ESL Teaching Tips

ESL students often develop sticking points or plateaus in learning English. To work past the difficult phases, teachers can try these classroom tested techniques which work with all age groups. Do not be afraid to introduce some game playing to your adult students, particularly if you are teaching evening classes for working students. Introducing short, active periods to breakup the textbook subject matter reawakens (literally) tired students and freshens their interest and motivation in the class. Here you will find methods and ideas for working through particular sticking points, increasing vocabulary recall speed, and spelling, pronunciation, and listening skills.

Tongue twisters. Alliterative phrases where every word starts with the same letter can be a fun and useful way to practice clear pronunciation and enunciation. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”, “Sally sells seashells at the seashore”, and other tongue scrambling phrases make a delightful break to text book work. Introduce a new tongue twister once a week. Search the internet using the keyword “tongue twisters” to find lots of possible tongue wriggling phrases.

R and L for Asian speakers. Asian speakers often struggle with producing the correct sounds for the letters “R” and “L”. Listening to you say the letters over and over does not do the trick. The easiest way for them to pick up the correct pronunciation is to show them the physical difference in the production of the sound. Have your student watch where your tongue is placed in your mouth as you say these letters. Point out that to make the sound for the “L” the tongue goes to the roof of the mouth; for the letter “R”, the tongue stays down. Make sure your students are close enough to you to see the difference in the action of the tongue.

Just whisper. Interestingly, whispering is a very effective way of enabling students to enunciate more clearly. Students who are having difficulty pronouncing words or letters correctly often benefit from trying to say the same phrase or letters in a whisper first. We naturally make a more conscious effort to form the letters more carefully when we whisper. Whispering also softens the pronunciation slightly so differences like those between the letters “j” and “g” become more distinct.

Play hangman in class. Plan your class time to include a 5 minute session of a modified version of the game “Hangman” to improve vocabulary and spelling. Choose words from a previous class. Draw blanks for each letter and then set a limit to the number of guesses. As your students state their guess letters, record the correct letter guesses on the blanks you have drawn and the incorrect guesses off to the side. The goal is for the students to guess the correct word before they run out of the allotted number of guesses. As your students gain familiarity with the game, select a different student to run the game each time you play. Call the student up and tell them the word. Then let them take it from there.

Make it apply. If you have adult working students, practice the vocabulary of their professions. Include practical everyday situational vocabulary as well like check writing terms and spelling out numbers, driver’s manuals, and forms they might have to fill out to apply for a job, visa, bank account, and so forth. Students are highly motivated by being able to handle daily living language.

Exposure is key. Just as with so many other skills we learn, exposure and practice are critical for enabling learners to develop their budding language skills. In addition to practice in class, assign listening “homework”. Listening is such an important part of learning a language. If your students have access to the internet, have them visit a website you have picked out and play a particular podcast or short video you have selected. They can listen as many times as they wish. Their job is to tell you what the podcast or video was about. Another way to achieve the same type of practice is to provide them a “mystery” phone number. You pick a phone number which is answered by an automatic answering machine which gives callers menu options. Have your students write down what the automated message stated. Again they can listen as many times as needed until they know what was said and your student does not need to speak to anyone, so they do not need to feel apprehensive for that reason. The next time you meet, your students can reveal what the “mystery” number was all about.

Buzzing with excitement. Counting and numbers are very important skills in any language. Practice numbers by having students form a circle, introduce a number sequence, and have the students state the next number in the sequence as they work around the circle. Start with straight counting, then do simple sequences like odds, evens, 5’s and 10’s. When your students are comfortable with simple sequences, play the game “Buzz”. Announce the “Buzz” number at the start of the sequence. Each time a student gets a number which includes the selected number; they say “Buzz” and play proceeds to the next player. For example if the “Buzz” number is 2, then players would say “Buzz” for numbers like 2, 12, 20, and so on. The goal of the game is to get as far along the sequence as possible before a mistake is made.

Building natural speaking rhythm. A very common situation for speakers learning English is the application of the speaking rhythm of their native language to English. The result is heavily accented English with unusual speaking patterns. There are a couple of techniques which will help foreign language speakers gain the rhythm and stress patterns of English. The first is to introduce nursery rhymes. One per class session or so will provide a break in the more regimented language practice and give the students a chance to listen to the natural rhythms of English. Nursery rhymes are short, easy to memorize, and can be said in a cadence which helps students both pronounce words more clearly and hear the natural breaks between words. Another technique is to use a call and response exchange between the teacher and students. An example would be:

Teacher - How long does it take?
Students - It takes a long time.
Teacher - How long does it take?
Students - It takes a long time.
Together - It takes a long, long time.

Hymns, marching cadence calls, some popular songs, poems, or other rhyming sequences can be adapted for this use. Teachers can write the phrases on the board to help students learning new call and response exchanges. Clapping to keep the rhythm is also beneficial in this exercise.

Applying these techniques as you work with students will make your classes fun, challenging, and, best of all, successful.

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