4 Simple Ideas to Teach ESL More Effectively

In my recent article CELTA: Is It Worth It?, I wrote about how the CELTA helped make me feel like a “real” teacher, and I alluded to practical techniques I discovered through the course that I now use every day at my university in Korea. The techniques I picked up are by no means unique to the CELTA; since getting my certificate, I’ve heard them mentioned in various workshops and teaching forums, and they’re covered in books such as Jim Scrivener’s excellent Learning Teaching. They’re definitely worth repeating, though, especially for less experienced teachers. For anyone who’s curious, here are a few of the highlights: four simple ideas that improved my teaching immensely.

1. Let students try it with a partner first.

Or as I’ve heard it elsewhere, “Think, pair, share.” Once this becomes a habit, it makes a world of difference in student participation. The idea is very straightforward: anytime you want students to share something in front of the class, let them try it first with a partner or group. Want to check answers to an exercise? Pair-check first. Want students to tell the class about their weekend? Let them talk about it with their partner or group first. Want to brainstorm ideas for a project? You’ll be peppered with suggestions if students can brainstorm together before sharing their ideas with the class.

This technique increases student talk time and makes students feel more comfortable and confident using the language in front of others. Since I started routinely incorporating pair-checks and partner practice, students have become more eager to volunteer, and even the shyest students don’t hide their eyes when I’m searching for someone to call on.

2. Sometimes teachers should disappear.

This was a surprisingly difficult technique for me to perfect; sitting idly by just doesn’t feel like teaching! But here’s the trick: you’re not idle. You’re monitoring, making sure students are on-task, answering questions about language nuances, noting good language use as well as errors to put up on the board.... Indeed, the “vanishing” teacher is very active—she’s just not interfering. I’ve used this technique with elementary students, university students, and adults, all with excellent results.

3. Sometimes teachers should shut up.

My CELTA trainer Hem was a master of maximizing student talk time, largely because she knew exactly how to take advantage of silence; that is, when and how to rely on elicitation and non-verbal communication. When telling a story to set context, she would let the trainees name the characters. When presenting the target language, she would elicit it from her students. Instead of explaining a game in detail, she would guide us using gestures and a handful of simple sentences. Even dividing us into groups, Hem used a simple but effective way to increase student talk time:

Hem [gesturing to S1]: Name a city. S1: Paris.

Hem [gestures to the next student]: Name a different city. S2: Um, Seoul.

Hem gestures to S3. S3: New York.

Hem gestures to S4. S4: Tokyo.

Hem gestures to S5 and then S1. S5: Paris.

Hem gestures to S6. S6: Seoul.

Hem gestures to S7. S7: New York.

Easy, clear, student-centered. I love it. Why talk when you can let students talk, instead? And why use many words when a gesture or a look will suffice?

4. ICQs and CCQs

These were a joyous epiphany for me. I’d often heard that “Do you understand?” was generally a useless question, but I hadn’t really figured out an alternative. Instruction-check questions (ICQs) and concept-check questions (CCQs), however, are fantastic for determining whether students really understand and helping to pinpoint exactly where they are confused.

ICQs break instructions into their core elements and then check that students understand these elements. For example, after explaining a mingle game in which students find group members who have cards identical to theirs, you might ask ICQs such as, “If two things [on the card] are the same, but one is different, are you in the same group?” (answer: “No”); “How many things must be the same?” (answer: “Three”); “How many people do you want to find?” (possible answer: “Three”); “When you find your group, what should you do?” (possible answer: “Sit together”); “Can you show anyone your card?” (answer: “No”), etc.

CCQs are similar, but they’re used to check whether students understand the nuances of a vocabulary word, expression, grammatical structure, or other concept. The example used in my CELTA course was “I managed to find an apartment.” “Managed to,” broken into its core elements, means “I found an apartment, but it wasn’t easy.” To CCQ this, then, one might ask, “Did I find an apartment?” (answer: “Yes”) and “Was it easy?” (answer: “No”).

Of course, these are just a few things I learned in my CELTA course; and while these ideas might not be new to experienced teachers, they were revelatory to me! They’re now a natural part of my teaching routine, and they’ve made an enormous difference in the success of my lessons.

Lindsay Herron

Lindsay Herron has been a visiting professor at Gwangju National University of Education in Gwangju, ROK, since 2008. Prior to that, she taught at a boys' high school in Jeju-do, ROK. She loves stories of all kinds: movies, books, anime, operas...and the ones her students give her.
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About Lindsay Herron

Lindsay Herron has been a visiting professor at Gwangju National University of Education in Gwangju, ROK, since 2008. Prior to that, she taught at a boys’ high school in Jeju-do, ROK. She loves stories of all kinds: movies, books, anime, operas…and the ones her students give her.

2 thoughts on “4 Simple Ideas to Teach ESL More Effectively

  1. adifferentopinion

    Thank you for your article. I agree with all of your tips except for #3: Less teacher-talk-time does not equate to higher student-talk-time. Many times the teacher is the only person in the room who has a good command of the target language. Why would the only example of the target language remain silent? I understand the principle behind this theory, but as a second language learner myself, it is the things that my teacher repeated over and over again that I remember the most. Even if it was just a funny sounding interjection, these are the nuances of language that set native speakers apart from second language learners. These are the things that the students will pick up on and use in their daily lives. They give small glimpses into the culture that a student with a silent teacher would be deprived of. Additionally, memorizing and using the students’ names in the classroom can create a more united class. If a semester ends, and the students don’t know each other’s names, then that teacher is to be blamed. Why just gesture instead of saying, “What about you, Minsu?” The argument can be made that by introducing this “off-topic” language can confuse students. I would agree for the first week in a zero-beginner class that this “extra” language should be avoided and hand-gestures may be more effective, but by the end of the class, they should be able to say that phrase almost natively. I teach these phrases to the students, so they can ask each other that question. That is the real point behind minimal teacher-talk-time. It is to give your students the skills to involve their classmates into the conversation, not to have a mute teacher-centered classroom.

  2. Lindsay Herron

    Thanks for your response! I definitely agree with you. Teachers certainly should memorize and use learners’ names; they should talk to their students; and they should strategically use, re-use, and teach classroom English and other peripheral language. The idea of #3 is not that the teacher teaches the entire class through gestures and mime; rather, it’s that the teacher elicits as much as possible, and this is often facilitated by non-verbal communication. For example, if you look at the example above of dividing students into groups, the students are the ones who choose and say the group name; after all, why should the teacher say the group name when students can do it? The teacher’s silent gestures serve to elicit the word, putting the focus back on the students. (I think students also remember their group assignments better when they say it rather than just hearing it from the teacher.)

    I’ve also found that simple sentences and silent gestures help a LOT when introducing a new activity–even to university students. Sure, some of the requisite expressions might be known to students, or they might be recycled in the future. In that case, I’m all for using them! But I think many teachers tend to talk too much, explaining an activity in its entirety and thus overwhelming learners. In contrast, I find that focusing on the judicious use of silence and carefully selected, simpler sentences helps me model more clearly and communicate the directions in the most transparent way possible. This seems to help students focus on the idea rather than the instruction-words, which they might never encounter again, anyway. This kind of careful communication streamlines directions and saves class time, because students understand more easily what they’re supposed to do. I would argue that it also boosts students’ confidence because they can actually understand what you’re communicating to them, which in turn makes them more positive about (and motivated to do) the activity they’re about to do. Really, the next time you’re trying to explain an activity, try incorporating some carefully planned silences and eliciting, and see if it doesn’t make the explanation easier! 🙂

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