Being a native speaker of English is sometimes said to be ‘all you need’ to teach someone English. However, anyone with a TESOL qualification will tell you that there are vital skills you need to learn to become a good teacher. Even with a TESOL certificate, there are certain points you need to keep in mind when teaching someone English. If you want to know how to teach someone English, read our list of top tips to hone your teaching expertise.
Assess Their Level
Knowing your student’s level is a vital element to teaching appropriate and successful lessons. If you’re teaching for an online platform, they might have already assessed the student’s level before introducing you to them, and in both online and face-to-face classes of multiple learners, the students are often grouped together by level. However, if you’re teaching freelance or on a platform without a pre-class level check, you’ll have to do it yourself.
The best way to gage a student’s ability is to ascertain their CEFR level. CEFR stands for Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, and it’s a guideline for all language abilities (not just English) that’s used all over the world. Most schools and platforms will divide students by their CEFR level, as well as using their own in-house levels (particularly for young learners or beginners). A1 and A2 are beginner level (absolute beginner and elementary), B1 and B2 are independent users (intermediate and upper intermediate), while C1 and C2 are proficient users (advanced and mastery).
To give your student a placement test, look at various ‘can do’ statements from each level of the CEFR and see whether or not the student can produce the language for that level. For example, can they introduce themselves and ask introductory questions? (A1 ability). Can they describe hopes and ambitions, giving reasons and explanations? (B2 ability). Details of the CEFR levels and what questions to ask the student can be found online.
Knowing what your student’s level is will help you to tailor lesson content to their ability, check their progress over time, and ensure that their lessons are challenging enough without being too difficult. A good tip to remember is that a student should already know 70% of the language used in a class, with 30% new material. Too much new material and they won’t remember it, nor will they understand the classroom activities.
Find Out Their Goals
Knowing a student’s ability is the most important, but a close second is finding out why they’re learning English. If a student has enrolled on a course hoping to learn Medical English and you teach them English for Tourism, the lessons will be useless to them.
Students learn for all sorts of reasons, and there are a huge number of specialised courses and topics you might be asked to teach: Business English, English for Academic Purposes, English for Pilots, etc. Some students are working towards passing a certain exam, such as IELTS. But also remember that many students are learning English for fun, and have no specific goals other than to achieve an intermediate or advanced level.
Some students have no set language goals but are learning for a purpose, such as to prepare for a holiday abroad or a university degree. Also, you might meet some students who have no goals because they don’t want to learn English. Some employers enrol their staff on language courses which are mandatory, and for these students who are learning by force rather than through passion, motivation can be an issue. If this is the case, try to keep lessons light-hearted and fun as well as covering the content set out by the employer.
Cater to All Skill Sets
People often focus on speaking when it comes to learning a language, but this is just one of several important skills. Reading, writing, listening, speaking, vocabulary and grammar practice are all important elements of the language lesson. Try to keep a good balance of activities that focus on different skills when you’re teaching someone English, even if the student wants to focus on one skill in particular.
Learning Style and Student Types
We all learn in different ways, a fact that can make it difficult to cater for individual learning styles when teaching group classes. There are four student types – visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and combination. Broadly speaking, we’re all combination learners, but from time to time you’ll meet students who are much more productive and motivated when doing certain tasks.
Students who respond well to oral dictations are auditory learners. Those who flourish with gap-fill activities or picture matching will be visual. A kinaesthetic learner needs to be active, not just listening and taking notes, and might benefit from games that get them up and moving rather than stuck at the desk. Keeping different learning styles in mind will help you to create tailored lessons when teaching someone English.
Respect Their Cultural Quirks
When it comes to language learning, there’s no one-size-fits-all. If you teach students from different places around the world, you’ll soon see that there are general traits when it comes to your student’s attitudes and confidence. Chinese students will be mortified and clam up if you ask them to talk about relationships with their peers, whereas a chatty Spanish student will love dishing up the latest gossip. A Japanese student might be shy and not want to engage in creative or imaginative activities, whereas a passionate Italian will love a chance to use language fluently. While there are always those who buck the trend, as a TESOL teacher you need to anticipate how your students will react to certain activities and what’s appropriate when teaching them English.
Plan Student Centred Lessons
Each lesson you teach should have a clear goal, one that is completely focussed on the student and what you hope they’ll achieve. Each lesson plan you write should start with the words ‘By the end of the lesson, the student will be able to…’ This will help you to remember that the lesson isn’t about what you’re going to do (‘Cover page 34’ or ‘Talk about the past tense’) but what the students are going to do, and why they’re doing it.
A warmer and introduction, an example of the language in use, an activity with closed questions followed by one with open questions, ending in a fluency exercise and a review – your activities should come in a carefully planned order to ensure that the students are building their knowledge step by step towards using the language independently. Keep the students in mind for each phase of the lesson and your classes will be engaging and purposeful.
Discover Their Weaknesses
We all like doing things we’re good at and shy away from things we’re bad at, but don’t let a student’s reluctance put you off certain activities. It’s nice to be praised for getting things right, but if the activity was easy for the student, the celebration is unfairly won. How much more rewarding is it to receive praise for something you struggled with and had to work hard at? Whether it’s a particular skill (like pronunciation or grammar) or a topic that a student really struggles with, make sure they’re challenged in every class.
When you teach someone English, whether it’s a short course of just a few weeks or a long-term client who you teach for years, it’s important to check in with their progress and see how they’re doing. A mini review at the end of a lesson, or the start of the next class, is a great way to see what’s stuck in their short-term memory. However, it’s important to see what they remember in the long-term, too. Quick review questions can help inform you if they’re committing what they’ve learnt to long term memory. Also, make sure that you’re reviewing how close they are to reaching their goals – are they now at the CEFR level they wanted to be at? Have their goals changed?
Remember that rule about 70%/30%? It’s important to get that balance right continually, not just in the first lesson. It can be tricky to pitch things appropriately to a group of learners, but in a one-to-one class, content can really be tailored to the student. Make sure that you’re keeping tabs on how the student is advancing. Are the activities you planned for them weeks ago still challenging, or do they need something fresh to spark motivation?
It sounds like there’s a lot to keep in mind here, but don’t get stressed out. You’re not a doctor – if a lesson goes badly, no-one is going to die. This long list of considerations when learning how to teach someone English may seem insurmountable at the start, but with a few months of teaching practice, it will become second nature.
Even seasoned teachers need reminding of these tips from time to time (when they get set in their ways and pick up bad habits!) so in the beginning just remember to be practical. Reflect on how your teaching has gone after a lesson and see how you can improve, remembering that one bad lesson isn’t going to ruin a student’s progress – every class is a baby step up the mountain that is language learning, and you’ll be there to guide them along the way.