Spending one-on-one time in conversation with newcomers is extremely beneficial for their language skills. This may be one of the few times in their life lives that they will have the undivided attention of an American who is invested in helping them learn and improve their English. Focused interaction with a native speaker is THE BEST way for a new speaker of English to learn our language.
Here are some general tips:
- You should always be encouraging and patient, but do not be afraid to correct the student. If they misuse a word or phrase, kindly say “no,” then have them repeat or copy the correct way from you. Timidity in learning a second language often comes from the feeling of guessing – so if you correct a student AND clearly show them the right way to use a word or phrase, they will gain confidence. When they finally say the word or phrase correctly, get excited. But don’t let them give up before you get to that point.
- Never use “broken” English to convey an idea, or let them use broken English without friendly correction. Break concepts down into the simplest phrases possible, but always maintain grammatical correctness. Address problems as you encounter them – it can be very difficult to break habits like “I go store” instead of “I go to the store” after a couple weeks of uncorrected use.
- Never allow for poor pronunciation – don’t let them waste their opportunity to listen to and learn from a native speaker who speaks natural English. Listen for and correct dropped or added letters at the ends of words (pronouncing “seventy” like “seventeen” and vice versa), vowel pairs that fail to glide (pronouncing “rain” like “ran”, etc.), consonant pairs that are often difficult to hear/say (pronouncing the “th” in “Thursday” like an “s”), etc.
- When you introduce new vocabulary and fixed phrases, write it down. Based on the student’s level, have them copy it word for word, show them how to sound it out phonetically (think Sesame Street), have them repeat it back to you, have them use it in other sentences/contexts, etc. Introduce one new concept at a time – so, you would first teach the word “door,” then the command “open the door,” then how to soften commands with “please open the door.”
- Come with a plan, but come prepared to deviate from your plan. ESL worksheets are a good starting point, but use them primarily to jumpstart interaction and additional vocabulary. Interact with your environment as much as possible – if you’re talking about verbs, actually run, walk, or jump around the room. If you notice you’re using a particular phrase often, take a moment to teach it. Students remember things much better when they are learned in a specific context rather than on a worksheet. Be creative, and involve the students as much as possible.
- The best learners are self-learners. Encourage students to keep a notebook and write down new words as they find them. Help them find books and movies in their interests – if a guy loves soccer, watch a game with him, pausing the TV to write down or explain words and phrases. If a woman loves to cook, bring some ingredients and help her read through and make a simple recipe. Or, help her find a good food blog that uses natural, simple English. No matter the subject, the more correct, natural English the student is putting in their brains, the more they will produce. Help them find ways to enjoy learning English, and they will be motivated to learn all of the time, not just in school or with you.