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.
Good ESL teaching strategies are ways of helping your learners to learn a language. So how do you learn a language? There are 3 steps. 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 [this is 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. How to teach ESL involves putting these points into practice.
ESL Teaching Strategies For Designing An ESL Lesson
First of all, the students need to be introduced to the language in a natural way. Perhaps in a story, a dialog, or using pictures, mime or realia [real objects]. Second the teacher presents the language formally, which is useful for some students. Third the students practice in a fairly controlled way that gives them some level of support. Fourth the students use the language more informally, in a less controlled way.
It's best if the practice takes place in the form of a task, or series of tasks. When teaching English to kids, I would drop the second step. Formal explanations of language points have their place, but not in the teaching of young children.
If possible, when choosing ESL activities for the class, choose ones which combine fun and usefulness. There are games which are fun and intensively practice language, there are also other kinds of activities which are not games, but which are also fun, and give good practice of language points.
Avoid 'empty' games which may be fun, but which involve little language practice. Remember, too, that dry, boring, but 'useful' esl activities, are only useful to a limited extent, and not at all if the students are sleeping.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 up on what has been taught and practiced before.
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 them to have plenty of opportunities to hear and use English. Teach useful words and chunks of language without caring too much about teaching the grammar. Eventually they will begin to recognize patterns within the language. At this stage it will become more useful to teach the grammar. In fact, even at higher levels it's sometimes good to do this. As long as the students know how to use the language in a given context, then that is enough. Later, when they actually come to study the grammar formally, they will already have some intuitive feel for the language. When I teach children "Today is Monday," I always teach "Yesterday was Sunday," as well. I don't attempt to explain. 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.
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. Brainstorming 'How many words do you know?' then using them to build up a conversation. If they know: football, music... you could ask about likes and dislikes, using some mime to help. Other ESL activities for beginners include matching words and actions [Simon says], or words and pictures [card games]. Identifying things [listen and point, listen and circle on the board, bingo]. Problem solving [guessing games, quizzes, puzzles].
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 __?].
Basic ESL teaching strategies include the use of mime, gestures, realia [real objects], flashcards, and drawings on the board.
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 - Don't Let the Coursebook Dominate your Class
Remember to focus on the students, not on the book. 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, there are ESL teaching strategies to help you deal with the book, without it dominating.
It's important to 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.
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 - Know Your Subject
Knowing plenty of ESL teaching strategies is very good, but when talking about how to teach ESL, it would be strange not to mention the subject itself- English. Being a native speaker or fluent in English is of course, a good start, but is not enough by itself. If you are a native speaker you will intuitively know when something is right or wrong. As an English teacher you will need to be able to say why, and suggest ways to correct it.
It's not necessary to be a grammar or phonology expert. I certainly wasn't when I began teaching English, and I still continue to learn today. All that is necessary is that you make an effort to learn how to explain and demonstrate the grammar, vocabulary usage and pronunciation before you teach your students. Teachers' books can be a help here, as can specialist books on English usage, and, of course, the internet.
The language which you need to become comfortable explaining, or better, showing to your students, is the vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.
All of these need to be taught, as does the function of the language. Or, put simply, how to use English in particular situations. All of these are important, and too much focus on one will lead to an imbalance in the students' learning.
ESL Teaching Strategies - Class Preparation
Does preparation make any difference? All teachers know that well prepared lessons can go badly, and unprepared lessons can sometimes go well. However, in the vast majority of cases your classes will be significantly improved by preparing well.
How should a teacher prepare? ESL teaching strategies for preparing include: deciding exactly what you want to do in the class, and how you will achieve your aims is the most important. Other things include: collecting together all the things you need before going into the classroom; thinking of original ways of practicing the language; writing short readings/listenings for the students; making photocopies; preparing questions or exercises; checking that the CD player works and is plugged in; 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 any materials you will be using in class; deciding which words need explanation and practice, and how you will explain and practice; planning a few short filler activities in case you finish early.
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 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 and other students' mistakes. 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 the English teacher has to make a judgment. I believe there are 2 kinds of mistakes that need correction. First those mistakes which are bad enough to cause communication problems. They may be related to pronunciation, vocabulary or grammar. This doesn't matter, but if they cause a significant strain in understanding they need to be corrected.
Second, mistakes students make with the language point being practiced. For example if you are teaching the present perfect, and they are making mistakes using it, they need to be corrected.
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.
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, 'S' over a spelling mistake, "WW' over a mistake where the student uses the wrong word, and so on. This saves the teacher a lot of time, and helps the students self-correct.
When should you correct? Usually 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.
ESL Teaching Strategies for Classroom Management
All students bring something of their learning history with them into the class. When students have studied for several years and - sometimes - become disillusioned with the education system, your skills in classroom management will be tested much more than with a younger less experienced class, which is eager to please. The more you can build a relationship with a class, the easier it will be.
ESL teaching strategies for classroom management involve three areas: layout of the classroom, personal factors and class preparation. I discussed class preparation above and won't repeat it here, except to say that a poorly prepared class will usually be less focussed and less interesting, and it will be much easier to lose this type of class, than it would be with a well organized class with interesting activities at the right level of challenge.
The layout of the classroom plays a part in classroom management. Seating students in a semi-circle or open square allows the students to see each others faces, and allows more participation. It allows all students to be sitting on the front row and so closer to the teacher. This works well for groups up to about 15-18, if the classroom is large enough.
A large table can also work well for smaller groups, and is good for doing any project work. Incidentally, for 1:1 classes it's not a good idea to directly face the student. Much better to sit in an 'L' position. Directly facing a student can be challenging and intimidating.
With larger classes, over 30 for example, certainly when you reach 50, a conventional row plan is best. It is still possible to have the students do pairwork, mingle activities, and change seats or move their chairs when necessary. Students will need practice in doing this quickly, but it's possible to do.
ESL teaching strategies for a clear use of the board will help the class run more smoothly. Dividing the board into a main section for presenting new language, and smaller sections for recording new vocabulary, and for any doodles. It's also a good habit to develop the habit of writing on the board while looking at, or at least, still engaging the students. If you have to write for more than a few seconds, ask questions, but don't just write quietly for a minute while the students wait. This is encouraging them to fill the space with chatter or worse!
Personal factors also play an important part in ESL teaching strategies. Should the teacher stand or sit during the class? This will have an affect on your class. I believe that it's best to stand at all times, except when you are having a discussion with your students, or when you are not directly involved. For example, when you are observing the students doing group work. It's important to see the students clearly, and for them to see you - especially your mouth and eyes.
Eye contact is important in any human interaction. A sure way to lose the class is to avoid eye contact for long periods of time. Be careful when writing too much on the board, or finding your place in your notes or book, when searching for the track on the CD, which should have been prepared before the class. If you don't have eye contact the students will not feel involved in the class. Also, looking into their eyes will give you an idea of whether they have understood.
Be aware of your body language. Stand naturally and use your hands to gesture. It's a good idea to point with your whole hand. Pointing in the normal way can be seen as aggressive.
Use pauses when you speak, and vary your voice. And now some don'ts. Don't speak over students when they are busy. This serves no purpose. Don't worry about silence or noise. Don't ask 'Do you understand?' concept check instead. The same for instructions for classroom activities. Don't go around the class in order. This is too predictable, students can prepare answers and know that they have a certain period of time when they won't be required to do anything else.
Use pairwork and group work to increase student talking time. Be clear when giving instructions. Make sure you know exactly what - and why - you are doing something. Consult and involve the students. Ask if they enjoy the classes, and which things they like best and why. Avoid explaining new activities, try to demonstrate them instead. The best way to learn a new game like chess is just to play it and learn as you go. The same is true for new classroom activities.
ESL Teaching Strategies - General Points
Remember not to talk too much in class. The students need lots of opportunities to speak, which can be given through pairwork and groupwork. Pairwork should be a part of every class.
Sometimes teachers treat elementary students as if they're simple, forgetting that language level in English and intellectual level are not related.
Be natural - allow your genuine reactions to be seen. I once asked a genuine question in a 1:1 Chinese class, and the teacher said: "Good question. Now turn to the next page." A complete lack of interest from the teacher can destroy motivation, and is also a wasted opportunity to practice the language of feelings and reactions.
Variety is the spice of life! Use different kinds of esl activities in the class.
Focus on the positive, not on the negative. This could be when giving feedback or when students are becoming difficult to manage.
Inexperienced teachers often feel they have too much time; more experienced teachers complain of the opposite. The most experienced teachers accept the situation, and make the most out of it by selecting what can be done, and what cannot. No student can learn everything.
I've written about many ESL teaching strategies here. Remember that it's not possible to apply them all in one go. Take your time and experiment with some of them to see if they can help you improve your classes. Eventually, many of these ESL teaching strategies will become good teaching habits, which no longer require thought.
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