TESOL: Learning The Right Level of Challenge

Over the course of the semester, I had the opportunity to participate in service learning at Grove Park Elementary School, a Title I school located nearby in the Burlington community. While volunteering at Grove Park, I worked with Ms. Kathy Walker, the ESL teacher, and several of her many students. While I entered the class with a passion for ESL programs and working with local students, this experience allowed me to go from simply tutoring the students at Grove Park to tutoring them well. As poet George Hubert puts it simply, “In doing we learn.” Throughout the semester I not only learned about theories surrounding TESOL and how students develop their knowledge, but I also learned effective methods and strategies for working with ELLs and was able to apply the concepts of scaffolding and total physical response when working with students. The combination of learning within the Elon classroom about different TESOL concepts and theories as well as practicing and observing these same concepts and theories at Grove Park allowed me to better understand the importance of getting to know and meeting the specific needs of each individual ESL student. Reflecting on my experience with each student at Grove Park, I have learned that the most important aspect of TESOL is knowing how to support and teach each student by fully understanding what they know, and then pushing them to the right level of challenge.

One of the most defining parts of my service learning experience was the site itself – the opportunity to volunteer at Grove Park Elementary School. The ESL program at Grove Park is for non-native English speakers and taught grammar-, communication-, and content-based ESL. This was an impactful service learning opportunity because the ESL program provided me with a setting where I could teach comprehensive lessons that were based off of the sheltered instruction model we used in class. Ms. Walker conducts her pullout sessions using an instructional method that focuses on both content and language objectives, and I conducted my one-on-one sessions in the same way. When I worked with students, I would develop lessons that combined working on their in-class assignments (content) with supplementary activities and materials (language).  Throughout the entire semester, a majority of my one-on-one sessions occurred with Angel, a fourth grade boy who has been a student at Grove Park for about one year now. Angel was unable to participate fully and perform well in class because of his language barrier, so twice a week I would pull him out for an hour to work on reading, speaking, and writing. The opportunity to work with Angel consistently was valuable in learning about and practicing TESOL methods because I was able to learn his personal strengths and weaknesses, and prepare lessons aimed directly at those.

Prior to planning my lessons for each coming week, it was important that I reflected on Angel’s work and progress in relation to several TESOL theories, including BICS and CALP, Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, and Funds of Knowledge. After initially meeting Angel and working with him for the first session, it was clear to me that he could converse in English and speak it very fluently until it came time to discussing the new vocabulary and new concepts in his lesson. This observation allowed me to differentiate his strength of having Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) from his weakness of Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). By recognizing Angel’s need for improved CALP, I was able to tailor lessons that included more review time for new, content-specific vocabulary.  The next theory I applied to my work with Angel was identifying his zone of proximal development (ZPD). A student’s ZPD is defined as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). For Angel, I had to focus on identifying which aspects of the lessons were easiest for him, which were hardest, and which were challenging yet beneficial to his learning. One example of this would be an activity we did on the story Cinderella in which he read the story aloud very easily but could not fill out his answers for the comprehension questions, yet when we discussed the comprehension questions aloud he was able to process the story and understand what he had read. The last theory that impacted my work with Angel was the effect that getting to know him personally had on my ability to draw upon his funds of knowledge. The theory of Funds of Knowledge focuses on how “educators must draw upon students’ background knowledge and experiences to enhance learning” (Amaro-Jiménez and Semingson, 2009, p.6). While I only had a short amount of time to get to know him, I was able to place stories and activities in a context that Angel was generally familiar with, or show him videos on the iPad app that were related to places he had been before and things he had done. One week he told me about the excitement of getting his new bike, so I the next week I was able to play vocabulary games with him about bike riding and taking care of injuries if he was to fall off of his bike. Connecting prior experiences with learning, as well as identifying his ZPD and his need for improved CALP, allowed me to more effectively teach and work with Angel.

After reflecting on Angel’s work and progress in regards to the theories just described, I was able to design lessons each week to meet those needs by focusing on concepts like the standards for effective pedagogy as well as the use of scaffolding and total physical response. Two standards for effective pedagogy that were central to my lessons were: (1) making meaning by connecting students home and school lives, which contextualizes and enriches teaching and the curriculum, and (2) teaching via conversation engages students through dialogue and challenges students towards developing oral competencies. 
While the first is very similar to my experience with applying the Funds of Knowledge theory, the second, dialogue and conversation, is an element that I try to build into every lesson so that Angel has step between reading independently and writing answers to questions independently. The second concept that has shaped each of my lessons is scaffolding, a process of building off of each lesson in a way that leads students to eventual learning independence. One method of scaffolding is bridging, which involves making connections between what they already know and new information. Schema building, another scaffolding method, occurs when the brain connects new ideas by focusing on parts that lead to understanding the whole. Both of these shaped my work with Angel, whether it involved teaching a lesson in part-Spanish and then connecting that to the concept in English or explaining concepts related to stories or movies with which he was familiar. The last concept I used frequently when working with Angel is total physical response (TPR). TPR involves activities that require students to listen and carry out spoken commands for the purpose of developing vocabulary. The strategy is helpful because it involved both repition, and a more effective way of memorizing words. As ProLiteracy explains, “the tutor models the commands and continually repeats and reviews them until the students can carry out the commands with no difficulty” (2011). Angel learned most by using TPR to act out his vocabulary, a method that could also be combined with scaffolding and effective pedagogy.

Through all of the lessons I prepared and sessions with Angel and other students at Grove Park, the greatest conceptual theme that I saw through each method and theory was the importance of learning the right level of challenge. In order to teach and work with them so that they will develop better language skills and content understanding, it was important to first identify there level of understanding and then challenge them to go just beyond that. Learning the right level of challenge was the only successful way to encourage their learning without causing misunderstanding or a lack of growth. It connected me back to the very first discussion we had as a class about knowing ELLs and understanding the unique difficulties they face as students in an English classroom. Unlike other students who are fluent in the language, ELLs find learning content difficult because language can serve as a barrier. Therefore, the job of an effective ESOL teacher is to aid in learning by meeting their needs by making lessons that challenge them rather than developing an attitude that they are too far behind to work at the level of English-speaking students.

Beyond the scale of my specific experience working with Angel and other ESL students, I find myself reflecting on Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions and more specifically the Power Distance Index (PDI). PDI is a theory that acknowledges how “less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally” (Hofstede Center, 2014). As a teacher, it is important to me that I use my classroom as an area to combat ELLs sense of cultural inequality. While I can only change society by changing the minds and attitudes of my students to acknowledge social justice, I can empower ELLs in their own culture simply by setting the example of believing in them and meeting their needs to propel them towards success.

As a teacher, I have grown in my ability to meet individual needs as well as understand the “big picture” behind sheltered instruction and TESOL methods and strategies. Both through service learning and class discussions, I have seen the importance of knowing students as individuals, knowing students as learners, and knowing students’ potential. In my future classroom, I want to be a teacher who focuses on what makes students who they are and how students can learn socially and academically based off of, and in addition to, their background. From this experience, I not only understand the community and needs of students non-native English speakers enrolled in ESL programs, but I also have theories and concepts to use in order to work with these students.



Amaro-Jiménez, C., & Semingson, P. (2009). Tapping into the Funds of Knowledge of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students and Families. NABE News, 33(5).

Hofstede Center. (2014). Retrieved December 1, 2014, from http://geerthofstede.com/ dimensions.html

ProLiteracy (2011). How to Use Total Physical Response in ESL Instruction. Retrieved November 26, 2014, from http://www.proliteracy.org/downloads/oic/how%use% total%phys%resp%fs.pdf.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press


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