teaching esl students

4 Flexible Strategies for Teaching Any ESL Student, Anywhere in the World

Given that English is truly the universal language of the modern age, millions of people around the world are studying it.

In fact, English is taught on all continents except, that is, Antarctica. The penguins have their own language and no interest in—or reason for—learning English.

Learners vary from a high school student in Nigeria studying for state exams to an executive in Singapore learning business English to a refugee in Canada struggling with verb conjugation.

This means that teaching ESL students involves a global perspective and flexibility.


Why Teaching ESL Students Is Never the Same

Your ESL students will generally always come from a different language, culture and situation than you do, if you are a native English speaker.

They may well come from different backgrounds than each other.

You may also find yourself teaching classrooms with very different demographics every time the new school year starts up again. Or perhaps you’re teaching online or abroad, exposing you to an even wider diversity of students.

This means that no two ESL classrooms will be quite the same. Each one will have different expectations and needs.

It is very important, though often neglected, that you really get to know as much as you can about your students as people—which is where a needs assessment features as a starting point, and the rest of our suggestions made here will help you follow up on this.

Based on what you discover through the assessment, you can personalize your teaching approach. The adaptation will reap great rewards, both for you and for your ESL students.

4 Flexible Strategies for Teaching Any ESL Student, Anywhere in the World

Do an Initial Needs Assessment

Why do you need to do an ESL needs assessment at the beginning of each course? Simple: without it you will not know where to start. You might have a hunch, but you will not know what is really driving, motivating and interesting to your students. You will not know how much English they know, where their general language skills are at, how they have studied in the past or what they want to get out of class.

All of this means that you will not be able to plan where you want to end up and how you are going to get there. Think of this assessment as the first step in the big picture development.

The important thing to remember when teaching ESL—or any other subject for that matter—is that like in architecture, it all goes back to the plan.

With that in mind, what criteria are you going to look for and how will you know how to assess them? It is easier than you may think.

Factors to ask about in your needs assessment:

  • Age. ESL students range in age from virtual newborns to being in their senior years. Obviously you will use different methodologies and different materials depending on the age and interests of your students. Younger students might enjoy different kinds of videos, and professional-age students may pay closer attention to more practical lessons.
  • Reasons for studying English. Again, this will depend on the age and location of the people you are working with. Eight-year-olds will be studying ESL because their parents paid for them to attend class, or because it is part of the school’s program. Business people likely want to advance in their careers. Grandparents might want to talk with their grandchildren who live overseas.
  • A statement about why they want to learn English. For some it will be a challenge as this is not something they have really thought about. Their reasons can be saved and then reviewed at the end of the class to see if they are still the same ideas that were recorded at the beginning.
  • Location. Where is your classroom situated, and where do your students live? If you are in downtown New York, the resources and services available to students will be considerably different than if you are working in a bush village in Mali without electricity. Once you have an idea of what is available, you can plan field trips and make suggestions for after-hours activities to continue English practice.
  • Educational background. Again, you need to know this information for planning purposes. Like age, this will vary from total beginners to those writing graduate level university applications. Like so many factors when teaching ESL, the educational backgrounds of ESL learners will vary from elite private schools to educational programs in refugee camps.
  • First language. This is an important consideration as European Latin-based and Germanic languages share a lot of words with English and you can teach the students to hear the commonalities. Languages in Africa and Asia, however, don’t share many common words expect for recent ones such as “laptop,” “Internet” and “SIM card.”
  • Goals and aspirations of students. Consistent with the plan is knowing why your students want to learn English. For the young ones it might be getting a promised new toy if they do well in their tests. For others it could be passing the IELTS or TOEFL to get admission to a university. This does not necessarily have to be related to learning English or taking your class. This is more general. Once you know your students’ life goals, you can better personalize your lessons and focus on their particular interests and dreams.
  • Available time to study and do homework. Again, this is essential information. If you are teaching a class to recent immigrant women who have to shop and cook and look after their children, for example, they will not have a lot of time for homework. Some students—particularly those from Asia—expect to be assigned hours of homework every night. And if you do not do it they—the students and their parents—may view you as a lazy teacher.
  • Access to a computer and the Internet. This will depend on socioeconomic situations of the ESL students you are teaching. Some learners in, say, Hong Kong, may have state of the art computers that ESL teachers are not able to afford. The only computer available to other students may be the one at the school or at the public library. In developing countries be prepared for slow—and possibly expensive—Internet or no access at all.

With these factors in mind, decide if you are going to develop your own needs assessment form or download one that is available online.

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Keep Records

There is no point in doing a needs assessment for each student unless everything is properly documented. Then you can go back and assess where you started and how far you have progressed. Think of the file as an amalgamation of a measuring stick and a time line.

Devise a plan to monitor your student’s progress. If you can see where they started and where they are now it help with planning. You can incorporate short, medium and long term assessments of the advances your ESL students are making.

You can keep your own teacher records as well as assign regular record keeping from your students. You can also provide students with folders that always remain in the classroom and have them file their completed and graded assignments as a sort of portfolio which they can refer back to.

Be Prepared

Always be over-prepared. Once again repeat that mantra of teachers everywhere, “it all goes back to the plan.”

  • Use a variety of activities. These activities should be a mix of reading, writing, watching a video, discussing the news, playing games, singing and more exercises that are appropriate for the age and the language skills of the group you are working with. Shaking it up will ensure that all skills are developed and that students are always engaged. The younger the ESL students, the more frequently you have to change activities. Older students tend to crave more targeted work. For example, graduate level students can be preparing to write their thesis and may want to stay completely focused on just a few key skills related to this.
  • Keep the culture and the customs of the ESL students in mind when planning lessons. People generally enjoy talking about the country they came from and their culture. So you might want to plan special lessons for Chinese New Year for Asian ESL students, All Saints Day for South Americans or Ramadan for Muslim students.

Maintain an Ongoing Assessment

  • Set goals for yourself. At the beginning of each term—and after you have done your individual student needs assessment—set some teaching targets for yourself. Figure out how you are going to assess your own progress as a teacher and what the benchmarks might be. These can range from children reciting nursery rhymes to students passing the TOEFL.
  • Review what you did and how you did it after each lesson. What went well? What needs to be improved? Being self-critical—balanced with what is reasonable to expect to achieve—is the best way to grow as a teacher.
  • Check with your ESL students to see what they think of the lessons. Are they learning what they need to know? With more advanced students you can get them to do an anonymous evaluation of your classes and teaching style. Keep it simple—like having them give ratings on different performance measures on a scale from 1 to 10—rather than requesting longer, written answers.
  • Keep growing and expanding your materials, teaching repertoire and ease in the ESL classroom. Teaching ESL students is both rewarding and fun, so enjoy the experience and watch your horizons expand along with those of your students.


Given the global aspect of English, ESL students come in all ages, shapes, sizes, cultures and religions so people who work in the field have to be prepared to adapt accordingly.

To be an effective ESL teacher requires you to develop a world view and to empathize with your students and their situations.

And remember that you will often learn as much as—if not more than—your students.


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