How to Learn English (Or How to Teach It)

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How to Learn English

What is the best way to learn English? The question of how to learn English is one I am often asked by my Chinese co-workers, but not one I know the answer to. And why would I? I was blessed enough to have been born in a country where it is the native tongue. It’s likely the very first thing I heard upon emerging riding a bloody tide of placenta and, natural that I am, I just ran with it from there.

But I wouldn’t have been in the English teaching game for four years now if I hadn’t picked up a thing or two along the way. I may still have needed to Google gerunds and conditionals and the like when I was doing my TEFL course earlier this year (and again while helping my girlfriend complete her own recently), but I’ve noticed a few trends along the way.

  • Make it applicable to your students’ lives
  • Tailor content to your audience
  • Mix up the ways you get your information across
  • Elicit from your students – don’t have them regurgitate
  • Minimize TTT (Teacher Talk Time) and maximize STT (Student Talk Time)
Of course, you can find even more ESL teaching tips in my Ten Tips for ESL Teachers post from last year.

Different Methodologies

I never completed my formal teaching qualification, but I do still remember a lot of what I learned when I started my post-graduate degree in 2005. Concepts such as the idea of multiple intelligences and the different ways in which we all learn fascinated me, and I’ve done my best to work that into my own teaching.

Chinese classroom
Me and my class of 45+ eight year olds while volunteering in China

Sometimes your travels bring you into contact with different methodologies on how to teach English and it can be a real shock to the system. I can still remember breezing into South Korea in 2007 full of hope and ideas about how I was going to enrich my children intellectually as well as spiritually. I’d boned up on current teaching techniques, grilled my parents (both teachers of 25+ years) for their insights, and strained my brain to remember the teachers who had positively influenced me.

My boss’ advice? “Just speak loudly and clearly. Lots of repeating. That is the secret to good English”.

How embarrassed was I? Here I was having done it wrong my entire life!

The fact is, many Asian countries (or at least China and South Korea) still adhere to very different (some would say antiquated) teaching methodologies. There aren’t classrooms encouraging discussion or play – they’re factories designed to churn out kids with good test scores. And if you’re at a private school? You’re not even there to do that – you’re just satisfying a parent’s desire to have their kid study English with a pale face.

I’ve lost count of the number of times employers in Korea advised me to ‘just pass them’ when I pointed out a child hopelessly out of their depth and failing tests regularly.

And now, out in semi-rural China, I’m seeing it from a whole other side. My co-teachers are all abreast of recent developments in teaching, but they’re not in a position to share that with students because of out-dated workbooks and over-crowded classrooms. Kids are packed 30-40 to a class and worked from 7am until 10pm. It’s not what I’d call an environment conducive to progressive teaching.

And I thought Korean students had it bad…

How to Teach English

Think about it this way. You didn’t learn to speak English by spending countless hours poring over books or repeating line after line of inane drivel – you picked it up organically through hearing people use it, through needing to use it to get your way, through play, and even through simpler things like singing songs or watching cartoons.

A classroom in which repetition and worksheets are king may produce excellent test scores in the short term (and statistically, they do) but they leave little lasting impact. Sure, your class might be able to recite an entire passage from Great Expectations, but ask them in five years what the main character’s name was and watch them struggle.

Korean students punching their teacher
My kids in Gwangju, Korea wishing me farewell with the liberal beating I so richly deserved.

I spoke at length about my own teaching methods and my own beliefs when I was interviewed recently for Teaching Traveling. You can read my interview if you want more of an insight into myself as a teacher.

Immersion is hands down the best way to learn a language, and it’s something that The Irish Polyglot uses to great effect in his own travels. It’s not for everybody, though. Maybe you can’t afford to just uproot yourself and live in another country. Maybe visa laws stop that. Or maybe you’re just not somebody who wants to completely shift out of their comfort zone and struggle with every little part of day to day life.

The infographic below shows a number of alternate ways that students of English can learn in a more ‘organic’ way. You aren’t necessarily going to pick up the ins and outs of English or the ‘why’ of things from watching Terminator 2 or playing World of WarCraft, but it exposes you to English as it is spoken in the world today – and not as it is imagined by some stuffy professor perched at his desk and hunched over a laptop.

It makes for some interesting reading. What do you think?

how-to-learn-english

Want to learn more about learning or teaching English? Check out some of these resources!

Your Say

What do you think is the best way to learn English? Or, if you’ve studied another language, what did you find particularly helpful?

My own experience studying Spanish showed me that practicing with my (then) girlfriend was particularly helpful. Although she was leagues ahead of me, it was fun to practice new phrases in a way that was less formal than the classroom environment.

I also bolstered my meager Korean by chatting with Koreans at bars, watching Korean movies, and trying to make sense of Korean music.

Speaking of…

If you’re interested in trying the teach abroad thing, I’ve written a very comprehensive guide on how to get started teaching English in South Korea that might be worth a look.

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3 comments

  1. This is currently doing my nut in, in Japan. The fact that I don’t like kids reading and repeating like zombies is looked down upon here, as a teacher once said to me “fun does not make you learn” actually fun is EXACTLY what makes you learn. If you have no interest in a language you will not learn it. Simply as that. I wish I could change the system and introduce some fun into my kids life, sadly that is banned here.

  2. ..I have always thought about how could English be taught in an applicable way to students unlike what we’re used to>the theoretic way.

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