Coaching in the ESL Classroom
Emmanuelle Betham, M.Ed. (Applied Linguistics) is an Educator/Coach, Company Director, and author of An Introduction to Coaching for Language Learning (2018, Amazon Publishing), the I Realise series (2019-21, Amazon Publishing) and numerous articles on Education and Parenting. She is a native French speaker who specialises in Language and Communication (for Business, Family, Self-Management and Performance), facilitating Confidence, Resilience and Growth – including in the acquisition of English and French as Foreign Languages. Email: E.Betham@LanguageCommunicationCoaching.com
With a coaching approach, language teachers can help learners overcome obstacles, including self-imposed limitations, which are in the way of their progress. Unless such barriers are identified and broken down, learning will at best be slow, difficult and frustrating. Moreover, a coaching approach is particularly relevant and well suited to language learning because learners do not have as many set thought patterns in the target language as they do in their mother tongue. So, a new language is an opportunity to think differently, to free oneself from unchosen beliefs and unhelpful convictions. Learning another language invites us to be more curious, more daring, more flexible, more free, more willing to try out new things and to question our habits. It is an opportunity to discover more, not only about the world and others, but also about ourselves. Coaching in the ESL classroom involves helping learners understand themselves better (improving self-awareness and self-confidence) in order to make faster progress in English and develop as a person. It is very rewarding for learners and teachers alike.
Imagine a situation where you, as the teacher, detect an obstacle in the way of your learner’s progress. The situation could be during any activity, exercise, or performance, when perhaps the learner is displaying an unhelpful behaviour; or perhaps they are clearly struggling with an emotion, for example expressing their frustration, physically or verbally.
Here is what a coaching approach in the ESL classroom may look like:
- Do not delay to find a quiet place where you and your learner can talk.
Limitations are best explored at the time they are experienced by the learner. So, it is a good idea to always have a selection of short tasks in reserve that you can give to the rest of the class while you work with one learner on their own.
It is important to intervene in a timely manner.
- Acknowledge your learner’s feeling, even if it is hidden behind an unhelpful behaviour.
You may say to them: “Yes, I can see something’s not right” or “I can see you are not happy”
And you may ask: “Can you tell me how you are feeling?” (or ‘Can you tell me what you are ‘experiencing’?” – some individuals do not like the idea of talking about ‘feelings’).
At this stage, you will need to just listen and express your compassion towards the hardship they may be experiencing.
When a learner’s language is limited, you can use drawing as a medium or support for communication. Drawing encourages and enhances expression. You may offer a piece of paper and some coloured pens or pencils and ask your learner to draw themselves as they are today. The idea is to have them share with you how they experienced the situation when you saw them struggle. So, if needed, you may add: “Can you please draw yourself in English class doing … [activity at the time]?” You will want to give them time and tell them to call you when they are done with their drawing. And when they do, ask them to explain their drawing to you, and perhaps ask them pertinent questions about what you notice on their drawing. For example: “Okay, and how is it different when it’s blue or red [or big or small, or round or square] on your drawing?” or “What is this line? what does it represent?” This will help you and them understand what they are experiencing.
Even if your learner shows resistance, do not assume the exercise has failed, you will at least have given them the opportunity to pause, retract, and reflect. A little reflection time sometimes goes a long way, even when learners cannot or choose not to share. It may not be immediately apparent to you but this much coaching should already have made a difference, especially over time. It is like a seed you have sewn.
It is most important for the learner to feel understood and appreciated.
- Get your learner’s THOUGHT behind their hard FEELING.
If language ability allows, you may ask them: “Do you know WHAT is making you feel that way?” (avoid using the word why) or “WHAT are you thinking when you feel that way?”
Or, if their feeling is unclear, seek a statement from your learner, which expresses their thought about what happened. And then ask: “HOW do you feel when you think this?”
Then make sure you reiterate the link between the thinking and feeling by saying: “So, when you are thinking [repeat their words], you are feeling [repeat their words]”
It is important for your learner to realise that thoughts and feelings are related.
- Reassure your learner.
You may say to them: “Yes, I can see how you would feel this way when you are having this thought, I would too, anyone would”.
It is important for your learner to feel that they are normal to have these thoughts and feelings.
- Help your learner drop the limitation.
Ask your learner: “Would you choose to think and feel that way?”
You will probably get resistance form your learner in answer to that question. You may have to acknowledge their feeling(s) again: “I know you feel like this”, and acknowledge the facts “yes, this happened”, and acknowledge the relationship between the learner’s interpretation/s of the facts and their experience of what happened “and you thought … so you felt …” – Identifying facts from interpretations is an essential part of the process (refer to An Introduction to Coaching for Language Learning, E. Betham, chapter 10) and something you may want to do with the whole class at some point.
In any case, it is likely you will need to reiterate this logical sequence before you can repeat the question: “But would you choose to think and feel that way?”
You may need to do this several times until the learner answers: ‘No, I would not choose this’. For example, the learner may first reply in these ways: “but it’s not what I think, it’s how it is”, “it’s what happens/ed”, “it’s true”, “it’s not fair, not right, not good”, “it should not be this way”, etc. And you may reply: “It’s true, it is what it is and you can’t change that, but you can change your thinking about it. So, would you choose to think and feel the way you do now?”
At some point the learner will agree they would not choose that and you will be able to reinforce: “That’s right, you would not choose that for yourself”.
It is important for the learner to realise that they have the power to manage their feelings (and behaviour) by choosing their thoughts.
- Empower your learner.
Ask your learner: “How would you choose to feel [in the situation]?”
Let your learner express happy feelings; you may help them if they struggle. For example, if the learner cannot access good feelings and reverts back to stuck mode, they may say: “I don’t know, I don’t like it, it makes me feel bad!”, to which you may reply : “I know it makes you feel bad when you think you don’t like it, but you just said you would not choose that, so let’s see what you would choose”.
Here you could help further either by widening their perspective, and asking them how another person may be thinking and feeling good in that situation, or you may ask them to think of other situations when they feel good, and how they may transfer their own thinking and good feeling to today’s situation.
Ultimately, you could also make suggestions, by exploring desired feelings first, such as: “Would you choose to feel happy? Excited? Peaceful?...” and then associating desired feelings with chosen thoughts: “What could you choose to think now so you can feel that way?”
And if their resistance kicks back in, you could suggest: “What about the thought that [suggest a helpful thought], is that a nice thought that makes you feel good about it?” “What other thought could you choose so you feel good?” At this point, if your learner seems to change the subject, to look for an escape or suggests to be done with it, again do not assume the exercise has failed. Quite on the contrary it may well be an indication that the exercise has begun to work its magic. For instance, if your learner says: “A nice thought would be that I don’t have to [be in that situation again]”, you could reply: “That would be a nice thought. But since you have to [be in that situation again in order to… (give logical reason)], you can choose to think about it in a way that feels good”.
It is important for your learner to understand not only that it is not their fault when they have undesired thoughts and feelings (we all do), but also that it is their freedom and their responsibility to manage these thoughts.
- Put learning into practice.
Congratulate the learner for their new self-awareness, and ask them how and when they are going to put it practice and report back to you.
You can help them design a clear goal, one that is specific (‘I will focus on this aspect of this situation’) and measurable (‘I will be able to feel it’), achievable (anticipate what could go wrong, do some practice and challenge them ahead of time) and timely (schedule practice and report or feedback).
It is important you follow up.
- Give your learner the opportunity to share their learning.
Depending on the class dynamics, the age and relationship between the learners, it may or may not be appropriate or beneficial for your learner to share their achievement with the class.
Identifying facts from interpretations for example would undoubtedly benefit the whole class. If possible, let your learner explain what they have learnt or realised through the coaching process and how it has helped them.
It is important to share one’s new learning in order to reinforce it.
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Coaching in the ESL Classroom
Emmanuelle Betham, UK