Tips for teaching English as a foreign language
It is vitally important for the teacher to get the student’s attention. This is not just a TEFL issue; it applies to every teaching situation, but when we’re teaching language, this can be easier than, say, teaching maths.
So, how do we go about ‘engaging’ them?
What we are trying to do is get them listening, responding, talking and writing, and people are more inclined to do that when the subject is something they know a lot about.
Themselves, for instance. There is no greater expert on the subject of you than you yourself.
As a journalist, the key skill involved in interviewing is getting people relaxed. Then, because you are usually asking them about either their life, their interests or their professional specialities, you basically just turn on the tap (ask a question) and let it flow.
This is perfect for teaching English one-to-one, because you can be very specific, concentrating on their particular areas of interest.
And it can also be done with larger groups.
When I was first teaching English in Venezuela, I had a group of students at the Ministry of Finance. They weren’t senior figures, but 20-somethings working their way up the ladder.
It was, as usual, a variety of characters. There was the keen, helpful one who was quite confident about his English. There was a young woman who was friendly and talkative when invited to do so, and attentive the rest of the time.
There was also a slightly disruptive one. You expect this with children, but perhaps not with adults.
What this guy needed was attention, and of course you want to give it to him, but not at the expense of everyone else.
I got him talking about himself and it turned out that he had hoped to be a professional footballer but a knee injury had put a stop to that.
This opened the door to several opportunities for me as a teacher. First I encouraged him to talk about it – in English, with me supplying English words, which he had to convey to the class by roundabout means: long explanations, mime, demonstrations and so on. Sometimes his classmates would come up with the word.
Eventually we reached the stage where everybody knew about his knee problem. That gave us an avenue to go down for vocabulary. Ligaments, cartilage, the leg as a whole and its constituent parts. Pain and its varying degrees. Treatments, types of specialist (physiotherapist, chiropractor, surgeon), frequency (every Wednesday for six months having physio, gentle exercise on a bike three mornings a week) etc, all accompanied by my pathetic attempts at diagrams (never be afraid to make yourself look silly – it gives the students confidence to have a go when it’s their turn).
We moved on to football teams: big diagram on the board, discussing and naming positions.
Our sole female student joined in, fortunately, but if she hadn’t, we could have digressed to a sport she knew about and done the vocabulary of that.
So former football star Kenneth had his day with the class, learned how to discuss that part of his life in English, and in the next class we talked about somebody else’s subject.
It’s not always that easy, of course. But if you can get them involved, contributing, taking the spotlight off the teacher, the class develops its own momentum.
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