Whether you have a curriculum you follow for the semester or you make class up as you go along, you need to know what to teach.
Sometimes including the right content in class is tough. How do you know what your students really need to know? How do you make sure you cover those things in class? If you are wondering these things or just don’t know where to start when planning class content, here are five strategies for making sure you are teaching what your students really need to learn.
5 Tips for Teaching What Students Really Need
Start off on the Right Foot
On the first day of class, take some time to find out what your students need, want, or expect from your class. If you are teaching a short session of English for Specific Purposes, you might already have a good idea what your students need to learn. That’s why they are taking your class, after all. But if you are teaching a more general class like intermediate grammar, it might take a little more work to find out what students want and need to know. If you teach high intermediate or advanced students, try having a discussion on the first day of class. Ask questions like why they are studying English or what they hope to do with their language skills after they complete their English program. You might get answers like go to college in the U.S. or use English for business communications. If you teach lower level students, it might not be possible to have a discussion. You can still ask the same types of questions, only this time print them out in a short survey. Take five or so questions that ask why they are studying English. Put them in a simple list, and give your students space to write their answer under each question. Allow students to use their translators or dictionaries, and you will end up with a good idea of how your students intend to use their English skills. As a bonus, you might get a good read on their writing abilities, too.
Take a Stab at It
As much as you try to get the information directly from your students, not everyone will be able to tell you just what they want to be able to do with English. But all is not lost. You’re experienced. You have taught English classes to lots of students (or your colleagues have). Using your experience and knowledge, make a list of the things your students will need to use English for in their futures. You can do this in several ways. First, think about their native languages and students you have taught from the same home counties. What did they need? What did their English education up until that point lack? Did they learn more reading and writing and little to no speaking? Or vice versa? Do speakers of their native language tend to have pattern problems and need instruction on specific grammar or pronunciation points? Are they learning English for business? If so, they will likely need to know different types of business communication forms (memos, email, etc.) and will need to have good presentation skills. If your students will be studying at a university after their English program, they will need good writing skills (for research papers, essays, and exams) and reading skills (to dissect textbooks and do research in English). Using the knowledge you poses, you can make a good educated guess at what your students will need even if they can’t articulate it themselves.
Give the Dreaded Assessment Test
Oh, that first day of class when the teacher tests on every English skill in existence, or so it seems…it can be traumatic. Students may leave thinking they know even less English than they thought. It stinks to put your students through this, especially on the first day of class. But as much as it “hurts me more than it hurts you”, you need to know what your students know, and assessment tests can tell you just that. Once you take a look at their scores, you will know what areas of grammar and language use you need to focus on, and you can be sure to cover those in your class. Do what you can to make the experience more bearable for them. Assure them that their performance does not count toward their grades. And encourage them that by the end of the semester they will know things that they aren’t getting right today.
Keep it Real
ESL materials are great for teaching and learning, but sometimes they lack what students need to flourish in the real world. They just aren’t real. Materials manufactured for ESL classes are, as they should be, simplified, limited, and easier to digest. But your students won’t have daily encounters with ESL materials once they are out of your program. So another way you can be sure to meet the needs of your students is to include plenty of real life, not made for ESL, materials in class. This includes videos (YouTube and Netflix are great resources as well as thousands of other websites) and written material (newspapers, menus, maps, schedules, etc.). The more you include realia in your classroom, the more ready your students will be able to tackle the same materials once they are out of the class. And if you know what your students intend to do with the English they are learning, bring in materials they will encounter in those environments. Bring in an interoffice memo, a product catalog, an essay exam, a course registration booklet…the possibilities are endless. And if you do, you can be sure your students will be ready for the real world that awaits them.
Another way to make sure you meet the needs of your students is to be flexible in what you assign. Yes, you have to meet certain standards. You have to get certain things done. But you can allow students to tailor what they do to what their future holds. When you have a writing assignment, allow students to write a business letter or a personal email. Just cover how to do both in class. They are similar enough that either would likely meet the needs of your curriculum. You can have students listen to either a news program or a recorded lecture for listening practice. You can let them choose the content of articles they read and magazines they look at. You can let them write about their families or their business or their friends. Just think when you are creating your assignments. How can I tailor this to the needs of my students? What can I tweak or let them tweak to make sure each person finds this activity or assignment valuable?
If you ask yourself these things and be intentional about meeting the needs of your students, they will have no complaints about what you teach.
You will both know that what they are learning is useful for what they ultimately want to do in English.