How to Build Rapport with ESL Students

Building Rapport in your ESL Classroom

It is important to build rapport with your students in an ESL classroom, whether it is online or offline. Building rapport means developing mutual trust and respect between you and the student, and it will foster a safe environment for your student.

Linguistic Mirroring for ESL Students

Linguistic mirroring refers to how we unconsciously imitate body language, gestures, and facial expressions to show that we like the other person and build trust with them. Linguistic Mirroring is a great way to build trust and comfort with learners of English as a Second Language.

Icebreaker Questions

Remember icebreaker activities from when you were in school?! I think the funniest one I was ever asked was “If you were a tree, what tree would you be?”Well, conversation starters can be fun in online classes too- but maybe not that one. Try these instead:

“Did you know that dogs bark in different languages? What sound do dogs make in your country?”

This is a really fun icebreaker activity for goofy teens, too. Make sure you make all the animal sounds.

“Talk about fun superstitions. Are the lucky or unlucky numbers in your country? What superstition do you find the most amusing or silliest in your culture or in mine?”

  • What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
  • When you die, what do you want to be remembered for?
  • What is your favorite item you’ve bought this year?
  • What would be the most surprising scientific discovery imaginable?
  • What is your absolute dream job?
an african american woman wearing a headset and smiling

Ask Open Ended Questions for ESL Lessons

Be sure to ask questions about the student that cannot be answered with a yes or no. For example, start questions with: Who, What, Where, Why, or How?

Conversation Prompts for ESL Classes

You can also try conversation prompts to keep the conversation flowing and get more output from the student.

Great Prompts for conversation are:

  • “What family member do you admire most and why?”
  • “What was your favorite thing to do as a kid?”
  • “What is the worst present you have ever received and why?”
  • “What is the best part of your job?”
  • “What is the hardest part of your day?”

Use the 5 W

In order to keep the conversation flowing, ask open-ended questions. The best way to do this is to keep starting questions with the five ws: who, what, when, where, why, and (how).

Really, they are 5 Ws and an H 🙂

Write to them in front of you to remember them and practice starting questions this question prompts.

Use Comprehensible Input to build Rapport

To make your student comfortable, but ensure they are engaged with the lesson, be sure to use comprehensible input at all times. This means you should use language that the student can understand even if they do not understand every word or structure you use. You can think of comprehensible input as language input that listeners can understand despite them not understanding all the words and designs in it. Use language that is one very slight level above your student’s understanding.

Be careful not to use language that is far too difficult for your student. Review the 3 tiers of vocabulary to do this.

Scaffold Lessons to Foster Rapport

Scaffolding can also build rapport in your classroom because it ensures you are helping the student by modeling activities, whether by using the PPP lesson structure or the “I do, We do, You do” teaching approach. Scaffolding empowers students and shows them you respect them because you let them stand on their own at the end of the lesson.

a photo of an elderly man typing on a laptop and smiling

Bottom Line: Remember, you can’t fake interest. But you can inspire your own interest by asking good questions. Everyone has a story. Find out your student’s story. The most important question you should ask your student is, “Why do you want to learn English?” This will guide the other kinds of questions you will ask. Remember, you can always ask “why” to extend the conversation.


Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL
Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL

Ingrid Maria Pimsner has been teaching for over a decade in various universities, nonprofits, and private academies. She has taught English as a Second Language for Lutheran Children & Family Service, Nationalities Service Center, Lernstudio Barbarossa Berlin-Tegel, and more. In addition to her Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification, she holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a MA from Maryland Institute College of Art.