Tips for Teaching ESL

Tips for Teaching ESL Composition

English 106, English 107, and English 108 are counterparts to English 100, 101, and 102. The students need to learn similar things, but ESL teachers need to be specially prepared to help with language/grammar/mechanics problems as well as writing skills.


Students in 107 and 108 need to learn the same things that their counterparts do. You should be able to use the same basic syllabus for 101/107 and 102/108.  For the ESL sections you might choose fewer or shorter readings. Most teachers find that it takes them more time to go through material with their ESL students, partly because students aren’t familiar with terms such as “workshopping” or “thesis statement” that American students have learned in high school. The ESL writers might know these concepts by other terms, but more often the terms are as new as the concepts. At any rate, you’ll want to choose readings with ESL students in mind. Try to find material that has accessible language, and if possible, a universal viewpoint.

100/106 are not as easy to collapse. 100 students usually have basic problems with writing while 106 students usually have basic problems with language. If you’re teaching both 100 and 106, or a split 100/106 section, you might need to make bigger changes between the classes.


The ESL classroom should be as interactive as possible. Avoid lecturing because it’s hard to know if students understand you or not. Instead try to create lots of opportunities for students to talk to one another and hence practice English every day in class. Split up language groups (all the Korean speakers, etc.) so that they can’t revert to their L1. While group work is sometimes unproductive in regular English classes unless the groups are given strict tasks and timelines, ESL students are more likely to stay on track. For the most part, they care about learning. They realize their English needs work and honestly want to learn the material your class offers.

Most ESL students find workshopping helpful and certainly less intimidating than working with you, but you will have to spend more time modeling it. The students often assume that they don’t know enough to help their classmates. While it’s true that they can’t necessarily help with language concerns (which probably shouldn’t be the focus of workshopping anyway), these students are often adept at reading holistically and make comments that are crucial to the development of their peers’ essays.

ESL Students

ESL students tend to be more courteous, hard-working, and demanding than native counterparts. Most of them have decided on majors prior to entering college and are working diligently towards specific goals.

They tend to work well with one another. Occasionally you might choose an article that elicits diametrically opposed points of view, but usually the students are mature enough to share their opinions in respectful ways.

ESL students are often afraid to write or communicate in English; try to be as positive as possible. Explain how hard it would be for you to write in your L2!

Students who speak English at home but who have been schooled under British systems might be more resistant. While they have grown up using English, they don’t know how to create topic sentences or thesis statements and might initially reject being asked to do so. Insist that they must adapt to the American academic style in order to be effective in their new environments. (For more, read “Why Did You Hide Your Thesis?”)

If your ESL students miss too many classes, try to find out what is going on before you feel you have to drop them. ESL students have a large number of possible problems, including being severely homesick, receiving funds from abroad, and knowing where to get help. Sometimes problems come up that are beyond their control (visas, for example, or family emergencies that require foreign travel). Make your students aware of the English Department policy, but consider being more flexible depending on the situation.

Currently the ESL population is predominately Asian (Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Malay, Indonesian), but there are also Hispanics, Arabs, and a few Europeans.

ESL Writing

ESL students usually need help with grammar, and you need to be one of the resources they can call on. (Please read “How to Sail through ESL Grammar”.) Don’t edit entire essays; edit one page. Hold the students accountable for grammar/language, either by taking off points or requiring a language rewrite. They need to understand that while you understand that they are struggling, multiple grammar mistakes will be held against them in the larger university community.

To help students with their grammar issues, sit down with them to review their work. Help them look for patterns of mistakes. Few of your students will have a hundred kinds of mistakes. Most will have a handful of mistakes that they repeat over and over. If they have many, many language issues, encourage them to improve in small steps by taking advantage of your office hours, by going to the Writing Center, and by recruiting friends who are “good at grammar.”

When I mark papers I use alternating inks: blue for content, black for grammar so that it’s easy for students to distinguish between content and language issues. I don’t try to comment on both content and language at the same time. I read for content and then go back and check out the grammar.

Students may also need help to overcome rhetorical patterns from the target language and follow expected academic forms such as providing a clear thesis and presenting their material in PIE paragraphs. Asian writers tend to hide their points at the end of the paragraph if not the end of the essay. Hispanics tend to get off on tangents. Such cultural patterns are difficult for students to eradicate because they logically transfer learned rhetorical patterns to the target language.

Note: in most Asian contexts, it is expected and appropriate to copy the words of the experts. Your students will need careful explanations of the American academic viewpoint on rhetorical ownership so that they don’t plagiarize material accidentally.

Split Sections

You may be asked to teach a mixed (split) section that combines up to 10 native speakers with up to 15 non-native ones. Split sections are tricky, especially for the first couple of class periods. US students are often xenophobic even if they don’t realize it. Worse, they sometimes assume that someone who doesn’t speak English fluently is not intelligent or worth their while. ESL students can be too shy to speak up, especially if they feel intimidated.

When teaching a split, the most important thing is to set the students’ minds at ease the first day of class. Explain to them that they are going to be doing equivalent work, but that you, the teacher, are prepared to help them with their rhetorical as well as linguistic concerns. Explain that they are not in competition with one another and that you will help all the students with language/grammar issues.

Despite challenges, split sections are interesting and fun. Most of us find them infinitely rewarding because they provide such a fabulous cultural opportunity. Some US students have never met a person from Malaysia, for example. Malaysian students may have never met students from Japan. Make use of the people in the room. Let your discussions be governed by the rich variety of voices in the classroom whether you are discussing articles, stories, or the students’ own writing. Give students an opportunity to speak informally in order to share their views even if that means letting them stray from the topic. Cultural encounters are so significant that your students might learn more from simply talking to their foreign counterparts than they will from taking a whole semester’s class.