A is for ? A useful approach to teaching English as a second lanuage

mgo-00714 World Bank

mgo-00714 World Bank (Photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection)

Whether professionally, casually or as part of a volunteer program, many native English speakers will find themselves teaching their language at some point, especially those who travel. As someone who has taught both professionally and as a volunteer, I am fully aware that this does not automatically equip one with the skills to do so. There will be plenty of learning on the job but this week the gtg in a ground-breaking return will attempt a how to guide with some do’s and dont’s to get you started.

English: Alphabet pasta

English: Alphabet pasta (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Do– give positive feedback, it may sound obvious but we all know flattery willGreen tick get us everywhere, it also may not come too naturally to many of us. Having said this, make sure you do it in a way that you feel comfortable (imagine a mix tape covered in flowers  from a rugby player and see how well you think that would fit… 🙂 ).
  • Don’t – panic if you make a mistake, it may be one you can easily explain and English: Red Crossyou may end up with a whole class of people no longer confused.
  • Do– Use a variety of  interactive methods, a big part of language acquisition is having the chance to use it. Students can build up to speaking in front of the class by working in pairs, and that also means everyone is having a chance to speak at the same time.
  • Don’t– give too much of your class time to individual students. Sure you may have your favourites or students that ask more questions than others but it won’t take long for the dirty looks to start coming your way if you ignore people too long, (I can’t even describe the looks I got from some 50+ year old Japanese business men because I forget to stamp their homework books…) Also worth noting is that shy students may need extra coercion to participate, but by giving them the same amount of attention, they become less singled-out and some aspects of attention seeking from other students sort themselves out when everyone knows they can have their turn.
  • Do– set homework, and try and make it fun as an incentive. Some of my favourites are suggesting students record themselves reading something, keep an English diary/journal (which they can bring to be corrected if they wish), or choosing a favourite scene from an English language movie and writing down as many of the words as they can catch, depending on what skills the student needs to develop and what they will enjoy doing.
  • Don’t– let yourself be restricted by set textbooks, chances are if you’re bored, your students are even less enthusiastic, especially if they’re struggling with the class work. Even in situations where your schedule is dictated to the minute (the more professional the organisation the more likely this will be), it’s still possible to have creative input. Adding theatrics, gestures, characterised voices or props to a role play which you’re required to do anyway can be brilliant entertainment, and educationally advantageous, (fainting, stretching upon waking up, rolling a wheelie bin and tantrums are among the few I remember adding to my role plays)
  • Do-use clear and simple instructions eg, “please stand up” or in a role play, “please be A, please be B”. The benefits of this will become clear the first time you ask something and you don’t get a room-full of blank stares. Even if the level of the question or instruction is far below what the students are able to understand (until they continue taking your lessons of course), more people will respond if they can quickly scan the room and see that everyone has followed what you’ve said. This may sound like a no-brainer but the number of times I have seen teachers give instructions and the whole class look at them confused suggests that this point may be severely undervalued.
  • Don’t– revert to cave language just to ensure students can understand. Unless you want a whole class of Flinstones, it is only important that students follow the meaning of what you have expressed, filling the gaps is all part of the fine tuning. In other words, if you say something, say it in a natural way. Having said this….
  • Do– Be aware of expressions that require cultural background to understand e.g Australians in particular will say “he goes” , “she goes” or “they go” when about to quote someone when really the meaning of what you are saying is “he said” , “she said” or “they said”. For a non native English speaker hearing this, a natural reaction would be to think “where does he go?” etc. You can tell if you’re being followed by your students answer so listen carefully, you will no doubt come across a whole list of hilarious things we say to each other in every day conversation.
  • Don’t– over correct, it may break the flow of the conversation for the sake of 100% accuracy. The other downside of this is undermining your students confidence which is counter-productive to learning. As a sort of confession it’s also worth remembering that if someone was to correct us at every mistake in our English (yes even the fabulous creator of your gtg…),we would be not so pleasantly surprised. Balance and humility are the two key words that will set you straight here.
  • Do– Get to know your students, you may make some new friends and at the very least you will get a heap of ideas for your classes. I got to know students who were fans of my favourite bands, students who I would do ‘hip-hop’ dancing with, students who were into Irish traditional music (of which I happen to be a self-proclaimed connoisseur) and of course the popular default of karaoke (another of my specialties) which was almost as much fun for the students as it was for me.
  • Don’t– be put off by students who are not at all interested in studying English. I had a student who told me he hated English and was forced to study for work, needless to say his progress was slow in comparison to his classmates. With a little encouragement and simply by acknowledging his position, his English rapidly improved along with his enthusiasm. The trick here was not to fight him on the matter and simply ask, “what can we do to make class better for you?”.
  • Do– monitor the success of a teaching  technique and only keep using the ones that are having success. The expression flogging a dead horse comes to mind here. Again, while it may seem to make complete sense if something isn’t working to change tactic so few people appear to do so.
  • Don’t- Miss things that can be useful/relevant but may not seem so at first glance. An England-based textbook (with Euro centric cultural content) may not fit well in a Cambodian Pagoda school classroom but can be used to open wider discussion amongst students and more specifically to refer to the way sentences have been formed as a teaching resource. Grammar break-downs in such a textbook may be helpful to students and then student-oriented content can be substituted to form a solid lesson.

At the risk of opinionated information overload I will leave you on the note that as a teacher you are a class leader hence being confident is of the utmost importance. This does not have to mean you can’t make mistakes (100% guaranteed to happen so get your heads around that one) but handle them with confidence/integrity and dignity. Be aware of the trap many people fall into of letting cultural values slip into what is primarily about language acquisition (after all chances are if you’re teaching English, you’re speaking to people who are not of an English-speaking culture). Most importantly have a ball and I can say with complete honesty that I have learned far more from the experience of teaching, and the students themselves than I have ever taught anyone.

NB the qualifications required to work in English teaching will vary greatly from none at all to tertiary depending on who you will be working for and where. Some links for people interested in completing TEFL or Teaching English as a Foreign Language qualifications have been added to the homepage of GTG.