10 Useful Tips for Teaching English as a Second Language

Close-up of a male teacher writing English words on a whiteboard
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Teaching English as a second language can be a daunting task for anyone, even an experienced and skilled teacher. You’re faced with beginners that can’t speak a word of English, and you’ll need a lot of patience when communicating in a foreign language to them.

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 individual’s learning habits to ensure everyone benefits from your class.

Although challenging, teaching a student to speak another language is rewarding – and to help you along the way, we’ve listed 10 top tips to follow in the process.

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 enrol 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 in your local area.

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, ‘Come 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 do not progress to more complex rules of grammar until your students have understood the basics.

3. Use Lots of Visuals

No matter the average age of the classroom, it’s essential to teach through visuals in your class. These visuals can be in a physical form – ie: labelling desks, chairs, computer screens and doors. They can also be in picture form on 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 enough 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 of 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’re fans of PAW Patrol, use the firefighter dog Marshall and police pup Chase in your cases.

Physical 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 in order 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 practise 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 recognise 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 new 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 blackboard; 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 mobile phones or tablets.

Teaching English as a second language is a valuable and rewarding career. Once you’ve managed to master your skills, you’ll enjoy a fulfilling profession that will bring you joy on a daily basis. And you’ll also form special bonds with your students and have a positive impact on their lives.

So, what are you waiting for? Go out and get your qualification (if you haven’t already)!

If, on the other hand, you’re already a TEFL teacher, let us know what your biggest obstacles are in the comments section below.