The ESL Makeover

Danny Brassell gets over himself to make learning fun for all ages

When I first began teaching elementary school, my principal asked me if I knew any Spanish. After I replied, “Un poquito (a little),” he said, “Good. You’re our new bilingual coordinator!”

Mind you, my school had over 950 students, and over 85 percent of them were English language learners. Handed a classroom filled with primarily ESL students, I turned to my new posse and congratulated them on knowing Spanish so well. I knew English, and I bragged that all of us were going to learn two languages that year.
This was my introduction to working with ESL students.

I have been so blessed to work with a number of ESL students, ranging from preschoolers to rocket scientists. I can make those claims, as I wrote my dissertation based on a family literacy program I helped create at a preschool serving homeless Latino children, and I taught international engineering students at the University of Southern California. One of the greatest secrets I learned about teaching ESL students is this: what’s good for ESL students is good for all students. Teachers, hear my mantra: we’re fortunate to teach ESL students!

Of course, terminology varies wherever you may reside. I have heard people use a variety of monikers for their students, from ELL (English Language Learners) to ESOL students (English for Speakers of Other Languages) to one of my favorite terms for students because it recognizes the role of culture and dialects in language learning, CLD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse). For simplicity’s sake, I will use the term “ESL students.”

I am a teacher, first and foremost. Whether you believe it or not, you are a teacher, too. The people we encounter watch our every move. Working with students of all ages, I have learned that strategies that work with older students may not necessarily work with younger students, but what works with preschoolers and kindergartners works for all ages. Translation: I don’t mind acting goofy when I teach. That’s why I love singing and dancing with students.

Every class begins with a song, poem, or chant. Here’s a scat my ESL students and I used to begin our morning meetings (each word means “hello” in a different language, and students repeat the words after the teacher; please note that the class stands to begin the scat, and I have used phonetic spellings for some words).
Do I sing and dance with middle schoolers, high school students, and adults? As a matter of fact, I sing and dance more often with these groups than with my younger students. The minute folks can get over the fact that they’re not as cool as they think they are is the moment that real learning takes place.

I learned this about myself when I transitioned from working with secondary students to elementary students. When I initially began teaching little ones, I tried to teach them the same way I taught older students. I was a resounding failure. Eventually, I gave in and tried all sorts of silly things with my students, and my ESL students began learning English and having fun doing it. I called this the “ESL Makeover.”
To implement the ESL Makeover, I have three ideas I’d like to discuss briefly.

First, good ESL teachers are “AWARE.” AWARE stands for “Always Watch Out for Administrators Evaluating.” Now, this is not a knock on school principals, assistant principals, and curriculum specialists. Believe me, my empathy for school administrators grows every day, as these folks deserve our kudos for enduring constant threats from their superiors that their budgets are being cut and they need to boost test scores. Good school administrators are worth their weight in gold, and one of the best ways I have seen them support ESL teachers is to leave them be.
If an ESL teacher’s students are performing well, good administrators pat that teacher on the back. Why mess with teachers’ styles if they are effective? Some of my colleagues utilize totally different teaching approaches from me, and their ESL students perform remarkably well. I say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Now, if a teacher’s ESL students are struggling, this is the time for good administrators to provide guidance and coaching. It is my hope that the Common Core State Standards provide educators with a framework that shows them “what” to teach without emphasizing “how” to teach. In the schools where I coach the teachers and administrators, I have seen that an atmosphere of honest feedback and practical suggestions can work wonders. Nothing is more gratifying to me than seeing folks help one another out and be genuinely pleased by their successes.

Second, good ESL teachers “CARE.” CARE stands for creating “Comfortable Atmospheres and Relaxed Environments.” If we’re not making 25 mistakes a day, why are we at school? Let’s embrace glorious failures and shun environments that follow scripts without any risk-taking. My students giggle at my mispronunciations in different languages, and I laugh with them. When you meet someone who thinks he’s perfect, please introduce that person to me. I’ll point out one flaw: he’s in denial.

Finally, good ESL teachers “SHARE.” SHARE stands for “Supply Hordes of Amazing Resources in their Environments.” The most successful ESL students have plenty of learning resources at their disposal, from iPads to manipulatives, Elmos to books in multiple languages. A good ESL classroom should be an interactive Disneyland that excites students so much that they bang on classroom doors at 6 a.m. eager to get in, and they burst into tears when the final bell rings at the end of the day.

I take my job seriously, not myself. The more I can model laughing at myself in front of my ESL students, the quicker they will understand that it takes time to learn a second language. I want them to enjoy the journey. Following the three simple ideas of the ESL Makeover, I have found that everyone — teachers, parents, and administrators — can more quickly and efficiently produce ESL students who learn, and love, English.

Invited to speak to over 100 international venues last year alone, Dr. Danny Brassell is considered “America’s Leading Reading Ambassador.” He is part of the Invited Speaker Symposium, “Readin’, Writin’, and ’Rithmetic: Revisited Through the Common Core State Standards,” with Ruth Culham, Steven Layne, and Greg Tang at IRA’s 58th Annual Convention, April 19-22, 2013, in San Antonio, Texas. Danny ( will also present a session on building home-school reading connections.