Teaching English as a Second Language

Supriya Bhatnagar | November 2000

English as a second language is taught at various levels-elementary, middle, high school, or college. Where you teach depends on your level of education; the more qualified you are, the higher up you go. As with any other profession, according to the 1998–99 Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for English as a Second Language teachers varies significantly according to geographical and professional variables. The scope of this article is restricted to teaching English as a Second Language here in the United States.

With a dramatic increase in foreign college students-from 218,700 in 1976 to 465,000 in 1997 according to the U.S. Department of Education-there has been a proportionate increase in the demand for English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers. According to Usha Venkatesh, Associate Professor and ESL Coordinator at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland, the student body in the ESL program at their college represents about 170 countries. The ESL program serves about 2,800px students each semester, on three campuses. "Over the the years I have found that the profile keeps changing," she says. There has been a shift from Spanish-speaking and Asian students to more students from African countries and Eastern Europe.

ESL teaching is not restricted to, as is commonly perceived, teaching only the children of immigrants. Here in America, the need for adult literacy and language teaching is increasing within the growing immigrant and refugee communities, and the single largest need for ESL teachers is for teaching the adult immigrant population. There are two aspects of the immigrant dilemma. Some immigrants come for ESL training without having been to a school in their native country, and in this case adult literacy is combined with language training. There are also those who are highly qualified technically, yet have problems finding work here because of the language limitation. The role of an ESL teacher is all encompassing. Apart from being just a teacher, he or she is also a mentor and a friend. The teacher is the path to integration. According to Prof. Venkatesh, the teacher is the only source of information and the only trusted friend and authority figure for many students. "As a result, we serve as counselors, advisors, and resource people on all kinds of issues-academic and otherwise."

Help in integrating immigrants is also taken from literate adults living here who came from the same country as the immigrants. As these residents have been through the same experience of relocating to another country, they can help with the cultural and linguistic transition.

Challenges of TESOL

Picture an immigrant child in elementary school, who has to deal with culture shock, unfamiliar surroundings, different foods, different customs, and worst of all, an alien language. It is important for these children to feel welcomed and wanted before they are inundated with course work. More often than not, these children come from families where the adults do not speak any English either. This is an added responsibility for the ESL teacher, who is now also the only medium of communication between the family and the school. The teacher has to take the entire social context into consideration before language education can take place.

The first year in a new country is often the hardest for immigrant children. In ESL in America: Myths and Possibilities, William Waxman writes about how the Garfield school tackled the problem of a sudden spurt of Cambodian immigrants during the 1980–81 school year:

In the workshops we met with a woman from Mewton who had lived in Southeast Asia and a Cambodian teacher who had lived in refugee camps. They taught us to be sensitive to the conditions in the camp and to the cultural ways of our future students. We learned, for example, that stealing is a way of surviving in the camps and that we should deal with this problem but not get too excited about it. We also learned to refrain from touching Cambodian children on the head, a sign of disrespect, and to watch for abrasions on the children’s arms caused by coins being rubbed on their skin, a folk-medicine custom.

According to Judie Haynes and Judith O’Loughlin’s article "Meeting the Challenge of Content Instruction in the K–8 Classroom" in the April/May 1999 issue of TESOL Matters, the challenges facing a TESOL teacher are many. Even though the authors address a much younger age group, the points apply to all students of English as a Second Language--young and old. The authors feel that teachers should

  • evaluate their second language learners’ listening comprehension skills. How much do they understand?
  • simplify the language of instruction, not the concept being taught
  • work toward depth, not breadth of information, presenting materials in a clear, concise, comprehensible manner and eliminating all peripheral, nonessential information
  • impart information through oral, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning modalities
  • use graphic organizers, such as webs, Venn diagrams, and charts, to make information more accessible to second language learners. Content materials present text that is too dense for second language learners
  • present content area vocabulary and concepts using reality, picture files, and hands-on activities
  • examine their ESL students’ backgrounds and learn how their past experiences will effect learning. The impact of students’ backgrounds on learning will depend on the their previous schooling, home languages and cultures, and the concepts important to those cultures
  • understand that ESL students may not have experience with all of the concepts being taught in U.S. schools. For example, concepts such as freedom and democracy, perceptions of time, and right to privacy may be different or nonexistent in many cultures
  • build background knowledge before teaching a lesson.

Let us not forget, however, that the challenges of teaching ESL do not restrict themselves to communication and interaction with students. Prof. Venkatesh finds that in this field as in most other academic fields, there is a great deal of exploitation of adjunct labor.

Teaching of English to Students of Other Languages (TESOL) Certificate

What is a TESOL Certificate? It is a credential, not a degree, in a particular field. This allows you to present yourself to an employer as having taken an approved, coherent set of courses in a particular field.

To teach English as a second language, the first step is to have a Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (CTEFL) certificate from International TEFL Certificate (ITC). Here in the U.S., the more commonly used acronym is TESOL. The certification course is a four-week intensive one, consisting of 100 classroom hours and 40 hours of outside preparation. Details about this course, locations, and method of applying can be found by visiting the ITC website at http://www.itctraining,com/index.html. Though a university degree is not necessary, for this certification, it is preferred. Because of the competitive nature of this field, having a bachelor’s degree in any field is an advantage.

TESOL Certificates can be earned at Universities around the country too-you can earn a Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. For example, the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s (UWM) English Department offers a certificate in TESOL for those who are interested. This certification is for teaching at community colleges and private programs in the U.S. that are looking for qualified instructors. These programs include businesses that are starting their own in-house programs for employees hired from non-English speaking countries.

TESOL & the Job Market

For teachers with a recognized TEFL certificate, there are many opportunities available for temporary or part-time TEFL jobs in adult education centers, refugee centers, private language institutes, and continuing education centers in America, especially in the summer. Local ESL programs for immigrants also offer part-time teaching jobs. Full-time jobs, however, are difficult to find without an MA-TESOL or previous teaching experience. When the question of experience comes up, there is always a Catch-22 situation: no one will hire you without experience, but to gain experience you need a job. In such cases, volunteering is an excellent solution. One option is The International Center in New York, a unique language learning Center for immigrants and foreign-born newcomers. ESL teachers-in-training can teach eight week English courses in four language skills: Grammar, Reading, Writing, and Conversation. The International Center trains all TESOL teachers before they begin tutoring.

Once you have the requisite experience or credentials, State Departments of Education are good places to check when looking for ESL teaching positions in public schools. For most public school jobs, you need a valid teaching credential-more than an MA in teaching ESL. At UWM, the School of Education handles certification for teaching elementary and high school students. Charter schools, though they are public schools, and private schools are not bound by the same regulations, however. If you think you would like to work in a particular geographical area, use library resources to find out which colleges and universities are in that region, and check the websites maintained by those institutions. Many of those websites have listings for positions and jobs available. A number of intensive English programs around the country (e.g. Utah State University, Ohio University, Southern IIllinois University) offer 1–3 year internships for recent MA-TESL graduates. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education and your local newspaper are good places to look for an ESL job. Prof. Venkatesh, however, relies more on networking and word-of-mouth. "Many adjunct positions are filled in the last minute, and program directors often rely on applicant pools that are stored for future needs, so unsolicited applications do not hurt," she says.

Teaching positions are also posted in the TESOL Placement Services Bulletin. TESOL is changing the format of the old Placement Bulletin to the new electronic version, called the Placement E-Bulletin (PEB). If you are a member of TESOL, Inc., then the PEB which will be launched on January 1, 2001 is free. Visit http://www.tesol.edu and http://careers.tesol.org for information on membership and the Bulletin. The TESOL convention, held yearly at a different location, imparts a wealth of information for teachers and students alike. The 2001 convention at St. Louis, Missouri is called "Gateway to the Future" and will be held from February 27–March 3, 2001- http://www.tesol.org/conv/t2001/pp/ 01-welcome.html gives details about what this convention offers.

TESOL & Native American Reservations

Another place in need of TESL teachers are Native American Reservations. According to Yvonne J. Weaver in the Journal of American Indian Education, most children on reservations do not enter school as native English speakers, and they must approach learning English as the learning of a foreign language. This, according to Lee H. Salisbury in "Teaching English to Alaska Natives," puts forth a two-fold educational problem:

to broaden the student’s background of experience within the western culture so that his or her conceptual knowledge of English will improve, and to enable students to realize that their thoughts and feelings are important and have real value when they are expressed clearly and effectively.

In Arizona and in other states where there are large Native American reservations, emergency teaching certificates are sometimes granted for teachers without teaching credentials who otherwise qualify to teach. In spring or summer of most years there is an "education fair" at which teachers looking for jobs and school administrators searching for teachers can meet. The State Department of Education provides all the details about these fairs.

Rewards of Teaching ESL

According to Aída Walqui, in "Contextual Factors in Second Language Acquisition" in the September 2000 issue of ERIC Digest, "Language attitudes in the learner, the peer group, the school, the neighborhood, and society at large can have an enormous effect on the second language learning process, both positive and negative. It is vital that teachers and students examine and understand these attitudes. In particular, they need to understand that learning a second language does not mean giving up one’s first language or dialect. Rather, it involves adding a new language or dialect to one’s repertoire."

The Literacy Council of Northern Virginia’s website, http://www.novaliteracy.org, relates the story of Zainab, a Somali born in South Yemen, who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee with her husband and two sons. Since entering the Literary Council’s program in 1990, Zainab has obtained a child care provider’s license, her driver’s license and her green card. Zainab states, "Since coming to the Literacy Council, my life has gotten better. Finally, I say I am proud to be in this county which gave me and my family the opportunity to live in dignity and freedom and to practice my human rights. My goals are to learn how to read and write English and join those who care about the development of this great country."


Student testimonies such as this one and others which express profound gratitude to their tutors makes Teaching English to Students of Other Languages a gratifying experience.

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