|Where to Start: Introductory
Ideas for Teaching the Non-English Speaker
Tobey Cho Bassoff
teachers have contacted me with the same question: I am
a classroom teacher and I have no training in ESL, yet a student
just arrived from another country and doesn’t speak English,
what do I do?
First of all, be comforted by the fact that there are many
teachers out there who are just like you. All of the ideas that
follow come from fellow ESL teachers who have been in a similar
As your English Language Learner (ELL) starts being immersed
in English, vocabulary development will be essential. Your job
is to start developing the student’s vocabulary as quickly
as possible. I recommend giving weekly vocabulary tests that
have him learning no more than 10 words per week. Classroom
words are a great place to start (pencil, blackboard, clock,
etc.). You can get bilingual picture
dictionaries that also provide workbooks to make vocabulary
acquisition fun while providing some structure.
If your student finds the classroom words boring, tap into
the child’s interests. If you discover he enjoys fishing,
then start there. As his vocabulary expands provide him with
post-it notes and allow him to label things in the classroom.
If this isn't possible (i.e., for middle school and high school
teachers), then ask him to keep a notebook which serves as his
own personal English dictionary. Each page serves as a letter
in the alphabet. Your ELL will write, draw, or cut and paste
vocabulary words/pictures that mean something to him into it.
(See also Building Your ESL Student’s
In addition to starting your ELL with vocabulary, you should
start acquiring some basic English kindergarten books. Often
times schools will have discretionary funds that are slated
for just this type of thing, or there is a Parent/Teacher fund
that can offer money. One teacher appealed to the high school
Key Club for funds and she received books and volunteers to
help read with her ELLs. Ask your principal if the funds are
available, or look into local clubs and non-profit organizations
who donate funds and resources.
If money is next to impossible to secure, then visit the local
library. You are looking for books with pictures, limited vocabulary
on each page, and a repetitive pattern. These types of books
(also referred to as touchstone texts) will serve as a model
for your ELL to write self-authored books featuring his own
For example, Rebecca Emberley writes very basic books for very
young children. They are written in Spanish and English. They
have one focal point picture and a word or two at most. Your
new student can start writing his own books in this basic style
and expand on Emberley's format. Remember, some ELLs will not
be familiar with basic grammar rules in English. The more they
are exposed to a print rich environment the faster they will
learn to apply the rules to their own writing.
The last idea I’ll share with you in this article came
from a middle school teacher, Mary, in Kentucky. Mary writes:
One of the best things I've done is to buy a computer
program that teaches vocabulary through fun (silly!) games.
Kids can choose what topic they want to work on, and the program
keeps track of their points. This makes great independent
work, and the kids will sit and play it for hours if allowed.
As they read, listen, and repeat, they pick up a lot of words.
No matter where you start, applaud yourself for being your
student’s first introduction to English. If you’re
reading this article, then you’ve already proven to be
tenacious enough to be an effective teacher. If you find an
idea that works for you, please email me, so we can continue
to share our best classroom practices.
As always, if you need more ideas, or if you have ideas to
share, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Best of luck! Tobey