15 Useful Tips for Teaching English as a Second Language

Are you a TEFL teacher looking for some effective classroom tips? Take a look below!

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

A woman teaching English in a classroom

Teaching English as a second language can be a daunting task for anyone, even an experienced and skilled teacher.

Like teaching any other subject, you’ll find that your students — children and adults alike — learn at different levels, and you’ll need to adapt to each person’s learning pace to ensure everyone benefits from your lessons.

Although challenging, teaching a new language to a student is also extremely rewarding. To help you along the way, we’ve listed 15 top tips that you can utilize in the classroom.

1. Have the right qualifications

Although you may be a proficient English speaker, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re qualified to teach others. So, if you’re serious about teaching English as a second language, you must obtain a bachelor’s degree (in any subject) as well as a 120-hour TEFL certification. You can complete your TEFL or master’s in TESOL online or enroll in a college course.

Once you’ve completed your certification, you’ll be given sources to apply for available positions and embark on your new teaching career, whether overseas or at home.

2. Keep it simple

This is one of the most important rules to follow when teaching English as a foreign language. Indeed, by adding an extra word or two, you risk overcomplicating a sentence for your students. For example, if you want to ask a student to come to the front of the class, “Move to the front of the class, please” would work better than “Would you mind coming to the front of the class?”.

When dealing with beginners, it’s best to use sentences in the simplest form possible. Use simple vocabulary and gradually introduce new words to ensure your students are getting the appropriate building blocks that will allow them to understand the language.

3. Use lots of visuals

Whether you’re teaching children or adults, it’s essential to utilize visuals in your class. These visuals can be in a physical form, such as labelling desks, chairs, computer screens and doors. They can also be in picture form, such as handouts and drawings. By using visuals, your students will be able to relate to physical objects and pictures and will begin to pick up on certain words.

You can also build a pictorial wall to help your students grow their vocabulary and match a meaning with a word. In an ESL classroom, a picture really does speak a thousand words. And by using timelines effectively to explain grammatical tenses, your students will be able to absorb information faster.

We’ve highlighted a great example below:

Simple tenses visual aidThe Grammar Cat

4. Make your lesson fun

It’s daunting as it is trying to learn a foreign language for hours at a time without being bored out of your mind. So, to make sure that your students don’t bolt out the door at the sound of the bell, it’s best to make your lessons as fun as possible.

You can do so by incorporating your students’ interests into the lesson to catch their attention. For example, if you’re teaching young children and they are fans of PAW Patrol, use the firefighter dog Marshall and police pup Chase in your cases.

Games are also a great activity — separate the classroom into two teams so they can compete against each other during the lesson. This beneficial way of learning will make the class more interesting and more relatable to your students, helping them advance faster.

5. Plan and prepare in advance

Every great teacher knows the importance of excellent lesson planning; as your students are unpredictable, there’s no way you can step foot into a classroom and wing it. Instead, you need to print enough worksheets for the entire class and ensure that you’ve prepared enough for your allocated lesson time while also having backup solutions in the event an activity isn’t working very well.

You must think about how you will introduce a new language into a classroom, and whether your students are ready to move on with the syllabus or if anything needs revisiting. Don’t move onto new topics without making sure all your students are comfortable; you can check this by doing a small pop quiz at the beginning of your lesson.

6. Create a safe and supportive environment

Students need to feel safe and supported to express themselves fully; they don’t want to be scared of making a mistake, and they should be dealt with the utmost compassion. Encourage them to speak up and correct errors carefully (sometimes it’s best to let things slide if the overall sentence is correct). Give them time to form their answers, and patiently wait for a response — don’t move on to another student when you can see that they’re thinking about the best way to answer your question.

On the same note, you should reward good work and effort to encourage students to keep learning. This will differ between age groups, but for a young class, you could set up a point system that will lead to a physical reward at the end of term.

7. Set classroom rules

Rules are necessary for any classroom to ensure there are clear expectations and a suitable structure. When setting out your own standards on Day One, you should give verbal and written instructions, and place a list of them in a visible area. When a student steps out of line, refer to these rules and make sure the entire class understands what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

Without set rules in place, your classroom can be unruly, and you may waste a lot of time telling your students off instead of focusing on what they should be learning.

8. Use different learning techniques

Over time, you’ll naturally establish your own teaching techniques. However, if you’re just starting out, you should practice different ways of teaching. This can include games, quizzes, show-and-tells, silent reading and act-it-out challenges.

Whatever method you choose to adopt, it’s essential to break your lessons up into smaller sections. For example, if you’re teaching young children, their attention span is going to be short, so you might want to consider splitting each activity up into 10-minute sessions, giving your students time to recap and have a break in between tasks.

9. Be mindful of cultural differences

If you’re teaching English abroad, you’ll most likely face cultural differences within the classroom. For example, some students might feel that just turning up to class and not speaking is the norm. This is where you will need to recognize cultural differences and gently shift your student’s mindset to work with your teaching techniques.

There are certain areas where you will need to respect the cultural norms, though. For example, in some cultures, it’s rude to make eye contact, whereas in the Western world, it’s a sign that the person is paying attention to you.

The first step to overcoming these differences is to create a bond with your student to make them feel comfortable within your presence, and then establish boundaries.

10. Use technology

Teaching methods are continually evolving and, as a teacher, you’re constantly learning, too! Long gone are the days of chalk and a chalkboard; in today’s digital age, the use of technology is vital in an active learning process.

To connect with your tech-savvy students, you can use short clips, language apps and music in your classroom. You could also send questionnaires to their phones and gather responses instantly. Just bear in mind that not all students will have tech devices, so it’s important to use these methods with older students who are more likely to own a smartphone or a tablet.

11. Encourage students to set learning goals

A good way to keep your students motivated throughout each semester is to have your students set down some short- and long-term goals for their learning journey. Whether it’s to read a Jane Austen novel by the end of the year, have a conversation with a native English speaker or get full marks on a writing test, encouraging your students to set learning targets will help them stay focused and track their progress.

Having them share some of their goals with you could also help you create appropriate lessons and activities that are relevant to their objectives, making them more relatable and exciting for them.

12. Create a timeline

From the beginning of the year until the final semester, you should have a clear timeline for each of your classes. This will help you stay organized and allow you to have a clear image of your own teaching objectives.

You should also establish checkpoints within your timeline where you evaluate your student’s progress and check if you’re hitting your teaching goals. Whether you’re falling behind in your grammar lessons or way ahead with listening classes, you can revise your timeline accordingly to make sure your students’ needs are being met and that they’re making progress.

13. Use positive reinforcement

Learning a new language can be overwhelming. It is your job, then, as a teacher to ensure your students feel confident to practice their language skills and to make mistakes in the process. This is where positive reinforcement comes in. Instead of blatantly telling a student that they’re wrong after making a mistake, praise them for their effort and encourage them to try again.

For example, if a student is mispronouncing a word, you could bring their attention to it and correct them by first using positive affirmation such as ‘’Good job!’’ and then pronouncing the word correctly and having everyone repeat after you. It’s crucial that you never shame anyone for making an error, and to stir them towards correcting their mistakes themselves.

14. Introduce interactive activities

One of the best ways to optimize language acquisition and boost your students’ confidence in your classroom is through interactive activities and group work.

Not only will this help them practice their verbal communication skills but also get to know their peers better. When teaching English to adults, interactive work is especially important as it can help more inhibited students come out of their shell.

While you should encourage them to step out of their comfort zone, make sure that all your students are on board with this approach, and note down which people work better in pairs and bigger teams.

15. Set up an online teaching space

Are you an online language tutor? Teaching English in a virtual classroom has its own set of challenges.

A good way to organize yourself better is to create a practical and functional online teaching space for yourself. Start by designating a specific area in your house where your teaching will take place — make sure that your selected spot has good internet connection and is comfortable and quiet.

Then, focus on equipping yourself with the necessary tools; whether that’s online applications and virtual teaching platforms or a physical chalkboard that you can use to illustrate language rules, assess your needs as an online language teacher and invest in the resources that are right for you.

Final thoughts

Teaching English as a second language is a valuable and rewarding endeavor. Once you’ve mastered your skills, you’ll find yourself in a fulfilling and meaningful career that will bring you joy on a daily basis.

While each teacher has their own style, the above tips will help you establish a good rapport with your students and allow you to set them for success!

Are you a TEFL teacher? Have any other useful classroom tips you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments section below.

Originally published on 6 December 2018. Updated by Melina Theodorou.