Teaching English to foreign learners, called ESL (English as a second language) teaching, or TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) teaching, can be an immensely enjoyable and rewarding job. Not only can you assist eager learners to help achieve their goals, but you get to meet so many different people and can even use your skill to travel.
Of course there are officially recognized qualifications that you can get to become a teacher, and often you will need these to teach in a number of institutions globally, but before you embark on a qualification, or even if you want to informally start teaching English to those who want to earn, here are some practical tips and suggestions before you commence.
The four skills of language
Generally speaking, there are four skills involved in the learning of English (or any language for that matter). Nearly everything you do in the classroom will be pitched at improving one (or a combination) of these skills.
These skills are reading, listening, writing and speaking. And they can be divided into two distinct categories:
Receptive skills are those skills which we need in order to understand a language. So, it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that both reading and listening are regarded as receptive skills.
It is important to develop both reading and listening skills with language learners, providing them with a variety of materials to help them understand the different ways in which the language can be presented. In reading, that means everything from newspapers and magazine articles, to novels and poems, social media posts and menus and much much more besides.
When listening , provide a variety of real-life exchanges, and then songs, speeches and anything else you can find. Ensure that you give your students exposure to a variety of different accents, and be clear that people speak differently in different situations (it is important to understand and use reading and listening to show that there is an informal English, as well as a formal variety of the language).
Combining the two skills is an excellent idea, so use (and encourage the use of) movies and videos with English subtitles, and read-along audio books. Marrying the pronunciation and spelling of English words is a critical component of improving receptive skills.
On the other hand, writing and speaking are productive skills, because these involve students actually creating the ideas that they want to express. Unsurprisingly, productive skills can take longer to learn that receptive skills, and it is common to find students whose receptive skills are much more developed than their productive skills.
Your job as a teacher is to develop all four of these skills in students. Teaching means giving ample time and focus to these four different skills, and targeting weaknesses that students have. You will also find that learners from different countries will show common weaknesses and strengths in these skills, which can help you build lessons to effectively develop those weaker points.
What about vocabulary and grammar?
You may ask, then, what about vocabulary and grammar? Of course, vocabulary and grammar are fundamental to any language, but this learning of vocabulary and grammar must be performed within the context of the four skills.
Take vocabulary as an example. All of us possess what is called passive vocabulary and active vocabulary. Passive vocabulary consists of words that we understand, perhaps from context, but would never actually use in our writing or speaking.
Active vocabulary, on the other hand, is the vocabulary that we actually use to express ourselves. Unsurprisingly, we have much larger passive vocabulary banks than active vocabulary banks. In fact, most of us only have an active vocabulary bank of between 10,000 and 15,000 words. If you consider that English contains more than 1,000,000 words, that is a tiny percentage (as little as 1%).
So really, language learners don’t have that much vocabulary that they need to learn: it’s all about learning the relevant words in context, and then being able to combine them to make logical ideas (that’s where the grammar comes in).
The practical elements
There are, of course, some practical elements that all teachers should consider:
Have a clear objective
Whatever you are teaching, have a clear objective, and communicate that to the students themselves. Make sure they understand what they are trying to achieve.
Make that objective something practical
The objective should never be something impractical like ‘learn 50 words related to food’. Instead, the objective should always be something functional such as ‘learn how to order in a restaurant’.
Give time to practice
Teaching is actually a very small part of what the lesson should be about. Providing ample time to practice is the key point. So, present the language, then provide a few controlled exercises to apply it, and then provide lots of opportunity for ‘free’ practice so students can learn to use the language in context. Role play exercises are a wonderful way to do this.
Make a lesson plan
Don’t go into a lesson blind. Always have a pre-prepared plan so you are clear about what the objectives for the class are, and what the individual stages will be to get you there.
Use great resources
There is so much great content, and so many great tools, out there to assist you in your teaching. From technology including apps, software and smart devices, to fantastic coursebooks and visual content, the world is your oyster when it comes to choice.
Make the class fun
And make the whole experience fun, both for you and the students, by making it as interactive as possible, reducing the amount of time you spend talking at them, and enjoying the practice exercises.
That’s all you need to get started. Of course, you will improve as you go along, and you should seek feedback on your teaching in order to improve. But remember that it’s all about the student, and that should see you become a great teacher before very long.