Teaching to ESL (um, help?)


Try to imagine that you are on a new planet and the people there are telling you how to do things their way–specifically, obtain employment–and you can only pick up on a few words because they use a different language that you haven’t mastered yet. On top of the obvious cultural and language barriers, you also receiving mental health services, so you may have a learning disability, a mood disorder, be developmentally disabled, or some other mental health condition that can be a functional limitation.

That is my class. I teach vocational skills to limited English proficient people (LEP) with mental health disabilities. When I describe it to people outside my field or agency, I usually say it’s like a combination of ESL, special ed, and vocational skills class all rolled into one. Technically, it’s defined as a vocational skills class and leaves out the most challenging aspects: the ESL and mental health parts.

What dilemmas I currently face when planning lessons and carrying out instructions is how to get the point across to our clients who may not understand concrete or abstract concepts due to their MH status or LEP. Here are my two thoughts and why:

  • People with disabilities may have a learned helplessness that impacts their ability to take personal responsibility to the information presented to them about proper techniques of job searching and employment retention. Many of my clients expect someone to find them a job. When was the last time some of them have sought out something on their own–and accomplished that goal?
  • People with disabilities may not really take into account the reality of the job market and how cutthroat it truly is out there because they haven’t been in a competitive job marketplace in a long time if ever. A lot of our clients also come from employment systems that are by nature non-competitive as they previously lived in refugee camps. 

These are only developing theories, however, and don’t have any substantial evidence. I am planning on doing extensive research on our clients and their demographics to help determine any supporting evidence to my hypotheses that they are disabling themselves from learning new information based off their learned helplessness and previous exposures to the job market.

Apart from those two dilemmas is the problem of communicating abstract or even concrete subjects to LEP and people with MH issues. Imagine you are on that planet again. What are they trying to tell you? What are they saying and writing down? You can only:

  • Make an educated guess that they’re talking about the main subject of the class: how to find and keep a job.
  • You might even assume that the way to go about finding and keeping a job on this planet is different than the way you would do it in your home planet (although you may not have an idea as to HOW different the system works).
  • You try to figure out as much as you can from observations of nonverbals and context.
  • You assume that when the instructor writes something on the board, it’s important, so you write it down, too. Hopefully later you actually use a dictionary to look it up…if you remember, or if you can.

In the end, how do you feel? You just spent an exhausting 2 hours trying to figure this out and yet you still don’t have a job. To protect my clients from feeling discouraged, I try to make it clear to them that learning anything–even 10% of what we covered–is important and definitely better than nothing. Is it worth the 2 hours? Yes. What would your otherwise plans be anyway? It’s definitely worth it.

I don’t have a TESOL certificate or any special education credentials, not even proper mental health training, unfortunately. What I do is rely on my exposure to ESL teaching and education for lesson planning and implementation. I’m a fan of bullet points today, so here’s another bulleted list of what techniques I use in class:

  • I use a lot of visuals. I try to rely on visuals to represent ideas as much as possible. If you can’t learn from the words or language, then hopefully you can pick up the idea from the images.
  • I use task-analysis to break down big or abstract concepts. For example: How to Improve Your Weaknesses. Step 1: write down any 5 things you don’t well. Step 2: organize them from greatest to least. Step 3: provide an example of those weaknesses, how they impair your job search, and what measurable things you can do to improve them (goals). Step 4: write the goals down on your calendar.
  • I teach with discovery/inquiry approach. Instead of providing a vomit of information to my class, I’ll ask them a question, such as “What are interviews?” and have the class answer. They have to be awake for this. They have to be paying attention. They have to take responsibility here. They also get a time to shine if they know the answer or try to answer. I always praise them to keep them encouraged.
  • I do role plays. This helps apply abstract thoughts into something tangible. This also allows the class to interact.
  • I do hands-on group projects, such as having the class sort through pictures of different articles of clothing to determine and show what appropriate interview attire is and is not.
  • I let them practice with each other in pairs or small groups. I’ll give them some review questions and as a group they have to discuss the answer. I try to pair groups according to language level.
  • I give them choices. To encourage participation, I give the class a few options on how to complete a task or project. 

I really see a lot of different learning styles come to play here but I also see a need for pedagogical improvement. I’m exploring the option of taking TESOL classes, but not sure if that will benefit the work that I do as I don’t actually teach ESL but instead teach to ELL’s. I’m open to resources, courses, or any ideas, so if you have any of these to share, please let me know!

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