Teaching my ESL students: What works and what doesn’t work

Teaching ideas that work:

A pen pal exchange. I set up a pen pal letter exchange between my students here in France and students at a high school in Virginia. The French students have to write their letters in English, while the Americans have to use French. So far, I have 65 French students participating (more to come in the following weeks), and around the same number of American students. As I distributed the first batch of letters from America, my students could not contain their excitement. They passed each other’s letters around the classroom, exclaiming at the comments their new pen pals wrote and remarking on the Americans’ ability to write in French. After classes let out, I saw groups of students clustered around tables in the hallway, heads bent over the letters from abroad.

Role-play activities and anything to do with realia. Group activities that involve role-playing real-life situations are typically successful classroom activities. For example, I created a worksheet based off of an ESL activity I had seen used in the U.S., in which students had to play the roles of either the employees or the boss. “Employees” had to justify (in English) to the “boss” why they should be promoted, based on various characteristics and their work performance. The “boss” then had to explain to the class why he or she chose a certain employee over the others for promotion.

Anecdotes about personal experiences in America. Two of the biggest reasons teaching assistants have it easier than regular teachers in terms of keeping students’ attention is the fact that (1) we are a novelty, and (2) we are not responsible for giving grades or raising test scores. That means we have a fairly large amount of latitude in creating lessons that are based on group activities, videos, etc., rather than worksheets and readings. One of the things I like to do from time to time in class is use personal anecdotes. If the lesson is about jobs, I have students try to guess what jobs I had in high school and college. Are they jobs a French student might have? I find that personal anecdotes about school and life in general are a good way to relate to students while teaching them something new.

Being approachable and willing to talk with students and teachers outside of class. I let my students know that I am glad to answer their questions in either English or French outside of class. I want to clear up any confusion they may have had during class and give them opportunities to ask me questions that we may not have had time for earlier.

Likewise, I think building good rapport with teachers is extremely important. First of all, they have a lot of insight into the French education system and can help the confused American assistant navigate it. Secondly, I’ve noticed that classes tend to run more smoothly when I work fairly closely with the teachers. It’s nice to provide a certain amount of continuity for the students; for example, if a class is working on numbers in their regular lessons, I might use my American currency lesson plan with them that week. Finally, teachers realize that living alone in a foreign country can be tough, and I have found them to be extremely kind and supportive.

Incorporating other disciplines into lessons. One activity I did involved using real U.S. dollars. After teaching students the value and name of each coin, introducing slang terms for money (e.g., “greenbacks”), and having them guess which person appears on each bill, students had to calculate correct change in English. The class was divided into two teams, and they had to compete with each other to be the first to come up with correct change.

Asking students for their opinions. On the first day of each new class I taught, I asked students to write three things they are interested in learning about American culture or the English language (see my previous post). This allows students to be creative, makes them think, and shows that I value their thoughts.

Warm-ups. A 5-10 minute warm-up is always a good idea. A warm-up can be a brainstorming activity, students’ reactions to a political cartoon, tongue twisters, a song, etc. It gets students focused and thinking in English.

 100_5475(This photo I took of the Alps is not related to this post. I just like it.)

ESL teaching methods that don’t work so well (generally speaking):

Lecturing. Most of my students are high school-aged. Even among those who are older, college-aged students, I’ve noticed that I lose their attention quickly if I talk for longer than five minutes at a time. So I keep the PowerPoints to a minimum and get students to do the talking as much as possible.

English only. I’ve heard other TAPIF assistants advise new assistants never to let students know that they can speak or understand French. I disagree with this advice. While I understand that one popular method of foreign language instruction is to conduct classes solely in the target language, I find that this is just not practical for my situation. What with limited class time (30 minutes to 1 hour per class, once per week), the level of the academic material I want to convey to students, and the wide gap in English language comprehension within a given class, I have to use French. The few times I have tried conducting a class solely in English, a sea of faces stared back at me blankly and I lost students’ attention rapidly. My goal is to avoid having students feel frustrated or bored. The minute I lose their attention, they start furtively texting or staring out the window. They don’t respond to my requests in English to “Please put your cell phones away,” but they sure pay attention when I say, “Pas de portables en classe, s’il vous plaît.”

Teaching another teacher’s lessons. I don’t mind teaching a lesson another teacher comes up with; however, I usually don’t have as much success with it as I do with lessons I create myself. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, students hear about the lessons I do with other classes, and they want to hear about American culture, money, etc. (They’ll use anything as an excuse to deviate from their regular lesson plan!) Secondly, the other teacher’s lesson might be about a topic with which I’m not familiar. Students can tell in a heartbeat when a teacher is not 100% confident in what he or she is teaching and that generally makes for a rough class period.

Not establishing authority, rules, and expectations immediately. This is pretty straightforward. If you don’t have students’ attention and respect from the first day, you’ll have an uphill battle with their behavior for the rest of the year.

This list is by no means exhaustive. As I create my lesson plans for the upcoming week, I just thought I’d share these ideas. Thoughts?


“Hamburgers are better in USA than here?”

“What do you want to learn about American culture or the English language?”

I recently asked each of my students in France, who are ages 14-22, to write three anonymous responses to this question. I am an assistante d’anglais teaching in a public lycée that also has a post-baccalauréat program. I have the freedom to create my own lesson plans for the majority of the classes that I teach. I decided that my lessons would have a good chance of success if they targeted aspects of American culture in which the students are interested.

In working with several hundred students this week during half-hour and full-hour lessons, I gradually got an idea of their primary interests. However, I am not a specialist in all of the areas that their questions address and I obviously can’t represent the huge diversity of opinions in America regarding politics, sports, etc. So, I’d appreciate reading any (school-appropriate) input you’d like to leave in the comments section below!


A sample of French students’ questions:

“What are the famous legends/myths in America? I want to learn about how does the school scheme in America? I really WANT to learn colloquial/familiar expressions in English that we couldn’t understand if you were not here to teach us, or expression which can be complicated to get for a french people.”

“The misteries about Area 51, The vehicles vocabulary (like mechanic), The food vocabulary”

“I want to know what is a large way (km) for an American”

“I want to learn about what US university’s ‘confrerie’ [fraternities]. I want to learn about US sports cars. I want to learn about US technologys.”

“I want to learn about the California, What people are doing in California. I want to learn more about Monsanto, the FDA and all the groupe, who are feeding the American like Mcdo [McDonald’s], etc… I want to learn more about ‘what the American think about there president’. and our president [François Hollande]

I want to learn about -American football -Politic -Junk food”

The army”

What university students do for fun? How was America created? Talking about arms (weapons) in USA.”

I am interested in American 70’s music, like Woodstock festival. I am interested about the american history like the secession war. I am would like to know more about Spring break and Rap US”

Read and understand sing. History of England.”

-I want to learn about gangs in America”

I want to learn if the life is expensive.”

Famous person like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, etc.”

-Pompom girls existe really or not? -American dream is it idealist as many films?”

I’d like to know more about: -your diplomes -your glasses shops -the way “normal” peoples lives in USA”

What are hours for students at school? Have students the same schedule that us? Is Louisiana beautiful like in photographies? Hamburgers are better in USA than here?”

“Vocabulary of “old time”, vocabulary for example of years 60-70, and before, 1800…example = To verbe SHALL. Today it means a proposition and it’s not a verbes. “SHALL we go on?”

I want to learn about the ethnic diversity in USA”

When to use ‘the’”

“I don’t want to learn something special. I’m ready to learn everything!”

It appears that I have my work cut out for me.