Advanced ESL activities for one-on-one tutoring?
June 5, 2012 9:34 AM   Subscribe

What to do with very advanced adult ESL students?

I teach English for a company which provides services to transplants. I work with each student individually a couple of hours a week. I love the job, but I am having trouble thinking of activities for some of my students. These are working professionals with very high levels of English - they could easily take a college course in English and have no serious issues with accent, grammar, etc. They work full time and have small children, which means they basically have zero time in between lessons to do even the most basic kind of "homework." Even during the lessons themselves, they seem too tired to do anything mentally challenging. I feel like I have exhausted the areas of American culture that may be new to them.

It's a really frustrating experience when I feel that my teaching is useless. I would not be surprised if these students decided to discontinue their lessons (which are free to them), and I would understand, but I need the money and I would love to work with them if I could think of something we could do together. Any suggestions?
posted by anonymous to Education (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have any way to gather feedback from the students about why they're taking the course? Maybe specific types of interactions they've had trouble with? Specific interactions with local/state/federal government? Specific types of work events/procedures?
posted by Wretch729 at 9:37 AM on June 5, 2012 [5 favorites]

I am working with an arts festival this year and was contacted by an advanced ESL group. Basically they are doing a day or service, but you could make it an ongoing thing- their plan with our festival is to work with their teacher in a small group and be greeters & interact with the public and answer questions. Are there any local zoos, museums, etc that you could reach out to? It would also get them out in the community and learning via actual communication.
posted by haplesschild at 9:46 AM on June 5, 2012

I'm with Wretch729. Find out what they want to learn. Heck, maybe they'd be interested in just watching movies and then discussing them.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:47 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing I know that some second-language learners have trouble with is "once-in-a-while" vocabulary - like, I remember a relative saying she thought she was doing really well with her French until one of her coworkers got pregnant, and she had no words for "when are you due?" and "oh, yeah, when I was pregnant I had terrible morning sickness" and other stereotypical stuff like that.

Other than that, the only thing I can think is that you should ask your students. Like, just directly: "Was there anything that came up in the last week where you felt like you didn't understand what someone was saying or you felt like you were saying the wrong thing?" If there's not, then yeah, they've probably gotten all they need and they're going to stop taking the lessons. But if they feel completely comfortable with their English skills I don't know why they would have enrolled in the first place, so there must be *something*.
posted by mskyle at 9:47 AM on June 5, 2012

When I taught English, I had a ton of ESL students and one exercise that we did, that was super-fun, was to watch a piece of an american sit-com with the sound down. I used a scene from Frasier where he was speaking to a woman at a bar.

Then you get two folks to stand up and using their own dialog, re-enact the scene. It reinforces typical American interactions, and it's just a goof to do.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:52 AM on June 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

I haven't taught ESL formally but I work with lots of international folks, and am sometimes the Token American. Things that stick out to me that I've been asked about before are:

1: Foreign loan words. Latin, in particular. Obviously depends on the other language(s) they speak.
2: Government or other legal forms. Taxes, green card information, that sort of thing. Obviously your session does not constitute legal advice, but I've had friends bring me some business letter and check in: "'take home pay', that is my paycheck, even though it goes to the bank, not my house, right?" That kind of thing.
3: Funny idioms and colloquialisms. Sometimes they have a near-exact translation in their home culture, sometimes it takes a few minutes to figure out why a horse would be standing behind a shopping cart and what that has to do with anything.
4: Animals and animal sounds. For some reason I've had to teach 4 or 5 friends the word "skunk". Things that are not common enough to be covered in an English class, but which are plenty common where we live.

Have you talked to them about what would be helpful to them? You could tell them that their homework for the week is to make a note of any phrases that they don't understand, or which strike them as odd. It'd be very low-key homework and could give you some good ideas.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:54 AM on June 5, 2012

How about teaching poetry? It will be new to them - every language has different poetic conventions and forms - and will deepen their understanding of the language.

this is what my French language teacher did, and also what my friend who taught advanced (university level) ESL in China did.

And I also agree: ask your students. They may have specific needs (reading trade journals, giving presentations, etc).
posted by jb at 9:55 AM on June 5, 2012

When I taught Business ESL, I did a lot of work on oral presentations (how to give a PowerPoint US-style was a big one) and with some students we went through issues of The Economist or Forbes or trade journals that they had read previously, in which they had highlighted the idioms or words they had difficulty with.

"Writing a US-style business letter" was also a frequent area students wanted to focus on, as was résumé preparation.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:59 AM on June 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Since your students don't have time for homework, maybe reading a complex article with them in class might be useful. Asking them to read out loud can also be helpful in building their oral skills confidence and pronunciation accuracy.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:00 AM on June 5, 2012

Oh! If they have kids I bet they'd love to learn some English-language nursery rhymes. And a lot of them have mixtures of nonsense sounds, unusual vocabulary, historical links, and just plain old craziness that make for good conversation.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:19 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sidhedevil's suggestion makes total sense.

Try to think of activities that allow them to express themselves, decode American/Western culture, and offer pragmatic opportunities to measurably increase their professional abilities.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:29 AM on June 5, 2012

Seconding articles from the Economist and WSJ etc. When I taught business students, we would read the article (mostly them, occasionally me, for comprehension practice), then discuss. I've also had some success with planning, researching and writing a short presentation, all done in class. And getting them to read Dr Seuss out loud -- fabulous gymnastics!
posted by bwonder2 at 10:36 AM on June 5, 2012

I did this for a with some one-on-one students. Maybe focus on less formal language. We used to watch episodes of Entourage and pause after every scene and talk about the slang. We also did things like look for apartments on craigslist or similar because the language for that isn't taught in books.
posted by dripdripdrop at 10:42 AM on June 5, 2012

What are the needs of the students?

You absolutely have to start there. Figure out what they need from you: is it pronunciation? Grammar? Fluency? Reading?

What are their struggles?

It seems like they're not learning because you're not teaching them what they need to know.
posted by Tevin at 10:44 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I teach English for a company which provides services to transplants....some of my students....are working professionals with very high levels of English

I'm kind of having a hard time understanding your question....what I'm taking away from it is that you're teaching English to people who already know English, and you want to know how to keep these people from dropping your class so you can still get paid?

My advice is to move on....don't worry, not in the way you think!

Every single class should have goals. If this is a class for transplants, the goals should be functional English. You shouldn't need them to perfect their accents or write stirring sonnets or recite American history. You should get them to the point where they are competent in oral and written skills in their new society. If someone reaches that point, you're done. Honestly - I teach intro science. If someone comes in already knowing all of this, I don't say, "well, let me change the course content so it's advanced science!" I just tell the student that they are welcome to stay but probably won't get too much from the course, and then recommend some upper level course that WILL be more stimulating.

One part of the reason I do this is also because my classes have waitlists. Encouraging a student to move ahead (if they are comfortable doing so) allows a space for another student in the intro class.

And that's my suggestion to you. Figure out why these students are taking the class, and what you can do to streamline the process. Are they taking it to fill a job/citizenship requirement? Is it possible for you to design a way for them to "test out" of the class - say, on the first day everyone writes a few essays and you pick the best essays and see if those people would want to meet you for an oral exam and, after that one oral exam you can give them credit for the entire class and they are done with it (if they pass, of course).

Considering it's a free service, I don't think your company would be opposed to streamlining the process.

Then you can also see who else you can reach out to. If 5 of your students are great english speakers, pass them and go out and find 5 people who actually need your services.

...but....anyway, Nthing that you need to find out why students are taking this, why it's important to them, and go from there. Do NOT approach this as "how can I keep them from dropping?" because that is only looking at it from your perspective.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 2:45 PM on June 5, 2012

My advanced ESL students want more practice with listening and speaking, and classes involving idioms, accent reduction, and occasionally American history. Suggestion: give your students an anonymous feedback form containing some open-ended questions like "What do you want to learn in this course?"
posted by Rash at 2:52 PM on June 5, 2012

Ask them what they want to get out of the class. The one time I taught advanced ESL (adults who had lived and worked in the US for years), we read short stories, poetry, articles from The New Yorker and The Economist and we watched clips from sitcoms. Sitcoms can be a great way to start a conversation because humor is so culturally specific. Some scenes from Curb Your Enthusiasm worked really well for starting a discussion on etiquette in the US. The students I was working with told me they were interested in expanding their vocabulary and staying in touch with news and culture in English, so that's what we did.
posted by betweenthebars at 6:20 PM on June 5, 2012

Are these one on one courses? If you've got group, or even pair lessons, toucan get a good amount of benefit for your students by essentially stepping back. Partner work, listening dictation, gap fills, there are all kinds of activities where you can have the high level students working together. In addition, with seriously high level students, I would imagine that, rather than trying to directly teach English, you might shift towards strategies for them to continue to learn on their own. Give them work on using context to derive meaning, or even work on expanding vocabulary through recognizing the patterns in the different parts of speech.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:04 PM on June 5, 2012

I also have a little trouble understanding what your question is about.

Is this about business English? Because your students seem to have that down! Business professionals who can converse on an academic level in their field surely don't need to read articles from the 'business magazine' with you - that vocabulary is second nature to them.

What fresh transplants often need, but I am not sure if you are actually supposed to teach, is more complex everyday stuff. The basic things are easy, but medical vocabulary, particularly for the parents, how the education system/govt./legal system/taxes/insurance works and what the particular words mean or how to describe 'that problem with the car' to the mechanic can be of real value. Also things like describing music (classical, opera, musicals), fine dining vocab, advanced farmers market fruit and veggies etc. comes in handy but is not part of what people learn from textbooks.

Some students might like to learn on field trips - like going shopping, to the museum or something more 'professional' like inquiring at a business (printing flyers/invitation cards) or insurance? (You don't say what industry your students are in, so maybe something else along those lines would fit.)

Describing pain or fear (levels), or en-acting emergency situations are fairly basic but worth repeating.
Humor is advanced - can they make jokes? Understand sarcasm? Irony?

You could also check out some free academic online courses and take some ideas/material from there - I am thinking about courses in the humanities, social sciences, philosophy, critical thinking that touch on everyday life somehow. (Yeah, I kind of assume your students work in a more technical field).

Having said that, the most important thing is to ask your students what they need. They might indeed already be past the points I mention.
posted by travelwithcats at 7:55 AM on June 6, 2012

I've been in ESL/EFL for over a decade and, as others have said, the basic problem is that you don't know what your students' needs are. That is why teachers, especially one-to-one or business English teachers, routinely do Needs Analysis at the start of a course. I'm not being snide, but the fact that you seem unaware of this suggests that you could benefit from some professional development; this would give you more confidence in the work you do and also help your students.

Years ago, I had a class of astoundingly high level students. They were EFL, rather than ESL, but they similarly 'knew all the grammar' and had better vocabularies than a lot of native speakers. (They had already passed a C2 level exam, for those familiar with CEF levels.) I gave them a standard needs analysis form and talked with them about when they planned to use their English in future. Most of the class was very young, the majority still at school and it turned out that they were going to take some courses in English when they went to University and their main problem was with listening to very fast speech, especially with strong accents. Once I knew that, the lesson planning became fairly simple. I sourced some relevant challenging audio and academic-style articles and built lessons around them, doing follow-ups on lexical chunks & other tricky areas, as well as feedback on the students' spoken English.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 3:14 PM on June 6, 2012

« Older Teach me how to speak dog   |   Movable Type text replacement script? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.