Focus on Learner Needs: Key 3

This 3 part series is an excerpt from the the Institute of Cross Cultural Training’s “Reach Out With English” training and has been shared with ICCT’s permission.

When planning a Sunday School curriculum, we often begin by focusing on people’s spiritual needs and then we think about how we can address those needs through our instruction. Following this familiar model, your natural inclination may be to consider the spiritual needs of your ESL learners and then look for teaching materials that highlight a range of basic biblical truths or present a clear gospel message.

However, our own experiences as well as those of many other Christian ESL/EFL teachers have taught us that for optimal effectiveness in ESL teaching, we must begin in a very different place. To be most successful, not only as language teachers but also as those who want to be strong Christian witnesses, we must begin our curriculum planning by focusing on the third key to effective ESL ministry, the English-language needs of our learners.

Let’s try to look at the focus of our teaching from our students’ point of view. Hilles and Sutton help us see more clearly the priorities of our learners:

[A]dult learners are most often voluntary learners. Unlike their younger counter- parts, who are required by law or by their parents to be in school until a particular age, adult learners are in school because they want to be, a desire which is almost always inconvenient and often interrupted by family and job responsibilities and commitments. As a result, adult learners tend to have little patience with classes which they perceive are not furthering their own educational agendas (p. 388).

We have found that students attend…as long as they perceive they are learning…. When the teacher is seen as incompetent or unprepared, and when perceived learning ceases, so does attendance (p. 389).

Given the importance of meeting learners’ needs, how can we do this most successfully? We suggest that when thinking about the English-language needs of your students, two of the most important questions you can ask are these: Why do these individuals want to study English? How do they plan to use English in their everyday lives? These two questions lead to many others such as, Which of their English-language needs can we reasonably try to meet in our ESL classes? What should our priorities be? Which teaching materials will be most useful? Which learning activities will work best? In short, knowing our learners’ English language needs should guide us in shaping nearly everything we do related to instruction (e.g., our goals, course content, textbooks and other materials, learning procedures). When you put your focus on meeting their needs, you’ll also find that you have gained your students’ respect, which will go a long way toward helping you to be a more effective Christian witness.

In our first weekend of the Reach Out course, we’ll discuss needs analysis—how to gather information about your students’ English-language needs and then how to use that information in designing your course. This theme will be developed more fully in other sessions during the three weekends of our course.

At this point, you may be wondering about how you can address more specifically the spiritual needs of your students, including where this important emphasis should occur in your overall ESL program. For example, you may be looking for ways to focus on Christian themes as part of your ESL ministry. You may want to know how to teach ESL Bible studies or hold conversation classes in which students discuss topics related to the Christian life. You may want to learn more about how other programs have effectively integrated biblical truths into their ESL teaching or broader ministries. You may want to know about when Christian ESL materials are most appropriate for use in your classroom and in individual tutoring. We will talk about each of these concerns during our third Reach Out weekend. In addition, see section 5, “Being an Effective Witness,” in Getting Started in Teaching ESL/EFL: Resources for Christian Educators (CD-ROM to be given out in our first Reach Out with English weekend).


Hilles, Sharon, and André Sutton. 2001. “Teaching Adults.” In Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, Third Edition, edited by Marianne Celce-Murcia. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

This is part 3 in a 3 part series. Read parts 1 & 2.

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