A tutor sits down for a session in the writing center with an English as a second language (ESL) student. “What are you working on?” the tutor asks. Digging through his backpack, the student says, “Paper for class. I just need help with grammar.” Finding the paper, he places it on the desk. “Fix it..” The student pushes the paper towards the tutor.
Maybe it is for some people, but after a few years of teaching, I'm finding that it's pretty much the same thing for me. I find students highly concerned about grammatical errors when what they really need is a solid thesis statement.
I know you're probably anticipating the part 2 to my "Peer Review" blog post, but I wanted to establish a few things about teaching writing before we jump into teaching our students to teach each other. (AKA: Peer Review)
The first things to consider
As a tutor, I always ask a few questions to the writer before I dig into their writing. My first writing center coordinator always said, "We help writers, not just writing." I have about four questions that I ask before I look at their writing, but the three in the picture below are essential for tutoring, I think. (And for student-teacher conferences.)
Global versus Local concerns
It has been a common belief among tutors, students and faculty that a tutor cannot discuss global concerns before first addressing any and all grammatical errors in second language students’ writing. Gillespie and Lerner (2000) strongly dispute this myth, claiming that most who come into the center asking for grammar help generally need more than that (p.121), including “clarity, focus, and organization” (Blau & Hall, 2002, p. 35).
I learned in my MTESOL that, even though ESL often tend to struggle with English grammar more than native language speakers--- (Let's be honest, the language is crazy!)--- they also need to learn to follow the writing process, which is to (as much as possible) reserve editing exercises for the last stage of the process. When working with ESL writers, we need to read through the grammatical errors and see the ideas that are being presented and help them identify ways to improve their organization. We need to use all the tricks in our bag when working with ESL and not give up and take-over their revision process simply because the grammar sucks. If we do this, we could be teaching the student that they need an editor when the reality is that they can express their ideas in a second language fine and, with practice, get better at English grammar, too. They can become their own editors, just like native English speakers. (It just takes time and persistence.)
Nothing means more to an ESL writer than saying, "I understand your idea in this sentence or paragraph." They need to hear this despite the poor grammar choices. And let's be fair--- the majority of the grammar errors I see at the level I'm teaching are often similar to native speakers anyway: comma splices, fragments, run-ons, verb tense agreement, etc. Yes, prepositions, too, but those shouldn't hinder the reading too much. You can read through them. I'm not saying we shouldn't teach grammar. Of course we should teach grammar! But teach it when they're at the editing stage, and... teach it. Don't just give it to them.
Advice for finding balance
Recently, I gave a mini-workshop to all the writing, grammar and ESL tutors in the tutoring center I coordinate. (Yep, you read that right. I'm the tutor coordinator now, as of January 2017. Boo yeah!). I've attached my powerpoint for that workshop below. Essentially, (and this can apply to student-teacher conferences), when I meet with a student about their writing and all they want help with is grammar help, I slip in these three principles as much as possible:
Even if you're a stickler for grammar, you'll be upset if your student wrote a process essay when you asked for a comparison, right? Telling students this "secret" will help them want to work on their thesis before (or alongside) the grammar.
Even if you know the assignment instructions (heck, sometimes we've written them!), it's a good idea to read them with the student because it shows them how they can find their own answers. They can figure out the things the teacher is most concerned about (and how they'll be graded!). It will help them know what they're "supposed to write." They can identify where they went off topic in their own writing, too.
I strive for student autonomy. I want my students to become independent thinkers and writers. We're not always going to be there to tell them which modal they need, or how to start a new writing project, so it's important we help them learn the process and become self editors. It's a tricky balance, but with practice, you can get better at giving feedback to ESL writers.
First of all, let me give you a bit of context. You can read my full bio HERE, but I teach ESL (English as a Second Language) at the community college. I've taught lower levels before, but for the past three or four years I've been teaching advanced writing to ESL. I, specifically, help with what I call the "bridge" course. It's basically the writing course after all of our ESL courses (we have four levels of skills) and just before our freshman composition.
Exploring the importance of Peer Review
Over the last year or so I've been tweaking (a lot) with the idea of how to better teach peer review to ESL. As a writing tutor for ten plus years, I've had a lot of training in how to work with writers and best practices for giving useful comments that will help writers gain confidence and learn to brainstorm, draft, revise and edit on their own. And for many of those years I was a peer tutor, which means that I was a student like them, not an instructor. (Although, truth be told, peer tutoring isn't much different than tutoring as an instructor, which I currently do at the community college and online.)
My Master's thesis was, essentially, on helping students to take control of their own writing process and discussing tutor strategies for avoiding appropriation (taking-over) in a session, specifically in helping ESL writers. I called it "Finding Feedback Footing," because it's a tricky balance, especially when working with ESL students.
Why do we teach peer review to ESL?
Well, I can't speak for all ESL teachers, but I started teaching peer review in my advanced writing classes because I knew that my students would be expected to do it in their freshman comp class. I wanted them to have a head-start in it.
I also wanted to do it because I'm a tutor and I strongly believe in seeking out and giving advice for writing projects. Like I said, I was a peer tutor, so I was in the Writing Center while I was earning my English degree. I often tell people that I learned everything I needed to know about academic writing while tutoring. When you teach something, you learn it better, so I really liked the idea of helping students have the opportunity to teach others, like I did.
How to teach peer review
This is something that I've been playing with since I started teaching advanced writing, and I'd like to say I have a perfect solution that will work with any class, but I can't. I don't think I could even promise you that my current methodology will work for all community colleges. Nevertheless, I'm quite proud of my teaching process, especially this week because I just witnessed a student having an ah-ha moment during peer review, and it was priceless.
So...I want to spend some time dissecting the process I go through to teaching peer review (because it's grown, especially, over the past year), but before I do that, I just want to mention that I was at AZTESOL this last weekend, and someone there mentioned that he teaches his basic writing students to practice peer review. And I thought, why not?
As I've been thinking about my lessons on peer review this week I thought about whether or not what I teach my advanced students would work for beginners or basic ESL, and I think the answer is yes! Of course, I'd have to change the language, some of the videos and examples, but the steps I teach them are applicable to them. I think it's a great idea to introduce the idea of peer review as soon as possible.
This blog is a two part. I've got a lot of thoughts on this topic, so you'll get more on my ideas for teaching peer review in the next post, but before I close this one, I just want to say some things on empathy.
Something I promised myself when I became a teacher is that I would never ask my students to do something that I haven't first done myself, so (for example) when I did my book talk assignment for the first time, I did all the steps. I chose a book, I read it, and I gave a four minute presentation (no powerpoint) to my students. I've tried to incorporate this promise to myself for peer review. I've experienced peer review throughout college, but I think the best empathy-building experiences have come as I started my creative writing certificate. I had to read my poems and short stories in front of the class, as well as share it with the whole class---not just in pairs or groups, which I've done as well.
I think it's important to remember the fear and stress I've felt sharing my own writing with others when teaching peer review. But then you have to times that fear by at least ten because these ESL students are sharing writing that is not in their first language. They are doing amazing things! Stuff that I could never do!... so that's a message that I try to share with my students as often as possible.
So, there you have it. My thoughts on why teaching peer review skills are so important. Now read about my process for teaching it in part two.
Read Part 2 (coming soon...)
You know, that feeling---the one that says you're not making a difference in the classroom, that you're no good at this teaching-thing and that some students, no matter what you do, just aren't going to pass your class? Yeah. It feels a lot like a dementor, doesn't it? Sucking your teaching-soul right out of you, making you feel like you'll never be happy... as a teacher... ever... again...
This post is somewhat in response to a two part blog a wrote awhile ago, which you should check out if you haven't already.
Dementors are Real
Dementors are one of the reasons I constantly fall back on tutoring to give me a confidence boost, although tutoring can have similar moments of doubt. (More on that another time.)
Hubby says I care too much. I don't know how not to, though. Every absence, every tardy, every missed assignment, every bombed quiz is a stab at my heart. I know how much those things hurt their grades and how doing the homework and practicing in and out of class would help their English and their confidence in writing.
I like being the "best" teacher or the "favorite," teacher, or even the generally, "liked" teacher. (Who doesn't?) So when I get a student that is angry with syllabus policies, is lazy but still wants a good grade, or flat out hates me, I get a bit drained. Like a dementor is standing over me.
I felt so much better, taking a moment to myself. Then, as I savored the last bit of chocolate, I thought about the students that were progressing in my class. (There's actually quite a few of them.) Nancy, for example, wrote a paragraph with unity. In all the time I've known her, she'd never been able to do that. Jorge told me that he loved the Book Talk Assignment and couldn't wait for his presentation at the end of the semester, and Vy was practically bouncing when I told her I liked her revised thesis for her essay. Like Harry Potter, it's important to remember those happy-moments in teaching.
I don't talk about religion too often on my blogs, but something else that has really helped me combat my dementors (especially lately) is prayer. When I know a difficult student is going to talk to me during my office hours or after class when everyone else has gone, I say a quiet plea for help. I pray that I can see things from his/her perspective, that I can convey the concern and love that I have for him/her, that I'll be able to stay fair and stick to the policies that are in place. God helps me during those tough times when I ask. When I don't ask, I'm often SOL, and I regret the exchanges I have with these difficult students.
I'm sure there are other ways to combat dementors. I'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below.
Just in conclusion, I think it's also important to recognize that we don't have to face these dementors alone. We have family (boy does Hubby help me!). We have coworkers and friends. Teaching is tough. Don't let anyone tell you differently.
I haven't done a ton of private teaching, I'll admit, but I've learned some things from the little experience I have, and I've heard "horror-stories" from friends of what not-to-do. I'm an optimist, so I'm going to focus on the things TO DO or must-knows, as I like to call them.
But first! Let me explain that I, personally, prefer working for a university or college. Recruiting students can be a challenge, especially if you're wanting to make private teaching your main source of income.
Sometimes students "fall into my lap," just from being an instructor at a university or college, so I sometimes end up private teaching. (That happened to me this summer. I'm teaching two Chinese students, referred to me by a fellow ESL instructor). Each time, it's adventure!
My first piece of advice when considering private teaching is...
For example, I'm used to teaching college-age, so I wouldn't feel comfortable teaching anything younger. If I'm not comfortable, I won't enjoy the teaching. Of course, you want to be open-minded, but it's still a good thing to think about and consider when you're thinking about private teaching ESL.
2. Know what you are good at.
I like reading and writing, so that's what I offer for private teaching. I'm qualified to teach Listening and Speaking, and still do a bit of that, but I tell students straight-up that my strength in teaching ESL is reading, grammar, and writing, especially academic essays and creative writing. What are your strengths? What do you enjoy?
3. Know how to assess needs.
You're assessing what they want to learn and what they already know. The first day I meet with someone for private teaching, I give him/her a little form to fill out. The first half asks general questions: how long have they been learning English? What kind of skills are they hoping to learn from me? I have them tick boxes for some of the questions, almost as a shopping list for what I can offer.
The second half is a little grammar and vocabulary assessment. Then, if I know he/she wants help with writing, I give a little writing assessment. (It usually takes about 20 minutes). I'm including my latest drafts of assessments at the bottom of this blog.
My assessments don't end there, though. People like to know they're getting what they paid for. This summer, I've started using "exit tickets," which is something you give student at the end of each lesson. It's a quick card that asks what the student liked about the lesson, what they'd like to learn more about and/or what they think would improve the lessons. I also fill out one, telling them where I think they're starting to improve in.
4. Know what to charge.
Every state and country is a little different, but most private teachers (right now) are charging somewhere between $20-$75 an hour. If you have a TESOL certification and/or degree, AND you have experience in teaching, you can charge on the higher end. Of course, if you're nice like me, I usually land in the middle ($40-$50 an hour).
The best advice given to me? Have a contract and ask for the payment upfront. It's not rude. It's business. This summer, I'm teaching a Chinese couple, and I tell them to pay me for the entire week on every Monday. Of course, you can have them pay for the month or two months in advance, depending on how you want to do it, but always get payment upfront.
Middle-Eastern students, by the way, will negotiate the price and form of payment. Other students will as well, but Middle-Eastern students are notorious for bartering. My advice is to only negotiate if you feel comfortable with it; otherwise, just state the price and stick to it. If they want lessons bad enough with you, they'll pay the price you ask for.
5. Know your personal limits.
Private teaching is unique because you're basically tailoring the learning to meet the individual. In that way, it's quite rewarding. It can, however, consume a lot of your time. Again, students want to know that they're getting their "money's worth." Your lessons need to be organized, professional, and thorough.
Don't take on too many students, especially if you have other commitments.
BONUS: Know where to meet.
If you're meeting with students via Skype or some other online mode, make sure you clean-up your room and dress professionally. It can be easy to just "go to work" in pajamas, but that can lower your credibility with students.
If you're doing it face-to-face, know where you're going to meet. My friend had a spare room in her apartment and set-up her private teaching in there, but not all of us have that luxury or feel comfortable with "strangers" in our homes. I suggest a library or some other study space. Most libraries allow you to reserve a room. Right now I'm meeting my private-teaching students on campus in one of the study lounges. That works for us. Choose somewhere that works for you and make it consistent. Try not to change the location and time of lessons too often.
That's about all I have for you today. Enjoy the documents below. Tweak them to your needs. Happy teaching!
In PART 1 of this blog post, I talked about calculating grades. It's something they didn't teach me when I became a teacher. I think they don't teach it because it's stressful, subjective, and sometimes boring.
Actually, I remember having a teaching coach (an experienced teacher to answer my questions) my first semester. I started as a full time instructor in an intensive ESL program. When I asked about calculating grades, my assigned teaching coach showed me how she "did it." She might have explained the whole points-thing and percentage-thing, but I just remember feeling overwhelmed with the task of navigating and entering in those grades on Blackboard and SIS. (Canvas is better, by the way!) The first time I calculated grades for my students, my hands shook; I wanted them to get A's, but some hadn't done the work, so I'd probably have to fail them. I stressed about being unfair. I worried what would happen to these students that I had to fail. I thought about the students who worked hard all semester. Was I entering in their grades in a way that would reflect their good work?
I cried at my computer desk until a coworker (thank goodness) saw me crying and put her arm around me. I called my dad (who used to teach), and he talked me through it. I got them done in time, but this first experience in calculating grades has never entirely left me.
My students' grades are important to me. I'm glad I've developed a better way of calculating grades because my students can know where they stand earlier on in the semester... and maybe do something about it. However, there are a lot of students, I've learned, who, unfortunately, don't think about (or care about) their grades until it's too late.
STUDENTS WHO CHALLENGE THEIR GRADES
Again, it's something they didn't teach me in my Master's degree. We never had a unit on "what to do or say if a student is unhappy with his/her grade." Thankfully, when I started teaching, I had a roommate offer this important mantra: Teachers don't give grades; students earn them.
I inhale this statement every time I calculate grades and/or conference with students about grades. I've put it in my email signature, adding the phrase: I'm here to help you earn the best grade possible. Because that's how I see my job as instructor.
I want my students to earn good grades. I can't force them. I can't make them do it. But I reach out as best I can throughout the semester. I've developed a "how to calculate your own grade" handout so they can experience the kind of hard work I go through every time I sit down to enter in grades. (I think students think I randomly pick a grade for them.) I'm not sure how many students utilize this resource, but I make it available at the beginning, the middle and the end of the semester. Luckily, math talks. Most of these upset students do the math at home (or with me), and they gulp the news down okay. They may not be happy with it and try to get me to accept late work (which I don't), but they, at least, understand where the grade came from.
The majority of the students that argue their grades with me are Arabic. I didn't understand why for a long time, but I finally learned an Arabic concept. For many of the Middle East countries, they have what they call wasta which is loosely translated as "nepotism" or "who you know." They often feel that they can negotiate or "talk" their way into the grade they want. It works in their country. Why not in the USA? I remember that a teacher at the intensive program I started at had a mug that said, "NO WASTA." She'd put that on her desk during finals week as a reminder that that's not how it works here.
I seem to always forget it in the heat of the moment, but there's also another Arabic phrase that helps students to accept their grades. That is Inshallah, which means, "if God wills it." It is something that tells them that it's "out of my hands now," which it is when they're asking the last day what they can do to get the grade they want. I always tell them that's a great question... for 8 or 9 weeks ago. It's too late now. Sorry. Inshallah.
Hubby is quick to point out sob stories to me. I'm getting better at it, but I tend to believe that my students don't lie. (I know, weird, huh?) The problem with sob stories is that even if they're true, there's usually not much I can do to help, especially if a student didn't communicate about it earlier in the semester. I often want to ask, "Why is this just now being brought up, the last day of the semester?" I get sob stories from all cultures, by the way. And they just make me feel horrible because, like I said, there's usually nothing I can do about them. I hate it.
There are probably other things that I wasn't taught about teaching, but grading and conferencing with unhappy students was the number one thing that I realized quickly that I never learned in grad school. The rest--- tweaking lesson plans, building rubrics, crafting assignments, etc.--- is talked about but just needs practice. I complain a lot about teaching to hubby, poor guy, but the truth is--- I love teaching! It's probably one of the most important professions. I'm a little biased, but it's true.
In all my years of studying to become an ESL teacher, not once did they teach me how I should calculate grades and what to do if a student challenges his/her grade.
The thing I struggled with in my teaching (probably the most) was figuring out grades. If I could just teach, and students could just learn and not have to worry about grades (and specifically not having to conference with students that earned an F in my class)--- I'd enjoy teaching more. It's the number one thing that I dislike about my job, and it probably has to do with the fact that no one ever taught me how to do it.
I'm not going all hippie on you (don't worry). I'm not saying that we should do away with the standard grading system, which at the college I work for is:
90-100% = A
80-90% = B
70-80% = C
60-70% = D
< 60% = F
Grades motivate students. They inform advisors what kind of scores they earned in the past and/or what subjects they struggle with, and it's a way to earn scholarships, etc. That's all pretty straight forward. Let's not change that.
I'm not a fan of the math, but even that isn't too bad if I have a clear plan for how many points I want to award each assignment, which, until recently, I didn't.
When I started teaching, I just made up assignments as I went, assessing my students on what I taught (which they did teach me to do in my Master's degree!) whenever I felt like I needed to know if they were learning things. I'd usually try to keep the points simple, like 10 , 50 , or 100 points, depending on how crucial I thought the assignment should be. Then, at the end of the semester, I'd add up all these assignments, plug them into Canvas or Blackboard, and bam! there's my students' grades. It took a long time because I'd do a lot of "little" assignments, and my eyes would get crossed from looking at the computer screen for so long. Thank goodness for Hubby who read my grades off for me (which I always recorded by hand).
About two years into teaching, I decided I needed a better way to calculate grades because students often wanted to know where they stood not only at the end of the semester, but in the middle or at any point, so I started plugging in all these assignments into Canvas/Blackboard earlier. Every Thursday or Friday, I'd spend a good hour or two plugging them in.
In a way, this was better because I was spreading out the data entry, but I still felt like I wasn't very accurate in grading. I always felt like I could do better. I felt like I was doing it the "hard way," but I had never been taught any way to calculate grades, let alone a simpler or better way to do it.
The 1,000 Points System
I'm embarrassed to admit, but it was only last year that I decided at the beginning of a semester to have a total set number of points to award my students. Hubby suggested 1,000. It's a good large number, but not too difficult to work with mathematically.
This has allowed me to say stuff like, well--- writing projects are super important, so I'll have all of their essays (collectively) add up to 450 or 500 points. Participation is important, but shouldn't outweigh their writing because the majority of objectives for this class is writing, so I'll have that worth 100 points, etc. I could confidently tell my students up front that they would be working towards 1,000 points. It made it easier for them to calculate their own grades, which was really great!
I still did quite a bit of data entry, but I soon learned to cluster assignments in this way, so students could see where each assignment belonged (i.e participation or writing project, etc.).
I still don't like the math, but it seems a lot more manageable and more accurate as well. Now that I had figured out a 1,000 point system, I just needed to learn how to deal with those students that wanted to argue their grade. That is, also, something I didn't learn before jumping into teaching... READ PART 2.
My best friend is teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in China. (Well, technically it's called English as a Foreign Language--- EFL) She's been asked to teach an ESP (English for Special Purposes) course. Engineering.
Neither of us know anything about engineering. She's been doing as much research as she can as she meaningfully puts her lesson plans together, but she sent me an email an hour ago pleading for online resources. As many of you may know, China has a lot of restrictions on their Internet use; therefore, her resources are limited.
I did some googling. I found some stuff. I turned them into pdfs for my friend. In the process, I found some new favorite websites!
This experience has gotten me thinking about my favorite ESL online resources, so today I will share with you 5 of my favorite online resources. I could have done more, but 5 just seemed like a nice number. Let's get started!
1. Dave's ESL Cafe
This is a classic website. If you teach ESL and you haven't heard of Dave's ESL Cafe, you haven't lived! Find lots of great videos, idioms, exercises and more!
2. English Page
I regularly send my students to this website, especially if they have problems with verb tenses, which is my favorite feature in this website. I love all the verb tense diagrams and endless practices.
3. ESL Right Now
This is one of the sites I found when I was helping my friend look for Engineering stuff. Even though I don't teach ESP, it's a site I'll probably use in the future because there's more to it than ESP stuff.
4. Using English
This is another one of the sites I found when I was helping my friend find things for Engineering. I literally got lost in here! I'll have to keep this one on my radar for sure!
5. Azar Grammar
Betty Azar is a genius! If you've been teaching ESL for a while, then you've probably heard of (or used) her famous books. But did you know that she's created PowerPoints for all of her lessons? There are handouts and additional grammar practice, too!
You know---- I probably could have gone to 100! It's an awesome time to be an ESL teacher (or ESL student.) I didn't even touch on:
And, of course, there are a number of blogs, like mine, that talk about teaching ESL. Mine is more of a musing, but there are blogs that actually have lesson plans you can steal!
According to the book link you sent me, I choose 3 books as my reading options:
1. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien (330 pages)
The Hobbit is my first choice for a book project. I'm interested in this book because I'm a big fan of the lord of the Rings movies. This book has been on my personal reading list for a while. Unfortunately, I have been putting it off for later time. I think now is later.... I would definitely be interesting to see how Bilbo Baggins character evolves throughout the book....
This is just a blurb of one of the many emails I received two weeks ago. It's the beginning of a new semester, and that means it's time for my ESL 097 students to choose their books for their Book Talk assignment.
ESL 097 is a transition course. It's literally their last chance to iron out their English and writing skills before moving on to English 101. My students are diverse. Some come from Korea, China, Vietnam, while others are from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Colombia, Mexico or elsewhere. I love teaching ESL!
There are several objectives for the particular course, but one of them is to "read actively and critically using a variety of comprehension strategies to facilitate understanding of texts."
This will be my third time doing this assignment. As with all assignments, I learn ways to improve it. Over the summer, I learned how to create free websites (like this one), so I decided to put all the instructions for the book talk there.
I created videos and links for reading strategies, etc. One of the things I noticed last time I did this assignment is that my students needed more support in reading their books. Not all of them are taking a reading class, even though they're supposed to.
There are still a few bugs to work out, but overall, I'm happy with the resources I've included in this book talk instructions website.
This morning, I bumped into a student who took my ESL 097 last semester. I asked her how things are going, and she said fine. She's now in English 107 (English 101 for ESL). "You know, Kassie," she told me, "reading that book last semester really helped my English!"
If you teach ESL or know anyone you teaches ESL (or developmental English), share this link with them. You are more than welcome to enjoy the instructions, videos and resources.
I wrote this for Upswing on August 15, 2016 as a guest blogger.
I thought tutoring online would be really different from face-to-face. I worried (to some degree) because I've nearly perfected my tutoring techniques. I've been tutoring for various college centers since 2005. I didn't want to start all over.
Although there are some things I had to get used to---mainly, the technology--- Upswing has made my tutoring online simple and as close to a face-to-face tutoring experience as possible. I have a camera, which means that tutees can always see me. Not only is this helpful for those moments when I explain a concept using my hands, but it gives that personal touch. They see my smiling face. I give them a thumbs-up when they answer my questions correctly or suggest a cool idea!
The whiteboard tools make it feel like I'm tutoring face-to-face. I can point with an arrow, circle, draw, highlight with lots of different colors, etc. I didn't know what I was doing the first time I used the whiteboard, but I just played around for a bit, and the more I used them in tutoring sessions, the more comfortable I felt.
In addition to these features, I've found that I can use the same (or similar) first four questions that I use in my face-to-face sessions. I tutor writing and ESL, so as you read through them, you might want to think how they can be used while tutoring in your discipline. I'm not including the obvious ones: Can you hear me okay? Can you see me? *thumbs-up*
Question 1: What are you working on today?
This question does two things. First, it helps me see how much they know about what they're supposed to do. Second, it subtly says that I won't do the work for them. Tutors don't do that. (Sorry!) But we do answer questions and point you in the right direction!
Question 2: Do you have your assignment instructions handy?
I always invite them to upload the instructions on the whiteboard or email them to me. This is because teachers often have special requirements (i.e MLA or APA). I often structure my hierarchy of concerns based on them. (i.e "You must have at least 4 credible sources; no Wikipedia!" etc.)
Question 3: When is your assignment due? And how much have you completed?
This helps me gauge how much help I can give and/or how many times I might be able to meet with the student. This is when I invite them to upload what they have. (Anything is better than nothing!) If they haven't started, and it's due tonight at midnight, I will talk to them, briefly, about time management.
Question 4: What kind of help do you feel like you need from me today?
I always take notes for this one (I do this in my face-to-face sessions, too!) because this is the most important question. One, it helps me see why they wanted tutoring in the first place, and I can ensure that I answer their concern before the end of the session. They'll probably get a bit of other help, too, but I'll answer questions about grammar if that's their biggest concern. Two, this instantly puts the focus on the student. This is their time, and they need to know it. Setting the agenda is super important!
Whether it's online or face-to-face, it's important to have a human connection with those you're tutoring. You don't have to use these exact first four questions, but you should be thinking about the first things you say and ask the tutee. First impressions are everything, so make sure it's a good one!
I get this question all the time. It happens like this:
You: "What's your job?"
Me: "I'm a teacher."
You: "So what subject do you teach?"
Me: "English... as a second language."
You: "What other languages do you speak?"
There it is. The most frequently asked question. It happens nearly every time I talk about being an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher.
I teach in English
First of all, it would be impossible to speak all the languages represented in my classroom. It's super diverse, 5-10 languages and cultures often. How can I possibly speak Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, German, and French all at the same time while I'm teaching? hmmm... Secondly, research has shown that it's actually better to teach a language, like English, without knowing your students' first language. (What?!) I know, weird. But it's true. I'll get to that more later on.
Some ESL teachers, yes, speak another language. I'm not saying that you shouldn't to be an ESL teacher. I just don't. (I tried Spanish, but it didn't stick.) I often wish I knew all the languages spoken in my classroom. (Then I could hear if they're cheating or what they really think about me as a teacher!)
My best friend speaks Mandarin Chinese as her first language, and English as her second. She's teaching in China right now and her Chinese has pros and cons for her teaching. My friend Mike learned English first and than Japanese. Another friend, Sarah, speaks English first and then Korean. Others of my teaching-buddies are like me and speak English only.
The essential requirement for teaching English, it seems, is knowing English. And lots of schooling. Lots! All of the people I mentioned have at least a Master's degree, which is what I have, too. So before you ask the question of whether or not native speakers are better teachers than those who are ESL, let me tell you that my best friend is a better ESL teacher than I could ever hope to be. She may not be blonde and blue-eyed like me, but she knows what she's doing! Just because you grew up learning a language doesn't mean you can teach it.
How we learn languages
There's a lot of research about how we learn languages! I'll try not to bore you with the science of linguistics. Instead, I'll invite you to think about how you learned your first language. Probably when you were a baby, yes? Chances are that your motivation for learning (which is key to learning a language, by the way!) was out of necessity. You wanted your caregiver to know you were hungry or that you wanted a toy. Crying and screaming did the trick for some things you wanted, but not everything. Eventually you had to learn words and sentences to get what you needed. Then, there's the social necessity. You needed to communicate with your friends, too. Generally speaking, this is a similar process for learning a second (or third language) effectively. There must be a necessity for it. (Whether that's feigned or not.)
Can adults learn languages?
There's the "Critical Period Hypothesis," yes, which I figured you'd want to know next. Lenneberg proposed the theory in 1967, basically saying that kids must be exposed to a second language before puberty (generally 13 years old). Otherwise, it would be nearly impossible for that person to learn a second language.
There is truth to this, to some degree, but not entirely. Otherwise, I'd be out of a job. All of my students are adults. I've come to learn that it is difficult for adults to learn a language but not because they're brains are fully formed and not as moldable as a child's. (That's part of the more modern version of the "Critical Period Hypothesis.") Simply stated, the necessity to learn a second language isn't as high for an adults because they know a first language that can usually get them by. (This is why I never fully learned Spanish, by the way.) Also, there are other responsibilities that kids don't have to think about which puts adults at a disadvantage: paying bills, choosing a place to live, finding a job, etc. These things could potentially give necessity for learning a second language, but more often than not, it takes adults away from practicing and perfecting a second language.
There's a lot more science and research behind all this. If you're really interested, you can earn a Linguistics degree or an MTESOL (Master's in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.) I did the latter. Quick advice from me if you want to learn a second language? Be super motivated, disciplined and don't be afraid to make mistakes; if possible, immerse yourself in the language!
How I teach ESL using only English
Here's where we finally get to the heart of your question: how I teach English without knowing any of my students' first language. There are a lot of theories and practices out there! I'm not going to pretend there's a one-fit-all solution. (By the way, Rosetta Stone is only effective for probably 1% of the human population. We're not robots!)
I have a teaching philosophy statement, which I framed and put above my office desk. It includes things like building a safe classroom environment, instilling student autonomy and giving timely and individualized feedback. In general, however, my teaching varies in two ways, whether I'm teaching beginners or I'm teaching intermediate/advanced speakers of English.
When I teach basic students (or beginners), my teaching is a game of charades:
When I teach intermediate or advanced speakers of English, I build motivation (the necessity factor, I mentioned), and create (for lack of better wording) a-close-to-real-world-experience:
Teaching ESL is a great profession. It's difficult, don't get me wrong! There are days when I want to pull my hair out. (That's true for any teaching job, though!) But I love it! I learn a lot from my students. They bring interesting and new perspectives, they're motivated and have worthwhile goals. I admire the sacrifices they're making, coming to a new country to have a better life for themselves and their families. English is a crazy mutt language, and I commend for their persistence and hard work!
So, yep. I'm an ESL teacher. I teach English... in English.