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Selecting the Right ESL Topic

written by: Leyla Norman • edited by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • updated: 9/11/2012

Stay in communication with your students to learn what interests them. Take the time to get to know them and understand their backgrounds. Talk with them about their goals and aspirations, regularly. This will help you select and prepare relevant, real-world lesson plans.

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    magnifying glass The point of learning a language is to be able to communicate what you need in any situation. Memorizing long lists of vocabulary in the hope that students might be able to use them someday with the past perfect tense they learned months ago does not give them practical experience. Use these tips and ideas to help you choose ESL lesson topics that will keep your adult students tuned in and paying attention.

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    Conversations and Needs Assessments

    Students respect teachers who talk to them as if they have something to contribute to the class. This is no less true with ESL students. Encourage them to let you know what they want to learn about, what they like to do for fun, what their jobs are, fears they have when using English in the community. Use that information to create lessons that help your students succeed.

    Talk to your students to find out what they are hoping to learn from you at the beginning of your classes together. This could take the form of an informal discussion during the first class of the term. Another option is to conduct a needs assessment with each student to find out about what he or she wants to learn.

    Any conversation with a student about what he hopes to learn should also include a discussion of how much English he already knows, what he feels comfortable saying and discussing in English, and upon what he wants to improve. Include different social scenarios in your conversation or needs assessment such as talking with his children's teachers at school. Ask how comfortable he feels performing that task.

    Talk about the student's education in general as well as how long he has studied English. If you decide not to ask individual students formally about what they want from your class, make notes for future reference about the responses you get from your students during a class conversation. Refer to your notes or to individual students' needs assessments in the future in order to adjust how you conduct or plan your lessons.

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    Keep it Real

    All students do not need to know how to ask someone out on a date. However, they do need to know how to accept, refuse, and give invitations, in general. Make your lesson topics realistic. They should revolve around a general theme that helps students navigate their way in their new English-speaking world. Use real-world expressions and vocabulary in your lessons. Teach the differences between formal and informal language in different situations. A lesson including vocabulary such as "shall" is not used in everyday life; it is better suited for a literature lesson.

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    Make it Relevant

    Remember the age and interests of your students. Know their situations in life. Choose topics that are important to them. Remember to refer back to your conversation notes from the beginning of the term or the students' needs assessments. If your students are mainly business people, they will need to know how to give a report in English and how to conduct a meeting. Workplace safety may not be as important for them as it is for other students. Your class may also have parents who need to know how to read notes in their children's backpacks from school and what to do about them. When you find out where your students are in their lives, you can create lessons that are truly meaningful in their lives.

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    Check In

    After a few lessons on a certain theme, talk with your students to find out what they liked and did not like about the lesson topics. Take what they say into consideration as you choose your future lesson plans. Your students should guide your selection of lessons.

    Stay on top of what your students need and where they come from. One way to do this is to have a time at the beginning or end of class where you and your students speak in English, but the topics of conversation are light-hearted or very casual. This can help you get to know your students, what they need and want, and how confident they feel using English outside of your classroom.

    You can also incorporate your students' experiences in their home countries into relevant lessons. Ask students to share what they know about a particular topic from their homes. Relate that information to what ESL lesson topics you're teaching. Remember that they bring valuable world knowledge to your class. Build upon that knowledge to provide them with the tools they need to use English confidently in their everyday lives.

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    Source: author's own experience.

    Image: Lupa.na.encyklopedii.jpg by Julo under public domain.