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Terrific ESL Teaching Hacks

By Lauren White,  ELL Teacher at the Lincoln School in Buenos Aires, Argentina

In the time that I have spent teaching English as a foreign language, I do believe that I have experienced and seen it all – not just the good, the bad, and the ugly, but also the hilarious, the mind-boggling, and the downright weird.  Moreover, in that time, I have come to understand and appreciate that being the teacher means needing to continue keeping an open mind and being able to roll with the punches, come what may.

Despite all the years of my life that I have invested in my vocation as as teacher, I find that the more I know, the more I realize that I don’t know.  This realization is as true and humbling as it is paradoxical. The fact is that just because I am the teacher, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a thing or two that I can’t learn for myself.  

I chose the field of English as a foreign language for the reason that it requires not only attention to detail and knowledge of grammatical rules, but also because it signifies the need for empathy, patience, compassion, and an open mind.  Come to think of it, it would be better said that the teaching field chose me. Call it fate, call it a calling, but most of all, call it an ongoing acknowledgement that one cannot learn without teaching, just as one cannot teach without learning.

With that being said, teaching is also about sharing; hence, I would like to share some of my best teaching hacks, which are mostly, but not exclusively, for EFL:    

  1. The 30/70 rule.  Referring to the ideal proportion of time that a teacher should speak versus the student should, this was one of the most difficult concepts for me to comprehend.  As much as I enjoy blabbing, chatting, and rambling, I now acknowledge that though it may be temporarily more enjoyable for the teacher, the student needs his or her time to articulate themselves (including during the infamous “silent period” of language learning).  The point is to listen more than you speak. Regardless of who is the one learning English, you may learn something yourself. Which leads me to my next point…

  2. Utilize sufficient wait time.  Critical for any effective teacher, it is imperative not to talk over your student.  Give him or her ample time to process the question, think about their answer, and interpret it from their native language(s).  Now, this does not mean that you or your students should have to endure long stretches of awkward, unproductive silence, but allowing your budding scholar the opportunity to genuinely think about their response is key.  Remember, you don’t want your kid blindly answering to comply because they feel like the clock is ticking on their reply. After all, sometimes the most dangerous word to mindlessly use in any language is, “Yes.”

  3. Bring props/tangibles/visuals/manipulatives.  Bring them ALL!  Regardless of your teaching platform, for visual learners, a simple mind map, an opportunity to sketch note (, or a piece of realia can make all the difference, going from merely verbal to also visible.  Young students in particular really gravitate toward what they can actually see and touch, thus facilitating memory. On that note, also remember to make a point letting your mouth be as visible as possible when you speak (i.e. – Don’t talk to the whiteboard), use English subtitles when showing video clips, and color code if possible to further benefit your visual learners (and all learners!).

  4. Speak another language (besides English!).  The benefits of being a real-life language learner when you are teaching a foreign language cannot be understated, as you subsequently become more linguistically and culturally sensitive to others. Time and time again, it has been proven that learning a second or additional language helps to improve your understanding of your first language.  Moreover, by making yourself linguistically vulnerable when speaking a language other than English, you become a living language role model for your budding scholars. In short: be a better person – speak another language!

  5. The affective filter – It’s all about empathy.  Regardless of whatever additional tongue you are trying to master, language learning can undoubtedly be a trying endeavor.  Add an acutely stressful situation into the mix (such as an exam, an oral interview, or having to suddenly defend your important point of view), and you may very well find yourself stammering and stuttering.  A relaxed student is generally a more fluent student and a better learner. While avoiding stressful circumstances altogether is impossible, it is still important for the teacher to try to lower the affective filter whenever possible to encourage a student and promote better and more effective language learning.

  6. Marvelous, Magical, Mystical Music – Did you know that music/singing therapy is a common practice for stroke victims who need to recover their speech?  Indeed. The areas of the brain associated with language learning are NOT the same as those associated with musical capacities.  When teaching English, why not tap into a universally fun facet of all societies and cultures and make the language-learning process more enjoyable?  Not completely convinced? Remember that the enjoyable and easily accessible practice of listening to music in the target language is an excellent accent-reduction tool, and can help the student expand their vocabulary more easily.    

  7. Take full advantage of technology – What a time to be alive! – Learning a foreign language has really never been more critical and in demand, but also more accessible and easier for both the student and the teacher.  The internet is not just a great way to argue with strangers on Facebook and look at pictures of cute cats. It is also an indispensable resource for being able to communicate with others and to share linguistic knowledge, questions, tools, and experiences

  8. (for simplifying texts to make them more comprehensible while not taking away from the content)

  9. – An excellent online bilingual reference resources, complimented by frequented forums with native speakers of English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and so on.

  10. – Yet another superb resource with forums and language learning and teaching tips and tricks of the trade.

  11. – If a person is looking to have extra, authentic practice, they can always find a tandem language partner via this website to meet up with in person or virtually.  Most every language spoken on Earth can be found on this webpage (including South African Sign language and even Klingon!).

  12. Follow your gut – Just like in real life, authentic and relevant learning can never be 100% by the book.  While textbooks and other forms of references have great value, language, just like life itself, is unscripted.  Some students have special learning needs, some students have gaps in their learning, and all students have their distinct weaknesses… but that is perfectly okay.  If a topic or lesson is not working out for whatever reason, a skilled teacher knows how to recognize the situation, think on his/her feet, and shift gears toward a method or means of teaching that will work for their students.

In summation, teaching English as a foreign language is not for the faint of heart – but while it can be equal parts exhausting and unpredictable, it is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most rewarding and fulfilling jobs out there.

It is my sincere hope that value can be found in at least one of these “teaching hacks,” though there are obviously many, many more.  For all language teachers and learners: What are some of YOUR terrific teaching tips and tools?

  1. Ms. Lauren White


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