What is your greatest advice for ESL students?

I’ve been invited to accept a nomination for eCollege Finder/Language Magazine’s Best ESL Blogs award (fame! fame! at last!) by writing a post with my “greatest advice for ESL students.” So here goes …

The words I most enjoy hearing from my students are “I have a question about …”

I’ve been teaching ESL for more than decade, and in that time, I’ve had the pleasure to teach some truly talented linguists — students who seem to effortlessly absorb the language, it structure, and its rhythms. But most of us aren’t like that. So, what makes some students successful at learning academic English, while others aren’t?


Learning a language is a life-long process — first, second, or foreign language. Although teachers and textbook writers like me try to feed our students the words, grammar, and phrases we think they will need, we can never do enough. For true language learning to happen, students need to ask questions, puzzle over differences, and challenge themselves to understand and use new expressions: in short, to be curious.

Curious students ask about new words and phrases they read and hear. They want to know the difference between words like raise and rise. They want to know why you can cause problems but not cause progress. Curious students find an exception to every rule (I no longer say that a rule is always true or that a combination of words is never possible!). Curious students wonder why they never read the five-paragraph essay taught in their writing classes and textbooks (but not mine!). *

I usually know who will make most progress in my class: it’s the students who ask me to recommend a good learner’s dictionary (and then actually buy one!), the students who learn by themselves to use websites such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English and wordandphrase.info, and the students who proudly use their new language skills in discussions and papers.

I want my students to be curious about the language and the culture all around them. Since I teach international students in the United States, they have the opportunity to become involved in campus life. I have a student now whose spoken English is fluent — not because she comes to class every day (although she does) nor because she works hard on every assignment (although she does that, too), but because she loves learning about American culture and always wants to know more.

Learning a language is an amazing and frustrating experience: frustrating because none of us will ever know every possibility even in our native language, but amazing because the more you know, the more you can do. But only if you’re curious.

* Curious about the answers to these? Raise is transitive and so needs an object (raise prices); rise is intransitive and can’t take a direct object (gas prices rose). Cause only occurs with objects that have a bad meaning (disaster, cancer, problems, trouble, negative effect) and not with good outcomes. And the five-paragraph essay is an invention of writing classes that’s supposed to teach you how to write in the real world (but in my opinion doesn’t do that very well).

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

One thought on “What is your greatest advice for ESL students?”

  1. This is a real nice essay that explains that if you really want to learn a new language you have to go out and want to learn yourself more about the language. Not just to learn the basics, but to go farther than that and be curious on what the different meanings are and how they are used. Also, learn about the culture and history behind that language. Most of the phrases that were created long time ago are still being used today.

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