Things that Happen When You Teach ESL

Things that Happen When You Teach ESL

By Margaret Ann Porter

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“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” – Paul McCartney


Volunteer teachers at the LCS-Wilkes Center ‘English as a Second Language’ program know that Sir Paul’s lyrics are true: When you teach ESL to Mexican students, ages 15 years and up, you’ll feel as if you are getting more out of it than you’re able to give. Yet by year’s end, you will more fully understand the nature of the exchange that has taken place – one full of laughter and bravery, with English giving no quarters, yet you all somehow moved forward together.

Rooted in Greek and Latin, English has morphed through time into its own language, yet it remains the body-snatcher of articulation, claiming words like ‘patio’ and ‘guerrilla’ from Spanish, ‘ballet’ and ‘entrepreneur’ from French, ‘diesel and ‘kindergarten’ from German, ‘tsunami’ and ‘karaoke’ from Japanese, and even words like the humble ‘moped’ from Swedish.

The rules of English will seem clear, but just as an ESL student and her teacher think they’ve learned one thoroughly, they’ll start running into the exceptions to the rules, and these things breed like tlacuaches, the mother-exception carrying the little buggers in her pouch.

Hoo boy, then here come the homonyms: Example, bear, meaning to withstand, carry, or force an infant out of one’s uterus; bear, meaning a large furry animal, or any male over 250 lbs. with Scottish ancestry. It’s difficult to explain to ESL students why we have such a lazy language – one word, spelled the same, different meanings – as compared to Spanish, which is so distinct; if Mexicans need a new word for something, they make one up, present it in a song, and everyone practices using it in a sentence while dancing. No hay problema.

And don’t get me started on homophones, prepositions, transitive verbs, et. al. (I just looked that up: et. al. = et alia, meaning ‘and others.’ But why do we use that? Why? Can anyone tell me?)

Seriously, though, let me be frank, not to worry, whatever segue (a word borrowed from Italian) floats your boat: I taught ESL at the Wilkes Center successfully for three years and I can proclaim that ESL can be taught by those of us who have never read, How To Teach English: Snob’s Edition.

All you need is to like watching people grow, adventures into the unknown, and feeling appreciated. Because, you see, when you teach ESL at the Wilkes Center, three things inevitably happen:

You realize that many of the students are aware that you don’t know what you’re talking about and that you’re faking it, albeit comically so. They’ll sit there, staring at you with sparkling eyes, smiling, until one of them offers to help you explain the concept to the group because they studied it just last week.

No matter how often you read classroom rule #2 to the students – “English only spoken in this class!” –the students will speak Spanish at every opportunity as they figure things out alongside each other. If you’ll employ your own rudimentary understanding of Spanish, you will discover that their way of learning through bilingual comparison can improve the quality of your English instruction to them;  it is easier to teach them English if you understand how to unwind it from the rhythms of Spanish. You will also learn more Spanish than you thought you ever could.

Spanish is the “heart” language of your students, the first words they heard from their mother’s mouth and embedded by the culture; English is their “head” language, and might be only one of many languages they will learn in the course of their lifetime. When you teach English alongside your Mexican students, discovering the joys and frustrations of it together, you will come to know that your Mexican students allow their hearts to guide what their heads do. Not only is a teacher lucky in this regard, but she will learn to appreciate her own “heart” language and culture, too.

The good news is that the LCS-Wilkes ESL Program uses a textbook called “Side-by-Side” and it comes with a teacher’s guide with step-by-step lesson plans and concept-reinforcement ideas that are creative and fun. The Internet is loaded with ESL tools and games, too.

So if you want to enjoy teaching ESL to Mexican students – where the apprehension of English happens without much apprehension(… sigh) –contact director Inez Dyer at

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