Getting Started: The Basics of Teaching
The following principles apply to almost any kind of teaching. Some of these
points may seem like common sense, yet these are the types of issues
professional teachers spend years learning and perfecting. Many of these ideas are adapted from Teaching By Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy by H. Douglas Brown
and How To Teach English by Jeremy Harmer.
- Make Lessons Interesting
Bored students won't remember much of the lesson. Don't talk for long blocks
of time. Instead, keep students involved and interacting with you and each
other in English. Some may come from cultures where teachers lecture and
students listen quietly. If interaction makes your students nervous, provide
plenty of support by giving clear and very specific directions. Say, "Yuko and
Yan, you work together," rather than "everyone get into pairs." Vary the types
of skills you practice and activities you use, add games, and bring in
real-life objects like a telephone, cook book, or musical instrument. Vary
your own dress or behavior patterns for a day. Keep in mind, though, that some
degree of predictability will be appreciated by your students, fostering a
feeling of safety.
- Make Yourself Understandable
Simplify your vocabulary, grammar, and speaking speed to the degree necessary
to be understood, and keep any instructions simple and logical. New ESL
teachers frequently slow down the pace of their speech but forget to modify
their vocabulary and grammar for beginning students. As your students' English
ability increases, so should the complexity and speed of your English. Some of
your interaction at an intermediate level and most of it at an advanced level
can use natural grammar and speed, but make sure you slow down or repeat any
highly important points. Teach your learners how to ask for clarification when
they need it. Try to anticipate unknown vocabulary and be prepared to explain
it. Appropriate language modification gets easier with experience.
- Motivate With Rewards
Learners will truly want to learn when they perceive a personal reward. To
boost internal motivation, remind them of the benefits that English can provide, such as English-speaking friends, better job opportunities,
easier shopping, or less stress at the doctor's office, and then teach
language that will bring them closer to those benefits. Motivation can be
boosted externally by praise and encouragement as well as tangible rewards
like prizes, certificates, or check marks on an attendance chart. Motivation
can be hindered by over-correction or teaching a topic that the learner will
not use in daily life.
- Provide a Useful Context
Learners will remember material better and take more interest in it if it has relevant contextual meaning.
Arbitrary rote learning (word lists or grammar drills) may be useful in solidifying language forms, but unless there's a real-world application, sooner or later it's likely to be forgotten.
- Remember that Native Language Affects English Learning
A learner's native language will provide a basis for figuring out how English works. Sometimes the native language can affect English production.
To illustrate, the Japanese language does not use articles (a, an, the) so correct article usage is frequently difficult for Japanese learners. Spanish uses idioms such as "I have thirst" or "I have sleepiness" so Spanish speakers may forget to use "I am..." with an adjective instead of a noun.
Most teachers, however, have little if any understanding of their students'
native language. While a familiarity with the native language may shed light
on certain errors, it is certainly not essential. In fact, intermediate and
advanced students are often able to tell you whether a specific error is
related to their native language.
- Don't Assume All Errors are Bad
Native language interference contributes to a gradual process of learning in which language is refined over time to become more like natural English.
For example, a learner may progress through phrases such as "no I like peanuts," "I no like peanuts," and finally, "I don't like peanuts."
Teachers must not get discouraged watching students exchange one error for
another; this process is a natural part of language learning. Selectively
choose errors to work on rather than trying to fix everything at once. Give
priority to problems that hinder communication rather than incorrect but
understandable errors. With gentle corrective feedback, students will keep
- Encourage Learners to Think in English
Too often ESL learners will get stuck in a habit of thinking in their native
language and then mentally translating what they want to say or write into
English. This is time consuming and frequently leads to confusion when direct
translation isn't possible. Thinking in English requires learners to use learned words, phrases, and language structures to express original ideas without focusing too much on language rules
or translation. To illustrate, how would you change the statement "Linda ate an apple" into a question? Of course, "Did
Linda eat an apple?" More than likely you didn't think about adding the modal
'do' (in the past tense 'did' because 'ate' is past tense) before the subject,
changing the irregular verb 'ate' to 'eat' and raising your vocal intonation
at the end of the sentence. While it's unreasonable to expect beginning ESL
learners not to rely on native language translation to some degree, one way
you can minimize it is to explain new vocabulary using simple English,
drawings, or gestures and allow dictionary lookups only as a last resort. You
might also ask them to speak (or write if they are able) for several minutes
without stopping. At some point, mental translation will become cumbersome and
learners should begin developing an ability to use English independently from
their native language.
- Build Confidence in Your Students
Learners must believe in their own ability to complete a task. Without self-confidence, they are unlikely to take risks, and risk-taking is necessary in language learning. Learners need to feel that it's safe to make mistakes. By trying out new or less familiar language, they may find that they are indeed capable of more communication than they thought.
Try to reduce feelings of embarrassment when mistakes are made, and give far
more compliments than criticisms. Make some tasks easy enough that everyone is
- Account for Different Learning Styles
Some people are hands-on learners, some like to watch, some like to have detailed explanations. Some people learn better visually, others audibly. Some like to work in groups, some work better individually. Language teaching should take a variety of learning styles into account through varied activities.
- Know Your Students
Learn how to pronounce students' names (or ask for easier nicknames) and then
remember and use them. Build trust with your students by building
relationships and being approachable. Make sure quiet students are included
and more assertive ones don't dominate the lesson.
The following guides offer additional information for new teachers about how
to teach ESL.
Help! They Don't Speak English Starter Kit
Focuses on migrant students. Includes principles of adult learning, ESL teaching methods and
suggestions, printable handouts on 16 survival English topics, explanations of
specific teaching techniques, and information about Mexican American and
Haitian cultures. Divided into several PDF documents.
Twenty teaching tips explained in detail; intended for classrooms but many tips
can be applied to individual tutoring.