Teaching Language to an ESL Student

My name's Alex. I work as a Peer Tutor at the Salt Lake Community College Writing Center. This is a reflection about teaching language to people who didn't grow up speaking English. The following entry comes from an experience I had with a student and thoughts from an experienced tutor, Clint Johnson, who's worked at the Center for seven years.
In a session with Clint Johnson, he talked to me about his thoughts on this. He shared a lot of good insight. I shared with him a concern that I didn’t know grammatical terms well enough and that I thought knowing them would help me improve as a tutor. He said, after reviewing a report I had written and brought in,
I’ve known students who know grammatical terms and can remember what the symbols are but don’t know how to use them. I mean, you’ve written an excellent report that shows you know how to use grammar better than they do yet you have no idea what the definitions are. Knowing the rules is of limited benefit because many of the rules are so complex that they are difficult to apply [and understand]. What works best is being immersed in a language that has actual purpose.
Clint brings out that being immersed in a culture, say, when you are asking for directions to an area, works better than studying that possible scenario out of a textbook. This is right in line with what Chapter Seven of ESL Writers: A Guide for Writing Center Tutors says. “Not simply rhetorical style but also purpose, task, topic, and audience are culturally informed” (Nordhaus and Staben 80). Essentially, why they’re writing a paper, how they’re supposed to write it, what they’re writing about, and who they’re writing to are more important, and more difficult to learn, when writing a paper. These are more important factors than grammar that go into language learning because regardless if that language is “correct,” if it doesn’t have context, it doesn’t matter how they say it if what they’re saying is off base.
For example, I had a student come in yesterday with a draft. He spoke three languages, English being his third. He handed me the assignment sheet which contained instructions for a “Research Proposal” (which basically means “Tell me [the instructor] what you plan on researching and how you aim to go about writing your paper.”) The paper he had written had been pointed out by his instructor as an essay, not a proposal. I put my hands on my head, took a deep breath, and did two things. The first was tell him he needed to start over. The second thing was attempting to explain why he needed to start over and help him understand the assignment. It took him about ten minutes to read five questions. I explained one question about how to insert his own thoughts into the academic conversation by pretending his topic was a conversation. I motioned to an empty table next to us and said
Let’s say this is a room, and as you walk in, you see people there talking about injury prevention in football. Now, this conversation has been going on for a long time. [I stood, walking over to the table.] For now, all you can do is just listen. You aren’t sure what they’re talking about so you need to listen before you can respond. [Then I leaned over to the table like I was listening.] Then, once you understand, that’s when you lean over and say, “This is what I think.”
A smile crossed his face (the first real smile of our session) and I could see he understood. I think active learning helps more than word service (telling them what they need to do when they don’t understand the language isn’t as effective as showing them what they need to do.) Showing isn’t easy; drawing the concept of “Thesis” isn’t easy; I think one of the most effective ways to teach language is to give what they’re doing context (help them understand the purpose of what they’re learning), to show them (when possible) rather than tell them, and to help them understand the culture to which they’ve arrived and which is foreign to them.


  1. This is indeed a fine example of taking advantage of the unexpected!

  2. Woops, I hit return too soon. Some times, because we deal so much with words, we forget that there are other ways to communicate ideas.

  3. Good example! I agree that showing is ultimately more effective than any form of telling (with rare exceptions, of course).

    It's nice to know grammatical concepts, but they fall flat when it comes time to discuss them with the student. The reason for this stems from a lack of foundation; it's difficult to explain roofing instructions when floor plans haven't been covered. But there are times where we can talk about the types of tools to use. For example:

    "The king his ball."

    We know what is wrong here, so we tell them the proper sentence should read:

    "The king's ball."

    So the student asks why, and you explain that apostrophes indicate something is omitted (because that's what you yourself have been taught). But then they persist by saying, "well, I put that omitted 'something' back in by using 'his'. Isn't 'his' the thing that's being omitted?"

    You scratch your head, knowing that possessive "s" indicates "his," and yet you can't figure out why the student can't have it their way. Well, that's because this rule is a huge misconception (one that my third-grade teacher taught me). It turns out that possessive "s" is a dead form of an inflected possession, so back in Chaucer's time they'd say:

    "The kinges ball."

    But somewhere along the line we started omitting the "e," probably when we began to have plurals like "foxes," and so "'s" became the new way of showing possession.

    Anyway! Grammar can, sometimes, help students understand why we do things the way we do. But yeah. Showing > telling.


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