Number one for English language teachers

ESOL questions and answers

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Reference material

Common FAQs about teaching ESOL.

Question 1: Starting to teach reading

Please can you send advice on how to start teaching ESOL adults to read who have a different script/way of reading and who might be illiterate in their own language and those who might not.

Coral Streader


Answer from Chris Speck

There is no stereotype for ESOL/ESL students. Some can speak English but can’t write it. Some can write but are poor speakers. Some can neither read, write nor speak, and others can do a little bit of everything. In this respect then, there’s no one way to go about teaching them to read and write.


Set targets

Be realistic about what they are going to learn. ESOL students at this level are probably not going to be doctors or lawyers anytime soon. The main target to read and write English is far too broad, concentrate on the basics first like reading and writing their name and address or filling in a simple form. Stick to achievable goals each lesson.

Use things they need to read and write in everyday life. These will be forms, payslips, letters, signs, calendars, phonebooks, maps and so on (see the lesson plans ).
It almost goes without saying, but teaching students at this level takes a lot of time. You need to keep your motivation up as well as theirs. Targets can help.


Avoid the phonetic alphabet, normal letters are confusing enough. Try not to use kids reading or spelling books, not only are they not suitable for adults but they have lots of confusing words. Try ‘the cat sat on the mat’ for example, very hard to explain to a non-English speaker (past tense sit-sat) and fairly useless in everyday life.

For reading you can use something like 1000 pictures for teachers to copy by Andrew Wright (Paperback - Nelson - October 1994) and any picture dictionary. You could use a catalogue for pictures or post it notes to stick on various objects.

For writing practice use a three-line system like you used at school. Capitals go all the way to the top and small letters only go half way.

Have a look at the materials here in the ESOL section - you can also check out  (mainly for basic skills students so not always relevant). It’s also worth remembering that unlike people who teach EFL in non English speaking countries, we have access to a huge amount of authentic material in the target language.

Vary the tasks

Repetition is the name of the game so use different activities to aid motivation. A whole class about writing your address is bit stale. These could be slip tests, flashcards, simple dictations, very simple cloze tests or listening tasks. You can cover the same area by doing different topics - take writing numbers for example: you can do this by writing the time, writing telephone numbers or dates and writing addresses.

Keep a notebook

Encourage students to keep a notebook that they look at everyday. In it they can write words or phrases or even just practise letter writing. Students who can write in their own language might like to record words in three columns, the first in English the second phonetically written in their language and the third the meaning in their language. Like this from French to English:

oui     we       yes

It’s not enough for students to simply come to class every week; they need to study at home in their own time.

Suggested first lessons

The pace and speed of these very much depends on the learner/learners. You might get through this quickly or it might take a few months. Whatever the time scale, make sure that students are comfortable with the material you are dealing with before you move on.

  • Lesson 1: Fill in a simple form. (name and address) Numbers one to twelve. (simple bingo, simple slip-test)
  • Lesson 2: Review form and numbers. Telling the time: spoken (toy clock) and written (write words under clock faces)
  • Lesson 3: Review name, address and time. Days of week. Months of year (arrange post it notes in order)
  • Lesson 4: Review days of week and months of year. Writing and saying dates.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Elena
    I have come across the phrase ' opinion's divided' introducing a different opinion. does it mean 'opinion HAS divided' or IS divided ' ?
    thank you,

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  • I have just started teaching private conversation classes for two adults taking esol at local colleges. Does any one have any advice - I have only taught IELTS and IGCSE

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  • Very helpful thanks.

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