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Beginning ESOL Learners' Advice to Their Teachers

Beginning ESOL Learners' Advice to Their Teachers

by MaryAnn Cunningham Florez
"They [the teachers] have a lot of 'esfuerzo'." It seemed like an innocuous comment from a learner about a two-teacher team, and it was only one of many that I furiously noted as I talked with a focus group of adult learners from a beginning-level class in English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). When I opened my notebook a day or two later, however, I realized exactly how much this learner and others were telling me. The word "esfuerzo" made me stop and think. The English translation from a dictionary - effort, spirit - might not seem that informative, but we were holding these discussions in the learners' native Spanish, and the implications of that word in Spanish and the comments it sparked provided a wealth of insights into the instructional process in that classroom. The learners were telling me what they valued in their teachers' practices: not only their heart and dedication, but also the focus, pace, activity, and sense of purpose in the lessons they conducted. It provided me with a wonderful window into what teachers need to know and do to support beginning-level English language learners, and also gave me valuable information for planning and implementing the training of their teachers.

In ESOL, we often talk about learner-centered instruction and the value of including learners' perspectives and realities in our program and classroom planning and implementation. Teachers and administrators everywhere work to gather learners' input on issues from content topics to teaching methods. I began conducting learner focus groups as a way of including learners' voices in our small program's end-of-semester evaluation. In what specific areas did I think learners' comments might be applied? I was probably expecting them to be helpful in identifying barriers to participation or providing comments that might help me as I talked with individual teachers about their practices.

I was missing the potential impact that direct comments and ideas from learners could have on staff development, especially for teachers working with beginning-level learners. Until, that is, I began to see the quality, thoughtfulness, and depth of the comments they were providing. These comments added enriching dimensions to the approaches, techniques, and information that are usually a part of training for teachers working with beginning-level learners.

Ours is a community-based volunteer program at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, Falls Church, VA. We began this year with approximately 140 predominantly Central American learners assigned to five different classes. Sixty percent of the learners enrolled were placed in the three beginning-level classes. They attend classes two evenings a week for two hours, working primarily on basic language development within a life skills context. The learners exhibit a range of literacy skills (from nonliterate to highly literate) and educational backgrounds in their native language, as is typical in beginning-level classes (Brod, 1999; Shank & Terrill, 1997). There are 12  volunteer teachers for the program's five classes: three two-person teams and six individual teachers. All of the teachers teach one night a week; one teacher teaches both nights of her class. Only one of the teachers has experience teaching English to non-English speakers.


Self Assessment

I ask learners to self-assess what they have learned at the end of each unit in our textbook. I give each learner a three-column chart and I draw a similar one on the board. The first column will be filled in with items we studied in the unit.  Learners put a check in one of the other two columns to indicate if they have mastered the item or not. I use symbols (a simple drawing of
a person smiling and another of a person frowning) or words ("I know;" "I don't know") to head these columns, depending on the proficiencies of my learners and their comfort with
the process.

I ask learners to look back through the unit and think about what we have studied. We then brainstorm together and I record the items on the chart on the board while the learners record them on their individual charts. (I may write one or two items in the first column as examples, to get them started.)

Depending on the learners' language levels, I might use words, symbolic drawings, or a combination of both to list the items that we brainstorm. As I list items, I make sure that I point to the page or pages in the book where they were covered, to remind learners of the context and to make sure everyone is clear about what we are naming. Learners then indicate individually what they have learned and what they need to practice more. Afterward, we debrief, either as a whole group or in pair or small groups that then report back to the large group, to determine the items that people had in common. On that basis, we decide what we may need to review as a class or as individuals.

The advice that follows - representing a collection of the most frequently heard statements - is drawn from the comments of 28 students in the beginning-level classes who participated in three different focus groups with me. All of the learners are native Spanish speakers; I conducted the focus groups in Spanish to ensure that all could participate as fully as they wanted. 

The Learners' Advice

Repeat, but differently. One of the most consistent suggestions was that teachers need to create opportunities for learners to practice material repeatedly but in different ways and in different contexts. For some learners, this meant a better balance of opportunities to engage in speaking, listening, reading, and writing. For others, it meant different practice structures: pair work, individual work, round-robin, choral response, etc. For still others, it meant changing the context in which the content or material is used: saying, copying, and printing lists of numbers as a first step for pre- or nonliterate learners and later practicing them again as times, dates, and prices.

Spend more time on topics and go more deeply into them. Learners were generally very happy with the topics and themes typically covered in beginning-level classes: health, personal information, jobs, or shopping. They appreciated the fact that these topics involved language  they needed to know and use in their daily lives. However, they suggested that teachers spend more time on each topic, offering more and different ways to practice the material and exploring issues and situations associated with it. They wanted teachers to move more deliberately through the language and materials being presented and to be open to studying related language and issues identified by the learners.

Don't fall into a vocabulary rut. Many learners felt that teachers spent more time on practicing vocabulary than on actually using it. Flash cards, matching games, labeling of pictures, copying of words, and similar vocabulary development exercises are useful, but they shouldn't constitute the whole lesson. The learners want to use the words in sentences, in dialogues, and completing other tasks.

Do more reading and writing. The majority of learners felt that reading and writing are the skills most often neglected in their beginning-level ESOL classes. While most acknowledged that speaking and listening (or "understanding," as many learners called it) were the immediate needs in their lives, reading and writing were the areas in which they felt they needed the most practice. They wanted teachers to make concerted efforts to incorporate level-appropriate reading and writing as regular parts of the class, as they did with speaking and listening.

Let us know how we are doing. A number of learners expressed a desire for more tests and quizzes in their classes. With further probing, however, I found that what they really wanted were more opportunities of any type that would help them to check on their progress. Paper-and-pencil tests were mentioned, perhaps because learners are familiar with this means of assessment. More consistent, concrete feedback from the teacher was also mentioned. Teachers may feel that, at the beginning levels, learners will find tests or direct feedback too intimidating or even discouraging. The challenge may be for teachers to introduce learners to the variety of forms that assessments can take and to the concept of self-assessment. The latter, in particular, is a valuable concept to introduce, although it may be difficult because learners may not have experience with it; or if they do it, they may not know it as self-assessment.

Give us more than the "simple present." As one learner put it, how can teachers expect learners to talk or write about important experiences, their homelands, or even their families when so many of these things are in the past and all students have to work with is the present tense? If teachers are going to involve learners in activities that ask them to use life experiences as their basis, the learners want at least a start on the language tools required to do so. This may mean introducing and using some past tense verbs or a sentence using a modal. It does not mean, however, that beginning learners should be expected to learn everything about that past tense verb or modal and be able to reproduce it out of the context in which it was presented.


Ideas for Eliciting Learner Feedback

What if you want to get feedback from your learners about the learning process in your classroom, but you do not share a native language with them?

  • Use picture or word prompts to stimulate role plays or brainstorming sessions to preface a new topic.  As you and the learners do this, you will gather clues about what they already know or have experienced and any special needs or interests they may have in relation to the topic.

  • Create a Language Experience Approach (LEA) story about studying English. Find or draw pictures in which people are writing, listening, speaking, looking in a dictionary, talking collaboratively, etc. After the story has been completed, ask learners to circle the ways they like to study English, compare with each other, and even create a consensus list of advice that you can use to inform your lesson planning.

  • Take a picture of your classroom on a typical day. Ask learners to create (draw, assemble a collage, for example) pictures of classes they have attended in the past. Ask them to compare the pictures they create with the picture of your current classroom. Write or discuss what your students like and dislike about each.

  • At the end of a class period, ask learners to comment on the various activities in which they participated. They can do this by voting yes or no on whether a specific activity was helpful, or by rating it. Use pictures, symbols, recognizable words or phrases, and refer back to concrete handouts or products of the activities to support the learners as they tackle the task.

Know when to say "That's all you need to know right now." These beginning-level learners respect when a teacher tells them that they do not need to know all the intricate explanations behind a grammar point or a common, but structurally more advanced, phrase, such as  "May I help you?" In fact, they are sometimes relieved simply to memorize what they need to know and proceed to the practice that is more appropriate and necessary for their level. The learners discussed this issue primarily in terms of grammar and a few simple, practical idioms. However, I think it is worth considering when planning other aspects, such as vocabulary or even content to be covered. (For example, do beginning-level learners really need to know "veins" and "arteries" and the differences between them, or can that wait for the next level?) Teachers need to make clear for themselves the knowledge they absolutely need to frame their lessons and the extent of information they actually need to impart to their students.

Watch your "teacher talk." Many of the learners reported that teachers used very complicated language that distracted or confused them in the course of presenting materials and lessons. Teachers often devote a great deal of time to determining what content and material are appropriate for the beginning-level learner. In an ideal situation, they then spend additional time figuring out how to present them in an understandable way. Teachers need to be doubly aware of the vocabulary and language structures that they use to present, explain, and even "fill" the time in and around lessons.

Talk to us about learning and the learning process. Learners wanted their teachers to talk to them about what learners need and what helps them most in the classroom. They were willing to share their strategies for learning, their goals, and their difficulties in order to help the teacher adjust instruction. They were very sophisticated and thoughtful in their analysis of the learning process in their classroom. Teachers may want to look at ways in which pictures, role playing, and similar techniques could be used to gather feedback on the ways that learners learn best, topics or themes they want to explore, or even the sequence in which learners want to cover chapters or units in a textbook.


These comments are not necessarily innovative ideas for working with beginning-level learners.  In fact, most are a part of good teaching practices for students of any level (see Holt, 1995; Wrigley & Guth, 1990). They helped me focus, however, not only on what the learners need but also on what inexperienced teachers often overlook, forget, or do not completely understand about working with beginning-level ESOL learners. In a "church basement" program like ours, the amount of time that you can ask volunteers to contribute beyond their weekly teaching commitment is limited both by their schedules and by the desire not to over-tap their generosity.  However, you also want to make sure that volunteers are sufficiently prepared and supported in their teaching efforts. I think these learner comments will help me to focus better the training for teachers in beginning-level classes. Such classes constitute more than 50 percent of our program and tend to attract new, less-experienced volunteers. They remind me to include aspects and strategies that are second nature to me as an experienced beginning-level teacher. 

These learner voices were practical and thoughtful. They revealed the cognitive, intellectual, psychological, and social savvy and capability that inexperienced teachers can sometimes overlook in learners with beginning-level English language or literacy proficiencies and skills (Brod, 1999; Shank & Terrill, 1997). They will resonate strongly when used in teachers' preparation and training in our program. I had a distinct advantage in gathering these comments, since I spoke the students' native language. It would be interesting to see if program planners or teachers using role plays, responses to pictures, Language Experience Approach (LEA), or similar techniques might get the same types of responses from mixed native-language groups. These beginning learners have a great deal of useful advice to offer to their teachers as well as to staff developers and trainers like me. It would be worth the effort to find ways to tap that resource.


Brod, S.  (1999). What Non-readers or Beginning Readers Need to Know: Performance-Based ESL Adult Literacy. Denver, CO: Spring Institute for International Studies.

Holt, G.  (1995). Teaching Low-level Adult ESL Learners. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education.

Shank, C., & Terrill, L.  (1997). "Multilevel literacy planning and practice." Focus on Basics, 1 (C), 18-21.

Wrigley, H. & Guth, G. (1990). Bringing Literacy to Life: Issues and Options in Adult ESL Literacy. San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International.

About the Author

MaryAnn Cunningham Florez is the volunteer coordinator of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church's Adult English as a Second Language (ESL) Program in Falls Church, VA. She is also assistant director and web coordinator at the National Center for ESL Literacy Education in Washington, DC.  She has more than 10 years experience working with adult English language learners.