Yes, You Can: 8 Keys to Being a Successful ESL Teacher

Yes, You Can
8 Keys to Being a Successful ESL Teacher

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 93,995 views

One of the first things I am asked when I tell people I am an English as a second language teacher is, “What languages do you speak?”

Though it might make my high school French teacher cringe, I have to admit that I am fluent only in English. “But how can you teach people English if they do not speak it?” I often hear. The truth is, you do not have to speak a foreign language to teach English to speakers of other languages. Still there are some keys to being a great ESL teacher, and the good news is you probably already know what they are.

How to Be a Successful ESL Teacher: 8 Keys

  1. 1


    Did you know that smiling is a universally understood trait among human beings? Babies smile at four to six weeks regardless of their culture of origin. Researchers have even observed smiles in babies born blind. So when you make a habit of smiling at your students, they will know the emotions that are behind the toothy grin and will make a habit of smiling back. This simple gesture will put your students more at ease and give your class a fun feeling no matter what content you are teaching!

  2. 2

    Go Beyond Your Voice

    Communication is more than the words one person speaks to another. (That is part of why it is harder for ESL students to communicate over the phone than it is in person.) When you are speaking with your students, give them all the communication clues that you can. This means, though it may seem awkward at first) letting them see your mouth as you say words, both words that they know and do not know. It also means writing words on the board so they can see the written form as well as hear the oral form. Using body language is also important, and don’t be afraid to get creative or dramatic in how you communicate. All of these clues will work together with the language your students are learning to facilitate their communication and success at becoming speakers of English.

  3. 3

    Speak Thoughtfully

    A common mistake among English speakers is thinking that a higher volume will increase comprehension in English as a second language speakers. Since you teach, you probably know that is not true, but how you speak can affect how well your students learn. When you speak to your students, speak clearly, perhaps a little slower than your natural rate. Articulate your words and try to limit your dialectal accent. Because you want your students to be successful no matter where their futures take them, the closer approximation you can make to “standard” English, the better equipped they will be.

  4. 4

    Speak Strategically

    Whether you are teaching in English only or are using your students’ native language as well, thinking about what you say in addition to how you say it will help your students learn more language without even realizing they are doing it. When they have that I-don’t-know-what-you-are-talking-about-but-I-am-just-going-to-smile-and-nod-anyway look, rather than asking if they understand what you said, simply say the same thing in a different way. This, in effect, gives them a definition of what you said to them but in a natural and conversational way. When you do, your students will understand more and make more connections among the English vocabulary they already know.

  5. 5

    More Than You Think

    Everyone understands more language than they are able to successfully produce. This is true of first language speakers as well as second (or third) language speakers. If you doubt it, think about the vocabulary lists we all had to learn for the SAT’s or the TOEFL. Remembering that your students understand more than they can articulate is important for teachers when our students aren’t producing the kind of language we think they should. Remember that comprehension always precedes production, and when your students understand what you are saying, it is only a matter of time before they, too, will be able to produce that linguistic structure.

  6. 6

    Don’t Be the Only Teacher

    Letting your students help each other can make a big difference in your class and their language learning. More advanced students will understand some problems specific to native speakers of their language, and they may be able to explain a concept better to their peers. When this happens in the classroom, the student with the question benefits because he understands, but the student giving the explanation also benefits. We remember far more of what we teach than what we are taught, so your teaching student will solidify the language concept in her mind as well as she explains it to the other student.

  7. 7

    Put on Respect

    One of the most difficult parts of being an ESL teacher is learning and using students’ names. Though struggling to pronounce foreign names may make us sympathize with our students, sometimes it is easier to assign English names to the members of our class. And while some students do not bat an eye at taking an English name, others may take offense. When we require our students to use foreign to them names, we can unintentionally devalue them as people, and we devalue their culture, too. So before you require English names from your students, ask each person what he or she would like to be called, and use the name they give. You can let your students know they can choose an English name at any time, but it is not required. Some will never choose one, but most probably will even if it takes them a while to decide how they would like to be identified in English.

  8. 8

    Cultivate Respect

    The most important thing in being a successful ESL teacher is having respect for your students’ and their cultures. Those of us who have travelled and taught overseas are well familiar with the phrase “It’s not wrong, just different” and that is never more useful to remember than in the ESL classroom. Sometimes we or our students can take offense for something that was never meant to offend. For me, the realization came when my students started referring to me as “Teacher” rather than using my name. Where I was offended because they seemed to be talking down to me, they were using it as a term of respect and authority. Without knowing about their culture, I would have continued to be frustrated at what I did not realize was their expression of respect.

Communication is about so much more than knowing a set of vocabulary. For ESL teachers, culture and communication go hand in hand, and knowing and respecting our students are as important as covering the grammatical structures outlined on the syllabus.

Not every speaker of English is a great teacher of English, but every teacher of English can become a great educator. Keeping in mind the needs and emotions of our students goes a long way to creating a classroom where students not only learn but are transformed.


What is your key to success as an ESL teacher?

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