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Teaching Diverse L1 Learners in the Adult ESL Classroom

By Natalie S. Johnson

Many ESL teachers have classroom experience in countries where learners all speak the same first language or L1. Some may also share cultural circumstances. However, with diverse cultures moving and relocating around the globe, many teachers often find themselves teaching in an L1, multi-language environment.

In a classroom that consists of students who speak different L1s, there can also be differences among students in culture, or other factors. As an ESL teacher, it is important to consider these differences when planning your lessons, while managing learner interactions and outcomes, and in striving toward a cohesive class.

Diverse classrooms do have the commonality of all students learning a new language and a shared classroom and teacher. Teaching in a diverse learner classroom can be designed to promote a positive learning experience for all students.

Get to know your students’ names.

Don’t just set out a sign-in sheet and input attendance after class. Take attendance audibly. Observe who your students are sitting next to. Greet them with a smile as they come in the classroom door every day, as it makes them feel part of the classroom community. Small things can have big impacts.

Recognize the differences in teaching demands and learner needs.

In a diverse classroom of adults, dynamics exist that the teacher can utilize effectively and creatively. Unlike a same-L1 classroom, there will be less student talk in the students’ first language. There will be fewer translations in shared L1 of word meanings, phonology, and syntax. This often leads to more time for teacher talk. To avoid monopolizing the talk, you can employ many creative modes and methods of teaching and learning, including independent work and projects, group discussions, and pair work.

Teachers of diverse L1-language classrooms have the added challenge of encouraging a community of learners while also providing beneficial instruction to each. Following are some suggestions to include consistently in your teaching to enable you to meet classroom functional needs and facilitate instructional needs for learners with differing first languages.

Remember that adult learners want to know the purpose of their lessons, and how to use what they have learned effectively. Learners in a diverse L1 classroom may hesitate to speak out compared to a same-L1 classroom environment. Some learners are outgoing, while others are not. Allow less-vocal students to “pass,” or to be supported by another learner, initially. Nominate students consistently. Your fairness and consistency are good models.

Acknowledge student responses with positive replies. Recognize relevant responses from all learners. Offer correction kindly, perhaps by eliciting others’ answers, repeating and fixing what the answer should be in English. Offer suggestions such as “Remember when we……” (example here.) The students are learning another language, not learning that they make mistakes.

“I always say that the minute I stop making mistakes is the minute that I stop learning……” Miley Cirrus on making mistakes (Brainy Quotes, 2018).

Include all students.

Was there ever a time in school when you hoped you wouldn’t be called upon? Be sensitive and respectful of this for your students. The diverse classroom may seem more intimidating to students than a same-L1 classroom as they negotiate the learning process. Their affective filter may be influenced as they communicate mostly in English language, and as they get to know one another. Consider that nominating and thanking students for their input is thoughtful, professional and welcoming of responses.

Vary the kinds of activities and practice. Independent work gives students chances to show their own work and get specific feedback. For the diverse learner, independent work allows them to self-monitor at their own pace. Be aware that if your class has diverse cultures, some students may refuse to work with others.

Try changing the subtleties of the group, task, result, method of presentation, or mode of study as you teach. If your students want to experience English in a multi-cultural setting, such as college or work, they will also want to be prepared to work with a variety of other individuals and circumstances. Work toward this goal with sensitivity to differences and opinions.

Find out why students are learning English.

Students are often assessed and placed into classroom levels. They may or may not tell the testing interviewer why they want to learn English. Having that information may help you to understand your students’ motivation, and their individual goals and circumstances around school and class.

You should know if they speak more than one other language, and what schools they have attended. Do they have a degree from elsewhere?

Have they worked, or are they working now? Are they planning to attend college? Do they have a family nearby? Are they a parent, child, student, grandparent? This information is useful in designing and implementing curriculum and guiding your selections of resources to offer students.

Learn about your students’ interests.

Student interests connect with their reasons for study. A simple survey can be used to learn more about your students, and as an activity for them to become acquainted. For more advanced learners, introduce more reflective work through journaling, or general conversation topics, for example.

Learning about students’ interests can also be accomplished through discussion topics, or surveys. If you choose a conversation survey, start with simple questions around hobbies, travel, or family. Getting students to ask questions is a learning tool. Join in. Monitor their conversation. Make simple corrections if needed. Learners are working with each other to converse from different first languages, which makes your class interesting and exciting to teach.

When introducing a survey, model the activity first. For example: my favorite music is jazz; my favorite food is pizza, my favorite color is green. Demonstrate the conditions of the answers that are expected. Be sensitive to students who do not want to participate.

Understand your views in the teaching environment.

Just as every student is different, every teacher is different. The diverse L1 classroom also offers a variety of cultures and experiences. As humans, we are usually less comfortable with what we are less familiar. Understand that uncertainty in yourself, and you will be able to understand it in students. Appreciate this shared learning experience. And, even with an understanding that most adult learners want some control over their learning experiences, do appreciate that they are also looking for direction, correction, and the best way to learn English.

When considering classroom management, don’t be afraid to address anonymous but specific behaviors that you see that might offend someone. For example, being pointed at, or referred to as “she” or “he” is rude in any society. In diverse classrooms, there will likely be a mixed variety of cultural norms. It is completely appropriate to notice actions, behaviors and vocalizations that are different to someone who is not used to experiencing them. Most important, your ability to demonstrate how to be polite and how to act in kindness and respect for all without conflict and misunderstanding will promote a classroom community.

Check in with students.

Conference with your students individually. Have some of their work with you to discuss. Listen to what they want to discuss. Diverse learners may wait to let you know concerns, as they feel they may be the only student with a question. Asking a student how they “think it is going” would be a difficult question for many. Ask instead: do you like the class, is learning fun, can you do the work without help, and do you understand the teacher/lessons? Give compliments on work, attendance, participation, creativity, or other. A genuine interest in students is indicative of good teaching practice.

Get feedback on your teaching from the students.

You think you are doing great with your class. Your class has memorable moments of shared struggles in learning, laughter, comradery, and sharing. English skills are improving for all students. You may also want to know how you are doing from a student perspective. Since your learners are diverse, their answers may vary. You should look for a uniformity of responses that will accurately reflect the quality of your teaching.

Consider using an anonymous “teacher survey.” Ask questions such as: is class interesting, do you feel you are learning, is the teacher available and fair, do you like the materials, book, online programs, and, what would you like to learn more about? This information allows for teacher reflection and may identify how to improve your teaching.

Allow free conversations to develop.

Once your students have established relationships around class and are starting to learn English, some conversations may begin to occur before, during, and after class. This is exciting, and always brings a smile to my face. Conversations can be about anything that the students find relevant in their daily experience, such as family, work, making plans, etc. I rarely interrupt, unless it is about our class, is taking up too much class time, or I am asked to offer suggestions to help the speaking experience.

Be flexible.

Classroom makeup may change frequently in diverse classroom adult ESL teaching. It is important to continue to teach with respect and consideration for all students as you adjust to new names, faces and changes in your classroom. Strive to provide positive experiences to promote optimal learning. Teaching equitably to all, along with appropriate curriculum, helps to create a classroom community with purpose. Your attitude of fairness and your enthusiasm for teaching ESL is a winning combination.


Miley Cyrus. 2018. BrainyQuote. Retrieved online from:

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