ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers specialize in helping non-native speakers of all ages and levels learn both the formal grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation of spoken and written English, while giving them confidence in the common usage of the language in order to communicate clearly and comfortably with native English speakers.
The globalization of business and the influx of immigrants to the U.S. have both driven the growth of English language learners and the need for educators who are skilled in teaching this unique group of learners.
According to Face the Facts USA, a Project of George Washington University, 10 percent of all public school students in the United States are English as Second Language (ESL) Learners/English Language Learners (ELLs), meaning they have limited English proficiency. However, less than 1 percent of public school teachers are English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors (or one ESL instructor for every 150 students), thereby highlighting a demand for ESL instructors in our increasingly culturally diverse world.
Amidst the creation of programs in schools across the county designed to address the needs of the students, a number of professional acronyms have emerged that have created a bit of confusion. Given the lack of cohesion nationwide regarding ESL instruction, it is quite common to find state boards of education and private industry/business utilizing one or more acronyms, often describing the same type of instruction. Presented here are the most commonly and authoritatively accepted definitions for the various terms related to teaching English to non-native speakers.
Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL): The acronym TESOL is a general industry term used to describe educating English Learners. Within TESOL, the following terms are used:
- Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL): TESL involves teaching English to speakers of other languages and it most often interchanged with the term ESL teaching/teachers. TESL/ESL teachers may work for public or private PK-12 schools; private tutoring companies; companies/organizations; and colleges/universities, just to name a few.
- Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL): TEFL involves teaching English abroad where English is not the primary language. TEFL educators may work for international schools, international companies, international organizations/associations, and international universities, just to name a few.
- English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL): The term ESOL is generally used when describing programs outside of a PK-12 setting that are designed for ELLs who seek proficiency in social and academic language; ESOL programs, which may also be referred to as English as a Second Language programs, generally teach basic grammar, vocabulary and colloquial terms and phrases to ELLs in a community college, community program, or online program setting. However, states like Florida utilize the ESOL title to describe its academic endorsement for public school teachers and it is commonly used interchangeably with ESL and TESL.
- English Language Learner (ELL): ELL simply refers to students who are not currently proficient as English speakers and are in the process of developing their English language skills. ELL students are referred to as such in both ESL specific classes and regular content area classes that they are integrated into. ELL is a universally accepted term for English language learners in the K-12 setting, as well as among adult non-native English speakers who in the process of learning English.
It is typical for undergraduate and graduate programs and primary and secondary endorsements for ESL in public school settings to be labeled using the acronyms ESOL, ESL, ELL, TESL, and TESOL.
What is an English as a Second Language (ESL) Teacher?
ESL teachers work with English Language Learners (ELLs), or those students for whom English is not their primary language. ESL teachers work with ELLs to help them acquire fluency in English, both spoken and in the written word. ESL teachers, who may work with students of all ages, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, must achieve state-specific credentials in ESL if they work in a public school setting.
ESL teachers also serve as a cultural bridge for students, linking a student’s native culture with their new cultural experience in the United States. As such, ESL teachers help students recognize the similarities between the two cultures.
However, ESL teachers should not be confused with foreign language teachers. Unlike foreign language teachers, who educate students with whom they share a common language, ESL teachers most often educate students with whom they do not share a common language. Because of this, ESL teachers are trained to offer basic explanations using repetition, demonstrations, and pictures.
Qualifying to Become an ESL Teacher
An education in ESL may be obtained through a state-approved teacher preparation program at the undergraduate or graduate level, or it may be a certification program that serves as an additional endorsement to a current teaching license at the elementary or secondary level in a public school setting.
Many states offer ESL as a primary endorsement, such as Oklahoma (English as a Second Language, P-12), Connecticut (TESOL, PK-12), and Washington D.C. (English as a Second Language) for public school teachers. Other states that do not offer ESL as a primary endorsement, offer ESL as an add-on endorsement. Among these states are Arkansas, North Dakota, and Louisiana.
Licensed educators certified in elementary education, and secondary teachers certified in language arts and English (and many times in other subjects), often pursue ESL certification, which typically includes between 15 and 18 semester hours of study, as to best meet the needs of their student population.
Requirements for ESL education and/or certification may differ for private schools and for instruction in private industry or business. TESOL certification is often required.
The Important Work of ESL Teachers
ESL instruction must generally meet specific education laws, including state and federal requirements. Although curriculum for ESL teachers may vary from state to state, all states are currently required to provide ESL learning programs that meet federal mandates for education, including the No Child Left Behind Act.
ESL teachers may work in ELL classrooms as primary educators, or they may work alongside primary teachers as auxiliary support. Providing support in typical classrooms has become commonplace for ESL teachers as many states seek to immerse ELLs in regular class settings. The ultimate goal of ESL teachers is to ensure that ELLs become fluent as to meet the same standards as native English learners.
The Challenges and Opportunities that Await New ESL Teachers
The U.S. Department of State, through their publication, Count Me In- Developing Inclusive International Schools, recognizes that many teachers may lack confidence in teaching ESL students. However, the publication pointed out that effective language teaching for both ESL and other students focuses on “meaning-making,” rather than on recall of vocabulary words and that a positive classroom environment is one that supports true interaction and collaboration between teacher, student, and parent.
It is therefore up to ESL teachers to ensure that favorable conditions surround the acquisition of a second language. ESL teachers, aware of student needs, can circumvent negative student experiences and allow all students to benefit from rich language experiences. It can therefore be said that some of the most important goals of ESL teachers involve:
- Providing environments that are orchestrated to provide opportunities for making meaning, rather than simply recalling new vocabulary or other facts
- Providing a supportive environment where appropriate cognitive challenges exist and conditions that produce threat and anxiety are reduced
- Providing comprehensive input, which includes conveying a message in language that is pitched just beyond what the ELL students can produce themselves
The Department of State publication states that based on the fact that language acquisition in both first and second languages tends to be similar, all students will benefit from an effective language program that is “rich in opportunities to construct personal meaning from course content.”
ESL teachers, according to the publication, should:
- Expect and respect a silent period in beginning ELL students
- Allow students time to process questions and answers
- Develop non-verbal ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge (charades, role playing, interactive games, drawings, etc.)
- Try to take time to address new students on a one-on-one basis each day
- Utilize assigned peers (buddies) for new ESL students
- Encourage students to discuss academic topics at home in their native language
- Find ways to value ELL’s home culture and language
- Use instructional methodologies that are active and focus on learning by doing and higher-level thinking processes
- Focus on the transmission of meaning and the development of concepts, rather than correct grammatical form
- Implement consistent and valued teaching and learning strategies