Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Teaching English as a Second Language

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

For some years now, countries in the Western world have seen a huge increase in legal (and illegal) immigration. And the US is no exception. Many of these immigrants have little formal education, yet to be integrated in any reasonable form, they need to grasp the fundamentals of the host country's language. Here in the US English-language classes are offered cheaply or free of charge by many church and community organizations. In general, such classes have been labeled as teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). However, given that many immigrants never formally learned their first language, or speak more than one language, in recent years such training has become known as English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

One national organization whose mission it is to teach English in the US is ProLiteracy. I learned of this group through its local affiliate the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, which advertises its student and teacher-training classes in local newspapers. Having time on my hands, I decided to get more information about being a tutor for individual students. Two training courses were on offer: teaching English to someone who was illiterate in his or her own language; and teaching reading and writing to someone who already spoke and understood English. I was most interested in the second group. However, training sessions for trainers of that group were less frequent and the next one scheduled was months away. So, I decided to take the plunge with the first group before I found excuses to do nothing.

Training the Trainers

The training involved three half-day sessions on consecutive Saturdays, and about 40 people took part. There were five instructors. Until we were trained, we wouldn't be assigned a student, so we had no idea what language they spoke or if they were illiterate in their native language (that is, whether they could read, write, and do basic arithmetic). The challenge then was the following: Imagine teaching an adult to read and write English when their native language is written right-to-left, does not use the Latin alphabet used by English, they have no English at all, and you have no language in common. In order to make it realistic (not to mention to put the Fear of God in all of us would-be tutors) part of our training was conducted in Urdu, a language spoken in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

We spent quite some time learning the names of six objects, which included tomato, eggplant, and padlock. We also learned the words for the concepts of here, there, and over there. As we could not fall back on English to ask questions and nor could the instructor use that language, it really was like a game of charades. And progress was slow. Come the second week, most of us couldn't remember many of the words we'd learned the previous week, yet if we were to tutor, we'd expect our students to learn lots of new words each week. It was a humbling experience to say the least.

Getting a Student

I was assigned a man about 30 years old; let's call him Juan. Juan had a wife and baby and worked long hours at two jobs to make payments on a house mortgage. He came from a formerly war-torn Central American country, he was orphaned at a young age, he had no more than two years of formal schooling, and he was functionally illiterate in his native language, Spanish.

As I had some basic Spanish, we would at least have some common ground; however, I fell into the trap of using that too much, as is common with tutors. During training, numerous tutors had expressed concern that they didn't speak any language other than English. They were told, repeatedly, that not only was this not an obstacle, it could even be an asset. The sooner the student could get "up and running" in English the better, and letting them fall back to a language they already knew really wasn't helping them. [This is also the main argument of opponents to bi-lingual education in some US states.]

Each student accepted for tutoring was evaluated by a professional who determined which of three different programs (and associated books and materials) that student and his/her tutor would use. In my student's case, the plan suggested four weeks of conversation and concept building before embarking on reading and writing. Students and tutors each bought the recommended set of materials with financial assistance being available for those students who could not afford to pay.

Location and Frequency of Tutoring

In my case, a neighboring town had a large Hispanic immigrant community, and the town had a non-profit support organization to help them integrate. This group nominated my student for the program and it provided rooms for class and one-on-one teaching. We used that for some weeks. The public libraries also made available meeting rooms.

It was recommended that we not tutor in our homes, although I never did get a satisfactory explanation why that was the case. In any event, after Juan and I got to know each other, I invited him to my house an afternoon each weekend, and his wife and baby came too and sat in another room during our lessons. Then they joined us when we had afternoon tea. But how to have him find my house? "Easy", you say; "Just give him the address and some directions." Remember, he reads almost no English and he has no background in reading a map in any language. Everything is visual and learned by experience. So we solved the problem by having him meet me at the initial tutoring site and then follow me home noting all the turns we had to make, yet not being able to write anything down either in English or in Spanish! We did this a couple of times, after which he had it mastered. Note that Juan had a cell phone, but he had great difficulty understanding messages I might leave; it was hard enough communicating by phone when we spoke live!

We started out meeting twice a week, mid-week and on the weekend; however, with Juan working two jobs, very quickly it was clear that he was way too tired to concentrate after a very long work day, so we cut back to once a week, on weekends.

Starting to Read

After a few weeks of conversation, it was time to break out the introductory reader.

The sentences were relatively simple and were accompanied by pictures of the subject nouns; for example:

This is a man.
This is a girl.
This is a cup.
This is a dog.

The idea is to introduce a pattern and to substitute different nouns thereby building vocabulary using pretty much the same sentence. However, progress was painfully slow. Each lesson, we had to start back at the beginning, which meant that after some weeks we had made no real progress. And then I had my "Aha!" moment. Juan had no concept of a pattern. In essence, he didn't have any idea of how to learn! In retrospect, this should have been obvious given his major lack of formal education. No one read to him as a kid and he didn't have the luxury of watching Sesame Street on TV every afternoon.

As I was going through this exercise, I noticed a few things. We really couldn't talk about grammar, parts of speech, punctuation, or even capital letters, yet each letter had an upper- and a lowercase version, and when it started a sentence, you had to use the uppercase version. But then why did other words in the middle of a sentence sometimes start with an uppercase letter? It didn't help that Juan didn't ask questions. [As a seminar leader in my professional life, I've always take silence as indicating, "Everything is okay", and I tell that to my students at the start of the course. I also tell them that, "There is no such thing as a stupid question, only stupid answers!"]

I was very frustrated as I'm sure was Juan. We'd been at it for quite some weeks with very little to show for it.

Starting to Write

Fortunately, Juan had a pretty good handle on numbers and counting, although he constantly had trouble differentiating the words (but not the values) thirteen and thirty, fourteen and forty, fifteen and fifty, and so on. So while we started on letters, we also practiced writing numbers.

What do you think would be the easiest number-writing task one could do? From my humble perspective, I figured it would be writing a line full of the digit 1. We used ruled-paper intended for learning writing, and I wrote three digit 1's at the start of a line, and asked Juan to fill in the line with more of the same. The first two he wrote were fine; they were almost identical to mine and they stood straight and tall. However, as he went on, each one leaned further and further to the right until those near the end of the line was practically falling over; I kid you not! Instead of copying the first few each time, he was copying the one he'd written previously, so they got progressively more slant on them. When I pointed this out to Juan, we both laughed.

Unfortunately, it was no laughing matter when things hadn't improved after several weeks. When it came to writing other digits and the letters, there is a recommended way one is supposed to teach, by starting the pencil at a specific point and continuing from there. However, that proved way too difficult for Juan who for the digit 8 preferred to draw one circle on top of the other. And that was just fine with me; at least he could read, write, and understand the result, as would other people. It was right then I realized we'd be having a modified version of the course, adjusted from time to time to cater for the individual student. [I don't know if that was a good decision or not, but both Juan and I needed to see some progress.]

Support Materials I developed

In order to provide reinforcement on the numbers and letters we covered, I used Microsoft Word to make lots of tables, which in the case of numbers, showed both the value and the spelling. I used a colored printer to teach about colors. I also used Word to help with check writing (see below).

[If you'd like to have a copy of the materials I developed, send me email.]

My Student's Main Goal

While being able to read and write in general would be wonderful, Juan had one specific goal, to be able to write checks to pay his monthly bills. That sounds simple enough, right. Wrong! Let's look at the elements on a blank check, at least as used in the US:

  • Date: Does one write July 3, 2011; 3 July 2011; or 7/3/2011? As all are valid for the US and all would be understood, it really was a matter of picking one format and sticking with that. And as Juan was only just learning to write, the all-numeric form was easiest and most reliable. [Note that in some parts of the US postdating checks is illegal!]
  • Payee: This seems simple enough, copy the "pay to" name from the statement. But if you can't read, how do you locate the "pay to" name? And even when you can tell from the familiar Visa credit card logo on the letterhead, for example, that you need to pay Visa, that doesn't help you figure out you need to make the check payable to Chase Bank's "Chase Card Services", for example.
  • Amount in numerical form: This seems simple enough, copy the "pay to" amount from the statement. Again, you have to be able to read the statement to find this among the many numbers in various columns.
  • Amount in text: Let's use a check for $123.45 as an example. In the US, the corresponding text needs to be, "one hundred [and] twenty three [and] 45/100 [dollars]", where […] indicate optional words. In the case of [dollars] that word is usually preprinted on the check. When one knows about fractions, 45/100 makes perfect sense, but fractions were a topic way beyond my student. After trying several times on different occasions to explain this, I decided to say that was just the way it needed to be with the number to the right of the slash—calling it the denominator would be even more confusing—must always be 100. [Note to Microsoft Word users: Word supports fields, dozens of special control sequences that can be used for all sorts of things from adding cross-references, index entries, and, yes, check amounts in text. For example, if you insert a field (you'll need to figure out the right menu to do this depending on your version of Word), a pair of curly braces ({…}) will appear. If you enter "=123.45 \* DOLLARTEXT" in between those braces and right-click on the field to toggle it to text, you get the text version of 123.45 as accepted by banks in the US. For those of you using versions of Word sold in other countries, I'd be most interested to hear from you if this works for European amounts written as 123,45, for example.]
  • Signature: Fortunately, Juan could sign his name using something that was not quite so easy to forge as printed letters.
  • Memo: This is intended for the check writer to make a note of the purpose of the check. For example, over time, one might write a number of checks to a school's Parent-Teacher Association, using the memo field to say that one was for the fee for a field trip while another was for the next month's lunches at the cafeteria. However, in other cases, this field is mandatory. For example, many bills require one to put here the number of the account being paid. But if you can't read, how do you figure out if such information is required?

Student Evaluation

Every few months, the Literacy Council sent me a blank form on which I was to report our activities for that quarter. And each time, I reported that we had made little progress and that my student's main goal remained the same, to be able to write checks to pay his bills.

The Handoff

After about eight months, my business situation changed; I took on a new contract that would occupy me fulltime and then some for an extended period. [Contrary to my longtime work rule of having at least three months off each year, this opportunity was too good to miss.] It would also involve travel out of town once a month. As such, I saw no way I could continue to invest the effort needed. And, frankly, what I had learned most was what not to do, and I figured it was better for Juan to have a different tutor. My frustration level was also extremely high; I too needed a change.


I very quickly reminded myself why I had avoided previously teaching real beginners in just about any topic. I simply didn't have the patience, or indeed sufficient training. In hindsight, I should have waited for the other training course. And now that I've written this essay, that idea is back on my radar.

One amusing byproduct of the whole exercise was getting to hear Juan speaking certain words with a distinctly Australian accent, although he never did master "G'day mate!"

Comments (2) -

  • Wally Paul

    8/21/2011 10:25:31 AM | Reply

    My son Matthew's wife Catherine teaches English as a second language in the Portland, Maine, school system.  Portland has growing Somalian and Ethiopian populations.  She has the children until they can function in English at a prescribed grade level, then they are moved into the mainstream.

    Last year, the school sponsored a barbecue for the kids.  After informing the kids that they would have hamburgers and hot dogs, the class went silent.  Finally, some of the braver children informed my daughter-in-law that they did not eat dogs and that as Muslims they could not eat ham.

    I think that the children and Catherine have much to teach each other.

  • Felicity Grosse

    9/21/2011 7:13:41 AM | Reply

    How wonderfully that captures some of the challenge of teaching and learning a second language. I had the pleasure, for most times, of teaching English and learning Spanish in Mexico last year.  Fortunately, for my students and my skill level, I worked with children who were literate in their own language and had a beginning grasp of English.

    I found it extremely useful to be learning a second language along with my students, as I experienced many of the same difficulties and frustrations that they did. I also gained a much greater appreciation of their commitment to learning as they would come for lessons 5 days a week after their regular schooling or, for uni students or those working, for a 5 hour block on Saturdays.

    And, as Rex mentioned, it was amusing (and a bit disturbing) to hear the Australian accented words!