Teaching English as a Second Language
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Teaching a language is a very complex process, but actually quite simple if you keep in mind what your students want from you.
I have been teaching English to Croatian students for over 4 years, and have gained considerable experience with both young and adult and both small and large student groups, including teaching in state elementary schools.
In my opinion, the most important issue is to get to know your students. The best way to do this is to give them a short survey in their own language at the beginning of your first lesson with questions about their preferred learning style, their desire to learn English, what they think the most difficult aspects of learning English are etc. This survey serves to you as a guide on what methods you will use, which student you should give more time, which parts of lessons will need more explanation and so on. Don’t just do the survey and never look at it again. Also, every now and then remember to get feedback from your students. It is impossible to reach out to all of them, but by trying to adjust to their needs you will see them trying to adjust to your teaching methods. You should definitely try to build a trusting relationship with your students no matter what age group they belong to (from experience, this is especially important to adult students), because they need to trust that you are giving them what they need, and that you will try and take care of any difficulties they may face.
Once you have established trust, you won’t have any problems with introducing methods that might be unusual, or that might result in shyness and reluctance to participate. Your students will have confidence in you and will be more willing to do what you ask them.
Language is about communication and you need your students to start communicating with you and each other as soon as possible. If you are lucky enough to work with a small group of students (up to 12) this shouldn’t be a problem. An easy way to get your students to communicate with each other and at the same time monitor what they are saying is an open-pair-work exercise: Students communicate in pairs: asking and answering questions, but one pair at a time and so that the whole class can hear them. This can lead to closed pair work, with you hovering about your students and listening to them, and also to some sort of cooperative learning.
Cooperative learning together with multiple intelligences is the best possible way to teach and guide your adolescent students (from 11 to 18 years of age) in big groups. This method was fully developed by Spencer Kagan, whose book, “Cooperative learning”, I strongly recommend. This author can also be referred to for multiple intelligences methods. Other highly recommended authors for new methods and ways to approach your students are Eric Jensen and William Glasser.
Teaching a foreign language is specific because it requires interaction. We can all download or look up rules and exercises on grammar, vocabulary etc. but in order to fully acquire them we need to use the language. As a teacher, you need to make your classroom an interaction place for your students, with as little frontal teaching and as much interaction as possible. Grammar explanations are arbitrary in nature. Your students need to “feel” the rules. For short, simple and very logical rules and exercises consult B. D. Graver’s “Advanced English Practice” (since I’ve used his explanations, for example, all my students have figured out the difference between Simple and Continuous/Progressive Tenses).
In my experience, learning English is all about practice. The four main skills: Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing need to be a part of each class. Your students need constant guidance and feedback, so you should really make an effort to promptly correct their mistakes and give them concise feedback. Explain and comment rather than grade. Use the knowledge gaps between your students: pair up or group those with low and high performance together. This will be beneficial to both, as those who are doing well are reinforcing their knowledge by assuming the role of a “teacher”, and the ones with difficulties are being taught by their peers. Make sure you reach out to all your students, even though it may seem that some of them “will never learn”. If you stay with a student long enough, you will see minor, but significant changes in their knowledge and skills, but especially in their effort.
Even though there are people who “have an ear” for languages, my opinion is that everybody can learn to communicate in a foreign language. It is the teacher’s role to find out how, and then implement the required methods. The authors and books I’ve mentioned provide a rich source of methods and approaches to teaching that can be easily applied in an ESL classroom. There is no fixed formula to teaching English, since a teacher should really model their curriculum to their student’s needs and abilities – skip or add a lesson or two to ensure proper learning is taking place.
Keep listening to your students, even if they are not actually saying anything, in order to realize how they communicate. Keep it about them. Everyone can talk about themselves and their interests; just make them do it in English. Spend five minutes on explanation, and forty minutes on practice. Let them talk, and you can actively listen and provide feedback.
Of course, this subject cannot be exhausted. As our students and their needs change, we need to change with them. Maybe what multiple intelligences represent today, some other method will represent tomorrow, and teachers need to adapt fast. This is why there is no miraculous method that will help all your students, and the best way to know how your students learn is simply to ask them. There are thousands of resources and printable lessons for ESL teachers on the Internet that you can use and adapt to your students’ needs. Whatever you do, do not forget the following:
- You already know how to use this language, now let your students learn.
- Create a safe place for communication and interaction in your classroom.
- Take an active interest in your students – they will reciprocate by taking an interest in your subject.
- Be positive and take it easy