ESL Teaching Strategies

Here are some ideas for ESL teaching strategies that have worked well for myself and many other teachers. They are things I wished I had understood better when I began teaching English. 

This article looks at teaching strategies not covered in the main article – How to Teach English (EFL/ESL)

Good ESL teaching strategies are ways of helping your learners to learn a language. So how do you learn a language? First the students need to feel positive about learning and the language. This means relaxed, motivated, curious and without any of the negative feelings of anxiety, worry, apathy–at the very least anxiety must be reduced as much as possible, and a positive atmosphere needs to be generated. This is a precondition to learning. Anxiety will put the brakes on learning, and too much anxiety can stop it completely.

The most basic ESL teaching strategies deal with this. Plan your lessons carefully so as not to overwhelm, or underwhelm, the students, show warmth and interest in your students and their needs–especially important when teaching English to children. Use humor to help the students relax. Give your students a feeling of mastery and accomplishment in the language they can use.

Second, the students need a lot of exposure to the language. Lots of listening and reading. At first graded and guided, but also some carefully chosen natural examples of speech and text. Third, the students need to have a lot of practice using the language; speaking and writing. Again, this should be guided. 


ESL Teaching Strategies – Class Preparation

Your classes will be significantly improved by preparing well, and although an experienced teacher can walk in a class and get by without much preparation, the teacher who prepares–and by this I also include sometimes researching new ESL/EFL activities for the classroom–will develop as a teacher and offer their students so much more. Minimal preparation over a long period of time will result in stagnation as a teacher.

The first step in how to know what you want to teach and how you are going to teach it. You’ll also need to consider any possible problems the students will have in understanding the material, and how you will cope with this if it does.


So how do you begin? 

Decide what you wish to teach (the aims of your class) according to the needs of the students, and/or the requirements of the course–which often means certain sections of the coursebook. 

The majority of new teachers, especially those working in language schools, elementary schools and high schools will be provided with a coursebook. But…

Don't let the coursebook control your class. You must control the book and use it as a tool to help your students. Even if following the book closely is obligatory, here are some ESL teaching strategies to help. 

Quickly understand the aims of the page or unit you are teaching. If you are lucky, the book may have some good ideas for introducing and practicing the language. If not, you will need to create your own tasks for the class to complete to practice the language.

You may be lucky and have a good coursebook, but this is not always the case. In this situation you need to create more of your own activities, but even a mediocre coursebook will save you some preparation time (more on how to deal with dull, boring coursebooks below).

A second benefit of a good coursebook is that it can teach you how to teach EFL/ESL quite effectively, especially if the teacher's book is also well written.


Back to Class Preparation

Look at the pages you will teach and find the language points that are being taught or reviewed. This can take some practice with some books, but is obvious in others. The language may be a grammar point, some functional English, for example how to order a meal in a restaurant, or it may be a reading with new vocabulary to practice.

Imagine how this language would be used in the real world, and how your particular students would use it. Then create ESL activities that practice this particular language point. Even though your coursebook will–or should–contain language practice activities, it's always a good idea to have three or four of your own ideas for practicing the language points in question.

One or two of these should be longer activities, the others should be short, and could be used as warmers, fillers or coolers. Look at ESL speaking activities, ESL reading activities and Top 10 TEFL Games or for ideas on how to teach ESL by constructing ESL activities.


Other things to prepare…

Other things include collecting together all the things you need before going into the classroom, making photocopies, preparing questions or exercises, checking that the equipment works, checking that your markers are full of ink, checking that the classroom you are using has an eraser and that the chairs are in order for your class, reading through or listening to any materials you will be using in class, deciding which words need explanation and practice, and planning a few short filler activities in case you finish early.


The Longterm 

As well as the above preparation for an individual class, sometimes it's important to think about the long-term planning of a class. This would involve thinking about the needs and aims of the students, do they need help with exams for example.


ESL Teaching Strategies - What should you do if you have a dull, boring coursebook?

Not all coursebooks are interesting and appropriate for your students. 

Quick Note – Sometimes what teachers think is boring (because they’ve taught it many times, or because the language point is elementary) is not seen as boring to students because they’ve never seen the book/page before, and because they’re learning something new.

But if you are unlucky enough to have an extremely dry, boring coursebook; or one that is just completely inappropriate in some other way, then you will need to teach the language in your own way, as mentioned above, then say turn to page xxx. Simply have the students read through, or perform the activity in the shortest way possible. This should be quite straightforward if you have already been practicing the language points from the book. Then nobody can say you didn't teach the book, and at least the students got a little practice from it.


ESL Teaching Strategies for a Beginners' Class

ESL teaching strategies for beginners are similar to higher level classes, but it's even more important for the students to have plenty of opportunities to see, hear and use English. 

Teach useful words and chunks of language without caring too much about teaching the grammar (I’m particularly, but not only, thinking of teaching English to children here). Eventually the students will begin to recognize patterns within the language. At this stage it’s more useful to teach the grammar. 

As long as the students know how to use the language in a given context, that is enough. Later, when they actually come to study the grammar formally, they will already have an intuitive feel for the language and any formal grammar learning will progress more smoothly.


ESL Teaching Strategies of Teaching Chunks

When I teach children "Today is Monday," I usually teach "Yesterday was Sunday," as well. I don't attempt to explain the grammar. If they ask I just tell them we use 'was' with the past. No more. Later when I actually come to teach the past of to be, they have a chunk of language that can serve as a key to help them.


ESL Teaching Strategies – Pairwork and group work 

Pairwork and group work are always worth using as they give the students, whether adults or children, more opportunity to practice speaking. However, in the beginners' class they have the added value of helping to reduce shyness which some beginners feel when speaking a foreign language.

Names and introductions are a natural first lesson, but you can also show and take advantage of the passive vocabulary the students already possess. You might want to have the students brainstorm words they know (it’s a very good idea to have your own list if they can’t think of any–but most likely, there will be many English words commonly used which they already know–and then use them to build up a conversation. Using this commonly known vocabulary, you can ask about likes and dislikes. 

Teaching classroom language is useful at this stage [What does __ mean? Can you repeat that? How do you say __? How do you spell __?]. It's also a good time to add natural language [I'm sorry I'm late, Can I __?].

Don't be afraid of being repetitive. It is not boring to the students to repeat language they have not yet mastered. In fact repetition is necessary for learning a language. Many new teachers make the mistake of thinking that because something is simple, and a little boring to them, that it is also simple and boring for the students. This is not necessarily the case.


ESL Teaching Strategies for Correction

As all teachers know, mistakes are a natural part of learning, and are not to be feared. In fact mistakes are inevitable when learning a new skill. Students can learn a lot from their own mistakes and those of others. However, correction is necessary for this learning to take place. 

On the other side of this is the fact that confidence is very important when learning a new skill, and over-correction may damage this confidence. Giving low marks can result in reduced performance. 

Giving good or positive feedback can sometimes change a poorly performing student [especially a child] into higher performing one. Honesty is important, but how honest you choose to be can make a difference. Therefore every teacher has to make a judgment…


Which Mistakes Should Be Corrected?

First, those mistakes, whether of pronunciation, vocabulary or grammar, which are bad enough to cause communication problems (or severe irritation to the listener), need to be corrected.

Second, mistakes students make related to the language point being practiced need to be corrected. For example if you are teaching the present perfect, and they are making mistakes using it, these must be corrected.


How Should You Correct Students?

For Speaking…

ESL teaching strategies for how to correct vary. When a student makes a mistake you can use your hands, or shake your head to signify a mistake has been made. The student can then self-correct, or the class can help if student doesn't know. 

You can reformulate the mistake, so allowing the student to hear the correct version. For example if a student says: "There has two books," you can say: "There are two books there." It can help to isolate the mistake, so the student can see that not everything they said was wrong.

For Writing…

When correcting writing it's useful to have a code to identify the types of mistakes the students are making. For example write 'T' over a tense mistake, 'Sp' over a spelling mistake, "WW' over a mistake where the student uses the wrong word, G for other kinds of grammar mistakes, P where a new paragraph should have started and so on. 

This saves the teacher a lot of time, and helps the students self-correct. I usually also go over the main types of mistakes in the class.


When should you correct? 

Sometimes it's best to correct at the time of the mistake, but there are occasions–when students are giving talks, or in the middle of a conversation, or completing any activity which you wish to continue flowing–when it's much better to wait until later. 

On these occasions it's useful to jot down some notes on, and examples of, the types of mistakes being made. These can then be discussed with the class after.

I recommend buying a notebook for each class and writing down mistakes and other problems to work on.


ESL Teaching Strategies – Tips

Avoid 'empty' games which may be fun, but which involve little language practice. 

Any list of ESL teaching strategies should mention the importance of recycling language. It's not enough to rely on the coursebook to do this. The teacher must actively recycle language in the classes, building upon what has been taught and practiced before.



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