ESL learners have a lot of specific needs, and as teachers, it is our responsibility to address them; but, the unique strengths of ESL learners should not be overlooked in the process. Whether you teach ESL students in a mainstream classroom or in an ESL-only class, whether you teach children, teenagers, college students or adults, knowing your students’ strengths is just as important as knowing their weaknesses.
In addition to the many individual strengths our students bring to our classes, ESL learners often have some combination of grammar knowledge, cultural background, curiosity and risk taking going for them, and we would be wise as teachers to celebrate them, encourage them, and use them to strengthen our classes.
Depending on where they are from and how much English education they have had in the past, many of our ESL students come to us with a good foundational knowledge of English grammar, often much better than their American classmates.
This knowledge is not always evident in their speaking, but because they have had many grammatical structures explained to them at some point, they are familiar with the topic. When so many Americans don’t know the difference between a verb and an adjective, these ESL students actually have an advantage when it comes to understanding grammar lessons.
When you are in the middle of a problem or situation, it can be hard for you to see it from any other perspective than your own. When you’ve grown up in a particular culture and don’t have any experience outside of it, it can be hard for you to see that there are other ways of doing things. Because ESL learners come from other cultural backgrounds, they often do things – even very basic and simple things – differently. They learned to do long division by writing the problem in a way that looks "upside-down" to us, they have a shoe-tying procedure that we’ve never seen before, they look at problems with a different cultural eye. All of these ways of seeing life differently can be assets if we allow them to be.
Say you give students a group project to do or a problem to solve. A student with different cultural values may approach the topic in a way that is totally unexpected, offering a new perspective and creativity that a mono-cultural group will not get. Of course, this can also cause problems if the class does not operate with an open-minded sense of acceptance. However, the more opportunities you give a group to work together, the more they will learn to cooperate and be open to new ideas.
Everyone has some level of curiosity along a wide spectrum, and this may be a trait more often found in adult ESL learners; but, it seems logical that anyone who enters into a new culture would have a higher-than-average level of curiosity.
Since curiosity is an interest in learning or knowing things, more curious people tend to make more eager students, and more eager students tend to learn more because they engage more in the learning process. Teachers can only hope that this curiosity and eagerness is contagious enough to engage the rest of the class.
Similarly, anyone who is willing to leave his/her own country, family, culture, and home to come to another country must be willing to take risks. Although many students don’t have much of a choice in the matter, and although it is more risky for some students to stay in their countries than to leave, they are still taking a risk by leaving.
The benefit to them as students is that learning a language requires taking risks, and the more willing they are to take linguistic risks, the more they will learn.
This is just a small glimpse into the many unique strengths of ESL learners, and once you start to see them as students with something to offer, you will see more and more of the wonderful things they contribute to your class.