What does an ESL Teacher do?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

ESL stands for English as a Second Language, and generally English Language Learners (ELLs) are those people for whom English is not their primary language. ESL teachers work with ELLs to help them acquire fluency in English, both spoken and written. These teachers normally have special training in the field. Teachers in kindergarten through 12th grades usually hold credentials in ESL, and teachers at the community college level may have master's degrees in it.

ESL teachers instruct students who are learning English as a second language.
ESL teachers instruct students who are learning English as a second language.

One of the differences between a teacher of a foreign language and an ESL teacher is that most students taking the foreign language, at least in the US, share the common language of English. ELLs, on the other hand, don't necessarily share a common language. A teacher could be teaching adults or kids who speak a variety of languages, although various Asian languages and Spanish are most common.

Vocabulary cards for learning English.
Vocabulary cards for learning English.

Therefore, the one resource the ESL teacher usually doesn't have in the classroom is the ability to stop and explain things in a language common to all students. Though many teachers are fluent in several languages besides English, they generally aren't fluent in all of them, and the language background of an ESL class can be diverse. Therefore, explanations usually must be made in basic English, teaching the child or adult at first in simple ways with a lot of demonstration, pictures, and repetition, to understand English, to read it, and to speak it.

In primary school settings, a teacher may focus on teaching the students how to read and write.
In primary school settings, a teacher may focus on teaching the students how to read and write.

During training, a prospective ESL teacher learns some of the typical mistakes expected from certain language groups. For instance, many Asian languages don't pluralize word endings. Certain language groups don't need a specific order in sentences. Many aspects of the English language can be unfamiliar to the ELLs, including its alphabet. As students advance in English learning, and teaching grammar becomes a factor, focusing on common problems of the ESL student can be helpful.

Online language tutors might work with a group of students through the Internet.
Online language tutors might work with a group of students through the Internet.

In primary school settings, a teacher may focus on not only teaching kids how to speak English, but also how to read and write. Some ESL teachers are the primary teachers of ELL students, while others work in combination with standard primary teachers as auxiliary support. The goal is fluency for each student and an ability to quickly meet the same standards set for native English speakers.

Children tend to progress out of ESL classes into standard English classes, but the speed at which they do this depends a lot on their home environments. When English is not the primary home language, there are fewer opportunities to speak it. The teacher often encourages parents to take English classes too, which are frequently available for free at adult high schools or night schools. The more English a family can speak at home, the sooner a child will acquire fluency.

In the US, certain states have changed policies on how children are taught English, leading to fewer ESL teachers in the kindergarten through 12th grade setting. It was often the case in the past that the teacher taught not only English, but all subjects in the first few years of school, or that certain subjects were taught in the student's own language. This way, students could keep up with native English speakers in all subjects. Now, the goal in many states is to get the student immersed in regular class settings as quickly as possible, and many ESL programs have been dismantled, leading to fewer jobs in this field.

An ESL teacher may work with adult speakers of various Asian languages.
An ESL teacher may work with adult speakers of various Asian languages.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


How about this? My child was born in the U.S.A. Her father is American, and her mom is a U.S. citizen. She is fluent in English. She goes to Pre-K and has no problem expressing herself or listening in English.

I enrolled her in Kindergarten and I made a huge mistake mentioning that there is one foreign language spoken at home. My child is a native English speaker and can speak it well. So school starts and I get a call from the English as a Second Language teacher that she qualifies and she did not pass the test. Really? English is the only language she can speak. So I refused ESL classes, but she has to take ACCESS tests to get out of the "system". It's federal law. The child never needed ESL classes on the first place!

What's wrong with this picture? She is American and has to be involved with ESL? What a civil rights violation!


We adopted our daughter when she was four. At that time she had never heard a single word of English. It has taken us TWO years and much persuasion from us to get our very affluent school district to provide her ESL services.

She was accepted into the ESL program in August of 2009 and has not yet been seen by one of the four ESL instructors our district employs. Obviously, she was at an advantage in learning to speak English as that was all she heard once she was adopted, however, social English is completely different from academic English and these children need these mandated-by-law services to be able to succeed.

Our daughter should start seeing the instructor within the next few weeks and we are excited to finally be on the right road.

To Bigblind: Actually, these programs are a right, not a privilege.


@BigBlind: Why should the average taxpayer have to help pay for ESL programs? We should because we do benefit from having immigrants speak our language and learn our customs. We as a society benefit from educating children in general. Besides, people who don't have children at all have to pay taxes to educate your child.


It is a common misconception that "the more English a family can speak at home, the sooner a child will acquire fluency." The strongest indicator of success in ESL is a strong background, including literacy and academic skills, in a child's first language. Speaking broken English at home will not assist a child in acquiring the academic literacy that he needs to succeed in school.


Anon105666- I would be very concerned too if my child was put into an ESL class and didn’t speak Spanish. I don’t see how the school could allow that to happen. I think it would undoubtedly put him at a disadvantage, seeing the teacher requires extra time. All of the material would have to be in both languages. Have you talked to the principal?


So my son only speaks english, he has been put into an esl class. Is he going to be at a disadvantage? I would really like for him to be in a class where a language isn't being taught. I am really annoyed.


anon104387- I wish there were more people who realized that last fact, and then perhaps we could take a stand and demand changes in our education. These poor teachers are overloaded with student bodies and spend the school year preparing them to perform well on a test, just for money from our State. Our kids are not just missing out on daily recess, they are losing the right to exercise and grow socially.

Does the government realize what a disadvantage the American student will have in the global economy? Our high school graduate students were taught about American history while other major nations learned about theirs and ours. With this in mind, my husband and I make it a point to teach our children humility, social responsibility, art (in various forms) and the history of other cultures from around the world.


Students' "performance" is improving, that's true, but better understanding on the part of the students is not necessarily the reason. The SAT has been "dumbed down", and most elementary teachers are practically enslaved to teaching nothing but state-test material.


@klo – You say that education is not a government priority. While it is true that some aspects of modern American education are having funding reduced, the content of education itself has never been better. Students’ performance is constantly improving. There are more and more AP classes available for intelligent, ambitious students. Even the standard of mediocrity in education has risen considerably since, say, the 1970’s.

As far as ESL programs are concerned, I think they’re a privilege, not a right. Why should the average American taxpayer, who most likely does not benefit at all from ESL, have to help pay for these programs?


klo- Sadly, I agree with you. I don’t believe our government wants to acknowledge the quality of our education has gone down so much; then we’d have to admit we have a weakness.

I met a foreign exchange student at my university and she told me was only attending out of necessity because her parents didn’t sign her up in Japan on time. She missed deadlines in Paris and Italy as well so America was her only option, and she was disappointed.

I had always assumed we were the greatest country at everything, so I must’ve looked puzzled. She smiled and politely explained that most foreign students were here out of necessity. I think I’m saving for my kids to go to a Japanese college.


@AZgirl32 – I agree. ESL students should be kept in special ESL classes until they are ready to join normal classes and don’t detract from the education of other kids. But let’s face it. Education is not a priority to a lot of taxpayers in this country and it most certainly is not a priority to the government. I would count on the removal of more and more ESL programs. It’s grim but that’s just how it is now.


Not long ago, most ESL classes were removed from schools and children who spoke little or no English were enrolled in the same classrooms as English only speaking children. I am very concerned about how that will affect my child's education if the teacher has to take extra time to work with those other children.

When I was younger, kids who spoke Spanish remained in an ESL program away from the other kids until they could function in a normal classroom. Two years ago, my friend's English only speaking child was put into a classroom taught in 1/2 English and 1/2 Spanish. His grades slipped and he had to work extra hard the following year to make up for it. I believe it should go back that way, so that each type of student gets the right amount of attention and education.

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