What not to do as an ESL teacher?

Every teacher makes mistakes in the classroom, particularly at the start of their career. As we learn to identify these mistakes we actually become better at our job, unless we fail to recognize these mistakes at all of course. Here we look at some of the most common errors made by new teachers and how to avoid them as we gain experience.

Don’t talk too much

Talking too much during lessons is probably the most common mistake made by inexperienced ESL teachers. The bottom line is that ESL students need to take every opportunity possible to speak the language as this is how they make real progress. However, if the teacher dominates the conversation any progress will be cut considerably. Only say what you need to keep the lesson moving forward and avoid chat that is not connected to the point of the lesson. When going over answers to questions allow the other students to read out the answers and to give feedback to each other on their performance. Any opportunity for student talk time is a good thing, because when the teacher is talking the students are not practicing and learning.

Don’t let one or two students dominate the class

In most classes there will be one or two extroverted students who enjoy getting involved in the lesson. While this can be a positive thing, it is important to not let them dominate proceedings as this can lead to other members of the class missing out. In their eagerness to get involved, these students can sometimes drown out the input from quieter members of the group which can lower their motivation and make them reluctant to get involved. The key to a harmonious classroom is to ensure that everyone is given the same opportunities to participate and not just the loudest and most confident.

Don’t pretend you know everything

During the course of an average week an ESL teacher will get asked dozens of questions related to the English language and how it works. One common mistake made by many teachers is to act as if you have all the answers. The truth is that the English language is a large and complicated animal that few people can claim to know inside and out. When faced with questions that we can’t answer easily, avoid making up an answer or trying to bluff your way through. If you are not sure of the answer simply take a note and tell the student you will get back to them with the answer.

Don’t try to improvise

The key to producing a great lesson is always in the planning. Many new teachers have learned a big lesson early on in their careers by turning up for a class underprepared. When you have a lesson properly planned out with all the materials and activities in place you can start the lesson with confidence that it will be a success. There is no greater motivation for a teacher than when a well planned lesson goes as well as you hoped it would. Basically, if you fail to plan properly, your lessons will not have the same positive impact.

Don’t follow the textbook too rigidly or abandon it altogether

Although most of us will follow a set textbook for our ESL curriculum, it is important to adapt it to suit the needs of the class. If you follow every line of the book you will find your lessons will soon become a bit dull and predictable, whereas lessons that follow no particular structure can become chaotic and lacking in goals. Always be prepared to skip activities that serve little purpose and add new ones that are better suited to the class. Using activities that are relevant to your students is a simple way to keep their interest. Equally, it is not a good idea to completely abandon a textbook as this provides the structure to your lessons that the students and teacher both need.

Don’t say “Do you understand?”

If you give out a list of instructions for an activity and then ask the class if they have understood, it is almost guaranteed that the answer you will get from the whole class will be, Yes. However, when you check on their progress a few minutes later it is common to see the class staring into space and not getting on with the job. When checking the understanding of the group it is vital that you use “concept checking questions,” rather than a simple yes or no approach, as these allow you to really check how much or how little of your instructions have been understood. Once you have introduced this type of questioning, stick to the same method for every activity in every class as this will then become familiar through regular use.

Don’t just use words

Although we should aim to keep teacher talk time to a minimum there are times when this can’t be avoided. When giving instructions for an activity, when giving feedback or answering questions it is necessary to talk in some detail. However, to aid understanding it is always helpful to include visual clues in your explanations. This approach using pictures, real objects, written prompts, etc, can make a big difference to students who might otherwise get lost when you only communicate through English speech.

Don’t blame your students if they don’t understand

If you have just explained a concept or activity to your students and they are struggling to understand it, then the chances are that you failed to explain it correctly. If there is a clear lack of understanding in the class it is up to the teacher to change the way they explain it. Over a period of time you will get to know how the group works and the different learning styles of your students, but initially it is important to remember that if they don’t get it it isn’t usually their fault.

Don’t forget to give plenty of feedback

Feedback is highly important in an ESL classroom. Whether it is homework, a written activity, or a whole group speaking activity, you should provide feedback as it allows you to correct errors made by the students, gives them time to ask questions, and it provides a smooth transition from one part of the lesson to the next.

Don’t think of your students as your friends

It can be quite challenging to get the balance right in an ESL classroom, especially in the early part of your career. If you lean too far towards the friendly you might struggle to maintain discipline which can cause all kinds of problems. Maintaining clear boundaries between you and individual members of the class is an important part of classroom management, particularly with younger age groups.

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