For many years I have been teaching English to non-native speakers, both around the world and in the USA, my home country.
Upon returning to the USA in Fall 2008, I started teaching at an Intensive English Program (IEP) located in a university in the American Southwest. Those three years of teaching not only funded my dissertation coursework, but also presented me with another perspective on English language teaching. Previously, I had taught for private companies, business firms, the Peace Corps, the State Department ELF Program, and for universities around Asia. But it was only when I went to Mainland China to start my dissertation research in the field that I began to realize how important basic things can be when teaching a foreign language, whether it is English or any other language.
In late August 2012 the Inner Mongolia National University in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, China, accepted me as an international scholar. To help my research I had signed up with their second year Chinese Language Program. This course would help me to develop further fluency and to also experience again what it is like to learn a foreign language inside a foreign country. My rational was that this personal experience would correlate hopefully with the experiences of my focal children, who had also traveled from their remote home country, Buriatia, to learn Mandarin Chinese in a secondary school setting.
Before starting my official research, my position on English as Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teaching had been one that advocated supporting bilingual and multilingual teachers. This stance was based on the concept that many bilingual researchers and teachers hold: knowing languages other than your own helps people to become competent culturally as well as linguistically. I also realized, from having acquired Russian as a second language in school several decades ago, that by having gone through this process I would feel empathy toward my own English language learners.
The specific facts and experiences of my academic Russian language training was, however, long forgotten. At present I am situated in an intensive Mandarin Chinese Program, experiencing the same kinds of things my own ESL students experienced while I was teaching them at university in the USA. My current language training here in Chinese Mongolia has made me reevaluate my own competency as a teacher. I now offer you three reflections, and a short list of teaching tips.
My first reflection was to realize why international students often use up almost or all of their absences. Skipping classes can cause administrators to worry whether they are really focusing on their language studies. Good teachers also worry if they are engaging their students sufficiently. In my case, having arrived with some fluency in Mandarin, I still found my proficiency severely lacking. I was also experiencing culture shock. Even doing basic things like finding a doctor, renting a flat, and trying to find services: a decent hair salon, an eatery that suited me, or a dry cleaner's, all became time consuming and exhausting expeditions. Although international students are supported by their university administrations everywhere, no one is going to hold their hand and take them to all the places they need to go. As for me, sometimes, after struggling through bureaucratic paperwork and dense officials, all I wanted to do at the end of the day was go to my room and rest. So my first comment is that teachers and others who support English language learners, all of us must understand that the reality of surviving in a foreign country is different from our own. At times life for foreign language learners becomes inefficient and stressful, so they skip class.
The second point of reflection I discovered was that everything in my foreign student eyes becomes amplified. If a teacher is courteous and kind, her empathy vibrates through the classroom. If the teacher is upset or disgruntled, if his shirt is wrinkled and he needs a shave, this too transmits in greater intensity to language students. I had also never realized the way students stare at and study their language teachers; they are seeking all possible clues from the teacher to aid them in understanding the spoken and written text. Students talk to each other about the teacher's clothes, body language, and classroom behavior. Moreover, how the teacher will dress and move his or her body as a language teacher has great import on the learning conducted in class.
The third reflection focuses on clarity. Learning languages is not easy for most people. The clearer and more consistent a teacher is in presenting information, the better the reception by students. Guilty myself, I have written text hastily and sloppily on blackboards, stood in front of my writing, and obscured meaning from my students. I have failed to review key points in my haste to finish a chapter or meet a scheduled syllabus deadline. Maybe it was karmic payback to experience the same thing in my second year Mandarin classroom? From my vantage point as a student, I have complied a list of do’s and don'ts for the English language teacher. Although the list may appear simple, these notations are fundamental. I hope you will find in this list ways to improve your own teaching.
Teaching Tips Do’s and Don’ts
- Dress modestly; do not draw attention to your body
- Wear clean clothes; iron as necessary
- Dress for your age group to avoid ridicule from students
- Do not dress like your students, especially if they are younger
- Respect the cultures you are teaching by wearing dress that is not offensive
- Speak slowly and clearly unless requested to speak faster
- Repeat key words several times
- Read a text before asking the students to read the text
- Repeat key phrases; ask students to underline them
- Have the text read aloud a minimum of three times
- Make CDs if the textbook does not offer CDs for text and vocabulary
- Correct speech and use minimal pairs, but not more than four or five and define all words
- Write key words on board
- Write legibly; ask students if they can read your writing
- Stand out of the way so students can read what you have written
- Ask students to write in their notebooks, so you re not doing their work for them by offering too many handouts
- Don't write too much on the board; don't present too much information
- Don't erase the board before students have finished writing
- Allow students time to write, allow students to write on the board
- Use a book that makes sense to the level and culture
- Read the book; don't ignore it and create your own
- If you create your own texts, use a design that students can understand (grammatical progression, vocabulary progression)
- If the course has several classes, seek books that overlap in vocabulary and grammar patterns
- When students read, don't be afraid to correct their pronunciation ( have them sign an agreement to be corrected, if necessary)
- Structure the class so that everyone gets equal chances to read, not just the best students
- Review the text by re-reading it together chorally, in small groups, in pairs (dependent upon class size)
- Break the text into chunks
- Ask simple, then gradually more complex, questions about the text
- Do not ask students if they understand: ask questions to test their understanding
- Hold weekly quizzes. If our classes are large, have students grade each others' papers.
- Review everything, and consolidate the reviews so that old information is reviewed with newer information
- Write the homework assignment on the board so the oral instructions are reinforced
- Be consistent in your teaching methodology
- If you give homework assignments from the book, review book homework in a timely manner in class
- Use reading, writing and speaking in synch to reinforce key words and key concepts
- Know your students' names (if the class is large have them put cards in front of their desks)
- Do not try to assign names in English or other dominant languages
- Do not yell at students for not understanding you
- As a teacher,do not use your cell phone in class
- Do not tell your students to 'do the exercises on their own' so you can play with your cell phone
- If you do not understand a student's request, do not smile and ignore her: ask for clarification; also, ask the class to help clarify the request
- Give clear instructions
- Teach all the students, not just the best or the worst
- Do not translate into one language, ignoring the other language groups in the room (this is my pet peeve - watching a Chinese teacher show off by translating into English while the Mongolians, Russians, Cambodians, Africans, etc., are bored and/or lost)
- Come to class on time
- Outline your grade policy the first week
- Review rules: Ask students to use their cell phones only for dictionary purposes; door closes after 10 minutes after class starts
- Present a schedule for testing, holidays, and events in a timely manner
- Leave the room at break time, to give yourself and the students a break from each other
- Allow students to help each other, translate for each other, if needed
- Do not punish students for lack of attendance by refusing to let them participate when they do attend
- Do not mock students
- Appoint, if appropriate, a class monitor to help collect homework and hear student concerns