ESL Teachers Ask: What Should I Know About My ESL Students?

ESL Teachers Ask: What Should I Know About My ESL Students?

“I’ll be teaching my first ESL class soon, and I’m eager to get started on my planning, but several other teachers have told me it’s important to “get to know” my students first so I can tailor my classes to their needs. But what exactly should I know about them?” *

At this day and age, most ESL teachers agree there’s only so much you can plan before you actually meet your new ESL students. You see, what works great for one set of students, might not be the best fit for another set. There is no formula, not cookie cutter lesson plan that you can use with every group. Each particular group will bring its own set of skills and characteristics, which you’ll need to consider as you plan each lesson, each activity. In most cases, the information you get consists of a proficiency level and an age group for kids. But knowing they’re a bunch of 9 to 10-year-old beginners or middle-aged intermediate students won’t cut it.

It’s very easy to say, “get to know your students” but what is it exactly that you need to find out? Let’s see…

Remember 7 Things You Should Know about Your ESL Students

  1. 1

    ESL Background

    You may have an intermediate student who has studied English nonstop for three years; you may have another at exactly the same level who has studied for ten, but with lots of interruptions along the way. This tells you a great deal about each. Try to find out when and where they’ve studied English before and for how long. How long did it take them to complete each course/level?

  2. 2

    Language Background

    It’s important to know what your students’ native language is and what their current English fluency is. A distinction needs to be made here for those who are teaching ESL within an English-speaking country and those who are teaching ESL abroad.

    • If you’re teaching ESL within an English-speaking country: you’ll need to find out when your students arrived to the country and if they spoke any English at the time. Did they study English before arriving? (this relates to the first point, ESL background).
    • If you’re teaching ESL abroad: find out if your students have ever lived or traveled to an English-speaking country. This tells you if they’ve had the chance to practice English in a real-life setting.
  3. 3

    Cultural Background

    Are all of your ESL students from the same country or is this a culturally diverse classroom? What languages do they speak? Does a student’s culture have any particularities you might need to know about (i.e. a student who can’t have any physical contact with the teacher or can’t look you directly in the eye).

  4. 4

    Personal Information

    There is no need to get too personal, but it is useful to know if your students are married and have children, or if they have a full time job. What is a typical day like for each student? What do they do in their free time? Do they have any hobbies or activities they do regularly? It gives you information you can use for activities, and it’s also good to know in case problems arise (i.e. students who aren’t doing homework because they have too much on their plate).

  5. 5

    Learning Styles

    Will your students learn better with songs and music, or with arts and crafts? Do they thrive on Total Physical Response? Naturally, not all of your students will fit into one single category, but it’s tremendously useful for you to know if you have a predominance of musical, visual or kinesthetic learners. You can use this knowledge to design activities that target their natural talents.

  6. 6

    Needs and Goals

    Perhaps one of the most important things you need to find out is why your students are studying English. Do you have a group of housewives who are learning for fun? Or businessmen who need English to advance their careers? Is it a group of teens who don’t seem to have an interest in learning? You may have specific needs and goals within one group, but you should try to identify the one thing that they all have in common so that you can use it to tailor your activities and lesson plans.

  7. 7

    Feelings and Attitudes Related to English Learning

    And the final piece of the puzzle is how your ESL students feel about learning English. Do they find it boring, interesting or exciting? Are they motivated to learn? Or are they being reluctantly dragged to class by their parents? What are their expectations for the course?

You won’t find the answers to all of these questions in the first lesson; it takes a while to really get to know your students.

You may want to give them a diagnostic test to get a feel for how much language they can use. Or you may choose to give them a student survey, instead. Whatever the means you choose to use, the more information you gather, the better prepared you’ll be to plan the right kind of lessons for your class.

* This question was sent in from a real ESL teacher, just like you! If you have a question you’d like to have answered, share it in the comments below. Or tweet your question to @busyteacher_org with the hashtag #ESLTeachersAsk. Your question might get picked and featured in an article!

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