Developing Relationships Through ESL

Martha Wright

New Horizons: July 2024

Teaching English Like a Servant

Also in this issue

Teaching English Like a Servant

ESL Resources from Mission to North America

“Affection and appreciation” was the phrase that most stood out to me in recent conversations with friends who have been involved in English as a Second Language (ESL) ministries. Now, perhaps you were expecting to read here about how to teach grammar rules or pronunciation. It’s not to say that those are never part of the process of acquiring English, but for both learners and instructors in many ESL ministries, developing relationships was by far the most significant part of their experience.

These ESL instructors have found through years of interacting with learners the very thing that linguists have “discovered” through formal research: a positive interpersonal environment helps people learn better, in part by reducing the sort of anxiety that can hinder language acquisition.

You may want to create such a supportive environment but not know where to begin. Let me share from the experiences of a few different ESL program participants at Resurrection OPC in Westminster, California; at Redeemer OPC in Clarkston, Georgia; and at the nonprofit Revive South Jersey in Bridgeton, New Jersey.


As believers, we want to show the love of Christ through our ESL program. We do this in part by providing a needed service that helps immigrants, refugees, and others to care for themselves and their families. Our classes may help them to reach important goals like passing a high school equivalency test or becoming US citizens. We may think of our own goals as being more related to communicating the truths of the gospel to our learners, who might eventually come to saving faith in Christ. However, these somewhat different aims don’t have to be in conflict. If we focus on developing positive relationships, we will try to reflect Christ’s love. Through our interactions, we will provide learners with opportunities to hear the gospel and see it lived out. Building those relationships will also help them to learn well and achieve their practical goals. Clearly, this will take a great deal of wisdom on our part. Of course, the way we can find clarity and direction will be through prayer by all our brothers and sisters (not only the ESL program leaders) for spiritual strength and also practical wisdom.

Practical Matters

Practical matters are very significant in interacting with communities of immigrants and refugees. There is a great deal that people who have been raised in the States don’t know about the everyday lives of our neighbors. We may never have experienced moving to a foreign country—especially in the wake of serious personal trauma—and we may not share the concerns that newcomers have about finances, transportation, places to live, school for their children, or even where to find food that they know how to prepare.

How can we learn more about our neighbors so that our ESL program attracts them and helps them participate as fully as possible? Most importantly, we can pray that God will bring into our sphere of acquaintance people who can help us reach the learners we are looking for—perhaps a member of an immigrant community who can act as a bridge or liaison. We can also seek out local leaders in community organizations, schools, or other churches who can provide insights into the best ways to interact with local people. One OP church group had a wonderful couple from the community who not only helped to start the program but who have also faithfully continued as bilingual teachers. They have supervised much of the program’s administration because they have a far better sense of how to handle matters in an appropriately intercultural way, which can be critical to the program’s longevity.


Longevity is key. Language acquisition takes time, and learners may already be pushed to their limits by the demands of their everyday lives. It may be difficult for them to attend regularly, and they may not understand how critical it is to their progress for them to maintain that consistency. For this reason, those who are planning an ESL program need to thoroughly discuss with community leaders and future learners what would work for them. What are the times that they realistically could hope to attend class? Will they be able to get there? What is most important to them in an ESL program?

Community leaders can help ESL program organizers understand what will encourage learners. Are there incentives that will help students continue to attend? I remember some time ago hearing from friends who ran an ESL program for mothers in North Philadelphia that when they started holding a formal graduation ceremony for the course—complete with caps, gowns, and a party with music, balloons, and a big cake—many fewer students dropped out. Actually graduating represented a goal that they thought only other people achieved, so it was tremendously significant to them. I was a bit puzzled that such a thing as a party would matter so much, but I realized it is because, like many middle-class Americans, I’ve been to lots of ceremonies and school parties. Most people I know have been successful in the educational system. But for these mothers, that ESL program was the first formal education they had ever completed. That party was the first time someone was celebrating them, and they finally felt they could achieve something in America.


Because of the many variables in maintaining an ESL class, teaching is always an ongoing process of adapting to shifting circumstances. Changes in venue, attendance, language groups, and times can challenge teachers. They will have to draw on their flexibility and creativity in ways they probably never have before. Even if they start with a seemingly uniform group of beginners, within weeks some learners will be far ahead of others. Some students will come to the course with lengthy professional experience and graduate degrees from their home country. Others may never have had the opportunity to attend even primary school and scarcely know how to hold a pen.

Some learners may have negative past experiences that they need to put behind them to advance in their learning. For instance, in many developing countries most students’ educational experience is quite discouraging and even traumatizing. School might be a place where under-trained and poorly supported teachers are expected to keep control of classes of one hundred or more students, with few, if any, books or even a decent blackboard. It might be a place where teachers mete out serious corporal punishment for the most trivial infraction, and students expect to be humiliated in front of the entire class for making a mistake.

For any of these reasons, ESL learners may lack confidence and be quite anxious about undertaking classes in their new country. So, as one of my friends said, “creating community around learning” has particular importance.

Both learners and instructors may have to adjust their expectations of what an ESL class “should” be: learners may expect to sit passively and learn by rote, while instructors may fear they have to be able to provide lengthy grammatical explanations. Learners usually quickly adapt to a more interactive, communicative style of learning, because it does help create a supportive environment that some teachers have described as “like a family.” Teachers also usually find they ditch the elaborate terminology in favor of everyday conversation, lots of examples, role-plays, games, and even everyday activities like cooking.

Nevertheless, it can still be challenging for teachers when they are faced with widely varying educational levels and inconsistent attendance among the learners. That is when, as one teacher said, they have to remind themselves why they are there: to show the love of Christ to their students.


Instructors new to ESL may wonder what materials to use. There are far too many to choose from, but there are good resources among PCA and OPC groups. Teachers may be required to use materials to prepare for a particular exam, such as a citizenship exam, but they can still foster fellowship and community in the way they use those materials. Depending on the group and setting, there may be more or less explicit Bible instruction in the class. Some ESL programs include evangelistic materials that contain Bible teaching from the beginning. Others may be piggy-backing on local public programs that are not faith-based. In the latter instance, teachers might invite learners to other gatherings to share God’s Word or find out if it is appropriate to share gospel materials with the learners.

In any case, we hope that we reflect some of Christ’s love through our humble efforts, bless the stranger that is within our gates, and even plant seeds of faith.

The author is a linguist and former OP missionary. New Horizons, July 2024.

New Horizons: July 2024

Teaching English Like a Servant

Also in this issue

Teaching English Like a Servant

ESL Resources from Mission to North America

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