Wednesday, October 29, 2008

ESL Tutoring and the Economy

A large part of my ESL tutoring is devoted to job interview preparation, as well as resume and cover letter writing. My students who are studying for their MBAs have been notably more concerned over these past few weeks.

A regular topic of conversation these days (usually small talk) is the devaluation of the currency of my students' home countries.

Our economic downturn is definitely reaching far.

I don't see that private ESL tutoring is taking a hit, yet. Students still visit from other countries and still want to take advantage of learning English while they are here in the U.S.

We'll see how long ESL tutoring holds out as a recession-proof industry.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Is 9/11 an Appropriate ESL Conversation Topic?

It's hard for Americans not to recall the events of seven years ago. In so many ways, we are still recovering. But are the events and causes of this day appropriate for ESL class topics?

Last year, I made a comment to one of my ESL students from Europe. I said that the events of that day have not only changed life for Americans, but have also "impacted the whole world." As an educated American, I thought that was a valid comment.

My ESL student pointed out to me that that was indeed a very American perspective. Her opinion was that we Americans think that the whole world has changed due to the events of 9/11. However, it was her opinion that this was not so. That people in her country do not think about these events as particularly significant.

I won't go into the rest of the conversation we had. The question is whether this is an appropriate topic for conversation. I'd say it is. But we have to remember that in an ESL conversation class, the point is to get the English language learner to talk, whatever the opinion, whatever the perspective, whatever the topic.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Advertising and Growing an ESL Tutoring Business

As most of my readers already know, the only advertising I do to get new ESL students is on I usually keep two slightly different ads running at all times.

However, I've noticed that the last ad I placed was on July 5th. I haven't had a single opening since then. And as a couple of my regular ESL students are leaving at the end of summer, I have former students either returning to the country and/or ready to start taking lessons again, so there's no need to advertise for new students.

The ESL tutoring business is similar to other business in that it grows over time and less work is needed to grow the business. My business has grown and only requires a minimum of time to maintain the number of students I want.

So if you are new in your tutoring business, know that it will likely grow and pay off. It just takes some diligence and patience.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Raising ESL Tutoring Fees

I recently raised my rates for private ESL tutoring sessions. I had put it off as long as possible, but with the cost of gasoline and the general cost of living increasing, I really didn't have another option.

Of course, I wondered how my higher rates would effect my ESL tutoring business and whether it would stop new students from contacting me. It didn't.

The students I had before my rate change are still paying the older rates. I didn't feel it necessary to increase these ESL tutoring fees.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Emails to ESL Students

It's a good idea to proofread any email before you send it out. However, I feel it's particularly important to proofread emails to ESL students. Additionally, it's important to choose appropriate words according to the level of the English language learner.

The reasons for very clear and correct emails to ESL students are twofold: (1) to avoid confusion (especially about ESL tutoring meeting times), and (2) so that the ESL student doesn't pick up any bad or wrong habits (and to avoid their confusion about how English should be written).


Friday, August 8, 2008

The Olympics and ESL Students

The Olympics are a great ESL conversation topic. I'm using it as a topic for all my private ESL students; and the topic is really a bit different depending upon the student.

General topics for ESL conversation include:

-the sports events at the Olympics

-the politics of the Olympics

-whether the Games have been held in your student's home country and what effect that had on the country

-medals won or not won by a country

-the Para-Olympics and disabilities in general

-country rivalries

-sports the ESL student likes to play

-physical education in schools

-the significance of 8/8/08


As you can see, the Olympics are only a starting point for conversation and can lead to many topics. The great thing about the general topic is that it is something most students already know about and can therefore talk about without too much prompting (you usually don't have to pull teeth!).


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ask a Native Speaker to Review Your Sign!

I saw a sign over a pizza joint yesterday. It said, "Minute Pizzas and Great Salads." This will be a fun slogan to present to some of my ESL students.

Of course, the owner's intention was to imply that you could get your pizza there quickly. But as native-English-speakers know, this word has two different pronunciations. Depending on the pronunciation, "minute" can also be an adjective which means very, very small or unimportant or insignificant.

I don't think that was the intention of the pizza joint owner!


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Keeping Track of ESL Lessons

When I first started privately tutoring ESL students, I didn't have a system in place for keeping track of my lessons and topics covered. This wasn't a big problem for the first few lessons and when I had very few students. However, as the number of students grew and time passed, I wasn't able to remember everything. Especially since some students study English with me for a long time. It hasn't been unusual for some learners to work with me for over a year.

At some point I realized that I needed to keep better track of what had been covered. I thought of a checklist of sorts, but that didn't work very well, as different students had very different needs.

I have always prepared a one-sheet lesson plan for every tutoring session. Even if it is just a conversation class. During class, I use this piece of paper to make notes to myself about what has been covered and what needs to be covered in the future. Having a lesson plan also shows the student that you are a professional and they seem to appreciate the time you take to prepare for class. I also have a folder for each student.

At a minimum, I've found that it's at least important to know how many lessons I've had with the student. So at the top of every lesson plan, I have the student's name, the lesson number and the date. For example:

John Smith
Lesson #6
July 19, 2008

You usually never know for sure how long you'll be working with a student, so keeping track of your lessons can be very useful. I think it's essential (for my own sanity, if nothing else!).

Friday, July 18, 2008

ESL Geniuses

So many of my ESL students over the years have been absolute geniuses. Of course, I didn't conduct any tests to verify this, but I think I'm right.

A lucky thing for me is that these English language learners have also been absolute joys to work with: very personable, considerate, kind, and open to learning.

Yet another one of the fringe benefits of being an ESL tutor.


Monday, July 14, 2008

Sick Days for ESL Tutors

Another disadvantage of being self-employed is that there is no sick leave! I’ve been under the weather for a few days and have had to cancel two days of classes with my ESL students.

As a self-employed ESL tutor, I’ve had to find other ways to supplement my income. Hence, my blog and websites. (Remember the old joke: What’s the difference between a large pizza and an ESL teacher? A large pizza can feed a family of four!)

I’ve found it interesting to note all the home-based-business opportunities out there that tell you you can set your own hours, make the income you want, etc., etc., etc.

Well, I suppose that is true for some, but what I’ve found to be more true for myself and others is that as a self-employed person, I’m seldom really not working. With websites, there is always more to do. More emails to answer. More pages to write. More corrections to make. More research to do.

Although being a self-employed ESL tutor does have some downsides (e.g., no sick leave, no vacation leave), I still would never trade it for a “real” j-o-b.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

List of Irregular Verbs

I've added an Irregular Verbs List to my main website.

This may be helpful for English language learners (and many native-English-speakers--including myself!) when using some verbs in the Simple Past and any of the Perfect tenses.

I'll try to turn it into a pdf so it's easier to print out just as soon as I remember how to do it!


Friday, July 11, 2008

ESL Tutor Scheduling Challenges

Being a self-employed ESL tutor is very rewarding work. I've mentioned before how it enables me to "travel vicariously" and meet many incredible and interesting people from all over the world. It also helps me to continue to (partially) see my own country through non-American eyes. I really enjoy this part.

One of the more time-consuming and challenging parts of being self-employed, but still working with other people, is all the schedule juggling I have to do; and the time-consuming emails I have to write after I try to figure out everyone's schedule. Of course, if I did not have to depend upon my income from teaching ESL, I wouldn't spend so much time trying to juggle everyone's schedules.

Here's the text of an email I had to write today:

Hi ,

It looks like we might have a problem meeting twice a week. Currently, 11:30 is the only opening I have on Wednesdays. I've learned that all my Tuesdays appointments are booked, so no time there either. (Do you think there may be any possibility of rescheduling your EAC meetings? I know this is probably not likely.)

I can see you at 3pm on Thursday, the 17th. Please confirm if this time works, or if you need 3:30.

I have you confirmed for Thursdays (starting July 24th) at 1 p.m.

My schedule has just gotten crazy lately, so I'm sorry about my limited availability. I often have cancellations, so whenever I have one, I could let you know right away so you can decide if you would like to take the class."

This email was to a new ESL student. Usually, after we get started and establish a regular schedule, that schedule is good for a few months (until life circumstances change, such as a new semester begins, or a work schedule changes, etc.).

I should probably also point out that the above email was to a very advanced ESL student. For newer English Language Learners, my emails (especially around logistics) are a lot more succinct and direct.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Question about ESL Advertising

An Anonymous teacher from the U.S. writes:

"Hi! I was reading on your blog that you have an ebook about setting up an ESL business. I'd be very interested to take a look at it. I've had my own business in a specific niche market for a few years now (teaching English to Japanese speakers, mostly businessmen) but I'm looking to branch out and create a dispatch service for ESL teachers in my area (New York city). Could you give me some pointers on advertising the business and recruiting students?

Many thanks."

Hi Anonymous,

Thank you for contacting me. I'm currently working on the e-book and am glad to let you know as soon as it is finished. I'll probably send a draft out to a few people for free if they are willing to give me comments and critique the book.

As for advertising, I only use It should be useful in your area as well. You may also want to look at the "advertising/marketing" section listed under "Article Topics" on this blog.

Good luck!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

ESL Textbooks for Beginners

An Anonymous teacher from Portugal writes:

Hi. I'd like to know what's the best coursebook for Portuguese students, who are learning English (100-150h) for the 1st time? Can you suggest the one you consider the most adequate and effective?

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for contacting me.

I have used a few series of books out there for classrooms, such as Focus on Grammar and New Interchange. They are both adequate. As for effective, I'd say they are as effective as any other books. It depends on how you use them and what supplemental material you use.

These are ESL textbooks for adults. You didn't mention if you're teaching children or adults. I don't have any recommendations for children.

If you're teaching one-to-one, then see my ESL Textbook Evaluation page for the books I use.

Good luck,

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Fourth of July

Here's another American holiday to discuss in a conversation class. However, since the point of a conversation class is to get the ESL (or EFL) students speaking, this topic could be a launching point to hear about holidays in your students' home countries.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Excuse Me" in Writing and Speaking

I've mentioned before that I advertise for new ESL students on I never put my phone number in the advertisement, just my email address. If potential students want to contact me for English lessons, they have to email me first.

I received an email inquiry today with an interesting greeting. The writer wrote, "Excuse me" as his greeting. I've received hundreds of email from English language learners and this was the first time I've read this introduction.

Of course, a more appropriate email opening is something like "hi" or "hello" or "good day" (although emails with "good day" are usually from scammers), etc.

I was thinking about this "excuse me" email greeting and although it's not conventional, it really does seem to a polite way to begin an email. I receive so many emails from potential students, people who have viewed my websites, friends, family, businesses, and on and on. I get a little overwhelmed with all the email sometimes.

So "excuse me" just seems like a fair greeting. (Of course, I am not recommending this greeting in emails. It's more appropriate for speaking situations. And if I end up working with this person, it will be something we discuss.) It just seemed right today.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Water" and English Language Learners

Many of my adult ESL students have a problem being understood when they say the word "water." They have found it frustrating when they try to order a glass of water at a restaurant. And "water" is just one of those words that is very hard to avoid using!

"Water" is such a simple and common word for most native English speakers, but it really has a lot of complex sounds for English language learners. The "t" is the universally difficult sound to pronounce in this word as it is pronounced as a quick "d" by native speakers (I'm talking about American English, here). The "w" is also difficult, as is the "er" sound.

I had a recent experience with this word that I found more interesting than usual due to my experiences with my ESL students.

I spent a few days with a native English-speaking two-year-old child who supposedly has a speech development delay. He's seeing a speech therapist. The adults around the child were trying to help him out by breaking up certain words into syllables and encouraging him to repeat the words. One of the words was "water."

The interesting thing to me was that when the adults broke up the word into two syllables, they said "wa-ter." The "t" was stressed as a very strong "t" sound. I'm sure the child will eventually pick up the common way to say this important word the American English way, but I'm not sure if the strong emphasis on the "t" sound is helping him at this time. Because of my experience with adult English language learners, I would have said "wa-der," with a "d" sound.

I just find language acquisition at any age and level to be fascinating. In my next life, I'll spend more time studying this subject (as well as becoming a forest ranger).


Thursday, June 12, 2008

How Much to Charge for Group ESL Lessons

It's easier to decide how much to charge ESL students in small groups after you've determined your hourly rate for ESL lessons. Students usually want to work in a group to get a reduced rate (otherwise, most English Language Learners seem to prefer working one-on-one with a private ESL tutor). You are not likely to get students in a small group to each pay the same amount as the individual rate.

However, you should definitely charge more for the group ESL lesson than you would normally charge for an individual student. It does, or at least it can, take more preparation time for a group of ESL students than an individual student, and you are offering your services to more people. You should be compensated for your work.

There is no hard and fast rule about how much to charge, but a good general rule is to charge individual students in a group two-thirds of your hourly rate for individual ESL lessons. So if you normally charge $30 per hour and you have two or more students, you would charge them each $20 for the hour lesson.


Thursday, June 5, 2008

Locations for ESL Tutoring Sessions

Here’s a list of the most commonly used locations for tutoring sessions. This list is by no means exhaustive.

1. Tutor’s home
2. Tutor’s office
3. Student’s home
4. Student’s office
5. School libraries
6. Public libraries
7. Senior centers
8. Community centers
9. Coffee shops
10. Recreation centers

Do you know of any other locations good for teaching private ESL students? If so, please share them with us. Thank you.


Monday, June 2, 2008

E-book on Starting an ESL Business

Almost on a daily basis, I receive emails from folks asking questions about teaching ESL to adults. Some of the questions are about teaching methods or grammar--most of those questions I answer with links to certain pages on my ESL website.

I also receive many questions about the business part of running an ESL tutoring business. And lots of questions about how to get started. I usually write back to the questioner and sometimes write the answer here in my blog if I have the permission of the asker to publish his or her question.

I've decided to try to put all these questions and answers (and a lot more) in an e-book about how to start an ESL tutoring business.

I'll be referring to all the prior questions I've received, but I'd like this book to be very thorough. Please contact me with any questions you might have about starting and running an ESL tutoring business.

Thank you,

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Giving and Receiving Gifts

I consider it a part of my responsibility as an ESL tutor to address cultural issues and especially cultural differences that enable my ESL students to understand "American culture" a little better. As most of my ESL students are very advanced, I don't often make culture the main topic of any lesson. Of course, it invariably comes up. There isn't really any way to avoid it! The student usually brings the topic to class.

The depth of our discussion about culture depends on the topic and the interest of the English language learner. I'm often able to explain the origin of many aspects of "American culture," the "why" of what we do, and a bit of history about the custom. To further our conversation practice, I also elicit information about the customs in the student's home culture.

Last week, a student stumped me by asking me the "why" of something we Americans do. She wanted to know why we often ask when receiving a present, "Should I open it now?" First, I was able to confirm that, yes, we usually do ask this question. However, the "why" of it was something I couldn't definitively answer. I speculated that it has something to do with economics and embarrassment. That the receiver of a gift doesn't want the giver to feel embarrassed about the cost of the gift, whether it is a costly or an inexpensive gift.

I'd love to hear some suggestions from other people familiar with American culture as to why we ask, "Should I open it now or later?" And I also welcome non-Americans to share their customs around receiving gifts in their home countries.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

ESL, Human Rights, and Same-Sex Marriages

Today is one of those days in the blogosphere where bloggers around the world are encouraged to write something in support of human rights. This is a particularly noteworthy day for human rights in the state of California.

Today, May 15, 2008, the California Supreme Court overturned a ban on same-sex marriages in the state of California. This means that it is now legal (actually, it goes into effect in 30 days) for people of the same sex to legally marry each other in the state and to enjoy the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as married couples of opposite genders.

I believe that this is an issue of human rights as it is an issue of equality. And in the United States, where we are supposed to have a separation of church and state, the Supreme Court's decision helps to clarify this separation.

This is certainly an ESL conversation topic I will be addressing with my conversation students in the next couple of days.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

ESL Students and the Electoral College

This is an exciting time in American politics. I had never thought that there would be an opportunity in my lifetime for a woman or an African American to possibly be the president of the U.S.

For my ESL students who are visiting from other countries, they are having a great opportunity to experience this time in American history (although, I realize that this may be my ethnocentric outlook!).

These days I find myself not only being an ESL tutor, but also a "civics" teacher. And one of the most difficult things to explain is the Electoral College, delegates, and superdelegates, etc. I must admit that I've had to review some of what I learned years ago in high school (and I don't think we learned about superdelegates back then!), and I find that it's still very difficult for me to explain and for my advanced ESL students to understand.

Such is American politics.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Needs Assessment or "Wing It"

An anonymous reader writes:

Hi there, What are your suggestions on the initial assessment of new students? Do you have a particular type of assessment that you give students or do you "wing-it?"

Love you site -- what a resource!

My response:

Hi Reader,

As a starting point, I use a Needs Analysis form I've adapted from various other Needs Assessment forms I've run across in previous teaching jobs. I've hesitated to post it to my sites because I really do also wing it depending on the student, and I haven't edited the form I use to reflect this.

Since I usually work one-on-one with very advanced English language learners, they are usually able to articulate what it is they want to work on. Mostly, I listen to what they say and how they say it and then take notes on what I think needs to be improved. This helps me to be able to tell my potential student how I would proceed in working with them. If they want to work on their writing skills, I ask them to send me a writing sample before our first class, and I analyze that before we meet.

My first meeting with potential students is always free as I do a Needs Analysis to determine their strengths and challenges. It also gives us both a chance to decide if we would like to work together, with no obligation.

Another reason that it's important to have a "form" is that it lets potential students know that you're a professional. I've had numerous students comment on the fact that the process is very professional. They seem to appreciate this and want to work with me more.

Good luck,
Teaching ESL to Adults

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

My ESL Tutor, the Tour Guide

Sometimes the duties of an ESL tutor go beyond the typical job description of a tutor. I happen to live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. My ESL students come here to study English and/or to study at the local universities. While they're here, they also like to do some sightseeing.

Some of my entire ESL lessons have been sessions about local, statewide and even national sights. Sometimes I feel a little guilty about talking about all the wonderful places I've been in the U.S. and making recommendations or planning travel itineraries. The English part of the lesson falls to the wayside. But I guess this is part of the flexibility of the ESL tutor. And, especially in private ESL tutoring, the English language learner is ultimately in control of the lesson. If he or she wants information or recommendations about where to travel and what to see, I'm pleased to provide the info.

Visit this page on my website for a more traditional list of the duties of an ESL teacher.


Monday, March 31, 2008

What is "Metalanguage?"

When English language teachers (and other languages, too) talk about "metalanguage," they primarily mean the "language" used to talk about the target language. A simple example would be if I say "present perfect progressive sentence" to talk about the form and functions of a sentence like "I have been studying English since I was a child."

Using metalanguage is an easy way for teachers (and others) to talk about a language. It's not a great idea to use metalanguage to teach English language learners. It's better to go directly to the target language. For example, if I'm teaching the Simple Present, I would use and elicit the target language. I might ask, "What do you do every morning?" In this case, I am hoping to get something like, "I eat breakfast." I am using the Simple Present, rather than talking about the Simple Present.

I do use some metalanguage when I am teaching advanced ESL students. They usually know all the names of grammar parts, and so it saves a lot of time to use the shortcut of metalanguage.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Making Assumptions about ESL Knowledge

I was tutoring an advanced ESL student today. He's a doctoral student at one of the top universities in the U.S. He asked me to primarily help him with his writing skills. I always focus on the areas my advanced students want to focus on, as opposed to beginning ESL students who need me to guide the directions of our ESL lessons a lot more.

Some small thing came up today about pronunciation. I started talking about the many vowel sounds English has, yet we only have five vowels (sometimes six with the letter "y"). I wrote and said, "a, e, i, o, u." He asked me to repeat the vowels. He said that this was the first time he'd heard a native speaker say the vowels.

I usually try not to make assumptions about what English language learners know or don't know. I'll often ask about something just to make sure. I never thought to ask about something as basic as the vowels. I learned that I still make certain assumptions and need to be even more conscious.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St. Patrick's Day

St. Patrick's Day is one of many holidays celebrated in the United States. I have to admit that this is not one of the holidays about which I know much. What I do know is probably part myth, part reality, and part childhood pranks.

As a tutor teaching ESL to adults, I am often able to use holidays as conversation topics. I can also use some holidays to discuss certain aspects of American history and culture. Of course, this has me doing most of the talking.

The best holidays are those that are also celebrated in my students' home countries or those American holidays that are similar to those celebrated in their home countries. This gives the English language learner an opportunity to talk about a subject with which they are familiar.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Words Used by Native English Speakers

One of my ESL students gave me a topical Chinese medicine for sore muscles. I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to read the directions, but my student assured me that the directions were also written in English. Indeed, they were.

In fact, the directions were very well written in perfect English. My experience with products made in non-English speaking countries is that the directions are often a little "off." The grammar or spelling or word choice is usually off.

I was impressed by the very clear and grammatically correct English used for the directions. The one thing that was a clear sign (to me at least) that the directions were not written by a native speaker was the use of the word "sportive." The directions said something like, "for use on sore muscles caused by sportive injuries." Yes, sportive is a legitimate word. And any native English speaker will understand the use of this word. However, a native speaker is going to use the word "sports" in this instance.

Word choice is often one of the things that my advanced English language learners are particularly interested in. They want to know how the "natives" speak. Teaching this type of vocabulary is often a lot easier for native English tutors than for English tutors whose first language is not English.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"There" vs. "Over There"

I hear many ESL speakers use "over there" when "there" sounds like the better option to me. If I hear it consistently from a student (or even from a friend whose native language is not English), I will try to offer a correction or suggestion.

My difficulty with this particular choice of words is that I myself do not have a clear handle on the reason(s) that one choice should be made over the other. I haven't seen this explained in any of the ESL textbooks I use for my ESL students or for my own reference. It's one of those slight differences that I can discern as a native speaker. I know in the particular situation which is better, but I can't give a generalization of why one is better. So I've just had to try to give examples of when to use which.

If I find something definitive or if you have any suggestions for me, I'll be sure to offer them here.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Help with Writing College Essays

For ESL teachers teaching writing, the teaching isn't only about grammar and punctuation. It may not even be about teaching structure or how to do an outline first. Sometimes, helping ESL students is about helping them to think about the answer to a question they may not have thought about before. Sometimes, being an ESL tutor is like being a psychotherapist.

I was recently helping two young community college students with a writing assignment for their English class. One student was nineteen years old and the other was twenty years old. The question for which they had to write an essay was something like, "What matters in life at any given time and what really matters in life are often different things. Write about three things that really matter. Give details. How have these three things helped to shape your moral world view." Although these are not the exact words of the question, they are very close.

The first thing I thought about this question was that the question was not written very well. This becomes particularly apparent when you start to take the question apart and try to answer it. Such a question is particularly difficult for English language learners.

In addition to helping my ESL students with an outline, the grammar, vocabulary, etc., I also had to ask probing questions of my students about their values and what really matters to them and why. Initially, they had no clue what to write about. After several of my questions, they came up with some answers. Then we had to come up with the "why" for the answers.

The students' answers to the teacher's question took quite a while to develop. As an ESL tutor, it was part of my job to help the students develop the answers (and of course, to help them to express their ideas in English). I also was very conscious of not imposing my views or moral judgments on the answers they had.

Overall, this was a very challenging writing assignment for both the ESL students and their tutor.


Saturday, March 8, 2008

International Women's Day

Happy International Women's Day to my ESL students, and to all.

I find it interesting that all of my students studying English (both male and female and no matter what country they are from) know what day today is. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising. Probably more interesting is the contrast: only about half the Americans I know are aware of the day.


Friday, March 7, 2008

Writing and ESL College Students

About a quarter of my ESL students at any given time are attending university or community college. These English language learners tend to need help writing papers for classes. The challenge for me as an English tutor is the limited time with which we have to work and complete the paper.

College ESL students who have sought out my service as an ESL tutor have wanted help in completing their papers and not specifically to learn grammar, vocabulary, and all the other typical topics covered in ESL classes. Of course, they often need these things as well, but the most important thing is the looming deadline and getting the paper completed.

As an ESL tutor, I find that I have to find a balance between suggesting the way something should be written (for the sake of expedience) and honoring the words, intentions, and ideas of the student.

For me covering the general topic of "writing" has been a challenge, especially when the English language learner is still struggling with the English language. It also takes a lot more time and so I find that I have to limit the number of students I take on who want to improve their writing. Of course, "improving writing" is different from helping with a paper that has a deadline of next week. We can take longer for "improving writing," generally, and veer off onto other topics (grammar, vocabulary, etc.) when needed.


Thursday, February 7, 2008

Gung Hay Fat Choy!

Happy New Year to my Asian ESL students and everyone else. This Spring Festival is one of the more (if not the most) important traditional Chinese holidays. It's also celebrated by other East Asian cultures and countries.

While it is important and useful for ESL students to learn about holidays in the English-speaking countries in which they live, I believe it's also important to learn about holidays celebrated by English language learners in their home countries.

PLUS, holidays are excellent conversation topics for ESL classes. They are a great opportunity for ESL students to use their knowledge and to share it with others.


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Tuesday

Today is "Super Tuesday" in the United States. That means that a large number of states in the U.S. will have their primary elections today to determine which two candidates will run for the U.S. presidency. This is a particularly historic day as it is the first time in American history that an African American man and a white woman are running for the Democratic nomination for the presidency (Shirley Chisholm, an African American democrat ran many years ago--and Angela Davis has run a few times--but these were more symbolic).

Many of my adult ESL students are surprised by some things about this election. One of the things that surprises the majority of my students is that this is regular work day. In many other countries, people are given the day off to vote. They are also surprised that it's such a big deal to us that a woman is running as many other countries have already had women leaders, even though they are supposedly less "progressive" than the U.S.

I'm surprised, and pleased, to see so many of my students are interested in our primary elections.

In any case, please don't forget to vote today, if you can!

Monday, January 28, 2008

New ESL Teacher Starting Private Tutoring

Andrea from the U.S. writes:

Hello! I am a college student majoring in TESOL. I'd like to do private tutoring out of my home after I graduate in December. Do you have any good advice for someone who is interested in doing this? I've been doing an internship in a high school and will be going overseas for student teaching in the summer. I've found I am better at one-on-one instruction. Anyway, I'll be visiting this site more often, as it seems very helpful!

Hi Andrea,

I'm not sure if you were looking at ESL Tutor or Teaching ESL to Adults . On the ESL Tutor site, you can look at the list or Article Topics for things like "self-employment" or "meeting locations," etc. Incidentally, I don't recommend teaching out of your home; too many horror stories. Check out the Article Topics list and if you have any specific questions, please feel free to write again.

Good luck,

"Speak Like the Natives"

A couple of days ago, I was chastised by someone who read one of my blog entries. She was "flabbergasted" by the fact that I call myself an "English language tutor." You can read her full Comment and my response here: Expressions for Physical Descriptions (look at the Comments section of the blog entry).

I was reminded of a college professor I had for a Research class in the mid 1980s. He was an older gentleman who had "old-fashioned" ways and ideas. Although it was a Research class (with papers and statistics and such), he would often take the opportunity to tell the class what he felt about the issues of the day.

One class, he went on a tirade about how we should only use the generic "he," "his" and "him" in our research papers. He told us how he felt about the use of "he/she," "s/he," or even "he or she," and other such variations to include the female in our writing. He believed that the masculine pronoun should continue to be used in all cases and that what the "women's libbers" were trying to do to the English language was ridiculous. I have some thoughts that his concerns were not solely about "the English language." He may have had some issues about the changes in the world that were occurring around him.

If one studies the English language (through formal study or merely through observation), one will notice that the English language is changing (maybe even "evolving" in some cases). It is not a static language. If it were static, dictionary writers would not be adding new words every year. Nor would they provide "Usage Notes" (as Longman's does) about the changing language. (See His, Hers or Theirs.

ESL students need to be taught Standard American English (in the U.S.) so that they will succeed in school and work. However, English language learners also need to be taught English as it is spoken and as it is used by native English speakers.

Many of my advanced English students have intensively studied English grammar in their home countries. Many have told me that they did not understand what people were saying and they had trouble making themselves understood when they first came to the U.S. After living in the U.S. for a while, they caught on, but mostly by context. However, they were not able to replicate the English words, expressions, reductions, etc., that they heard.

My students who are professionals are able to do their jobs effectively, but when it comes to making small talk and hanging out with their colleagues, they feel lost. It's as though the native speakers are speaking some other form of English. It is at this point that many English language learners turn to me. They want to "speak like native speakers." They want to fit in. They know formal English. And now they want to learn to speak as their colleagues do.

Yes, it is important to ensure that non-native (and native) English speakers know formal English. However, from my experience, it is also important that English language learners know how to "speak like the natives."

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Teaching "N," "L" and "R" to ESL Students

Penny from the U.S. writes:

Please help! I am a former French teacher volunteering to teach English to foreign adults. My Chinese lady cannot pronounce the nasal "N" as in nose. She says "L" instead. Is there some way to help her hear and say the sound?

Hi Penny,

Thank you for your email. L, N (and ng) and R are really difficult for Asian language speakers. I've even read that they (some Asian language speakers, Japanese, I think) cannot actually hear the difference. In my experience, I don't spend time training them to hear it, but rather, to say it.

What I do is use pronunciation books that have pictures of what their tongues, breathing, lips, etc. need to do to make each sound. I highly recommend the pronunciation book I refer to on this page ESL Textbook Evaluation. It has great drawings (I can't even figure out what some other books are trying to show), and explanations. It also shows you which sounds to teach first (e.g., N, then L, then R).

Good luck,

ESL Tutor
Teaching ESL to Adults

Saturday, January 26, 2008

How to Correct Consistent ESL Errors

Ben from Canada writes:

Hi, I have been teaching one-on-one English classes to adults for a while. My classes are usually conversation based with some focus on form. One of my current students is a native French speaker and he has recurring problems with using have/has, do/does, and plural 's'. I correct errors and give him a lot of feedback; however these problems have become somewhat fossilized. I was wondering if you had any advice about how to stop students from making these same errors over and over again. I thought of getting him to write down the error when I correct him, but I am unsure whether this will disrupt the flow of the class too much. Thank you for your time.

Hi Ben,

I have the same problems with many (if not all) of my students. The "s" (either added or dropped) is particularly troublesome. I haven't found any magic key for these three recurring errors. I understand what you mean about not wanting to disrupt the flow. Depending on the purpose of the class, I often don't correct errors each time they're made, but take notes and then review errors every ten minutes or so.

I find that some students are more willing to work on specific problems (and actually make changes) if we discuss they "why" of it, or the importance of getting the "s" right or the "do/does" right. I often use humor to stress the importance. Also, if we decide that we are going to specifically work on a particular problem, I get the students' permission/buy in up front and let them know I am going to correct them each time they make the specific error we're working on. I think that by interrupting the speaker each time an error is made, then we can break that neural connection in the brain and start trying to build a strong and correct connection.

If you learn of any other suggestions, please let me know!

ESL Tutor
Teaching ESL to Adults


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Essay Outline for ESL Students

I'm meeting with an ESL student I met a couple of months ago. At that time, we worked on a Personal Statement for college admission. Today, we're meeting to go over how to write an essay. This particular questions comes up over and over again with my ESL college students. So I decided to make a printout of the Outline I recommend that students follow.

Here it is:

Simple Outline

I. Introduction

II. Point A

III. Point B

IV. Point C

V. Conclusion
Detailed Outline

I. Introduction
     A. What is the paper about (thesis statement)
     B. What are the points that will be covered
     C. Transition sentence to Point A

II. Point A (Topic Sentence)
     A. Sub-point a
     B. Sub-point b
     C. Sub-point c
     D. Point A conclusion and transition to Point B (one sentence)

III. Point B (Topic Sentence)
     A. Sub-point a
     B. Sub-point b
     C. Sub-point c
     D. Point B conclusion and transition to Point C (one sentence)

IV. Point C (Topic Sentence)
     A. Sub-point a
     B. Sub-point b
     C. Sub-point c
     D. Point C conclusion and (possible) transition to Conclusion

V. Conclusion (different types are possible)
     A. Summary of Points (and/or)
     B. Your recommendation

Of course, this outline will probably require an explanation for the writing student, as it is a guideline and will have to be adjusted according to the type of paper the student is writing. It's easier to explain this to your ESL writing student in person.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Expressions for Physical Descriptions

As I was walking to meet a new ESL student today, I was wondering what she would look like. The majority of my students are and have been Asian. After I write a description of myself to them, sometimes they write back with a description of themselves. It's usually something like, "I'm Asian and have black hair." As you can imagine, this description isn't the most useful, but I usually can tell who a new student is when they walk through the coffee shop door.

Today's new student was from France. She didn't provide me with a physical description, but I wasn't too worried. Just curious. Like I said, I can usually tell a new student the moment they walk through the door because they look like they are looking for someone.

I mentioned yesterday that I used to write that I have "olive skin." I also (a long time ago) used to write that I had "salt and pepper" hair. While this is also an expression, it's easier to figure out than "olive." So I was thinking about the whole description, "salt and pepper hair with olive skin." I amused myself by thinking about what this would look like in a literal sense.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Consciously Choosing our Words

I meet my adult ESL students in a coffee shop. For our first meeting, I send an email with the address and detailed directions to the coffee shop. I also send a brief description of myself.

I used to say that I had "light olive" skin. This is a typical expression used in the U.S. to describe someone with "light brown" skin. It's such a typical expression that I never gave it a second thought, until one day...

I met a new ESL student and he told me that he wondered what I would look like because he had no idea what "olive skin" would be like. I've changed the wording of my physical description in my intro email!

It just served to remind me that no matter how conscious I am of the English language and all it's aspects, there are some parts of our language that are so internalized that we don't even give them a second thought.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Slow Children at Play"

One of the things I try to impress upon my adult ESL students is how intonation and all it's components are just as critical as grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc. Knowing what words to stress in a sentence and when to pause are important in making oneself understood.

I was reminded about the importance of pauses when I saw a sign today that said, "Slow Children at Play." If you've paid attention to this typical sign over the years, you may have noticed that the words have been spaced differently than they used to be. Now, the "slow" is separated from "children" so that it's not read as "slow children" (possibly meaning children with learning difficulties). With written English, it's easier to show the pauses where they need to be. With spoken English, we need to use the pause to make ourselves understood correctly.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Limiting Use of Modals with ESL Beginners

I make it a regular practice to teach modals to my intermediate and advanced ESL students. I describe modals as those words that give "feeling" or extra meaning to verbs. I also explain how they can be used to sound generally more polite, especially when making requests.

However, I limit my teaching of modals when I work with beginning ESL students. Although, I may suggest that they memorize certain phrases like, "May I have a cup of coffee."

I'm thinking about modals tonight because I was watching my all-time favorite reality show, "Amazing Race." In short, this is a TV show about pairs of people racing around the world. I love this show because it's yet another way for me to travel vicariously.

Tonight, the teams were in Taiwan. Only one of the teams had a member who spoke "Chinese," so most of the others were stumbling along and looking for help from the locals without speaking the local language. One team member asked for directions by saying to a local, "Would you be able to show us?" The American was obviously trying to be polite by using the modal, "would." However, I thought that a more simple way to say this in English would be something like, "Please, show us," or even, "Could you please show us."

When speaking to beginning English language learners (not necessarily when teaching, but just when communicating), native English speakers need to find a balance between being polite and the use of modals.


Friday, January 11, 2008

ESL Writing Students

Most ESL schools are notorious for not paying their ESL tutors for lesson preparation time. As a private ESL tutor, I have a little more control over the types of students I accept and how much time I spend preparing lessons (of course, when an ESL teacher or tutor is starting out, he or she spends a lot of time on lesson preparation).

Working with ESL students who want to improve their writing skills will almost always take longer than working with students who, for example, want to improve their speaking skills.

To do a good job of teaching students, I have to spend a significant amount of time correcting writing assignments for students. To maximize my time as a private tutor, I find that it's more efficient for me to limit the number of ESL writing students I take on.


Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Intonation for ESL Speakers

I've mentioned before that most of my adult ESL students are advanced level English speakers. They know the rules of English grammar better than me! Yet, when it comes to speaking and listening skills, my students always have room for improvement. Many come to me saying that they want to improve their pronunciation.

I use a three-pronged approach to teaching adult ESL students "pronunciation." Often, when they come to me and say that they want to work on their English pronunciation, they say that they want to learn how to say different words correctly. Well, this is indeed one of the prongs. The other two are specific sounds and intonation.

To me, intonation is perhaps the most important part of pronunciation. I believe that even when someone does not say a word or sound correctly, I (the listener) will still be able to understand the student if the intonation is correct, or nearly correct. On the other hand, perfect word and sound pronunciation with "terrible" intonation is not going to communicate the message of the speaker correctly; not even for a native English speaker.

After I show my ESL students how intonation can totally change the meaning of a sentence (using the "red hat" exercise: "I did not say you stole my red hat"), then they start to see the importance of intonation. Often, just the initial awareness of intonation and the "music" of English will help a student to improve his or her speaking skills dramatically.


Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Stressing the Outline for ESL Writing

Several of my adult ESL students want to improve their writing skills for college courses. Most are very advanced English language learners, although some have only intermediate writing skills. Working with intermediate students to improve their writing skills can take quite a while because of all the potential English grammar errors (and word choice, syntax, etc.).

When working with these students, not only do all of the above components of English have to be addressed, but also how to structure a paper. I've mentioned before that much of what I teach about how to structure a college paper, I learned in high school. It's solid advice.

As I work with one particular student who is very advanced (she started studying in the U.S. at the beginning of high school), I'm finding that I have to stress the outline part of the writing process to help her to become a better writer. It's tempting to rush this process, but it's really essential.


Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Difference Between "Hear" and "Listen"

Many of my ESL students are confused about when to use the verb "hear" and when to use the verb "listen." I wonder if this may be because in other languages (at least Spanish--escuchar), the same word is used for both English words.

"To hear" is used when a sound comes to your ears. For example, I hear loud music coming from next door. Or, I hear the dog barking outside. Or, I hear the baby crying.

"To listen" is used when a person wants to hear something and is paying attention to it. For example, I am listening to a wonderful new CD. Or, I am listening to my brilliant ESL tutor's explanation about verb tenses.

Compare, "I was listening to some music when I heard the phone ring." Here, I am actively listening to some music and the sound of the phone ringing was a sound that came to me without my taking any action.

P.S. I love the dictionary, Longman Advanced American Dictionary because it knows that students get these two words confused (and many others) and if offers examples of the differences.


Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year to Readers and ESL Students

It's interesting to me how "we" celebrate January 1st as the New Year. I guess what's more interesting to me is that so many of my ESL students celebrate the New Year according to the Lunar Calendar. It just seems to make so much more sense. Or at least many of my ESL students are so clearly able to explain to me the significance of the New Year according to the Lunar Calendar (or the "Chinese New Year" as most of my students call it).

Anyway, I wish all my ESL site readers and my ESL students a very Happy New Year.