9 Small Details That Matter When Teaching EFL
When you teach English as a foreign language it’s important to pay attention to details that we sometimes ignore when communicating with other native level speakers, either in spoken or written English. Some people have got into the habit of writing in uppercase/capital letters, use abbreviations, and don’t think much about punctuation. We also tend not to be too critical of people’s spoken English as long as we get the point across. ‘There’s a lot of cars on the road today’ is grammatically incorrect for example.
We also tend to enjoy speaking when we should be letting others speak. This is a particular issue in the classroom when you should be maximizing student talk time and minimizing yours. Here are some thoughts about many things that you can do in the classroom that teachers sometimes forget about, and the reasons why they’re important.
Think about the two sentences: "Let’s eat grandma!" vs. "Let’s eat, grandma!" Which one would grandma prefer to hear? Commas can make a big difference as this shows. They’re also important in conditional sentences whereby the comma is removed when you reverse the order of clauses and put the “If” clause at the end.
Question marks can be used effectively to elicit questions when they’re put on the board, and unnecessary difficulties can occur when the question mark is missing, especially when the teacher asks the students to create a sentence when the intention is to elicit a question (OK, grammatical gurus can talk about “interrogative sentences” but let’s not go there here – we’re focusing on the basics in the majority of EFL classrooms). Write a question mark on the board before an answer, point to the question mark and say “How do we make a question to get this answer?” Easy when done correctly. Forget the question mark and ask “How do we make a sentence?” and all you get is a sea of baffled faces! Point made.
2. Upper and Lowercase
Nowadays many people use keyboards for writing and use uppercase letters (capitals) for everything they write by hand. It’s important to model the correct use of upper and lower case letters when you write on the board to ensure students can see the conventional patterns. Bear in mind that different cases aren’t used in some scripts such as Thai, Arabic, Korean and Japanese to name just a few. You might also want to think about whether it’s appropriate to write in cursive bearing in mind that many students will be reading everything you write as a foreign script. This adds another hurdle for your students that doesn’t need to be there.
With the increased use of texts and SMS messages, there is a tendency to abbreviate what we write but is this appropriate when you teach? Certainly, if your lesson has teaching points about abbreviations you should use them. There are times when abbreviations are completely natural (‘sales rep’ for example) but at other times you should be writing words out in full. The general rule should be to write things on the board in the way that they’re said. A couple of examples of what to avoid: Thx = Thanks / pp = per person.
4. Use of Colour on the Board
Colour can be a very effective way to pick out important words and help show patterns of language clearly. However, do consider the colors that you use, and avoid writing the main body of your board work in red or green. Both of these colors are ideal for picking out individual words, but the impact is reduced if overused. Green is a particularly bad color, as it becomes hard to see quickly if there’s any glare on the board – have you ever wondered why we don’t see any green stars? Red is considered a very negative color in some cultures (indeed the language of death!). Finally, the most common color blindness is reduced sensitivity to red and green.
5. Avoid Boring Gap-Fills
EFL teachers seem to love using gap-fills when eliciting language on the board, presumably because it’s by far the easiest method in the toolbox. Yes, it’s a suitable approach but students won’t remain enthusiastic for long unless you add a bit of variety. One very basic way that gap-fills can be more engaging is to only leave gaps where students leave gaps in what they say when you’re eliciting language from them.
For example, a student might say “The pen on table” when you ask them to create a sentence in a preposition of place lesson. When written on the board, this clearly shows their lack of accuracy visually, and you can draw attention to the teaching points. If you simply started by writing: “The pen is ____ the table” to elicit “on” there would be all sorts of language points the student didn’t get a chance to focus on. This is a simple example but the same approach works well with any lesson.
Also read: 7 Alternatives to Boring English Worksheets
6. Avoid Changing What Students Say
We are always told to be encouraging with our students, and part of this should be for them to get comfortable making mistakes when speaking so that fluency develops alongside accuracy. One way that encouragement can be counterproductive is false praise. There is a balance to be struck between overcorrection and acceptance of everything as good. We certainly need to listen for errors directly related to our teaching points.
If a student says “I go to a concert yesterday night” during a past simple lesson we should avoid simply saying back “we say we went to a concert last night”. Think about letting the conversation or teaching stage finish and then go back to what had been said, writing it on the board, and helping the student see what they’d said so that they can focus on and think about what they need to improve on. If you just correct the language yourself during a teaching passage the students aren’t going to have time to adjust their thoughts.
There are, however, quick fire methods whereby the teacher asks a student a question to elicit a response using a target pattern, the student replies, the teacher corrects then asks another question for the student to reply to with ever-improving accuracy. Whatever you decide to do, do it with some thought behind it. Parrot correction is something to avoid.
7. Maximizing Student Talk Time
For students to improve their language skills, they need to speak as much as possible so we should always be looking for ways to maximize student talk time. Some basic techniques include having students read out full answers to worksheets that they’ve done (with the teacher saying no more than ‘What do you have for question 2 Dan?’), have students call on someone for an answer during feedback instead of the teacher doing it, and use models on the board for students to read out with their own modifications. Whilst it’s important for students to hear naturally spoken accurate English from the teacher, the focus should be on students speaking, not the teacher.
8. Calling on Individuals
There are accepted ways on how questions should be asked of students when teaching in classes, but should you call on an individual student first or pose the question first? As with many things, all that’s important is that you’ve thought about what you’re doing and have decided on a particular approach for a good reason. In this case, both are appropriate depending on what you want to achieve.
It makes sense to pose the question first when you have attentive students who will then think about what the answer might be, knowing that the teacher might call on them for a response. However, sometimes the more vocal students might answer quickly, or multiple students call out at once. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s appropriate to call on an individual first in an effort to even up contributions, encourage quieter students and control the more vocal.
9. Pronunciation Drilling
A standard procedure used in the EFL classroom is pronunciation drilling, with students repeating what the teacher says chorally and individually. One small detail that can result in puzzled looks on your students' faces is if you don’t have the words on the board first. A good example of this is when a student had said ‘housework’ missing the middle ‘s’ sound, the teacher thought the student had said ‘hard work’ and drilled this despite the student making attempts to clarify what had been said. Something to bear in mind at least!
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Hopefully, this has at least given some food for thought and drawn attention to how important the smallest details can be when teaching a foreign language.
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