Tips for new EFL teachers

In this article I offer some advice for new EFL teachers.  I cover the following issues: (i) English names; (ii) contact information; (iii) rules and expectations; (iv) cultural information; (v) PowerPoint; (vi) homework; (vii) pronunciation; (viii) Teacher Talking Time; (ix) cross-curricular opportunities and (x) class management.  This article is mainly aimed at EFL teachers who work at a college or university, although some points may be relevant for language schools.

 1. Assign English names

English names are very important for two reasons.  First, you can take roll-call effectively and your students can explain their classmates’ absence.  Second, you can treat your students as individuals and this will probably boost their motivation.  But it may take a long time for your students to choose their own English names.

I usually ask new students to choose a letter and I then suggest a name that starts with that letter.  This approach gives the students some (but not too much) freedom.  It also means that my students do not end up with the same or similar-sounding names.  Consider the pronunciation issues that your students will have and try to avoid choosing pairs of names that are hard to tell apart (e.g. Aaron / Alan, or Fran / Frank).

2. Share your contact information

You may be reluctant to hand out your contact information to a new class, and with good reason.  You may be concerned about your privacy and you may want to protect yourself from any questionable (or inappropriate) contact.  But I think that the benefits outweigh the risks.

It is a good idea to have some way of contacting your students outside of class.  This will allow you to send reminders to your students about homework, exam criteria and so on.  It will also allow your students to ask for leave in advance or to explain absences in a prompt manner.  Social networking works particularly well.  WeChat is a social networking app for smartphones and it is very popular in China.  It has a group chat function that allows me to send a message to all of my students at once.

3. Explain rules and expectations

You may think that your students will already know what you expect of them, both in terms of discipline and work ethic.  You may not want to patronize your students by spelling out the obvious to them.  But remember that they will be used to Chinese teachers and to a Chinese style of teaching that is very different from the Western approach.

Start each new semester with a short list of rules, written in simple English.  And make sure that you write positive (i.e. do) sentences and not negative (i.e. don’t) sentences.  For example, a sentence like You should always listen when teacher is talking sounds friendlier than a sentence like Do not talk in class.  Always think how you are going to enforce the rules that you set.  For example, it may be impractical to confiscate mobile phones in a very large class.

4. Introduce your home country

You may be teaching a class of non-English majors, or your remit may simply be to teach conversational English.  You may not think that your students will be particularly interested in learning about your home country or its culture.  Even so, it is a very good idea to introduce yourself and where you come from.  This will help your students to view you as a real person (i.e. not just their teacher) with relevant things to contribute.

Do not forget that motivation plays a very important role in foreign language learning.  Your job as an EFL teacher is not just to teach pronunciation drills and sentence patterns; your job is also to motivate and encourage your students to engage with English.  Show them beautiful pictures of English castles and natural landmarks.  Let them see that with English they can travel the world and improve their quality of life.

5. Don’t rely on PPTs

You may have to plan a syllabus without the help of a textbook.  This can be a daunting task and you may feel more confident bringing some teaching materials with you rather than relying on the whiteboard.  PPTs are great for this reason.  Students are more likely to stay engaged if they have something colourful to look at.  A PPT will also allow you to prepare lists of relevant vocabulary in advance.

6.But you should not become over-reliant on PPTs.  You may enter the classroom and discover that there is a problem with the computer or the projector.   Or you may want to change your lesson plan at the last minute in order to respond to student questions.  Prepare a PPT by all means.  But always have a backup plan and move to the whiteboard every so often to change the pace.

6. Make use of homework

You do not have to set or grade homework as an Oral English teacher.  In fact, your school or university may even discourage it.  There are, however, several good reasons for setting homework.  First, you engage more with your students.  You can read their opinions and even ask for feedback on certain activities.  Second, you can judge your students’ level of English and this will help you to plan subsequent lessons.  Third, you can make use of your students’ homework in class for reading practice.

The third point is particularly important.  It is time-consuming to find or create relevant reading materials for use in the EFL classroom.  A good solution is to set short writing tasks for homework that will double up as reading practice in a follow-up class.  Next, consider writing a sample answer yourself and using this as a reading comprehension exercise.  The point is here that you should never set homework in isolation; always try to make use of it in a following lesson.

7. Revisit pronunciation

It is always a good idea to start with pronunciation, no matter how old your students are.  Your students may find the task boring, but they should at least realize its importance.  An introductory lesson on pronunciation issues will set your students up to succeed in every single subsequent lesson.  And don’t just teach pronunciation at the start of your course; revisit the material a few times over the course of the semester to reinforce it.

It is possible to design an entire course on English pronunciation and intonation.  But you will have to be selective and only focus on those areas that Chinese students are likely to find difficult.  Start with long and short vowels; move on to consonants and consonant clusters; then, focus on syllables and syllable stress in English.  Later on in your course, revise these basic areas and add a discussion of unstressed syllables and sentence intonation (both for questions and statements).

8. Talk a lot

The related concepts of Teacher Talking Time (TTT) and Student Talking Time (STT) are very important in the EFL world.  The current consensus is that EFL teachers should limit their TTT (i.e. the amount of time they spend talking) as much as possible.  The idea is that your students should do most of the talking during your class.  After all, you can use non-verbal methods of communication to convey a lot of information (e.g. basic instructions and feedback).

Of course it is important that your students talk in your class.  And it makes sense that your students will have more time to talk if you spend less time talking yourself.  But don’t forget that you have a responsibility to improve your students’ listening skills.  For this, you could rely on artificial practice CDs.  The best source of listening practice, however, is your own voice.  Remember to stop on occasion to tell your students a story or a joke.  You could even talk about your own life; this will not count as time-wasting because your students will be practising their listening.

 9. Don’t just teach English

This may sound like a strange piece of advice.  After you, you are an EFL teacher who is responsible for teaching conversational English.  But English (in a narrow sense) refers to vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.  Out of context, this becomes a recipe for boredom and low success rates.  I think that the end goal of English learning should be to teach other subjects using the medium of English.

Your students will have a range of interests and it is unrealistic to expect that they will all love learning a foreign language for its own sake.  So look for the cross-curricular links in your lessons.  Take advantage of your freedom in the classroom to discuss real issues that interest you, such as climate change, literature or even modern art.  All of this is possible, so long as you introduce the relevant vocabulary before you start.

10. Be strict (but stay calm)

You may be disappointed by your students’ low levels of motivation and lack of work ethic.  You have two options in this situation.  Your first option is to complain and get angry.  This may have an immediate effect, but it will soon wear off.  Moreover, you will lose your composure in front of your students and this may lose you their respect.  Your second option is to detach and administer discipline with a light touch.  You should always strive to put into practice the second option.

The challenge is to keep things light but not come across as a push-over.  Decide which negative behaviour patterns annoy you the most and keep working on correcting them.  At the very least, you should expect your students to attend class and to pay attention.  They should also make an effort to answer your questions and they should show respect to their classmates.  If all else fails, keep this thought in your mind.  It’s your students who suffer by not listening in class – not you.

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