March 5, 2021 March 10th, 2021

Five Things to Keep in Mind when Teaching ESL

Grace Hillier

A few years ago my husband and I walked into an English class at our local church hoping to help, and we noticed that all the students were greeted enthusiastically with a hug and a so-happy-to-see-you or some equivalent. Most of the ‘teachers’ there had little teaching experience and had just come from a long day of work, but it was obvious they genuinely cared about the students and wanted to help them with English.

In the years that followed, my husband and I went on to teach English ourselves and some of the students in that class became lifelong friends. Since then we have been part of a team that wrote an English curriculum called Community Life ESL. We want to share five things we’ve learnt over the years while teaching English.

  • Don’t start with Bible stories

Though we wanted to introduce the students to Jesus, we didn’t use Bible stories in our lessons, which may be rather surprising to hear. We genuinely wanted to help students with English, and the Bible isn’t exactly the easiest book to start with.

Another reason for holding of sharing Bible stories is that the students may not be interested in spiritual matters at first. If that is the case, give them time. Spiritual convictions are deeply rooted and it takes time (and a miracle) for someone’s core beliefs about God, life and the world to change. When students were interested, we’d share a Bible story with them after the lesson or offer to go to their homes to talk more.

  • Be intentional

Okay, but what if English students are interested and keen to discuss spiritual matters? Our goal should be to help them engage with the whole of God’s Story, not just random parts. While it’s common to teach a string of Bible stories, what often happens is the students take away information about a variety of unrelated characters and moral lessons to learn from them. Instead our goal should be to introduce them to God Himself and the failure of the human race and His plan to bring us back to Himself. That kind of comprehension takes time, especially with language barriers.

It takes being intentional and starting with the end in mind. What is it that we really want to see? People coming to know God through His Son, Jesus. But what’s the best way of getting there? We’ve come to see that it’s by sharing the whole of God’s Story. And to communicate the Story clearly, you need to teach them English first (unless you know their native language, of course).

  • Build relationships

Have you ever felt like a project or someone’s “ministry” when you know they have been tasked with welcoming you to church? We definitely don’t want English students to feel that way, do we? So open yourself up. Actually make friends with your students and invest in the relationship. Obviously you can’t get to know every single student to the same degree (even Jesus spent most of His time with just three people- Peter, James and John) but prayerfully ask the Lord to show you who your Peter, James and John are.

Sharing the Gospel takes building relationships and sharing your life with people. Some of your students may not have a clue about the God of the Bible yet. In fact, they likely have their own gods so why would they want another one?

After we’d been relating to one man in our English class for years, he finally asked about our motivation to take time out of our week to come and teach him English at night. We explained that we cared about him and wanted to share what we had, the good news of the Saviour. But in his case, interest took years.

  • Teach real life

English lessons should be practical. Students are usually eager to function well in their new community, and so participating in real life is probably higher on their list than endless grammar drills and worksheets. In our class we ordered pizza on the phone, made lamingtons and practised eating Vegemite, a novelty for these new Australians. We mowed grass (with a real lawn mower), role played for job interviews and practised pronunciation and Australian slang. We talked about government, holidays, culture, family and anything they had questions about.

  • Laugh a lot

The last point is pretty simple but an important part of any friendship. Your students will be exhausted after the lesson, and you will probably be too. Functioning in a new language with new friends in a new culture after a long day of work is daunting. We kept the lessons light and often laughed at ourselves and so did the students. Mistakes were welcome. It was a culture of encouragement so laughing and trying again were just part of the lesson.

These five points to keep in mind are in no particular order of importance, but things that have made English teaching a joy for us. In the course of teaching English, my husband and I made friends with one particular couple. After six months of sharing God’s Story with them, they finally understood what God had done for them and are now our brother and sister in Christ. We became even more excited about God’s Story and are grateful for the experience of sharing our lives with them and growing more like Jesus together. It’s as close to Biblical discipleship as we have ever come, and we hope you get to experience that with your English class too.

From our experience, and using a well-tested language and culture acquisition program our team had previously published, we developed a specific ESL program that is designed with those points in mind, Community Life ESL.

Grace Hillier

Grace Hillier

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