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The E.S.L. Tutor's Handbook

by Shawn Conway

Frontier College Press, 1996


Frontier College
Working With Adults
  Guiding Principles of Adult Learning
The Tutoring Experience
  The Dos and Doníts of Tutoring
  Tutoring Tips
The Newcomer Student
  Understanding Canadian Culture
What Are Your Studentís Language Needs?
  Techniques for Assessing Language Needs
  Techniques for Assessing Language Levels
Teaching Grammar
Building Speaking Skills
  Speaking Activities for All Students
  Activities for More Advanced Students
  Teaching Pronunciation
Building Listening Skills
  Listening Activities
Building Reading Skills
  How We Make Meaning of Text
  Pre-reading Activities
  Reading Activities
  Post-reading Activities
Building Writing Skills
  Gathering Information
  Planning and Organizing
E.S.L. Literacy
  Literacy Activities
Select Bibliography


This book is for E.S.L. tutors working with Frontier College and is meant to supplement Frontier College tutor training. Use it, write in it, share it, criticize it. We are always looking for help and feedback from our tutors. Weíd love to have some of your lesson plans and student writing samples. Weíd also like to hear about any stumbling blocks you came across in your tutoring experience and how you solved them.

The ESL Tutorís Handbook is a good place to start learning about the theory and practice of one-to-one ESL tutoring. Skim over all of the sections in the handbook before you meet with your learner. Once you begin tutoring, youíll want to return to them for further reference. You will be able to adapt the practical activities for building speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills for your learner.

There is not a pre-set curriculum or a checklist of vocabulary and grammar structures for you to race through in this handbook. Your learner is the curriculum. He will bring his very individual needs, strengths, learning style and pace, and life experience to your tutoring sessions. Use the ideas and activities in this book only if they are relevant to your learner.

"Learner" and "student" have been used interchangeably in this book because it is more attitude than language that will shape what you do with your learner. You will all be learners at one time or another during your tutoring relationship. You will have something to share with and something to learn from each other.

Frontier College

In 1899, Reverend Alfred Fitzpatrick set out to find his brother among Canadaís many rough work camps. In his search, he met many men working on Canadaís railroads, in mines, and in lumber camps. He was appalled by the conditions in which these men worked. Determined to help them gain basic skills in English, so they might get citizenship and improve their lives as labourers, he established the Canadian Reading Camp Association which later became known as Frontier College. Fitzpatrickís goal of reaching out and taking educational opportunities to marginalized people remains the mission of the College today.

Whenever and wherever people shall have occasion to congregate, then and there shall be the time, place and means of their education.

óAlfred Fitzpatrick, Founder of Frontier College

Frontier College now has a large network of volunteers across Canada who help to develop the literacy skills of farm workers, prison inmates, street youth and homeless adults, children and families, people with disabilities, and anyone in need of basic literacy skills. Volunteer tutors also work with newcomers and immigrants to develop general English skills. Apart from the literacy and E.S.L. tutoring programs, the College trains others and helps them to develop innovative programs for people whose educational needs are not being met through traditional means.

Working With Adults

Suppose you decided to learn to sail without having had any previous sailing experience. You might immediately go to your local library and read all about the subject. Or, you might enrol in a course. You could ask a friend to take you out and show you how to sail. If you were really courageous, you could just buy a boat and set sail to learn through trial and error. Or, you could and probably would, combine some of these methods to suit your own way of learning, your learning style.

We all know that different people have different learning styles. When it comes to tutoring, you need to be mindful of your own and your studentís style. In particular, you need to be careful not to impose your own way of learning on your student. This is not as easy as it sounds. Problems arise when you try to get a student to learn to read, for example, the way you learned to read. Your way may not be entirely effective with the student. Having been successful in learning a certain way yourself, you are naturally inclined to try to get your student to learn in the same way.

A better approach is to make use of a variety of learning styles. Allow and encourage your student to learn by observing, by listening, by touching, by moving, by doing a task, or by reading. By discovering and respecting your studentís style you will maximize her and your own learning.

Guiding Principles of Adult Learning

Here are some key principles.

  1. Respecting the experience of adult learners is one of the cornerstones of adult education.
  2. Learning is an exchange between adults who trust and respect one another as equals.
  3. Learning must be relevant to the learnerís life.
  4. Adult learners usually have a strong sense of what they want to learn. Adults learn best when they are actively involved in choosing and organizing what they will learn.
  5. Adults learn best from adult experience.
  6. Adult learners respond to positive reinforcement and a physically and emotionally comfortable environment.
  7. Learning begins with attention to the learnerís strengths and successes rather than deficiencies and failures.

These guiding principles should shape your attitude, practice, and behaviour in working with your learner. Follow the good practice checklist.

The Tutoring Experience

The most important thing to keep in mind when starting out is that you need to be sincere rather than perfect. Itís natural to be a bit nervous. Donít be afraid to let your student know this. Get to know your student and let the student get to know you. In a short time you will likely become friends.

The Dos and Don'ts of Tutoring



People with all the best intentions can be ineffective tutors. Donít fall into any of the following bad tutoring habits.

The Woolly Tutor
The woolly tutor is someone who thinks that tutoring involves merely getting together to chat for two or three hours each week. This tutor has no clear and defined plan for what she hopes to accomplish or for what the student wants to accomplish. Without goals and a plan there is no way to evaluate progress at the end of a session. No doubt the woolly tutor and student enjoy their time together but this is not tutoring.

The Ambitious Tutor
The ambitious tutor expects too much of himself and his student. He tries to do too much with the student in a short time and he underrates the complexities of becoming fluent in English. The ambitious tutor works hard but may confuse the student (or at least not help much) because he moves too rapidly from one activity to another.

The Academic Tutor
The academic tutor will rigidly follow one pattern of teaching and will try to get the student to learn all the terms used to describe English grammar, sentence structure, and so on. While there is certainly a need to teach grammar and sometimes a need to use a few technical terms, the average student wants to use English, not analyse and label it. Language practice is always more important than academic discussion or linguistics.

Tutoring Tips

The Four Language Skill Areas

  1. speaking (including pronunciation)
  2. listening
  3. reading
  4. writing

Design or choose activities that involve each of the four language skills. For example, if you are teaching how to use the verb "be" explain and practise the correct usage orally. Then ask your student to listen to several sentences with "be" and identify the correct and incorrect sentences. Follow this up with a reading or writing exercise (such as fill in the blanks) using sentences or a longer text containing several forms of "be".

Always Keep Broad Goals in Mind
Your goal as a tutor is to help the student become self-sufficient in English. It is easy for you or your student to become preoccupied with the smaller details of English and to lose sight of the studentís survival needs such as how to deal with emergencies, how to manage housing and income needs, how to adapt to and understand Canadian culture, etc. When you get sidetracked or when you lose your focus, think of the big picture.

Use Your Imagination and Experiment
There is no single curriculum that will suit all students who are learning English. So you will have to learn through trial and error no matter how many books you consult. Try to identify the specific problems your student has with English and design your own activities and exercises. They may not always work well but they will teach you (and your student) what you may never find in a textbook.

Correct Relevantly
Basic students obviously make many more mistakes than advanced students, so the task of correcting becomes more difficult. If you stop to correct each mistake or to explain the meaning of every fourth or fifth word, you will not get through the session. More importantly, your student will go away with a patchwork of explanations rather than one or two new skills well learned.

Determine ahead of time what you both want to accomplish in the session and correct mistakes that have to do with this goal. If you are confronted by many mistakes (for example, in a piece of student writing), then focus on a few points only and correct them.

Some students want everything corrected and this may not jibe with your approach. In this case, you will have to compromise. Above all, make sure your student knows when and how you will correct her work.

To learn a particular aspect of English well, remember that it may take much more practice than you have time for in one session. Review at the beginning of each session (what was previously learned), and again at the end of each session. Periodically review what was taught over several sessions.

Use whatever works
There are many E.S.L. books, games, and other resources you can use, but the best tutoring resource is usually your student. Listen carefully and really get to know him. Then use your common sense and whatever the world offers to help your student learn.

Set the pace of learning carefully
Donít be afraid to challenge your student. She will be grateful for the push from a friend like you. But check her comprehension and progress continually to make sure the pace is appropriate.

Keep good records
You can keep track of your sessions and the studentís progress in a variety of ways. You could use a journal, a log, lesson notes collected in a binder, or copies of student work. But keep a record of everything even if itís only a note to yourself.

You can also start to collect materials that you think might be useful for future sessions. For instance, you could develop a picture library using photographs from old magazines and newspapers. Organize your pictures according to topics such as foods, the home, occupations, sports and leisure, clothing, etc. Check garage sales for word games. Make a file for these materials and share them with others at the next tutor get together.

Keep lessons simple and be prepared for surprises
One of the keys to tutoring is being able to break a language task down into its simplest parts and focus on these parts without referring to more complex words or aspects of the language. Occasionally you will find that you have not prepared enough or you may discover that your student knows what you thought he didnít know. So have a back-up lesson or activity ready.

Your student may also come to a session with a problem that needs immediate attention; for example, he may need to write an official letter to the government. Be prepared to put your lesson plan aside and work on what the student really needs at that moment.

Just as you need to allow yourself to make mistakes and experiment, you also need to allow your student to have a bad day. Sometimes you may need to simply take a break from the planned lesson and go to a cafe, a park, or a movie together.

Go easy on yourself and have fun
Your student knows that you are a volunteer and not a professional teacher, so she will not expect you to know everything about the English language or teaching. She will probably be thrilled to have the opportunity for a little more English practice with a native speaker. Plan and prepare but do not be discouraged if some marvellously organized lesson does not work out very well. Be honest, try something new, and enjoy.

The Newcomer Student

Spending two, three, or more hours a week with a learner can be a very intense and intimate experience. You may be the only "teacher" your student sees each week, or he may be enrolled in E.S.L. classes elsewhere. In either case, you will become very important in your studentís life. Invariably tutors and students develop a deeper understanding of one another and of themselves.

You will be faced with the stark reality of newcomersí lives through the eyes of your particular student. Though he may well have been very successful, courageous, and hard-working in his homeland, he could be held back in Canada merely because he has, or is perceived to have, insufficient English skills.

Newcomers can experience severe culture shock which can last a long time or resurface long after their physical arrival. Canadaís culture is individualistic and self-centred and many newcomers are isolated and feel intensely lonely. You may become one of the few Canadian citizens your student gets to know well.

Newcomers are sometimes subjected to bigotry and racism. You may need to acknowledge and come to terms with this fact in your studentís life. Should an appropriate opportunity arise, discuss racism with your student and ensure that he knows his rights and how to exercise them.

It is a serious mistake to assume that E.S.L. learners, whether recent newcomers or Canadian citizens, have not learned to read and write. Many can read and write in several languages. If a student is literate in one or more languages other than English, he will have an easier time learning to read and write in English. (See the chapter on E.S.L. Literacy)

Understanding Canadian Culture

"Culture" is more than high art or fashion. It consists of habits, behaviours, ideas, beliefs, rituals, technology, and physical artefacts. In short, culture is both the place in which we live and that which we observe. Just as the student may bring many life experiences to the tutor-student relationship, you will bring your own cultural behaviours and ways of thinking.

What seems perfectly natural to you may not be to your student, and vice versa. This can easily lead to misunderstanding. When you find something your student does hard to understand or strange, try not to interpret its meaning and pass judgement. Rather, take the time to discuss it with your student and explain that you do not understand it.

You may be your studentís window into Canadian culture but this does not mean that you should try to change her mannerisms, habits, or ways of thinking. Of course, certain behaviours are unacceptable in Canada and you can alert your student to these. Always use your judgement when discussing cultural topics with your student.

What Are Your Studentís Language Needs?

It is vital that you spend some time at the beginning of your tutoring experience assessing your studentís language abilities and needs. There are some important reasons for assessing language needs.

The language needs assessment:

Your first meeting with your student will usually be just a social one. Arrange to meet in a comfortable place for a cup of coffee or soft drink. It is wise to choose a neutral place rather than your own home, especially when you are meeting someone of the opposite sex. You could also ask the student to bring photographs or something else that will help you get to know her. Bring along some photographs of yourself and your family and friends, or pictures that show something about who you are or what your interests are.

Also take along a pen, a pencil and eraser, some lined paper and some scrap paper, and a bilingual dictionary, in case your student wants to get going with a plan for future sessions. You will probably assess your studentís needs more systematically at the second session.

Techniques for Assessing Language Needs

Ask questions
Before trying to assess your studentís language level, you need to get a thorough idea of why he needs to learn English. For intermediate and advanced students (E.S.L. students are often loosely categorized as basic, intermediate, and advanced) you could design a questionnaire or at least have a list of questions ready. (One rule of thumb is not to ask a student any questions you would not like him to ask you.) Some useful questions are:

Role technique
Another way of discovering general Information about your student is to discuss the roles he plays in his daily life. You could start by drawing a role diagram of your own like this:

Here is the procedure for creating a role diagram:

  1. Ask your student to draw his own diagram or determine his roles through simple questions about his life.
  2. Determine the responsibilities that go along with each role. For example, as a worker, does he need to respond to requests for information and relate to colleagues?
  3. Determine with whom he communicates.
  4. Determine the situations in which he will have to communicate. For example, in his job, does he communicate at an information desk and on the telephone?
  5. Determine the language, factual information, and cultural knowledge he will need in order to communicate effectively.

Based on your discussions about the studentís needs and circumstances, talk about goals in general and, if possible, try to define them in more specific terms.

Mapping technique
If your student has basic language needs and you do not speak her first language, your task of learning about her life will be more challenging in this case. It might be best to use a mapping technique which usually provides lots of information and some comic relief.

Mapping works like this. During your session, draw a simple map of the places you visit on a daily or weekly basis. As you draw (or when the map is complete), explain where you go, what you do there and, most importantly, which of the four language skills (speaking, listening, reading, writing) you use at each of the stops.

Next, ask your student (or gesture appropriately) to draw a map and explain as you did. Ask her to circle all the places where she was required to speak English. Create a needs grid based on this information.

Language Needs Grid

Where Why Speaking
What will the student need to say?
What will the student need to understand?
What will the student need to read?
What will the student need to write?
Grocery Store Shopping Questions:
Where is ___?
Do you have ___?
How much is/are ___?

Polite Phrases:
Thank you.
Excuse me.

Key Vocabulary:
  • names of food items
  • packaging terms (eg. a dozen, a carton, a six pack, etc.)
at the end of the aisle, next to, across from

That'll be $10.02. Do you have two pennies?

ingredients, expiry dates, eg. Best Before Oct.09

eg. one per customer, for a limited time only

Grocery List


Techniques for Assessing Language Levels

The other half of a needs assessment involves determining the general language level of your student. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. With any student you should try to get some idea of his skills in the four language areas. Here are some tasks and activities to help you do that:

  1. Ask your student to describe what he sees in a selection of pictures.
  2. Ask your student to describe his feelings when he sees the pictures.
  3. Ask your student to describe an event in the past, his daily activities, or his hopes and dreams for the future.
  4. Ask your student to read something from a newspaper, a magazine, or a book and have him describe what he has read in his own words.
  5. Describe something that happened to you or something about yourself in detail (a funny story, or your job responsibilities) and then ask your student a few questions to find out how much he understood.

While your student is speaking, listen for specific grammar or pronunciation problems. Check his writing for the same problems. Then talk more generally about what problems he thinks he has with English and in what situations. Discuss your own impressions (remember to start with strengths) and make a learning plan together. If time permits, you could sketch a rough lesson plan for next time.

Source of the mapping and role techniques:
Jennifer House with Myrna Rabinowitz. A Guide for Tutoring Adult E.S.L. Students. Ministry of Advanced Education and Job
Training, British Columbia, 1988.

Teaching Grammar

Students invariably ask for help in improving their English grammar skills and they will think it strange if you suggest that learners of English do not need to learn it. Imagine that you were beginning to learn a foreign language and you were searching for the way to express something important to you. You would long for some guidance and rules.

If you are apprehensive about teaching grammar, here is the good news:

Broadly speaking, grammar is the set of rules and ways in which words are put together to make meaningful sentences. You cannot avoid tackling grammar with your student because she will inevitably ask you to do so, and because it is the basis for communication. You may choose to teach a grammatical point in a formal way (explanation, demonstration, drill) which is an excellent starting point, or you may choose to draw attention to a grammatical point during a learning activity. This is more than a matter of sequence and there are great debates about how we learn grammar and how it ought to be taught. Be flexible and try different approaches. Ask your student. How does she learn best and how does she want to learn?

Many grammar books will outline a sequence for teaching grammar. Consult a few books, perhaps beginning with the Betty Azar series (see the select bibliography). Donít try to learn everything you donít know about English. Skim through a few grammar and grammar activity books before you meet your student for the first time. When you do meet her, listen closely to the way she speaks, take some notes and then make a plan to teach some grammar points over the next several weeks.

Building Speaking Skills

A critical problem for many learners is their poor or inconsistent ability to communicate orally. Often their understanding of grammar and their reading and writing skills far surpass their speaking skills. Also, they frequently understand much more than they are able to express. Frustrated in their attempts to express their ideas and feelings to others, it is no surprise that many students name conversation skills as their chief area to work on with a tutor.

While an understanding of grammar may provide the basis for communication, being able to express oneself is more than making correct sentences in controlled exercises. The speaking activities you design should draw other skills and knowledge into meaningful communicative activities.

There are many reasons for paying special attention to your studentís speaking (including pronunciation) skills.

The ability of your student to speak with confidence:

When selecting and designing speaking activities you need to bear in mind your studentís language level and, just as important, his real and immediate life circumstances. If you get to know your student well at the beginning and you develop a good rapport, themes and topics will present themselves naturally. Remember the obvious survival themes in every newcomerís life.

Newcomerís Key Survival Themes

     food and clothing
education (self, children)
citizenship/government issues

These themes relate to various situations in which your student will have to speak and be understood. Some of these are:

When preparing for a speaking activity, you should:

  1. Discuss the purpose of the activity.
  2. Introduce new vocabulary.
  3. Introduce and/or review relevant grammar points. In fact, all grammar points should be reinforced by some controlled as well as natural, oral practice.
  4. Discuss any peculiar cultural points relevant to the activity or what the activity is simulating, such as a job interview.

Speaking Activities for all Students

To teach vocabulary:

Role play
The idea of a role play is to act out and explore language requirements for particular situations. As a follow-up, give your student tasks that require her to enter into the situations simulated in the role plays.

Follow these steps:

  1. Before the session, write out a situation for the role play. A job interview is a good example. In the write-up, explain roles and relevant cultural points, and list vocabulary and important phrases.
  2. At the session, have the student read the write-up. Discuss vocabulary, cultural points, etc. and ensure that she understands how a role play works. (The concept of roles may itself be foreign.)
  3. Play the roles. Switch roles. Discuss ideas for other role plays.

Some ideas for discussions:

Map activities
Use maps and diagrams and design activities that have your student getting directions from others, giving directions to others, or finding objects or places.

Questionnaires and surveys
Questionnaires and surveys are excellent tools for integrating all four language skills. Let your student design one or design one together. Have your student survey a group of people.

Activities for More Advanced Students

It is important that you help your more advanced student understand and function using different communication patterns that fit the social context. Fluent speakers tailor their language to particular social settings, their motives for communicating, and the expectations of others. Our communication functions change as we change social contexts. For instance, we can ask for a cup of coffee in several ways:

Gimme a coffee.
Give me a coffee, please.
Can I have a coffee, please?
May I have a coffee, please?
Do you mind if I have a coffee?
Would it be at all possible for you to give me a cup of coffee, please?

There are many such functions in English.

Common Communication Functions
agreeing and disagreeing
offering and declining offers
giving advice
stating opinions and arguing
expressing likes and dislikes

The ability to understand or not understand functions often indicates a studentís level of English fluency. When teaching functions, you need to explain not only the different ways to express feelings and ideas but also how they relate to various situations. This can be tricky (itís often something you know intuitively) but also a lot of fun. Two books in the resource list are excellent guides for teaching functions. They are Functions of American English: Communication Activities for the Classroom and Take Part: Speaking Canadian English.

Teaching Pronunciation

Improving pronunciation ranks high on many E.S.L. studentsí wish lists with good reason. Newcomers with strong accents are frequently misunderstood. They may also be seen as less credible employees or citizens. For these reasons, so long as your student wishes, it is important that you include pronunciation in the work you do together.

Pronunciation has to do with the saying of individual sounds and how these sounds interact with one another. There are many more sounds in English than there are letters of the alphabet. You do not need to learn the phonetic alphabet to help your student with pronunciation. But you do need to listen with a fresh attitude to the way Canadian English sounds. You also need to realize that learning new sounds and, more specifically, using them fluently in ordinary speech can take a long time for some learners.

Apart from consulting the bibliography at the back of this guide (Teaching American English Pronunciation by Avery and Ehrlich is outstanding), there are a few tools that are useful for teaching pronunciation.

Though sometimes intimidating, try using a cassette recorder with your student. You could make your own tapes (a long process because you need well planned and well rehearsed script). Or you can use prerecorded cassettes from a library. You could also incorporate a tape recorder into your sessions. It is particularly useful for your student to hear himself speaking. He can correct his mistakes as you play back the tape.

A small mirror is also useful. For instance, when learning either of the "th" sounds (as in that and think) the student can use the mirror to see where he does and where he should be placing his tongue. When learning the "h" sound (hat) the student can also see the residue of his breath on the mirror when he is pronouncing it correctly.

When a student asks for help with pronunciation or when you notice he has difficulties pronouncing certain sounds, you should take the following steps:

  1. Identify the problem.
    Isolate the errors in pronunciation by listening carefully to the studentís speech. For example, you may notice that the student has trouble with a certain "th" sound and says tin instead of thin.
  2. Design a sound drill. Following are examples of sound drills you could use with your student:
    • Identify the difficult sound and match it with the sound the student is saying in its place. (The student tries to say "th" but says "t" in the example above.)
    • Give a list of "th" and "t" words: tin ó thin, tank ó thank, taught ó thought. These are known as "minimal pairs" and there are lots of books to help when your imagination runs dry.
    • Demonstrate correct pronunciation by saying the list out loud for the student.
    • Have the student practise discriminating. Write the words on a sheet of paper. Then, have him circle the correct word as you say it.
    • Practise with the known sound: tin, tank. Practise with the new sound: thin, thank. Practise in pairs: tin, thin; tank, thank
    • Practise in sentences containing both sounds. For example: The thin child thanked his grandmother for the tin toys. Of course, the sentences donít have to be tongue twisters.
    • Find meaningful examples in which the difficult sounds occur naturally and make up some passages or conversation topics for practice. For example, you could design a role play about a visit to the dentist to help your student practise the "th" sounds ("Doctor, I have three sore teeth...").

Building Listening Skills

Just as many students need to learn to pronounce new sounds in order to make themselves understood, they also need to make sense of the jumble of verbal noises they hear each day. This involves distinguishing different sounds from one another and understanding the meaning of what is said.

There are many occasions where English is spoken very clearly and even slowly. But there are many more which can be extraordinarily difficult for a student. Think of your own speaking habits. When you are angry or in a rush do you speak slowly and enunciate each syllable clearly? Do you occasionally use contractions such as donít, Iím, theyíre, and even gonna and wanna? Even if you do not use many contractions, most people do and your job is to help your student succeed in understanding them.

Think of some of the situations in which your student will hear English and have to respond appropriately. For example:

Use these, and other situations suggested by your student, to form the basis for your listening activities. Then follow up the listening activity by writing something about the topic or by reading a related story.

There are two main types of listening activities:

  1. activities for perception (distinguishing sounds and words)
  2. activities for comprehension

Before you begin a listening activity, you should prepare your student by:

Listening Activities

Identify the word *
Give your student a series of paired words: cheap, cheaper; hard, harder. Then read some sentences containing one word of the pairs (His car is cheaper.). Have the student identify the word she heard.

Here you are teaching comparative adjectives but you could also use this technique to teach many other points such as verb tenses, adverbs, and adjectives.

* Source: J. House. A Guide for Tutoring Adult E.S.L. Students.

Follow directions
Prepare a set of directions to read to your student. Read the directions and have her complete a task such as plotting a route on a map.

You can use simple pictures to practise prepositions. Show your student a picture of a table and then give her directions such as, "Draw a ball under the table," and "Draw a lamp beside the table."

Fill in the blanks (cloze exercise)
Prepare a passage to read and a student work sheet that has the same passage but with some of the words missing. Read it once and have the student just listen. Read it a second time and have the student fill in the blanks on the work sheet.

Cloze exercises can be designed using newscasts, telephone recordings, and many other things to practise comprehension.

Circle the answer
Prepare several short passages and a student work sheet with multiple choice statements. Read the passages aloud and ask your student to circle the correct statements.

Linda goes to the bank.
Linda is going to the bank.
Lindaís going home.
He doesnít like snow.
He likes snow.
He is going skiing.

Whatís wrong with this picture? *
Describe something in the room and make some obvious mistakes. Have the student stop you when you make a mistake or have her note the mistakes on paper and tell you what they are at the end of the description. Follow the same procedure with a picture that has many elements. While you both look at the picture, describe the things you see.

* Source: J. House. A Guide for Tutoring Adult E.S.L. Students.

Total Physical Response
T.P.R. is based on the concept that students can learn some parts of language more effectively or more easily if they physically illustrate what they are hearing or saying. The game of Simon Says is a classic example of a T.P.R. activity. You can design activities of this kind for teaching verbs ("brush your teeth") or prepositions ("Put your hand on the wall").

Charts or grids *
Give your student a chart or grid to record information on as it is spoken.

For example, read several scripts involving people making appointments to see a doctor, dentist, or employment counsellor. Have the student fill in the chart with the callerís name and the time of the appointment under the correct day.

  Monday     Tuesday     Wednesday     Thursday     Friday  

* Source: J. House. A Guide for Tutoring Adult E.S.L. Students.

Here is a sample script for Chart Exercise

A: Good morning, Dr. Stoneís office.
B: Good morning. I wonder if I could make an appointment with Dr. Stone, please.
A: Whoís calling, please?
B: My name is George McCormick.
A: Are you a patient of the doctor?
B: Yes, I am.
A: Oh, ok. Uh, which day are you available?
B: I only have Friday. I wonder if, ah, anythingís available.
A: Yes, we have an opening at 4:00 Friday afternoon. Is that ok?
B: Uh, is it possible, uh, to get anything a little bit earlier?
A: Iím sorry, Mr. McCormick, thatís all we have left on Friday.
B: All right, 4:00 will be fine then.
A: Ok, and is it McCormick or McCormack?
B: M-c-capital c-o-r-m-i-c-k. McCormick.
A: Ok then, see you Friday.
B: Thank you.
A: Youíre welcome.
B: Bye-bye.
A: Bye-bye.

Follow this exercise with role plays that have the student make appointments with various people.

NAME      Jane      Tom      Mike
PROFESSION nurse student carpenter
CITY Vancouver Kingston Toronto
AGE 21 19 22
APPEARANCE tall glasses beard

The script should involve details about a number of people. The details should not be listed in the script but contained in the narrative. The student then should be able to pick out the details as you read the script.

Comprehension questions
Prepare or find a text and read it to your student a few times. Ask questions about specific details in the story or list the questions on a sheet of paper and have her write the answers.

Try preparing a number of sentences using different verb tenses. Have your student identify the tenses used (past, present, future). Use sentences like:

He puts it on.
I picked them up.
She called me back.

Building Reading Skills

Reading is a complex process of making sense of marks on paper. Fluent readers read a great amount of material every day but even the most skilled reader reading his own language sometimes has trouble because of unfamiliar vocabulary, difficult or unfamiliar content, or a complex writing style.

In the simplest terms, reading is a process of solving problems. The Nova Scotia Department of Advanced Education and Job Training has described some broad strategies for making meaning of texts.

How We Make Meaning of Text

  1. Predicting and confirming
  2. Taking risks, understanding reading as trial and error
  3. Sampling print
  4. Using one or more of the following strategies:
    • skimming a passage to get the gist and then reading more slowly
    • scanning a passage to find a specific piece of information
    • reading ahead and then re-reading any part that is difficult
    • skipping difficult areas altogether
    • substituting a word or several words (for an unfamiliar word or phrase) that keeps the meaning of the passage
    • sounding out words or looking for familiar parts while trying to think of what the passage means

It follows that you need to help your student transfer his native language reading skills to English and build his broad reading skills (strategies). This does not mean you need to know his language. But it does mean you need to progressively challenge your student with carefully selected texts and corresponding reading exercises.

Some factors to consider when choosing reading material for your student
  • Is it interesting for the student?
  • Is the vocabulary appropriate for the student?
  • Are the concepts obscure or commonplace?
  • Are the concepts specific to one culture or are they universal? (Are you sure?)
  • Is there too much to remember?
  • Are the grammatical constructions easy or difficult?

Soon after you begin tutoring, you and your student should discuss the reading process and the broad strategies for reading. Use samples to illustrate the different types of printed material such as a classified advertisement (they can be quite difficult to understand), a product advertisement, a brochure from a social service agency, a short newspaper article (watch for unfamiliar idioms), and a short set of instructions. Talk about your own way of reading the various items you come across daily.

Also, encourage your student to infer rather than translate and, especially for a basic student, to read for the general meaning. Beware of trying to give definitions for every word the student does not understand. Otherwise you may use up half your session time.

Pre-reading Activities

  1. With your student, make a list of potential items for reading (such as employment ads or job descriptions) and sources of texts (such as newspapers). Ask your student to participate in selecting these items.
  2. Discuss the text with your student and encourage him to talk about what he already knows about the subject. You could ask him to write down all he knows about the subject in point form, a mind map (see the chapter on Building Writing Skills), or a simple paragraph.
  3. Brainstorm ideas about the content of the text using headings, accompanying photos, etc. Write down and discuss some vocabulary you know he will need to understand the text.
  4. Discuss the strategies he will use in reading the text (skimming, scanning, reading for details).

Reading Activities

As a rule, give your student a task rather than just asking her to talk about what she has read.

Skimming exercises (reading to get the gist of a text)
Ask your student to read the first sentence of each paragraph in a newspaper article to find the main points of the article.

Scanning exercises (reading for specific information)
Ask your student to look at a bus schedule and find out what time the buses leave for a certain destination on Wednesday and Sunday mornings.

Comprehension exercises
Prepare the student for the post-reading activity. Explain what kinds of questions you will ask about the material she will read. Use material from some of the following examples.

Past-reading Activities

  1. Ask content questions:
    What happens in the story?
    What qualifications do you need for this job?
    What happened before (or after) what you read?
  2. Ask the student to retell a story from a different point of view or in a different tense.
  3. Ask the student to summarize the text orally or in writing (or one after the other).
  4. Gather and read other related texts, such as articles offering a different point of view on the same subject.
  5. Design follow-up tasks such as drawing a picture of the situation depicted in a text, writing a letter to the editor, or developing counter arguments.

Reading Aloud
Reading aloud is not the same as reading. When reading aloud, a person is not necessarily understanding the text and is often preoccupied with making it sound right to the listener. If you want your student to comprehend a text, ask him to read silently. If you want to identify pronunciation problems or to have the student practise pronunciation (though this is not natural speech), then you could ask him to read aloud. Always make sure that your student knows and agrees with the reason for reading aloud.

Reinforcing Reading and Vocabulary Skills

  1. Discuss and teach suffixes and prefixes.
  2. Use cloze exercises (fill in the blanks). We bake ________ to eat at Christmas.
  3. Teach vocabulary in context (in a text) and then quiz your student with cue cards on which the new words are written. Try matching pictures with written words. You can get a picture dictionary from the library to help.
  4. Teach sound-letter correspondence (phonics) by drawing out phonetic examples from text the student is reading.

Building Writing Skills

Writing is often neglected in the tutoring process perhaps in part because tutors themselves do not feel confident in teaching the craft. Students commonly ask to work on their speaking abilities first and it may seem easier initially to do so. After all, speaking offers a wider range of ways to express thoughts by. For example, modulating the voice or gesturing.

Native and non-native speakers alike frequently develop the habit of expressing themselves orally without great initial attention to either the form or the content of their expressions. They can afford to do so because speaking involves a continual process of exchange and clarification of thoughts. In contrast, writing requires organization, accuracy, and care in selecting vocabulary and grammar. It follows that spending time writing may lead students to pay closer attention to their accuracy in the other skill areas. Writing provides excellent opportunities to reinforce and teach many language items. For instance, a student might be able to avoid using the passive voice in speaking but will see it often in newspaper articles and headlines.

Many writing activities are not "authentic" in so far as they do not enhance the studentís ability to communicate. Authentic writing is distinguished by the way in which sentences are connected logically, sequentially, and by a common theme. For instance, exercises that consist of changing verb tenses in a list of unrelated sentences are hardly authentic. On the other hand, asking a student to write a letter to a newspaper editor draws on considerable communicative ability.

Writing is broadly classified into two or three types: institutional, personal, and creative. Institutional writing corresponds to professional or public roles and involves business correspondence, reports, memoranda, applications, instructions, and textbooks. Creative writing consists of description, fiction, and poetry. Personal writing sometimes overlaps with creative writing but may also include personal journals and personal letters.

In the simplest terms, the writing process consists of gathering and organizing material, and composing and revising it. At each of these steps there are opportunities for discussion, listening, and reading.

Gathering Information

Ideas, information, and language for writing can be found in many places. Here are some ways of gathering information you can use to teach writing skills.

Mind mapping
Mind mapping is sometimes known as brainstorming on paper. It is an excellent way to generate ideas for a writing project. The procedure is as follows. Have your student choose a topic and write the topic in the centre of a sheet of paper. Then have him write down all he knows about the topic or all that he wants to write about the topic. Talking about the topic with the student during the mapping may also be useful. After the map is done, the ideas can be clustered and sequenced. The student can go on to write a more formal outline or the mind map can serve as the outline.

Questionnaires, surveys, interviews
Have your student use questionnaires, surveys, or interviews to gather information in point form.

Other texts
Reading items such as advertisements, headlines, editorials, articles, brochures, newsletters, stories, novels, graffiti, comics, recipes, and directories (to name a few) provide the raw material for writing in the form of letters, descriptions, arguments, etc.

Written conversations
Written conversations are quite simply conversations on paper. It doesnít matter who begins the written conversation. The sentences are written and read in silence. You can read the sentences aloud, after each is read silently or you can wait until the conversation is over. You read yours and your student reads hers. This will clarify what may not have been understood during the silent reading. This is not a test of the studentís writing (or reading) abilities, so if she asks for a word or phrase, give it to her. Allow her to write without constraint. Apart from providing material for other writings, written conversations are enjoyable ways of demonstrating your studentís strengths and weaknesses in writing as well as grammar.

Lists can be made any time and about any topic. When starting out, it is a good idea to ask your student to make a few lists that will help you get acquainted with each other. At this stage, lists with headings such as things I like to do, important people in my life, important events in my life, and things I love are useful. To generate ideas and topics for writing together you could make lists of personal possessions, memories, controversial statements, descriptions of another country, etc.

Planning and Organizing

After your student has gathered some information and ideas, he should choose a theme or topic about which to write. He might want to write several different pieces, so he may need your help in deciding what to do first and how to reduce a large theme into several sub-topics. Mind mapping may provide a visual aid that helps you and the student put the big theme in perspective and may help narrow the focus in order to get started.

Once a theme has been chosen for a particular piece of writing, list important phrases and words that will be useful. Help the student make an outline that lists the key points to be mentioned, their sequence, and how they will be logically connected. You will need to carefully consider what grammatical constructions will be needed at this stage. For instance, will the piece be in the active (Yesterday, a milk truck hit a man on Humpty Dumpty Avenue.) or the passive voice (A man was hit by a truck yesterday.)? Will your student need some practice with conjunctions (and, or, although) or adjectives (big, bigger, biggest)? Do not try to teach all the grammar at once but use writing exercises as an opportunity to teach and reinforce some grammatical structures.


Discuss the whole process of writing with your student and make sure she understands that the composing stage is the drafting stage ó one step rather than the final step. Also talk about the correcting process, what you will correct and why. Make sure that she agrees with the purpose and way of correcting.

Here are some ideas for writing exercises:



Contrast and Compare

Letter writing

Stating opinions


Ask for your studentís opinion and thoughts about his first draft and what happened during the writing. Students will frequently have good insights into their own work. On the other hand, your role in building the studentís confidence and providing an objective view is critical when your student is unduly harsh about his work.

Be sure to keep any drafts so they can be reviewed later to illustrate how far the student has progressed. When you review a draft with your student, look for strengths but also look for grammar points that need reinforcement or correction. Also check for opportunities to introduce and explain new vocabulary which should be written in the studentís notebook in a section called Word Bank or Personal Dictionary.

One writing tool you should encourage your student to use is a journal. The student can keep the journal entirely private or he can share it with you. Or you can keep a joint journal in which you both write. The student should feel free to use the journal any way he wishes, without risking correction. Journals are also excellent sources of material for other writings.

E.S.L. Literacy

If your student never learned to read and write fluently in her first language, then the process of learning a second language can be more difficult. As a tutor you may be teaching English as well as how to read and write. These are two distinct but, in this case, related skills.

Working with an E.S.L. literacy student is more challenging for many reasons. First, you and the student cannot rely on print to reinforce speaking and listening skills. Second, the studentís process of making sense from print and the process of writing may be slower and more laborious. Third, the student can become frustrated because speaking and listening skills will outpace reading and writing skills, sometimes by a big margin.

On the other hand, working with an E.S.L. literacy student can be tremendously rewarding because the tutor is, in effect, helping the student learn two languages at once, English and the written word.

Literacy students need to realize that reading is a skill that can be learned. They need to know that there is nothing wrong with them for not having learned how to read and write fluently. You may need to spend more time encouraging and building the confidence of your student. Discuss the broad strategies people use when reading and design exercises to gradually develop basic reading skills.

Literacy Activities

Language Experience
The language experience story technique is an excellent way of deriving meaningful written material from the studentís own experience and using the material to teach reading and writing.

A language experience story is a springboard for dozens of other activities and works well for all E.S.L. students. Hereís how to start:

  1. Have the student tell you about an experience.
  2. Write down what the student says word for word.
  3. Read it back pointing out the words.
  4. Have your student identify meaningful or difficult words and you write them on cue cards.
  5. Have the student match the cards to the story.
  6. Mix the cards up and ask the student to read them.
  7. Write whole sentences on cards, mix them up, and give them to the student to put the in the correct order.
  8. Have the student practise writing the words in a new context by creating new sentences.

Other activities

Select Bibliographies

Activity Books

Bowers, B. Decisions decisions. Agincourt;, Ontario: Dominie Press, 1985. Excellent discussion ideas and exercises.

Engkent, Lucia and Karen P Bardy. Take Part: Speaking Canadian English. Toronto: Prentice Hall, 1992.

House, Jennifer. A Guide for Tutoring Adult E.S.L. Students. Prepared for the Province of B.C., Ministry of Advanced Education and Job Training. Victoria: Ministry of Advanced Education and Job Training, 1988.

Jones, Leo and C. Von Baeyer. Functions of American English: Communication Activities for the Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Klippel, Friederike. Keep Talking: Communicative Fluency Activities for Language Teaching. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Ur, Penny. Discussions That Work: Task-centred Fluency Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

_____. Grammar Practice Activities: a Practical Guide for Teachers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

_____. Teaching Listening Comprehension. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Games Books

McCallum, George P. 101 Word Games. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Steinberg, Jerry. Games Language People Play. Toronto: Dominie Press, 1991.

Grammar Books

Azar, Betty S. Basic English Grammar. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1984.

_____. Fundamentals of English Grammar. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1992.

_____. Understanding and Using English Grammar. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989. All of the Azar Books offer clear explanations for both student and teacher.

Celce-Murcia M. and Plane Larsen-Freman. The Grammar Book. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, 1983. The ultimate grammar book for teachers.

Praninskas, Jean. A Rapid Review of English Grammar: a Text for Students of English as a Second Language. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall Regents. 1975.

Frank, Marcella. Modern English: Exercises for Non-native Speakers. Part; I, Parts of Speech. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1986.

_____. Modern English: Exercises for Non-native Speakers. Part; II, Sentences and Complex Structures. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1986.

Books on Speaking

Avery, P. and S. Ehrlich. (eds.) "The Teaching of Pronunciation." In TESL Talk, Vol. 17, No. 1, Toronto: Citizenship Development Branch, 1987.

Avery, P and S. Ehrlich. Teaching American English Pronunciation. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992. This excellent guide covers both theory and practice.

Baker, Ann and Sharon Goldstein. Pronunciation Pairs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Morgan, John. Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Other Handbooks

Bell, J. and B. Burnaby. A Handbook for E.S.L. Literacy. Toronto: OISE Press, 1984.



I would not have been able to write this guide without the aid of my Frontier College colleagues who helped me in so many ways. Their guidance, their skills and ideas as educators, and their contagious enthusiasm for literacy and adult education are the foundation of what you will read here. In particular, I would like to thank Jan Saul whose critical eye, understanding of ESL instruction, and encouragement helped me a great deal.

I would also like to give credit to the many others who have written about teaching E.S.L. in and outside of classrooms, especially Jennifer House and Myrna Rabinowitz who wrote the fine A Guide for Tutoring Adult E.S.L. Students.

Shawn Conway


Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

Conway, Shawn, 1959 ó
The E.S.L. tutorís handbook

Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-921031-17-3

1. English language ó Study and teaching as a second language. * I. Frontier College. II. Title.

PE1128.A2C65 1996 428'.0071í5 C96-930339-4


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