Volunteering in ESL is a rewarding service to the community. This guide
presents basic strategies for teaching ESL as well as further resources to facilitate positive experiences in the many types of ESL programs that utilize volunteers. Literacy centers, libraries, refugee agencies, universities, and religious organizations are only a few of the places volunteer-based ESL instruction may be found. This guide addresses the needs of volunteers without a background in education and especially those who may have received little or no training as volunteers, with a focus on adult ESL learners.
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
sensitivity? 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.
Developing friendship with your learners can be one of the most significant
influences in their adaptation to a new culture. However, ways of thinking or
cultural values that vary from your own can be a source of tension,
misunderstanding, or even mistrust. An open mind and a basic understanding of
some common cultural differences can save you from many potential problems as
well as deepen your relationships with your learners.
In her book Foreign to Familiar, Sarah Lanier describes categorical
differences she has observed between cultures she labels "cold-climate," such as
Europe and most of the United States, and "hot-climate" cultures such as South
America, Africa, and most of Asia. She has also observed that in any country,
urban areas tend toward cold-climate traits, and rural areas toward hot-climate
traits. The following table summarizes many of these differences. Keep in mind
that these are general observations and individual students and/or countries may
not fit these tendencies. Most will probably represent a mix of these values
weighted toward one side or the other.
Task and logic
oriented, communication gives accurate information, respecting
efficiency and time shows respect for people
feeling oriented, communication seeks a feel-good atmosphere over
accuracy, people are more important than efficiency and time
Start on time and keep
the lesson moving along, but allow for brief departures from the lesson to
build relationships and let students express themselves even if it seems
communication, 'yes' and 'no' are taken literally, and honest, polite words
are usually not taken personally
communication, 'yes' and 'no' are not always literal, direct questions
or statements may be rude or embarrassing
Avoid direct yes/no
questions except on objective topics; avoid correcting a hot-climate
student in front of others
value own identity, individuals speak for themselves, taking initiative in a
group is encouraged, one person's behavior does not necessarily represent
value group identity (belonging), taking initiative in a group is largely
determined by roles, one member's behavior reflects on the whole group
Provide roles for
group work; when asking a class to vote, realize that one hot climate
student's vote may stand for all of his same-culture classmates but a
cold-climate student's vote is only his own
personal time and space, ask permission to borrow things or interrupt
conversations, respect personal possessions, acceptable not to include
everyone in invitations or plans
being left alone is undesirable, individuals welcome to join conversations
or group activities without asking, possessions freely shared, rude not to
include everyone in conversations or activities
Balance individual and
group work; teach students when and how to ask permission to speak, borrow
things, or join an activity (such as playing sports or joining a group at a
planned, host usually requires advance notice and makes special
preparations, guests pay for many of their own expenses such as
spontaneous, invitations are not required and preparation is not
expected, host takes care of all needs and expenses of the guest, host may
expect a gift
appreciate your help beyond the classroom; if you are given a gift, the
student probably does not expect a gift in return
make plans and schedules, value saving time, expect events such as meals or
meetings to begin at the time announced, chat before or after events
relatively unstructured, value experiencing the moment over saving time,
less emphasis on the clock, flexible, chatting is part of an event
When planning special
events, allow time for hot-climate students to arrive later than
cold-climate students, and plan something to do while waiting.
Remember that although none of these cultural values can be called "right" or
"wrong," your learners will need to adapt to the cultural expectations of the
communities they live in. The southern United States exhibits many hot-climate
attitudes while the rest of the country generally holds cold-climate values. So
what should your learners expect when they visit an American home? Can they
express individual opinions? Should they make small talk at a store? How
important is it to be on time for different types of events? It is certainly
appropriate to clarify to your learners the cultural values you and your
community hold, which they may interact with daily.
Culture shock often occurs within a few weeks or months after arrival and may
happen more than once, recurring months or years later. Signs to watch for
include irritability, lack of concentration, withdrawal, anger, crying easily,
lethargy, and negative attitudes toward the United States. These symptoms
usually pass in time. Encouraging a sense of purpose and worth can help combat
these feelings. Learners who once longed to come to the United States may be
disappointed that their life here doesn't measure up to the expectations they
had dreamed of. Those who have family members remaining in their native country
or who did not wish to come to the United States in the first place may find
themselves constantly longing to return "home" and unable to embrace a new
culture and lifestyle. Typically these learners will not learn English very
quickly as there is an underlying rejection of their whole United States
Whether or not you attended training workshops for a specific ESL program,
but especially if you did not receive any training or have little prior
experience with teaching or tutoring, you may feel apprehensive, even
overwhelmed, when you begin your ESL volunteer experience. Many questions may be
rolling around your mind. Will you be a good teacher? What will the students
expect from you? How do you plan lessons? Where can you find teaching materials?
How will you communicate with a student who doesn't speak English? Questions
like these are addressed throughout this guide; this section will focus on basic
teaching principles and practical issues.
The following principles apply to almost any kind of teaching. Some of these
points may seem like common sense, yet these are the types of issues
professional teachers spend years learning and perfecting. Many of these ideas are adapted from Teaching By Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy by H. Douglas Brown
and How To Teach English by Jeremy Harmer.
Make Lessons Interesting
Bored students won't remember much of the lesson. Don't talk for long blocks
of time. Instead, keep students involved and interacting with you and each
other in English. Some may come from cultures where teachers lecture and
students listen quietly. If interaction makes your students nervous, provide
plenty of support by giving clear and very specific directions. Say, "Yuko and
Yan, you work together," rather than "everyone get into pairs." Vary the types
of skills you practice and activities you use, add games, and bring in
real-life objects like a telephone, cook book, or musical instrument. Vary
your own dress or behavior patterns for a day. Keep in mind, though, that some
degree of predictability will be appreciated by your students, fostering a
feeling of safety.
Make Yourself Understandable
Simplify your vocabulary, grammar, and speaking speed to the degree necessary
to be understood, and keep any instructions simple and logical. New ESL
teachers frequently slow down the pace of their speech but forget to modify
their vocabulary and grammar for beginning students. As your students' English
ability increases, so should the complexity and speed of your English. Some of
your interaction at an intermediate level and most of it at an advanced level
can use natural grammar and speed, but make sure you slow down or repeat any
highly important points. Teach your learners how to ask for clarification when
they need it. Try to anticipate unknown vocabulary and be prepared to explain
it. Appropriate language modification gets easier with experience.
Motivate With Rewards
Learners will truly want to learn when they perceive a personal reward. To
boost internal motivation, remind them of the benefits that English can provide, such as English-speaking friends, better job opportunities,
easier shopping, or less stress at the doctor's office, and then teach
language that will bring them closer to those benefits. Motivation can be
boosted externally by praise and encouragement as well as tangible rewards
like prizes, certificates, or check marks on an attendance chart. Motivation
can be hindered by over-correction or teaching a topic that the learner will
not use in daily life.
Provide a Useful Context
Learners will remember material better and take more interest in it if it has relevant contextual meaning.
Arbitrary rote learning (word lists or grammar drills) may be useful in solidifying language forms, but unless there's a real-world application, sooner or later it's likely to be forgotten.
Remember that Native Language Affects English Learning
A learner's native language will provide a basis for figuring out how English works. Sometimes the native language can affect English production.
To illustrate, the Japanese language does not use articles (a, an, the) so correct article usage is frequently difficult for Japanese learners. Spanish uses idioms such as "I have thirst" or "I have sleepiness" so Spanish speakers may forget to use "I am..." with an adjective instead of a noun.
Most teachers, however, have little if any understanding of their students'
native language. While a familiarity with the native language may shed light
on certain errors, it is certainly not essential. In fact, intermediate and
advanced students are often able to tell you whether a specific error is
related to their native language.
Don't Assume All Errors are Bad
Native language interference contributes to a gradual process of learning in which language is refined over time to become more like natural English.
For example, a learner may progress through phrases such as "no I like peanuts," "I no like peanuts," and finally, "I don't like peanuts."
Teachers must not get discouraged watching students exchange one error for
another; this process is a natural part of language learning. Selectively
choose errors to work on rather than trying to fix everything at once. Give
priority to problems that hinder communication rather than incorrect but
understandable errors. With gentle corrective feedback, students will keep
Encourage Learners to Think in English
Too often ESL learners will get stuck in a habit of thinking in their native
language and then mentally translating what they want to say or write into
English. This is time consuming and frequently leads to confusion when direct
translation isn't possible. Thinking in English requires learners to use learned words, phrases, and language structures to express original ideas without focusing too much on language rules
or translation. To illustrate, how would you change the statement "Linda ate an apple" into a question? Of course, "Did
Linda eat an apple?" More than likely you didn't think about adding the modal
'do' (in the past tense 'did' because 'ate' is past tense) before the subject,
changing the irregular verb 'ate' to 'eat' and raising your vocal intonation
at the end of the sentence. While it's unreasonable to expect beginning ESL
learners not to rely on native language translation to some degree, one way
you can minimize it is to explain new vocabulary using simple English,
drawings, or gestures and allow dictionary lookups only as a last resort. You
might also ask them to speak (or write if they are able) for several minutes
without stopping. At some point, mental translation will become cumbersome and
learners should begin developing an ability to use English independently from
their native language.
Build Confidence in Your Students
Learners must believe in their own ability to complete a task. Without self-confidence, they are unlikely to take risks, and risk-taking is necessary in language learning. Learners need to feel that it's safe to make mistakes. By trying out new or less familiar language, they may find that they are indeed capable of more communication than they thought.
Try to reduce feelings of embarrassment when mistakes are made, and give far
more compliments than criticisms. Make some tasks easy enough that everyone is
Account for Different Learning Styles
Some people are hands-on learners, some like to watch, some like to have detailed explanations. Some people learn better visually, others audibly. Some like to work in groups, some work better individually. Language teaching should take a variety of learning styles into account through varied activities.
Know Your Students
Learn how to pronounce students' names (or ask for easier nicknames) and then
remember and use them. Build trust with your students by building
relationships and being approachable. Make sure quiet students are included
and more assertive ones don't dominate the lesson.
The following guides offer additional information for new teachers about how
to teach ESL.
Help! They Don't Speak English Starter Kit
Focuses on migrant students. Includes principles of adult learning, ESL teaching methods and
suggestions, printable handouts on 16 survival English topics, explanations of
specific teaching techniques, and information about Mexican American and
Haitian cultures. Divided into several PDF documents.
Twenty teaching tips explained in detail; intended for classrooms but many tips
can be applied to individual tutoring.
Interaction requires communication, the transfer of a meaningful idea from
one person to another. Good teachers go beyond the building blocks of English
such as vocabulary lists or grammar drills to develop a learner's oral, written, and even non-verbal communication skills.
Every lesson should prepare your students for real-world interaction in some
way. Think meaningful and usable.
When communication breaks down, native speakers usually try to clarify any potentially unclear items by asking questions and offering explanations.
They ask for repetition or more information, confirm that the other person has
understood what was said, expand on words or topics, or repeat back a paraphrase
of what they just heard to confirm that they got it right. This is one of the
greatest communication skills, but it can be difficult and ESL learners need to
be taught how to do this in English.
Teachers bring communication into their lessons by guiding learners through
tasks or activities which require meaningful communication in a relevant
context. Here are some tips for making your lessons communicative:
Clarification Skills Teach your students how to ask for clarification. The following phrases
may serve as a starting point and can be expanded or adapted to an appropriate
Do you understand?
Excuse me? / Could you repeat that?
Once more. / One more time.
Please speak more slowly.
How do you spell that?
Did you say ______?
What does ______ mean?
How do you say ______ in English?
I don't know.
I don't understand.
Pair and Group Work When students must work with each other or one-on-one with you, they are
forced to communicate. Make sure you have taught them how to ask for
clarification when they don't understand something. If students share the same
native language, limit its use as much as possible. Information gap
activities, role plays, and collaborative problem solving are some
communicative activities explained in more detail in the activities section of
Individual Communication Some types of communication are not highly interactive. For example, you
can have students give a speech, write a letter or composition, or report
group work results to the class. As long as they are producing original
language to convey their own thoughts, they are practicing communication.
Interactive Teaching Specific practice activities aren't the only place where communication can
occur. While you are teaching your main lesson, you don't need to do all the
talking. Involve your students by asking them for related vocabulary words,
the spelling of a word they suggest, the past tense of verbs (especially
irregular ones), examples beyond those in the textbook, etc. Draw out what
they already know and connect it to their life experiences. For example, if
your text contains the word 'allergy' and you aren't sure if the students
understand it, rather than simply teaching "an allergy is..." and moving on,
ask if anyone knows the meaning and can explain it, what types of allergies
the students can think of, and whether anyone has an allergy. Ask for the
spelling of the plural form, 'allergies.' If your students have a lot to say,
these side-tracks can become time-consuming. You will need to decide how much
time you will allow for this so you can still complete your lesson.
What Communication is Not Some elements of your lesson will probably not be communicative. For
example, memorization, vocabulary lists, reading, listening tasks, grammar
structures, and pronunciation practice do not require any original language to
be produced by the learner, yet they are all valuable building blocks for
communication. As a teacher, you should be aware of the difference between
what is communicative and what is not and balance the two.