ESL Teaching: Learning Theory and Techniques

It is important that during the course of an ESL teacher’s curriculum that the teacher makes sure that the student is learning genuine communication skills. If a teacher neglects this critical task there is a strong possibility that the ESL student will simply learn to parrot phonetic sounds and phrases without understanding the true meaning of what they are saying. They will also never achieve the intuition needed to speak with proper grammar. In essence they will not be able to genuinely communicate with native English speakers. I will outline some techniques that will help students to learn the ability to achieve genuine communication in the classroom.


One technique that can be helpful to students to learn genuine communication is to use listening exercises that utilize native English speakers. This is very helpful because often teachers and books will teach the correct pronunciation of a word, but it may be pronounced with nuanced differences in actual speaking. Schwa or slightly changing the sound of a syllable in speech (to make speaking more fluid or efficient) is common in English. These subtle changes in speech may make words unrecognizable to non-native speakers who only have exposure to English from books as opposed to real world spoken English.

A good way to implement this technique is to use CD’s or recordings of native English speakers conversing. You can purchase or make these recordings. They might include the native speaker telling a story, engaging in a dialogue with another speaker or any number of speaking exercises. It’s good to hand out material with questions about the recording for students to read before hand as a pre-listening activity. You can play short audio tracks for the students and have them answer questions about what they heard. You can also have students listen for details or to understand the general gist of the material.

Another technique is engaging students in speaking tasks with each other. Once students have developed a sufficient vocabulary and understanding they may be able to hold mock interviews. One student can be the interviewer and the other can be the interviewee. It’s important that both students aren’t reading from a script because ideally most of the dialogue should be spontaneous and dynamic. This engages their thinking/ speaking mind so they will be genuinely communicating and not just repeating sounds. This task is probably only appropriate for developed intermediate or advanced students.

This can be implemented by setting up a scenario (e.g. You are college recruiter and you will be interviewing a prospective student) and you can dictate some of the terms to the student of how they will answer (e.g. You can give them a fictitious job history, school record etc.). The “interviewer” and “interviewee” can then perform their interview for the class. You can engage the class by making them be the “judge”. They can decide at the end of the interview if the candidate should get the job/position etc.

A third technique, which can be very engaging and also educational, is to set up a debate between students. You should choose a topic which isn’t terribly controversial so no one will get upset or get their feelings hurt. You should also try to choose a topic that

will appeal to students and be interesting to them. An example might be “Should students have to wear a uniform to school?” Then you can choose one half of the class to argue for the position and the other can argue against it. Don’t let the students choose. The teacher can choose randomly who argues for a particular position.

A debate will ensure that students comprehend what is being said because they need to make logical responses to arguments. If their team is to make the better argument they will need to be able to speak a well-articulated point as well. All this has the added benefit of usually being very engaging, fun, and informative to all including even the teacher.

These techniques are just a few of many possible learning exercises that can be helpful in the critical task of making sure students are effective at actually communicating genuinely in the English language. It’s important to use them to ensure that students don’t just parrot phonetic sounds or just learn the formal English, but instead learn to use the true language spoken for effective communication by native English speakers. This is the ultimate goal of learning language so this task is critical.