Ten Tips for ESL Teachers

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Right out of the gate I’m going to acknowledge that I am far from an expert on teaching ESL. In fact, judging by the fact I left my most recent Korean teaching gig seven months early due to not being able to gel with my employer and her expectations, it’s safe to say I’m no authority.

Would you trust this man to teach your children?

That said, I did the job for 2.5 years and regardless of what my employers might have felt along the way – I’m very proud of the progress my students made in speaking and understanding English under my watch. I might not be in line to win employee of the year anytime soon, but I’m pretty confident I have a few nuggets of ESL teaching wisdom to share that will help in your classroom. I’ve put them together as ten tips for ESL teachers that you’ll find below.

Looking for work in South Korea? I wrote an extensive guide on the road to South Korea a few months back.

The ESL Teaching Racket

My time teaching English as a second language gave me a lot of opportunities to grow as a person. Not only was I learning every day as I adjusted to life in a new culture, but I was also broadening my own knowledge of the English language as well as learning to tap into a whole new level of patience. It’s this patience and lateral thinking that has allowed me to transfer very successfully into the IT business.

There’s not a whole lot of difference between teaching verbs to a nine year old South Korean and teaching VoIP parameter settings to an eighty year old retiree.

As I said, I’m far from an expert, but I’ve picked up a thing or two. Some of it has come from my own experience and some of it has come from knowing other teachers who knew their stuff. I’ve come up with a list of ten tips for ESL teachers that I think any teacher – new or old – will be able to take into their classroom and benefit from.

Ten Tips for ESL Teachers

#10 -Start Hard, Go Soft

Whoa. That sounded a whole hell of a lot less dirty when I typed it. I’m not going to change it though. Laugh at my expense.

I’m not making any jokes there – but one of the hardest lessons I learned early on was that going into a classroom full of new students and being the ‘nice teacher’ had long term consequences that took a long time to resolve.

While your natural instinct as a former student yourself is to be the fun teacher, it comes with the danger of giving the students the impression that you’re a soft touch and you’re not going to discipline them for misbehaving. While I often enjoyed those irreverent classes in which my students would banter with me – it could prove troublesome when they had a big test to prepare for or my boss had one of her unscheduled observation sessions.

It’s not hard to become a nicer teacher after making a stern first impression, but it’s a tough task to make the transition in the opposite direction.

Give the class a few lessons to learn that you’re serious about teaching them. It’s ok to tell a joke and to teach with a smile on your face, but the long term benefits of establishing that you are the teacher first and the friend second can’t be underestimated. When you’re enjoying a joke with your advanced class and can seamlessly switch into them doing written work, you’ll be grateful that you played the hard-ass for a few days early in your teaching stint.

#9 – The Points System

Across all of the schools I worked at in South Korea was my consistent use of a points system to reward good behavior. While my first school actively encouraged this by holding semi regular ‘store days’ in which students could trade these points for stationery and candy – I took on the onus of paying for these rewards myself at schools two and three.

It was a simple system. Good behavior or answering a difficult question warranted a ‘check’ next to a student’s name. Three checks was a reward – usually a piece of candy or a pretty sticker.

In classes where students seemed reluctant to participate or were a bit shy about speaking up, these ‘checks’ were also awarded for participation. A silent classroom could quickly be changed into a sea of raised hands with the offer of a sweet snack at the end of class.

Liberal use of candy and ‘fun time’ was used to calm down these crazy kids

While this technique was remarkably effective with younger classes, it required some tweaking for older students. A sixteen year old isn’t quite as easy to buy off with a Chupa Chup.

At my first and second schools I began to institute the idea of class prizes. Rather than a small reward at the end of any given lesson, the class would instead earn points as a team that could be traded in at some point for some kind of shared reward. This was usually a pizza party (I could get three large pizzas for 21,000 won nearby) or an excursion to the nearby Baskin Robbins for a bit of ice cream.

Not only did this class reward system encourage the entire class to behave, but it also meant that the brighter students would be more inclined to help those who were struggling. After all – if points were on offer for everybody getting a certain mark in a test, the natural inclination towards competition amongst Korean students would be superceded by this desire to attain a common goal.

And the whole process had the added bonus of getting me a lesson to eat pizza and practice some casual conversation with my students. They were learning and practising their English without even noticing.

#8 – They’re Not Wrong, They’re Just Not Right…Yet

Spot the mistakes…

Nothing is quite as disheartening as being told you are wrong. But if it’s approached correctly, a mistake can be an excellent opportunity to help a struggling student come to grips with a difficult concept.

Where being wrong is a blow to the ego, there’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment when you feel like you’ve figured something out on your own. Use this.

If you spot an error in a student’s work, don’t leap on them as if they’ve besmirched your mother’s honor. Instead, frame it as a question: “Do you see any mistakes here?” or “I can see one or two wrong answers there – can you spot them?”

There’s more power in ‘Almost’ or ‘Not quite’ than in ‘WRONG! YOU IDIOT!’

Give the student time to go over their work and spot their own errors. They’ll feel a lot less awkward about it if they’re the ones correcting themselves, and you’d be surprised how often a student will spot an error they made in haste rather than ignorance.

Guide a student towards the rush of solving a problem on their own and they’ll become addicted to that feeling. Tell them they’re wrong and they’ll only learn that speaking up means being embarrassed.

#7 – Personalize It

It’s a small thing, but chances are your students don’t care what Bill and Ben are doing on the weekend. But they sure as hell care about what Kim Su and Sang Young are doing on the weekend.

Letting kids write about topics they care about is a great way to engage them.

Take a few extra seconds to personalize the content in your class, but be careful how you do this. You don’t want to accidentally subject one of your students to relentless teasing from his classmates by inserting his name into a compromising sentence.

In exercises where students are making sentences (and I love these exercises – they’re fun and practical) – let them use the names of their friends and family. This might lead to a few hilarious and inappropriate sentences, and that’s fine – just don’t let telling a joke take away from the lesson you’re trying to teach.

#6 – Structure Your Lesson

Wearing out Ally (pictured) was how I had to start every day at Storia. Simon Says was my tonic.

A routine can be a good thing. I found that starting a lesson with one of my younger classes with a game was a good way to burn some excess energy. Plus it saved me having to listen to them plead to play a game at the end of the lesson. A rousing game of ‘Simon Says’ has tamed many a rowdy class of five year old terrors.

If you’ve ever studied teaching you’ll be aware of the concept of Multiple Intelligences. Students can be engaged on multiple levels, and you’d do well to build your lessons around approaching a topic from these different angles. A well built lesson will target more than just the obvious linguistic intelligence. I’d go so far as to say that no lesson of English teaching should be without the interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences as well. After all, language is a social thing.

I’m not qualified to write in terrific detail about the multiple intelligences, but any teacher would do well to familiarize themselves with the concept. It’s going to make you a much better teacher.

#5 – In Their Own Words

These four girls liked me so much they had their parents request an extra class with me!

Nine times out of ten, at least in a Korean school, the answer to ‘Do you understand?’ will be an enthusiastic ‘yes’.

No, Korea isn’t a country populated by English wunderkinds. It is, however, populated by a very proud people who will be reluctant to admit that they don’t understand.

Rather than asking your students if they understand and trusting those nods, have a student (or students) rephrase what they’ve just learned. Have them construct an example sentence or use a quiz game to have students define key concepts or demonstrate vocabulary. This not only confirms that they are understanding, but it also gives them more opportunities to practice their speaking and comprehension skills.

#4 – Shut Up!

You’re not being paid to talk at your students all lesson. Obviously you need to teach them, but they’re not going to learn just by listening to you talk.

The students engage in some conversation practice.

You want to maximize the amount of time students are talking to you and (preferably) to one another. They’re going to learn far more through speaking the language than they will through hearing it.

Role-playing, conversation practice, out loud reading, and choral work (with younger students) are all excellent ways to engage your students and to have them practice what they’re learning.

#3 – It Should Be Fun!

The biggest bone of contention most foreign teachers run into when teaching in South Korea is the vast difference in teaching methodologies. Korean teachers still very much adhere to the old school method of teaching – that of repetition.

While teachers in Australia are embracing the importance of immersion in the learning experience, most Korean employers would harass me to spend entire lessons simply having students repeat their word list over and over again.

I did not make a good employee in this respect, because I refused to participate in a teaching method that I know has very little merit. Being raised by teachers (and studying it briefly myself), I know full well that repetition ad nauseum leads to no real lasting impact. I didn’t play ball.

My Valentine’s lesson. Students wrote their cards and then presented them to their friend, parent, or (in this case) teacher

If your students are staring listlessly at a white board and eying the clock with the kind of avid desperation usually reserved for prisoner’s awaiting their release date – chances are they’re not learning.

There’s a fine line between ‘fun learning’ and just ‘fun’, and you need to be careful to stay on task – but there’s no harm in using an educational game, offering a handout with a word search involving key words, or simply turning what could be a very dull lesson into a chance for students to get up and role play. It will break up the monotony of the very long day your students and it will engage an entirely different part of their brain.

#2 – Reward Good Behavior

There’s a lot of debate amongst teachers and parents all over the world over the role of negative reinforcement vs. positive reinforcement. The old school think that it’s important to punish bad behavior, and the new school want to instead encourage good behavior by showing its rewards.

Taming Stephen and Mike (pictured) was a year long effort.

Having been a perennial detention fixture for much of my youth, being suspended twice, and even being expelled (albeit by my own father) as early as kindergarten – I know full well that punishment was not an effective deterrent.

Believe it or not, this genuinely nice guy was getting into trouble as late in life as the twelfth grade for being a smart-ass and my issues with authority figures. The only teachers that ever made an impact on me and got good behavior out of me were the ones whose first reaction wasn’t to send me out of the classroom.

That’s not to say I was bribed. Far from it. But a teacher who treats a student with a bit of respect and who acknowledges their positive attributes is going to find said student a lot more easy to deal with than the one who constantly derides them and punishes them.

They say that you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and I can definitely say this is true as both a student and a teacher. A lot of my favorite and most attentive students were the very ones I’d been warned about prior to starting. Whether it’s a pat on the back, displaying an interest in their hobby, or the occasional piece of candy or extra sticker – you’re going to find that troublesome students become excellent students if you just treat them as something more than a problem you need to deal with.

#1 – Adapt!

A big part of the teaching process, at least when dealing with children, is your ability to remain patient and to attack a difficult question from multiple angles. The explanation of personal pronouns that works for one group of bright eyed young learners might be met with nothing but blank stares by another group.

Jeff was so far ahead of the rest of his class that I basically had to plan two lessons. Such an actor too!

When this happens, and I guarantee you it will, don’t let it fluster you. Every child thinks in a different way and every group of children is going to be different. It’s all about adapting and altering the way you approach the question.

One trick I learned to be very effective as to take into account the students’ interests and backgrounds. If I had a classroom full of StarCraft loving kids (and in Korea, that’s most of them) – I’d work in references to in game stuff. If my class was full of Big Bang obsessed girls, then obviously I wouldn’t mention Zerglings and Avatars to them.

Just like in sales and in entertainment (ironically enough, my only other areas of expertise), it’s all about knowing your audience. Dumb down for your younger students and use a bit of humor with the older ones. They’re going to appreciate that you’re teaching them as people rather than as a faceless mass of uneducated clay ready to be molded.

Groundbreaking Stuff

None of the above should be news to somebody who has taught before. Hell, a lot of it might seem obvious to somebody who is about to start their first teaching gig.

I’m not reinventing the wheel and I certainly don’t claim to be an authority on teaching. But I am a former teacher who is very proud of the progress of the students he taught, and one who still remains in contact with a lot of them years after moving on. I’m still helping some students with essays and assessments, and I feel proud that I had a positive relationship with 99% of the students I’ve taught.

You might not help ‘train’ the next Shakespeare or Bill Gates – but if you can leave a student’s life with them in a better position than they were when you entered it – you’ve done something amazing. Be proud of that.

This is Liz. She would often tell me about her dramatic love life.

For more teaching tips, check out this great site.

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