Tips for the First Day of Class!

3174280 xxl


The First Day of Class!

Since the first day of class is likely right around the corner for you, I thought that some teaching tips on what to do on the first day would be appropriate. 

The Teaching Center at Washington University in St. Louis has created an excellent list of tips.

Here are some of the highlights:

-“Arrive early”

They suggest arriving early not only to make sure that you know where your room is and everything is working, but also to chat with your students, and get to know them a little bit.

-“Introduce yourself”

Conversely, this tip allows the students to get to know you.

-“Explain your expectations for class participation”

Letting your students know exactly what you expect from them on day one is going to help your students learn how you manage a class and your teaching style

-“Provide an opportunity for students to ask questions”

Of course! Your students may have all sorts of questions about the class and what they need to do. Answer all of the questions as best you can.

While all of these tips are not specific to the ESL classroom, they are still quite valuable. Think about how these tips inform you of what to do on the first day of your class!

To check out the entire article, click here.

Good luck with your first day of class!

Tips for Teaching ESL Beginners and Pre-Literate Adults


The start of a new school year is closer than we think! Whether you’re new to teaching ESL or an experienced instructor, this article from The Internet TESL Journal is a useful guide for how to teach ESL beginners and Pre-Literate Adults!

The article, entitled, “Tips for Teaching ESL Beginners and Pre-literate Adults” shares several great tips (obviously!) for improving your students’ time in the classroom. A few of my favorites have been shared below.

-Make Sure Personal Connections Come First

                Andrews states, “Before teaching any aspect of language, get to know each student individually. Learners should want to communicate with you first before you can begin to help them learn to communicate in their L2.”

- Communicate Slowly, Clearly and Directly 

Andrews writes that, “Students typically do not understand subtlety in the second language, and there may be times when you need to explain a sensitive issue such as personal etiquette or hygiene.  In such cases, I have found it helpful to use role play to get the point across in a non-threatening yet direct way.”

- Be Animated

“Don’t be afraid to make sound effects, play music, and take walks around the neighborhood to reinforce concepts.  Sometimes the best learning doesn’t even take place in the classroom, and it doesn’t have to be serious to be effective.”

If you’d like to read the entire article, click here.

Tips On How (Not) To Use Technology In The Classroom

Typing on Computer

It seems everywhere you look you see articles on how to use technology in the classroom. Just as important though, is how to avoid the pitfalls that come with trying to integrate tech. I have to admit, I’ve jumped head first into trying to use technology – and the results haven’t always been successful. So in hopes of helping you avoid some of the traps I’ve fallen into, I wanted to share this article on the 10 technology mistakes you want to avoid making in the classroom.

Here are a few of the biggies to avoid (along with some of my own experiences):

**Don’t use technology you are not very familiar with. This can lead to confusion and frustration – from you and your students.

**Don’t use sites that are blocked at your school (or at locations where your students access the internet).

**Don’t use technology for the sake of using technology. Use it to support your lesson plan and learning objectives.

**Don’t forget to account for students who have little or no access to the internet.

**Don’t use sites that require students to create accounts (or at least don’t use these sites without thinking it through carefully). There are many sites with great content that do require students to create accounts. Just be sure you weigh the pros and cons. Be aware that creating accounts can eat up a lot of class time and students commonly lose their usernames and passwords. It can be argued that this is part of living in an online world and working through these issues helps better orient students to digital literacy (if they aren’t already more digitally literate that you areJ). Also be aware of any potential privacy issues involved in asking students to create accounts and post content.

Another thing to consider that isn’t mentioned in the article is that your classroom will likely be very multilevel in terms of digital literacy. It’s possible you will have students who are digital natives, and others who don’t have email accounts and have never used a mouse. So don’t forget to account for this when planning your lesson.  

You can read the full article at

Tips for Cultural Understanding in the Classroom


One of the most interesting things about teaching ESL is that you get to meet students from all over the world and learn about new cultures. While exciting, this can also lead to cultural misunderstandings – both between you and your students and among your students. Dealing with culture in the classroom can be a tricky issue. One thing I try to do is find out as much as I can about where my students come from so I can better understand their cultural perspective and how it differs from my own. There are a number of great resources that exist that can give you more information about your students’ native countries. Here are a few I like to use:

**Refugee Backgrounders from the Cultural Orientation Resource Center. The Backgrounders provide information on different refugee populations’ demographics, history, culture, religion, language, education, and resettlement issues.

**Books like What the World Eats and Material World by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. These books show homes and food from families around the world, and the images in the books are incredible. (FYI – check out Menzel’s online photo gallery for more compelling images that could be great classroom discussion starters).

**Culture Grams. Culture Grams are short reports the give a you an inside look at a county’s daily life and culture, including history, customs, and lifestyles. Unfortunately you have to pay for the reports, but I’ve been able to access them in libraries or order them through Inter Library Loan. For an example of what the reports look like, check out this sample Culture Gram for Suriname.

**World Fact Book on the CIA’s web site. The Fact Book covers 267 countries, with info on history, people, government, etc.  

Another way to meet the challenge of cultural barriers in the classroom is to promote understanding by giving students lots of opportunities to share their culture with you and the rest of the class. I frequently incorporate Think-Pair-Share cultural discussions in my lesson plans. For example, if we’re discussing a topic like talking with your supervisor at work, I dedicate some time to letting students discuss relationships in their native countries between supervisors and employees and how that differs from workplaces in the US.

How do you deal with the challenges of cultural barriers in your own classroom? 

Tips For Using Newspapers in the Classroom Part 2


Last month I posted an article on using newspapers in the classroom. A number of you sent me follow-up suggestions, and I wanted to share your ideas with the rest of the English Forward community.

Sarah LeBlanc from Austin suggested The Times In Plain English as a great resource. The Times In Plain English takes articles from current newspapers (The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc.) and presents them in clear, readable English.   

Others of you like to use the New Readers Press newspaper News For You. A subscription is required for the paper, but some of the articles are available on their online site for free.  

Easy English Times is also popular. In addition to articles on current events, Easy English Times also publishes articles written by students themselves. There is a charge to subscribe to Easy English Times, but you can request a free sample copy on their website if you’re interested in checking it out.

Also check out VOA Learning English , and this site I just ran across – News in Levels. Both these sites include articles adapted to different levels. VOA English’s articles are more advanced, but News In Levels has four levels of the same article. The lowest level consists of just images and vocabulary, and could be used with even the lowest level students. What I like about this is that students in the same class can be working on the same article at different levels.

Sharon Sloan of the Carroll County Literacy Coalition asked for suggestions of how to use News For You in the English Forward classroom. I’ve included a few ideas below that align with English Forward and encourage student interaction. These suggestions apply not only to News For You, but to the other resources you all have shared.

**Find an article in the newspaper that corresponds to one of the Units in the English Forward curriculum and use it to supplement the lesson.

**Select an article on a topic of interest to students and use the lesson flow to write you own English Forward lesson.

**Establish a routine at the beginning of each class and talk about what’s new in the world. If a student brings up a world event that garners lots of interest and discussion, find a related article and investigate the event further as a class.

**Download an article on an issue that allows students take sides, for example animal rights or home schooling. Read the article together as a class and then share opinions. This could be as simple as asking students to survey each other and ask if they are for or against the issue. If you have more advanced students, they could work in pairs to make pro and con lists, or even have a debate in class.

Still want more? Check out this article from The New York Times on 10 ways to use the Times to support your students learning English. Some of the suggestions are based on reading, writing, & grammar, but there are also ideas for games, working with photos from the paper, class projects, and cultural activities.

What other ideas do you have for using newspapers in the English Forward classroom? Leave a comment below.

Tips for Using Newspapers in the Classroom

NewspapersIn June we gave the English Forward training to teachers and trainers from around Arkansas. We had a blast and got great feedback from participants. I also got a lot of questions about using newspapers. Ann Ritter from Crawford County Volunteers for Literacy in Van Buren, Arkansas asked for suggestions about ways to use newspapers in conjunction with English Forward.

Newspapers are a great classroom resource. They are an authentic material with content that’s timely and relevant. And if you use a local paper, you’re giving your students information directly applicable to their lives in their community. The result is heightened motivation and engagement. Sound familiar? This all falls right in line with the English Forward guiding principles.

There’s all kinds of info on the internet about using newspapers – enough to make your head spin. Much of what you’ll find is in the context of reading & writing and is more applicable to academic instruction than community ESL classes. Since the focus of English Forward is on speaking & listening and many of our learners are at the beginning levels, I’m going to narrow this post to interactive activities for students with less prior exposure to English.


Here are some of the things I like to do with newspapers for lower-level classes. Almost all of these activities I would ask students to do in pairs or groups to encourage communication.

**Use weather maps. USA Today has a nice map that’s in color. It’s a great start to a discussion on weather and would complement lessons 2.5 and 2.6 in the English Forward curriculum. I’ve also used weather maps when talking about travel, clothing, geography, and even color and number basics. A fun lesson is to have students work in groups using the map to plan a vacation, and then make a list of clothing to pack based on the weather.

**Classified sections are great if you’re looking for a job or a place to live – situations most of our students will find themselves in shortly after arriving in the US. Select some job openings from the newspaper relevant to your students and write up biographies or resumes for sample job seekers. Have students match up people with jobs. For housing, I write up sample paragraphs about the lives of different families and have students find a suitable place for them to live.

**If you use a newspaper with a weekly entertainment section, have students plan a fun evening out.

**If you want students to be more familiar with how the newspaper is organized, use a treasure hunt, much like the one we do in the English Forward teacher training. Depending on the ease of the questions you ask, this could even be done with the most beginning of learners. (ex. What is the name of the newspaper?, What is the date of the newspaper?, etc.)

**Newspapers are a great source of engaging visuals. A few things to try with photos: Match pictures with the corresponding headline, predict what an article is about based on the photo, or ask students to write their own headlines for photos

**Use store ads and flyers to plan a grocery list. If you’ve been working with money, you can give students a budget and ask them to plan a party.

I also wanted to share this short article written by Carolyn Chandler on Using Newspapers in the ESL Literacy Classroom: . The article suggests newspapers can be useful for even very beginning learners and outlines activities for beginning, intermediate, and advanced students. The end of the article lists some of the efforts newspaper publishers have made to assist students learning ESL – from developing materials to offering English classes. On this note, I’d encourage you to check with your local newspaper to see if they have any resources you could use in the classroom. Many newspapers provide free copies for educators.   

It’s easy to get access to newspapers and focus instruction on having students read articles and write summaries. These are useful tasks, but they don’t always lead to communicative activities. Don’t forget the English Forward guiding principles and focus lessons on student interaction and communication.

Interested in digging deeper into using newspapers? Sharon Sloan from Carroll County Literacy Council in Berryville, Arkansas asked for some tips on ways to use the New Readers Press newspaper News For You. Check back soon for a follow-up post where I answer Sharon’s question and share other online resources for accessing news to use in the classroom.

Tips For Creating Community Activities


During our recent training in Madison, Wisconsin I had a participant ask about ways to encourage more student interactions with the local community. This is a great question! We want our students to be able to move English from the classroom to the “real world”. Here are a few fun ideas:

Bringing the Community into the Classroom

GUEST SPEAKERS: Invite guest speakers into the classroom to talk about a topic of interest to the class.

SPEED INTERVIEWS: Invite English speaking volunteers into the classroom to take part in activities that help students practice English. My favorite activity is what I call “Speed Interviews” – it’s like speed dating, but the goal is to practice English, not get a date! Pair each student up with a volunteer, give them a topic or a set of questions to talk about, and give them a time limit – say 3 minutes. When time is up, ring a bell, and have pairs rotate so everyone is speaking with a new partner. Continue rotating volunteers around the room. If you chose to do an activity like this, be sure to practice with students ahead of time so they know what to expect.

LANGUAGE EXCHANGES: In my area there is a large population of Spanish speaking students and I commonly have people wanting to volunteer in order to improve their Spanish. While practicing Spanish during ESL class is probably not the best idea, it is the perfect opportunity to set up a language exchange. Pair English speakers who want to learn a student’s native language up with students for conversation practice. Ask them to spend half their time speaking English and half practicing the student’s native language. You could incorporate this into class time, or have partners meet outside of class.   

Creating Opportunities for Students to Go Out Into the Community

SURVEYS AND INTERVIEWS: Create surveys or interviews that ask students to interact with people in the community. You can start out with something easier like asking students to listen to conversations around them at the grocery store or on the bus and write down one thing they hear. As they get more comfortable listening, start having them ask questions – for example, go to a local store and ask what their hours are, or ask someone on the street what time it is. For more advanced students, you could ask them to interview someone on a topic they want to learn more about.

NEIGHBORHOOD VISITS: During class take students on a field trip to a community site like a local library or museum. I know one teacher who takes students to visit local businesses. The teacher prepares by visiting the local businesses, asking employees if it’s OK to visit, and telling them what to expect. I saw this done once in a workplace class where students introduced themselves to employees at the local business and told them about their own jobs. Students said they were nervous at first but afterwards felt comfortable going into a business they otherwise would not have gone in. 

FIELD TRIPS: One of my favorite activities is to take students to a local restaurant for a meal, or go to a local store and buy ingredients to prepare a salad back in the classroom. There’s a chance for a lot of pre-teaching of vocabulary, and afterwards you can reflect on the experience as in the Language Experience Approach. Check out this video from New American Horizons about a literacy-level class that visits a local hardware store and then writes about the experience as a class ( and these videos from CLESE (Coalition of Limited English Speaking Elderly) featuring Heide Wrigley about a class of Bosnian refugees in Chicago who visit a local farm (,_How_Much_are_the_Peppers.html) 

Be aware that asking students to speak English in the community can be stressful for some. Be sure to work up to more taxing projects, and be sure you’ve created a safe and comfortable classroom community.

What have you done to give your students the chance to practice English in the community?

Tips for Classroom Management: Open Enrollment

Have you ever taught an open-enrollment ESL class? In open-enrollment classes, there is no ‘start’ date. Students join an on ongoing basis. As those of you who have taught in an open-enrollment program know, it can be a big challenge. You never know who you’ll have in class from one day to the next or when you will get your next new student. How do you get new students up to speed and integrate them into a classroom community that has already been formed? The first 2 or 3 weeks in a class are really important in terms or retention, so you want to make sure you create a welcoming atmosphere and prep new students for success.

We recently visited beautiful Madison, Wisconsin to introduce their state Coalition to English Forward, and we asked teachers this very same question. We had a room full of instructors from around the state brainstorming answers to the question. They came up with a bunch of great ideas I wanted to share with the community.

welcome open enrollment tip

Here are some of the suggestions Wisconsin teachers recommended along with my own thoughts:

Use open-ended activities. Open-ended activities allow every student to respond at their own level. If a student is new and adjusting to the classroom, this can take the pressure off. New students also won’t have the background knowledge shared by the rest of the class, and open-ended activities can allow for that.

Pair new students up with a buddy. The buddy is a classmate who can help orient new folks, show them where things are located around the school, and be available to answer any questions.  

Use additional staff or volunteers to work with new students as they arrive. As a teacher, your time and attention are pulled in several different directions. Having to orient a new student and get them up to speed adds to the challenge. If there’s someone on staff who can help take the load off of you, that’s great. Even better, if you have a volunteer in your classroom, they can help the new student settle in as well as review topics covered in previous classes.

When you group students, group them by level. Fitting into a new classroom can be difficult enough. It’s even tougher when a student feels overwhelmed because they don’t understand the language, or they feel like the rest of the class knows a lot more than they do. If you group the class by levels, new students may feel less overwhelmed and more likely to see themselves as being able to succeed in the class.

Use advanced students as teachers. If you don’t have other staff members or volunteers to work with new students, you can call on advanced students to orient them to topics previously covered in class and to serve as an academic support. This can be a confidence boost to the advanced students while helping to build community between students.

Put together a ‘Bag of Tricks'. You often don’t know when new students are going to show up, so you can’t plan for it. When they do arrive, your lesson plan often gets thrown out the window. But you can be prepared for the unplanned. Put together a stack of activities you pull whenever a new student arrives unexpectedly. Ideally the activities won’t put pressure on the new student, but they will help them successfully integrate into your existing community of learners.

Incorporate re-teaching and review throughout your lessons. With open enrollment, your classroom may look very different from month to month. Students' background knowledge on different topics will likely vary pretty widely as well. Incorporating review not only helps to give everyone in the class shared knowledge on topics, but it’s also an important part of the learning process.

Put together a welcome packet for new students. This might include important phone numbers, where to find things around the school and in the neighborhood, and answers to questions new students commonly ask.

What other suggestions do you have for dealing with the difficulties of open-enrollment?

Tips for Assigning Students to Groups


As a follow-up to last week’s post on group work, I wanted to share a few tips on how to assign students to groups. The easy, low-prep way to put students in pairs or teams is to ask them to work with someone sitting next to them or to let them choose their own groups.  These methods both can work successfully. In fact, it’s a good idea to include activities where students have the chance to make their own decisions, such as selecting their own partners. But what if students always pick the same partner, or maybe they always pair with someone who speaks the same native language and they don’t use English as often as they should. Here are a few other options for grouping students:

Group students randomly using Match Up Cards. Pass out pairs of cards, one card per student. As the teacher you can select the topic of the cards. Cards pairs might focus on vocabulary words and definitions, or questions and corresponding answers, for example.  Ask students to circulate around the room, talking with their classmates to find the match to their card. The person holding their match will be their partner for the activity that follows.  To really add impact to this activity, use the cards to review material from earlier lessons.

Group students strategically using Match Up Cards. Pass out cards with the goal of pairing students with partners you've pre-selected for them, for example based on levels, strengths and weaknesses, or shared interests. If students sit in the same location, you could tape cards to the bottom of their chairs. You could even pass back student work with a Match Up picture, word, or phrase on each student’s assignment.    

Group students using Line Ups. Ask the class to order themselves and line up in order according to criteria like their birthday or alphabetically according to their last names. Once lined up, pair students with the person standing next to them. You could also fold the line in half and pair the person at the front of the line with the person at the end. Like with Match Up Cards, this activity gives you the chance to review previous material depending on the Line Up criteria you choose. 

What I like about these grouping methods is they all get students talking with each other, they give you the opportunity to review material from prior classes, and they get students out of their seats and bring up the energy level of the class.

What are some of the ways you like to assign students to groups?

Tips for Student Group Work

As teachers we want to maximize the time our students are speaking and using English in the classroom. One way to do this is by using pair and group work. But how do you decide which students to place in which groups. There are a number of grouping strategies you could try out. I've included some of the most popular below:

TT GroupingSame-ability groups: Students are grouped with other students who are at a similar level. While the theme of student work will be consistent, the task will vary for each group. For example, if you're doing a lesson on going to a restaurant, a beginning group might work on menu vocabulary while a more advanced group could role play a conversation between a waiter and a customer. This lets the teacher focus the task of each group specifically to their needs.

Mixed-ability groups: Advanced students and lower-level students are grouped together. Rather than vary the task by group, tasks are varied within a group. Often times this is done by assigning students roles within the group (note taker, reporter, recorder, time keeper, etc.). With this type of grouping, advanced students get the chance to act as the teacher and lower-level students can ask their peers questions they might not feel comfortable asking the teacher.

Interest groups: An example of interest groups would be in a unit on hobbies where the teacher groups students who share a common interest.  Often times students who don't have a lot of English still have a good deal of background knowledge on topics that are personally meaningful. They can share their knowledge and have engaging conversations with their fellow group members on a topic that excites them.

Jigsaws: In a jigsaw, students are put in a group and work together to learn new information. This could be a reading on a topic of interest. Students then change groups and share the information they learned in their first group with classmates in their new group.

I use group and pair work all the time in my classes, but I always make sure to start and end the class as a whole group to maintain a sense of full-class community and cohesiveness. And I try to mix up the types of groupings I use so students have the chance to interact and learn from everyone else in the class.

Grouping is an especially important strategy in multi-level classes. To learn more about using groups in the multi-level classroom, check out this short digest put together by CAELA (The Center for Adult English Language Acquisition): 

Now that you've decided how to group your students, what next? Check back next week for a post on the logistics of setting up groups to maximize students engagement and participation.


Tips for the Multi-Level Classroom

The most common questions I get asked by new teachers are about multi-level classrooms.  Even if your program has leveled classes, it’s likely there’ll still be differences in levels among your students.  So what’s a teacher to do?  Start by checking out page 9 and 10 in the Introduction of the English Forward Curriculum.  Dr. Heide Wrigley shares go-to Tips and Strategies:

  1. Use visuals and realia
  2. Allow students chances to express themselves non-verbally
  3. Vary your pacing
  4. Paraphrase
  5. Group students strategically

TT Multilevel 

Because it is such a common issue we work with I've added a few more helpful hints to Hedie's list:

  1. Get to know your students.  This will help you better adapt your class to students' levels.
  2. Develop a strong classroom community.  Because group work is an important part of the multi-level classroom, a strong classroom community helps students to feel more comfortable working together.  The security of a supportive environment also makes it easier for students to take risks, especially those at lower-levels.
  3. Use open-ended activities.  An example of this is a writing or discussion prompt asking students their opinion on an issue.  More advanced students can work at a higher level using more elaboration, and lower level students still are able to respond and express their opinions. 
  4. Select topics that are of interest to your students and they have some background knowledge about.  Background knowledge helps all students start out with prior knowledge on the topic and puts lower-level students on a more level playing field.

Try these ideas out in the classroom and let us know what you think.  Leave a comment or contact me at 512-735-2537.

Want more resources?  If you are in the Austin area, contact Tanlyn Roelofs at the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas (512-735-2536) to find out about registering for the next mini-training on multi-level classrooms.  And keep watching the Blog and the Teaching Tips pages for more.  Next month I’ll be posting a list of online resources for the multi-level classroom.

Tips for Working with Literacy-level ESL Learners

Working with ESL learners dealing with literacy issues can pose many challenges in the classroom. Here are some tips for making your classroom a positive environment for literacy-level students.

  • Minimize the use of text.  This could include text from books and handouts, as well as what you write on the whiteboard.  For literacy-level learners the use of large blocks of text can be overwhelming and intimidating.
  • Use lots of visuals and realia to support and clarify oral language.
  • Remember – students can understand a lot more language than they can produce.  Give them opportunities to show what they know without having to produce or write language.  For example, you could incorporate TPR or have students respond to comprehension questions with Signal Cards.
  • Use lots of repetition and frequently review material.
  • If you call on students to speak in class, be sure to give them plenty of time to work with the language and practice before producing English.  Never ask students to read something aloud they are not familiar with and haven't had the chance to practice reading.
  • Try using Chalk Talk.  Chalk Talk gives literacy-level students the chance to express themselves without having to use a lot of English. 

If you're looking for additional resources, check out Bow Valley College's ESL Literacy Network (  They have several readers for literacy-level ESL students (  Also check out the current schedule of learning activities at ELL-U (  You can find free study circles, online courses, and learning clubs for adult ESL teachers working with students who are emergent readers.

What other suggestions do you have for working with literacy-level ESL students?

Ask a Question

Have a question to add to our You Ask, We Answer monthly blog post? Fill in the form below and ask away!