ESL Teaching Tips – Your Roll in the Learning Process

Group and Pair Work
Contextual Learning and Relevance
Mixing the Familiar with the Unfamiliar
Physical Response Methods
Grammar Instruction

Group and Pair Work

Group and pair work, or giving students an activity to do together while you circulate to make sure everyone is staying on track, serves many purposes in the EFL classroom. It gives students significantly more time to practice speaking. Group work also allows students time to develop answers to questions, rather than responding spontaneously. If you provide worksheets with practice dialogues and replacement words, students can start by reading to each other and slowly weaning themselves from the written word. If each worksheet only has the lines of one of the characters in the dialogue, students can gradually move from reading their part to exchanging sheets and having their partner test them. For example:

Here are Some ESL Teaching Tips

    Patient: Doctor, my stomach hurts. (head, knee)

    Doctor: Lie down here and I will try to see what’s wrong. (stand up, sit down.)

    (and so on)

By acting out the same short dialogue many times, using slightly different wording each time, students will feel more comfortable with the dialogue as a whole. Writing out the sentences with the replacement words and writing new sentences will further solidify the new vocabulary in their minds. During the last few minutes of the exercise, have students sit back to back and go through the dialogue a few times holding their partner’s lines but not their own.

After the exercise, when they are reporting back to the class, ask the students to respond to questions that you generate regarding what they have told you: “So you saw a good movie yesterday? Would you recommend the movie to children, or only to adults?” These spontaneous questions can begin with simple yes or no or one-word answer questions, and gradually move to three or four word answers, and so on. Asking these questions will make students listen to their peers more carefully as well; if students know that they are just expected to report the results of group work, they may spend reporting time preparing their own answers, but if students know that the teacher will be asking questions of everyone, they will be more likely to listen to how their classmates respond.

Group work is an excellent method for dealing with classes of mixed abilities as well. By pairing or grouping people of similar abilities, each group can report back to class up to their ability – you may even want to prepare different worksheets of different levels on the same topics. As teacher, you can use the spontaneous question time to push your students even further.


When is it appropriate for you to correct your students’ grammar? Certainly a student who has been studying with you for some time will be aware of the third person singular ‘s’; he has heard it and you have told him about it. But every time he starts a sentence with “My friend . . . ” he neglects to add the third person singular ‘s’ to the verb. You can correct him, and chances are that one of two things will happen: either he will thank you, and if he is ready to acquire that structure, he will internalize the correction and use the verb form comfortably and correctly; or he will feel ashamed of his error, freeze up, and start speaking more slowly and with visible discomfort. It is this second situation that you should avoid.

One of the primary language milestones for beginning students is to be able to start communicating in English. This communication will not be grammatically correct, but over time it will improve to that point. If you and other native speakers who are not ESL teachers can understand what your beginning students are saying, and your students seem confident of their abilities, you are doing something right in your classroom.

There are two ways to go about correcting students’ grammar. The first is to repeat back what a student says to you and tag on an extra piece of information. If your student says, “My aunt going to movie yesterday,” you can say, “Oh, so your aunt went to a movie yesterday, what did she see?” The value of this form of correction is that students are receiving good language input and the emphasis is on continuing communication rather than on correction. In other words, this form of correction is not as direct a hit as if you said, “Mariko, when you want to talk about the past, use the past tense. In that sentence you should have used ‘went’ instead of ‘going’.”

Another way to handle correction is to correct the class as a whole. Listen for errors that the majority of students are making. Bring up the error to the class in a light-hearted manner such as, “I hear a lot of you saying ‘He go’ instead of ‘He goes.’ Remember, after he and she there needs to be a ‘s’ on the verb.” You might then have the students come up with a few examples of their own that you then write on the board. With this method, no single student’s language ability is singled out.

The errors you choose to correct should relate to grammar that you have already studied in class or that you are currently studying. Correct your students’ grammar during their focused grammar study time, not otherwise. Don’t ever be a correction machine, “fixing” each and every error your students make.

Contextual Learning and Relevance

Were you one of the many students who was bored stiff in high school? You may have wondered what ancient history had to do with getting a job or growing up. Then again, maybe you took part in a project at school that really mattered to you and you jumped out of bed excited to get to school every morning. School was relevant to you; you were getting something out of it. Perhaps you could see that what you were learning was connected to your everyday life and future goals.

It is crucial that language-learning activities be both relevant to the student and placed within a context; for example, all language learners will need to go shopping if they spend any time abroad, thus they are motivated to learn about shopping. Shopping for food could become a context in which you teach English skills. It is an excellent context for teaching count and non-count nouns, vocabulary related to food and money, and phrases such as “How much does this cost?” and “I would like . . . “

Find out which contexts or topics interest your students. They may be interested in how to write a business letter or how to use transportation systems or what to do in case of an emergency. Incorporating your students’ learning goals into your curriculum will enhance their interest in learning English. When they are motivated to communicate, they are less likely to monitor their language because conveying meaning will take precedence over correct form.

Mixing the Familiar with the Unfamiliar

Contrary to popular belief, not everyone in Asia who is studying English is planning to go to an English speaking country. They may be studying English to be able to interact with English-speaking business people on the phone or in person, to work in the tourist industry, or just as a fun extracurricular activity. A common answer to the question “Why are you studying English?” is “because my friend/parents wanted me to.” For this reason, your English classes do not need to be total North American cultural immersions – you will probably make your students uncomfortable if you try. If you decide to teach a class on using sequential instructions (first you . . ., then you . . ., lastly you . . .), you may want to use a cooking recipe as an example. Using local dishes (i.e. not lasagna) will be much more likely to bring everyone into the conversation, and may even stir up debate regarding the best way to prepare a popular dish. Likewise, if you plan a lesson around giving a tourist directions, it will be much easier to practice the important words – left, right, straight, blocks, etc. – if your students are not baffled by strange street names, which in the United States and Canada often come from Native American languages, Spanish, or French. Once they are more comfortable using the language, using props from home could add a lot to your students’ enjoyment of the class.

Music has always been a popular and effective medium for learning. Use tunes that are familiar to your students – whether they are English words put to the tune of a popular children’s song from the country where you are (as opposed to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which may be entirely unfamiliar to your students) or a popular English-language song that you hear played every 20 minutes on the radio.

You will gradually learn what works and what tends to throw the discussion off on an obscure tangent (or, even worse, bring it to a standstill). Many North American teachers have reported terrible results when they tried to introduce a topic for debate, such as abortion or an environmental issue, into an Asian class-room. In general, while learning to independently form and defend an opinion is an important part of North American and European educational systems, East Asian society encourages group work and consensus. Opinion exercises need not be avoided entirely; asking students to prepare a list of pros and cons of two or more nightclubs (tourist destinations, clothing stores) and then discussing their ideas in class, will produce the same level of English-language interaction without asking students to attack each others’ ideas or to consider an issue that they have never considered in their own language, much less in English.

Physical Response Methods

Many educational theorists are sold on the benefits of using physical movement to help students to remember new vocabulary. Vocabulary words are associated with movement so that students assimilate the language more quickly than they would using rote memorization. These activities often take the form of games, and therefore can get students out of their seats and moving around. If you are teaching children, these types of activities are particularly important in maintaining their attention span.

One example of physical response learning is the popular game of Simon Says. The teacher says “Simon says touch your nose” (students touch their noses); “Simon says touch your hair (students touch their hair); “touch your stomach (students shouldn’t move because the teacher didn’t say “Simon says”). Students are “out” when they either touch the wrong thing or move at the wrong time. This game can be adapted to vocabulary such as verbs (jump, walk, sing, etc.), or for prepositions (put your hand over the book, under the book, etc.).

Another game combines a hand motion, for example, with a phrase. For example, each student is assigned a cooking phrase and invents a hand motion to go with it: peel the orange, mix the batter, stir the soup, cut the apple, squeeze the lemon, etc. Sitting in a circle, students pair up with the person sitting next to them and repeat their phrase and motion three times while at the same time listening to their partners’ phrase and seeing the motion. The students then turn to the person on the other side and use the new phrase and motion they learned from their first partner. Students then turn back to the first partner, use the phrase they learned from their second partner, and so on until they hear their original phrase again. (If it is too confusing to have everyone speaking at once, you can have the partners alternate saying their lines.)

A third activity would be to split the class into groups and have each write a command sequence to conduct a common activity. If the students chose bowling, for example, the lesson could run like this: 1.) Pick up the ball. 2.) Put your fingers in the holes. 3.) Stand behind the line. 4.) Take four steps. 5.) Swing your arm back. 6.) Swing your arm forward. 7.) Release the ball. Ask each group to read the directions slowly, while the rest of the students carry out the actions.

You can also use quiet activities such as coloring shapes with the color that labels indicate or pasting images cut from advertisements and labeled in English into the proper rooms of a big house that you have drawn.

Grammar Instruction

A linguist may be able to tell you everything you would ever want to know about a language – its history, its sound system, its vocabulary, and its grammar – without being able to speak a word of it. It’s much like the couch potato who knows all about football from watching it every Sunday, but wouldn’t last a minute out on the field in the line of scrimmage.

Many of your Asian students will have learned all about English grammar in junior high and high school but will be unable to utter a simple sentence. They learned all about English grammar, but they didn’t learn how to use it as a tool to aid them in communication.

It is important for you to teach grammar in a context. Let’s say your class has been talking about shopping. You can introduce the future tense by telling your students about what you plan to buy next month when you go home to America for a vacation. Then you can write “I am going to buy” on the board and provide your students with a fifteen-minute lesson on the future tense. Then give them several more examples of the future tense: “I am going to go out tonight,” “I am going to watch baseball this Sunday,” “I am going to call my parents tomorrow.” Have your students tell you what they are going to do in the future and write what they say on the board. Give them worksheets to do on the future tense as homework.

Another component of grammar class should be a lesson on asking questions properly. When your students are in an English-speaking environment and know how to ask questions, they are then able to seek information, get more language input, and keep conversations going. In order to teach future-tense questions you would spend several minutes telling your students what you are going to do tomorrow and then asking them, “What are you going to do tomorrow?” You ask them this question several times before you write it on the board. You then have them repeat the question several times before you have them break into small groups and have them ask each other the question. There should be an authentic purpose to their questions, such as finding out which activities they have in common.

During grammar activities your students will monitor their language. Worksheets of any kind call on students to think about form. When you have students repeat sentences that contain the targeted grammar point they also think about form. When they use the new grammar with each other they will think about form. Any correct grammar that your students have not yet acquired will have to be monitored when it is used.

In short, grammar instruction should not be an end in itself. Direct grammar instruction should connect with real-life communication. Your students will benefit most from hearing immense amounts of correctly spoken language again and again.


Students who learn English in an English-speaking country have an advantage over students who learn English abroad in that they are surrounded by authentic language. They hear it in music, on television, in snatches of conversations around them; they read it on the bus, in newspaper headlines, and on menus – they have a built-in language review at every turn.

When you teach abroad you should be thinking about the language you used in class previously when you design your future lessons. Perhaps two weeks ago you provided your class with language related to shopping, such as “I bought a few loaves of bread” and “Where can I find the bananas?” Your students are likely to hear similar phrases occurring naturally in your speech or read to them from time to time, but because your students are not in a language-rich environment, you need to provide review experiences for them that encompass the past language they have studied.

Two weeks ago, your class learned English in the context of shopping. Now your context is getting medical help. Students will hear you say things such as, “Where can I find a good skin doctor around here?” and “I went to a skin doctor in the U.S. and he told me to try a little of this lotion” (you hold up the lotion). Your students are placed in a new language context but are using language they have learned in a previous context (in this case, “Where can I find . . . ?” and “a little . . .”). Pointing out these connections at first will help your students begin to make them naturally.

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