Teaching Strategies All Beginning ESL Teachers Should Learn

So, you’re thinking about venturing off into a new country to teach English? Or maybe you have already decided to make the leap and have just started your first year. Or perhaps, you’re a veteran in teaching English as a second language, and you’re just trying to reinforce your knowledge. No matter where you fit within these categories, all ESL teachers must know the following strategies to teach their students effectively. Being a great teacher means that one is an avid learner and hopefully, one of these strategies can help enlighten or remind you on how to make your classroom environment better for your students.

Maximize your communication with the parents

The often most overlooked and the critical factor for being a great ESL teacher is determined by how much communication you have with your student’s parents. Without consistent and meaningful dialogue with them, the students will only learn English when they see you. However, teachers of all disciplines know that education doesn’t just occur in the classroom.

To make sure students are also learning at home, parents need to know what their children need to work on. If all an ESL teacher does is hope that their teacher’s assistant manages the communication with the parents — then the students aren’t receiving the necessary attention that they deserve.

Even with language barriers put into consideration, you can still communicate with parents. Communicating via email or utilizing translation applications are a way of helping you. And having other local teachers relay messages for you also works. When a foreign teacher is proactive it is not just good for the student but, for the school you work for. It sets you and the school apart from the other available educational outlets in your area. The best way to make yourself a better teacher is by making sure you build a relationship with both the students and their parents.

Always consider the cultural background of your students and how that will affect your teaching

As an ESL teacher, you will face many cultural differences between you and your school’s staff, the students you are teaching, and their parents. Being proactive in discovering what those cultural differences are will help you teach effectively in the classroom.

It’s our job to be flexible with certain behaviors that children may exhibit and to understand the origin of these behaviors. For example, as an ESL teacher in China, I interact with some students that are the only child in their family, and they are often looked after by doting grandparents. Their upbringing hinders their ability to know how to cooperate and share with their peers — seeing as they don’t have any siblings. As the teacher, I have to keep this in mind during my lessons that way I can help guide them to the desired behavior I want them to exhibit. These children, in particular, need more time with reinforcing and learning classroom rules and making sure they are praised and rewarded when they cooperate with others.

Another way to approach overcoming and understanding the cultural differences between you and your students is by learning the native language they speak. Although you are an ESL teacher and your job is to teach your students English, when you learn their native language you allow yourself to understand your students on a more personal level. Especially for younger students (ages three to four), their English language ability is too low for them to voice simple concerns. Being able to understand what they want (Example: ‘I want the blue crayon’ or ‘I need to go to the bathroom’) can help make all of your lessons run more smoothly. A great starting point for learning the local language is simply learning all of the English keywords that you teach your students and how to say all of the school supplies they use in the classroom. Additionally, taking the time to learn the native language can just be of use overall while you are living in a new country.

Praise over Punishment

Regardless of what you teach, anyone who teaches children and teenagers will eventually find themselves with a naughty student in their classroom. This student may be the one who likes to throw paper balls at their peers or the one who can make a joke about almost anything (including you), or someone who wants to sleep in class and cannot be bothered with whatever it is you need to teach them.

What’s important to understand is that these types of students usually don’t change because you punish them. A stern talking to, not allowing them to participate in group activities because they are too disruptive, or taking away “points” from an arbitrary reward system you’ve made won’t bring them to your side. These students usually require more attention because they are advanced learners — the subject material you are teaching them is too easy and/or boring. Punishment eventually discourages involvement which doesn’t create the desired behavior we are looking for so; there are other approaches we can take.

Making a naughty student a team leader or teacher’s helper is a great way to have them focus in the classroom, and it allows you to continue with teaching your lesson to the rest of the class. If you have a teacher’s assistant, always speak to them before a lesson and ask them how you can incorporate any naughty students in activities. These students will always need a different approach, and that’s okay. So long as we make sure we are making an effort to understand them, we will see results. Sometimes, something as simple as changing the seating arrangement of the classroom is all a student needs to pay attention. Some students have infectious behavior and when they all want to play and not focus you need to direct the class differently — just never use punishment as your first choice.

Praise must be immediate for it to work. Creating routines that reinforce classroom rules that are fair is the best way to teach. To be a great ESL teacher, one needs to be flexible and emphatic to the individual needs of each child. That can’t happen if the first thing we do is punish naughty students.

Related: Challenges In The Classroom: What I’m Learning By Teaching Children

Teach with tech? Always have a backup plan

Always be prepared to teach without the materials you’re used to using during your lessons. No singular computer is flawless, and sometimes the unexpected can occur. It’s important to make sure that if you use any technology in the classroom, that you also have alternative ways to teach a lesson without it. If you have a pencil, paper, and the ability to talk to your students you should be fine. Drawing pictures (no matter how bad) and using physical gestures always helps (almost anything can be communicated with the help of Total Physical Response).

Be flexible and know that even if you are following a set curriculum, how you teach that curriculum is ultimately up to you. And if one day, a projector is broken, a laptop doesn’t want to turn on, or worse — always be prepared for the worst. Have a backup plan for all lessons you have to teach throughout each week. Remember, English language instruction has existed prior to the invention of commercial computers.

Students need to interact with each other so you can gauge their comprehension

An essential strategy in any teacher’s toolbox is incorporating student-to-student interaction within their lessons. Once you’ve taught your class the ability to answer and to ask questions, the next step in developing their language is making sure they can engage in dialogue. The best way to approach this challenge is by having your students do role-play activities.

Whether the exercises you create are a simple two sentences or a dialogue that lasts five minutes between the participating students — any time you can reduce the amount of time that you are speaking gives the students more time to maximize their language output. These activities in-turn give you the chance to assess your student’s ability and see what you as the teacher need to continue working on during future lessons. Student-to-student interaction helps teach shyer students (who may feel more comfortable interacting with their peers than with adults) participate in class. Additionally, these activities also allow students to learn from each other’s mistakes. Lastly, student-to-student will enable you to expand on lesson topics and content. Whenever you’re running out of ideas on how to make a particular lesson more interesting, try to incorporate at least one activity in which students can speak and listen to each other and not only interact with you.

Teach them how to ask questions, not only answer them

The quintessential strategy for the ESL teacher is teaching our students how to become curious in the language that they are learning. This means that we must not only teach them the vocabulary they will need to produce basic answers but, we must also teach them how to ask any question about the world around them. Regardless of the subject, we have to be able to teach our students how to think and not only what to think.

When teaching ESL students, in particular, we as teachers need to consider that the ultimate goal of our instruction is preparing our students how to have conversations. A conversation doesn’t start nor can it continue without questions. Questions are the tools that allow our students to use their second language to communicate their ideas and to learn new ones. It’s vital to your ESL teaching that you put a focus on making sure your students can ask questions after you’ve taught them.


If you’ve enjoyed reading this article and know of any other ESL teachers who may benefit from this list of strategies, please share it with them! If you feel that I’ve missed something, please comment below or send me a message. I’d love to discuss your approaches to ESL teaching. Until then, cheers!

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