Do You Speak That Language?

Here is a link for different strategies for teaching ESL from the Idaho State Department of Education.


The number of possible strategies that can be used to teach ESL students is mind-blowing! Everything from labeling items in the classroom, to using graphs and visuals, to taking field trips, to having a ‘peer buddy’ to talk with. Looking at these strategies has made me think about the statement: “An ESL teacher must know the first language of the student he/she is teaching.”


I used to think, until recently having a conversation about it with one of my friends, that a teacher who is teaching English to an ESL student MUST know the student’s original language in order to be effective. Although I still believe that knowing a student’s original language would be very beneficial in teaching him/her English, I no longer believe that it is necessary.


I actually experienced this fact myself when I taught English in Tanzania, Africa for a month this summer. Weirdly enough, my views on the necessity of knowing a student’s first language did not change until just recently, which means that while I was teaching English to students of whom I did not know their first language, I still believed that it was necessary to know the original language to teach them English. In simpler terms, I was teaching English to Swahili-speaking students and fully believed in my mind that they weren’t going to learn anything significant from me because I did not know their original language. Needless to say, I saw little improvement in my student’s English abilities in the month I taught them and therefore continued to believe it was because I didn’t know Swahili.


After the conversation with my friend and reviewing these strategies I realize now that the lack of improvement may have come from my teaching strategies. Simply standing in front of a class writing English grammar on the board didn’t appear to work well. However, if I had implemented some of the strategies on this list, my teaching may have improved. If I had directed my students to teach each other a lesson in English, made them retell a story, or have a peer buddy with another student or person who was fluent in English, would their English have improved more? Potentially.


As a teacher we are going to have an ESL student in our classroom sometime in our career, maybe even multiple at one time. There is no way to know every language from around the world in order to prepare ourselves for whatever student may walk through our doors. However, thank God, we don’t need to. By learning fairly simple things like gesturing more, labeling things in the classroom, using more visual items, and talking slower, we can help our students learn English without knowing their original language. Wow! What a relief to some of us! Also, there are so many great books and online resources with lesson plans and ideas to help make sure our classrooms are compatible with a student who does not know English.


The main idea here is not to let ourselves get frustrated or lose hope. The worse thing we can do is NOTHING to help these students or punish them for not knowing English. It won’t be an easy thing to teach a student the material and a language at the same time, but it is possible.


As a teacher, are you willing to make the extra effort to teach an ESL student? Or do we simply hand them over to someone who knows their language and culture and let them teach the material?


2 thoughts on “Do You Speak That Language?

  1. Hey! Just so you know, the link isn’t working (at least for me). I’d love to take a look at it!

  2. adrey1 says:

    Sorry about that! I don’t know why it is not working either! Try this one:

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