Saturday, March 31, 2007

Best ESL Books for Teachers

Every private tutor needs to have a library of ESL teaching books and resources. Unfortunately, these books are expensive! Fortunately, you can often find copies at used bookstores and even online. The following is a list of the main books I use over and over again when teaching students or when I need to look up an English grammar point I’m unsure of. (Like ending a sentence with a preposition!)

Reference Books for ESL Teachers and Advanced ESL Students

Practical English Usageby Michael Swan, published by Oxford University Press - This book is my grammar bible. If you don’t buy any other book, buy this one. It answers 99% of the questions you could ever have about English grammar. I also highly recommend this to all of my advanced ESL students. I have the second edition. The newest is the third edition. It’s not as expensive as most grammar books, but it ain’t cheap either. So if you find a good used copy of an older edition, I’d go for it.

Longman Advanced American Dictionary- This dictionary is great because its definitions are those commonly used today. It also gives great examples of how to use words and it “knows” when you might get something confused (for example, if you can’t remember the difference between a phrase and a clause, it will define one word and tell you to also see the other). Every student I’ve recommended this dictionary to has spoken highly of it. Longman makes a few dictionaries. Be sure to get the one with the exact title above. It comes with a CD-ROM.

Textbooks I Use Regularly

Understanding and Using English Grammarby Betty Schrampfer Azar - This book is great for your intermediate to advanced ESL students. It has all the important grammar points laid out nicely in charts with explanations and examples. It also has student exercises. If you have higher level ESL students, this is the one grammar book (with exercises) that I highly recommend.

Grammar in Use - Intermediateby Raymond Murphy - This is my second choice ESL grammar textbook. Although “intermediate” is in the title, I feel it is also appropriate for advanced level students (apparently Murphy thinks so too, because he hasn’t published an advanced version). Each grammar point that it addresses has one page of examples with a little bit of explanation and one page of student exercises. For the best grammar presentations and explanations, I prefer Azar (above), but Grammar in Use is good when you want supplemental exercises and/or you prefer a shorter explanation of the grammar points.

Basic Grammar in Useby Raymond Murphy – This textbook is for beginning level ESL students. This is my number one textbook for beginners. It’s laid out the same way as the Intermediate book. Beginning level English doesn’t require as much explanation, so this textbook works well.

The Best ESL Pronunciation Book

Pronunciation Pairs: An Introductory Course for Students of Englishby Ann Baker and Sharon Goldstein – I stumbled upon this book in a used book store, and to this day, I consider it one of the best finds ever. There’s a teacher’s version and a student’s version. Either one will work well, but the teacher’s version is particularly helpful because it tells you what difficulties to expect of your students.

One More Helpful Book for ESL Students

The Oxford Picture Dictionary- The title says it all. I have the English monolingual version. If your student also buys one, he or she can get one that is bilingual. I use this book for my beginning level students. I found my copy at a used bookstore.

Please let me know if you have any other suggestions for "must have" ESL books.

How to Find New ESL Students

As a self-employed English as a Second Language tutor, it's my responsibility (and livelihood!) to find my own students. Adult learners often have specific goals in mind. About half of my students at any given time live and work in the U.S. This is their home and they are trying to advance in their careers. The other half are ESL students who live in other countries and are here for a short while (a few months to a year) to study classes in their particular field and/or to improve their English language skills. We are able to meet their goals in a matter of months, so I continually need to market my services in order to have a constant source of students.

My primary source of new students is I keep at least one ad running (almost) at all times. Since I only tutor adult ESL learners, my ads focus on professionals living in the U.S. and visiting scholars. This free method of advertising has worked very well for me and has allowed me to earn a living through the number of students it provides me.

The trick to running an ad for ESL students (or any other type of new client) is to tell the reader what you can do for him or her first. People look at ads because they have a "problem" or a need and they want to find someone who can help them. So it's best to start your ad by telling your potential student what you can do for them.

I see a lot of ads where the writer makes the mistake of talking about themselves way too much. While the potential student wants to make sure that you are qualified, even more importantly he or she wants to make sure you can help solve their problem. Talk about your major qualifications at the end of the ad. Remember that it is more important to tell the reader how you can help him or her solve a problem.

Friday, March 30, 2007

English Conversation Practice

Most of my students are advanced level English as a Second Lanuage speakers. Many have learned grammar very well in their home countries, but most do not feel comfortable with their English speaking skills. The majority of our tutoring sessions focus on speaking skills. The trick, sometimes, is in finding a topic that the student has enough knowledge about (and vocabulary) and feels comfortable enough to speak about in English.

Knowing something about your student's interests will help with this. When I first meet a potential ESL student, I ask about their hobbies, their likes and dislikes, what they do in their spare time, etc. This way, I can choose topics that are interesting to them when we meet. I often try to find an article (often on Yahoo!News) relating to one of their interests for them to read before our meeting. Using an article as the topic of our conversation practice accomplishes several purposes: (1) new idioms and phrasal verbs are introduced within a relevant context, (2) new vocabulary is introduced, (3) the student can exhibit understanding of written English --at least the central meaning, and (most helpful to the English tutor), (4) an article helps to focus the tutoring session.

I often start with a couple of open-ended questions, for example:

1) What is the article about?
2) How do you think the writer feels about the subject?

And then I ask more pointed questions, for example:

1) What does the word xxxxx mean in this sentence?
2) What does this phrase means?
3) Other specific factual questions that the article answers.

I'm lucky that I have a lot of different interests and know a little bit about a lot of different things (just enough to get into trouble!). So when I'm lucky enough to have a student who is a "talker" I can help increase their speaking skills by asking some questions that help stretch the abilities of the English language learner.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Job Interview Skills for ESL Speakers

The job interview process in the U.S. is familiar to most American adults. We know we usually need to provide a resume and a cover letter when applying for a new job. We know that there are certain questions that we will probably be asked during a job interview ("tell me about yourself," "how do you deal with conflict," "what do you bring to the job that other candidates do not," etc.) However, this whole process is foreign to many people from other parts of the world. Fortunately, many of these questions can be prepared for and rehearsed by job applicants by studying information from such sites as They have a great list of job interview questions and other pointers for job seekers.

Speakers of English as a Second Language have additional challenges to overcome when they are competing in the U.S. job market. Grammar problems, properly using modals, vocabulary limitations, pronunciation challenges, cultural differences, Visa issues, etc. These issues make it even more important that non-native English speakers thoroughly prepare for job interviews.

I usually send links to my students with information about the questions they should prepare for. They then work on the answers on their own time and we practice the answers during our tutoring session. Non-Americans often seem to have a tougher time tooting their own horns, so I often have to pull out more details for the answers so that the job seeker will shine in their interview. Of course, we also work on grammar, word choice, and other ESL issues for the interviews.

I'm currently working with a research physician from an Eastern European country. In her country, competition for positions is less and far less preparation is needed for a job interview. This whole process is new to her. Tonight, we worked on a few of the typical questions asked by most employers.

Student Needs Assessment

A Student Needs Assessment (aka Student Needs Analysis) is essential when you are teaching students one-to-one. Completing this process gives you a beginning roadmap to follow for the first couple of lessons with your new student. You'll learn more about the student's needs as you spend time with your student.

I work with adults only. The majority of my students are advanced ESL students, so they are able to tell me the areas they would like to focus on. That doesn't mean I slack off in doing the Needs Assessment. Sometimes the student may not be able to articulate the precise areas they need to improve. They just know that they want to improve their listening skills, for example, but they don't that the problem they are having is identifying reductions commonly used by native English speakers.

I always set up a free first meeting with a potential new student. This allows me to do an English skills Needs Analysis and it also gives the student and me an opportunity to decide if we would like to work together. This meeting takes between an hour and an hour-and-a-half. Of course, for beginning English level students, it takes a lot less time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Personal Pronouns and the Present Perfect

I met with two students today. One is an advanced ESL learner. I've been working with her for about a year. Much of the grammar we work on is review. Our major focus is conversation skills, accent reduction and pronunciation (mostly medical terms, as she is a Registered Nurse). I noticed some difficulty with Personal Pronouns, so we are reviewing them by using Azar's Understanding and Using English Grammar, chapter 8, "Pronouns." My student had some problems with the first exercise (mostly an assessment tool). We proceeded with Section 8-1, Personal Pronouns. This section provides a chart with subject pronouns, object pronouns, possessive pronouns and possessive adjectives. We also practiced identifying antecedents.

I remember having difficulty, myself, with pronouns when I studied Spanish. Memorization of each of the pronouns is necessary. This can be accomplished through written exercises (and sometimes has to be, otherwise, some students try to avoid using pronouns in spoken English) and verbal drills.

The second English language learner I tutored today is at a high beginner level. It's been 10 years since she studied English in high school in Korea. We've been working together for a couple of months. Today's lesson included the Present Perfect. I used Murphy's Basic Grammar in Use, unit 16, "Have you ever...?" I also introduced some new vocabulary phrases dealing with restaurants ("Do you take plastic?" "I'd like a doggy bag," etc.). Homework is to create a dialog between a diner and a server. (I developed this lesson plan a couple of years ago when I was studying for my TESOL certificate.)

Getting Started

I've been teaching English as a Second Language to adults for a couple of years. I work one-to-one, so I'm self-employed and don't have the benefit of working with colleagues to bounce off ideas, share lesson plans, or share all the wonderful things (and the challenges) that happen when I'm teaching. I've been thinking about doing a blog to share my experiences. Today is the day I start! Actually, it's after midnight. I have two students starting tomorrow at 10:30 and I haven't written out my lesson plans yet. I guess I'll be getting up early!