Guest Post by: Dee Mason


I have taught English in multiple countries on multiple continents to multiple age groups.  I was considered a successful ‘English as a Second Language’ instructor because my students were comfortable speaking in English, could communicate their ideas clearly on paper, and their listening and reading comprehension skills were often noticeably better after a semester or year in my classroom.  I was pleased that my students improved, and it felt good to know that administrators and parents appreciated what I was doing.  What I found disturbing, however, were the number of teachers who were noticeably unsuccessful with their students.  Other instructors began asking me for advice, so I tried to figure out what we were doing differently.  After a lot of head scratching, I narrowed the differences down to three key practices.


Both of my parents were ESL teachers, and in fact met while teaching English overseas.  After returning to the US, my father worked as a hate-crimes counselor, and my mother as a teacher and tutor for special needs students.  I grew up around students with non-traditional educational needs.  Watching my parents very much informed how I conducted myself in the classroom after I became a teacher.




This seems elementary, but a surprising number of teachers do not actually practice it.  Patience in the ESL classroom is different than giving kids time to finish an exercise or work sheet.  Instead, it is giving them the space and time to actually understand the concept and internalize it.  I do not move on from a grammar unit until all the students can use it, literally.  Until they can all write it, read it, move it around organically, and speak it without hesitation, they have not learned it.  Yes, it means that some units take longer than others, but as I long as I am able to get through the material I need to cover, I am content to let the students cruise along at their own pace.  Since my students don’t feel pressured to have to “ace it” the first time, they allow themselves the chance to make mistakes. 


I also allow students to work in small groups and deliberately put students who understand a concept, with students who are struggling with it.  Often, discussing a concept with a peer with a similar background and linguistic history will help a student process the material better.  It also creates a sense of solidarity within the classroom, as everyone ends up helping someone else out, at least once, during the semester.


Non-Verbal vs. Verbal


Communicating is not just about verbal skills, it also about gestures, body language, and other non-verbal cues.  By focusing solely on linguistic communication in ESL classrooms, we do our students a disservice; especially those students who are shy and reticent to speak in their native languages.  Using non-verbal games like “Gibberish” or “Dubbing”, allows students to learn how to communicate without having to think of the proper word, or worry about grammatical structure.  Once they have mastered telling a story without text, it is just a short cognitive leap to speaking.  A student who is focused on telling a story, will switch over to speaking in English without hesitation or self-consciousness when playing a game, far more readily than a student who is put on the spot in a role play that requires regurgitating set responses that must be letter perfect.




It takes an incredible amount of bravery to speak in a foreign language and to do it in front of your peers.  Children deserve to be praised.  Be strict with discipline and honest with praise.  I use applause, cheering, high-fives, happy dances, chants and clapping patterns, stickers, and where it was allowed, hugs, to acknowledge accomplishments in the classroom.  The children wanted to succeed, and consequently, worked harder, got better, and in turn, received more praise.  It was a positive cycle that was immediately recognizable in improved scores and better self-confidence.  Students who take the time to help each other also receive praise.  This fosters a sense of community, and lessens the tendency towards competitiveness that can occasionally occur in ESL settings. 


Please understand these are simply ways of working that worked for me.  They also seemed to work for the teachers around me who chose to use these ideas as jumping off points.  Every classroom and teacher is different, but if you are struggling in your own ESL classroom, try a little patience, non-verbal communication, and praise.  If the experiment is successful, it will mean a more pleasant and effective classroom experience for all.