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Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

Teaching the ESL Student

Students who speak English as a second language (ESL) comprise a significant percentage of the nation's school population. Experts estimate that the number of ESL students is growing two and half times faster than the number of students for whom English is the primary language.

Although ESL students offer schools an opportunity to honor cultural diversity, they also present instructional challenges for teachers. Those include teaching them academic skills, supporting their English proficiency, helping them adjust to the school setting, and helping them adapt to the American culture. Schools have not always succeeded in meeting those goals.


Help the student feel a sense of belonging. Find ways to make her feel welcome (for example, make sure to say her name correctly). Show an interest in her cultural heritage. If she's comfortable, ask her questions about her customs and suggest she bring in items of interest from her culture. You might hang in the classroom signs with some welcoming messages in the student's primary language, as well as a map of her country.

Find a student, staff member, or community member who speaks her primary language. This person can not only interpret for the child but also help her feel less isolated and provide someone in school she can talk to in her native language. You might even arrange for that person to present a brief lesson in the student's primary language, helping other students understand and appreciate what it's like to learn in another language.

Teach the student key words. If she is receiving extra ESL instruction, her ESL teacher likely will teach her practical vocabulary. But you also should make sure she knows such school-based words as student, teacher, principal, nurse, book, reading, math, writing, board, homework, clock, cafeteria, lunch, playground, recess, and bell. You might draw pictures on index cards and label the objects on the back. Keep a box with those cards in your classroom and add to it as necessary.

Find opportunities for the student to succeed. Classmates might perceive a student who struggles with English as not very smart. Help them perceive her in a different light by showcasing her accomplishments and talents. For example, you might have her speak to the class in her native language and answer her classmates' questions while another person interprets for her.

Write important information on the board. An ESL student often will not catch everything you say. To avoid her getting lost in oral instructions, get in the habit of writing on the chalkboard information such as seatwork and homework assignments, dates of tests, and items for parents. Because you will not be able to write everything down, you will want to check with the student periodically to make sure she understood your directions.

Assign a classmate to be the student's "buddy." Ask one of your more responsible and friendly students to assist the student in such tasks as finding her way around school, mastering classroom routines, and understanding directions. That will free you from having to constantly monitor the student. You might want to arrange for different students to be her "buddy" for various parts of the school day so the responsibility does not fall to one student.

Keep track of his language progress. You might record conversations with the student at different times of the year to show her how she has progressed in her mastery of the English language.

Encourage the parents' involvement. Parents of ESL students, who also have limited English facility, might feel out of the school loop. Help them feel part of the school by arranging for an interpreter at conferences and for school communications to be translated into their native language.

About Ken Shore

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist who has worked in various public schools for more than 25 years. He has authored six books and produced a book and video series on bullying for schools and parent organizations called The ABCs of Bullying Prevention. Click to read a complete bio. For information on how to obtain his books and videos, go to his Web site.