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Working with Non-native Speakers of English in the Classroom

How To Help Your Undergraduate ESL Students

Jane O'Connor
Director, ESL Services for Undergraduates
Learning Programs in the Office for Undergraduate Education

The most important way to help ESL students is to provide an open environment where they feel able to speak and ask questions in a comfortable atmosphere. The less anxious a student feels the more likely they will be to ask questions when unsure and to talk out in discussions. We must remember this may not be usual in their culture so it may take a while and some gentle coaxing until they feel comfortable doing this.

What ESL programs and services are available?

There will be an English 101 course starting in the fall and spring 2008-2009 especially designed for ESL students. International ESL students will be selected from a screening test during pre-orientation. Other second language speakers may be identified by English or other faculty during the start of classes and recommended for the class.
Ongoing tutorial support is available for all ESL students. Sessions can be booked online via TutorTrac, http://college.emory.edu/current/support/learning_programs/epass/index.html (ESL page) or by emailing Jane O'Connor directly at jcoconn@emory.edu. Students may bring papers to the session to work on grammatical errors typical for non-native speakers or ask to work on any other aspect of language development. For example, they may wish to look at a particular grammatical area such as the use of articles, which may be causing them problems, or ask for help in ways of building and storing vocabulary.

Study groups are run by the director focusing on issues such as academic writing, academic reading, vocabulary development, academic speaking (talking part in discussions/giving presentations), listening to lectures etc.
Language development software is available in both the Learning Enhancement Lab (LEL) in the SAAC (Clairmont Campus) and the Language Lab in Woodruff Library. The ESL Director can provide training on software use and instruction.

ESL textbooks on all aspects of language development may be checked-out from the Learning Programs office in the SAAC.

Who are the ESL students at Emory?

ESL students fall into three categories

  • International students
  • Permanent residents
  • American citizens

What problems do they have?

An ESL student MAY face many challenges apart from linguistic ones. Here are some of them:

  • Culture shock (they way of life both inside and outside of college may be very different for them)
  • Home sickness
  • Isolation (voluntary or involuntary) and may find themselves sticking with peers from the same language or nationality group where they feel safe
  • Tiredness (it is very hard to function in another language all day especially at such a complex level)
  • They may have different cultural/behavioral issues that are not generally understood in America (e.g. keeping eyes looking down may be a mark or respect in their culture, they may not be used to cooperative group work etc.)

Remember they need to develop their language skills but also knowledge of and comfort with the American way of life.

What does a second language speaker need to learn about a language?
  • Grammar
  • Pronunciation
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking
  • Listening
  • Vocabulary
  • Levels of formality
  • Cultural references

An ESL student may struggle with one or all of these and this may depend on how they learned English. Some will have focused on the old grammar translation methods and others a more modern communicative method.

General tips

Reading and Listening

Reading and listening are often referred to as a passive or receptive skills as they are regarded as something the reader or listener has done to them. In reality a student needs to be actively engaged in order to comprehend. This does not mean that they need to understand every single word on the page or every word that is uttered and often students make the mistake of trying to do this time consuming activity and so loose overall meaning.

It is really important to tap into a student's prior knowledge about a subject before they start to read an academic text or listen to a lecture. This will greatly aid comprehension of a text and is particularly important with culturally specific items. This may be done in several ways

  • Discussion about the topic
  • Pre-teaching of essential vocabulary items
  • Using music, realia (real life items), a video clip or pictures to introduce the topic
  • Let the students know ahead of time what you will be looking at and give them questions to research or a simplified reading text on the same subject in order to prepare themselves
  • Using a KWL or KWLQ chart. This is a paper divided into 3 or 4 columns. The K and W both represent pre-reading or pre-listening tasks. Students fill in the K column with information they already know about a topic this is then pooled and discussed. The next column is where the students write what they would like to find out about a topic (questions). The L and Q are post-reading/listening sections. The L is where the students fill in things they learned (you may want to ask them to write down a finite number such as 4 things they learned). Many educators like to add in the fourth column which is Q for further questions that they now have. This is a great way to lead into further research and discussion
  • With reading you can also look at the text features BEFORE reading it. Ask students what can be learned just by looking at the title, headings, pictures, graphic features, point out features such as the glossary, use of bold type. Get students to NOTICE these items as they will often point to the most important information.

Giving Directions in Class and Lectures

Listening has the added problems of being fleeting. A student may return to the written word to confirm ideas but they do not have the same luxury whilst listening.

After building student's knowledge in a topic how can we help them to understand a lecture? Here are some ideas you may already use or may like to try out.

  • Make sure you write key items of vocabulary or people's names on the board or a handout
  • Remember that facial expression and gesture greatly increases understanding
  • Make sure your input is, as Krashen (1982) says ,"comprehensible" that is it should be understandable yet challenging ( as cited in Harmer, 1991 p 33)
  • Support the students' aural comprehension with visuals where possible such as diagrams, tables, maps, pictures, photos, graphic organizers, time lines, maps, charts, posters, webs, flow charts even mime
  • Watch how fast you speak and the complexity of the words and expressions you use. Try not to use too much slang, idioms etc
  • Make sure jargon is clearly written on the board and explained
  • Keep the students on track by frequently asking comprehension questions both open and closed. Don't just ask if they understand as they will probably say yes even if the answer is no
  • Look at students' body language to see if they are actively listening and comprehending.
  • Give the students vocabulary banks and get them to keep them in an organized way
  • Provide summaries of lectures or copies of the PowerPoint slides
  • Help them with note taking skills by giving a framework of the lecture for them to make notes in e.g. a simple a series of headings and subheadings that follow the flow of your lecture. It keeps them focused and following the main points
  • Make transitions in class very clear as you move from one topic to another
  • Write homework assignments on the board or a handout as well as giving it to students orally
  • Be explicit when something is very important e.g. by making sure students write it down
  • Be aware of culturally based examples that may need explaining to students from other culture. Pause occasionally to summarize, repeat and/or clarify
  • Use writing frames to summarize reading texts and lectures. These may be sentence beginnings students finish the sentences or a cloze (a text with key word or phrases removed)
  • Pause occasionally to summarize, repeat and/or clarify
  • Put students in mixed nationality groups for a few minutes at the end of a class to summarize the main points of the lecture or reading to consolidate their learning. Another idea is to get each student in the class to say one thing they learned in the lecture/something that surprised them etc.

It must also be understood that as native speakers we use different strategies when reading or listening. Sometimes, for example, depending on what we are reading or why we are reading we may want to read a whole text in great detail, other times we may skim over it for general meaning or scan it for exact details. Students may have these skills in their native language but not use them in English preferring all the time to try to understand everything. Students may also, in certain subjects, find it extremely difficult to read between the lines and make inferences. Students can book a tutorial with Jane O'Connor to help develop these skills.

Speaking and Writing

These are often called the active or productive skills as the student is required to produce something.


In writing student error is at its most prominent, there in black and white for all to see. In speaking the error may come and go at such a rapid rate it can almost pass unnoticed. Writing is the area where both teachers and students often voice the most concern. Errors may occur for many reasons including mother tongue interference (incorrect translation of grammatical forms from the native language), and the style of writing may be directly influenced by differences in writing used in other culture (see article).

How should these errors be treated?

Students may receive help from the writing center or from ESL services. In general they should be referred to the writing center if the areas they need to focus on are similar for a native speaker, that of organizing ideas etc. If the grammatical errors are many and a paper is difficult to understand due to that they should be referred to the ESL department.

It is not a good idea to try and correct every single error in a student's piece of writing. This can be extremely time consuming and unless the student is very meticulous and goes back over these with a fine-tooth comb these they will learn little, if anything, from them. If you wish to correct error it is better to focus on the main issues and/or a recurring error.

In grading an assignment try to focus on the overall message the student is trying to convey. You may like to provide the student with a writing frame or model to help them.

Make sure the students are CLEAR in exactly what they are required to do in a writing assignment with clear instructions that are written down.


This is seen differently in different cultures. Make sure all students are fully aware of the implications here.


Speaking is often very stressful for ESL students especially in front of their native speaking peers. They may sit silently in class and not participate but be aware that this may also be due to culture and what is the norm in the classroom in their native county. Make sure you provide them with enough thinking time before expecting a reply. Students may need time to think of an answer and formulate it in English. Make sure you ensure the success of shyer students by asking questions you know they will be able to understand and answer.

When possible allow them to work in small groups with native speakers for discussion. They will be more likely to speak out in a small group and working with native speakers will allow them to develop their language skills. This is also helpful for presentations.

Do not correct a student's grammar in front of the class. Just echo the answer back to them correctly as a model.


Vocabulary is more than just knowing a word on a list. An ESL student needs to know

  • What a word means
  • What type of word is it so they know how to use it in a sentence (noun, verb etc)
  • Any special characteristics (e.g. if it is an irregular verb, if it is a countable or uncountable noun, if a verb is transitive or intransitive etc)
  • If a word be can adapted and used in different ways by adding prefixes and suffixes (e.g. friend, friendly, unfriendly, friendship)
  • How is it spelled
  • How is it pronounced
  • If it is a word the student just needs to recognize (passive vocabulary) or if they need to be able to use it themselves (active vocabulary)
  • Which words have multiple meanings that can cause confusion
  • Collocation (which words can be used together, for example, we say happy birthday but not merry birthday)
  • How formal or informal a word is

You will need to be selective about what vocabulary you teach. If you try to give too many new words at once they simply will not be remembered. You also need to think about how you will teach it so that it is more memorable for the student. If possible use realia or real world objects, pictures, explanation. Put the word in context and encourage the students to record it in a way that will aid their learning. Ask them to contact the ESL Director for a consultation to work on strategies for learning and recording vocabulary).

Encourage the use of vocabulary journals.


Harmer, J. (1991). The Practice of English Language Teaching. Cambridge, UK: Longman.
McCarthy, M., & Felicity, O. (2006). Vocabulary in Use: Upper Intermediate. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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