7 Must-know Strategies for Teaching High School ESL

“You are really…bringing me over, man.”

You may not have seen the classic 1980s movie “Better Off Dead.”

But if you teach teenagers, you could probably relate to John Cusack’s character’s dad when he tries, unsuccessfully, to bridge the gap between himself and his son.

Sometimes teenagers just don’t make sense.

Don’t get me wrong.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with high school students.

It’s just that sometimes we adults have trouble relating to them.

We’re in different places in life.

We don’t think the same way.

And if we’re not careful, our differences can be to our detriment both inside and outside the classroom.

That’s why teaching high school ESL necessitates a different approach.

What works with adults doesn’t necessarily work with teenagers.

How we relate with adults isn’t how we should relate with teens.

It’s our job as high school ESL teachers to think about the strengths of our students, where they are in life, and what their specific needs are so we can create a classroom and a curriculum that gets them closer to their goals and supports them in the process.

So how do we do that?

I’m so glad you asked!

7 Must-know Strategies for Teaching High School ESL

1. Include journaling time.

Friendships are extremely important in the teenage years. Whether you’re teaching a class of internationals or have EAL students in a public, English-speaking school, their friends will most likely be the most important influence in their lives. Quentin Crisp put it this way:

“The young always have the same problem—how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.”

You can help your ESL students succeed by giving them opportunities to form relationships in class, and they can improve their English skills at the same time. Do so by letting them journal.

The key to making this strategy work is allowing students to be personal in their journaling. Give them permission to write whatever they want, without the fear that you’ll read it. You can also remind them that you will not be grading what they write and that they should not stress about spelling, grammar or vocabulary.

Just letting students write freely will improve their writing skills. In this situation, it’s practice, not perfection, that’s the goal.

After students have time to write, invite anyone who wants to share to read what they wrote aloud to the class. This is where relationships develop. When students realize that they all have the same struggles, they’ll develop deep friendships with one another.

2. Integrate social media and technology.

We live in an age of technology, and today’s teenagers have always lived in that era. They’ve never known a world without the Internet or, nevermind microwave popcorn. It’s important that we, their teachers, remember this when we plan out our ESL classes. High school students’ lives are multimedia, and our classrooms should be, too.

It’s not difficult to integrate technology into the classroom these days. Set up a classroom blog on BlogSpot. Have students write and film videos for YouTube. Sent and receive homework via email. There are tons of ways to integrate technology into your classroom, so keep yourself aware of technology and be open to bringing it into class.

One easy way to set yourself up for all kinds of technology integration is with ed2go’s Creating a Classroom Website course. This will help you get set up with a classroom blog as well as create and organize other features yourself on your own website. This way, you and your students will be able to customize their learning journey together, all while using the latest technology.

Another way to integrate tech in the classroom is by using FluentU. The program uses authentic videos like movie trailers, music videos and vlogs to keep students engaged.

You can show videos to the full class, guided by accurate subtitles and review quizzes, or you can assign individual students to watch videos of your or their choosing. Since videos are divided into six levels of difficulty, it’s easy to find content that suits any student.

When students learn with FluentU, they have access to instant contextual definitions right from the subtitles. Plus, any word can be saved as a flashcard for later review through adaptive quizzes.

In a nutshell, FluentU is a way to include technology in the classroom that’s easy for you and enjoyable for the students. And isn’t that the whole point?

3. Include pop culture.

Western pop culture has become worldwide culture. In today’s information age, people all around the world can follow the lives of their favorite celebrities on Twitter, see Hollywood movies or connect with today’s pop icons via Facebook and Instagram. And most of your students will be doing just that.

Tap into their interests by including pop culture in your classroom, too. Use popular movies for listening activities. Bring in magazines—such as People, Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stonefor reading activities. Tap into your students’ interests with content that appeals to them, and you’ll see their engagement level skyrocket.

4. Respect their previous knowledge.

Proficiency in English does not equal intelligence or experience. When you’re talking to a toddler just becoming fluent in the English language, you can safely assume they lack life experience. But your high school ESL students aren’t in that same place. Even those least proficient in English have over a decade of life experience behind them. It’s important to respect your students’ past and experience.

You can do this by giving them a chance to share what they know with the rest of the class. Have an “expert” day where everyone shares their expertise on something. Ask students to share on a topic they know about. Have them tell their classmates why that topic interests them, and five things everyone should know about that subject. Then have a short Q&A session following the presentation.

5. Win the right to be heard.

Again, relationships are extremely important for teenagers. A good rule of thumb to remember when it comes to your relationship with them is that they don’t care what you know until they know that you care. (If you don’t believe me, ask Harry Potter how he feels about potions classes taught by none other than Severus Snape.) So for your students to learn best in English, they have to know that you care about them as people. They need a relationship with you.

To build that relational bridge, take a few minutes at the start of your class or school day to chat with your students. Ask them how they are, what’s going on in their lives, what they did over the weekend. Let them tell you about the music, movies and video games they like. And invite them to share the things that are important to them as part of your class time.

Get to know your students as people. Though you may feel you could really use those ten minutes for a grammar review, take time to talk to your students instead. In the end, it will pay off far more.

6. Build bridges.

Especially when you teach internationals, you’ll need to build bridges. Being intentional about making social connections will expand your students’ support networks as well as give them chances to speak English.

Make opportunities to invite native speakers from your school into your ESL class. Encourage conversation partners, have combined classes or do interviews with other teens.

The more you know your students outside of class, the better your relationship with them inside class will be. Build your own bridges by getting to know your students’ families whenever possible.

Finally, help your international students build bridges among themselves by encouraging different expressions of culture. Since culture is such an intrinsic part of why we are, we might not realize culture is often the culprit when misunderstandings arise. That means your students may misinterpret situations in which their native cultures are clashing with that of their classmates.

Encourage your students to express their own cultures and appreciate the cultures of each other by sharing their beliefs, values and opinions. Talking about holidays, daily living and controversial topics are all good ways to start. Not only will they develop more friendships when they talk about these subjects, but they’ll go into adulthood with better global understanding.

7. Think about their future goals.

When you already respect your students’ pasts and enrich their presents, the only thing that remains is to consider their futures. Keep in mind what your students ultimately plan on doing with English and prepare them appropriately.

Will they need English to accomplish everyday tasks? Focus on survival English.

Will they use English for further education? Will they need to take standardized tests to get into college? Focus on academic English.

Will they assimilate into an English-speaking culture? Don’t forget to include social English, too.


Your students have their whole futures in front of them.

The more you can do to prepare them for what lies outside your classroom walls, the more successful they’ll be and the better you can feel about your role in their success.

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