Techniques for Building Trust and Understanding with ESL Learners


Okay, I’m being a bit lazy, but I like this one too. I promise to review these to see if I can make them more fun to read; as they are, they certainly sound like content farm writing. In any case, the ideas in these articles reflect many of the general thoughts, expectations I held myself to as a teacher. They could be useful for other teachers.

Building trust between the English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher and the students is an important aspect of a productive learning experience. Before standing in front of that class, the ESL teacher should have a clear idea of who his students are going to be and what they are going to expect.

Being prepared for the students first, then being prepared for class, and finally being prepared for the preconceived, will help establish a bond of trust that will lead to learning, communication and understanding.

Know the students

Make a profile of your students. You should know what age group they belong to, how far they’ve gotten in studying English, where they’ve been before entering your class, where they go after they have left your class.

Being familiar with age helps in choosing activities for learning. Repetitive, childish songs may work on a daily basis with pre-teens, may be unworkable with adolescents, may serve as a sidesplitting icebreaker for older learners.

Using the newspaper may interest the adult learners, bore the middle learners and simply confuse the littler folk. Though certain activities may bridge ages, using inappropriate activities can bring mistrust: does the teacher really know what he is doing?

Students expect the teacher to readily evaluate where they are in their study and offer new information, based on old. For complete beginners, everything is new and trust is felt through building strong foundations that can be used again and again for communication. Intermediate and more advanced learners see less progress, but must also feel that the information being shared by the teacher is of use, is helping them to improve.

Knowing where your students go after class is not limited to knowing where the students live, but rather includes how they live. Through understanding and respecting the cultural roots and the social circumstances of the students, the teacher helps those students build bridges between their own reality and that offered by learning English.

Prepare class

The resources available may be limited or the most complete and modern. Teachers may have a computer available with access to the millions of ideas posted on the Internet, or they may have a backpack full of books and realea that they have had to open six times to show to airport security guards. The basic resource all teachers have though is their own creativity. This creativity should be applied to the preparation of the classes.

In preparing class, the teacher should make a template. First, we will do this. Then we will do that. Finally, we will do that other thing. This template becomes an outline that can be filled in with each of the activities of the class period. Following this template during the class creates an image of a prepared teacher.

Being prepared with more than enough material will make each class full and productive. Students readily recognize improvisation on the part of the teacher. The teacher is a leader and must provide the security of well-planned classes to project the authority needed to deserve the trust of the students.

Prepare for the preconceived

The teaching of English as a Second Language has changed over the years, from grammar and vocabulary classes for immigrants or colonized peoples to becoming a major tool for worldwide communication. ESL students will usually not be ignorant of the culture that is represented by English. They will have seen movies, or heard music, or perhaps even worn a t-shirt with English words printed on the front.

They will enter the classroom with preconceived notions about what English speakers are like. The teacher becomes an informant about culture and social mores. This teacher should be a positive representative of these mores.

The teacher who knows native gestures can contrast these communicative moves with those found in English. Where a nod of the head may mean “yes” in English, it may mean “no” in the student’s native language. How far is a person fed up, to the eyeteeth or to the top of their head, before they just can’t take anymore? Knowing these differences builds confidence, students can see that the teacher has learned about their culture. This makes them more open to learning about the English speaking culture.

Political situations cannot be ignored. For centuries, English speakers have moved about the world, invading, conquering, imposing, sharing, educating. Though all cultures have their dark side, concentrating on the more positive aspects of learning and using English will help students who may have reservations about being forced to speak English to move up in their corner of the world.

A teacher who is well prepared, understanding and trusting will project these feelings onto the group of students he is working with. By learning how to say “hello” and “thank you” in the native language of the students, by teaching the importance of “please” and “you’re welcome” in the English speaking culture, English as a Second Language teachers can become ambassadors of understanding and trust.

Though English has many flaws as a universal language it must not be ignored that it is indeed a world-wide communication tool, used on the Internet, used in Science, used in Air Traffic Control, even used on a more local level, in a multi-cultural construction site work team or on the street when a tourist asks for directions to the cathedral. By giving this tool to students, we help them to better understand the world as it is currently developing. By being professional in our profession, we teachers build trust among all those they touch.


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