Training New Teachers on ESL Best Practices - Part Two

Posted by Bridget Manley on Oct 2, 2018 10:00:00 AM

Training educators with little or no ESL experience can be a daunting process. But, it doesn’t have to be if you have a good roadmap. In the second part of this series, we continue our journey through a prospective ESL teacher training course.

In the first installment of this series, we dove deep into the the fundamental theories that shape ESL instruction. This knowledge is essential for becoming an effective ESL teacher, but it must be paired with sound instructional practices to be effective.

In this second installment, we’ll look at the best practices for teaching core speaking and reading skills. We’ll also explore methods for evaluating student achievement and strategies for assuaging language learning anxiety. We’ve included the entire course map in case you need a refresher.

esl teacher training

Module 1: Foundations of ESL

  • The Five Stages of Language Acquisition

  • Language Concepts

  • Factors that Affect English Language Learners

Module 2: Teaching Reading and Speaking Skills

  • Background Knowledge

  • Strategies for Teaching Reading

  • Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary

  • Assessing Comprehension

  • Promoting Self-correction

Module 3: Effective Teaching Strategies

  • Assessing Student Learning

  • Supporting Struggling Students

  • Recognizing and Alleviating Language Learning Anxiety

Module 2: Teaching Reading and Speaking Skills

Effective classrooms rely on best practices informed by research. This collection of courses explores foundational ESL teaching methods and the concepts that support them.

Background Knowledge

  • Define background knowledge

  • Identify the two factors that influence its acquisition

  • Describe the role that background knowledge plays in reading comprehension and vocabulary retention

 Background knowledge — or the prior learning and experiences students have in a particular area — is a vital prerequisite for learning in any classroom. As education researcher Robert J. Marzano says, “What students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relative to the content.” The same holds true for English language learners.

 A student’s ability to acquire background knowledge is influenced by two factors:

  • The number and frequency of educational experiences they can convert into background knowledge, and
  • Their ability to process and retain information, or their aptitude for integrating educational experiences into their mental databanks.

Background knowledge plays a key role in reading comprehension. The more a student already knows about a subject, the easier they will be able to read and understand a text about the subject, and the more information they will retain from it.

It also supports vocabulary development and retention by helping students order new words into familiar categories. For example, if a student already knows the category “fruit” and has experiences and knowledge related to this category, it will be easier for them to retain the word “strawberry” once they learn it is a type of fruit.

Background knowledge is shaped largely by the learner’s native culture. Skillfully building and activating it in the ESL classroom requires significant research into the history, customs and notable figures of the students’ native countries.

Strategies for Teaching Reading


  • Identify the fundamental skills that support reading comprehension

  • Describe effective strategies for developing reading comprehension

Reading is such a commonplace activity that it’s easy to overlook the complex skills required to become effective readers. Proficient reading is dependent on mastering seven key areas:

  • Decoding, or the ability to sound out new words.

  • Fluency, or the ability to immediately recognize and read words, even ones they cannot sound out.

  • Vocabulary to comprehend the meaning of the words they read.

  • Sentence cohesion, or recognizing how ideas link up within and between sentences.

  • Reasoning, which helps them decipher meanings not explicitly stated in the text.

  • Attention and working memory, or the ability to absorb information from what they read and retain it for later use. The latter skill helps them build their understanding of the text, fitting different details together to make a cohesive whole.

  • Self-monitoring, or the ability to recognize if they understand what they’re reading and, if not, to apply the correct strategy to clarify their understanding.

ESL teachers equip their students with a robust portfolio of techniques to help boost reading comprehension. These include:

  • Summarizing, or retelling the key details in the student’s own words.

  • Sequencing, or placing the key details of a text in the correct order.

  • Inferencing, or using their reasoning skills and background knowledge to gather ideas not explicitly stated in the text.

  • Comparing and contrasting, which requires students to find similarities and differences between two concepts or categories.

  • Drawing conclusions about the text and details within it. This technique requires students to access higher-level thinking skills to analyze and evaluate a text.

  • Pre-reading, or taking a “tour” of the text before reading it in its entirety. This strategy teaches readers how to look at different elements of the text — including the main title, chapter titles and chapter summaries — and use them to form a prediction about what the text will be about.

  • Using graphic organizers, like Venn diagrams, story maps and KWL charts, to support students’ understanding of a text.

  • Differentiating between facts and opinions.

Students must be taught these skills explicitly before they can become adept at practicing them. Specifically, ESL teachers must model how, when, where and why to use each strategy, then offer feedback as students attempt to use them on their own.

Strategies for Teaching ESL Vocabulary


  • Articulate the role that vocabulary development plays in reading comprehension

  • Identify four ways students demonstrate mastery of a new word

  • Identify strategies that help students acquire and retain vocabulary

ESL vocabularyResearch shows that the breadth and depth of a student’s vocabulary is a critical predictor of their ability to comprehend academic texts. Naturally, then, a well-rounded vocabulary is essential to becoming a successful reader. But, how do ESL teachers know if a student fully comprehends a new English word?

 Students demonstrate mastery of a new vocabulary word when they can:

  • Define the term using their own words

  • Use the word in a sentence

  • Identify if the word has more than one definition and, if so, differentiate between its different meanings

  • Write and verbally spell the word

Like reading comprehension strategies, new vocabulary must be taught explicitly. Adept ESL teachers preview all assigned reading so they can help students identify and define unfamiliar words before they begin reading. In addition to teaching content-specific vocabulary words, like “civil rights” or “metamorphosis,” they also teach signal and directional words, like “because” and “describe.”

Effective ESL teachers also teach students study habits they’ll need to retain and use new words. They show students how to make a list of unfamiliar words they encounter in their reading and give them resources for discovering what the word means. Finally, they give students ample opportunities to use new vocabulary in classroom discussions. Practicing vocabulary a few minutes a day is a more effective method for committing new words to long-term memory than devoting hours to vocabulary study.

Assessing Comprehension


  • Identify the three stages of leveled reading

  • Articulate the types of activities students can perform at each level

When used together, vocabulary building strategies and effective reading strategies can help students glean meaning from what they read and hear. But, how can an ESL teacher know if the student actually comprehends the meaning of a text or spoken dialog? The answer lies in evaluating student comprehension through questioning.

Leveled reading is a method teachers can use to both assess and build student’s comprehension. It guides students through progressively more nuanced understandings of a text. Although this strategy is primarily designed for analyzing written texts, ESL teachers may also use it to assess their students’ understanding of spoken dialog.

Level 1: Literal

This level requires students to find answers within the spoken or written passage. They might be required to:

  • Identify the setting, characters and plot of a short film.

  • Recall details that support the main argument in an essay.

  • Correctly sequence the main details in a work of fiction.

Level 2: Interpretive

Questions posed at the interpretive level require students to read between the lines to find the answers. Here, students must probe beyond literal meanings to discover causes, effects and implications. They can be asked to:

  • Predict how a story will end.

  • Analyze a character’s motivations.

  • Determine how and why certain historical events cultimatined in a particular outcome.

Level 3: Applied

At the applied level, students read beyond the lines to discover how a passage relates to their own experience. This stage requires them to use what they’ve read or heard to make a decision or create something new. Students who’ve reached this level can:

  • Devise an alternate ending to a fiction story.

  • Form an opinion about a historical figure and support their view with relevant details.

  • Read a newspaper article about a political debate and choose whom they would vote for.

Effective teachers conduct frequent comprehension checks to identify and address gaps in a students’ reading or listening comprehension. Targeting these issues early on makes it easier to help students who would otherwise fall behind.

 Promoting Self-Correction


  • Define “self correction” and identify its role in the ESL classroom
  • Identify strategies for promoting self-correction

Mastering English grammar and pronunciation are critical to becoming a fluent English speaker. Yet, even after students learn how to correctly conjugate a verb or produce the short “i” sound, they may struggle to apply these rules consistently. Consequently, new ESL teachers quickly find themselves correcting the same errors over and over again.

 Teaching students how to self-correct, or notice and correct their own mistakes, is a powerful tool to help students practice what they’ve learned. More importantly, it supports skills like self-regulation and metacognition, which makes them more effective learners.

Teaching self-correction can begin with students as young as 5 years old. The trick is to use metalinguistic language to draw learners’ attention to their own errors without correcting the errors for them. Here are some examples.

  • When a student misspells a word in an essay, the teacher circles the word and directs the student to look up the correct spelling.

  • A student responds to a question by saying, “I wearing a blue shirt today.” The teacher writes “I _ wearing a blue shirt today,” and asks, “What word is missing?”

  • When a student misreads a word in a sentence, the teacher responds by repeating the sentence and then asking, “Is that right?”

Another helpful strategy is to teach students how to keep an X-File, or a list of their most common mistakes and the corresponding corrections. When students continue to repeat a mistake, the teacher can refer the student to their X-File for self-correction. 

Assessing Student Learning


  • Describe the differences between summative and formative assessments

  • Identify the various assessment tools teachers can use in the ESL classroom

Assessments are a critical tool in the learning process. The help teachers identify whether students have learned the material, and they identify students who might need additional support. All assessments fall into one of two main categories: Summative and formative assessments.

Summative assessments are measures of learning. They determine whether students meet learning objectives. Summative assessments take place at the end of a learning cycle, and they are graded against a pre-established point system. In some cases, summative assessments may determine whether a student advances to the next grade or graduates from a program, making them high-stakes assessments.

ESL teachers have a wide range of summative assessment tools to choose from. These include:

  • Speaking tests, which gauge a learner’s ability to formulate cohesive answers to questions. ESL teachers use these assessments to evaluate a student’s mastery of grammar, pronunciation and syntax.
  • Listening tests, which require students to listen to a sentence or passage then answer questions about what they heard. These tests assess students’ listening comprehension as well as their ability to identify key elements of a spoken text.
  • Written tests, in which students demonstrate their writing, spelling and composition skills.
  • Portfolios, or a collection of student work that illustrates the students’ academic growth over time. Unlike other types of summative assessments, portfolios offer a snapshot of what students can do in a variety of tasks and settings. 

By contrast, formative assessments are measures for learning. They help teachers monitor student achievement throughout the learning cycle so they can proactively identify and address areas where students struggle. Formative assessments are conducted frequently and in low-stakes environments. In some cases, students may not even realized they’re being assessed.

Creative ESL teachers can devise a wide range of formative assessments. These can include:

  • Submitting an early draft of an essay for feedback

  • Summarizing an informational text about a historical event

  • Creating a chart comparing two animal groups

Supporting Struggling Students


  • Describe the three tiers in the Response to Intervention model 

When an assessment reveals a student is falling behind, many teachers turn to the Response to Intervention (RTI) model. This approach includes three tiers that offer increasingly more intense and targeted interventions. Its purpose is to help teachers intervene early before students lose too much ground.

Tier 1: Whole-Class Intervention

The process starts with a universal screening, which helps teachers assess everyone in the classroom. Teachers use differentiated instruction to teach to the distinct learning needs of individual student. High-quality instruction based on research and best practices is an essential component of a Tier 1 intervention.

Tier 2: Small Group Interventions

Students who don’t respond to Tier 1 interventions receive more targeted support during small group activities outside the regular classroom. These interventions usually take place during elective courses so students don’t miss out on core classes. Tier 2 interventions use different methods than those used in Tier 1, yet they don’t replace students’ participation in the regular classroom.

Tier 3: Individual Interventions

Students who don’t make adequate progress in Tier 2 interventions receive intensive, individual help in Tier 3. Here, students and teachers work one-on-one to improve specific skills. Students who don’t respond to Tier 3 interventions are often referred to special education services.

support esl students

Recognizing and Alleviating Language Learning Anxiety


  • Identify common sources of language learning anxiety

  • Describe strategies for reducing language learning anxiety in the classroom

In many cases, a student’s lack of achievement isn’t due to a learning problem but, rather, an emotional one called language learning anxiety. Recognizing and thoughtfully responding to signs of language learning stress is an essential skill for ESL teachers.

 What causes language learning anxiety? Scholars have identified several potential sources.

Sense of self

Self-identity is shaped largely by an individual’s culture. Some students fear that by becoming a fluent English speaker, they will abandoning their cultural identity. This perceived threat to their sense of self can be tremendously stressful.

Difficulty learning a language

Learning a second language is incredibly difficult, and few people perform well at first. Being confronted with a skill that defies easy mastery can challenge a student’s self-efficacy, or their confidence in their abilities to perform critical tasks.

Differences in the learner’s culture and the target culture

The more unfamiliar the the target language culture is, the more likely is to induce anxiety. Students may not only be afraid of using the language incorrectly; they might also be afraid of committing a cultural faux pas when interacting with the people who use it.

Differences in social status

Some students acutely feel the differences in social status between developing English speakers and native English speakers. The power differential between the teacher and the student can also induce anxiety in some learners.

Language learning anxiety can be a debilitating condition, but ESL teachers have an array of methods to combat it. These include:

  1. Being aware of language learning anxiety and responding promptly to it.
  2. Creating a friendly, relaxed classroom environment. Studies reveal that a strict and overly formal classroom environment is itself a stress-inducing factor for many students.
  3. Encouraging students to take risks and make mistakes. This includes a careful choice of error correction techniques that recognize and reward engagement.
  4. Conducting significantly more formative assessments than summative assessments. This strategy gives students ample opportunities to practice new skills before a formal assessment.
  5. Giving students with limited exposure to English more speaking practice.
  6. Provide plenty of scaffolding and support so students don't get frustrated.
  7. Cultivate cooperation and friendliness between learners. Some students may enjoy competitive ESL games, but others may find them overly stressful, so teachers should use discretion when using them in the classroom.

The Bottom Line

Can anyone be a highly effective ESL teacher? In a word: No. Teaching English as a foreign language is a specialized skill that requires equally specialized knowledge. However, with the right training, a talented teacher with little or no ESL experience can become a pro.

Do yourself a favor: Don’t scrimp on teacher training. It’s the secret to running a school that outpaces the competition. 

Once you’ve trained your teachers, make sure they continue to receive the support they need. The advanced reporting tools available through Your Agora gives you a window into your teachers’ effectiveness, allowing you to craft timely and effective interventions. The free teacher platform empowers your educators to share English language teaching resources and hone their skills. Sign up and see the difference that an intuitive and collaborative platform can make.