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?