The A – Z of Teaching ESL
Just for you, some helpful advice on how to be a successful ESL teacher.
A – ability/adapt
Your students may not all have the same ability regarding their level of English, even students who are studying in the same group. Sometimes a commercial decision will be made by your school to give you a ‘mixed ability’ group. You will have to be aware of the differences in their abilities, and adapt some activities so that all students can benefit and learn from them.
B – boring
Don’t give boring lessons! Include plenty of different activities in your lessons – it’s better to have a number of various, shorter tasks, than to have just one long one. Make all parts of your lessons interesting and relevant to your students.
C – check
Check that your students understand what you’re asking them to do. Don’t just ask ‘Do you understand?’ They will always answer ‘yes’, even when they don’t! Ask questions that will give you confirmation that they’ve understood. Eg. Where are Tim and Mary going? (to the park), Why are they going there? (to walk their dog). Always check that your students know what they’re supposed to be doing and that they’re following the lesson.
D – disappointment
You may experience this from time to time. You could be disappointed with your own performance as a teacher. But don’t worry – we all have bad days. Or, you could be disappointed with the progress your students are making. Language learning takes time, but if you think your students aren’t progressing fast enough, ask a senior, or more experienced, teacher for advice, try some new ideas in the classroom, and make sure that your students are doing their homework (this will help them make progress!).
E – energy
You’ll need a lot of energy for teaching. If you’re teaching children, you’ll find it takes all your physical energy! If you’re teaching high level adults, or exam preparation, it will take a lot of mental energy. Make sure that you get enough sleep at night, eat well, and be ready for anything – you’ll spend a lot less nervous energy in the classroom if you look after your health.
F – fail
Sometimes you might feel like you’re failing as a teacher. Maybe you aren’t happy with your performance in your lessons, or you’re having problems making your lessons interesting. This is normal, especially for new teachers. Ask a senior teacher to observe one of your lessons and to give you some feedback on how you can improve. You’re probably not really failing as much as you think you are, but it’s always useful to get a second opinion.
G – groupwork
It’s a good idea to incorporate groupwork into your lessons. You can observe the students while they’re working together and can monitor them properly, and make a note of their mistakes and areas which need improvement. You can also make notes on what they do well, and give them praise at the end of the lesson for their good work.
H – homework
Always give your students homework – at the end of every lesson. And make sure that you check it at the beginning of the next lesson. Homework is important because it shows you which students are serious about learning – they’re the ones who do homework all the time. Homework is also important because it gives the student a chance to work independently to review and consolidate what you taught them in the class, and therefore there’s less possibility of them forgetting it.
I – idioms
Your students might want to learn some idioms, but don’t focus too much on them. You’ll never know which ones will be useful for your students, and teaching them too many idioms is going to overload their brains and won’t be useful. Let them discover idioms naturally, through reading authentic texts and watching films and TV series in English. Encourage them to bring any examples they come across to the lesson to share with the other students.
J – jokes
Is it ok to tell jokes to your students? Yes, it is. But be sure to tell jokes that you know they’ll understand. If you have to spend 10 minutes explaining why it’s funny then it’s not the right joke for your students. And, don’t forget, some jokes don’t cross the cultural divide, so choose carefully which jokes you want to share with them.
K – knee, knock, know
Please, please, please – if it’s the only useful thing you teach your students, teach them about the silent ‘k’ which comes before ‘n’. I went to a doctor in Moscow in an expensive clinic for foreigners, only to have the doctor pronounce the ‘k’ before the word knee. It didn’t give me confidence that she couldn’t pronounce this basic body part correctly (but it turned out that she was a pretty competent doctor after all). So, do your students a favour, and teach them this as early as you can and save them from looking silly later on.
L – legalities
Teaching English abroad will throw many new and challenging experiences at you. One of them will be to know and adhere to the legalities of the country you are going to live in. Sometimes these legalities will be very different from the ones in your home country. You have to be aware of all things from visa regulations to taxes, and more. If you aren’t aware, you risk having some serious problems, including the possibility of being deported!
M – money
Most teachers of ESL are not well paid, so you have to be careful with your money. Learn to budget for the necessary things, and keep some money aside for emergencies that may unexpectedly crop up. It’s advisable to have enough money saved up for a flight ticket back home, just in case something goes wrong and you have to leave your new home in a hurry.
N – nouns
Nouns…and verbs, adjectives, adverbs, tenses etc. Yes, you need to know English grammar, and you need to know it well. If you’re a newly qualified teacher and don’t know the ins and outs of grammar rules, then start learning them before you take your first students. You’re doing nobody any favours trying to teach English without knowing the grammar.
O – observation
From time to time, your DOS, ADOS or a senior teacher, might ask to observe one of your lessons. Don’t panic! It’s not to punish you, or because you’ve done anything wrong. It’s simply so they can get an idea of your teaching style and methods, and to know if you need any training or help to improve your teaching skills. During the observed lesson, just teach as you normally do, and you will get some very useful feedback later on about how you can do your job better.
P – preparation
Prepare your lessons and yourself! In the beginning, it will seem like all you do in your free time is lesson preparation – but it will get easier with time and eventually you’ll spend less time on this necessary part of teaching. Be prepared for every lesson. Anticipate any tricky questions your students might ask you and be ready to answer them appropriately, with good examples. Do all your photocopying before the lesson. Check you have whiteboard markers that work, and that you have a whiteboard duster. Does your audio equipment function properly? Check this before the lesson. Prepare your lesson, and yourself, and your lessons will run smoothly and be successful. And your students will appreciate it.
Q – questions
Encourage your students to ask questions. Let them know that no questions are stupid, and that they can ask you anything without being ridiculed in class. It’s important that students feel comfortable asking any questions they may have – it’s how they will learn the harder stuff. And it will help them with their question formation – which can be difficult for some language learners, especially if their native language has a different formation rule for making questions than in English.
R – rest
Teaching is tiring. Don’t take on too many teaching hours, especially in the beginning when you’re a new teacher. Leave time for your hobbies, and time to relax, especially between lessons if possible. It’s very difficult to follow one lesson immediately with another, so ask your school to allow you at least a 10 minute break between your classes, and use that time to sit quietly and think about how to give a fantastic lesson to your next group/student.
S – students
Remember that your students are also intelligent people – even if they can’t speak English well. Adult students have jobs, families, lives, and they are perfectly capable of doing everything in their own language. So, don’t treat them as though they’re not intelligent just because they speak English like a small child, or they make lots of mistakes, or they can’t understand when to use present perfect. Respect and show interest in your students and who they are – you’ll be surprised at some of the things you can learn from them.
T – tests
You will be required to test your students from time to time. They will sometimes get stressed about this. Give them as much help as they need before the test. For example, do a special revision lesson before the test, and go over all topics they’ll need to know to pass the test.
U – understand
Understand exactly what your students expect from you. Find out why they’re there, and what their goals are. There’s no point teaching them unless you understand their motivation for doing your course. So, ask them and understand their needs at the beginning of a new course and you’ll better understand how you can help them achieve their goals.
V – vacation
Sometimes your students will go on vacation and miss some lessons. Missing one or two lessons might not be a problem, but if they miss too many they’ll be behind the others when they return to the group. Give the students a little bit of work to do while they’re on vacation, and encourage them to do it. Insist that it’s in their interests to do at least some of it while they’re away, so they don’t fall too far behind.
W – weak
So, what to do if you have a weak student in your class? Help them, of course! Give them extra support during the lesson, maybe slip them some additional homework if you think it will help them. And give them plenty of opportunities to practise in the class, it’s the only way to monitor their progress and correct their mistakes, and therefore make them stronger.
X – experiment
If you have any interest at all in teaching, you’ll be looking for ways to improve what you do in the classroom. You’ll read websites and books about teaching, and attend professional development seminars and workshops. And then, you’ll experiment with what you’ve learnt to see what works for you and your students. By experimenting with new activities and teaching methods, you’ll develop a more flexible teaching style, which can only be a positive thing for you and your students.
Y – yourself
Be yourself. Some teachers try to ‘perform’ for their students, to be actors. But it’s not necessary. Just be yourself, share some of your real personality with your students, and let them know who you are when you’re not teaching them. There’s no need to become friends with them outside the classroom if you don’t want to, but it’s nice to be able to share some authentic stories about you and your life with them. And it will provide a nice language model for them to be able to share their lives and stories with you – in English of course.
Z – zebra
If you teach children, you’ll see this word a lot on posters in the classroom. Z is for zebra.
Do you have any other suggestions to add to my A – Z list? Let us know in the comments and we can grow the list into an ultimate guide to teaching ESL!