Ways to Help Your ESL Students

…. and Everyone in the Process

As many as half of the undergraduates at the University of Toronto use English as their second (or third or fourth) language, and many are still in the learning stages of mastering English. Some also need to make a cultural transition to a different type of educational system.While a few students may need specialized help to make the most of their education in English, the practical teaching techniques set out below can make a difference in any class. They benefit all students by accommodating different learning styles, while at the same time helping those facing linguistic and cultural challenges. We offer them here in the knowledge that many U of T instructors already use them with success in both large and small classes.Here are practices that assist all students to follow lectures and class discussions:

  • Outlining lectures schematically to show their organization and purpose.
  • Presenting information in both oral and written forms where possible: for instance, writing key words on the board or on an overhead. Students may not hear the difference between sulphate, sulphite, and sulphide.
  • To help everyone follow the overall movement of thought during class discussions, rephrasing or summarizing student responses occasionally.
  • To get fuller participation in class discussions, asking students to come up with questions or answers in groups of three or four. Depending on the size of the class, all or some groups can report back to the class as a whole. This can encourage shy students to share their ideas, help with problems of understanding strong accents, and confirm to everyone that other class members share their puzzles and concerns.
  • Referring students to the conversation classes at the International Student Centre and to other student activities (e.g. clubs, choirs) that involve informal listening and speaking in English.

These are some ways to help all students deal with the challenges of reading academic texts:

  • Assigning a realistic reading load and suggesting purposeful approaches to assigned readings. Students who try to look up every tenth word in a dictionary have a hard time seeing the big picture. Students who merely skim for information miss the chance for critical reading, and may tend to borrow ideas without analysis or attribution.
  • Offering tips on how to recognize the most important material in given readings: for instance, noting titles, headings, statements of argumentative stance, allusions to other views, etc. Giving students a list of key terms (or making a list with them) may also help them focus.
  • Commenting in class on the relationships between your lectures and the readings, and among the different views set out in the readings. This will help students realize that they’re reading to experience ways of thinking and to construct their own knowledge, as well as to get information.
  • Referring students to the workshops on reading strategies held by Counselling and Learning Skills and some Writing Centres.
  • These approaches have helped other U of T course instructors maintain their use of writing as a central course activity.
  • Making their expectations explicit for written assignments by stating grading criteria and showing examples (e.g., on PowerPoint or overhead). It’s especially valuable to point out ways that writers acknowledge sources and integrate comments on them into their own work.
  • Using some class or tutorial time for public question-and-answer sessions and discussion of student progress; for larger classes, setting up an online bulletin board for questions and answers that the whole class can read.
  • Instead of giving a separate mark for writing quality or style, stating explicitly that clarity of reasoning and explanation is a key expectation from all students, even where details of language may not be perfect; then monitoring grading practices to see that comments and grades reflect the focus on clarity of content.
  • Marking only a few selected language errors rather than trying to point out every one. If you need to show that the high number of errors is distracting, we would suggest drawing lines around a paragraph and circling all errors there. Otherwise, we recommend marking up only passages where clarity is directly affected, and trying to indicate which types of errors are most in need of work (e.g. key words and phrases, verb tenses and forms, convoluted sentence structures).
  • Saving some of your marking time for individual interviews. Then you can go over a page or two with motivated students in person.
  • Assigning some ungraded writing, just for the sake of learning: for example, asking students to write impromptu for two minutes in class to tell you the main thing they learned from your lecture and what else they want you to clarify. Students will gain practice in formulating ideas and asking questions; you will get valuable teaching advice. It is enough to look through the set and reply in the next class, without marking the pieces or commenting individually.
  • Encouraging all students to make the most of their Writing Centres throughout the term. Writing tutors don’t proofread, but they can teach specific points of language use. They don’t supply ideas, but they can help students develop habits of critical thinking.
  • Referring your students to suitable courses, advice, and reference material available at U of T.

Written by Dr. Margaret Procter, Coordinator, Writing Support, University of Toronto.
Copyright 2001. All rights reserved.