Although ESL learners represent a wide diversity of cultural backgrounds and
language skills, they all have one thing in common: the need for friendship. It
takes time to build trust and understanding on both sides, but with patience and
empathy you will be well on your way to developing enriching relationships. The more you know about your learners, the better equipped you will be to
meet their needs. Consider the following questions when you first meet your
- What language skills are already present?
Can the student hold a conversation in English but not read and write, or
vice versa? Some Asian countries are known for teaching written English and
grammar while oral skills lag behind. On the other hand, immigrants who have
learned most of their English on the street may have little or no competence
with written English. Some students may appear fairly fluent when you meet
them, but communication may break down quickly when the topic changes. Or you
may meet a student who appears to have minimal speaking skills and discover
later that the silence was due to shyness rather than a lack of comprehension.
Of course, students who are not literate in their own language will need a
different approach to ESL than those who are. See the section on English
skills for addressing specific skills.
- Where will English be needed?
Here are several possibilities: work, job interview, shopping, housing,
helping children with schoolwork or speaking with their teachers, public
services, friends, social gatherings, television. In some cases, time spent
with you may be the only time all week that the student speaks English.
- What do you know about the learner's home country or culture?
Learn about the cultural attitudes and values your learner is likely to
embrace. Also try to find out if there are cultural taboos which may save your
student or yourself from embarrassment or unintentional offense. For example,
pointing the bottom of your shoe toward someone is a vulgar gesture in
Ukraine. The internet and local library are excellent resources for specific
cultural information, and you can learn a lot from your student, too. Ask
- Are there any potentially uncomfortable topics requiring extra
Consider political trauma a student may have experienced. Will someone who
recently fled to the U.S. in fear be uncomfortable giving a description of his
or her native home? Or will a student trying to resolve immigration issues be
reluctant to answer personal questions such as birthplace or job status?
Religious practice is another area that may need special consideration. For
example, if you talk about food or grocery shopping, will any of your students
need to know how to determine if a product contains pork?
Additionally, there are many outside influences that may affect a student's attitudes,
attendance, or ability to focus on English. It will likely take time to grow in
awareness of these issues. Here are some possibilities to consider:
- Culture Shock and Homesickness
Almost all foreigners will experience culture shock and homesickness to
some degree. See further discussion in the Cultural Bridges section of this guide.
- Life Experiences
Immigrants from countries ravaged by political unrest may have traumatic memories and
resulting fears or insecurity. Others may have held prestigious jobs in their
home countries and now face the frustration of being unable to work in their
field of expertise. Settling for a low-paying labor job just to survive can
take a toll on self esteem and confidence.
- Family Dynamics
You may never be told about difficulties in your students' personal lives,
but issues such as strained marriages, problems with children, alcoholism, or
other difficulties in the home are likely to affect a student's performance. Loneliness is
often an issue for students who live by themselves.
- Financial Concerns
Limited income may force families to live in impoverished housing, forgo
medical or dental care, or compromise nutrition. Many immigrants sacrifice
sleep and work two jobs to make ends meet.
- Legal Issues
Some visitors have never obtained proper visas or permission to be in the
United States and live in fear of being deported. Others may have entered legally
but now hold expired visas. Still others may be living in illegal housing
arrangements, such as several families sharing one apartment. Some may be
trying to apply for permanent residency or citizenship and dealing with paperwork that has been delayed for months, or even
Refugees have unique needs. The following is a helpful link for ESL teachers working with refugees.