How to Teach English As a Second Language

How to Teach English As a Second Language

A short article written by one of Slavis’ associate English teachers, being a short summary of issues a teacher of English as a second language faces right from the start of a teaching process.

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Are you an English teacher? Would you like to succeed in your job? Is it, at times, difficult for you to answer the question of ‘How to teach a second language?’ Would you like to know how to avoid the most common mistakes? As a teacher with several years of experience, I dare say that the key to success is a good understanding of your students, their learning abilities and their needs.


Who Do You Teach?

In your work, you will encounter different types of students: those who learn the second language fast, those who learn it more slowly and those with learning difficulties. However, their needs are all the same: to learn English in order to communicate and get by in daily and business situations. The thing is that the approach you employ to achieve this should differ depending on your students.


Which Approach Should You Assume?

With the so-called “fast learners” you go through the material quickly—but don’t forget to revise as they learn fast. And, unfortunately, also forget fast. For this reason, homework to revise the material introduced at the lesson should always be given at the end, and checked at the beginning of the next lesson. Don’t get frustrated if your adult students don’t do it at home. In such case you need to go through it with them during the next lesson. If they spend half of the lesson on doing homework that they should have done at home, they will be more willing to do it next time.

With those who learn more slowly, you need to spend more time on teaching the material you want them to learn. In this case the more resources you use to teach the topic, the better. These should include grammar exercises from your teacher’s book, but also those found online, playing games, reading texts, listening to audio and writing, e.g. emails to practise the topic they are to acquire.

And finally, there are students with learning disabilities, e.g. different forms of dyslexia. Such students learn slowly and forget fast. For this reason, the material used at lessons should be maximally repetitive and focus on one topic, but with the use of many different resources: games, grammar exercises, listening, writing and reading. Such students should receive a lot of homework and should be tested more often than the first two groups, otherwise they will simply forget.


What Are the Most Important Things You Should Remember of?

Make sure you diagnose your students’ abilities and needs right at the first lesson to adjust your teaching style and materials accordingly. Remember that the goal you set for them should also depend on their abilities and needs. Therefore, don’t be too ambitious if your students have learning difficulties—the goal for them should be to communicate in daily and business situations, rather than writing excellent essays or poems in English.

However, if you feel your students are clever, learn fast and became interested in the language, I would recommend to extend the learning by providing them with some bits of the English and American history, customs and traditions. They will surely appreciate it. English grammar tests are not what they solely need.

When it comes to having a new group of students at a supposedly intermediate level, I would recommend to start teaching grammar from the beginning, i.e. the Present Simple tense, even though you might get the impression that your students are already able to communicate and should know it. Actually, the majority of students from Europe do speak English but without knowing the grammar. Therefore, they will really appreciate if you start teaching grammar from the very beginning and make the lessons maximally comprehensive, using lots of exercises, specially prepared learning games and texts to practise it. Because as often in similar circumstances—there’s more than meets the eye (or ear in this case) and the learners should start (at time, all over again) with English for beginners.

Remember not to jump from one tense to another. From my experience, it takes about a month to learn a new tense using different forms of texts and grammar exercises. Give your students the time to process each tense before you get to a new one. The breaks in between teaching tenses could be filled with other types of grammar, e.g. teaching countable and uncountable nouns. Adding to this, you cannot escape teaching vocabulary, for no matter if you teach English to children or to adults, they need the words to prove they are able to use English grammar correctly and communicate freely.


What Shouldn’t You Underestimate?

The best advice I can give is be patient. Always bear in mind: students have their own time to process the material they learned, so do not, under any circumstances, try to speed it up by reprimanding your students or criticizing them for not learning fast enough and making them doubt in their abilities. That is a common mistake that lots of teachers make and students complain about. That is also a good way to discourage your students from learning foreign language.

And last but not least—if you think your students are not learning fast enough or cannot achieve the goals you set for them, maybe it is time for you to seriously reconsider your teaching career. After all, there are thousands of jobs out there which do not require working with people and understanding their needs.