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ESL and the Big Picture

By Bonnie Billak

In international schools, a substantial amount of time and energy is spent on developing the best programs for reading, writing, science, mathematics, and so on. Once these are in place, administrators then try to figure out how the needs of second language learners fit into this picture.
But here is the rub: in international schools in non-English speaking countries, the exact opposite should arguably be done in order to ensure a quality program. Second language learners are often the major clientele, making them a critical element in curriculum and program development.
First, the needs of the second language learners should be determined. Then, the content material courses should be fit into this program, taking into consideration techniques to break down, not water down, the material to best meet the needs of the students. In order to create such a program, various elements need to be taken into consideration and set in place.
Mind set
As mentioned before, no longer are international school students mostly children of native English-speaking parents. The large majority are now non-English speakers. Therefore, schools need to accept that the times are changing and programs need to change as well. This mind set needs to be strongly conveyed to all staff members, so that everyone is on the same page.
Textbook and program adoption
Prior to the adoption of new programs for science, mathematics, reading, etc. the programs and textbooks in question should be reviewed to see if they are ESL friendly and, if not, how they can be adjusted to make them language learner-friendly. This should be done prior to presenting them to the staff, so that the teachers do not become accustomed to presenting the material in one manner only to be told later that they should be teaching it in a different way. This will ensure better buy-in by the teachers, since they will not have the frustration of jumping from one system of teaching to another. A popular American program or textbook adoption will not necessarily be the best choice for a school in which second language learners make up the vast majority of the school population.
Steps should be taken to make sure that all staff are on the same page and using the same system, to be fair to students and to collect accurate data regarding the school’s second language learner program.
Teaching staff
For a quality English language program, the entire teaching staff needs to have at least a basic level of quality training in ESL teaching techniques and understand the challenges involved in teaching second language learners. On-going staff training sessions will keep teachers up-to-date on the latest teaching techniques.
Teaching support
Teachers should be encouraged to talk with their fellow team members and other staff regarding their experiences and frustrations in teaching second language learners, but also the successful techniques they use with their students. This will help them to grow as teachers and to lower their stress levels. To ensure a quality English language program at your school, keep in mind that second language learning is the big picture—not something you try to fit into a picture painted with programs for native English speakers.
You can spend thousands of dollars on new initiatives or textbooks, but without a strong second language learner program, your English language and academic programs will most likely not grow to their maximum potential, nor will student English language proficiency reach the school’s targeted levels.
Ms. Billak is an ESL Specialist at International School Nido de Aguilas in Santiago, Chile. She also consults in the field of ESL teaching, design, and evaluation.

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05/22/2013 - Cindy
Dear Susan,

Teaching overseas at international schools is not just for those candidates from the countries you mentioned, it is a global profession and teachers from everywhere are welcome and encouraged to apply. There are many outstanding teachers from India and you certainly sound like one of them based on your experience and educational credentials.

I think what may have come across, based on the things that you read, is that candidates for international schools should either have English as their primary language or a high level of fluency in English. This is because all classes and subjects are taught in English to a student body from all over the world, many for whom, English is not their native language. Therefore, the need to be clear and easily understood is important for teaching the curriculum and effective communication.

Many people from India have an advantage in this area because they have been learning and speaking English in school since the beginning.

So go to and subscribe because I'm sure you'd be an outstanding candidate to teach at an international school!

Cynthia Nagrath

05/21/2013 - suejake
Someone at my school just send me this link. I have a quick question. All the links I've seen so far mention that people from Canada, US, Uk, only need apply. I'm from India. I have a Masters in English Literature, am TEFL certified and have a teacher training diploma from Cambridge. So where does that leave people like me? I am with the American international School at the moment.
Do let me know.
Thanks and God Bless.