Hey fellow teachers, be it experienced or aspiring. I’ve been teaching conversational English to young adults for a while now, and I thought I’d give a few tips, that I wish someone had given me in the past. Those are beginner tips, nothing too advanced (so for you guys who have experience, don’t waste time writing comments like “yeah I figured that out pretty quickly thanks“.
If you’re curious, I teach conversational English to Vietnamese adults that are usually aged 20-30. I’ve had a few teenagers mixed in the classroom as well, as young as 15 years old, and a few students older than the average, all the way up to 40. Yes, I love teaching adults.
1- Get proper training
No matter if you teach grammar to children or how to book a hotel room to adults, the fact is still the same: you’re teaching, and you will shape how your students speak English. Unless you have a university degree or are really confident in your abilities, or have managed to get experience teaching without any credentials, I strongly suggest you get a TESOL or a CELTA. Why? Because they will get you prepared for a lot of things you haven’t foreseen. I personally have a TESOL and yes, it was expensive and yes, it was a lot of work, but it was worth it.
Not to mention that it will be a hundred times easier to find work.
2- Keep in mind what they want to learn
I’m saying this because sometimes I’ve planned a lesson that, in my mind, was cool and fun and would get everyone involved, only to start my lesson and realise that to my students, what I have prepared is not useful at all. No matter how much talking you will do to show the merits of your lesson, there is a high chance that they will just not “get it” and you’ll have to think of something different on the fly.
3- Simple words and better pronunciation
This is something I actually tell my students on the first day of lessons, and I strongly believe in it. It’s better to have a vocabulary that can get your idea across and words that you can pronounce correctly – it’s better to be understood – than to try to use long and smart-sounding words – and be misunderstood.
My students love to use “furthermore” and “moreover”. I let them use it, but explain to them that I’ve never heard these words being used in every day talk – only in presentations and videos or on paper.
4- You are a teacher, and a life coach
This is something I had not foreseen at all but that makes so much sense. Normally, you’ll be a little bit older than most of them and living abroad, will have had more life experiences than them. I mean, I’ve had about 10 different jobs in my life, and a whole lot more job interviews. My experience teaching young Vietnamese adults is this: most of them have focused their whole life on studying and never had a job until they graduated. I’ve ended up modifying my “Work and Careers” lessons to a more simple and useful “How to give an interview” and “Business vocabulary” lessons. Ultimately, having them practice how to answer interview questions in the classroom will be more useful than teaching them a hundred different profession names. It’s also a good ice-breaker so I like to do it early in the course.
I’ve also taken the liberty (with their consent) to do lessons on the dating culture of westerners (I had a class with only women and they were very interested!) and even a sexual education class – they seldom learn about it at school, while we get it at the age of what, 12? I’ve never seen them write down so many notes.
I’ve also corrected C.V.s, given post-break up advice, tips on travelling, and outside of the classroom I also became a confident and inadvertently, a motivational speaker. Sort of a big brother, if you will. It’s kind of cool.
5- You should make them want to talk
A lot of your students will be shy. Cripplingly shy. It’s your job to make them feel at ease. There’s several ways to do this: for class discussions, divide the class into small groups of 3-4 and let them talk with themselves. Sometimes a big group is too intimidating. If you have a rebel in the class (yes, it happens with adults, in almost every classroom I’ve had) who refuses to participate or thinks they found the loophole in your activities by being lazy or cheating, they’re actually easy to trick into becoming the best in the class. Sometimes students are just super polite and don’t want to interrupt anyone, but simply asking them what their thoughts are on a certain subject will get the windmill going.
My favourite formulae (that I don’t do every classroom so that my lessons don’t become predictable and boring) is a warm-up game followed by vocabulary words, and then a one-on-one activity to get them to use these words, concluded with a group discussion. It rarely goes exactly that way (see next tip: adapt) but if for example one day I decided to skip the one-on-one, I’ll try to have it on the next lesson.
This list isn’t in order of importance, but this tip is easily in the top 3. Not all classrooms are the same. A lesson your gave in a classroom that was super popular and fun might be a total disaster in another class. There’s a few reasons. The rapport you built with them, the group mentality (if the rebel has a lot of influence), the general English level of the students, if you teach them in the day or in the evening… I noticed that my morning students are usually the hardest-working and generally up to almost anything, while the last evening class usually needs some convincing just to get up from their chair… and forget about giving homework (yes, sometimes I give homework).
Maybe it’s because I myself am tired at this time and they can feel it. Maybe it’s because I’ve let the rebel get away with too much (I hate being a bossy teacher). Maybe it’s because they’ve had a long day and they don’t want to think too much, they just want to practice something easy. There’s a lot of reasons and of course no way to really know why a rocking lesson stunk the very same day, with the very same delivery.
Sometimes, your subject will just not be interesting to them – even it’s the most useful one you’ll give. When you see them struggling to stay away from their phones or hiding their yawns, time to scratch that lesson plan and do something different. My go-to game is Taboo. It’s perfect for English learners and you can find printable cards easily on the internet.
7- Don’t talk so much
Sometimes you’re trying to get your point across. Sometimes you’re trying to motivate them. Sometimes they’re just curious and they keep asking questions, they want to know more. Sometimes they’re just happy to be listening to you (okay, they’re still practicing their listening skills) but one tip that stuck with me from my TESOL training is this: If they’re talking, you’re teaching. My ideal lesson would have me talk no more than 30 minutes, out of 90. That’s including vocabulary and rules of games explanation – but not the warm-up or when I’m participating in the games.
8- Decide for them
Sometimes you just don’t have a choice: you have to pick the topic or make the teams for them. After a month of teaching a class 3 times a week it can be hard to find interesting subjects or something to talk about that will captivate everyone, but no matter how many times you ask them what they want to talk about, they will keep silent. I don’t know if it’s out of respect for me or because literally anything will do.
Same thing for volunteers, it’s quite hard to get someone to break the ice, especially the first 2-3 weeks. I have my “magic marker”, which is just a normal marker that I spin on the floor, and whoever it points goes first. I like to just drop the marker on the floor without spinning it to point directly at the rebel.
A little twist I like to do is give the marker to the person who just spoke, and tell them that they get to pick who’s next – they usually pick the rebel or the clown of the class.
By the 3rd week usually I have given them enough motivation and positive criticism that their confidence is boosted and they want to go first. Usually.
9- BE PREPARED
I think that this is the most important piece of advice I can give anyone. Be prepared. Have a lesson plan ready. Don’t – I repeat – do not try to wing it. First of all, the students will see right away. Second, they deserve your professionalism and nothing else. I don’t prepare massive lesson plans detailed to the single word and the tiny second, but I do have a list of words I want them to learn, rules for my games, what time I should start any steps, things like that. I also leave myself a place to take notes like what they asked me, what took so long, what didn’t work so well this time around and why.
Of course, adapting works in synergy with being prepared. Maybe your lesson plan is in fact boring. Maybe someone will ask you a good question that gets everyone involved – this is a teacher’s wet dream. Dump your lesson plan on the desk, sit with them and engage every one. Ride that wave as long as you can.
Also, if this happens, it just means you have leftover material for your next class, so less to prepare 😉
10- Learn about their culture and language
My students loooooove it when I say a few words in their own language. No problem. Very good. Continue. Oh my god. I get bursts of laughter, the ones that are starting to doze off start paying attention again, and it just shows that you’re in the same boat as them – you’re learning as well.
Remain a student all your life.
I hope this will help any nervous first-time ESL teachers, new and alone in an exotic land.