Unique Needs of ESL Learners

By , Certified teacher

In many ways, ESL learners are just like other learners. They are at the same level as others in cognitive development, and many of them have learned the same critical thinking skills as native English speakers in school. They have simply done it in a different language. However, ESL learners have some unique needs that teachers must address if we want them to be successful in school and in life in general in a new culture.

A Sense of Belonging

As teachers, we must keep in mind that students who have left their countries have not only left their favorite restaurants and hang-out spots; they’ve left a place where they belong. They’ve left family members, friends, and a language and culture they understand and that understands them. It’s not just the comforts of home they miss; it’s the sense of belonging and acceptance they felt there, where everything was easier and everything made sense, both linguistically and culturally.

Here are a few things we can do to make ESL learners feel at home:

  • Value the students’ cultures, especially those that are new or different from the norm. If you value other cultures and teach your students to do the same, you will create a safe space for ESL learners to learn and grow.
  • Create a new culture. An interesting phenomenon occurs when students from different cultures value and get to know one another. Whether they are mostly American with just a few internationals or a classroom full of ESL students, a new "classroom culture" begins to develop when all the students band together and depend on each other’s skills and knowledge to succeed.
  • Change out the groups. One way you can foster an inclusive classroom culture is to mix your students up regularly, grouping different students together each time. For some activities, you may want to group all the students who speak the same language, and for others, you may want completely heterogenous groups. The idea is to expose them to each other and encourage them to learn to work together.

A Feeling of Success

Everything is hard in another culture. Everything. It is not uncommon to reach the end of the day feeling like a complete failure. Therefore, it is imperative that teachers of ESL learners are sensitive to this and create as many opportunities as possible for students to feel successful, even if for only a moment.

We must create a safe environment for taking risks, both linguistic and cultural. That means valuing our students and offering them as much dignity as possible. It means looking for that light of understanding in students’ eyes and asking questions we know they’ll be able to answer correctly. And it means celebrating and affirming students’ efforts and risks.

Of course, there are specific skills we must teach in order for students to be successful, but it’s very difficult to learn new things when you feel like the class dunce. Look for ways to boost your ESL students’ self-esteems and give them a taste of success.

A Lot of Vocabulary

Sometimes, the biggest obstacle for ESL learners is that they don’t know enough words. They understand the concepts we’re teaching (sometimes they could even teach us a thing or two). They just don’t have the words.

Here are some ways we can support our ESL learners as they learn new vocabulary:

  • Visual aids – Whether you show pictures or videos, write on the board, lecture with PowerPoint presentations, or perform a song and dance, the more senses a student can use to take information in, the better.
  • Simplify vocabulary used on tests - Many times, students would be able to correctly answer questions if they understood all the words used in the questions. If there is any way to simplify the words used in test questions, then by all means, simplify it.
  • Translation – Whether this means having an interpreter in class or just allowing students to use electronic translators or bilingual dictionaries when taking notes, sometimes translation is the best option. Of course, if you’re teaching students to use context clues, you may not want to allow translation, but that is up to you.

A Little Extra Time

When you’re learning a new language, your brain takes longer to process things because it has to process not only the words, but the grammar and then the actual concept or information as well. In our native languages, we do all of this very quickly, almost instantaneously, but in a new language, we’re going to need more time.

Notes of the Day's Lesson

One way teachers can help ESL learners is by printing out notes for the day’s lesson for them. Taking notes in a second language is extremely difficult because you have to hear the words, understand the words, process the significance of the words, pick out the most important words, and write them down in a matter of seconds.

When ESL students have pre-printed notes, they can take in the information orally as you teach, as well as visually as they read the notes and look at other visual aids. If you want, you can gradually decrease the amount of information you give them and increase the number of blank spaces in the printed notes so that eventually, students are taking all their own notes without help.

Extra Time to Answer Aloud

Another helpful tip is to give ESL students a little more time than you would normally give a student to answer a question aloud – again, because it takes a little longer for them to process what you have asked and formulate a response. How long do you normally wait for a response from one student before moving on to another or opening it up to the whole class? Five seconds? Ten? You might be surprised if you counted. For an ESL learner, you may need to wait 20-30 seconds for a response, but when they answer correctly, you will have given them a taste of success that will encourage them to keep trying.

Extra Time to Complete Tests and Essays

Finally, ESL learners may need extra time to complete tests and essays. Reading test questions requires the same amount of language and information processing as answering questions orally, and producing original language is much more difficult and time-consuming for ESL students than it is for native English speakers. So if it’s possible to give ESL learners more time to take tests, they will be able to prove that they know much more than they would given the same amount of time as the rest of the class.

The unique needs of ESL learners apply to students of all ages. While some of these tips are more useful in a traditional classroom than a specifically-ESL classroom, they are all applicable for both children and adults. Adult ESL learners may also present educational challenges depending on their level of literacy and amount of education received in their first language. However, with time, patience, determination, and a lot of support from their teachers and classmates, most students who want to succeed can.