How To Teach English (EFL/ESL)

It’s not uncommon for a new teacher to feel nervous when first facing a class. I know this from my own experience and from that of training and observing teachers over many years. What beginning teacher can honestly say they wished for their classes to be any longer than they were?

Learning the art and practice of how to teach English changes this situation–I’m not saying you suddenly wish for longer classes–but they do become less stressful and more enjoyable. The main concern changes from surviving to the bell, to understanding the difficulties your students face learning English and devising better ways for them to do this.




What Must a TEFL Teacher Know?

An English teacher must possess a knowledge of the subject (the English language), a knowledge of teaching (principles/methods/activities), and a knowledge of psychology (to motivate and manage your students). 


Knowledge of Language

Obviously, you must be able to speak (and sometimes write) clearly. You will also need to be able to explain a variety of English vocabulary, and to possess a knowledge of English grammar and how to explain it to students.

You don’t need to know all the grammar at once. Many teachers lack a conscious knowledge of grammar. This doesn’t matter providing you are prepared to learn.

Learning how to explain the grammar you already know intuitively (in the case of native speakers) is part of your lesson preparation, as is learning how to explain vocabulary clearly, or any language point or skill you need to teach.


Knowledge of Teaching

Second, you need a knowledge of teaching: how to present and practice language, how to explain vocabulary, how to help weaker students understand by explaining in different ways, and by breaking down difficult points into smaller and smaller steps, how to manage and motivate a class of students, how to assess them correctly, and then how to help where helps needed, how to create interesting activities (games and others) to give your students the practice they need and more.


Knowledge of Psychology

Third, you need a knowledge of psychology. Not academic psychology, but you need a knowledge of how to motivate and manage a classroom of students. This comes largely from experience, although learning about classroom management will help accelerate your knowledge and improve your classes.


Anatomy of an English Class

What makes up a language lesson? As in most things the idea comes first–the aims of the lesson. This may be given to you, you may have partial freedom of choice, or you may be expected to create your own courses from scratch. Whether you create your own class, or you’re given one, you need to think of or identify the aims of the class. 

Basically, a teacher must introduce new language and then create interesting ways for the students to practice the language they’ve learnt.

It’s common practice, and useful, to begin with a warmer. This is a short activity (perhaps 2–5 minutes in length) which reviews some aspect of language the students have been learning, and gives time for students who are slightly late to settle down before introducing any new language. 

The next stage is usually (although not always) to introduce, or present, the new language as clearly as you can. Make sure to check the students understand at this stage (see the section on concept checking below).

The next stage, and the majority of the class, is to create interesting ways for students to practice the language they’ve learnt. This could involve speaking, writing, listening or reading, and it includes the practice grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation (both at the individual word level, and at sentence level and beyond).

The final stage is to end the class with a cooler. A fun activity to end on, reviewing something learnt, is a good way to end a class as it motivates students more for the next class.

This is a common way of structuring an English class, although there are other ways, and most language classes involve introducing new language and finding interesting ways for the students to practice it.


How to Teach English – Presenting New Language

Language can be presented visually, through context, by explanation or translation. 

A visual presentation is one of the fastest and most natural. It includes the following methods: pictures, flashcards, maps, video, realia (if teaching ‘a potato’, show a potato). 

It can also be presented by context: using questions, dramatic situations, stories, dialogue or a reading text. 

Another way is through explanation. Here you need to be especially careful to grade your language (i.e. don’t use vocabulary the students haven’t learnt yet).

Finally, you could use translation, although this has its own problems, and I don’t recommend it as a primary method of introducing new language; however, for certain kinds of words, such as one-off words that just popup in the class, or words which are difficult and time-consuming to explain, and which even when explained can be ambiguous, then translation works well enough.

One danger at this stage of the class is to confuse students with longwinded explanations using vocabulary they’ve never learnt. Learning to grade your language is an important teaching skill for all language teachers to learn. 

And sometimes you don’t need explanations at all. Imagine you were teaching the word ‘whale.’ Which of the following methods is better?

“A whale is a large cetacean with a smooth streamlined body, a horizontal tail fin, and a blowhole on top of the head for respiring.” 

or

Draw a picture of a whale on the board and say, “this is a whale.”

With abstract nouns, and many other words, you can’t very well draw a picture, but the principle is the same–keep the explanation as simple as possible whilst being accurate. 

Concept Checking

The final part of presenting new language is to concept check, which just means find out if your students have really understood. Asking if the students understand is not the best way as many students will say they do when they don’t. 

For example, imagine you’ve just taught the word ‘navigate’ (in the sense of planning and directing the course of a ship or plane). 

You might ask the following sorts of questions:

What things do you navigate? (a ship, a boat etc)

What do you use to help you navigate? (a map, a compass, the stars, GPS)

Why do you navigate? (to find the way, to not get lost, to go somewhere)

Which animals navigate? (whales, birds, fish)

The questions should be designed so the student will only be able to answer correctly if they really understand the language.


Choosing, Adapting & Designing EFL/ESL Activities.

Using EFL/ESL activities which interest and motivate your students is one of the more important parts of your class as a language teacher. Probably the best way to learn how to choose, adapt and design your own activities is to try as many out as you can and see what works. An excellent activity for one class may be a bad one for another; the age, level, cultural and educational background of your students will make a difference. 

Knowing which activities to choose for your class, how to adapt them, and how to design interesting activities from scratch, will help increase the chances of your classroom activities become interesting and relevant for your students.


Interesting ESL/EFL Practice Activities

You can find many EFL/ESL activities on this website. For lists of activities see ESL Activities.


How to Teach English – Some Tips

Tip for Surviving to the End of the Class

Prepare an emergency activity in case you finish early. A game is often suitable for this. 

If you find that you usually use the emergency activity in the class, you know that you need to prepare more activities for your class beforehand. 

You can find some ideas for emergency activities at Warmers, Fillers & Coolers.

Tip for Remembering Students Names

When students ask questions to other students in open pair activities have them preface the question with the other student’s name. “Jenny, have you ever swum in a river?” for example.

Tip for Being Understood

Grade Your Language. 

I mentioned this when talking about how to present new language, but it’s so important, and such a common mistake of new teachers that I’ll repeat it here. 

When explaining a grammar point, a new vocabulary item, or how to do a classroom activity–keep your language to the level the students have studied or below. 

Tip for Classroom Management

The classic teacher advice–and good advice–is to blame the behavior, not the child. Never make a child think that they are bad; only that their behavior is unacceptable. Avoid anger, losing your temper, physical conflict, blame, and insults. For a more detailed discussion, read my article on classroom management.

Final Thoughts on How to Teach English

Although experience is the best teacher, it can be a slow teacher. Reading about and applying practical principles and classroom activities will accelerate your learning.

In the beginning it's usual for teachers to focus on finding interesting ESL/EFL activities for the classroom, and if you learn how to make your students interested in their classes–then you will have done a lot. But understanding how to do this takes time. Here are some articles to help accelerate your learning.

If you are not familiar with the many TEFL acronyms, see TESL TEFL TESOL 

ESL Teaching Strategies  Strategies for how to teach English not covered here.

Classroom Management Tips for ideas on how to manage and motivate your class.

More TEFL Tips

Teaching reading to ESL students looks at issues related to how to teach English reading. 

Teaching English vocabulary looks at the principles of how to teach English vocabulary.

Teaching English literature looks at how to teach English literature to learners whose level of English means that they can’t cope with the original literature.

For some more ideas on how to teach English see Teaching the Present Simple Grammar terms and the basic rules of grammar are explained on this website Grammar Bank

If you are interested in using blended learning in your teaching then check out this interview on blended learning which I did with Roger Palmer (author and researcher). For those not familiar with the term, blended learning is the blending of e-learning with face to face teaching. 

Good luck with your teaching.



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