For 25 years, I’ve taught ESL to many different populations
in many different contexts, but one thing has remained constant: Many of my
students hope to get a job in an English-speaking country—especially in the
Unfortunately, language can be a
barrier to that dream. U.S. companies tend to give the interview portion of the
job hiring process much more weight than companies in other countries
(Gatewood, Feild, & Barrick, 2008), which puts international English
language learners (ELLs) who lack strong speaking skills at a disadvantage.
of difficulty is listening. Understanding speech can be difficult enough in
face-to-face conversations, and initial interviews are often conducted on the
phone or on video chat platforms, which do not always sync—meaning that
students can’t use visual cues.
cultural norms, such as interview structures that include small talk and
storytelling, also play a large part in the success of candidates seeking jobs
in North America, I focus here on key linguistic strategies that ELLs can use
to prepare for job interviews in all English-speaking contexts.
pressure, the graduate students I teach often race through familiar and
frequently used words in their fields. Essential terms like “electrical
engineering” and “supply chain” become a blur, rendering otherwise clear
sentences incomprehensible. Grammatical endings disappear and thought groups
are broken up with “uh” and “mmm.” Therefore, there are two main challenges:
helping students slow down by giving them more time and teaching them to take
advantage of that time to be more accurate.
Activity 1: Building
make videos of students giving impromptu or prepared talks about their job
skills and/or current research. For homework, each student then makes a
word-for-word transcript of 60 seconds of their talk, including long pauses,
filler words, and incorrect grammar. Next, the student revises the transcript,
editing for errors. If the class has studied pronunciation elements such as
thought groups, focus words, or intonation, those can also be marked. The
revised portion is rerecorded and submitted with the before-and-after
transcripts (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Activity 1 example.
(Click here to enlarge)
is also important to accuracy, and job interviews have a particular lexicon,
which can be found in career guides online. The MIT Career
Development Handbook is useful, though it has a U.S. bias,
but there are hundreds of career guides available online for free.
Activity 2: Targeting
start by identifying unfamiliar words in a list of action verbs (e.g., Appendix
A, from the MIT Career Development Handbook, 2019, p. 23).
If there are a large number of unfamiliar words, students begin with passive
learning, such as flash cards with a word on one side and the definition and
pronunciation on the other. Once they feel confident that they know the
meanings, they move on to recording sentences as homework to practice context
and pronunciation. Finally, the words are used actively in exercises like the
one in “Hesitation Gambits,” following.
need to learn strategies to give themselves time to form fluent answers. To do
this, they can learn and practice hesitation gambits, so that these gambits can
be easily accessed later, buying the student time to think. Expressions such as
“Let me think” or “I hadn’t thought of that” do not come naturally to most
students, so they must be practiced in a low-stress environment before students
go into a job interview.
Activity 3: Buying
exercise, adapted from Gorsuch, Meyers, Pickering, and Griffee (2013, p. 163),
the object is to practice using hesitation gambits so that they become automatic
receives the same gambits, but five different impromptu questions to ask a
partner. These questions are hidden from the other student, and asked one at a
time. After the question is asked, the asker begins to tap on the table. The
respondent must begin talking, using a hesitation strategy to buy time, before
the third tap. After using the gambit, they should answer the question briefly.
are some sample questions related to job interviews, but you could also use
general knowledge questions, such as “What are five synonyms for beautiful?”, “Without looking, tell me the smallest item
in your backpack,” or “Define snow.” Questions should require some thought but
should not be impossible to answer. This exercise takes 10–15 minutes and helps
students to master a skill that can then be used in job interviews.
Sample Hesitation Gambits
Sample Job Interview
- Oh, I haven’t thought about that.
- Hmm. Let me think.
- Just give me a second to think about that.
- Let me see.
- What do you think will you be doing in 10 years?
- What makes a good boss?
- Define success.
- What are your greatest strengths as an employee?
- What did
you like most about your last job?
students can’t deliver a clearly spoken and well-thought-out answer if they are
not sure of the question. Following are strategies for improving comprehension
both before and during the interview.
Unsurprisingly, vocabulary is also
important here. In a discussion of comprehension of unscripted spoken English,
Nation (2006) suggests that as with reading, listening comprehension ideally
requires an understanding of 98% of the word families used—perhaps more because
of “the transitory nature of spoken language” (p. 79). However, though a large
lexicon is required for this skill, much of the key vocabulary in interviews is
aforementioned career handbooks—along with an advertisement for a job—can be
used to improve students’ understanding of an interviewer’s remarks and
Activity 4: Planning
bring two copies of an advertisement for a job that interests them, a list of
typical questions from a career guide (e.g., Appendix B, from the MIT Career Development Handbook, 2019, p. 58) and the list of
action verbs they created for speaking. Using these, students create a word
list to predict what they will hear in the interview.
quickly skim the sample interview questions in the career handbook and answer
the following questions:
What questions are you most
likely to be asked?
those questions, which words and phrases are repeated often?
Students circle these and compare
answers with a partner.
students review their job ad. They circle the words they think are important in
the description and requirements and check with a partner to see if they agree.
Then, they make a list of the words from both sources. If any words are
unfamiliar, they look them up and make note of the meaning and pronunciation.
Finally, they add these to the vocabulary from Exercise 2.
and phrases on this list are what can be expected. Once students know the
meaning and pronunciation of each one, they have done much of the work of
understanding the questions likely to come up in an interview.
Activity 5: Understanding
students generally have a small repertoire of clarification phrases, and their
go-to is “Could you repeat that?” Unfortunately, this is rarely the best
strategy. If the student doesn’t understand the vocabulary, it’s better to ask
for the question to be rephrased.
of the most powerful tools is to understand how new information is stressed in
English. If a student misses some words, but understands many or most of them,
they should repeat as much as possible in their question. Because what is left
out of the question is new information, the speaker will stress the words that
were not understood the first time.
Example: (bold = stressed)
Tell me about a time when you surpassed your job
You: I’m sorry.
When I did what to my job requirements?
When you surpassed your job requirements.
Even if the
student is unfamiliar with the word “surpassed,” they are now in a position to
ask for that information specifically.
C for a handout combining Exercises 4 and 5, which is useful for both in-person
and telephone interviews. In addition to clarification questions, it includes
ones to check comprehension.
interview plays a major role in the job searches in the Anglo-American world.
Though this emphasis has the potential to be a drawback for English-learning
job candidates, these exercises focusing on speaking and listening can help
them to gain the confidence and skills they need to be successful.
D., Feild, H. S., & Barrick, M. R. (2008). Human resource
selection (6th ed.). Thomson/South-Western.
Meyers, C. M., Pickering, L., & Griffee, D. T. (2013).English communication for international teaching
assistants (2nd ed.). Waveland Press.
Advising & Professional Development. (2019). Career
(2006). How large a vocabulary is needed for reading and listening?Canadian Modern Language Review,63(1), 59–82. https://doi.org/10.3138/cmlr.63.1.59
C. Kemp has been a lecturer in English
language studies at MIT since 2007. She has a master’s degree in
applied linguistics from the University of Massachusetts/Boston. A. C. has also
presented extensively on teaching strategies for vocabulary acquisition. Since
2002, she has been the director of Slang
City, a website devoted to American slang and
colloquial language. She also has a strong interest in ITA training, for which
she created the User-Friendly
Classroom Video Series in 2016.