Chris Speck offers a heap of useful suggestions on how teachers can support ESOL students.

Photo to illustrate the concept of teaching tips.

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EFL teachers might be fooled into thinking that ESOL is another acronym for the same thing, i.e. teaching people how to speak English. There is an element of truth in this and important skills are directly transferable, but there is a lot more to think about when approaching an ESOL classroom. ESOL students live and work in the target language; English is not just a hobby, therefore: it’s a life skill.

Know your students

There is no average ESOL student. They could come from anywhere and be of any level. Understanding more about your students and who they are will help you to deliver language teaching based on their needs. Unlike many EFL courses which are teacher or course centred, ESOL, and the UK curriculum (, is based on what students want and need to know. A busy mum might not need to understand verb tenses perfectly but comparatives for shopping will help a lot.

Set targets

Be honest with yourself and your students. A learner who cannot write in his or her own language might never get above elementary level. Set targets that your students can achieve, and make sure they are aware of them. For someone at a very low level this might be to write their name. For students at higher levels this might be to fill in an application form, read their own bills or even have a conversation with their neighbour.

I need to know English NOW

ESOL students quickly realise that without speaking the language they are severely hampering themselves in many facets of life. For this reason then, motivation is very high. Students are sometimes too keen, and this can lead to problems.

It’s just not possible for most people to learn a new language in a few months. For most of us it takes a few years. Students who try to learn fifty words a day soon find that they cannot remember one of them the next day. Short bursts of study are best with lots of breaks.

Students, especially those with a bit of English, might feel their language is not improving or even that it is getting worse. Provided students have done an entry test or some initial assessment, it’s a good idea to ask them to do it again if they feel this way. The scores should show they have improved.

Cultural issues

Many ESOL students come from countries where the education system is based on rote learning through the teacher. The idea of them getting involved in their own learning is not something that comes easily. In some cases, students might think that all they need to do is turn up to class to learn English. Keep monitoring targets to avoid this.

EFL students are largely very westernised and most published materials are aimed at the cultural models they are comfortable with. ESOL students, on the other hand, may not know or care who Ryan Gosling is. Make sure your material is right for them. It can sometimes be difficult to get hold of culturally appropriate materials, but it is worth the effort.

The right material

By knowing more about your students you will realise that a grammar lesson about the future perfect is not really of much intrinsic use – whereas how to order a taxi or how to discuss payment with the gas company is. Higher-level students will want – and indeed need –  to know the finer points of grammar, but try to concentrate on real-life subjects: jobs, money, driving and cars, filling in forms, real conversations and idioms (one idea is to note down all the idioms in an episode of a soap opera for this), paying bills, adverts or law and order. A lot of ideas come from students themselves. Keep asking them what they feel they need to learn. Simply following a coursebook will not do this.

Unlike EFL teachers, ESOL teachers live and work in the target language and have access to a lot of wonderful material. Look at catalogues from major high street stores, go to the market or around town, look at local maps and timetables, use the local paper, use local leaflets and magazines; all these things will help your students learn English and will help them in their real life as well.

Students with no English at all

Keep your lessons simple, and concentrate on what will be useful. This might be filling in simple forms with their name and address, reading telephone numbers, timetables, prices, all kinds of signs and so on. Don’t be afraid to have a lesson that is completely oral: illiterate doesn’t mean someone can’t remember words or phrases. Practise situations in shops, on the phone, at work, at the doctor's surgery, on a bus or train, in a bank or just social conversations. Prompts don’t have to be words – they can be pictures, gestures or even real-life situations. Sometimes students don’t have to write anything down to learn something meaningful and useful.

This is too easy!

At the other end of the scale there are ESOL learners who have a tremendous grasp of spoken English. They respond to local idioms and are skilled communicators but have little ability when writing. Traditional EFL materials will be too easy and too hard at the same time. The student can do the spoken work but cannot write it down. These learners are very much like native speakers who can’t read or write.

You can also look at for some great printable material and online games.

Some students who speak English quite well are simply unaware of what they don’t know. They might feel some of the material you use is beneath them even though they cannot do it properly. Bring out the big guns with a sample IELTS exam ( Struggling with something difficult will help them realise they have to learn at a slower pace.

More than just the language

At times as an ESOL teacher you might find you are teaching students more than just the language. Students might not know any other people who speak English and so will ask a lot of questions. They will have problems with bureaucracy, forms, bills, doctors, driving and the law. Help as much as you can, but don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. Most towns have a branch of the CAB (Citizens Advice Bureau who are very helpful. Keep your eyes open for any other organizations in your area that give support to people of other nationalities. After all, you are not a counsellor or a public administrator.

Possible problems

Unlike traditional EFL students, ESOL students might have picked up bad habits from listening to native speakers. These might include using taboo language, copying local dialects which might make them struggle to be understood, and using ellipses too much. Don’t correct them too much, however; most native speakers have the same problems. Many students not from an academic background will have no study skills. They might seldom come to class and have a high drop-out rate. Keep their motivation high by using praise, setting targets and by reminding them of how much they have already learned.