Wisdom of the Noob: 10 Teaching Tips for the ESL Classroom

Stupid Ugly Foreigner in action. And also agape.


I won’t claim to be an expert. I’ve a B.Ed. degree and a few months experience in ESL, as well as in art instruction and Ontario classrooms. This does not make me exactly a dynamo of pedagogy. But I’ve noticed that, reading the big ESL boards and idea exchange websites, teaching and classroom management advice runs the gamut from mildly helpful to genuinely horrifying. I mean the people instructing new teachers to be arbitrary in their discipline, and to use corporal punishment and embarrassment. I have read multiple individuals suggesting that you should threaten to beat students, call them homosexuals to shame them (that this is meant to shame them is its own awful, separate thing), and draw upon them with permanent markers. As ESL tends to invite a lot of new teachers, it frankly scares me that some people might be taking even some of this advice under consideration. And thus: a list of 10 things you can do to improve your teaching and your classroom management.

Again, the disclaimer: I’m not an expert. I have, however, learned from experts, and have been in seminars with some of the best educators in Canada and the West. I have done a lot of reading, some of it by choice, some of it during the grueling non-teaching months of teacher’s college. I have taught. Why am I clambering up onto a soapbox if I’m so green at this, then? Because it chills me that the following advice is often drowned out by terrible ideas.


1.       Give thinking time. It sounds simple, but give your students a chance to think. Whenever you ask a question, the same hands can and will shoot up first, and you might find yourself calling on the same kids over and over again. Other students DO have the information you are asking for, but some of them, frankly, need another moment or two to connect the dots. They are searching for the information, and given the time, they can find it. This can frustrate your usual volunteers, so I typically hide my pauses through long repeats or through looking confused and like I’m trying to think of the answer.


2.       Notice the good. A lot of your time will be spent reprimanding and disciplining the students who act out, meanwhile the kids who are sitting pleasantly, hands folded, go without any attention. You need to find a balance. As much as I’ll rag on the students who misbehave, I try to quite obviously thank the kids who are following instructions, otherwise I start to come off as a giant nag. Simply remarking which students are paying attention or are listening can push other students towards doing the same. Most kids don’t want to stick out TOO much, and if you’re focusing on the good stuff that all the other students are doing (only giving out attention for that kind of behaviour), they may follow suit.


3.       Hold your ground while instructing. Try not to roam too much when you’re delivering instructions. If you start to move, it’s just another thing for students to process, and in an ESL classroom with a bunch of students learning a foreign language, you need to minimize the extraneous information. That said, move around when students are working. Circulating opens you up for questions, allows you to get a closer look at how individual students are doing, and your presence will also help to keep them on task. You can’t see what each kid is writing from your desk, and you can’t hear what they’re all saying, either.


4.       Go low-key with your discipline. At least to start. It’s harder to manage here because the students will be used to a different style and form of discipline, but going at things low-key at first makes things low-risk and minimizes embarrassing students (and seeing as many ESL jobs come in countries where losing face is a big thing, minimizing this will be appreciated).  Your teacher look is the greatest weapon in your arsenal, particularly for young students, though it will have to mutate to stay effective. Whereas in Canada I could fire a withering glance and a student would know I was not happy with what was occurring, here I have to ditch the subtlety to get the point across. That said, you can usually get certain students back with you without even saying a word. Similarly, proximity can help to let students know that you’re aware of them and what they’re doing. Simply being around them will often drive them back to work, or at the very least make them stop openly talking to one another. You don’t need to draw attention to yourself, but simply being around a student or group that is being noisy can settle it down a little.


5.       Never let them see you sweat. Don’t get mad, get displeased. Don’t be upset, be unhappy. Never yell, though you can raise your voice. Getting mad lets students know they can control your emotions and get a rise out of you, and some of them, frankly, want to see that. Sometimes they are going to get the best of you, or a kid does something wrong when you are already having a bad day. It’s hard, and it sucks, but don’t let it show. Control it, keep your cool, play it off. If they think they know they can frustrate and enrage you, they’re going to do it. Do you remember being a kid and realizing that it’s really funny when your teacher gets flustered and bent out of shape? These kids know the feeling, too.



6.       Get ready to fail. Lessons fail. Even theoretically good ones. It sucks, because sometimes you put a whole lot of work into it, and then suddenly the kids are bored, you’re sweating, and the lesson is bombing. My cousin did a comedy and writing course and describes the best feeling in the world as killing in front of an audience, and the worst being bombing in front of them. Teaching is pretty similar: you’re putting on a show, and when the kids are with you, it’s great, but when it’s going south, you feel awful. It happens. I worked with a teaching veteran in a special education class last year, and I became down on myself after a few of my lessons went into tailspins. The teacher I was with did a time measurement lesson, where the kids went wild and didn’t listen to a thing. She remarked afterwards that the lesson certainly bombed, she asked herself why, and then moved on.


The why is the important part. Sometimes your lesson will tank. Figure out why, weep a single, enigmatic tear, and then plan so it doesn’t happen again. With ESL, chances are you’ll be doing each lesson several times, which gives you an ample learning curve for reflection. Use it.


7.       Be consistent. Be consistent in your discipline: know where your line is, and how you will react if a student crosses it. They absolutely will try to push and find out where your boundaries are, and you need to be firm and make it clear. Apply this boundary equally. Go with the low-key methods for the little stuff, but know what your gameplan is when something serious happens.


If you’re in elementary, make routines and stick to them. It lets students know what’s coming, gives them a structure to work within, and allows them to pick up some extra procedural vocabulary because you’re constantly using it. Use a class agenda, a lesson objective, entry and exit procedures (passwords, tickets out the door, greetings). Make something regular and predictable about the structure of your class.


8.       Make simple, concise rules and use them. In the West I would probably try to get more TRIBES and work with the students to generate class rules, but it’s not as easy to achieve with the language barrier. Thus, make simple, direct rules, inform the students clearly and often about what they are, and then stick to them. Design them so you know you won’t bend them. If you don’t stick to your own rules they start to appear arbitrary and meaningless, and arbitrary discipline is beyond confusing to kids. If you’re in an ESL situation with a co-teacher, make rules and BE a part of the discipline. Your co-teacher will, at some point, not be there, and then it’s just you and the kids.


9.       Know your students. It can be difficult in ESL contexts where you have hundreds of students, but you come to get a good idea of strengths and weaknesses, of personalities and egos. You can tell who is painfully shy, and who is ecstatically outgoing. You know the relative levels of ability, interest, and motivation. In the same grade five class, one boy knows maybe 10 English words (one of them being my name), while just three seats away one girl is capable of generating English language metaphors. Now, if you’re elementary you can’t change their whole curriculum, and realistically you can’t alter their overall learning expectations, but you can know realistic goals for them to achieve. Change up your speech, alter your questioning, prompt more or less, throw in more or less Korean as individual students need and don’t need it. You need to be teaching kids in the area juuuust beyond what they could manage for themselves, and that’s not the same area for each of them. Push all of them to achieve what can reasonably be achieved with your help.


10.    Have fun. Does your lesson bore you? The students probably hate it. Why spend all day (and in ESL, multiple days) on something that actively bores you? Put in things that you like, and things you think they’ll like, whether that be music, games, art, drama, whatever. Teaching is hard. If you don’t have the passion there to sustain you, whether it be for the students, the material, or for the lessons you design, you will burn out.


The agenda, the team scores, and parts of the lesson.


4 thoughts on “Wisdom of the Noob: 10 Teaching Tips for the ESL Classroom

  1. Excellent information! I found this through waygook.org and it is a great help. I have been putting together a lecture for new teachers and this is a great help! Thanks again!

  2. Nice ideas in ESL or out. I’ve been teaching for ..awhile.. but sometimes you can lose way. I liked reading your rules. It wasn’t a great day today but maybe tomorrow I’ll be a little better.


    • Hey, thanks! Everyone has those days. As much as I like to declare rules for teaching, I have my own difficulties following them all the time, as well. It’s a matter of just striving to always get better and more unflappable.

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