My adult ESL students often had big dreams, and “Ama” was no different. She couldn’t write a sentence, but she wanted to pass the TOEFL within a few weeks. She thought *I* was holding her back. Ama was in the lowest level class that our IEP (Intensive English Program) offered, about A1~2. She lived and breathed for the moment that she could take the TOEFL, which, again, she was sure she could pass within a few weeks.
I’m going to tell you how I won Ama to my side and how that made me a better teacher.
Meeting all adult ESL students’ needs is not always unattainable.
The thing is, those unrealistic expectations tend to be coupled with strong personalities. Then we end up with classes veering down dark rabbit holes. But what if you could harness their intense desire to learn what they want to learn and get them to buy into what you have to teach? What if you could introduce color vocabulary in your A1~2 level class and not expect significant push-back from the student(s) you are trying not to label divas in your head? Imagine a class with that same student grinning and thanking you for what you’ve taught and yet still teach at the class level. I’m going to tell you how to make that happen.
Hack #1: Focus on the strategies.
While you are teaching vocabulary, for example, explicitly teach strategies for decoding new words. State exactly a mastery of that strategy will help them on the TOEFL (or IELTS). Have relevant sample questions on hand that you can discreetly pass to that student while teaching. She can see for herself that you have her on her desired path.
Students obsessed with passing a proficiency exam to gain university admittance often resist many of the lessons in their classes. Why? Because they don’t see a connection. Make that connection for them, and they’ll be all over it.
Hack #2: Match high-level strategies with low-level content.
Adult ESL students of varying levels and completely different motivations for learning English often find themselves in the same classroom. What one needs is what another wants nothing to do with.
You can imagine Ama’s eye-rolling when she saw that our next unit began with color vocabulary. However, I had anticipated her opposition and was prepared. “Today, we’re going to learn color names. Ama, one of our activities is Step One in a secret hack. It will help you quickly understand a type of question in the reading section of the TOEFL. With practice, you will become faster at getting the answer.”
She straightened her spine and opened her notebook. Her eyes sparkled so much I swear it was like a light show.
And I wasn’t making it up either! Reading graphs and getting information from them is crucial on proficiency exams. However, depending on the culture of your adult ESL students, it could be something they’d never done in their own language. By the time they were in a high enough level class where that type of question would come up, they were usually still unable to answer even the simplest of questions if graphs were involved. So, I decided to introduce them early. Only, I didn’t tell them how to interpret them. I showed them how to make them.
Here’s how I incorporated graphs in an introductory vocabulary lesson.
For that color vocabulary lesson, one of my activities was to send the students out of the room. No, not kick them out of class! They would go to another class for a speaking activity and ask those students about their favorite colors. Once they returned to our classroom, I’d them a graph to fill in. The graph would show how many people had the same favorite color. When they were done, I didn’t have to tell them how to interpret the graph. They already knew because they had created it themselves. After that, I could include the same type of graph with different information in another lesson, and they’d answer questions about it.
Ama? She was so excited about it that she made more graphs at home. She created questions about them, and then got her classmates to answer them. I loved seeing all that interaction. Soon I had the rest of the students creating graphs on anything they wanted, making questions, and then “assigning” them to a classmate.
Give them their cake.
Teaching adult ESL students the tools and strategies they need for their goals, however lofty, increases their engagement in your lessons. They’ll be so busy trying to apply them that they won’t have time to dispute the merits of the vocabulary theme, the grammar concept, or the content of the text being read.
Pre-Made Newcomer Printable Goodies
If you have a broad range of proficiency levels in your beginner-level or newcomer class, you’ll want to check out these resources. Each has a variety of tasks for different levels to make it a little easier to meet the needs of all your adult ESL students in your vocabulary class.