ESL Students in Secondary Education

12 Nov

As teachers, we are finding that the Students in our classrooms come from different social, cultural and economic backgrounds. Many students from from Non-English speaking Backgrounds (NESB) where English as a Second Language (ESL) or English is an Additional Language or Dialect (EALD).

ESL students come from a range of backgrounds and experiences. Some students are new migrants who have some education in their home countries as International students. Other ESL students may be refugees or asylum seekers fleeing from persecution and civil war. These students may have no education or limited education in their home countries. These students may also be traumatised from their experiences and have behavioural problems in school. Schools may need to provide high levels of support socially, emotionally, and culturally.

As teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) we must recognise that not all students have the same degrees of English skills. To understand the degree of English our students have, we can use the 3 Phases of Language Aquisition.

Phase 1 – Beginners where student have no to limited spoken or written english skills. These students will require a great deal of ESL teacher support.

Phase 2 – Developing English skills where students are developing their oral, reading and writing skills. These student have basic Interpersonal communication skills (BICS) but limited academic skills (CALPS). These students will be trying to develop their english skills beyond familiar situations and still require the support of ESL Teachers.

Phase 3 – Advanced english development where students have advanced skills nearing to first language ability. Students at Year 11 and 12 should be at this stage with their english skills development.

The Australian Curriculum Development or ACARA has 4 stages of Language Aquisition – Beginners, Developing, Emerging, Competent.

It is important that teaching English literarcy skills is a natural part of the Curriculum as students require english skills to not only access learning but to be able to survive in society. Teachers need to aim to make all students confident and capable learners.


Like all students, ESL students need a classroom environment which they feel safe as learners. As refugees and asylum seekers fleeing persecution, many students may suffer from the trauma of their experiences. We also need to recognise that a life in refugee or transition camps may be leaving students feeling insecure, anxious, unsettled, nervous. We need to provide a classroom environment with stable rules and routines, that lets students feel at ease in a predictable environment.

We need to provide an environment where students feel that they are welcomed or included, that their culture is recognised, and that recognises diversity. A classroom that allows students to feel culturally safe or their culture is valued, ESL students will take risks and be more active in the classroom, not being afraid to make mistakes and build their confidence.

Teachers can promote Inclusion by including ESL and native cultures and perspectives in learning. For example, if discussing creation we need not only look at Christian perspectives on creation but also look at Aboriginal or Indigenous perspectives or Muslim and Buddist beliefs of creation.

Recognising other cultures values and perspectives in learning provides a sense of empowerment to students and their sense of identity. Teachers can also promote inclusion by getting to know their students, recognising their strengths and their views. We also need to have high expectations of our students and to avoid having a deficit discourse, where we believe our students cannot achieve.

Having high expectations of our students means that the learning must be challenging that engages and motivates students. Lessons must be relevant so students see the purpose of learning and should be connected to real life experiences and build on students prior knowledge. Teachers should also build on students strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses.


Recognising that not all students are the same but that our classrooms are heterogenous or that students have mixed abilities is the basis for Differentiation. Our students are individuals so we need to tailor our instruction to learners individual needs.

Teachers need to make the learning easier to be understood teaching needs to be understood by students. Stephen Krashen spoke about language Aquisition and ‘Comprehensible Input’ in which teachers must use methods that makes learning easier for students. In the classroom teachers can use visuals as videos, graphics and presentations to make learning easier.

Teachers have to remember that Students bring their own prior knowledge and cultural understandings to learning. When students interpret texts and decode texts, they do so with their own understandings of the texts. Many texts may contain slang or satire that needs to be explained to students.


It is important that teachers in all subject areas promote literacy. Every subject area contains literacy that needs to be explained and scaffolded to students. Concepts and ideas need to be explicitly explained to students.

We can promote reading in the classroom through helping students to understand the texts. Teachers should provide interesting and engaging reading materials and help students to de-construct texts. Teachers need to help students understand the text, the purpose, the background of the text, concepts or main ideas involved and the vocabulary or words used. We can also help students understand texts by using imagery. It is important that we teach reading and writing within a context.

It is important for ESL students to understand reading, that they can first use their home or first language to write down ideas. Being able to express themselves in their home language helps students to then translate the ideas into English.

Teachers can have students reading silently first or reading within a group. To promote reading skills, teachers can highlight important words or meanings in the text. We can also repeat words by writing them down and using them in different contexts. We can also use drawings, storytelling, and drama to understand concepts in texts.


Like reading, teachers need to begin by helping students understand the purpose, the type and the kind of writing. What is the subject, what audience and genre are they writing for – ie report, essay. What prior knowledge should the students build on to begin about the subject.

After exploring the concepts and ideas of writing, students begin to write drafts. These drafts can then be revised and edited by students and peers, looking at sentence structure. Teachers should not be harsh on grammar at this stage of writing but aim to build students confidence in writing. After the revising and editing of the draft, students then present or publish their writing. Teachers should help students to develop vocabulary.

Some of the strategies that teachers can use are to use buddies or peer support for writing. Teachers can also use visuals to support ideas and to provide examples of writing in that genre or text. Other methods include dialogue journal writing and provide materials in the classroom as dictionaries and thesaurus for students to check their vocabularly and meanings of words. Other activities include using ‘Cloze Passage’ activities where students are given a passage missing key words and students fill in the key words.


Assessment of ESL students needs to focus on their development of English oral, writing and reading skills.

In 1994, the Curriculum corporation developed the ESL Scales in which teachers can assess the development of English oral, writing and reading skills.

The ESL Scales are important to providing teachers with a set of benchmarks for student achievement. Because ESL students may not develop all skills equally, the ESL Scales allow teachers to look at student achievement in all three areas and develop strategies to help improve those areas in learning.

The ESL Scales can also assist teachers with assessment strategies where students can demonstrate their learning in other areas. If we are going to focus on students strengths than weaknesses, then we need to use alternative assessment formats which documents students growth over time. Students who are weak in writing can demonstrate their mastery in the key concepts through performance assessments as oral performances, portfolios, drawings, making videos, role plays, oral reports, paraphrasing stories, summarizing, presentations.

But assessment needs not only be summative but formative or continous assessment that is embedded into the learning. Formative assessment activities can include listening for specific information, completing true or false questions or short answer questions. Other writing assessment tasks may include correcting sentences with grammatical errors.

Formative assessment can also be speaking assessment as participation in pair work or group discussions or ability to provide specific information when answering questions.


It is important for ESL students to interact with other students. Vygotsky’s social constructivism believes that we do not learn in isolation but in social interaction with other people. It is important that teachers use group work in which ESL students interact with other students. It is important that group work be flexible in which students are grouped with other students as buddies.

One idea for group work is the Think Pair Share in which students are seated in teams of 4 and they are given a number from 1 to 4. Students are given a discussion topic or problem to solve. Students are given time to think of an answer. Using student numbers, announce discussion partners. Ask students to PAIR with their partner to discuss the topic or solution. Finally, randomly call on a few students to SHARE their ideas with the class.

Think Pair shares are good for Vocabulary review, Quiz review, Reading check, Concept review, Lecture check, Outline, Discussion questions, Partner reading, Topic development, Agree/Disagree, Brainstorming, Simulations, Current events opinion, Conceding to the opposition, Summarize, Develop an opinion

Collaboration is also important for teachers. Teachers alone are unable to achieve the goals of teaching ESL Students. It is important for teachers to interact with support staff as ESL teachers who can help classroom teachers develop strategies for ESL students. Teachers should also seek assistance from support staff as reading teachers and welfare or support officers.

The most important collaboration teachers should have is with parents who many teachers believe are more of a headache. But parents have the best interests of their child in their hearts and therefore make the best allies with teachers and should be invited to take a more active role in their child’s learning, including visiting the school and participating in class activities.

Teachers should also seek to participate with the local community. Learning should be focus on real life experiences and building on what students already know. The best place for that is the local community. Teachers should seek to get the local community involved in programming and assessment as well as involvement in the classroom. Teachers should seek to get community perspectives and invite indigenous leaders in the classroom. This makes the local community feel involved in education processes and that local voices are valued.


Practical Ideas on Alternative Assessment for ESL Students. ERIC Digest by Jo-Ellen, Tannenbaum

Instructional Strategies online


2 Responses to “ESL Students in Secondary Education”

  1. Jia Berg December 3, 2012 at 10:30 pm #

    Thanks for reading my blogs and your blogs.
    As a migrant that arrived in Sydney at an age few months short of 16 yo, learning English was not easy. I’ve noticed that the ORAL part of learning is most important. My school ESL teachers and other ESL teachers at UNSW Institute of Language etc never bothered to point out I said R like W and I missed the many consonants when they end in a word (Chinese do not have sound endings like b, p, d, t, k). It was till I was 28 and 32 did other migrants told me that. This was on top of other oral issues.

    I think, in addition to ESL, Aussie kids should be encouraged to pair up with migrant kids and actively correct their pronunciation. This is especially so for those mid teen migrant kids and boys. My sisters all were more social so they had Aussie kids-friends helping them out. Being much shyer, I did not have such luck. My sisters speak next to no accent whereas I still am noted with just one sentence. HECS for uni students perhaps should be reduced if uni students pair up with migrant students for English learning- with accompanying foreign language learning opportunities by Aussie students.

    Writing and reading English is very much individual efforts. My sisters do not read and their vocabulary and grammar are not the best. They get away with little accent.


    • brianthompson32 December 4, 2012 at 1:42 am #

      Thats a great comment. There are many things that teachers can do to help ESL students succeed in the classroom. Really appreciate feedback from people who have suggestions on how teachers can help ESL
      students. Thanks again for posting.

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