Teaching adult ESL students

Teaching adult ESL students

When I started teaching adult level ESL classes in 1982, in San Diego, California, I used a grammar textbook, an integrated text for reading, writing and listening, and a supplemental reading text that focused on true stories, writes Sandie Linn

read-book-reading-literature-54578-largeWhile all three texts fitted my students’ needs and meshed with my teaching style, the text about real peoples’ lives and their stories often served as the catalyst for the most enthusiastic conversation. In subsequent years of teaching, I found that adult ESL students responded positively to discussions about the lives of others, and were most interested in the accounts of people who struggled to become successful while overcoming great odds.

Book projects

Based on this experience, in 2007 I began looking for a book for my first ESL book project. I chose one that followed the life of an actual immigrant family. The story outlined the many challenges each person faced and how the decision to come to the United States radically changed each family member’s life.

What is my Advanced Level Adult ESL book project?  Over one semester my students read an assigned book cover to cover.

Choosing the books

The book I select is always non-fiction. Why? Most adult ESL students respond well to true stories that have meaningful messages. I choose a book about an immigrant experience or about a person who is from a country other than the United States.  I select a book that is written by an author who is still alive so I can contact the author.

books-colorful-book-5711I judge a book by its cover as well as its content; it must be attractive and intriguing to the readers. The print must be a “comfortable” size. The book must be written in readable English with little profanity. I also look at the grammar structure.  As most of my students are learning English, I try to select a book that is written mainly in present and past tense, and one that is written in active voice. In addition to grammar and type face, I look at the narration.  When my students are reading what the author thinks (or thought at the time), they relate better and easily form a relationship with the author.

Each book must have a story that makes the students root for the author when he/she is down and cheer for the author when he/she has made it.  If the author is in a tight spot and it looks like there is no hope, I want the students to have a good sense of how difficult it was for the author to experience it, let alone write about it.  I look for a book that makes the students ask, “What happens next?” so I can say to them, “Read the book.”

The best way I can be sure that the author will inspire and motivate my students is by reading the book more than once before I assign it. If I’m hooked after repeated readings, it is likely that my students will be enthralled too.

I have completed seven book projects and began number eight in September. I write questions for each reading assignment that serve as a catalyst for discussion and, in addition, I require students to highlight unfamiliar words as they read.  These words become part of our vocabulary unit for the week. Each week I create a rubric for an essay based on a topic presented in the book.  These assignments are posted on my blog. I am excited to begin my eighth book project as I know the book project is an effective, highly successful teaching strategy genuinely enjoyed by the students and teacher.

Woman reading a book


To access a downloadable PDF detailing the book titles and authors that I have assigned so far, please click on the image.





Sandie Linn

Sandie is an Associate Professor VESL and has taught English as a Second Language for thirty years at San Diego Continuing Education for the San Diego Community College District.

She has written an ESL textbook and text for software programs and has designed and implemented a Vocational English as a Second Language program. Sandie contributes educational content to Awesome Stories, does some private tutoring in mathematics, English and Spanish and manages a Facebook page for College Transition students in San Diego. 

You can follow her on her blog: www.sandielinn.wordpress.com


Feature Image: San Diego Central Library

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