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The challenges of teaching ESL students in International Schools

Godwin Manu

Master Diploma in Teaching English as a Foreign Language January 2014

The challenges of teaching ESL students in International Schools Each year thousands of students with limited English proficiency enter international schools around the world. This enrollment brings the challenge of meeting student’s educational needs so that students gain knowledge of the English language and are able to use that knowledge in other academic and social settings. The process of learning English as a second or third language puts challenges in front of the student. In this essay you will get to know the ESL student in an international school, learn about the different tracks in International Schools; Full-time ESL classes, Limited Withdrawal, and support in the mainstream. I take a look at the barriers to English language learning among international school students. And in the last part, I discuss who the ESL teacher is, together with some strategies that will help to meet the needs of the international ESL students. Who is the ESL student? An ESL student is a student whose primary language or mother tongue is not English. The student needs English language support to develop reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. There are no typical ESL students. They come from many linguistic and cultural backgrounds and have had a wide variety of life experiences, attributes that can significantly enrich the life of the school and help enhance learning for all students. Or can be challenging for themselves, the teacher, and the learning environment.

Different tracks in International Schools English as a Second Language (ESL) Programs are often introduced in International Schools. International Schools have multiracial and multicultural communities since students come from many different countries. The language which subjects are taught in is English. Students need to have a high level of proficiency in English before they can be enrolled in an International School. ESL classes are offered to students who need extra assistance with English language. This will help them to integrate in the school community, and to be successful in all subjects in mainstream lessons. Schools can choose to work with a full-time ESL withdrawal program or a limited withdrawal ESL program.

Students who have limited English skills are often immersed into a full-time ESL withdrawal program. This program should enable the student to acquire the skills that are needed to function in the mainstream classes. The ESL program doesn’t only focus on English language skills; it also includes subjects of other areas of the curriculum such as Cultural Studies or Science. All subjects are taught by an ESL teacher in an ESL environment, often in smaller groups and more language focused. The courses are designed to simplify the content are of the mainstream subject. Other teachers might run different programs, designed for the needs of ESL students. All ELS students will be with a mainstream group where they participate in other school co-curricular activities. Students will exit the ESL program when they are proficient and confident with language skills. In the limited withdrawal ESL program, students are withdrawn from a limited number of mainstream classes. ESL classes are scheduled at the same time as other Language classes. When other students study a second language such as French or Spanish, ESL students study English as their second language. Students, who don’t have the necessary skills to be successful with certain genres of writing in English classes, will be withdrawn from both English first language classes and other language classes. Students in an intermediate level will benefit from attending English first language classes for exposure to Literature. In-class support from an ESL teacher will be given to these students who attend all other mainstream classes. Gradually the ESL support will be decreases and students will follow all classes in the mainstream. Support teaching in the mainstream is another option to meet the students’ needs. When the students have minor language problems, the ESL teacher can join the subject teacher in the class. An advantage is that the whole class is kept together. The ESL teacher can work with a group of weaker language students and help them with new vocabulary that is learned in the class. The target language can be extended to the individual ESL classes. The support teaching can be continued until the students have reached a proficiency level. Both teachers need to have common planning time to prepare the lesson that they are going to teach.

Barriers to English Language Learning ESL students in International Schools have challenges, including varied levels of anxiety in particular learning situations as well as how to cope with learning the language. ESL students show increased levels of anxiety in mainstream classes, due to the factor as being called upon by teachers and having to respond orally to questions or in presentations. Male students often focus on improving academic English as female students develop strategies to assimilate themselves into English speaking situations.

ESL teachers are given the task of preparing their students in the academic setting in which the students are enrolled. They need to teach the English language, but must also include academic vocabulary and specific course procedures. Timothy M. Allen did a research on barriers to English language learning in International Schools. He found out what anxiety levels ESL students face in specific learning situations, which learning strategies ESL students employ to gain independent learning of language, and how the level of anxiety and identified learning strategies correlate in an ESL’s acquisition of language. A K-12 International School in China, with 26 nationalities, participated for this research. He discovered that ESL learners show a great anxiety as it comes to speaking. Pappamihiel (2000) indicated that when learners see situations as threatening, there can be an adverse affect on learning, because they cannot fully concentrate on the learning task. It appears that female students have a higher level of anxiety than male students. Both show increased levels of anxiety in the mainstream classroom over the ESL classroom. Students feel a higher level of anxiety in three areas: trying to remember all of the rules for English, forgetting things that they already know, and being unable to fully express themselves in English. When it comes to learning strategies that ESL students employ to gain independent learning of language, there is a difference between male and female students. Male students look for ways to start conversations in English and find words in their native language that they can use that have similar meaning to English words. Female students employ strategies such as trying to learn about the culture of the native English speaker. They seem to be much more social in their learning than males. There is a correlation between student’s anxiety levels and the strategies they use to acquire English. The correlation for male students is that in the mainstream classroom, where they work harder to develop mental processing, their level of anxiety will also increase. Females show the highest levels of strategy usage in ‘trying to talk like a native speaker’ and in ‘trying to learn about the culture of English speakers’. The strategies are most often used when an ESL student is in or around a group of native English speakers. The correlation is in the regular classroom, where female students do their best to talk like native speakers, there was an increased level of anxiety. So for both male and female students is the anxiety level directly related to the strategies that they were using to acquire English.

The profile and role of the ESL teacher The goal of an ESL teacher is to improve the student’s level of English. ESL teachers teach different language skills, depending on students’ English abilities, interests, and needs. Teaching students who have limited understanding can be a challenging task. Since ESL students speak a different language at home, some of them don’t know the meaning of simple English words and phrases, and it can be difficult for teachers to communicate with them. However, teachers can exercise more patience and try to find the right way to help their students become more proficient in the English language. In an ESL classroom, English language proficiency and academic experience among students can vary greatly. In order to help every student improve, teachers have to understand every individual student’s level of language proficiency and educational history. The best way to make lessons comprehensible is to replace difficult text with simpler terms. It is important for ESL teachers to establish a more personal relationship with every student and their family. Showing interest in their cultures will give students a more pleasant learning experience. One very important step teachers can take is to make every effort to reduce the cognitive load of the lesson they teach. The key is to choose activities and assignments that allow students to draw on their prior knowledge and life experiences. Teachers also need to pay attention to how they run their classrooms. Some students may have difficulties coping with the style of classroom management that the teacher has chosen. While many schools emphasize student-central learning, allowing students to do much of the speaking, ESL students will often need some time to become comfortable in that type of environment. The most important action a teacher can take is to treat the ESL students, their homes and communities, and their primary languages and cultures with respect, not judgment.

ESL strategies The New Teacher Center (NTC), established in 1988 at the University of California at Santa Cruz, developed a resource titled “Accelerating Academic Language Development: Six Key Strategies for Teachers of English Learners.” The six strategies are based on multiple research studies from the past decade that identify effective methods for developing English-language learners’ content knowledge, use of the academic language, and basic interpersonal communication skills in English.

The first of the six key strategies is vocabulary and language development, through which teachers introduce new concepts by discussing vocabulary words key to that concept. Teachers support students to distinguish word meanings, and their uses for subject-specific tasks & prerequisite language skills. They also engage beginning level students to use basic social and school vocabulary, phrases, and sentence structures. Some examples of this strategy are vocabulary journals, word webs, and word walls. The second strategy is guided interaction. With this method, teachers structure lessons so students work together to understand what they read. Collaborative listening, speaking, reading, and writing will help students understand the academic concepts in a text. Activities such as group presentations, partner interviews, and class surveys are examples of the guided interaction strategy. The third strategy is metacognition and authentic assessment. Rather than having students simply memorize information, teachers model and explicitly teach thinking skills (metacognition) important to learning new concepts. Research shows that metacognition is a critical skill for learning a second language and a skill used by highly proficient readers of any language. With authentic assessments, teachers use a variety of activities to check students’ understanding, acknowledging that students learning a second language need a variety of ways to demonstrate their understanding of concepts that not rely on advanced language skills. Teachers can introduce guided reading, think-alouds, or directed reading thinking activities in the classroom. The fourth strategy is explicit instruction, or direct teaching of concepts, academic language, and reading comprehension strategies needed to complete classroom tasks. Teachers can teach specific reading comprehension skills to complete task procedures, answering questions, word problems, or understanding text and graphics. The fifth strategy is the use of meaning-based context and universal themes. Teachers can take something meaningful from the students’ everyday lives and use it as a start to interest them in academic concepts. Research shows that when students are interested in something and can connect it to their lives or cultural backgrounds, they are more motivated and make more progress in their learning. Examples of classroom activities are quick-write responses, real-life models, role-plays, and video clips. The final strategy is the use of modeling, graphic organizers, and visuals. The use of a variety of visual aids, including pictures, diagrams, and charts, helps all students, especially ESL students. They will easily recognize essential information and its relationship to supporting ideas. Visuals make both the language and the content more accessible to students.

Closure We can conclude that there are no standard ESL students. Because of the fact that they come from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, it can be challenging for teachers in International Schools to successfully teach these ESL learners. Schools have developed different programs, such as full-time ESL withdrawal programs, limited withdrawal ESL programs, and mainstream support. These programs help the ESL learners to acquire the English language at their best convenience. The most effective program depends on the student’s profile. There seem to be a correlation between the students’ anxiety levels and the strategies they use to acquire English. Male and female students both have different reactions to the fear of learning English. With all these challenges, it is the role of an ESL teacher to improve the student’s level of English. It is important that the students feel safe and valued in the classroom. ESL teachers can find their way by using different strategies to teach the students. An example is the “Six key strategies for teachers of English learners”. These proved to be successful in ESL learning. All students are different, all teachers have different strategies, and every language learner faced its own challenges. Teachers need to understand every individual student’s level of language proficiency and educational history to establish a good environment for teaching.


Book Cook V, (2005) Written language and foreign teaching in Cook V & Bassetti B (2005), Second language writing systems multilingual matters, Clevedon. ITEFLI Course reading, ELT in International Schools. ITEFLI Course reading, Example of International School Handbook. Journal Timothy M. Allen, (2013) Perceived barriers to English language learning among international school students, dissertation Internet SLandInt.html %2Eeducation%2Evic%2Egov%2Eau%2Fstudentlearning%2Fteachingresources%2Fesl%2Fteachstrat %2Ehtm


Challenges of teaching ESL students in International Schools Topic of essay Who is the ESL student? Different tracks in International Schools Full time ESL classes Limited withdrawal Support in mainstream Barriers to English Language Learning Anxiety levels of ESL students Learning strategies that ESL students employ Correlation of anxiety level and language acquisition The profile and role of the ESL teachers Goal of the ESL teacher Reduce cognitive load Classroom management Treatment of ESL students ESL strategies Vocabulary and language development Guided interaction Metacognition and authentic assessment Explicit instruction Meaning-based context and universal themes Modeling, graphic organizers, and visuals


The challenges of teaching esl students in international schools