Reflection on Teaching English Language Learners

From 2007 to 2015, I had the privilege of teaching English as a foreign language in two different South Korean cities, Daegu and Gangneung. In the first three years, I taught at a private academy in Daegu and had students ranging from kindergarten age to senior citizens. In my final four years, I taught in a public middle school with grades seven to nine. For this reflection, I will focus on the experience I had in the Gangneung middle school.

This middle school had nine different classes in each grade, and the students had varying English abilities. This made instruction quite challenging as each class had students who were still mastering basic reading, with students who had studied overseas in English-speaking countries. This disparity in skill levels forced me to create lessons that were as flexible as possible to not exclude anyone. I encouraged group work when possible to make scaffolding easier for the students. Unlike most other native English teachers, I went from classroom to classroom, so the students were organized in rows of desks. Restructuring the learning environment to better suit the students’ needs was always a high priority.

The curriculum I was to teach was of questionable quality. There was an English textbook for each grade, and each chapter acted as a unit, with three lessons per chapter. Korea’s education system is still very much entrenched into the notion of standardized tests (such tests have been important there for millennia). What I included within my lessons was fairly open-ended, as long as I hit upon all the main topics for my section of the chapter. As long as the students were in good position for their midterms and final exams, I was given a wide berth to teach what I wanted.

Generally, my lesson would open with a five-minute review of the previous week’s lesson. Then I would introduce new content, and model its use. When the students were comfortable enough, they would use the content in a group activity of some sort that would often involve moving around to gather information (elements of total physical response). Once enough time had passed, I would call the class together, and go through the students’ responses to the activity. I would then add more detail to a previous point, or introduce a new point, and have an activity set up for the latter. The consolidation of the class would be students presenting their work on the final activity. I would also include extension type activities for students who finished the main activities quickly, and they could do these independently, or help each other out without distracting the others.

The years I spent in Gangneung made it apparent how important it was to build an inclusive atmosphere where students did not need to feel uncomfortable in asking for help. It also taught me how to balance my desire to assist my students, and knowing when to let them try to figure things out on their own. I often had very high expectations for my students, and I was always exceedingly proud when I saw their progress grow by leaps and bounds.

Teaching ELL students in Ottawa presents a different set of challenges. Students in my practicum lessons benefited from my ability to clearly speak in terms they would understand. However, for lower level ELL students, I was not able to use the crutch of speaking their native tongue to deliver clearer instructions (something I could do in Korea). While I could get the students to understand the activity in the end, it would have been more expedient if I had an exemplar to model. My lessons in Korea were highly-visual, but my lessons during practicum lacked this component. Going forward, if I do not have enough time to create my own presentations for each lesson, I will be sure to at least have visuals for key points, so ELL students can better follow along.

I believe every second language learner has the potential to succeed in school if they are given the appropriate support. The many ESL students in my practicum were fortunate enough to have LRTs during science and math lessons. Their comprehension was greatly enhanced with the increased attention, and the smaller student-teacher ratio. Being able to incorporate staff properly, so their time is not wasted, will require differentiation within my lessons to better serve ELL students. It is also imperative that I place students strategically with each other, so that ELL students are with someone they trust enough to ask for help when it is needed.