TESOL Connections

Grammatically Speaking

by Michelle Jackson

In this month's column, Michelle Jackson shares an activity that helps create a purposefully designed classroom community while teaching the present tense. Students are provided with a sense of belonging and connectedness, practice grammar, and develop their understanding in the context of real-world communication. 

How to Teach The Future Tense

The beginning of a new semester is a precious time when a classroom community can be established and later built upon. A classroom community creates a sense of belongingness and connectedness for students. Within such a community, students know their learning will be supported by their peers, which can positively impact their motivation (Richards & Farrell, 2011). In a language classroom, where interaction is essential to acquisition, the community provides students a safe place to try new verbal forms or add vocabulary from their reading to their writing. The community prizes effort and views mistakes as integral to learning.

The chief challenge with community is that it does not naturally occur. It must be purposefully designed and built by the instructor, who encourages active participation and engagement from all students. One way to build community at the start of a semester is to have students develop a set of seven norms for classroom behavior. These expectations will govern how the community interacts as well as what obligations members agree to fulfill.

Additionally, as the norms are written in the future tense, this method allows students to practice grammar and develop their understanding in the context of real-world communication. I have used this technique with introductory college-level ESL students, who appreciated the inclusion of their voice in course norms.

Materials Required

  • Paper and writing utensils for all students
  • Chalkboard, whiteboard, or doc cam and writing utensils

Timing: 30 minutes

Step 1

Summarize the future tense for students. The future consists of the word will followed by the base form of the verb. For example, I will grade exams this afternoon. My cousin will find a job after graduation. We will write four essays this semester. Tell students they will use the future tense to craft a set of class norms that everyone will follow. (3 minutes)

Step 2

In groups of three, have students brainstorm answers to the following questions (5 minutes):

  1. What student behaviors support my learning?
  2. What teacher behaviors support my learning?

Step 3

Groups will use their responses to the questions to craft five statements in the future tense. For example, if students believe that peers’ in-class participation is essential to their learning, one of their five statements might read: Students will come to class prepared to participate. –or– Students will bring all necessary materials to class.  (5 minutes)

Step 4

Each team will share their five statements. While teams share, summarize the statements on the board and sort them into categories. You should also draw the students’ attention to the correct use of the future tense. (10 minutes)

Step 5

Once all teams have shared their statements, say that, together, you will narrow all the teams’ statements down to seven norms that the class will follow throughout the semester or the year. The statements that were most often mentioned by the teams should make the short list of norms. (7 minutes)

Step 6

After the class has agreed upon the final set of seven norms, post them either in the classroom or online in the learning management system (preferably both). These norms should be referenced often, reminding students that these behaviors were created by and for the classroom community to ensure everyone’s success.

Happy teaching,



Richards J. C., & Farrell, T. (Eds.). (2011). Practice teaching: A reflective approach. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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Dr. Michelle Jackson is the associate director of teaching at New Mexico State University’s (NMSU's) Teaching Academy. She designs, develops, and delivers workshops on a variety of teaching and learning topics. Prior to NMSU, she was the manager of the English Language Institute at UT El Paso. She has taught English as a second language at UT El Paso and Harvard University as well as Spanish at UT Austin.


Increase Involvement of EL Families at School Events

From the TESOL Community & Family Toolkit

In this excerpt from the TESOL Community & Family Toolkit, pick up some practical strategies to increase the attendance of parents and families at school events. These strategies have been successfully implemented in schools and have deepened the partnerships between the school and the English learners' families. 

One of the greatest challenges in education today is increasing the attendance of parents and families at school events. When working with EL families, this challenge becomes even greater. Language barriers, work schedules, and lack of babysitting services all influence decisions to attend. Several successful strategies have been implemented in schools. These strategies have not only increased EL family attendance, but also deepened the partnerships between the school and the EL families.

Family Engagement

According to researchers Ferlazzo and Hammond (2009), there is a distinct difference between parent involvement and parent engagement. They define parent involvement as beginning with the school: “The ideas and energy come from the schools and government mandates. Schools try to ‘sell’ their ideas to parents” (p. 6). However, parents initiate engagement: “Ideas are elicited from parents by school staff in the context of developing trusting relationships….More parent energy drives the efforts” (p. 6).

When families engage, they are more invested in the school and in seeing the school and the community succeed.

The TESOL Community & Family Toolkit, a resource for English language professionals to use at all levels to connect with families and build strong communities, is free to download.

Events and Tips to Increase Family Engagement

1. Celebrate Students’ Home Countries

Sponsor a “Country of the Month” bulletin board throughout the school. Have a visible school bulletin board highlight one country each month. If, for example, Vietnam is the country of the month, the board can introduce others to the location, language, popular foods, and holidays of Vietnam.

Then, each individual classroom could follow up with classroom bulletin boards highlighting that same country through potential readers, holidays, historical events, and so on. In a first-grade classroom, students could have a bulletin board on the dragon boat festival and design their own dragon boat. Change the bulletin boards monthly. Ensure that bulletin boards highlight the native countries of new students.

Alternatively (or in addition), have an area in your school where you display maps of all the areas where your EL families come from.

2. Provide Transportation

Provide transportation to school events, such as back-to-school night, assemblies, and parent-teacher conferences. Run the school bus route for school events, just as it is run in the morning and afternoon for school pick-up and drop-off.

3. Offer Babysitting Services

Offer babysitting services during school-sponsored events. Babysitters can be high school students.

  1. Arrange babysitters in various locations throughout the school, and allow parents to drop
    children off in babysitting rooms.
  2. Consider offering babysitters community service hours.

4. Celebrate Multicultural Holidays

Ask students from the country of the holiday being celebrated to perform a song or dance. Students from the country highlighted could share stories related to that holiday with other children, or teach a song or dance.

5. Use Students’ Native Languages

Add welcome signs in your EL families’ first languages at the entrances to you school, and decorate the signs with flags from your EL families’ countries. When making school announcements, consider greeting (saying “good morning”) in a new language each week.

6. Host an International Luncheon or Dinner

This could be done at the classroom level, at the grade level, or with the entire school. If running the country of the month bulletin board, consider having an international luncheon or dinner after every four countries. Have foods focus on those countries highlighted.



Ferlazzo, L., & Hammond, L. (2009). Building parent engagement in schools. Denver, CO: Linworth.

This article is from the TESOL Community & Family Toolkit, available for free on the TESOL website.

Preparing English Learners for College in ELT

by Yasuko Kanno
A number of barriers inhibit ELs from accessing higher education; learn some concrete actions you can take to help your students overcome these barriers. 

Dania, an Ethiopian English learner (EL), was scared to apply to college because she thought that college was only for native-English speakers. Alexandra, a Latina EL who was perfectly capable of being admitted to a state university, missed the last SAT before the university application deadline because she did not know how to coordinate test-taking and filing college applications. Through my teaching and research, I have met a number of ELs for whom going to college proved to be an elusive goal. A recent study found that only 19% of ELs go onto 4-year colleges upon high school graduation as opposed to 45% of students for whom English is a first language, while almost 50% of ELs do not reach postsecondary education at all (Kanno & Cromley, 2015). Although many of the barriers inhibiting ELs’ college access are systemic, there are a number of concrete actions that individual EL teachers can take. In what follows, I outline some of the ideas that are likely to facilitate ELs’ access to and preparation for college.

Accelerate English Learners’ English Development

By now it has become common knowledge in TESOL that it takes 4–7 years for ELs to develop academic English proficiency (Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000). Although I do not dispute this claim itself, I contend that the way that this information has been interpreted at the classroom level has been less than productive. Some teachers have come to understand this information to mean that ELs’ English language development (ELD) inevitably involves a long haul no matter what teachers do.

That ELD takes multiple years does not mean that the methods and quality of instruction make no difference. ELs who receive effective ELD instruction do learn academic English faster. Although accelerated ELD would require its own series of TESOL Connections articles, readers will benefit from reading concrete guidelines such as Saunders, Goldenberg, and Marcelletti (2013). ELs need to be producing much more English throughout the day: Many ELs, especially those placed in low-track classes (see the following section, “Teach Demanding Academic Content While They Are Learning English”), go through the school day being silent, while native-English-speaking peers placed in honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses enjoy stimulating discussions with their teachers that foreshadow the typical discourse patterns in college classrooms. If we are not providing ELs with opportunities to speak English in the classroom, how can we expect them to get better?

That said, ELs’ accelerated ELD is as much a matter of envisioning students’ futures as a matter of teaching methods. High school EL teachers usually have a good sense of the linguistic leap that ELs need to make to reach college, whereas elementary-school EL teachers have a harder time connecting their practice with college readiness because college is a long time away. But ELD is a multiyear project: The instruction that ELs receive in elementary school has a real impact on what they will be doing in high school and beyond. Wenger (1998) speaks of the power of imagination by citing the story of two stone cutters who are asked what they are doing: “One responds: ‘I am cutting this stone in a perfectly square shape.’ The other responds: ‘I am building a cathedral’” (p. 176). Similarly, the practice of an EL teacher who responds, “I am nurturing future poet laureates,” is likely to be qualitatively different from one who responds, “I’m teaching how to decode long vowels.”

Teach Demanding Academic Content While They Are Learning English

A lack of urgency to accelerate ELs’ ELD is particularly harmful when it is coupled with an assumption that students need to reach a certain level of English proficiency before they are ready to learn challenging academic content. At the high school level, this assumption results in ELs’ limited access to advanced college preparatory courses (Kanno & Kangas, 2014). Given that ELD takes several years, we cannot afford to wait for ELs to develop grade-level English proficiency before their academic preparation for college takes place; rather, ELD and academic content instruction must happen concurrently.

EL teachers can work with guidance counselors to develop a flexible system of course and level assignment. Eligibility criteria for taking honors and AP courses that rely less on standardized test scores and more on previous teachers’ recommendations and previous course grades should provide a more equitable way of assessing ELs’ readiness. A late course-drop date past one marking period would allow ELs to try an ambitious course, with the option to drop it later if it turns out to be unrealistic. In other words, the rule of thumb in deciding on ELs’ academic course leveling should be: When in doubt, level up rather than level down.

EL teachers also have an important role to play in coaching general education teachers to set the language objectives of their lessons. General education teachers can usually articulate content objectives with ease, but they are not in the habit of considering the vocabulary, grammatical features, and language functions embedded in their lessons. EL teachers can help their general education colleagues, first, to become aware of the linguistic features of their lessons, and second, to develop plans to incorporate explicit linguistic instruction into their lessons. This does not mean that EL teachers must work with every content teacher in the school. Rather, if they can identify a general education teacher, say a math teacher, who has a desire to teach ELs better, they can start with that teacher. And once that teacher develops the skill to set language objectives and recognizes the effectiveness of the change, that teacher can then go on to coach other colleagues in his or her department.

Give Them College Knowledge

Going to college is not just about meeting rigorous academic standards; it is also about knowing how to navigate the system. The concrete knowledge of how to prepare for and apply to college is called college knowledge. Although many parents of ELs have high educational aspirations for their children, they themselves often lack a college education and are not able to provide concrete guidance in college planning. If such guidance is not available at home, it has to be provided at the school.

This is another area in which EL teachers can play a pivotal role. For example, before ELs attend a school-wide college orientation, EL teachers can teach them a prelesson, providing some basic background knowledge about U.S. colleges and going over the key vocabulary that is likely to come up in the orientation, such as FAFSA, tuition, Common Application, early admission, majors, letter of recommendation, and Pell Grants. EL teachers can also work with guidance counselors to develop an EL-specific college guidance and orientation program. Much of such guidance needs to be hands-on and practical. For example, taking ninth-grade ELs on a campus tour of a college nearby will help them develop a more concrete image of college, with real buildings and people, early in their high school careers. A FAFSA workshop for both ELs and their parents with interpreters present is another important element of college preparation for ELs. Completing the FAFSA forms is a convoluted process that frustrates many middle-class, English-speaking parents. A FASA workshop that enables students and parents to submit their application by the end of the session will go a long way in ensuring that ELs secure the financial aid for which they are eligible.

What I outlined in this article goes beyond the usual job descriptions of EL teachers. At the same time, we EL teachers are the institutional advocates with the expertise to translate ELs’ needs into concrete policies and practices. If we do not speak up for ELs’ equitable access to college and act on it, who else will?


Hakuta, K., Butler, Y. G., & Witt, D. (2000). How long does it take English learners to attain proficiency? (Policy Report No. 2000-1). Santa Barbara, CA: University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED443275

Kanno, Y., & Cromley, J. G. (2015). English language learners’ pathways to four-year colleges. Teachers College Record, 117(12), 1–44.

Kanno, Y., & Kangas, S. N. (2014). “I’m not going to be, like, for the AP”: English language learners’ limited access to advanced college-preparatory courses in high school. American Educational Research Journal, 51, 848–878. doi:10.3102/0002831214544716

Saunders, W., Goldenberg, C., & Marcelletti, D. (2013). English language development: Guidelines for instruction. American Educator, 37(1), 13–25.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.


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Yasuko Kanno is associate professor and director of language education in the School of Education at Boston University. She works with graduate students who are training to become English as a second language teachers in public schools in Massachusetts, USA. Recipient of the 2015 TESOL Award for Distinguished Research, Kanno is interested in English language learners’ access to postsecondary education and how K–12 public schools shape ELs’ postsecondary choices.

    The Language of Critical Thinking: A Sequence With Activities

    by Bruce Rubin
    In this easy classroom exercise, ELs at any level learn to utilize critical thinking skills to improve visual literacy. 

    Though it could be said that critical thinking has a language of its own, it’s a language you’re probably already teaching, and it’s first and foremost about asking good questions that lead to accuracy, clarification, explanation, and/or discovery. But the responses, whether oral or written, must also be carefully framed lest someone argue that the responder is claiming more of the truth than he or she has a right to. One major purpose of critical thinking is to assess the strength of knowledge claims, not only in others’ statements, but in our own as well.

    Critical thinking can be employed to deepen student engagement in a reading, listening, writing, or grammar class—in short, just about any language class—and it can be practiced at all language proficiency levels. As we’ll see in the exercise modeled here, there are grammar structures (starting with question formation) and vocabulary terms that appear in beginning-level texts, others that appear in more intermediate levels, and some that are for the most advanced. All levels will be able to perform and benefit from the exercise, but your language emphasis will be different for each.

    This exercise, simply called “Reading a Photograph,” focuses on utilizing critical thinking skills to improve visual literacy, and all you need is a photograph suitable for classroom analysis (e.g., see Figure 1) and a list of questions about it. Though one common idiom in English is “a picture is worth a thousand words,” you may instead find in class that a picture is worth a thousand questions.  

    Figure 1. Example of photo for critical thinking activity.
    Family Restaurant”; by Eden, Janine, and Jim; July 4, 2011.
    Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.


    Using a photograph to practice vocabulary and grammar is a classic classroom technique. The photo in Figure 1 could be used to practice identifying people, objects, and activities, but will likely also include setup questions about time and location. (Historical photos add some extra challenge.) At the lowest levels, such practice usually begins with question formation, but early-sequence grammatical structures could also include pronoun selection, be-verb usage, and there is/there are.

    In general, you should try for comprehensible, level-appropriate questions that are simple but revealing. Responses should show what we really know just from looking at the photo and what we’re not quite sure about. You might hope to generate alternative hypotheses, like a scientist or a detective.

    Presenting the Photo

    When you reveal the photograph to the class, it is important to tell students as little as possible about it. Save any knowledge you may have or any written information—including a caption if there is one—for the end of the exercise. Before you put students in groups for discussion or call on them in class, be sure to give them ample time to study the photo using the guidelines you provide. A few minutes will seem like an eternity to some who will “figure it out” in a few seconds, but it’s good to present the possibility that a photo may require more sustained attention. Any of the pathways in Table 1 will work for analysis and discussion.

    Table 1. Discussion Pathways

    Basic Question Words Who, what, when, where, why, how
    Basic Elements Time, location, people, objects, activities
    Basic Knowledge

    What do we know about the subject, just from looking? What do we not know?

    What do we see? What are we guessing about? What do we assume? What can we infer?

    What does the photographer choose to include or exclude? Does he or she have an agenda?

    Basic Creative Writing

    What lies beyond the photograph frame?

    What happens beyond this moment, before or after?

    Basic Aesthetics Composition, form, color, lighting, dynamics

    Determining Assumptions

    The legally required attribution on this photo tells us when it was taken. The generic location provided in the title, a “family restaurant,” is suggestive enough to make us assume this is a family. But do we know for sure? The kids could be cousins, or one could be a neighbor’s child. And what country are they in? By now your students will notice the small table sign in English—but which English-speaking country are they in?

    For language learning alone, it’s enough to assume that the oldest person in the photo, the woman in the upper left of the photograph, is the grandmother of the family. We can assume some of the relationships by noting relative ages according to appearance and seating location (e.g., the parents sitting together, the eldest/teenage child sitting apart). After teaching or reviewing the vocabulary, you may point to the woman and ask, “Who is she?” And your students might answer, “She is the grandmother.” The be-verb sounds so certain.

    Questioning Assumptions

    Is the woman the grandmother? Do we know, for sure, with 100% certainty? This is the critical thinking question; acknowledging it is a form of identifying and evaluating assumptions that may not be provable based on the evidence in the image at hand. The response it demands is a further acknowledgement that however likely the assumption may be, there is room for doubt and for generating alternative hypotheses. For example, the woman could be a family friend or neighbor.

    When you model the response, “She might be a friend” or “She might be a neighbor,” your use of the modal indicates the lack of certainty we have. Simple modals are another segment of the early grammar sequence. In addition, you can model the use of maybe, as in “Maybe she is a friend.”

    Degrees of Certainty

    With any luck, your chosen photo has a bonus: something mysterious about it that you can use to generate more inferences and hypotheses. With the photo in Figure 1, you can guide the students to notice that there is an empty chair with food in front of it. Someone is missing. Look again—there are two untaken trays and two empty chairs—just a small piece of one chair can be seen.  To whom might they belong? What might these people be doing? Again, a few hypotheses. Could there be a second grandmother? Maybe another child? Here you might take the opportunity to inject another degree of certainty with probably and possibly/it’s possible that, and so in the end you might conclude that one chair is probably the grandfather’s, and it’s possible that the grandfather is taking the photo. The other person? Generate some possibilities, but it’s anybody’s guess who or where that person may be. 

    Should you happen to be teaching the vocabulary of emotions at slightly higher proficiency levels, you might point at various people in the photo and model “She is happy” or “She is bored.” But is she? Do we know just from looking? Posing for pictures is common, and poses can be deceiving. The careful critical thinker says, “She looks happy” or “She looks bored.”

    As you use the photo with intermediate proficiency levels, you can model phrases found on TOEFL and IELTS such as “What can you infer…” (e.g., about the location), or “Any hypotheses?” You can get into more adverbs showing degrees of certainty, among them likely and certainly. You may find yourself expanding student modal range by teaching more sophisticated, logic-based modals: “She must be the grandmother.” Or: “The grandfather must be taking the picture,” to be used only when one is very certain.

    Comparing and Contrasting

    Photos lend themselves as well to the analytical language of comparing and contrasting: old, older, oldest or young/younger/youngest in the photo. You can of course provide another photo, similar but different—just do a web search for “family at table eating”—and have your students compare the two, using the same analytical guidelines.

    Options for Advanced Proficiency Levels

    At the highest levels of academic language proficiency, initial engagement with the photo may be in classroom conversation, but there will likely be a follow-up in writing. This will entail quoting and documenting sources, and possibly conveying the overall reliability of the source and the writer’s confidence in it. The writer may choose to make more nuanced claims about the photo in phrases like “Their seating arrangement suggests that the middle-aged couple in the middle are the parents,” or, “The small sign on the table indicates that this is an English-speaking country.” Both verbs imply less than 100% fact and show the reader that the writer is a careful thinker.

    At these higher levels you can also continue to expand the range of qualifiers and hedges, as in “She looks fairly old,” which conveys a lack of certainty about her exact age, or as in “Presumably she is the grandmother,” or “The grandfather is apparently taking the picture,” both of which signal a confession that this is indeed a well-founded assumption, but not a proven fact.

    Other Language-Generating Critical Thinking Activities

    • Practice conditionals: You can also enjoy practicing conditionals, which pose hypotheticals that function as thought experiments. Sentence completions starting with “If I were a bird, I would…” or “If I were rich, I would…” require being able to take a different perspective—a multitude of perspectives, perhaps. This is another hallmark of critical thinking, which expects information packaged with a spectrum or range of potential factors, causes, conditions, or options upon which to base decisions.

    • Examine a short reading: Provide students with a short reading. Have students highlight any concept, conclusion, implication, or claim about which they have a clarification question. Have them highlight as well (or do this in a separate exercise) any language indicating uncertainty or imprecision.

    • Identify restatements and inferences: Provide students with a short reading and five statements related to the reading. Ask students to identify restatements and inferences. This activity is good for TOEFL/IELTS.

    • The Five Whys: This idea is borrowed from Toyota engineering, where it is used as a problem-solving device. Have students ask themselves and each other why they are there in English class; they will good-naturedly accept your prodding them with more whys than they were prepared for.

    • Simile/metaphor/analogy generators: Provide the beginning of a simile, metaphor, or analogy: “The mind works like a…”, or “A teacher is like a...” Fill the board with student responses.

    • Reordering scrambled paragraphs: This activity requires making logical connections to complete a thought sequence.

    • Creative writing prompts: There’s an idiom proclaiming that “Every picture tells a story,” and coming up with hypotheses for the existence of any given situation is one of the first steps in fiction writing. Prompts such as the following lead to critical thinking:

      • What are these people really thinking?
      • What are their relationships really like?
      • What happened before or after this photo was taken?
      • Where do they live and how do they survive?

    Critical thinking is much harder in a second language because ambiguity is amplified and nuances can be subtle. It is nonetheless an empowering skill that builds student competency and confidence.

    Download this article (PDF) 

    Bruce Rubin has taught English to international university students and adult immigrants since 1989. Since 2001, he has been teaching for the American Language Program at California State University, Fullerton, where he has also trained future teachers studying in the TESOL Department and foreign faculty participating in short-term programs. He is the author of Inside Reading, Level 3, published by Oxford University Press, and is an English language specialist with the U.S. Department of State.


    LGBTQIA ELs: Teacher Assumptions and Student Oppression

    by Andrew Lewis and Molly Kelley
    Learn how your assumptions could have lasting negative effects on your ELs and what you can do to create a more inclusive classroom. 

    Oppression is often thought of as malicious and overt, manifesting in purposeful, nefarious acts. We, however, are interested in oppression as the result of assumptions. As in the world outside of language teaching, the majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) ESL students are assumed to be straight until their identity is explicitly stated (Calleja, 2013). Though this fact may seem inconsequential to some because of the relatively small number of queer students,1 Coffman, Coffman, and Ericson (2013) remind us that roughly one in five people identify as queer, whether openly or not, a number that does not include the transgender and intersex populations. Yet this number should matter little to any teacher whose interest lies in teaching all of their students effectively because assumptions about students concerning gender and sexuality have a direct negative effect on the learning outcomes of queer students. Queer ESL students report anxiety in classrooms adhering to a heteronormative tradition and also a desire to learn in more inclusive environments (Calleja, 2013), and both anxiety and negative attitudes toward the learning environment often overpower good teaching goals and practices (Dörnyei, 2005). The assumption that students identify as heterosexual and cisgender has a high degree of influence, so why are more teachers not creating more inclusive classrooms? Many instructors, however unconsciously, prioritize the comfort of their heterosexual and cisgender students over the inclusion of all of their students, which leaves some students out in the cold. Teaching according to this assumption and within this comfort zone will have lasting negative effects on both our queer and nonqueer students.

    Effects of Noninclusion

    Ignoring Individuality

    In assuming the sexual and gender identities of our students, we treat our students as a monolithic group with no individuality. First, we know that this is an insufficient teaching method; “[individual differences] have been found to be the most consistent predictors of L2 learning success… No other phenomena investigated within SLA have come even close to this level of impact” (Dörnyei, 2005, p. 2). Among these individual differences are student identity and motivation. To ignore individual differences does a disservice to all of our students; however, our queer students often face issues of motivation not experienced by their nonqueer counterparts.

    According to a survey of queer students by Kaiser (2017), a lecturer in composition for multilingual students at San Francisco State University, many queer students are motivated by issues of identity. They study English to thrive in areas of the world where queerness is more likely to be tolerated. Additionally, they want to discuss and interact with topics of sexual identity in the classroom. If and when our queer students attempt to express their individuality, we often end up silencing them by treating them as those who would have them conform.

    Treating LGBTQIA Topics as Taboo

    Another sinister effect of prioritizing a comfortable classroom for heterosexual and cisgender students is that it specifically punishes the victims of bigoted thinking by, in a twisting of logic, treating bigots as victims of diversity. We end up putting our students’ education, social interactions, and health at risk. A central tenet of academia is the nurturing of critical analysis by exposing students to a diverse array of thoughts, experiences, and ideas. Yet, though inclusion of, for example, topics of race or women’s issues is often lauded, if not actively encouraged, inclusion of LGBTQIA issues is often seen as preaching to a “captive” audience. In other words, academia praises the normalization of various experiences, but the normalization of queerness continues to take a back seat to the perception of other students’ offense.

    In addition, when a teacher avoids discussion of LGBTQIA topics, they set the social standard for student behavior. They, perhaps unintentionally, give students the mistaken assumption that these topics are offensive or that socially regressive notions concerning gender and sexuality are shared among students and the instructor. These together have the effect of stigmatizing queerness. On the other hand, normalizing LGBTQIA existence helps reduce the stigma attached to queer identities, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016), positively impacts the overall health of individuals in these communities.

    Finally, all of this means that we primarily focus on making a subset of our students comfortable, students who would not suffer from exposure to LGBTQIA topics, rather than doing our jobs to educate all of our students, some of whom actively suffer from marginalization (Nelson, 2009). Oppression is not lessened by the avoidance of discomfort; it is reinforced. It is important, therefore, to normalize the existence of queer individuals in order to educate our students according to academic ideals, give them an accurate picture of their new academic social environment, and give our queer students a chance to participate in that environment without unnecessary burden.

    Limiting Students

    These assumptions further harm students with respect to limiting them in both their exposure to topics of gender and sexuality and their sophistication when talking about them. ESL classes do not stop at coursework in the English language, but further serve as an introduction to academia in general, where topics of gender and sexuality are likely to come up. The University of Iowa, for example, allows students to specify their pronouns of reference and has active policies that prohibit discrimination based on a student’s gender or sexual orientation. Thus, when we shield our students from LGBTQIA topics, we put them in a vulnerable position of lacking the requisite knowledge to navigate even basic information on a course syllabus. Additionally, when these topics arise in any situation (in class discussions, in coursework, in social situations outside the classroom, etc.), students may lack the vocabulary they need to participate in a discussion with sophistication.

    Creating More Inclusive Classrooms

    It is our hope that this article has made readers aware of consequences that spring from the assumptions instructors may be making with respect to their students and LGBTQIA topics. We further hope that we have shown the harm this inflicts on ESL classrooms. To avoid these consequences, instructors should prioritize being more inclusive where they can be. The following recommendations come from our article, “Creating Inclusive Classrooms for LGBTQIA ESL Students,” which you can go to for more information.

    Create a respectful environment: One technique for establishing an inclusive classroom is to create a learning environment where expressions of queer identity are respected. The instructor can support queer students by taking class time to go through (institutional, if applicable) nondiscrimination policies and to establish expectations for the classroom, making it clear that neither the instructor nor the institution share a student’s negative perception of queerness. In addition, your willingness to take class time to enforce policies and expectations meant to protect queer identities can make students feel seen, heard, and empowered to express themselves freely.

    Include relevant material: Another easy way to make classrooms more inclusive is to include materials that cover LGBTQIA topics. In our article, we recommend books and podcasts that normalize queer experiences rather than make a spectacle of them by having a character’s queerness be their only outstanding identifier. The key idea of these two suggestions is that “including” doesn’t have to mean “focusing on.” The instructor can acknowledge queer existence and include materials that do the same without shifting the focus from language to gender and sexuality.

    These are, of course, not the only ways to be a more inclusive instructor; they are ones that have worked well for us. Our ultimate goal is to show you that inclusion can be implemented in the classroom without much work on the part of the instructor. If you have additional suggestions or questions, or wish to discuss these topics in more detail, we welcome you to contact us.


    Calleja, R. E. (2013). Sexual identity in the ESL classroom: Exploring attitudes of LGBT adult ESL students (Master’s thesis). Hunter College of the City University of New York, NY.

    Coffman, K. B., Coffman, L. C., & Ericson, K. M. (2013). The size of the LGBT population and the magnitude of anti-gay sentiments are substantially underestimated. National Bureau of Economic Research, 12. doi: 10.3386/w19508

    Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The psychology of the language learner: Individual differences in second language acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Gay and bisexual men’s health: Stigma and discrimination. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/msmhealth/stigma-and-discrimination.htm

    Kaiser, E. (2017, March). LGBTQ+ voices from the classroom: Key insights for ESL teachers. Paper presented at the annual meeting of TESOL International Association, Seattle, WA.

    Nelson, C. (2009). Sexual identities in English language education. New York, NY: Routledge.

    1The term queer is often used to refer to noncisgender and nonheterosexual populations. Queer, as a succinct shorthand in an attempt to speak about these populations, is used in this manner throughout this article, interchangeable with LGBTQIA.


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    Andrew Lewis is an ESL instructor currently teaching at the University of Iowa. His interests lie in materials development focusing on diversity and representation, the use of popular fiction podcasts in ESL classrooms, test development, and addressing student motivation.

    Molly Kelley is an ESL teacher and student advocate from Iowa City, Iowa. Her professional interests include second language acquisition, creating inclusive classrooms for LGBTQIA students, and adapting popular culture for ESL use. She currently teaches at the University of Iowa.