Have Native Speakers on Campus? Then Get Your ESL Students Out of the Classroom

Sep 12th, 2017 | By | Category: Featuring: In the Classroom, In the Classroom
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Christine So

Christine So


—Whether you are teaching vocabulary, pronunciation, listening, speaking, culture, history, or composition, send your students out on campus to approach at least one American student for a quick one-question interview. A positive experience using the target language generates confidence in using it, which in turn creates more motivation to learn it (Clement, Dornyei, & Noels, 1994). Intrinsic motivation to learn a new language is affected by learners’ attitudes toward native speakers of that language and contact with them (Dornyei, 2010). How can you naturally increase language learners’ confidence and motivation to learn the target language?

A certain pride comes with being understood by native English speakers and in understanding the person’s spontaneous answer. It gives language learners a real sense of achievement. Both the strongest students and struggling students are energized by this unusual assignment to go out into the real world and come back and report. Both types invariably want to repeat the experience. There is no right or wrong answer and no grade for the activity. There is no large audience to witness their failure. Theirs is an audience of just one person their own age who is kind enough to answer their one question.

A certain pride comes with being understood by native English speakers and in understanding the person’s spontaneous answer. It gives language learners a real sense of achievement.

I send my students outside on campus to talk to native speakers on the third or fourth day of a unit, once they are all familiar with the meaning and pronunciation of some new vocabulary, topic, or grammar structure. It is also after they have had practice using the exact same question in an on-your-feet milling activity in the classroom. With really low-level students, I simply write questions myself, cut them apart, and hand one to each student, taking care to give the easiest questions to the students who need it. With intermediate and advanced students, I ask them to write their own question using certain vocabulary, and then to show it to me before leaving the room to ensure that it is comprehensible to a native speaker. I don’t normally give my students more than 20 minutes. The ticking clock makes it an exciting challenge. Half the class usually comes back before the time is up, and one by one, they stand up to report where they went, whom they talked to, what they asked, and what the person answered.

Mental and physical rehearsal aids in future performance. During the milling activity rehearsal in our classroom, students have to repeat their same grammatically correct question asking a dozen classmates in a row. This repetition helps develop automaticity as well as internalize correct question formation and English syntax. What’s more, through this type of rehearsal, they become familiar with oral answers that will likely be given to them. It prepares them for understanding answers they will receive from native speakers outside who may talk faster, but who have the same struggles, experiences, or opinions as their ESL classmates who answered that question 30 minutes earlier. The necessary vocabulary and mental schema are all there. The phrasing is given to them. They can concentrate on how to approach a stranger their own age and engage in conversation in English.

Just before I send them out the door with a time limit, I role-play with one or two students, asking them to be the American who is smoking or having a coffee outside. I model how I, an ESL student, approach a student who’s in line for coffee or sitting on a bench in the quad with one easy line—“Excuse me. Do you have a minute?”

Never underestimate the power of emotions on a student’s learning. Emotions can both derail or engage a student (Krashen, 1996). Emotionally stimulating events produce dopamine in the brain, improving memory of that event, be it a positive or negative one. Teachers have many ways to emotionally stimulate or engage: playing fast-paced games, using educational phone apps, showing entertaining videos, or doing role-plays with props. But all that is still just among other nonnative English speakers like themselves. They remain in their bubble. The majority of foreign students don’t live with Americans, don’t work with Americans, and have little or no contact with native speakers who are not their paid instructors. They have primarily extrinsic motivation or instrumental motivation to improve their English. They may not have even chosen to study abroad but were sent abroad by their parents. They benefit from this memorable contact with native speakers. The experience creates intrinsic motivation to cross the chasm, to gain acceptance by people their own age in the new culture. At the IEP program where I teach, the majority hope to be accepted to a bachelor’s degree program or master’s program within a year. They need to begin crossing the divide sooner or later to be comfortable with their American peers in the same room one day.

Open-ended challenges such as this help  motivate more than one kind of foreign ESL student. I’ve seen both my highest-performing and lowest-performing students respond quite positively to this task. It’s particularly useful  when there is a wide variation of fluency in the class and a teacher needs to prevent the most advanced from becoming bored from a lack of challenge or the poor speaking ability of their classmates. Most interestingly, the students who do poorly on written tests often surprise me when they return, having voluntarily spoken to three or four Americans on campus instead of just one. Without fail, when I ask the whole class if they would like to do this sort of interview again, the vast majority nod their heads to signal “yes.”

Instructors can bring the world into their classroom—or the classroom out into the world. If your students are surrounded by a campus full of native speakers, take advantage of what you’ve got. The best things in life truly are not things but people.

Christine So teaches in the American Language Program at CSU, East Bay in Hayward.


Clement, R., Dornyei, Z., & Noels, K. A. (1994). Motivation, self confidence and group cohesion in the foreign language classroom. Language Learning, 44, 417- 448.

Dornyei, Z. (2010). The relationship between language aptitude and language learning motivation: Individual differences from a dynamic systems perspective. In E. Macaro (Ed.), Continuum companion to second language acquisition (pp. 247-267). London, England: Continuum.

Krashen, S. (1996). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall


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