Working with ESL/EFL/ELL Students

Due to the recent rise in international student enrollment at Georgia Tech, you should be aware that some of the students enrolled in your classes will not be native English speakers. They may have learned English in an English-speaking country (ESL students) or they may have learned English in a non-English-speaking country (EFL students), but sometimes their lack of fluency makes doing the work required for a writing and communication course more difficult (English language learners, ELL students).

Here are some tips for working with ESL/ESL students that you might want to consider:

  • Encourage your ESL/EFL/ELL students to identify themselves early in the semester. Within the first week of the semester, tell your students that if any of them are non-native English speakers or aren’t fluent in English, they should let you know so that you can be better prepared to help them. Sometimes they can be embarrassed or shy about identifying themselves, so anything you can do to make talking to you about it easier will be helpful. For example, you could make a general announcement at the beginning of class requesting that ESL/EFL/ELL students stay afterwards for one or two minutes so you can meet them and write down their names.
  • Inform them about your expectations for class participation, asking questions, group work, and any other activities that involve oral communication and interaction. Many of your ESL/EFL/ELL students may come from educational systems that don’t prepare them for a class that requires student participation. They may have been taught not to ask their teachers questions or they may feel uncomfortable approaching their teachers. Stress that they are expected to speak in class and to ask you questions if they are confused about any particular matter. Some may feel shy speaking because they feel their English skills are inadequate: stress that their insights are valuable contributions to class discussions as well, regardless of how they may feel about their English. You might even want to call on them (and tell them that you plan on doing so) during class instead of waiting for their voluntary involvement. If confidence is an issue, then speaking during class, and finding out that it’s not that scary, will boost their confidence and willingness to participate.
  • Point them in the direction of various resources, on-campus and online. Tell your students about the various resources available to them. One really great resource for improving grammar and understanding cultural norms is their friends or roommates. Encourage them to get their native English speaking friends to proofread their work and, if possible, to explain their corrections. Below are campus and web resources they might find helpful.
  • Arrange meetings with them. Encourage your ESL/EFL/ELL students to meet with you during office hours regularly to discuss any questions or problems they might have with class assignments and discussions. You might even encourage students who are having a lot of difficulty to make a weekly appointment with you.

Brittain Fellow alum Jürgen Grandt suggests telling ESL/EFL/ELL students to stay for the remainder of the official class time whenever class finishes early. (He notes that this works better with a Tuesday/Thursday schedule, but with a Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule, one might consider deliberately setting aside official class time to have these ESL/EFL/ELL sessions.) He sequences the short session as follows:

  1. Questions about the reading assignment for today, and about the in-class discussion just completed
  2. Questions about how to improve spoken and written English
  3. Questions about the culture of Georgia Tech, Atlanta, and the US
  • If you are willing and able, consider holding sessions or meetings outside of official class time to work with your ESL/EFL/ELL students. If you are willing and able to devote time and energy to working with your ESL/EFL students outside of scheduled class time and office hours, here are some ideas for your consideration:
    • Brittain Fellow Nirmal Trivedi suggests holding a session early in the semester to familiarize ESL/EFL/ELL students with expectations for classroom interaction and participation.
    • Former Brittain Fellow Tiffany Tsao divided her ESL/EFL/ELL students into groups of three and met each group once a week for an hour-long grammar session using an online chat program. During each session, each student would bring one excerpt (3-4 sentences) from something she or he had a recently written, and the other students would take turns reviewing the excerpt. She would then provide a commentary on the reviews, provide final grammar tips, and field any further questions the students had about grammar conventions. When they had additional time, the students also tended to ask about certain connotations of words and certain idiomatic expressions: (e.g. “I told my friend that his clothes were lovely, and he laughed and said I sounded like a girl.”).
  • If you are willing and able, provide tips for general linguistic and cultural familiarization. Grandt, a non-native English speaker himself, stresses the importance of language immersion—of familiarizing oneself with English by using it as much as possible. Below is the advice he gives his students about how they can improve their written and spoken English:
    • When doing assigned readings, write the definition of each word you do not know in the margins in English.
    • Don’t write your essay in your native language and then translate it into English.
    • You MUST engage your roommate and classmates in conversation. (For cultural reasons, many students are at a complete loss about how to do that. Give them really simple advice—for example, ask your roommate about her or his classes, hometown, favorite movie or food, et cetera. If their roommates are into sports, ask them about the Jackets’ football or basketball team, the conference, the ranking, the basic rules of the game, or the schedule.)
    • If you have an iPod, ask your roommate recommend a download of one “favorite song of the week” each week. The genre doesn’t matter as long as it’s not hip-hop. (Most of Jurgen’s white American students who listen to hip-hop had no idea themselves what the lyrics are saying.) Listen to that one song ALL THE TIME: in between classes, on the Stinger shuttle, in the gym. Pay attention to how the words SOUND, but don’t worry initially about what they mean. Imitate the sound of the words, sing along, in the shower if you’re too self-conscious, and once you can replicate the lyrics phonetically, figure out what their meaning. Then, ask your roommate for a new “song of the week.”
    • Watch TV. (Jurgen tells his students that once they understand the jokes Letterman or Leno make, they will have mastered not just American English, but American culture. However, hardly any of his non-native speakers had either the time or the access.)
    • Read the newspaper. Georgia Tech furnishes its community with newspapers such as USA Today and The New York Times free of charge. These newspapers are available in the dining halls and in various public areas on campus.

Hopefully, you now feel more equipped to tackle the challenge of helping ESL/EFL/ELL students. Just taking the extra time to accommodate ESL/EFL/ELL students in your classes will help them tremendously.