TEFL Tales – get them talking about themselves

I was a midfielder, pretty good defensively, not so great going forward

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.

So you had to have an operation? You could also call it ‘surgery’. You had surgery on your knee

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.

And there, where the thigh bone meets the lower leg, that’s the knee, and the cushion between the bones is called, errr, cartilage

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.



Want me to teach English to you or someone you know?
Want me to teach you how to teach English?
Email me, chrismorvan@gmail.com, and let’s talk about it.

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TEFL: teaching English as a foreign language

What’s the difference between called and cold?

That may sound like a silly question, but it is an issue for many people learning English, because the two words sound alike. You show them a pen and say “What is this called?”, but all they hear, or think they hear, is the word “cold”.

Why is sword pronounced the same as sawed, why does short sound like caught and should they say “in bed” or “on the bed”?

Digital StillCamera
That’s a good question. Give me a nanosecond here…

I spent many years in the UK as a journalist and general writer, before the economic downturn hit the publishing industry hard and drastically reduced the work available. So I retrained as a teacher of English as a foreign language – and found it opened doors to a whole new career. But there are different ways of doing it, and the obvious ones are not always the best.

You may have seen the initials TEFL – they stand for teaching English as a foreign language. There’s also TESOL (teaching English as a second language), ESP (English for specific purposes) and a host of others denoting various fine-tunings of that basic idea.

The general principle is that English is widely used as a common language and people all over the world want to learn it. They may need it for professional advancement (it’s the standard language in many companies with bases in several countries), or because they want to go and live in an English-speaking country, or simply to make things easier when they go to Florida on holiday. Whatever the reason, there is a demand for it (and let’s cash in before China takes over the world and we all have to learn Mandarin).

And the answer is…?

Look up TEFL online and you will find plenty of people willing to train you – but beware, because some of these qualifications hold less weight than others. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first the quick and easy part.

I did a 100-hour online course with a company called i-to-i, but was actually out in South America teaching before I finished it. In Venezuela you see a job with an agency advertised in the paper, go along for an interview and they check out the way you look and dress, listen to your voice and give you a basic grammar test along the lines of ‘Which of these two sentences is wrong? I am going to the library this morning / I will going to the library this morning.’ Then they give you a course book and the name of a student and off you go.

It’s a far cry from nanny-state UK, where you need a certificate of competence to scratch your own ear and a CRB check before you can tell other people how to scratch theirs.

As I built up my list of agencies and private students in those first months, nobody ever asked me about qualifications. I finished the online TEFL course in little Caracas internet cafes between classes and duly received my certificate. In the meantime I was helping students, and that is a very good feeling.

In many ways it’s a doddle: often someone else has done the hard work of teaching them the basics and the TEFL teacher’s job is mainly about unlocking their confidence. One of my early students was working for the national petroleum company, PDVSA, and preparing to take the IELTS test (international English language testing system), attending English classes all day but needing some extra conversation practice.

Beautiful young woman working on a laptop indoors
You want me to talk for two minutes about backache?

As part of the test she would be required to talk for two minutes about something like her home town, favourite restaurant etc. I impressed upon her that in our classes she shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes, because it was only me, and I would let her flow as much as possible and correct her either immediately, if appropriate, or later, having noted down the points that needed addressing.

After a month, Odalis could have talked for an hour about anything from astrophysics to football. She told her classmates about me and I ended up with eight of them, giving one-to-one classes in hotel rooms at 7.30 in the morning or after college finished from 4pm onwards, with a few crammed in at lunchtimes at outdoor cafes. A more usual pattern is teaching adults in their offices for an hour when they can swing it with the boss, and so it was that I had students in the Ministry of Finance and a smart office block occupied by an international pharmaceuticals company with headquarters in Germany, a presence in the US and another in a fashionable part of Caracas. The common language was English.

See? I can do your silly alphabet where the letters are not pronounced as they are called

The money is very poor, but it’s a gratifying experience.

Now, the other way of doing it is working for a language school in the UK or elsewhere, teaching classes of anything from four or five to dozens of students. To do this, your online certificate is worthless. They won’t consider employing you unless you hold either the CELTA or Trinity qualification, and these cost real money and take real time. Whereas my online 100-hour thing was about £250 and could be fitted in as and when I wanted, CELTA involves an intensive course. I signed up for a one-month full-time version (you can do these in lots of places around the world) at a cost of £1,000.

This is entirely different. Whereas with the online course – and indeed my actual teaching – the basic structures of the English language are important but not necessarily part of what you do every day, with CELTA you’re involved in the science of English, breaking it down and explaining it to students, some of whom have learning styles that rely on this nuts-and-bolts approach. In addition to what the past perfect continuous is used for( we use it to talk about actions or situations which had continued up to the past moment we are thinking about, or shortly before it – Swan, Practical English Usage) – how is it formed? (Answer: had been + -ing). It’s the kind of approach that might suit proof-readers better than writers, although the former, an often pedantic breed, could have trouble accepting that it’s not all black and white, and that other people have slightly different but equally valid opinions

And then there’s the issue of teaching a class rather than just one person. Stage fright enters the equation: it all looks great as you play it in your head in advance, but when you’re on, when you’re under the spotlight, it can all fly out of the window. And the instructors want to see a lesson plan, breaking the 40-minute session down into chunks: I’m going to spend five minutes doing this warm-up exercise, this is the vocabulary I’m going to teach them before I start, these are the pictures I’m going to show them, I’m going to crack this particular joke at exactly 10:45… blah blah blah. Spontaneity is not only not required, it’s almost frowned upon. Once you’ve passed the course and you’re an experienced teacher, maybe you can do things off the cuff. Until then you’re wearing L plates and you will stay in the left hand lane in second gear.

This undoubtedly suits some people and I’m not necessarily knocking it, but for the more intuitive among us it can be very frustrating. There was a group of army officers on the course I took and it was right up their street (most of them). They’re used to that kind of thing. To me it felt like you were not so much learning to teach English as a foreign language as learning how to follow procedures and pass an exam.

teacher 2
Nervous? Me? All I’m doing is teaching

However you choose to do it, though, TEFL can be a very rewarding thing to do. You can travel the world. You’ll never get rich, but that’s another matter. Just make sure you get the qualification you need, that’s all. You can do CELTA online, but there will be some face-to-face teaching practice and your location may be unhelpful. But if you want to do something worthwhile, something that can change your way of life, sometimes you have to go that extra mile.

Confessions of an Expat – language learning on the road to nowhere

You must remember this: a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.

They say that a large percentage of communication is non-verbal. That could be because words became difficult when so many tribes made up their own. Kisses and sighs and smiles and frowns we understand.

As discussed before, it is good to learn the language of the place you’re living – but how are you going to do that?

We’re living in Suriname, a former Dutch colony on the north coast of South America, where most people speak Dutch but many also speak quite good English. There are also a lot of Chinese, Indians and Indonesians speaking their own languages, and there is a Suriname language called Sranan Tongo or taki-taki.

We found a Surinamese girl to teach us Dutch and she was very good but highly unreliable. It is usually the student cancelling at the last minute, but in this case it was her, the teacher – the easy way, by text or WhatsApp.

“It’s raining and the roads are flooded where I am” (This could be true).

“I have to go to a party that day.” (Tough luck. You’re a professional).

“It’s my period and I don’t feel good”. (I can’t believe you’re telling me that).

Our enthusiasm waned and she was leaving the country anyway, so the Dutch classes stopped. I can introduce myself, say where I come from and what I do for a living. I can ask for the bill in a restaurant – but the waitresses tend to laugh out loud, presumably at my pronunciation.

As a teacher myself (TEFL: teacher of English as a Foreign Language) I understand how important confidence is when learning a new language. You are bound to make mistakes and you need to feel able to do so without being mocked.

To complicate matters, I have been trying to learn Spanish for six years because my wife is Venezuelan, but I have never had lessons and although I can understand the gist of a newspaper article, even the simplest of conversations has me groping for words while still trying to understand exactly what the other person said.

In a way this is good for me, as it shows me how my students feel.

Then the Venezuelan Embassy starts providing Spanish classes, 90 minutes twice a week, so I sign up for that. Finally a formal set-up and some structure.

First day I am in the most basic class, but find I already know a lot of what they’re teaching, because it’s just the numbers and letters.

The trouble is, although I know the answers, I don’t understand the questions, because they’re speaking Dutch.

I move up to the slightly more advanced level, hoping they will conduct the class in Spanish.

They don’t.

Any language student needs to get in the zone of the target language – it can take a couple of minutes to start thinking in Spanish, but here I’m constantly derailed because they switch from one language I don’t know to another, sometimes within one sentence.

The teacher is a bit of a comedian and there is a lot of banter – in Dutch. I sit there gloomily, isolated and fuming at being the outsider.

It’s not their fault, I know. If a Spanish class was being given in the UK it would be in English, because explanations have to be given in the native tongue.

There’s a Brazilian girl in the second class who only speaks Portuguese. She doesn’t show up for the third but I try to tough it out.

It doesn’t work. I’m all at sea and can’t wait for it to finish. Essentially I’m trying to learn two languages simultaneously but I feel stupid. I feel like telling them, “Listen, I’m an English teacher, I’m pretty good at French, not bad at German and have a foothold in both Spanish and Dutch which I would like to consolidate.”

It’s instructive for me as regards my own students. I’ve been preparing two teenage Venezuelan boys for entering an English-speaking school, and now I have first-hand experience of how hard it can be. I should have known better than to attempt Spanish classes in Dutch, because I once advertised my classes in a Brazilian newspaper and got lots of enquiries but no students because I speak no Portuguese and they don’t speak English, so we can’t even discuss costs or where the classes will be held.

The whole idea of TEFL is that the class is conducted in English, but that means they need to understand the basics. When the teacher says “Read this out loud” and the student doesn’t understand, you’re on the road to nowhere.

So, for me, one thing at a time. I will try to learn Spanish and Dutch separately, online, and hope I come across two good teachers along the way.

Finally, an example of the sort of question a TEFL teacher has to have an answer to: what’s the difference between a humbling experience and a humiliating one? Answer: the teacher must always avoid the latter.