Writing@CSU Guide

ESL Volunteer Guide

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.

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 students:

  • 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 questions!
  • 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 years.

Refugees have unique needs. The following is a helpful link for ESL teachers working with refugees.

Cultural Bridges

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.

"Cold-Climate" / Urban "Hot-Climate" / Rural Classroom Application
Task and logic oriented, communication gives accurate information, respecting efficiency and time shows respect for people Relationship and 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 off-topic
Direct communication, 'yes' and 'no' are taken literally, and honest, polite words are usually not taken personally Indirect 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
Individualistic, value own identity, individuals speak for themselves, taking initiative in a group is encouraged, one person's behavior does not necessarily represent the group Group oriented, 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
Private, value personal time and space, ask permission to borrow things or interrupt conversations, respect personal possessions, acceptable not to include everyone in invitations or plans Inclusive, 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 table)
Hospitality is planned, host usually requires advance notice and makes special preparations, guests pay for many of their own expenses such as transportation Hospitality is 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 Students may appreciate your help beyond the classroom; if you are given a gift, the student probably does not expect a gift in return
Time oriented, 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 Event oriented, 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

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 experience.

Teaching ESL

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.

Getting Started: The Basics of Teaching

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 improving.
  • 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 guaranteed success.
  • 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.
  • Liz Reagan's Teaching Tips
    Twenty teaching tips explained in detail; intended for classrooms but many tips can be applied to individual tutoring.

Focus On Communication

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 language level.
    • 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 this guide.
  • 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.

Teaching Adults

Adults bring life experiences and a level of maturity into the classroom that children and adolescents do not. Their expectations and motivations reflect this. Here are several keys to keep in mind when teaching adults:

  • Adult classrooms may present great diversity
    Be prepared for diversity of cultural background, age, previous formal education, previous exposure to English, life experiences, and current life situations.
  • Adults respond well to knowledgeable, enthusiastic teachers
    You must be comfortable with the subject matter you are teaching and communicate enthusiasm for the subject matter and your role as a teacher. This will help you gain respect and is especially important if you are younger than your students. If you must teach material which is challenging for you, try not to communicate a negative attitude about the material to your students. If a student asks a question which you can't answer, don't be afraid to say, "I don't know, but I'll find out for you."
  • Adults are not too old to learn a second language well
    Although native language learning and literacy are best accomplished in childhood, when it comes to learning a second language, research has shown that adolescents and adults outperform children. Adolescents even surpassed children in pronunciation skills. One of the reasons children appear to acquire a second language faster than adults is simply that they get a lot more practice with other children and have lower inhibitions, but many adults have attained a high level of fluency in a foreign language.
  • Adults need a comfortable and safe learning atmosphere
    Trial and error should be encouraged in language learning. Adults will take more risks in an environment where it's safe to make mistakes without embarrassment. You may want to minimize public reading and writing until your learners gain confidence, especially if literacy skills are deficient. The same goes for standing in front of the group to speak.
  • Adult learning is transformative
    Learning in childhood is said to be formative, when skills and concepts are developed for the first time. Adults, on the other hand, are extending and refining their knowledge based on existing knowledge and beliefs. They are changed or transformed by learning experiences.
  • Adults need repeated practice of a concept or skill
    Adults generally need patience and repetition to solidify new language concepts or skills. If adults have already developed bad habits with English errors, these will take time and effort to break. Adults also tend to have a lot on their minds and limited time to practice English outside the classroom.
  • Adults learn well with question asking and answering, and problem finding and solving
    These activities require mature thought processes which stimulate and motivate adult minds.
  • Adults want practical, real-life contexts
    The more relevant and useful the subject matter, the more motivated your learners will be. Adults enjoy materials that relate to their personal experiences and interests, and they want to be able to apply what they're learning in the real world.

Language Levels

What do the terms beginner, intermediate, and advanced really mean? Unfortunately the definitions vary among institutions. The following guide for oral communication ability, though subjective, may be useful if your program does not have its own definitions of performance standards:

  • True Beginner
    • Very limited communication in English
    • Uses gestures and 1-3 word utterances
  • Beginner
    • Communicates with difficulty and many errors
    • Very simple, unelaborated answers
    • Many hesitations
    • No ability to extend conversation
    • Uses simple grammar & vocabulary
  • Low Intermediate
    • Communicates understandably with some errors
    • Simple answers and little elaboration
    • Attempts interactive conversation
    • Attempts more complex grammar
  • High Intermediate
    • Communicates fairly well
    • Some elaboration, especially on familiar topics
    • Can converse with errors and some hesitations
    • Uses more complex grammar & vocabulary
  • Advanced
    • Communicates well with occasional errors
    • Converses with lots of elaboration and interaction
    • Errors don't hinder communication
    • Uses advanced grammar & vocabulary

This Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB) document represents a Canadian language standard established and refined over more than two decades.

Your volunteer program may or may not have its own system for assessing student language levels. If you work with a student one-on-one, knowing the 'level' is not as critical as knowing the student; you will soon discover strengths and weaknesses and develop a sense of what your student can or can't handle. However, if you work with more than one learner, your task will be much easier if they are all near the same language level. For this reason, many programs test language levels for all new students for placement purposes. The following is a sample intake test based on the above performance descriptions. Testing instructions are found on page two. An accompanying page of drawings has not been included due to copyright.

  • Sample Intake Test
    Sample interview test for oral communication ability from International Students Inc. at Colorado State University; used by permission.

Two standardized language assessment systems widely used in adult education are the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS) and the Basic English Skills Test (BEST). More information on these is available below.

  • CASAS - Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System
    The "Life Skills Assessment" is used in many adult ESL programs to measure English ability in listening, reading, writing, speaking (interview), and math. It is appropriate for all English levels. Training is required to administer the test. Contact CASAS for cost information.
  • BEST - Basic English Skills Test (Center for Applied Linguistics)
    Several states including Colorado utilize the BEST for their adult ESL programs. Scores are correlated to 10 performance levels zero ability through native speaker. There is a 15-minute oral interview section scoring communication, fluency, pronunciation, and listening, and a 1-hour literary skills section scoring reading and writing. A short form of the oral interview is available scoring communication and fluency through performance level 7. A test administration training video is available. Contact the Center for Applied Linguistics for cost information.

Multilevel Groups

It can be challenging to manage multiple language levels together. Perhaps you tutor a husband and wife with differing levels, or maybe you have a whole classroom full of students diverse not only in English ability but also in culture, age, and literacy skills. If you are dealing with tension between learners due to cultural differences, try to find and emphasize any common ground between them. Where age gaps exist, usually the younger learners will make faster progress than the older ones. To preserve respect for your older students, give them a chance to answer first, or assign them helping tasks such as handing out and collecting papers or taking attendance. If some of your learners are literate in their native language and others aren't, often due to varying levels of prior formal education, the literate students will almost always make faster progress than the non-literate ones because they can process visual as well as aural cues and can take notes to study later. Therefore even if your learners begin with similar oral abilities, they will soon become multilevel as the learning gap widens. It can be effective to use peer tutoring pairing a literate student with a non-literate one as long as the 'tutor-tutee' roles are occasionally interchanged. The non-literate student should be given the chance to take the 'tutor' role with another non-literate student of lower ability or even with a literate student in a non-text-dependent activity.

In a multilevel class, it's a good idea to focus on topics rather than specific language skills, and focus on doing rather than studying. Work on specific skills as issues arise. Find long-term, hands-on projects in which all levels can participate such as a quilt, garden, collage, video, or dramatic production. Creating a survey that says "I want to learn English for..." with several options to check off and space for comments may help you discover common needs and interests in the group which you can use as a foundation for your lessons.

Multilevel classes frequently begin and end with whole-group activities to foster a sense of unity among the students. It's possible to teach the entire class session as a whole group, but many teachers choose to break into pair or group work for all or part of the main class time. Groups are often formed with similar ability levels so that students within a group can work on the same activity at about the same pace; such groups don't need to be the same size. Grouping mixed ability levels allows students to help one another as the whole class does the same activity. You can have all groups working on activities concurrently, or you may want to rotate between 2-3 groups, teaching a lesson to one while others work on a self-guided task. The latter method requires greater preparation but is better able to meet level-specific needs. Here are some ideas for pair and group work.

  • Similar-Ability Pairs
    Such pairs should do tasks where each role is interchangeable and the same difficulty. Examples: information gaps, dialogs, role plays, and two-way interviews.
  • Mixed-Ability Pairs
    Such pairs need unequal tasks. Examples: a story dictated by one and transcribed by the other, an interview in which one asks and one answers, and role plays with one larger role.
  • Similar-Ability Groups
    Groups can be different sizes. Consider gender, culture, and age issues when grouping. Such groups can work on tasks where everyone can contribute equally. Examples: problem solving, sequencing, and process writing.
  • Mixed-Ability Groups
    Such groups need activities that don't require equal language abilities for participation. Examples: board games, making lists, and arts or crafts.
  • Individuals
    Selected individuals much higher or much lower than the rest of the class may be given independent tasks to work on.

When working with the whole class at once, there are several strategies you can use to keep higher level students challenged while not neglecting beginners. If you give time for a task and you know advanced students will complete it quickly, give them extra activities like a writing assignment or worksheet to do while waiting for the rest of the class to finish. You can ask advanced students to explain new vocabulary words (preferably in English), take notes on the board while you teach, or model a dialog with you. When holding class discussions or checking comprehension of the lesson, ask beginners simple questions with one correct answer, saving open-ended and opinion questions for higher level students. In choosing whole-group activities, minimize reliance on texts, especially if your class includes non-literate students. Warm-ups, cassette or video clips, brainstorming, songs, and field trips are some activities well suited to multilevel participation. Try to ensure that your lessons will stimulate various learning styles as well.

After you have taught the class for a while, you may find yourself struggling with problematic issues. Don't hesitate to go to your program leaders for support and advice. Additionally, you can ask for student feedback on their class experience, and discuss any individual concerns directly with the respective students. The following are some common concerns in multilevel classes.

  • If Advanced Students Dominate
    This may happen in mixed-level groups. If it becomes problematic, end the group work and facilitate the activity yourself using the board so all students can see and participate. Make a note to try an alternate grouping strategy next time. If this is happening during whole-class activities, you may need to take a more active role in quieting dominant students and calling on beginners.
  • If Advanced Students Seem Bored or Beginners Seem Lost
    It seems obvious to challenge advanced students more and help beginners feel included, but this is easier said than done. It will probably help to speak individually with each of the students you're concerned about and ask for their suggestions.
  • If Students Use Their Native Language
    This is usually not a major concern in a multilevel class. You can allow some native language helping as long as the lower students are making progress and not having everything interpreted. However, if you feel that the native language use is hindering English learning, set ground rules for the entire class regarding when and why and how much native language can be spoken.
  • If Classes are Too Big or Too Diverse
    Discuss options with program leaders like bringing in volunteer assistants or splitting classes. Although such solutions may seem unlikely, it doesn't hurt to ask.
  • If You Get Burned Out
    It's impossible to cater to all the needs of every student, especially beyond the classroom. If you are drained by students relying heavily on you for assistance in other areas of their lives, you can make appropriate referrals and guide students toward being more independent. If your burnout stems from complex lesson planning, take a break for a potluck or other fun, non-lesson class session.

Conversation Partners

As a conversation partner, your main role is to facilitate conversation practice. Although you may occasionally find yourself explaining English language points, you aren't expected to function as an ESL teacher. Your aim should be to give your student ample speaking practice. Help your student build confidence in expressing his or her own thoughts. A flowing communication of ideas is more important than accurate English usage.

Your student's personality will affect the kind of preparation you need to do before your session. It's often helpful to prepare a list of questions or conversation ideas ahead of time if one is not provided for you, and you will obviously need more ideas for shy students than for talkative ones. Think about ways to extend a topic if your student appears to have little to say. You may want to ask your student what kinds of topics would be of interest for future sessions.

Consider these tips to become an effective conversation partner.

  • Speak at a Natural Pace
    Slow down only when absolutely necessary. Your student will probably not understand everything, which provides an opportunity for the student to practice asking for clarification. If you are asked to repeat something, repeat your exact words. Then you can offer a paraphrase if there is still misunderstanding.
  • Check Comprehension
    Many students will nod as you speak even though they don't understand what you're saying. They may be hoping that you will eventually say something that connects the bits and pieces they have managed to absorb, or they may be signaling that they heard your voice. If your student nods a lot, gets a blank look, or becomes silent, directly ask whether he or she understands. If not, you may need to slow down or at least simplify your grammar and vocabulary.
  • Elaborate Topics
    Stay on one topic as long as you can. This helps a student learn to carry a conversation rather than just answering a series of unrelated questions. Encourage the student to ask you questions about the topic, too.
  • Bring Objects to Stimulate Conversation
    This is great for shy students. Try family or vacation photos, cookbooks with pictures, board games, library books about your student's country or other topics with lots of pictures, and short, current newspaper or magazine articles.
  • Avoid Correcting Homework
    Students may bring their ESL homework and ask you to check the answers. Not only does this take away time from developing conversation skills, it can potentially force you into the role of a teacher explaining why an answer is right or wrong. If you are willing to provide this service to your student, try to do it before or after your allotted conversation partner time.
  • Minimize Error Correction
    Constant correction slows down conversation and hinders the development of fluency. Correct only those errors that block communication.
  • Vary the Scenery
    Unless you must meet at a fixed location, occasionally vary your meeting place. Try a park, library, home, coffee shop, nature walk, etc.
  • Keep a Journal
    Write down what you talked about or did so you can use it again or refine it for future use
  • Recognize Stages of Cultural Adjustment
    Stages of initial happiness but confusion, hostile attitudes from continued frustration and confusion, humor and tolerance as new cultural rules are understood more, and feeling at home with an understanding of cultural expectations are all common during cultural adjustment, and students may skip or repeat some of these stages. Try to be aware of cultural adjustment issues and help your student understand and adapt to American culture.
  • Refer Problems to Qualified Program Personnel
    As you develop trust, you may find your student confiding in you about serious problems (medical, legal, landlord, family, etc.) which you may not be qualified to handle. If you aren't trained as a counselor, resist the urge to be one. Express compassion, but refer the student to a program leader or assist with getting help from an appropriate professional office or public service.

Here are some conversation questions to help you get started. Most of them are suitable for low intermediate and above. You can adapt the complexity of the questions to your student's level.

Conversation Groups

You may be a leader of a conversation group or perhaps a classroom assistant assigned to a few students for a classroom activity. Again, your role is more of a facilitator than a teacher. The main goal is conversational English practice.

  • Encourage Friendship
    Help the group members get to know each other and become friends through pair interviews, icebreaker games, or even social activities. Students will speak more freely when they feel a connection to other group members.
  • Include Everyone
    If you have a very talkative student who tends to dominate the conversation, find ways to limit speaking time and ask others for their opinions. If you have a shy or silent student, make sure to specifically include him or her. Be careful, though. The silence may be due to lower language ability, so begin by asking easy yes/no or either/or questions rather than open-ended opinion questions. It may also be helpful to sit right next to more talkative students and across from quieter ones if you are in a circle.
  • Monitor Native Language Use
    Discourage native language use as much as possible. Students may ask each other what an English vocabulary word means because they don't want to interrupt the conversation to ask in English. Explain that it is polite and acceptable to say, "Excuse me, what does ______ mean?" Students may also ask each other how to say a native language word in English. This is less problematic because the student's goal is to use English. If your group has mixed languages, splitting up same-language friends will discourage native language use, but they may also speak less English if they are seated between classmates with whom they are less comfortable. You will need to tune in to each student's personality when deciding whether or not to separate same-language speakers.
  • Clarify Expectations
    Recognize that some students may come from cultures where education is very formal and classes don't include discussion groups. They may be uncomfortable with the casual American style and need help to adjust. Explain your expectations about your seating arrangement, starting on time or chatting first, who can speak and when, and in what circumstances students may speak their native language.

English Skills

When we think of English skills, the 'four skills' of listening, speaking, reading, and writing readily come to mind. Of course other skills such as pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and spelling all play a role in effective English communication. The amount of attention you give to each skill area will depend both the level of your learners as well as their situational needs. Generally beginners, especially those who are nonliterate, benefit most from listening and speaking instruction with relatively little work on reading and writing. As fluency increases, the amount of reading and writing in your lessons may also increase. With advanced learners, up to half of your lesson time can be spent on written skills, although your learners may wish to keep their focus weighted toward oral communication if that is a greater need.

Teaching Listening

Listening skills are vital for your learners. Of the 'four skills,' listening is by far the most frequently used. Listening and speaking are often taught together, but beginners, especially non-literate ones, should be given more listening than speaking practice. It's important to speak as close to natural speed as possible, although with beginners some slowing is usually necessary. Without reducing your speaking speed, you can make your language easier to comprehend by simplifying your vocabulary, using shorter sentences, and increasing the number and length of pauses in your speech.

There are many types of listening activities. Those that don't require learners to produce language in response are easier than those that do. Learners can be asked to physically respond to a command (for example, "please open the door"), select an appropriate picture or object, circle the correct letter or word on a worksheet, draw a route on a map, or fill in a chart as they listen. It's more difficult to repeat back what was heard, translate into the native language, take notes, make an outline, or answer comprehension questions. To add more challenge, learners can continue a story text, solve a problem, perform a similar task with a classmate after listening to a model (for example, order a cake from a bakery), or participate in real-time conversation.

Good listening lessons go beyond the listening task itself with related activities before and after the listening. Here is the basic structure:

  • Before Listening
    Prepare your learners by introducing the topic and finding out what they already know about it. A good way to do this is to have a brainstorming session and some discussion questions related to the topic. Then provide any necessary background information and new vocabulary they will need for the listening activity.
  • During Listening
    Be specific about what students need to listen for. They can listen for selective details or general content, or for an emotional tone such as happy, surprised, or angry. If they are not marking answers or otherwise responding while listening, tell them ahead of time what will be required afterward.
  • After Listening
    Finish with an activity to extend the topic and help students remember new vocabulary. This could be a discussion group, craft project, writing task, game, etc.

The following ideas will help make your listening activities successful.

  • Noise
    Reduce distractions and noise during the listening segment. You may need to close doors or windows or ask children in the room to be quiet for a few minutes.
  • Equipment
    If you are using a cassette player, make sure it produces acceptable sound quality. A counter on the machine will aid tremendously in cueing up tapes. Bring extra batteries or an extension cord with you.
  • Repetition
    Read or play the text a total of 2-3 times. Tell students in advance you will repeat it. This will reduce their anxiety about not catching it all the first time. You can also ask them to listen for different information each time through.
  • Content
    Unless your text is merely a list of items, talk about the content as well as specific language used. The material should be interesting and appropriate for your class level in topic, speed, and vocabulary. You may need to explain reductions (like 'gonna' for 'going to') and fillers (like 'um' or 'uh-huh').
  • Recording Your Own Tape
    Write appropriate text (or use something from your textbook) and have another English speaker read it onto tape. Copy the recording three times so you don't need to rewind. The reader should not simply read three times, because students want to hear exact repetition of the pronunciation, intonation, and pace, not just the words.
  • Video
    You can play a video clip with the sound off and ask students to make predictions about what dialog is taking place. Then play it again with sound and discuss why they were right or wrong in their predictions. You can also play the sound without the video first, and show the video after students have guessed what is going on.
  • Homework
    Give students a listening task to do between classes. Encourage them to listen to public announcements in airports, bus stations, supermarkets, etc. and try to write down what they heard. Tell them the telephone number of a cinema and ask them to write down the playing times of a specific movie. Give them a tape recording of yourself with questions, dictation, or a worksheet to complete.

Look for listening activities in the Activities and Lesson Materials sections of this guide. If your learners can use a computer with internet access and headphones or speakers, you may direct them toward the following listening practice sites. You could also assign specific activities from these sites as homework. Teach new vocabulary ahead of time if necessary.

  • Randall's ESL Cyber Listening Lab
    Around 140 listening clips and quizzes for students to access online; categorized into four difficulty levels, but activities marked 'easy' may be too difficult for beginners due to unfamiliar vocabulary; many include pre- and post-listening exercises; requires audio software such as RealPlayer (free) or optional interactive software like Divace.
  • The English Listening Lounge
    Thirty free listening clips categorized into three difficulty levels for students to access online; more available with membership; requires audio software such as RealPlayer (free).

Teaching Speaking

Speaking English is the main goal of many adult learners. Their personalities play a large role in determining how quickly and how correctly they will accomplish this goal. Those who are risk-takers unafraid of making mistakes will generally be more talkative, but with many errors that could become hard-to-break habits. Conservative, shy students may take a long time to speak confidently, but when they do, their English often contains fewer errors and they will be proud of their English ability. It's a matter of quantity vs. quality, and neither approach is wrong. However, if the aim of speaking is communication and that does not require perfect English, then it makes sense to encourage quantity in your classroom. Break the silence and get students communicating with whatever English they can use, correct or not, and selectively address errors that block communication.

Speaking lessons often tie in pronunciation and grammar (discussed elsewhere in this guide), which are necessary for effective oral communication. Or a grammar or reading lesson may incorporate a speaking activity. Either way, your  students will need some preparation before the speaking task. This includes introducing the topic and providing a model of the speech they are to produce. A model may not apply to discussion-type activities, in which case students will need clear and specific instructions about the task to be accomplished. Then the students will practice with the actual speaking activity.

These activities may include imitating (repeating), answering verbal cues, interactive conversation, or an oral presentation. Most speaking activities inherently practice listening skills as well, such as when one student is given a simple drawing and sits behind another student, facing away. The first must give instructions to the second to reproduce the drawing. The second student asks questions to clarify unclear instructions, and neither can look at each other's page during the activity. Information gaps are also commonly used for speaking practice, as are surveys, discussions, and role-plays. Speaking activities abound; see the Activities and Further Resources sections of this guide for ideas.

Here are some ideas to keep in mind as you plan your speaking activities.

  • Content
    As much as possible, the content should be practical and usable in real-life situations. Avoid too much new vocabulary or grammar, and focus on speaking with the language the students have.
  • Correcting Errors
    You need to provide appropriate feedback and correction, but don't interrupt the flow of communication. Take notes while pairs or groups are talking and address problems to the class after the activity without embarrassing the student who made the error. You can write the error on the board and ask who can correct it.
  • Quantity vs. Quality
    Address both interactive fluency and accuracy, striving foremost for communication. Get to know each learner's personality and encourage the quieter ones to take more risks.
  • Conversation Strategies
    Encourage strategies like asking for clarification, paraphrasing, gestures, and initiating ('hey,' 'so,' 'by the way').
  • Teacher Intervention
    If a speaking activity loses steam, you may need to jump into a role-play, ask more discussion questions, clarify your instructions, or stop an activity that is too difficult or boring.

Teaching Reading

We encounter a great variety of written language day to day -- articles, stories, poems, announcements, letters, labels, signs, bills, recipes, schedules, questionnaires, cartoons, the list is endless. Literate adults easily recognize the distinctions of various types of texts. This guide will not cover instruction for learners with little or no literacy in their native language; you will need to work intensively with them at the most basic level of letter recognition and phonics.

Finding authentic reading material may not be difficult, but finding materials appropriate for the level of your learners can be a challenge. Especially with beginners, you may need to significantly modify texts to simplify grammar and vocabulary. When choosing texts, consider what background knowledge may be necessary for full comprehension. Will students need to "read between the lines" for implied information? Are there cultural nuances you may need to explain? Does the text have any meaningful connection to the lives of your learners? Consider letting your students bring in their choice of texts they would like to study. This could be a telephone bill, letter, job memo, want ads, or the back of a cereal box. Motivation will be higher if you use materials of personal interest to your learners.

Your lesson should begin with a pre-reading activity to introduce the topic and make sure students have enough vocabulary, grammar, and background information to understand the text. Be careful not to introduce a lot of new vocabulary or grammar because you want your students to be able to respond to the content of the text and not expend too much effort analyzing the language. If you don't want to explain all of the potentially new material ahead of time, you can allow your learners to discuss the text with a partner and let them try to figure it out together with the help of a dictionary. After the reading activity, check comprehension and engage the learners with the text, soliciting their opinions and further ideas orally or with a writing task.

Consider the following when designing your reading lessons.

  • Purpose
    Your students need to understand ahead of time why they are reading the material you have chosen.
  • Reading Strategies
    When we read, our minds do more than recognize words on the page. For faster and better comprehension, choose activities before and during your reading task that practice the following strategies.
    • Prediction: This is perhaps the most important strategy. Give your students hints by asking them questions about the cover, pictures, headlines, or format of the text to help them predict what they will find when they read it.
    • Guessing From Context: Guide your students to look at contextual information outside or within the text. Outside context includes the source of the text, its format, and how old it is; inside context refers to topical information and the language used (vocabulary, grammar, tone, etc.) as well as illustrations. If students have trouble understanding a particular word or sentence, encourage them to look at the context to try to figure it out. Advanced students may also be able to guess cultural references and implied meanings by considering context.
    • Skimming: This will improve comprehension speed and is useful at the intermediate level and above. The idea of skimming is to look over the entire text quickly to get the basic idea. For example, you can give your students 30 seconds to skim the text and tell you the main topic, purpose, or idea. Then they will have a framework to understand the reading when they work through it more carefully.
    • Scanning: This is another speed strategy to use with intermediate level and above. Students must look through a text quickly, searching for specific information. This is often easier with non-continuous texts such as recipes, forms, or bills (look for an ingredient amount, account number, date of service, etc.) but scanning can also be used with continuous texts like newspaper articles, letters, or stories. Ask your students for a very specific piece of information and give them just enough time to find it without allowing so much time that they will simply read through the entire text.
  • Silent Reading vs. Reading Aloud
    Reading aloud and reading silently are really two separate skills. Reading aloud may be useful for reporting information or improving pronunciation, but a reading lesson should focus on silent reading. When students read silently, they can vary their pace and concentrate on understanding more difficult portions of the text. They will generally think more deeply about the content and have greater comprehension when reading silently. Try extended silent reading (a few pages instead of a few paragraphs, or a short chapter or book for advanced students) and you may be surprised at how much your learners can absorb when they study the text uninterrupted at their own pace. When introducing extended texts, work with materials at or slightly below your students' level; a long text filled with new vocabulary or complex grammar is too cumbersome to understand globally and the students will get caught up in language details rather than comprehending the text as a whole.

ESL textbooks are a good place to look for reading activities that include pre- and post-reading exercises. If you choose to select your own reading material, the following sites may be helpful.

  • English to go
    Five free printable low-preparation reading lessons with teaching instructions for beginner through advanced levels; more available with membership.
  • Themes From Rural Life
    Short reading passages on farm life; reading levels not stated; illustrations and vocabulary lists included; written for adults.
  • Aesop's Fables - Online Collection
    Hundreds of fables; most will need language modified for ESL; try easier 'Selected Fables' first.

In 2002, Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc. and Laubach Literacy International merged to form ProLiteracy Worldwide. If your learners have basic literacy needs that you are unable to address, consider referring them to affiliates of a literacy program such as this one.

  • ProLiteracy Worldwide
    Find specially trained volunteers in all 50 states to assist adult learners with literacy needs. ESL programs are available.

Teaching Writing

Good writing conveys a meaningful message and uses English well, but the message is more important than correct presentation. If you can understand the message or even part of it, your student has succeeded in communicating on paper and should be praised for that. For many adult ESL learners, writing skills will not be used much outside your class. This doesn't mean that they shouldn't be challenged to write, but you should consider their needs and balance your class time appropriately. Many adults who do not need to write will enjoy it for the purpose of sharing their thoughts and personal stories, and they appreciate a format where they can revise their work into better English than if they shared the same information orally.

Two writing strategies you may want to use in your lessons are free writing and revised writing. Free writing directs students to simply get their ideas onto paper without worrying much about grammar, spelling, or other English mechanics. In fact, the teacher can choose not to even look at free writing pieces. To practice free writing, give students 5 minutes in class to write about a certain topic, or ask them to write weekly in a journal. You can try a dialog journal where students write a journal entry and then give the journal to a partner or the teacher, who writes another entry in response. The journals may be exchanged during class, but journal writing usually is done at home. The main characteristic of free writing is that few (if any) errors are corrected by the teacher, which relieves students of the pressure to perform and allows them to express themselves more freely.

Revised writing, also called extended or process writing, is a more formal activity in which students must write a first draft, then revise and edit it to a final polished version, and often the finished product is shared publicly. You may need several class sessions to accomplish this. Begin with a pre-writing task such as free writing, brainstorming, listing, discussion of a topic, making a timeline, or making an outline. Pairs or small groups often work well for pre-writing tasks. Then give the students clear instructions and ample time to write the assignment. In a class, you can circulate from person to person asking, "Do you have any questions?" Many students will ask a question when approached but otherwise would not have raised a hand to call your attention. Make yourself available during the writing activity; don't sit at a desk working on your next lesson plan. Once a rough draft is completed, the students can hand in their papers for written comment, discuss them with you face to face, or share them with a partner, all for the purpose of receiving constructive feedback. Make sure ideas and content are addressed first; correcting the English should be secondary. Finally, ask students to rewrite the piece. They should use the feedback they received to revise and edit it into a piece they feel good about. Such finished pieces are often shared with the class or posted publicly, and depending on the assignment, you may even choose to 'publish' everyone's writing into a class booklet.

Tactful correction of student writing is essential. Written correction is potentially damaging to confidence because it's very visible and permanent on the page. Always make positive comments and respond to the content, not just the language. Focus on helping the student clarify the meaning of the writing. Especially at lower levels, choose selectively what to correct and what to ignore. Spelling should be a low priority as long as words are recognizable. To reduce ink on the page, don't correct all errors or rewrite sentences for the student. Make a mark where the error is and let the student figure out what's wrong and how to fix it. At higher levels you can tell students ahead of time exactly what kinds of errors (verbs, punctuation, spelling, word choice) you will correct and ignore other errors. If possible, in addition to any written feedback you provide, try to respond orally to your student's writing, making comments on the introduction, overall clarity, organization, and any unnecessary information.

Consider the following ideas for your writing lessons.

  • Types of Tasks
    Here are some ideas for the types of writing you can ask your students to do.
    • Copying text word for word
    • Writing what you dictate
    • Imitating a model
    • Filling in blanks in sentences or paragraphs
    • Taking a paragraph and transforming certain language, for example changing all verbs and time references to past tense
    • Summarizing a story text, video, or listening clip (you can guide with questions or keywords)
    • Making lists of items, ideas, reasons, etc. (words or sentences depending on level)
    • Writing what your students want to learn in English and why
    • Writing letters (complaint, friend, advice) - give blank post cards or note cards or stationery to add interest; you can also use this to teach how to address an envelope
    • Organizing information, for example making a grid of survey results or writing directions to a location using a map
    • Reacting to a text, object, picture, etc. - can be a word or whole written piece
  • Format
    Clarify the format. For an essay, you may specify that you want an introduction, main ideas, support, and a conclusion. For a poem, story, list, etc., the format will vary accordingly, but make sure your students know what you expect.
  • Model
    Provide a model of the type of writing you want your students to do, especially for beginners.
  • Editing
    Consider giving students a checklist of points to look for when editing their own work. Include such things as clear topic sentences, introduction and conclusion, verb tenses, spelling, capitalization, etc.
  • Correction
    Minimize the threatening appearance of correction. Instead of a red pen, use green or blue or even pencil, as long as it's different from what the student used. Explain to the students that you will use certain symbols such as VT for verb tense or WO for word order, and be very clear whether a mark (check mark, X, star, circle) means correct or incorrect as this varies among cultures.

Teaching Grammar

Grammar is often named as a subject difficult to teach. Its technical language and complex rules can be intimidating. Teaching a good grammar lesson is one thing, but what if you're in the middle of a reading or speaking activity and a student has a grammar question? Some students may have studied grammar in their home countries and be surprised that you don't understand, "Does passive voice always need the past participle?" But even if your student's question is simple and jargon-free, explaining grammar is a skill you will need to acquire through practice. If you don't know how to explain it on the spot, write down the specific sentence or structure in question and tell the student you will find out. There are several resources below that can help you understand and explain various grammar issues.

Consider the following as you integrate grammar into your lessons.

  • Acknowledge your role.
    As a volunteer, you aren't expected to be a grammar expert. You may have difficulty explaining the 'why' behind grammar points, but you can recognize 'right' and 'wrong' wording and your students will still benefit from your English sensibility.
  • Find good lesson plans.
    It's difficult to make a good grammar lesson from scratch, so any searching you do for appropriate grammar lessons in textbooks or on the Internet will be time well spent. See the Lesson Materials section of this guide for possible resources.
  • Use meaningful texts.
    The sentences you use to teach and practice grammar shouldn't be random. Choose material that is relevant. For example, if your learners are preparing for citizenship or need workplace English, use these contexts to create appropriate examples. If possible, bring in real-life, authentic texts to illustrate your points.
  • Teach basic grammar words.
    Although you need not be fluent in grammar jargon, it's a good idea to teach at least some vocabulary (noun, verb, past tense, etc.) to assist you in your explanations. Intermediate and advanced students may be familiar with many such words already. As a practice activity, you can choose 2-3 parts of speech, specify different symbols for each (underline, circle, box), and have students mark their occurrences in a sentence or paragraph.

The links below will help you understand and explain various grammar points. The first two are from British sources, so don't be distracted by non-American spelling.

Teaching Pronunciation

Pronunciation involves far more than individual sounds. Word stress, sentence stress, intonation, and word linking all influence the sound of spoken English, not to mention the way we often slur words and phrases together in casual speech. 'What are you going to do?' becomes 'Whaddaya gonna do?' English pronunciation involves too many complexities for learners to strive for a complete elimination of accent, but improving pronunciation will boost self esteem, facilitate communication, and possibly lead to a better job or a least more respect in the workplace. Effective communication is of greatest importance, so choose first to work on problems that significantly hinder communication and let the rest go. Remember that your students also need to learn strategies for dealing with misunderstandings, since native pronunciation is for most an unrealistic goal.

A student's first language often interferes with English pronunciation. For example, /p/ is aspirated in English but not in Spanish, so when a Spanish speaker pronounces 'pig' without a puff of air on the /p/, an American may hear 'big' instead. Sometimes the students will be able to identify specific problem sounds and sometimes they won't. You can ask them for suggestions, but you will also need to observe them over time and make note of problem sounds. Another challenge resulting from differences in the first language is the inability to hear certain English sounds that the native language does not contain. Often these are vowels, as in 'ship' and 'sheep,' which many learners cannot distinguish. The Japanese are known for confusing /r/ and /l/, as their language contains neither of these but instead has one sound somewhere between the two. For problems such as these, listening is crucial because students can't produce a sound they can't hear. Descriptions of the sound and mouth position can help students increase their awareness of subtle sound differences.

Here are some ideas for focusing on specific pronunciation features.

  • Voicing
    Voiced sounds will make the throat vibrate. For example, /g/ is a voiced sound while /k/ is not, even though the mouth is in the same position for both sounds. Have your students touch their throats while pronouncing voiced and voiceless sounds. They should feel vibration with the voiced sounds only.
  • Aspiration
    Aspiration refers to a puff of air when a sound is produced. Many languages have far fewer aspirated sounds than English, and students may have trouble hearing the aspiration. The English /p/, /t/, /k/, and /ch/ are some of the more commonly aspirated sounds. Although these are not always aspirated, at the beginning of a word they usually are. To illustrate aspiration, have your students hold up a piece of facial tissue a few inches away from their mouths and push it with a puff of air while pronouncing a word containing the target sound.
  • Mouth Position
    Draw simple diagrams of tongue and lip positions. Make sure all students can clearly see your mouth while you model sounds. Have students use a mirror to see their mouth, lips, and tongue while they imitate you.
  • Intonation
    Word or sentence intonation can be mimicked with a kazoo, or alternatively by humming. This will take the students' attention off of the meaning of a word or sentence and help them focus on the intonation.
  • Linking
    We pronounce phrases and even whole sentences as one smooth sound instead of a series of separate words. 'Will Amy go away,' is rendered 'Willaymeegowaway.' To help learners link words, try starting at the end of a sentence and have them repeat a phrase, adding more of the sentence as they can master it. For example, 'gowaway,' then 'aymeegowaway,' and finally 'Willaymeegowaway' without any pauses between words.
  • Vowel Length
    You can demonstrate varying vowel lengths within a word by stretching rubber bands on the longer vowels and letting them contract on shorter ones. Then let the students try it. For example, the word 'fifteen' would have the rubber band stretched for the 'ee' vowel, but the word 'fifty' would not have the band stretched because both of its vowels are spoken quickly.
  • Syllables
    • Have students count syllables in a word and hold up the correct number of fingers, or place objects on table to represent each syllable.
    • Illustrate syllable stress by clapping softly and loudly corresponding to the syllables of a word. For example, the word 'beautiful' would be loud-soft-soft. Practice with short lists of words with the same syllabic stress pattern ('beautiful,' 'telephone,' 'Florida') and then see if your learners can list other words with that pattern.
  • Specific Sounds
    • Minimal pairs, or words such as 'bit/bat' that differ by only one sound, are useful for helping students distinguish similar sounds. They can be used to illustrate voicing ('curl/girl') or commonly confused sounds ('play/pray'). Remember that it's the sound and not the spelling you are focusing on.
    • Tongue twisters are useful for practicing specific target sounds, plus they're fun. Make sure the vocabulary isn't too difficult.
    • The Sounds of English, American Accent Training, and EnglishClub.com websites below offer guidelines for describing how to produce various English sounds. You can find representative practice words for every English sound on the English is Soup site.

Here are some resources for teaching pronunciation.

Teaching Other English Skills

English communication encompasses much more than the 'four skills' and grammar rules. An exhaustive list is beyond the scope of this teaching guide, but the following areas deserve at least brief attention.


English is not a phonetic language, meaning that pronunciation cannot be reliably predicted by spelling and vice versa. In the sentence 'Her first nurse works early,' the /er/, /ir/, /ur/, /or/, and /ear/ are all pronounced the same, whereas in 'Jim brought rough dough through the door,' the /ough/ is pronounced four different ways. English has a lot of spelling rules, and a lot of exceptions to the rules. The good news is that generally in adult ESL, with the exception of advanced students and those who need to write on the job, spelling can take a back seat to overall communication. If words are recognizable and don't obscure the meaning of a sentence, e.g. 'My gread-granmother made noodles evry sunday,' you may choose to focus on the content and let the spelling go. You will probably see your learners' spelling improve as they read more, and you can encourage them to use a dictionary for words they're unsure about.


A single vocabulary word can carry a lot of meaning, and all other factors being equal, enlarging vocabulary will increase a student's communicative ability. Consider that even at a survival level, communication can occur with a string of vocabulary words independent of grammatical form. Make time to teach and practice new words, associating them with a meaningful context.

Bilingual dictionaries, especially easy-to-use electronic ones, can become a crutch that doesn't aid students in internalizing the meaning of a word, so discourage overuse. Instead, try to help students guess the meaning of unfamiliar words from context. If they can't figure it out, encourage them to ask in English what it means. You can provide simple definitions or drawings, but be sure not to use equally challenging vocabulary in your answer. If students are trying to express an idea and are lacking an English word, teach them to try to describe it before reaching for a dictionary. For example, a student who is speaking and wants to say 'hammer' but doesn't know the English word could say 'what is nail-hit-thing' while gesturing as if hammering and perhaps even providing sound effects.

Non-Verbal Communication

A great deal of communication takes place at a non-verbal level. This encompasses symbolic gestures (shoulder shrug, nod, crossed fingers), polite behavior (hand shake, pointing), facial expressions (smile, scowl), posture (tired slouch, personal space), and even mime (hammering a nail) or gift-giving. These vary between cultures, sometimes quite dramatically. For example, the American 'okay' symbol (thumb and index finger form a circle) is very similar to a Japanese gesture meaning 'money.' In Bulgaria, a side-to-side head shake means 'yes' and a nod means 'no.' You should spend some time discussing American non-verbal communication, especially symbolic gestures and polite behavior. You can probably think of many physical gestures Americans use. Demonstrate them and ask your students what they think the gestures mean. They can also teach you gestures from their own cultures.

Life Skills

There is a growing trend in adult ESL to focus on specific life skills, also referred to as competencies, as the context for practical English instruction. These include such things as filling out medical history forms, giving or following directions in the workplace, and comparison shopping. They extend beyond English language skills in that many require critical thinking as well as some knowledge of American culture. Over 200 competencies are listed at the site below. You can use these as ideas for selecting useful teaching topics.

Lesson Planning

Lesson planning and preparation can take an hour or more for every hour of teaching, but the time required will be reduced as you gain experience, plan lessons that carry over week to week, and find good teaching materials such as textbooks or online lessons.

How To Plan A Lesson

Whether you use published ESL resources or plan your lesson from scratch, you will need a basic structure. With some experience, you may only need to jot down a quick list of topics and activities and then gather your materials together, but especially for new teachers, it's usually helpful to write a complete lesson plan. Consider the following framework.

  • Goals/Purpose
    Decide which communication skills you wish to develop. Will you focus on reading? writing? listening? speaking/pronunciation? a combination of these? In what context? Consider a useful application for the language you will practice, things such as taking phone messages, using the post office, or interviewing for a job. These types of specific skills are sometimes referred to as "competencies." Seemingly non-interactive themes like gardening or holidays are fair game, as long as you integrate communicative activities.
  • Beginning
    It's often a good idea to begin with some kind of warm-up activity to help the learners focus on English and block out the distractions of daily life. This doesn't necessarily need to be connected thematically to the rest of the lesson, but it's nice if it is. Warm-ups usually take 5-15 minutes and practice material the learners already know. Avoid new material in a warm-up because the goal of a warm-up is to diffuse inhibitions and help students transition into English thinking and speaking. A game-like atmosphere can help capture student interest, or you may choose a quick review of the last lesson or homework. When reviewing, ask learners what they remember and then fill in missing pieces rather than simply summarizing the last lesson for them.
  • Middle
    Most of your meeting time will probably be spent focused on one or two themes. Present new material and give learners a chance to practice it thoroughly. You may want to include pair or group work, silent reading/writing, games, or conversational discussion. Your lessons will be more interesting if you use real-life materials to support the text. For example, if the lesson theme is telling time, bring in a large clock with adjustable hands to demonstrate with. Show a video of a job interview, bring in a rental application, play a recorded clip from the radio, share photos of your family. Try to incorporate something outside of the textbook or printed lesson every time you meet.
  • End
    Especially if the lesson content has been challenging, end by reviewing what what was covered as well as what the learners already know. By finishing with something familiar, learners will leave with the impression that English isn't too difficult after all.

You can use the following reproducible worksheet to design a thoughtful and complete lesson plan. You may choose to omit a section or add activities based on the time you have. Use the "Time" column on the worksheet for estimating the amount of time you wish to spend on each section. If you find during your lesson that your estimate was incorrect, you can adjust by adding or cutting another activity. New teachers frequently over-estimate the time needed for an activity, so it's wise to have some backup ideas to fill in leftover time. Write any handouts or real-life objects you will need in the "Notes/Materials" column.

Lesson Preparation

The first step of preparation is to plan your lesson. Once you have decided what to teach and how to teach it, look at your lesson and think about ways to expand it, and make note of what else needs to be done before your class. What can you bring to add interest? What will you photocopy and how many copies will you need? If you copy double-sided and have an odd number of pages, is there something fun like a cartoon or tongue twister you can put on the last blank side?

In addition to preparing a specific lesson every day or week, it's helpful to build yourself a collection of potential ESL resources to draw on as needed. Think about upcoming holidays or future themes in your textbook. Create an organized storage system from the beginning or you may find your growing collection of pictures, handouts, and games becoming unmanageable. Label all important personal items with your name. Here are some ideas for lesson preparation:

  • Gather Basic Teaching Items
    These will make planning and teaching easier.
    • Good textbook or lesson (perhaps from the Internet)
    • Small white board with pens, if you don't have access to a classroom board
    • Blank paper (a student may ask for some)
    • Regular or picture dictionary
    • List of extra activities to fill leftover time (see the Activities section of this guide)
  • Collect Useful Materials
    Be sure to protect your materials because they may be handled many times. Slip paper materials into page protectors or magnetic photo album pages, glue them onto card stock, or laminate them.
    • Cut out magazine pictures
    • Select photographs of a vacation, family members, etc.
    • Collect travel brochures and public service pamphlets
    • Save interesting newspaper or magazine articles
    • Save cartoons or humorous drawings
    • Borrow library books with pictures, such as children's stories or travel guides
    • Collect blank note cards or postcards for students to write on
    • Consider board or card games
    • Bring children's building blocks or legos
    • Bring objects like clothing, fruits, a clock, canned food, etc.
    • Find relevant handouts on the internet (see the Lesson Materials section of this guide)
  • Make Your Own ESL Materials
    Creativity helps, but you don't need to be a creative genius to make useful materials to accompany your lessons.
    • Write simple quizzes
    • Write dialogs and role plays
    • Write tongue twisters to focus on a problem sound
    • Create crossword puzzles using vocabulary words
    • Make alphabet or vocabulary flash cards
    • Create games, drawings, posters, etc.
    • Use a craft with your lesson, such as cutting snow flakes or decorating Easter eggs
  • Use Available Technology
    If you have access to a TV and VCR, cassette/CD player, overhead projector, or even a computer, use them to bring variety to your lessons. Always be prepared with a non-technical backup activity should your equipment unexpectedly fail.
    • Videotape TV commercials or news clips, or borrow a library video
    • Copy outlines, diagrams, cartoons, etc. onto overhead transparencies
    • Tape record a few minutes of radio talk
    • Choose a popular song to play and make a worksheet of the song lyrics with missing word blanks; if you use a cassette, record the song 2-3 times for easy playback
    • Play background (instrumental) music while students work on an activity
    • Find a website your students can use for ESL activities (see the Further Resources section of this guide)

Lesson Planning Tips

Lesson planning will help you teach with confidence. The longer your class session, the more important it is to have a good lesson plan. Here are some tips to consider.

  • Plan Alternative Activities
    Always have one or two alternative activities in case the material you've selected doesn't take all the time you thought it would. How will you fill an extra 10 minutes? 20 minutes?
  • Build on Previous Material
    Try to continuously practice material that you've covered recently. It's often possible to teach the same theme several sessions in a row which can help ingrain vocabulary and concepts.
  • Balance the Challenge of Content and Activity Type
    If your content is challenging, choose activities that are relatively easy to do like fill-in-the-blank exercises or guided discussion questions. If your content is fairly simple, try more challenging activities like role plays or problem-solving.
  • Create Your Own Materials
    Build your own library of materials to support your lessons. You can find several ideas in the Lesson Preparation section of this guide. Be creative. If you invest some time into developing and collecting materials, you'll cut down on your preparation time when you are actually planning lessons.
  • Center Lessons Around the Student
    Keep the focus on the learners and minimize the time you spend talking as a teacher. In other words, make the lesson as interactive as possible. Focus on communication.
  • Assess Needs
    Periodically take time to think through your particular learners' needs. Think about cultural factors as well as language deficiencies. This can help you prioritize what you choose to study. Are any of your students dealing with culture shock? What kind of language skills might help alleviate it? Try asking the students themselves what they would like to learn.
  • Keep a Log
    After each class, write a brief log of what you did. Include notes about what worked or didn't with ideas for improvement. Write down specific page numbers you covered in a textbook. You could also keep your lesson plans collected together, making sure to write notes on them about the success of various activities and whether you modified the lesson during class.


A variety of activities adds interest to each lesson and serves different learning styles. You will find sample games and activities in this guide for all ability levels and class sizes. Feel free to change their content or difficulty to suit your needs, or use them as a springboard to create your own activities. Many one-on-one or small group activities can be adapted for larger classes by using pairs or making alterations in the content. If you have an odd number of learners for a pair exercise, you can pair one learner with yourself or invite an advanced learner to assist you with monitoring everyone. Unfortunately, it's more difficult to adapt full class activities for individual tutoring, but with some creativity you may be able to glean useful ideas. If you see an activity you like at an inappropriate language level, make it more challenging by increasing the complexity of the language and adding elements of risk, or make it less challenging by simplifying the language and providing more guidance to reduce the risk of errors. In activities requiring peer interviews, be sensitive about the amount and type of personal information you ask the learners to share.

Warm-up Ideas

Warm-ups help your learners put aside their daily distractions and focus on English. If they haven't used English all day, they may take a little while to shift into it. Warm-ups also encourage whole-group participation which can build a sense of community within the group. For new groups, see the list of ice breakers further down.

  • Brainstorm (any level, individual or group)
    Give a topic and ask learners to think of anything related to it. Write the responses for all to see, or ask a volunteer to do the writing. You can use this to elicit vocabulary related to your lesson.
  • Question of the Day (intermediate-advanced, individual or group)
    Ask 1-2 simple questions and give learners 5 minutes to write their answers. Randomly choose a few people to share their answers with the group.
  • Yesterday (intermediate, group)
    Have a learner stand in front of the group and make one statement about yesterday, such as "Yesterday I went shopping." Then let everyone else ask questions to learn more information, such as "Who did you go with?" "What did you buy?" "What time did you go?" etc. Try this with 1-2 different learners each day.
  • Describe the Picture (any level, group)
    Show a picture and have learners take turns saying one descriptive thing about it. Beginners can make simple observations like "three cats" while advanced students can make up a story to go with the picture. They aren't allowed to repeat what someone else said, so they need to pay attention when each person speaks. Variation for individual: take turns with the teacher.
  • Criss-Cross (beginner-intermediate, large group)
    Learners must be seated in organized rows at least 4x4. Have the front row of learners stand. Ask simple questions like "What day/time is it?" Learners raise their hands (or blurt out answers) and the first person to answer correctly may sit down. The last standing learner's line (front-to-back) must stand and the game continues until 3-4 rows/lines have played. You can use diagonal rows if the same person gets stuck standing each time. To end, ask a really simple question (e.g. "What's your name?") directly to the last student standing. Variation for small group: the whole group stands and may sit one by one as they raise their hands and answer questions.
  • Show & Tell (any level, individual or group)
    A learner brings an item from home and talks about it in front of the group. Give learners enough advance notice to prepare and remind them again before their turn. Have a back up plan in case the learner forgets to bring an item. Beginners may only be able to share the name of an item and where they got it. Be sure to give beginners specific instructions about what information you want them to tell.
  • Sing a Song (intermediate-advanced, group)
    If you're musically inclined, or even if you're not, songs can be a lively way to get everyone involved.
  • Mystery Object (advanced, group)
    Bring an item that is so unusual that the learners are not likely to recognize what it is. Spend some time eliciting basic descriptions of the item and guesses about what it is and how it's used. If possible, pass the item around. This is an activity in observation and inference, so don't answer questions. Just write down descriptions and guesses until someone figures it out or you reveal the mystery.

Ice Breakers

  • Name Bingo (beginner, large group)
    Hand out a blank grid with enough squares for the number of people in your class. The grid should have the same number of squares across and down. Give the students a few minutes to circulate through the class and get everyone's name written on a square. Depending on the number of blank squares left over, you can have them write their own name on a square, or your name, or give them one 'free' square. When everyone is seated again, have each person give a short self-introduction. You can draw names randomly or go in seating order. With each introduction, that student's name square may be marked on everyone's grid, as in Bingo. Give a prize to the first 2-3 students to cross off a row.
  • Name Crossword (any level, group)
    Write your name across or down on the board being sure not to crowd the letters. Students take turns coming to the board, saying their name, and writing it across or down, overlapping one letter that is already on the board. It's usually best if you allow students to volunteer to come up rather than calling on them in case a letter in their name isn't on the board yet, although the last few students may need encouragement if they're shy.
  • Similarities (beginner-intermediate, group)
    Give each person one or more colored shapes cut from construction paper. They need to find another person with a similar color, shape, or number of shapes and form pairs. Then they interview each other to find 1-2 similarities they have, such as working on a farm or having two children or being from Asia. They can share their findings with the class if there is time.
  • Pair Interviews (intermediate-advanced, group)
    Pairs interview each other, using specified questions for intermediates and open format for advanced students. Then they take turns introducing their partner to the whole class. Be sensitive to privacy when asking for personal information.
  • Snowball Fight (any literate level, group)
    Give learners a piece of white paper and ask them to write down their name, country of origin, and some trivial fact of your choice (such as a favorite fruit). Have everyone wad the pages into 'snowballs' and toss them around for a few minutes. On your signal, everyone should unwrap a snowball, find the person who wrote it, and ask 1-2 more trivial facts. Write the questions on the board so the students can refer to them. Remember that each learner will need to ask one person the questions and be asked questions by a third person, so leave enough time. Variation for small groups: learners can take turns introducing the person they interviewed.
  • Mystery Identities (any literate level, group)
    Write the names of famous people or places (or use animals or fruits for a simplified version) onto 3x5 cards. Attach a card to each learner's back. Give them time to mingle and ask each other questions to try to figure out their tagged identities. This is usually limited to yes/no questions, although beginners might be allowed to ask any question they can. Be at least 90% sure that the learners have heard of the items on the cards and especially the ones you place on their own backs.

ESL Games

Some of these can be used as warm-ups. Most of them can be linked to any lesson theme or grammatical form you're working on. These games usually require at least a small group to play, but you may be able to adapt some of them for one-on-one settings.

  • Find Someone Who... (literate beginner-intermediate, group)
    Create a list of characteristics such as "likes chocolate," "has two children," or "can swim." There should be 10-15 items, and you can relate them to your lesson if you wish. Then let the learners mingle and get signatures of other learners who fit the descriptions. Make sure they are using appropriate question forms ("likes X" becomes "Do you like X?") and aren't just pointing to the items on the page. This can be made into a Bingo activity by putting the items on a grid.
  • Pictionary (any level, group)
    Divide into 2-3 teams and give each a supply of paper if you aren't using a whiteboard. It's best if each team can sit around a table or have their own whiteboard space. Tell one member from each team what item to draw, and on your signal they may begin. The first team to guess wins a point. Play a fixed number of rounds and the team with the highest score wins. Notice that in this version, all teams are working independently at the same time to guess the same word, but you could take turns with each team. You can also give stickers or wrapped candy to the person or team guessing correctly if you don't want to make it competitive with points.
  • Scavenger Hunt (any literate level, group)
    Divide into teams and hand out a list of items to be collected (a penny, a stick of gum, a signature, a pine cone, a shoelace, be creative). Define the searching range (classroom, house, campus, neighborhood, building). The first team to return with all the items wins a prize.
  • Twenty Questions (intermediate-advanced, individual or group)
    Select an object in your mind and let the learners ask up to twenty questions to guess what it is. Trade places with the winner and let that learner select an object for the next round.
  • Storyline (intermediate-advanced, group)
    Divide into groups of 4-6 people. Give everyone a sheet of paper and ask them to write the first sentence of a story at the top of the page. It may begin "Once upon a time..." if they like. Then they pass the page along to the next person in the group. That person reads the first sentence and adds one more to it to continue the story. Then that person folds the top of the page backwards so only his or her own single sentence is visible and passes the page to the next person. That person writes one more sentence, folds the paper back to hide the previous sentence, and passes it along again. When the pages have passed through the entire group one or two rounds, everyone unfolds the pages and reads the stories. They are often hilarious, and this game usually generates contagious laughter.
  • Telephone (any level, group)
    Divide the group into two teams and have them stand in single file lines. Whisper a somewhat complex sentence (according to their level) into the ear of the first person in each line. Make sure no one else hears. Give the same sentence to each line. Then each person must whisper it into the ear of the next person until the end of the line. The last person must either say the sentence or write it on a whiteboard. The team whose final sentence most resembles the original one wins. In case of a tie, the fastest team wins. Try giving an easy sentence to start with to build confidence before moving onto a difficult one. If the game is too hard in the first round, learners will decide it's no fun.

More ideas may be found on the following pages:

Miscellaneous Activities

These activities generally require more preparation than warm-ups and games, but they will also take more class time and can be used to practice whatever material you're teaching. As always, be creative and adapt them to your needs.

  • Pre-Written Dialogs (any literate level, pairs)
    Many textbooks include sample dialogs, or you may write your own. They can be useful to break the ice with shy learners, but they are not truly communicative because no original language is produced. Use them to practice self-confidence or to illustrate a grammatical pattern. Make them more communicative by selectively choosing words or phrases which can be blanked out and requiring students to substitute their own ideas in the blanks. Beginners may need a list of options to choose from. Having learners memorize the dialogs can help them gain the confidence to try role plays.
  • Role Plays (intermediate-advanced, pairs)
    Role plays are far more communicative than pre-written dialogs, but they are often challenging for beginners or shy students because they must come up with their own language to fit a particular situation. They may be too difficult for beginners or shy learners. In its most difficult form, groups of 2-3 learners are given a scenario and asked to act it out on the spot. To make a role-play less intimidating, learners may be allowed 5-10 minutes to think it through first. You may allow them to write down their scripts, which is often necessary at lower levels. Writing also gives learners a chance to ask questions about the language before they use it in front of their peers.
  • Information Gap (any level, pairs)
    Each learner has limited information which the other needs. They must ask each other questions to get the information. To be more communicative, the answers should have some degree of ambiguity that needs to be cleared up with more questions. For example, both learners receive a drawing of a group of people. Each has the names of half of the people labeled on the picture, and the rest of the names in a list. They describe their pictures and ask questions to match names with the unknown people. "Is Sally holding a coffee cup?" may need to be followed by "Is she tall or short?" if there are two women holding coffee cups. Information gaps can be done with street maps, telling time, daily schedule, job interview, spelling, etc. Look for those that encourage interactive questioning rather than mere reporting of easy information. Make sure the students don't show each other their worksheets to give away the answers.
  • Sequencing (any level, pair or group)
    In sequencing activities, students must put jumbled pieces of information into a logical order. Unlike jigsaw activities, all students in the group are allowed to see all the pieces of information. They work together to understand each piece and decide where it fits among the rest. Examples include months of the year, strip stories where a story is cut into separate sentences or paragraphs (use pictures for non-literate students), or instructions (recipe, craft, etc.) cut up by lines. It's fine to have more information pieces than group members.
  • Q & A Matching (literate beginner-intermediate, large group)
    You need to have an even number of participants, so you may need to join in yourself. Get enough 3x5 cards so that you have one per person. On half of the cards write questions, and on the other half write appropriate responses. Use language your learners know and avoid new vocabulary. Examples could be, "What month is it? / It's July." or "Where did you go yesterday? / I went to City Park." Mix up the cards and hand one to each student. Let everyone stand up and mingle. The students with questions should read their questions aloud and those with answers should read their responses. Make sure they don't show each other their cards. When students think they have a matching pair, they can sit down.  The activity will go faster if the question cards are a different color than the answer cards. Watch out for questions that could use more than one of your answers, or answers that could be given for more than one of your questions. This will result in an odd pair left over if students don't match your original question and answer correctly. For multilevel groups, make some questions/answers harder and give these to the higher level students. At the end, have all pairs read their questions and answers to check them.
  • Fill-In-The-Blank (any literate level, individual or group)
    Prepare a worksheet containing a text or song lyrics with key words blanked out. For beginners you can blank out alphabet letters and not whole words, choosing distinct sounds rather than silent letters. Then read the text or play the song and let the learners fill in the blanks. You may need to repeat it 2-3 times. Then go through the text (have learners take turns reading their answers) to check it. Ask learners to spell the difficult words. You can focus this activity by choosing a certain type of word to blank out (such as articles or "be" verbs) or just choose random words. Be aware, though, that if you choose a lot of long words close to each other the learners may have trouble keeping up with listening as they write. This is also called a cloze exercise.
  • Problem-Solving (intermediate-advanced, group)
    This works best with small groups. Present a problem (a scenario, possibly) and give groups some time to discuss the best approaches or solutions and come to agreement on a course of action. The problem should require a decision with pros and cons and necessitate creative collaborative effort. It can be something like deciding upon seven items to take along for a week in the wilderness, or choosing between living in a 5-bedroom house in the city or a 1-bedroom cottage by a mountain stream. Press learners to explain why they chose their answers.
  • Reading: Oral vs. Silent (any literate level, individual)
    The skills used in oral reading are different from those used when reading silently. Use oral reading sparingly to work on verbal presentation (pronunciation, intonation) and be sure to allow time for silent reading. It's best to set a time limit so the learners know just how much time they have, and you can flex it if your estimate is off. When they read silently, learners will be able to absorb meaning and look at English usage much more fully than when they read aloud. They will also be able to tackle longer passages.
  • Freewriting (any literate level, individual)
    Give learners 5 minutes to just write their thoughts. You may guide them by providing a question or topic (beginners will probably need guidance), or give them complete freedom. Make sure they just write without worrying about errors. The idea is to get thoughts onto paper with whatever English is available. This can be a warm-up for a more formal writing assignment or just a jump start for thinking in English.
  • Short Composition (any literate level, individual)
    Unlike freewriting, learners need to edit their work. You should provide a topic or visual stimulus (full page magazine pictures work well) and circulate among the students as they write. By allowing time to write during the lesson (as opposed to homework) you give them a chance to ask you questions and refine their work. You can also have learners pair up to read each other's work and make suggestions. At the end, ask learners to volunteer to read their compositions to the group, but be careful about requiring everyone to share. You can customize your topic to practice specific English forms. For example, ask past/future questions to work on verb forms, or practice prepositions by showing a picture of a room and asking learners to describe the locations of all the objects they can identify. You may also ask advanced learners to summarize and respond to a brief reading passage.
  • Flash Cards (any level, individual or group)
    Flash cards can be used for simple vocabulary drills, numbers, or memory games. Avoid using cards that translate a native language word into English. Rather, choose or make cards that use pictures or symbols to prompt English answers. Of course this isn't an issue if you're using numbers. Try including mathematical equations, too, or time-telling clocks.
  • Dictation (any literate level, individual or group)
    Say a sentence at natural speed and ask learners to write down what you said. You'll probably need to repeat several times. Don't slow down your speed unless it's absolutely necessary. Then ask a learner to read the sentence to check it. Finally, write it for all to see (or ask an advanced student to write it) and then say it again a few times at natural speed. For a twist, ask a learner to dictate a sentence for the rest of the group. Learners will be thrilled if their teacher (you) can correctly understand what they said.

More activity ideas are available on the following sites.

Lesson Materials

A good ESL textbook is one of the best foundations for lesson planning. If you don't have access to a textbook or want to take a break from it, the Internet offers a wide range of ESL lesson materials. Unfortunately, many of the materials available are designed for professional teachers in public schools and colleges, making it difficult to find appropriate materials to meet the needs of adult learners in volunteer-based programs. The websites below all offer free ESL lesson plans suitable for adults. Although some are intended for regular teachers, most of the lessons include teaching instructions, and those that don't are generally easy to present.

  • Onestopenglish.com
    Free printable lesson plans and worksheets for all levels; registration required.
  • About.com Teaching Resources
    Many lesson plans and activities for all levels; designed for classes but adaptable for individual tutoring.
  • Handouts Online
    Free printable handouts on grammar, everyday activities, business English, vocabulary, and other searchable topics; categorized by level under "Most Popular;" some instant lessons designed for regular teachers.
  • TEFL.NET ESL Lesson Plans
    Fifteen free printable lesson worksheets with separate teaching instructions; designed for pair work; language levels not specified.
  • EFL4U.com
    Small collection of sample lessons with printable worksheets and teaching instructions; more available for purchase.
  • Practical Approaches for ESL Facilitators
    Many lesson ideas with instructions, some for beginners, mostly for intermediate level, adaptable for advanced students.

More ESL Resources

General ESL Links

  • Dave's ESL Cafe
    Probably the best-known ESL website on the internet: classroom ideas, idioms, games, chats, discussion boards, email, pronunciation software, photos, links, lots more.
  • Internet TESL Journal
    Teaching articles, lessons, handouts, links, online activities for students, more.
  • John's ESL Community
    Teacher and student resources, worksheets, classroom activities; class website and email available with free registration.


Sites For Students

Consider a field trip to a public library for your learners to log on and explore some of these sites.


Balliro, Lenore. "Multilevel Classes: Some Practical Suggestions." Connections: A Journal of Adult Literacy. Summer 1997. Adult Literacy Resource Institute. 15 Apr. 2004 http://hub1.worlded.org/docs/connections/Balliro2.pdf

Bello, Tom. "Improving ESL Learners' Writing Skills." June 1997. National Center for ESL Literacy Education. 21 Apr. 2004. http://www.cal.org/ncle/digests/Writing.htm

Brown, H. Douglas. Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents, 1994.

Burt, Miriam and Fran Keenan. "Trends in Staff Development for Adult ESL Instructors." June 1998. National Center for ESL Literacy Education. 14 Apr. 2004. http://www.cal.org/ncle/digests/TrendQA.htm

Cunningham Florez, MaryAnn. "Improving Adult English Language Learners' Speaking Skills." June 1999. National Center for ESL Literacy Education. 20 Apr. 2004. http://www.cal.org/ncle/digests/Speak.htm

Cunningham Florez, MaryAnn. "Improving Adult ESL Learners' Pronunciation Skills." December 1998. National Center for ESL Literacy Education. 22 Apr. 2004. http://www.cal.org/ncle/digests/Pronun.htm

Finn Miller, Susan. "Pronunciation and the Adult ESL Learner." Fieldnotes for ABLE Staff. 2004. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 22 Apr. 2004. http://www.able.state.pa.us/able/lib/able/fieldnotes04/fn04eslpronunciation.pdf

Harmer, Jeremy. How to Teach English. England: Addison Wesley Longman Ltd., 1998.

Imel, Susan. "Teaching Adults: Is it Different? Myths and Realities." 1995. Literacy Volunteers of America. 14 Apr. 2004. http://lvanys.org/pro-tc-res-teachadults.html

Lanier, Sarah A. Foreign to Familiar. Haggerstown, MD: McDougal Publishing, 2000.

Leininger, Gayle and Kendale Moore. Literacy Missions Conversational English Workshop Manual. Alpharetta, GA: North American Mission Board, 1997.

Mason, Tom. The Online Conversation Leader Handbook. 1999. 14 Apr. 2004. http://www.afn.org/~afn49566/

McGroarty, Mary. "Cross-cultural Issues in Adult ESL Literacy Classrooms." July 1993. National Center for ESL Literacy Education. 17 Apr. 2004. http://www.cal.org/ncle/digests/CROSS_CULTURAL.HTML

Shank, Cathy C. and Lynda R. Terrill. "Teaching Multilevel Adult ESL Classes." May 1995. National Center for ESL Literacy Education. 14 Apr. 2004. http://www.cal.org/ncle/digests/SHANK.HTM

VanDuzer, Carol. "Improving ESL Learners' Listening Skills: At the Workplace and Beyond." February 1997. National Center for ESL Literacy Education. 19 Apr. 2004. http://www.cal.org/ncle/digests/LISTENQA.HTM

VanDuzer, Carol. "Reading and the Adult English Language Learner." August 1999. National Center for ESL Literacy Education. 21 Apr. 2004. http://www.cal.org/ncle/digests/Read.htm

Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center. Adult Education and Literacy Instructor Starter Kit. Richmond, VA: Virginia Commonwealth University, 2001. 17 Apr. 2004 http://www.aelweb.vcu.edu/pdfs/Instkit.pdf

Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center. ESOL Starter Kit. Richmond, VA: Virginia Commonwealth University, October 2002. 13 Apr. 2004 http://www.aelweb.vcu.edu/publications/ESLKit/ESLKit_2002.pdf

Virginia Migrant Education Program. Help! They Don't Speak English Starter Kit for Teachers of Young Adults. June 1993. ESCORT at the State University of New York at Oneonta. 17 Mar. 2004. http://www.escort.org/products/yahelpkit.html

Waters, Judy. "Putting the Pieces Together in a Multilevel Class." Connections: A Journal of Adult Literacy. Summer 1997. Adult Literacy Resource Institute. 15 Apr. 2004 http://hub1.worlded.org/docs/connections/Waters3.pdf

Woodward, Tessa. Planning Lessons and Courses. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Citation: Please adapt for your documentation style.
Lim, Kristina. (2005). ESL Volunteer Guide. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/teaching/guide.cfm?guideid=115