How to Teach ESL – English as a Second Language

Are you new to teaching English as a Second Language and unsure of how to present class? As an ESL educator for the past 15 years, I’ve seen many new teachers come to the profession with no idea of how to run their classes, so in this article, I share a framework of EXACTLY how to teach an ESL class with a structure, ideas and techniques for teaching English as a Second Language.

The article is based on this video. It premiered on August 31st, 2021.

Verbal engagement – the main goal for ESL teachers

Your job as an ESL teacher is to get your students to speak. Yes, your job is to teach them to read, write, listen for information, but the priority should always be – “How can I get these students to engage verbally with the content in a meaningful way?” Why?

Think of your past English teachers; some might have been strict authoritarians, or good at preparing you for tests, others focused on essay writing, or invested in teaching grammar, but the primary task of ESL teachers is to get students to SPEAK English. Especially when teaching abroad, 90% of an ESL teacher’s job is to improve the English speaking skills of students. Some may say that the core language skills should be grammar or reading, but that is not true. Students (their parents and society) value their ability to speak the language more than anything else.

NoteThis is for a normal ESL class and not when the teacher has to prepare students for a specific test or activity.

The best thing an ESL teacher can achieve is to make students confident in using English, which is extremely hard, because one of the scariest things for most people is to speak in front of other people, especially in another language!

Your success as an ESL teacher thus depends on how well you get your students to speak English. So, the main goal and priority for ESL teachers is the verbal engagement of students – get them to speak!

The basic structure for teaching ESL

The basic STRUCTURE for presenting a class can be divided into the following:

  • Starting Class
  • Set up structure and Routine
  • Warm-up
  • Teaching
  • Practice
  • Review and Reflection.

1. STARTING CLASS

Engage

So, when your students enter the classroom, smile – You want to be friendly and approachable. Make firm eye contact so they can trust you and also to know that you are not a pushover.

Then, engage them, ask them questions about their lives /likes /family /weekend. This is to serve as a warm-up for them – They start speaking and also get programmed to answer your questions. If they don’t want to speak, tell them a little bit about your own weekend. – I do this anyway for them to get to know me.

Forming relationships with your students is crucial in teaching. Also, don’t hesitate to praise them for giving a good answer or their attempt. Most successful ESL learners had a teacher somewhere praise them for their effort which motivated them to work even harder.

Slow Down

Most teachers get nervous and talk too fast and many overestimate how much their students understand. Speak at 70% of your normal speaking speed. Once the students get used to your voice, accent, and way of speaking, you can slowly increase that speed.

Eyes On Me

Wait for the class to be seated, the students are quiet and have eyes on you (they are paying attention). Students cannot focus on multiple things at the same time, wait for them to look at you and only give one instruction at a time.

You do this because you are the class leader and your words have value. They have to wait for you to speak. Don’t try to shout them down or speak just because class should start. You may ask them to settle down, but it is against class rules for students to talk while the teacher is speaking.

To Recap Starting Class

  • Get your students to speak.
  • Add connections.

2. SET OUT STRUCTURE

Setting out structure means that you explain to your students exactly what will happen in that day’s class:

“Hi everyone, today we will learn about the past tense. What is the past tense?” It’s when I talk about yesterday or last week. “Yesterday I watched a movie. What did you do yesterday?” (Start by asking a confident student to get the ball rolling.)

“Good! Yesterday he ate chicken. Great!”

What did you eat?” (I point to another student) “Rice.”

Ask a 3rd student – “What did she eat?” “She… ate…. noodles!” “Excellent!”

Now ask a 4th student – “What did student number 3 eat?” “She ate noodles.” “Correct!”

Did you notice my overuse of encouraging words? “Good! Great! Excellent! Correct!” Half of your job as a teacher is to motivate your students. Use it often to get them excited about answering questions and to participate in class.

Overenunciate Words

Notice too that I overenunciate the words. This is for the students to learn. So, slow down, overenunciate and add emotion to your words.

It doesn’t matter what you are teaching that day, but a short practice such as this is to get them used to the content will do wonders for your class. They know what they will learn, they understand some basics, in many cases, they have learned it before and now this reminds them of that.

Learning is all about creating connections between your student’s previously acquired knowledge, and what they will be learning.

So, find out what they know through questioning – Then build on that knowledge by making connections.

You can connect to their past experiences, the things they enjoy and their feelings.

For example – “What did you eat yesterday?” “Chicken.”

What is your favorite fruit?” “Pineapple.” “Oh really? I ate some pineapple yesterday!”

I show them a picture of Spongebob. They know and like Spongebob. “What does Spongebob eat?”

(I write ‘EAT’ on the board.)

Show them Spongebob with a crabby patty hamburger. “He eats hamburgers today.”) I point down when I say today.

“What did he eat yesterday?” I write ‘ATE’ and point backward.

“Yesterday he AATTTEEE a hamburger.”

Use TPR

Also, I use TPR – Total Physical Response – which means that I am adding actions to the words and encourage the students to act along with me. They are far more likely to learn that way by adding a physical movement to the words.

It’s all about creating connections. I wrote the words on the board, I added emotion with my words, I used TPR and I gave them a visual clue with Spongebob eating a hamburger. All these things together make more connections and allow them to learn better.

And that’s only the start of class ‘lol’!

To Recap Setting Structure

Tell them what they will learn that day – It focuses them on the goal you want to achieve.

3. SET ROUTINE

Now – it is absolutely crucial that you add routine and structure to your classes.

Students need to know what will happen when they enter your class. It doesn’t mean that every class should be exactly the same, but students, especially children need that routine in their lives. That consistency reassures them.

What do I mean by that? If you have clarity about what you are doing, the order of activities, how long an activity will last, and when things will end. It will make you more confident in your lessons, and the students will trust you more.

Let’s take public speaking as an example – If I invited you to listen to my speech and I told you the topic, but not how long the speech would be, you would get annoyed at the length and uncertainty.

But if I told the audience that my address will have three parts and will last 10 minutes and this is the objective, then you would feel at ease and have more confidence in me as the speaker. The same applies to teaching – ESL structure is important.

First, greet the students and introduce the topic for today. Do housekeeping, chat a bit, build relationships, get students to reply, explain the topic and what they will do that day.

4. WARM-UP

Warm-up Activity: This is to get the students working together and speaking. I like to use group or partner activities. You can use flashcards games, board games, group discussions, or questions to a partner. I’ve got a book with Partner questions on 50 different topics you can check out here.

If you’re teaching very young students – first start with a chant. If I’m teaching phonics, I like to start with the ABC chant. You can do it the whole year-round. It’s fun and they learn from it. It also eats up time and calms the students down.

After the warm-up, you can ask for some feedback from students. Ask groups what they did or individual students about what they learned from their partner. For young learners, ask them to do the move for a word.

Note – It’s much easier for students to talk about their friends rather than themselves. So if you get students to do partner questions. “What did he do yesterday?” “He played a phone game.” “He played a game on his phone.”

You repeat the correct sentence. Students learn from that. You are their primary source of the language, always remember that

5. TEACHING THE LESSON

After the warm-up and feedback, it is on to the teaching part of the lesson.

Here you will explain the grammar, or go through the book the students are studying. It is very difficult to start a curriculum from scratch. Most schools will have a curriculum for you to follow, but if you don’t have one, find a suitable book series to follow. They have some of the best teachers creating these, so you can find a series of ESL books that suit your style of teaching and has content that matches your learners’ needs.

Go through the book or teach the grammar. There are two ways to teach grammar: Inductive and Deductive. With deductive you give the rule, then provide students with examples. With inductive you give examples of the rule, and the students have to figure the rule out.

Deductive: You provide the rule: “I am,” “She is, they are…” ‘She’ is singular so we use “is“; “they” are many (plural), so we use “are”.

Inductive: “He is, the boy is, a teacher is.” What do all of these have in common? They are all only one/ singular.

Both ways work, I use whatever is best for the situation.

During the teaching phase, you should constantly ask your students questions. If there are dialogues or reading parts in the book, get your students to read it. You want them actively working during the lesson. Get them to concentrate with randomly asked questions, or get them to read a paragraph or sentence each. This will cause students to focus in class

Keep Control

If the students aren’t paying attention or messing around, immediately do one of the following:

Point the transgressors out and politely ask them to focus. If it continues, ask to speak to them after class, or have a word with them when the rest of the students are busy with an activity. You need to stay in control of the class and that means that you should be ready to lecture troublesome students at any point in time. Don’t ignore it.

The teaching phase is where you will do most of the explaining. But still try to keep your students involved by questioning, asking them to do an example, to share their experiences and read certain parts.

Ask Random Questions

Consistently ask questions to check for understanding and give them a chance to practice.

Do not simply ask: “Do you understand?” Ask them to give examples. If you just ask if they understood, most students would just nod along. By asking for an example based on their experience, it allows other students to learn too.

As a side note: I ask, “Do you understand?” not as a means to test their understanding, but to wake them up. So I ask: “Do you understand?” When they nod, I ask: “Okay, give me an example.” Stay in control.

Keep their Attention

That is something else that you’ve got to understand as an ESL teacher. Learners have a limited attention span. They can only remain focused for a short time. Young children have a shorter attention span than older students. So, you need to switch up your lesson every few minutes with questions, change your voice, do not be monotonous, use various activities during instruction when they are falling asleep.

Quickly let the students play RPS (rock-scissor-paper), then ask the loser a question. Or get them to write down three random words, then ask them to share it with you. Keep the lesson constantly progressing.

Energy Management

A large part of teaching is controlling energy. If the students become bored, add excitement. If they are having too much fun, reign them in by telling a story related to the work to calm them down.

I call this energy management. You have to control the ebb and flow of attention and energy in the classroom.

Never teach for too long. Do an activity, then let the students practice, take feedback from a group. Teach a topic for a couple of minutes, check understanding, practice activity, then get feedback.

If you teach for 10 minutes straight (uninterrupted), you will lose the attention of the class and some students will start to act out.

Lesson Recap

So structure the lesson in the following distinctive phases: Starting Class/ Warm-up/ Teach – ask questions, do activities, get feedback.

6. PRACTICE

Then Practice. When you have covered everything in the lesson that you need to, move on and do a practice activity. This could be a roleplay, a flashcard game, a board race, or a Powerpoint game. It could also be a group project.

With higher-level or intermediate students, you can focus on some kind of dialogue based on their own experiences. For example, tell a student: “You are a mother and must ask the daughter about what she did yesterday.

“You are friends, decide what you will have for dinner.” Use whatever situation you can think of that is interesting and allow the students to add their own unique spin to it.

Explain what they have to do and give objectives based on what they are learning. Also, add a time limit. It could be in groups or with a partner.

Ask the students if they understand. This is not to check their understanding, it is a psychological phrase to snap them into focus. “Does everyone understand?” Then… ask individual students what exactly they have to do.

If it’s a roleplay I ask them what do they need to do, how long should it be, what should it be based on, what do you want at the end. If a student doesn’t know the answer, ask another to help. If both don’t know, explain the activity again. Students need to know exactly what is expected of them before starting an activity.

While the students are busy, walk around and check in on each group. This is your chance to give individual help and to listen for common mistakes.

Once the students have practiced the activity, let your students present their dialogue to the class. Let another group give them feedback, or pick random groups to do it for the class. This depends on the time available.

7. REVIEW

Finally, review the work. This can be done with a big class game where you place the class into groups, usually 2 to 4 groups but not more than that. Bomb games work well or do board races. Each group and individual student gets a chance and one team wins at the end. Students love these games. The reason this works so well is that students enjoy the competitive aspect of the game. You also do it at the end so that they have something to look forward to during the lesson, and it ends the class on a high.

Reflection

The final step of teaching ESL is REFLECTION. Students don’t often think about what they did, so I do a quick run-through. Today you did warm-up, we talked about this, you practiced that. Great job everyone!

If you have time left you can actually ask the students: “What did you do today?” And invite the answers from them.

Exit Tickets

If you want to be sure you can use EXIT TICKETS. An exit ticket is where a student has to answer a question before they can leave.

That can turn into chaos if students leave one at a time, so what I like to do is get everyone to stand, then ask a question: ”Today I ate a sandwich, yesterday I…?“ Students who answer correctly may sit down. It will also shift the control and power in the class towards you since you are the one doing the questioning and controlling the game.

This is great because students reflect on everything they have done and learned in class and leave with a sense of accomplishment.

The Mom Point

I also sometimes give the students a Mom Point. A Mom Point is a single sentence that they can easily remember to tell their moms about what they did that during class. “Today we talked about the past tense.” Get them to repeat it!

To Conclude

So, to reflect. Students come into class, ask questions – Engage!

Warm-up activity – This prepares them for class.

Teach – Explain, ask questions, get students to read, practice in between,

Practice activity – Practice in groups or with a partner. After which they must present it to class or in groups.

Review game – Students have fun and review what they have learned.

Reflect – Exit tickets, the Mom Point, think about what they did in class.

And that’s how to teach an ESL class! If you would like more ideas and resources for teaching, watch this video: 20 Classroom Rules and Procedures that Every Teacher should teach their students.

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