“Thump, thump…” an eye and half of a head appeared in the crack between my door and its frame. The floating head suddenly grew into a full-size teacher as she gently opened my door. “Good morning, Mr. Makidon. Could I ask you a question?” Mrs. Smith, a science teacher from down the hall, hesitated with a whiff of apprehension.

“Yes, of course, excuse me class.”

As we met in the hall, Mrs. Smith finally unloaded, “I think someone has made a mistake! I have Thanh Nguyen, who is sitting in your class right now, and the computer says that he is an ESL student.” With a sudden surge of confidence, she continued, “I don’t think he should be an ESL student. You see, he was born in the country and speaks English. He’s very social. He even said ‘Whazup, Miss?’ this morning in the hall.”

This conversation illustrates many of the misconceptions that I have found over the ten years in ESL education. After teaching in the classroom, I served at the district level in the area of ESL curriculum and instruction for one of the largest Texas school districts. Working at the district level afforded me the opportunity to interact with some of the leading experts in the world of K-12 ESL public education and reflect upon my experience as an ESL teacher in a sea of general education teachers. You may be wondering what the problem was in the conversation above. We’ll return to the story below as we talk about six ways to improve your ESL program. The following are six ways that I believe trained and untrained educators can improve their pedagogy in terms of second language acquisition. If you want to take your ESL program to the next level, these six steps will vastly improve your efforts.

1. “Relationships, relationships, relationships”

I originally had five points, but without a relationship with your students, your teaching and outreach will have little effect. As Beth Morrow said, “The strength of our student relationships makes the difference in translating our passion for teaching into their passion for learning.” People often wonder why good teachers can look at a student and communicate exactly what they’re thinking with one eye and a raised eyebrow. Try doing this at the grocery store. The reaction would be quite different. Instead of mind-melding them into obedience, they would give you the you’re-a-weirdo look. The look only works because there is a relationship built.1

2. The Magic Formula

I remember John Seidlitz2, an ESL guru in Texas, doing the hand motions for his magic formula as he stood in front of hundreds of public school administrators, “Comprehensible input and frequent, low-stress opportunities for output. This is the magic formula that leads to language acquisition.” It seems simple. If they understand what they’re hearing and practice it, they’ll learn it. The problem is, everyone thinks they are being understood. As Americans have done since Adam walked on the earth (slight exaggeration), we speak louder and think they’ll magically get it, right? Unfortunately not. The secret to knowing if what you are teaching is being understood is seeing if the students can use it.3

3. Social vs Academic Language

bics-and-calps-sm-1d3cberOne of the biggest mistakes that new ESL teachers make is not understanding the difference between social language and academic language. This is probably the most misunderstood concept in informal ESL programs as well. In the story above, Thahn, like many of my students, could tell you all about his day. He could greet you. He could read in class from a textbook without stuttering. However, if you asked him to analyze the water cycle, using academic vocabulary, it would sound as if it were his first day in class. Just because a student talks a mile-a-minute in English does not mean that he or she has a grasp of academic language.

4. The Importance of Academic Language

If you want to order a #3 at McDonalds or shop at Walmart, social language will suffice. However, studying at the university level or landing a well-paying job will require more than social language. Every subject has a list of subject-specific words. When you first meet someone, whether they are fluent in English or not, most likely you will only see what is on the surface, as the iceberg illustration shows above. Social language is easy to spot, but most fail to dive deeper and interact at an academic level. While learning English in an informal setting can be highly beneficial, if we truly want to serve them well, we must help them learn more than just social language.

5. Language Domains

Along these same lines, many informal ESL teachers talk a lot and give students vocabulary words to memorize. However, language is comprised of four domains: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. The students must practice and become adept at all four domains in order to acquire a language. Vocabulary is important, but it would be far more effective if the student interacted with the new word in context and then used it, often. (See #2.)

6. L1 Transfer

Finally, L1, or their first language, should not be ignored. Here are two examples of students that I had:

  1. Juan, 12, born in El Salvador. His mother was told when he was in second grade to not bring him back to school. “No puede aprender (He can’t learn),” the teacher said. Juan entered my sixth grade class with a five year gap in his education. Juan could barely read and write in his first language.
  2. Sarita, 13, born in Madrid, Spain. Sarita attended a private school in Spain. She was highly educated in Spanish.

Who had an easier time learning English? Sarita. She knew how to read and write at an academic level in Spanish. She quickly learned English and was able to transfer her language skills easily from one language to another. Conversely, Juan struggled to learn English and had to learn how to read and think at an academic level for the first time in his life in a second language. The point is, don’t underestimate the importance of a student’s story. Getting to know them will help you teach them well. (See #1.)

For more information, click on the image.


These six points are merely a taste of language acquisition theory.4 I hope these will prove useful and will spur you on to digging deeper to make your ESL outreach more effective. My prayer is that your ESL outreach not only leads your students to a greater understanding of the English language but also leads them to the foot of the cross.


1 In educational terms, it is about dropping the affective filter, or removing the barriers to learning like fear. By making students comfortable, you increase the effectiveness of your teaching.

2 See www.seidlitzeducation.com/. 

Try giving them scaffolding or support to help them be successful. This can come in the way of language frames, sentence stems, pictures, gestures (TPR), or background knowledge.

4 Other important concepts are differentiated instruction, poverty, gaps in education,  and 1-way vs 2-way bilingual education.