Beginning Guide to Teaching ESL

Teacher calling on students in classroom
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Over the past few months, I have received a number of requests from non-professional teachers who are teaching English as a 2nd or foreign language. The teaching setting varies widely; to friends, at a charity, on a volunteer basis, as a part-time job, as a hobby, etc. One thing quickly becomes clear: Speaking English as a mother tongue does not a ESL or EFL (English as second language / English as foreign language) teacher make!

This guide is provided for those of you who would like to know some of the basics of teaching English to non-native speakers of English. It provides some fundamental guidelines which will make your teaching more successful and satisfying for both the student and you.

Get Grammar Help Fast!

Teaching English grammar is tricky as there are just SO many exceptions to rules, irregularities of word forms, etc. that, even if you do know your grammar rules, you are probably going to need some help when providing explanations. Knowing when to use a certain tense, word form or expression is one thing, knowing how to explain this rule is quite another. I highly recommend getting a good grammar reference as quickly as you can. Another point to consider is that a good university level grammar guide is really not appropriate for teaching non-native speakers. I recommend the following books which have been especially designed for teaching ESL / EFL:

British Press

  • Practical English Usage by Michael Swan published by Oxford University Press - Advanced - great for teachers
  • English Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy published by Cambridge University Press - for both beginners and intermediate

American Press

Keep It Simple

One problem that teachers often encounter is that of trying to do too much, too quickly. Here is an example:

Let's learn the verb "to have" today. - OK - So, the verb "to have" can be used in the following ways: He has a car, He's got a car, He had a bath this morning, He has lived here for a long time, If I had had the opportunity, I would have bought the house. Etc.

Obviously, you are focusing on one point: The verb "to have". Unfortunately, you are covering just about every usage of have which then also brings into play the present simple, have for possession, past simple, present perfect, "have" as an auxiliary verb etc. Overwhelming to say the least!

The best way to approach teaching is to choose just one use or function, and focus on that specific point. Using our example from above:

Let's learn the use "have got" for possession. He has got a car is the same as saying He has a car... etc.

Instead of working "vertically" i.e. uses of "have", you are working "horizontally" i.e. the various uses of "have" to express possession. This will help keep things simple (they are actually pretty difficult already) for your learner and give him/her tools on which to build.

Slow down and Use Easy Vocabulary

Native speakers are often not aware of how quickly they speak. Most teachers need to make a conscious effort to slow down when speaking. Perhaps more importantly, you need to become aware of the type of vocabulary and structures you are using. Here is an example:

OK Tom. Let's hit the books. Have you got through your homework for today?

At this point, the student is probably thinking WHAT! (in his/her native language)! By using common idioms (hit the books), you increase the chance that the student will not understand you. By using phrasal verbs (get through), you can confuse students who may already have quite a good grasp of basic verbs ("finish" instead of "get through" in this case). Slowing down speech patterns and eliminating idioms and phrasal verbs can go a long way to helping students learn more effectively.

Maybe the lesson should begin like this:

OK Tom. Let's begin. Have you finished your homework for today?

Focus on Function

I find the one of the best ways of giving a lesson shape is to focus on a certain function and take that function as the cue for the grammar that is taught during the lesson. Here is an example:

This is what John does everyday: He gets up at 7 o'clock. He takes a shower and then he eats breakfast. He drives to work and arrives at 8 o'clock. He uses the computer at work. He often telephones clients... etc. What do you do everyday?

In this example, you use the function of talking about daily routines to introduce or expand on the simple present. You can ask the students questions to help teach the interrogative form, and then have the student ask you questions about your daily routines. You can then move on to questions about his/her partner - thereby including the third person singular (When does he go to work? - instead of - When do you go to work?). In this way, you help students produce language and improve language skills while providing them with structure and understandable chunks of language.

The next feature in this series will focus on standard curriculums to help you structure your study and some of the better classroom books that are currently available.

In the meantime, take a look at some of the lessons provided in the "Lesson Plans" section of . These lessons provide printable materials, explanations of the objectives, activities, and step by step instructions to using the lessons in class.

Grammar Lessons

Listening Lessons

Pronunciation Lessons

Reading Lessons

Speaking Lessons

Vocabulary Lessons

Writing Lessons