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How to Connect with ESL Learners

Posted by Paul Sitter on 2/22/16 3:00 AM
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Connect with ESL Learners

More and more instructors are finding themselves having all, a significant number of, or sometimes just a few participants in their classrooms who were not raised with English as their primary language. How do you connect with this audience?

Many times it’s simply not an issue. Often ESL students are more fluent in English than I am because of cultural diversity in their native land, work requirements, or intellectual capability. Usually a brief conversation with this type of ESL learner is all that’s necessary to identify that he/she will not require any special consideration. Other times, though, that same brief conversation will show there are some communication challenges.

The following strategies may help make your training more effective for ESL learners.

Entire group is ESL:

  • Does the organization have access to a multi-lingual instructor? If so, this is a great resource to use with the group as a primary or assistant instructor, and is much better than working with a translator. While translation services are valuable, if the learners have any English capability, they could become distracted or confused by the words the translator uses instead of the words they hear and mentally translate.
  • Is there a participant who is fluent in English as well as a common language among the group? This person could be someone to clarify points of confusion.
  • Is there a workshop material source available in a common language for the group? Providing it beforehand would allow self-study of the content and ease your introduction of it in the course.
  • Is there a glossary of technical terms available for the participants to become familiar with ahead of time? This glossary could be posted or available in a handout.
  • Avoid using sports or celebrity references that may not be familiar to someone from another culture.
  • Become familiar with cultural norms or taboos for the representative culture you are working with.
  • While I try not to be too directive in a class, it might be useful to encourage the learners to close their books during demonstrations to avoid the temptation to read written material in lieu of watching a demonstration supplemented by English descriptions.

A significant portion of the group is ESL:

  • In addition to the tips above, encourage study or activity groups with similar languages to form.
  • It is extremely valuable to offer “office hours” for anyone who would like one-on-one sessions to clarify comments made in the course or ask any questions that have arisen.

One person in the group has ESL challenges:

  • Plan plenty of application exercises to show the content is understood.
  • Approach the learner early in the class to invite questions and clarification.
  • If possible, you still want to incorporate some of the tips above, but here you must make sure the class is still engaging for the non-ESL participants.
  • Because of the human tendency to avoid making public errors—especially language-based errors—it’s useful to point out we all miss things and learn through our mistakes. We’re all human!
  • When you have just one ESL learner, the real challenge occurs for both the learner and the trainer, and it’s critical that their time is used profitably. This might be a situation that would benefit by diversion into a course where there is better support through a multi-lingual instructor, more participants from the same language group, or translation services.

What about you? Do you have any tips to share on connecting with ESL learners?



Paul has been a course leader with Langevin since 2000. He graduated from the University of San Francisco with a Bachelor’s degree in History. Throughout Paul’s career he’s had the pleasure of training for a variety of industries including sports, military, technical, aviation, and academia. Paul firmly believes with the right training and support, people can be competent performers in most positions. The organizational trainer is the key to providing that performance boost. In his spare time, you might catch sight of Paul on the sidelines of a soccer field, biking through Napa Valley, or spending some quality time with his family.

Topics: instructional techniques, tips-for-trainers

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