Tips for Teaching ESL Students in the Mainstream Classroom


Many schools across the country seek to bring diverse populations of students together, including native speaking students and ESL students. In some areas of the country, the number of ESL students might be quite high.

You want your ESL students to succeed, but you also want your native speaking students to have the opportunity to reach their full potential. What are some suggestions for incorporating ESL strategies that will benefit all of your students?

Understanding Differences Among ESL Students

Many people assume that all ESL students are the same. You can't just say, "This lesson plan is fit for all ESL students." Just as your native speaking students have differences, so do your ESL students.

As you're crafting the lesson plans, you should:

  • Consider any unique needs or physical or learning disabilities that your ESL students might have and account for them in your plans.
  • Remember that, as we learned in Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, everyone does not learn in the same way. For example:
  • Some of your ESL students might be verbal/linguistic learners
  • Other student may be bodily/kinesthetic learners

Accounting for differences that exist amongst ESL students is crucial so that you can meet their educational needs.

Teaching Tips for ESL Students

Know Your Students

Before you teach any subject you need to know several things about your ESL students:

  • What is their level of English comprehension?
  • What is their cultural background and how could it impact their learning?

Use Visual Learning Aids

One of the top tips for teaching ESL students in the mainstream classroom is to use visual learning aids. Even if some of your ESL students are not purely visual learners, they will likely still benefit from your incorporation of these learning aids. When you are explaining a concept, some of the ESL students might get lost because they don't understand the vocabulary you are using.

By using a graph, chart, picture or video, ESL students can gain a better understanding of what you are talking about. These visual aids can also help many of the native speaking students to understand what you are talking about or teaching.

Communicate with Written and Oral Messages

Some ESL students can become very frustrated and confused when they are not able to quickly understand what you want them to do. They may be spending all their concentration on trying to understand the words as they are spoken, without comprehending the lesson or assignment being communicated. By writing down any information given orally, you can give your ESL students a reference point for any future confusion. For example:

  • If you are giving instructions orally, write them on the blackboard or provide them in writing.
  • If your instructions are written in a handout, read the handout aloud before the students begin the activity.
  • Always write assignments on the blackboard, whether they were given in writing or given orally.

Use Reminders of Language and Vocabulary

When ESL students are looking for the right word, you don't want them to feel as though they are lost in a black hole.

  • Encourage the use of dictionaries in class. If it's possible to do so, let each student have a dictionary at his or her desk.
  • Teachers should consider hanging vocabulary words around the classroom with their meanings.
  • Create word lists that students can refer back to. YourDictionary provides an easy process to create word lists that you can customize for a specific student or classroom.
  • Create flashcards for vocabulary words.

These tools help students find the words that they need to learn.

Use Understandable Language

The more you use a simple sentence structure (a subject, a verb and an object), the greater your chance of comprehension by an ESL student. If you say or write sentences which include phrases with negative words (such as circle the answer that is not correct) the ESL student needs to comprehend two things to understand what you are saying:

  • The meaning of each word you've spoken
  • What they need to do (identify what word is not correct) and what they should not do (identify what word is correct)

Be sure to speak slowly and clearly. Look for cues, like facial expressions, to know when you need to repeat or reexplain what you just said or wrote.

Include Idioms

If your ESL students never learn idiomatic expressions, they are going to struggle with the English language as a whole. Unfortunately, some teachers choose to avoid these cliches whenever possible to avoid confusing their ESL students.

Another technique is to use them into your speech and turn them into their own lessons. By creating these separate lesson plans and word lists, you can encourage students to learn idioms without allowing these phrases to disrupt the flow of your lessons.

Encourage Informal and Formal Language

In the classroom, you are likely to be using formal language. However, part of fully understanding a language is also knowing how to speak to others in a casual manner.

  • Give students a chance to work in small groups on a regular basis, so they are able to speak in a more casual manner.
  • Populate the groups with both native language speaking students as well as ESL students.
  • ESL students may also be more comfortable talking to each other or to native speaking students in a small group setting than in front of the entire class.

These small group discussions can give them the confidence they need to participate in larger group discussions and presentations.

Encourage Questions

You want to remind students that it is okay to ask questions. If you are giving a brief lecture, they might feel as though they are interrupting you. Understand that students from certain cultural backgrounds might feel this pressure even more.

Frequently ask students if they have any questions. An ESL student might hold a question until the end, even though it would be helpful to get the answer immediately. Encourage questions from all students on an on-going basis.

If your ESL students are more comfortable talking to other students than adults, encourage students to work together. Pairing students off or into small work groups can encourage questions from the ESL student.

Correcting Errors

Correcting errors can be difficult to implement, especially for ESL students who are really quite dedicated to properly learning the English language.

  • How much correction is too much correction?
  • How do you prevent students from becoming entirely discouraged?

Work on addressing one or two areas at a time. For example, let's say that the student writes the following sentence, "She walk to the park and they waits for she." Here, we have three issues:

  • Subject/verb agreement
  • Coordinating conjunction with two independent clauses and no comma
  • The nominative case pronoun where the objective case pronoun is required
Tips for Teaching ESL Students in the Mainstream Classroom

Ultimately, your goal with these tips is to provide all of your students with the tools they need to succeed in their academic experience overall, regardless of whether English is or is not their native language.