about them until Essay 3 or 4?
● Do not attempt to correct all errors or problems on an essay. You would not be compelled to do this on an essay from a native speaker, right? It will be much easier to prioritize your comments if you read the essay first without a pen in your hand.
● When giving comments in writing/in person, try to avoid slang, idioms, and verb phrases. Try not to use words that have more than one meaning.

Instead of this:
I see what’s going on here. You can’t stand the adoption system in your country any more. You’re on the right track with this. Just try to support your claims a little more.

Try this:
I think your main point is that the adoption system in your country has a lot of problems. This point is clear. Still, try to support your point a little better. What else can you say to prove that you are correct?

● This does not mean you should expose your students to unnatural English. And it’s good for ESL students if you speak naturally during class time. Still, when you are one-on-one with any student, the main goal is to have the student understand what you mean. Imagine being stuck on a vocabulary word in a foreign language class. You would miss all the other words that the teacher said because you were thinking about the meaning of that single new word.
● When you write things, print or type. Do not use cursive and do not use all caps.
● Before students reach for a translator when they want to use a new word, show them how to use a thesaurus. Sure, they want to know the word for “excellent,” but if they look up “good” in the thesaurus, they will see that it is a great vocabulary tool.
● Encourage students to use their translators when you write on the board. Many terms that you would write down (think: criterion, counterargument) are new to native speakers too. Everyone needs to know those terms in order to move forward.
● Try to place ESL students in peer review groups with strong writers that would be likely to see the essay in the big picture and not end up spending the whole hour fixing their verb tense problems.
● Grade the students with a rubric. They will then get a visual of the things they are doing well. Students who write well in their own language are often good at critical thinking and they also tend to make good structural decisions. Show them that their hard work is not totally negated by grammar problems.
● Overall, just treat them as students who need very clear, unequivocal scaffolding. Try to eliminate “extra” words when speaking with them in order to make communication easy. This is actually a good teaching skill overall. Don’t you hate it when people use too many words to get a point across?
● Remember: many of ESL students have degrees in their home countries, and some of them are excellent writers in their native language. ☺

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