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Using ESL Classes Effectively

One of the great opportunities that we have today is the increasing influx of internationals, immigrants and refugees globally. It really is true that God is literally bringing the world to our doorsteps. And it’s not only to the large cities, but to all size cities. I live in Peoria, Illinois, with a population of 114,000. In the ESL, English as a Second Language, school in our church we’ve had individuals attend our classes from 38 different countries, which is really amazing. One of my colleagues lives in a small town of 600 in Iowa. As he and his wife began ESL classes, they found individuals from five different countries who started to attend their classes. Foreigners are arriving in virtually every community in Europe, Canada, Australia, and the US and we, as Christians, not only have the opportunity, but also the mandate to meet and lovingly engage them.

In Matthew 25;35 Jesus said the manner of how his followers treated strangers should show disciple-like behavior. “… I was the stranger and you invited me in.”

Immigrants and refugees are not to be oppressed. “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” Exodus 23:9

Treat immigrants and refugees as citizens and with love. “The foreigners residing among you must be treated as native born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34

All believers are to show hospitality to strangers. “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13:2

Besides love and acceptance, what is one of the greatest needs of an international who has come to our cities and communities? It is the need to learn how to communicate in English. And that’s what makes ESL opportunities so attractive to them. We have the opportunity to meet three of their greatest needs (love, acceptance and the need to communicate!)

My wife and I have had the privilege to serve as missionaries in four different countries. So we have experienced firsthand the challenge of communicating in a foreign language and it is never easy. But one thing that made it easier were people who came alongside us to help us learn their language.

As you consider teaching ESL, there are 6 tips that I and my colleagues have tried to implement in order to become successful ESL teachers, whether with an individual or a group.

First: Pray for opportunities to engage internationals in your community.
Although we acknowledge that prayer is a priority, it is vitally important as we seek to engage those that have newly arrived. Pray for wisdom in knowing how to initiate conversations. Pray for an attitude that demonstrates love, acceptance and grace. Pray for genuine interest in the individual, not just as a potential student. Pray for their interest in improving their English. And pray for an openness to being helped by you to improve their English. Pray for yourself – that you would have a servant heart as you seek to help internationals improve their English. And pray that the Lord will open up opportunities to share about God’s love and forgiveness as your relationship with them grows and matures. These are just a few of the specific prayers that you should be praying regularly.

Second: Begin to evaluate their level of English proficiency.
As you begin to develop a relationship with an international, focus on getting to know him/her by asking simple questions like “What is your home country?”, “How long have you been in this country?”, “How long have you been in this city.”, “Do you have brothers or sisters?” The responses you receive to these questions will help you better understand their background and life experiences and will help you know how you can better build the relationship. And as the relationship progresses, you can begin to evaluate how well they speak and understand English. We divide proficiency into 4 levels: Pre-beginners (those who speak no English), Beginners (those who speak a little English), Intermediate (those that speak enough English “to get by”, and Advanced (those who speak English well, but desire to improve their vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar, as well as their comprehension and speaking skills.) Understanding your student’s proficiency level will be essential in helping you design what and how you will need to teach them.

Third: Preparing to teach ESL
As you prepare to teach ESL, there are several things you need to consider. First, it would be very helpful if you could get some ESL training. It is not absolutely required, but it will prepare you to be more confident and competent as you teach. Most of the teachers in our ESL are lay people who took 14 hours of training and began to teach classes with 5-20 students within two months of training. I will list several training resources underneath this video on the materials tab that will be helpful. Once you have gone through some training and are ready to begin teaching, you want your teaching location to be comfortable, quiet and relatively uninterrupted. You might consider bringing something to drink or a small snack since food tends to make the lesson more informal. Begin to develop lessons that will help your students according to their English proficiency level. It may also be helpful to ask your students if there are specific things that they want to learn so that your teaching can be more personalized. I have also listed some resources you can use to find curriculum and lesson plans in the materials tab. Provide a notebook and pencil so that your student can take notes. And if you can provide a textbook that would be even better.

As an English teacher it is your task to help them achieve their goal – to improve their English! Make sure that you speak slowly enough for them to follow. Sometimes in our enthusiasm to teach them we speak too quickly and it’s easy for them to get lost. Remember that the goal is communication. And communication involves both speaking (by you) and understanding (by them). If it looks like they didn’t understand something (they have that blank stare), it’s probably because they didn’t. So don’t be afraid to repeat as many times as necessary for them to understand. As a teacher, you have to correct mistakes; this is your responsibility. Otherwise, your students may not learn accuracy and attain fluency. One way of doing it is to take notes about the mistakes your students make while performing in a class and at the end of the lesson, you can give a general feedback on the mistakes. But you should be aware that the students tend to repeat the same mistakes if they do not have enough repetition. So don’t be afraid to have them repeat, repeat, repeat! Prioritize the mistakes and correct the most important ones; seek a pattern and be realistic. Every single error should not be corrected; students may feel estranged and unwilling to contribute more to the lesson if you stop them every time they make a mistake. Just ignore some mistakes; do not embarrass them. But in order for the students to progress and become successful, they need your constructive and honest feedback on how they are doing. Remember that it is not perfection, but progress that we are wanting to see.

ESL is a joint activity. It takes two people working together towards one goal. Although you are the teacher you need to give your student the opportunity to respond to your teaching. Don’t be afraid of silence. Make sure your student has time to not only process, but also to respond. You need the feedback in order to determine if your students are really understanding what you are teaching them.

If you have a really healthy and caring relationship with your students, you will definitely influence their attitude, behavior and life quality. Showing care and interest in your students’ lives is a great tool in gaining the respect of your students. Respect is the word that best describes the relationship between the student and the teacher; you will receive the respect you give. Remember that the secret of education is actually in mutual respect.

If you are teaching one student you have much more flexibility in getting to know them as your meetings can be more informal – you can ask them questions about their family and background, hobbies and dreams, while at the same time focusing on tailoring your teaching content according to their desires and goals. Meeting times can be flexible as well as it only depends on their availability, not on a group of students with different schedules. Also, it is easier to personalize your teaching with them based on their unique learning style.

Fourth: Students are never too old for show-and-tell.
If you are teaching a group of students, you can help them feel they are more than just another student by allowing them to bring to class something that represents them, their culture, or some activity that they enjoy doing. Plan 5 to 10 minutes for a couple of students to share what they brought. Do this each week until everyone in the class has had an opportunity to share. This helps them feel known by the other students and keeps them motivated to continue to work hard and continue to progress. You can use this same activity with individual students as well.

Fifth: If you have a group of students, assign seats and change them often.
Sometimes students will only sit next to those who are friends and not really interact with the others in the class. Sometimes it is because they are not used to interacting with people outside their ethnic group. Sometimes it is because they are afraid of what others might think about them. So one way that you could help them interact more is by moving them around and having them get to know one another by asking simple questions like, “What is your favorite food?” or ”What is your favorite hobby?” That would accomplish two goals – they would be encouraged to talk with someone new and, at the same time, learn something about each other. As students have opportunities to get to know one another, they will also discover things they have in common and how they can become friends even though they are different. In one of our advanced classes the students decided that they would like to learn how to prepare and cook foods from the countries they represented (Mexico, Turkey, India, Korea, China, Spain, Russia and Pakistan.) So every other Saturday during the semester they gathered in the home of one of the students to learn how to cook one of their country’s specialties. Not only was there great food prepared, but the interaction and camaraderie were priceless.

Sixth: Simply listen.
This principle applies when teaching both individual students or a group of students. As teachers, we often feel like we need to keep a professional distance from our students. But we found that taking time to make small talk can help break down barriers to learning. Because we’ve made ourselves approachable, some of our students will tell stories about their lives during a 10-minute snack break. We stop what we are doing, look them in the eyes, and listen. We love seeing their eyes light up as they tell us these stories. And these encounters always leave us a little more knowledgeable about who they are as people. All students deserve to have a teacher who cares about them enough to be intentional about building positive relationships that give them the space to make mistakes and learn. If we truly expect our students to learn with us, they will need to know that we care about them. They also need opportunities to learn about each other, so they can build a community in which they can grow together as learners. If fact, one of the results of having ESL in our church is that there are a group of ESL students, from several countries, who sit in a group together in our Sunday worship services as they feel most comfortable together in their new “ESL community.”

ESL is the easiest and potentially most important activity that we have to offer to internationals, immigrants and refugees in our communities. And it is an opportunity to meet three of their greatest needs – the need for love, acceptance and the ability to communicate in English. And as we seek to serve the students and help them progress in their language proficiency, we begin to see opportunities to talk about spiritual issues and begin to see how God may be working in their lives. In the last year we have had at least 4 students make decisions for Christ (3 Japanese and a Turkish gal.) And as I mentioned earlier, many more have started to attend worship services because they are interested in knowing what we believe.

Two of the Japanese who placed their faith in Christ were a couple. At the end of each ESL lesson we do a 15-minute Bible reading for new vocabulary and reading practice. This couple was very interested in what they read and wanted to know more about the Bible. They started to attend a special Sunday School class we started for other ESL students who were interested in the Bible and after studying together for seven months, this couple placed their faith in Christ. We are continuing to meet each week to study and they are continuing to grow spiritually.

A footnote:
If you are interested in how to develop ESL as a ministry of your local church, please feel free to contact me and I can share more in detail how our church-based ESL ministry began and continues to grow.

Using ESL Classes Effectively


The ability to communicate is one of the greatest needs new immigrants face when arriving in their new country. English as a Second Language (ESL) classes or one-on-one ESL tutoring helps our new friends learn English and feel a sense of belonging. Mike shares six tips to help you get started teaching English to immigrants.

The ability to communicate is one of the greatest needs new immigrants face when arriving in their new country. English as a Second Language (ESL) classes or one-on-one ESL tutoring helps our new friends learn English and feel a sense of belonging. Mike shares six tips to help you get started teaching English to immigrants.