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Teaching the ESOL Student in the Mainstream Classroom:

A Mainstream Teachers’ Guide

Abigail Hunting

Linguistic and cultural diversity are rapidly becoming an integral part of school life.  As Kindler points out, in 2000-2001, “4.6 million students identified as English language learners attended school in the U.S. pre-kindergarten through grade 12 education system…, representing 9.3 percent of the total public school enrollment” (2003, p. 3).  Furthermore, “…since the 1989-1990 school year, the ESL population has increased approximately 101 percent, in a trend that will continue for at least the next two decades” (Thomas & Collier, 2002).  Given this rapid change in demographics, it is increasingly important for teachers to be equipped in the area of teaching English language learners.  Few undergraduate or even postgraduate courses in education, however, have prepared teacher-trainees in the area of how to cope with ESOL students in their mainstream classes. 

In addition, many ESOL students are mainstreamed before they achieve absolute fluency, particularly in writing skills. As a result, the majority of mainstream teachers have simply had to rely on their own intuition and develop their own techniques and ideas with regard to learning strategies, language development, teaching practices and resources.

It is understandable that teachers don’t often have the time to go and look for information that is outside their own content area. Many mainstream teachers would therefore welcome some form of ESOL in-service opportunities were they given both the necessary time and conditions to do so. However, few schools are fortunate enough to afford an ESOL in-service opportunity. 

In light of this problem, I developed the following research project with hope that its results would help to equip mainstream teachers, who often work in isolation, in their day-to-day teaching of ESOL students in their mainstream classes.

To fully investigate this topic, I created a student and teacher survey (see attached) that was distributed to every teacher (206 total) and ESOL (A1-B2) student (98 total) at Robinson Secondary School.  The surveys were designed to identify the problems of ESOL students in the mainstream classroom and the questions/concerns that mainstream teachers have in teaching ESOL students.   I hoped to address teacher concerns based on the feedback of mainstream teachers, however, the results produced 72 student responses and only 2 teacher responses.  Given this heavy student response and lack of teacher response, my conclusions are based solely on the problems identified by ESOL students and their suggestions to mainstream teachers, in addition to my own ESOL methods research and observations.  The teacher and student surveys, and an all-inclusive chart of student responses, are attached (appendixes I, II, III).

In summary of the survey results, the ESOL students at Robinson High School reported problems in:

  • Understanding teacher’s explanations, especially when the teacher uses difficult vocabulary:  “Sometimes, I don’t understand vocabs that my teacher says;” “My teacher should take more times to explain…”
  • Understanding films or videos: “Movies go too fast.”
  • Understanding students or teachers who talk very quickly: “If it’s too fast, I can’t catch”.
  • Finding the vocabulary to express their knowledge “I cannot correct and communicate with them because of language;” “I want to show what I am thinking, but I am not good enough to express what I want to say.”
  • Reading the teacher’s handwriting, especially when it is in cursive: “Some teacher use cursive, but I never learn that before.”
  • Reading textbooks or text with difficult vocabulary: “Vocabulary is the biggest problem when we read.”
  • Reading in front of the class: “Sometime when my teacher ask us to read front of the class or present front of class I feel uncomfortable.  If I don’t make sense all the class making fun of me.”
  • Copying notes from the board or projector: “I am slower than other classmates to understand that if the teacher wrote something in cursive or bad handwriting;” “When it goes too fast and it’s hard to catch up.”
  • Taking notes on lecture due to vocabulary and/or spelling problems: “Spelling what teachers say;” “If the teacher says words I don’t know, I couldn’t take notes on them and I miss the time.”
  • Engaging in conversation with mainstream peers: “I feel that someone ignore me, and someone think that I’m stupid because I’m ESOL and I don’t talk.”
  • Feeling comfortable speaking in front of mainstream peers: “I feel embarrassed to talk in front of Native Speaker because I might say something wrong with pronunciation and say something that doesn’t make sense.”
  • Understanding homework assignments and test questions because of difficult vocabulary: “I don’t understand some of the vocabulary in questions;” “Even we cannot understanding questions on the test, so we cannot answer.”
  • Feeling comfortable speaking/presenting in front of the class: “Presentation kind of speaking is really terrible.”
  • feeling comfortable asking the teacher for help: “…I think I’ll make a mistake and the teacher doesn’t understand;” “Too many students.  It’s embarrassing.”
  • Remaining on task when they feel confused, frustrated, or embarrassed: “…When I don’t understand the classes I get mad and I don’t want to do anything.”


In summary of the survey results, ESOL students at Robinson High School would like their mainstream teachers to:


  • Speak slower and enunciate: “Could the teacher speak slower.”
  • Write clearly on the blackboard/overhead – NOT in cursive: “Please do not write in script types.”
  • Not use slang words: “I’d like the teacher to speak slow, and please don’t use slang word.”
  • Give them more time to complete class work, assignments, and tests: “I REALLY WANT the teachers give more time to ESOL students because ESOL students can’t do the class works in the same time with other regular students.”
  • Explain in greater detail; not assume that ESOL students have the same prior knowledge as that of native students: “They don’t explain the easy ones because they thing that we learned in Elementary School.  But I never been to Elementary School in USA.”
  • Be understanding: “Be patient and wait;” “If they could be more nice, and maybe give extra time to do the works;” “If ESOL students have problem they have to help us.  Some teachers act like it’s a pain so we don’t want to ask them again;”
  • Allow them to use dictionaries or translators so that they can express their knowledge: “Sometimes I cannot express my thought or knowledge although I know it.  To express it, I want the teacher let me use the dictionary.”
  • Be aware that they might have more home responsibilities than native speakers, and that the homework assignment will take them longer to complete than native speakers: “…there is no one to help if it is hard because my father and mother is at work, but I am trying myself;” “Always I have more important things to do in my house.”
  • Offer more help after class or while other students are working:  “What I NEED is more help from the teacher.”
  • Explain concepts using easy vocabulary: “…If ESOL student ask them something, then explain with easy words.”
  • Allow students to work in groups or pairs: “Make a partner work or group work could make helpful, because if I don’t understand something, I could ask to partner more easily;”
  • Allow more time for taking notes.
  • Help them to make American friends: “It would be very good if the student can make American friends because ESOL student don’t have chance to get American friends.  So, the teacher could introduce some friends.”
  • Be patient and wait for them to answer: “Be patient and wait.”
  • Use easy vocabulary for tests:  “If teacher give more chance to ESOL student (ex. Give more time for test or quiz, use easy word on test).”
  • Not embarrass them in front of native speakers: “I feel nervous.  I try not to get attention from the teacher and students.”
  • Be understanding of grammatical mistakes: “…they could understand that you are not a normal student, so the grammar will not be the same.”
  • Give many examples: “Give us more examples.”



Sensitivity to the above problems and requests is essential, and it is noteworthy to point out that several students wrote comments such as, “Please tell my mainstream teacher,” or “it feels good to write this down,” to stress the urgency that they feel in communicating their problems to their teachers. 

Many of the student recommendations are also supported by current language acquisition theory.  Three key principles can be directly applied to the mainstream classroom.  These principles are important for all students, but are of particular importance to English language learners (Jameson, 1998):

  • Increase Comprehensibility:  Drawing from Krashen’s theory of comprehensible input, this principle involves the ways in which teachers can make content more understandable to their students.  With early to intermediate language learners, these include providing many nonverbal clues as pictures, objects, demonstrations, gestures, and intonation cues.  As competency develops, other strategies include building from language that is already understood, using graphic organizers, hands-on learning opportunities, and cooperative or peer tutoring techniques. 
  • Increase Interaction:  Drawing from Swain’s emphasis on comprehensible output, a number of strategies have been developed that increase student opportunities to use their language skills in direct communication and for the purpose of “negotiating meaning” in real-life situations.  These include cooperative learning, study buddies, project-based learning, and one-to-one teacher/student interactions.
  • Increase Thinking/Study Skills:  Drawing from Cummins’s theories on academic language and cognitively demanding communication, these strategies suggest ways to develop more advanced, higher order thinking skills as a student’s competency increases.  Chamot and O’Malley (1994) developed the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) which includes asking students higher-order questions (i.e., “What would happen if…”), modeling “thinking language” by thinking aloud, explicitly teaching and reinforcing study skills and test-taking skills, and holding high expectations for all students.

Based on these principles, mainstream teachers should try to use visuals, gestures, demonstrations, graphic organizers, cooperative learning activities, and study-buddies, make real-life connections, promote higher order thinking skills, model thinking language, and reinforce study skills wherever possible.  By incorporating these strategies/activities into their lessons, the mainstream teacher will be providing the ESOL student with a greater opportunity for comprehension.  These strategies will also be of service to his/her mainstream students.

Based on the results of my survey and current research, I have come to make the following recommendations for mainstream teachers.  I believe that these suggestions are ones that are relatively easy to implement, and would be of great assistance to ESOL students in the mainstream classroom:


  • Provide photocopies of notes for ESOL students whenever possible.
  • Create a “buddy system” for ESOL students.  Pair an ESOL student with one of your more bright, helpful, and friendly students so that the ESOL student will feel comfortable asking for help.  Ask the mainstream student to help the ESOL student when they can.  Many ESOL students feel intimidated by their mainstream peers, and would benefit from this relationship.
  • Be sure to go over difficult vocabulary.  Provide ESOL students with a vocabulary list to refer to during lessons (or, give them a list of vocabulary words prior to the lesson that will help them prepare for it).
  • Be sure to write legibly on the board/overhead.
  • Make connections between the material and real life. 
  • Allow them to use a translator or dictionary so that they can express their knowledge.
  • Do not write in cursive.  Many ESOL students have never learned cursive writing.
  • Speak clearly and avoid slang words.
  • Try to monitor your rate of speech.
  • Pause frequently to allow students to process.
  • Use easy vocabulary (when possible) on tests so that ESOL students can understand the questions.
  • Begin the school year with a “get-to-know-you” activity that will enable mainstream students and ESOL students to socialize with each other.  Many ESOL students feel isolated in their mainstream classes.  You can even do one of these activities mid-year, or provide opportunities for cooperative learning exercises that will enable the students to interact.
  • Use cooperative learning in your classroom to promote interaction.
  • Explain concepts in many ways, using different vocabulary.
  • Help the student to feel comfortable.  Be sure that you are pronouncing their name correctly.  Ask them if there is anything you can do to help them.
  • Provide them with more time to take tests or complete assignments.
  • Know whether they are comfortable being called on or reading in front of the class.
  • Use visuals: Gestures, demonstrations, graphic organizers, pictures.
  • Write notes on the overhead/projector instead of only lecturing.  Or, provide ESOL students with a copy of your own notes before you lecture.
  • Make sure that they are clear on instructions for assignments.
  • Allow them to rewrite and improve their work.
  • Help students to build their confidence by being encouraging and caring towards them.
  • Be available for after-school help.
  • Try to correct for content, not grammar, where possible.
  • Provide a model of what you are expecting them to do; think out-loud.
  • Reinforce study skills. 



Many questions regarding best practices for teaching language learners remain, and additional research will be critical to determine the answers.  Professional development is a significant issue for mainstream teachers who are attempting to implement new instructional strategies.  I believe there is significant evidence for the need for greater preparation in the area of teaching ESOL students in the mainstream classroom.  Until this preparation is a standardized component in Teacher Education Programs, I believe that schools and districts should provide teachers with resources, training, and support in order to help mainstream teachers in this difficult task.  Resources at the school-level, such as in-services, short seminars provided by the ESOL department, or a consulting collaboration wherein ESOL teachers observe mainstream classes and identify areas in which the mainstream teacher can make adjustments to help ESOL students (thereby acting as a consultant to the mainstream teacher) are all ways in which schools could work toward the goal of implementing effective teaching for ESOL students within the mainstream classroom.

In the meantime, I believe it is still possible to deliver meaningful, engaging, grade-level content to all students while supporting the language development needs of ESOL students.  It is my hope that this research paper and its suggestions might offer some ways in which the mainstream teacher can work toward the success of this endeavor.



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