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4 Teaching Tips for ESL

We are all dedicated teachers and we all want to do what is best for our students, but sometimes we aren’t doing the best job we can do. Every teacher benefits from taking a look at their classroom habits from time to time and checking we are not making the following mistakes.

1) Teacher Talk

The ideal ratio of teacher talk to student talk is somewhere between 20/80 and 30/70. In a 45 minute lesson, this equals 9 – 13.5 minutes.

It is often the case with new teachers, and some ancient ones too, that they are nervous and scared of silence in the class and tend to fill any and every available space with their own voice. It is also common for teachers who are unprepared for a class to teach on the fly which mostly devolves into them questioning individual students  one on one for the majority of the lesson. This is a  situation in which they spend far more time asking questions than students do answering. Another mistake teachers often make is thinking that students don’t have enough background information about a lesson’s topic and therefore take so much time telling stories, showing videos, or presenting slides that by the time they actually have the students ready to begin speaking, there isn’t enough time left for them to actually talk… and maybe some are asleep. The very worst is when a teacher talks all the time “because the students’ English isn’t good enough”. “Really? Well how would you know as you never let them speak?” In the end, in order for your students to improve their English, they have to have time to talk. It’s as simple as that!

It’s your job to plan your classes in such a way that student talk time is maximized and your talk time is minimized. To do this, when planning, you have to:

  • Know your students: This includes both their abilities in relation to the language and their personal interests.
  • Plan your Delivery: You need to present new concepts and instructions for activities in the most efficient way possible.
  • Give Concise Feedback: When students encounter a problem, help them to arrive at a solution on their own. Don’t take valuable class time with long winded explanations and examples.
  • Use Body Language: Especially with beginner level students, body language and charades can help convey meaning paired with as few words as possible.
  • Employ Props and Images: Sometimes bringing something along to class can not only make topics more real to students, these can explain things without using any words at all.
  • Plan for Production: If you plan to end every class with a free speaking activity you can figure out this activity first, allot 10-15 minutes to it, and then plan the steps to get you and your class there. This way, in class, you’ll always have the goal of getting there and will be less likely to go off topic and waste time as the free speaking activity is what the success of your lesson hinges on. Also, free speaking activities will mean a large amount of student talk time which limits your own. Just be sure to wrap up quickly and give some general positive feedback about group performance and areas students should practice more in relation to the lesson’s target language.

Needless to say but none of these tips will work in reality if you do not have a well disciplined class. If it is the case that your class is out of control, you need to improve your classroom management before any positive effect from these steps can be produced. In relation to teacher talk time, it is usually the case that teachers who fail at classroom control spend a lot of time talking… Saying “sit down”, “be quiet”, “pay attention”, or “I wish this class were over,” (under their breath), instead of actually teaching the lesson.

2) Personalization

The number one topic most people like to talk about is themselves and things related to their lives. Your students are no exception.

To make the content of the your lessons more accessible for students, teachers need to make the lesson topics relevant to the lives of their students. Some topics contained in courses are completely outside of students’ experiences. Talking about school clubs for example, learning about ancient technology like a water clock, or even being asked what job they want to do when they grow up may be unfamiliar to your students or subjects they have never thought about before.

To overcome this problem, teachers have to think deeply about their students, what they are interested in and know about, and how to present topics and ideas in a way kids can relate to. For the “school clubs” topic above, a teacher might try eliciting information about what the students do at school and if any of them actually do have clubs at their schools. Students sharing these experiences with the class can be used to introduce the topic to students that are unfamiliar with it. If no one attends school clubs, then the teacher could ask students to say what they like to do when they are not in school and whether they ever do these activities in a group? Likely the students will all have an example that the teacher can explain as “You are already in clubs, they just aren’t part of your school. In foreign countries some of these things, (gives examples the students provided), are actually done at school!”

3) Grading Activities & Pair/Group Organization

In an ideal world every student in your class would have the same abilities as required by the level they have arrived in. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Even when students roughly are all of the same level, they will still possess different strengths and weaknesses which influence how well they can participate in class. In some instances, the top performers and those with the least capabilities may be levels apart yet expected to learn the exact same course content. For these reasons, grading activities according to the level of your students is not only wise but also often a necessity to ensure that all students can learn new language and improve the skills they already have.

There are two ways activities and content can be graded:

  • They can be added to through additional tasks, more in-depth questions, or a higher standard for the outcome.
  • If students are struggling with the content, what is covered or the amount/level of detail/language required by the task can be simplified or lowered to accommodate the students’ lower ability.

The purpose of making things more challenging for advanced students is to keep them interested and involved and the purpose of making things a little bit easier for lower level students is… exactly the same, to keep them involved.  Simply put, if things are either too hard or too easy, your students will not stay engaged with the tasks they are supposed to complete.

When creating  pairs or groups simply bunching whoever happens to be sitting near each other is never a good idea. Teachers have to pay attention to how these groups are formed and the nature of the tasks involved in order to ensure students get the most benefit from classroom activities. The following details the benefits of various pairing/grouping strategies.

  • Stronger and weaker students together: Stronger students can help weaker students without the teacher’s presence. Weaker students may be more forthcoming with peers about what they don’t understand than with teachers. Stronger students, in addition to helping others, have the opportunity to review and solidify what they have learned.
  • Stronger students together: Grouping strong students together can challenge these students to interact with material at a higher level.
  • Weaker students together: Weaker students can also benefit from working together. They are at a similar level, which reduces the stress of trying to catch up or ask for help. They can also consolidate what they know and work at their own pace.

4) Course Correction

You’ve worked hard on your lesson plan. You know your students well and put lots of effort into making things fit their interests and skill levels. You’ve shown up for class full of energy and the students have been responding well throughout your class. Then you try something and it looks like it’s utterly failing. Your students look mystified, are off task more than they are on, and lesson steps are suddenly taking way too long… What do you do?

Well, you should stop, throw out your plan that you worked so hard on, and change what you want the students to do before it’s too late… and the remainder your class becomes a huge waste of time. This is easier said than done because we as teachers are often invested in our lesson plans and would hate to see them go to waste. But class time isn’t about us in the end, it’s about the students. Trying to force students to perform in ways they can’t or achieve goals too far beyond their abilities just because we planned it that way is a sure fire way to kill student interest and motivation in the moment and maybe for future lessons as well. So the best thing we can do, for ourselves and our students, is to change course.

There are two key things that every teacher must possess in order to change course:

  • The ability to think on their feet and salvage classroom goals but changing some aspects of an activity so students can get on track to achieving the learning goal.
  • A habit of creating “Plan B’s”.

Case 1) For a production activity the teacher has instructed the students to get into pairs and imagine it is 100 hundred years in the future.  They have just finished doing the lesson’s presentation and some practice activities on “Predictions for the Future”. They have been instructed to use two examples from the lesson content and add one of their own. When they figure out their predictions they are supposed to act them out in front of the class. Right now they are preparing… but no is talking. They are all staring blankly at the teacher with a bored look on their face. What’s the problem? How can the teacher salvage this activity?

Any experienced teacher should recognize that the reason the kids are not preparing is because they do not know what they are supposed to be preparing for. The instructions given were fine but they were only verbal. The activity requires a physical performance. To help[ the students get on task and preparing the teacher should give a visual example of what they want the students to do by acting out a future scene. If the goal of the activity was for the students to ask questions, the teacher should instruct them to ask questions during the example demonstration. If the goal of the activity was for students to guess what is has changed in the future, then the teacher should instruct students to guess what is going on. Now the students have a clear idea of what it is they are preparing to do and will quickly get to work preparing by speaking with group members.

Case 2) During the planning stage for an upcoming lesson you are designing a warm-up activity. The activity is for a reading page and students are to design flyers  advertising antiques they are looking to sell. After all the students have made their flyers they are to mix them together and then as a group, pick two randomly and discuss which antique they think is more valuable. All the students are quick to complete task of creating a flyer as they enjoy things related to graphic design. Also, the topic of the lesson is buying and selling antiques so this seems like a good activity.

But you are worried the students will find the topic of antiques boring. None of them collect antiques and you doubt any of them think antiques are cool. Also, this is a warm up activity and the topic of antiques hasn’t even been introduced yet. The language focus is “talking about what things are used for” and on the vocabulary page they have learned about modern items like cell phones and video game consoles. You are wondering what a good Plan B would be… Rather than make flyers trying to sell antiques, what could be used as a warm up? You could also modify this activity and have a successful warm up, how?

One option a teacher might try is changing the activity to focus on modern items students actually own and would like to sell for a profit. In this way the students wouldn’t have to work with the topic of antiques and could accomplish the learning goal of discussing the uses of objects by focusing on what is familiar to them, their own stuff.

Another option might be to scrap the flyer creation activity altogether and do something else that focuses the students on antiques and their uses. An easy alternative w, and perhaps quicker, warm up activity would be to bring several unfamiliar antique objects to class and have students imagine what they are for and how they can be used. This could be a small group activity that really gets the class talking and being creative.

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