19 quick changes you can make today that will make you a better language teacher

better language teacherIn a recent article, I asked the question: Are you wasting your money on language classes?

The article made the point that, while classes can help with your language learning, the reality is that they’re probably doing more harm than good.

So where does this leave language teachers?

Well, I believe that language teachers need to up their game, and in this post I’m going to say exactly how.

From years of experience of language learning, teaching and teacher training, here are the 19 most powerful improvements you can make today to become a better language teacher, and change the lives of your students for the better.

Let’s get into it…


19 ways to become a better language teacher

1) Don’t teach grammar unless you know your student needs to know it. The fact that a certain grammar point is in the textbook is not a rationale for teaching it.

2) If you catch yourself saying: “Open your textbook to page ___” …stop! Don’t open the textbook unless you know exactly what exercise you will do and how it will help address a specific issue with your students.

3) Talk more about yourself. Then ask your students more questions about themselves. The more you get to know each other, the more natural discussion will happen.

4) Teach less, discuss more. Students need to come to their own understanding what new language means. Discussion gives them the opportunity to test their ideas and creates an environment in which they are comfortable to ask questions. Without discussion, they are always reliant on what they are told by you. That’s teaching, but it’s not learning.

“If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed”
― Paulo Freire

5) Ask your students what their goals are. Students need to know for themselves where they’re headed, rather than being reliant on you to guide them. They won’t be able to take responsibility for their own learning until they know this for themselves. They probably have unrealistic expectations, in which case you need to set them straight and show them what is achievable and how much work is involved.

6) Have your students be continually assessing their own strengths and weaknesses rather than telling them what they are yourself.

7) Never teach a word on its own. If you’re teaching a new word, put it in a sentence. If you drill it, drill the complete sentence. Always teach vocabulary in context.

8) Spend less time on reading, listening and writing in class. Instead, give students substantial amounts of this to do in their own time, then dedicate class time to questions and discussion.

9) Be more concerned with how to help your students learn outside class time, than with teaching them things during the lesson. There will never be enough class time for students to learn their target language properly, so your focus needs to be on what happens outside class.

10) Don’t be afraid to give your opinion on issues that come up in class. Doing so show your students how language is supposed to be used and encourages them to speak their mind. Language is never neutral.

“The educator has the duty of not being neutral.”
― Paulo Freire

11) Before you use any text or audio in class, spend a few minutes talking about the topic. Everything needs to be put in context. Listening or reading to something “cold” is neither realistic nor helpful for learning.

12) Use the students’ mother tongue. Whoever told you that teachers must never use the students’ mother tongue in class only said so because they haven’t learnt it themselves! Don’t hesitate to give explanations of complex language issues in the students’ mother tongue – it’s clearer and a more efficient use of time.

13) Give fewer answers. Instead, guide your students to find them for themselves.

“I never teach my students, only create the conditions in which they can learn.”

– Einstein

14) When you ask a student for the answer to a question, also follow up with “Why?” Demand evidence for the answers they give you. This encourages critical thinking.

15) Every activity you do in class should focus on either “meaning” or “form”. You must always know which is which. If it’s a “meaning”-focused activity, encourage discussion and communication. If it’s a “form”-focused activity, then spend longer on accuracy and correcting errors.

16) Always respond to the message. Whenever you have your students do any writing, remember that, fundamentally, what they are doing is communicating. Therefore, don’t just correct their mistakes. Respond and react naturally to what they write. This encourages them to focus on communication first and foremost, and to remember that grammar is only a function of communication.

17) After a speaking activity, spend time talking about the “outcome”. What was discussed and how do students feel about it? Then, give students explicit feedback on their speaking – what did they say that was good? What did they say that could be improved?

18) Stop thinking of yourself as a teacher. Instead, consider yourself a coach, who works together with students to help them discover what they need for themselves.

19) Always be a language learner yourself. You can never realise your potential as a language teacher unless you are also a language learner. Language learners face many challenges – psychological, social, motivational – only some of which have to do with actually understanding and manipulating language. You cannot understand how to help them if you’re not also struggling with these things yourself.


 

So there you have it!

Language teaching tends to be an undervalued profession.

We actually know very little about how languages are learned, which makes the job of teaching a language an extremely difficult one.

After all, how can we teach something that we don’t really understand ourselves?

Well, the answer is to do everything we can to create the conditions in which language learning can take place. 

And the advice in this post is my best answer to that challenge so far!

Do you know any language teachers? Why not send them this post in an email, or click here to send a Tweet?

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  • Anca

    There is a lot of valid and helpful advice in this article so thanks a bunch for taking the time to put it all together, Olly! I would however take issue with #8: I believe that taking the time to actually teach reading/writing/listening strategies in the classroom will prove extremely beneficial in the long run.

    • Hi Anca, yes absolutely! What I was getting at in #8 was avoiding spending too much class time actually *practising* these skills, as opposed to developing them (which I see as two distinct things). You’re quite right that teaching the skills themselves is crucial.

  • Yadda Rivera

    Very useful and helpful like all your post, Thanks Olly !!

  • I like the first point – don’t teach grammar unless your students need it. It is, however, rather difficult to explain that to students who are used to a very strict (German) educational system with planning, lists etc. I teach Italian and mMost students want to have a list with all the lessons (planned in detail) – preferably for the next 5 years in advance. So, how would you convince your learners to follow your new and progressive teaching ideas – if you have to teach in rather conservative circumstances?

    • Hi Christine. You’ve raised the single most important point relating to all of this – how to deal with student expectations. Most students in the world come to language classes as an adult with very particular expectations based on their previous learning experiences, and if we want to teach in ways that don’t conform with their expectations, we’re in for a rough ride! The reality is that most language teachers around the world do teach in fairly conservative circumstances, and so it’s a very real challenge.

      There’s only one solution, which is to have a continuous dialogue with your students. I’m a huge proponent of always explaining to your students why you’re teaching them in a certain way, explaining the rationale behind the activities you’re asking them to do, because that way you’re training them to be independent thinkers and learners.

      So it follows that if we want to try something with them that’s new to them (such as task-based teaching instead of a structural, grammar-oriented syllabus), then we need to be honest with them about why we’re doing it. Questions like: “How have you been taught in the past?” “How much of your time did you spend on grammar?” “What was the result – did it work?” will get the students to start to think about their previous learning experiences and actually consider whether they were effective or not.

      • Hi Olly,

        Great post and I find this article should be share so that more teachers will read it and change the way they teach.

        Here in my country, we “almost” have the same situation where teachers are mostly teaching based on what curriculum (syllabus, list, education plan) says. I ever tried to offer some similar ideas as yours to some of English teachers here (through blog post, note on Facebook, etc.) but most teachers around me always have reasons to refuse such these tips above.

  • Speak English Today

    I love all the points! Especially encouraging thinking in a language and extending a focused idea with questions and discussion.

  • Number 12 ‘ Use your student’s native tongue’. Yes yes yes! Far more effective! I always teach Welsh grammar points through English (as most of my students speak English as a mother-tongue). Luckily, though, I’m completely bilingual, so this comes quite easy for me as a teacher. When I enrolled in an Italian course in Italy, though, and experienced the 100% immersion method, I felt that much of class time was wasted trying to get everyone to understand a grammar point in the target language. Some students understood quickly and had to wait until everyone in the class had guessed all the mimes and the guess work. The other negative thing about this method is that there’s no real way for the teacher to check for understanding (of new grammar points) in the TL, and I for one, along with others, just nodded their heads, kind of thinking we’d got it, just so that the rest of the class didn’t have to wait around for us any longer. This made for lessons of half-formed ideas and shaky understanding. When explaining grammar points in the student’s mother tongue, it’s much easier to get them to explain back to you in their mother tongue what they’ve understood, and check this further by THEN putting that understanding of grammar into practice in the TL. Thanks Olly! Great blog post.

  • Dot Read

    Great post as usual Olly! Some very interesting points. However, I feel I need to point out that, as a teacher of English to adults in the UK, it is impossible to be able to speak all the languages of the students in the class.

    I am learning German and Italian, but it would be difficult for me to also learn Arabic, Spanish, Farsi and French in order to be able to communicate with everyone in their mother tongue!

    Mererid, I think maybe your teacher in Italy had the same problem, although many people would have understood English.

    It depends very much on individual circumstances.

    • Yes, EFL in the UK is a unique situation for sure! However, that’s not to undermine the benefits for teachers of actively learning another language. It helps to empathise with what your students are going through, even if the specific language you’re learning is not the same as theirs.

  • J. Daniel Moore

    I’m in complete agreement with all of these points! Most of it I’ve done naturally since I became a tutor an italki and the rest I’ve come to understand as a language learner and professional teacher. Excellent article!

    • Delighted you enjoyed it! Next week on the podcast I’m answering a question about the ESL industry, and I found it interesting to reflect on the conflicts in experience between independent language learning and teaching. There’s a lot to consider!

  • Mar Espadas Irles

    ¡Hola, Olly!

    Thank you so much for all the content you create and share with us, I’m just starting teaching and you’re helping me HUGELY with my lessons.
    However, as a beginner I have some questions for what I’d need some help.

    In #15 you mentioned meaning-focused and form-focused activities but I can’t understand clearly the difference. Could you please make an example of them or is there any article, text, book… that you’d recommend to get a better understanding of this?

    Also, in your answer to Anca, you said that there is a difference between practising and developing reading/writing/listening and again I can’t see a clear difference.

    Thank you again Olly, I’m learning a lot of useful things here!

    Mar

    • Hi Mar, good questions! Here goes:

      1) Meaning vs Form

      An activity that focuses on “meaning” encourages communication practice, and doesn’t worry about the accuracy of the grammar.

      Example: “Speak with your partner about your hometown for 5 minutes.” [Teacher doesn’t interrupt or correct mistakes. The purpose of the activity is to help students practise express themselves.]

      An activity that focuses on “form” encourages accuracy of grammar.

      Example: “Describe your favourite trips abroad using the present perfect.” [Student is focused more on the grammar than on speaking fluency. Teacher corrects language during or after the activity.]

      2) Practising vs Developing

      If you want to *practise* reading, you can simply get a book and read it.

      If you want to *develop* reading, you need to do exercises that help you improve your reading skills.

      Examples:

      – Guess the meaning of unknown words from context
      – Predict the contents of an article from the first paragraph alone
      – Skim the article to understand the gist without reading intensively

      Hope that helps!

      • Mar Espadas Irles

        It definitely helps, Olly!
        Thank you so much for the explanations and the examples you made, now I understand it.

  • Hi Olly,

    Thanks for the list. As a teacher trainer (Trinity TESOL course), I’m constantly on the lookout for interesting resources to share with my trainee teachers, and I’ll definitely point them to this list. Should inspire some fascinating discussions about the nexus between teaching and learning.

    Point No.16 (Always respond to the message) is certainly one that trainee teachers should consider, especially when monitoring and providing feedback on fluency activities. One of my favourite anecdotes from teacher training happened when the following interaction occurred:

    T: What’s your job Pepe?
    S: I’m a doctor.
    T: Doctor. Excellent. What about you Maria?
    S: I’m a housewife.
    T: Housewife. Very good. Luis? What is your job?
    S: I’m…how you say? I’m unemployed.
    T: Unemployed. Fantastic. Well done Luis.

    It’s all too easy to go into teaching mode and forget about responding naturally.