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Basic Skills

So you've taught ESL for years.  You understand the population you serve.  You know what works for them.  In the ESL classroom.

But now it's a whole new adventure.  You are co-teaching in a content area that you may have no experience in!  How do you adapt?

Here are some tips for the new I-BEST instructor.

Focus on the student

What do your I-BEST students need in order to pass this class?  Have this as a priority and use it as a teaching principle when you want to revise activities and tests with the content instructor.  You may experience teaching frustration because of not teaching 100% of the time or not teaching solo.  Since I-BEST is all about collaborative teaching, approach any conflict between instructors' teaching styles by addressing the students' needs first.  

  • Classroom assessment technique:  On an index card, ask students to answer these questions, What kind of a learner are you? (By listening, hands on, visual)  How do you learn best?  (Working in groups, individual, both)  What do you want to see more in class? (Hands on activities, notes, interactive games)

Use this tool to modify future lesson planning together, keeping in mind how your students learn best.

Build interest in the content

You should be interested in the content that you are going to collaboratively teach. Students can sense an instructor's disinterest and may interpret that content as being unimportant. Even when there is a lack of interest, you need to find motivation for yourself, as well as the students.

To do this, keep your eye on the end goal - why are the students learning this?  What are the practical applications?  What lessons or activities can you plan that demonstrate how that material will be used in the real world?

Familiarize yourself with the content, text materials, and activities to support the content.  In addition, learn what the students can do after your class. Where can they get a job?  What further training can they get?  Be clear on the pathway for your students to continue their education or training at the college or elsewhere.

Set up expectations

Develop a course outline that integrates content and basic skills outcomes and activities.  Make sure to go over course and program expectations at the beginning of the quarter so that students are not caught unaware at any point.  Also frequently review these expectations.

In class, have an agenda written on the board.  This keeps both instructors on track of objectives that need to be covered during that time.  This also serves as a comprehension check at the end of the day to see if students understand the concepts presented and practiced in class. A quick-two minute review of those concepts will go a long way toward helping students recognize and retain key concepts.

Deconstruct lecture, lecture, lecture

What do you do about lectures?  They're unavoidable, but you need to make them interactive so that students feel comfortable asking questions and participating in discussions.  How do you re-focus the lectures from teacher-centered to student-centered? 

Here are some suggestions:

  • Pre-lecture questions: Provide questions prior to the lecture and have the students listen for the answer. This will not only help students recognize important material, but will also help their listening comprehension.
  • Insert clarification questions:  Right after the lecture or mid-lecture, ask students specific questions to assess their comprehension or ask them to summarize what the important ideas were.     
  • Take notes: If you're able to, have an outline ready for the students prior to the lecture and have them fill in the outline.  Students then get into groups and fill in any part of the outline they were unable to alone.  This reinforces their listening and group work skills.
  • Tape or videotape:  Suggest that the students bring in their own recorders or provide your own.  You can then use these tapes as review and as the basis for listening exercises.

Design assessment strategically

How do you know what students know?  Think about how you can develop activities that do more than just recall students' memory.  Design your activities to focus on the practical application of the concepts in their future career.

Let things go

You may have the most detailed course outline but what happens when you don't stick to it?  Or what happens when your plan is based on the content instructor's plan and that goes off schedule?  You need to be flexible.  You may need to give up some of your class time to make sure students are ready for exams or assignments. But remember the focus is on students' needs and their success. Maybe you'd planned a lesson on slang in the accounting industry - but what the students really need is to review for Exam #2.  If you go ahead with your lesson, you may find that students are absent or studying for the test during your class time.  Be prepared to wing it and let your lesson plan go.

Suggestion:  muddy points* classroom assessment.  On an index card, ask students to write what concepts they don't understand.  Use this for test review or to design the next lesson.  Keep notes on difficult concepts so you can revise next quarter's syllabus and course outline together.

Teach cultural competence

How do you talk about cultural awareness?  Some content instructors or students do not have experience with an internationally diverse classroom.  Their unfamiliarity with other cultures may be an opportunity to do a mini lesson on cultural awareness and sensitivity.  What are the hidden rules in the United States?  For example, in the US, we avoid talking about salary, whereas in other cultures, it's a common topic. 

Suggestion:  Comparative chart of US customs at the workplace vs. their native cultures'.  Students fill in their own charts and discuss in groups.  Some topic suggestions are perception of time, conflict resolution, personal space, eye contact, forms of addressing superiors, etc.

Invite the content instructor to watch you with the students

The content instructors can get ideas on effective techniques to use with basic skills student.  Have the instructor be an active part of the classroom activity.  You will spend quite a bit of time observing them in the content classroom; extend the same opportunity even if it is not part the curriculum design.

Make yourself obsolete

At the end of the quarter, do you feel unnecessary?  Out-of-place? Useless? That's a good thing. The goal of an I-BEST is to give students the tools they need to be successful on their own.   Make sure you're teaching the students the skills to be independent and self-directed.  In an ESL class the teacher is used to holding the students' hands, but you can't be there for the rest of their lives. Allow them to be increasingly self-sufficient.


  • Give the students options and have the students make the choice.
  • Ask the students to assess their own needs and come up with solutions on their own.
  •  Ask leading questions to get the students to discover the correct answer on their own rather than giving the answer yourself.

If, at the end of the quarter, you find that the students don't need you anymore, consider the program a success and give yourself a pat on the back. 


*Muddy Points Resource:  Angelo, T. & Cross, K.P. Classroom Assessment Techniques:  A Handbook for College Teachers.