Tag Archives: teaching techniques

“What would you say if you were interviewing for an ESL teaching position?” (A question from a reader)

job interview

When I’m on a search committee, while we are interviewing an applicant, I can’t help but start thinking about how I would answer the interview questions myself.  It’s actually a good values clarification exercise (although perhaps best not to mentally practice it while interviewing someone).  So I appreciate Kevin’s question.

Instead of writing out a script of what I would say, I’ll explain what I would include, in general, in my response to some of the more commonly asked interview questions.

Question 1: What is your philosophy of language teaching and learning?

Everything that I do in my classroom is based on the premise that language learning is about skill development. Speaking, writing and reading a second language involve using skills. And just like learning other skills, for example, driving a car, playing tennis, or learning a musical instrument, ESL students need focused practice to develop their language skills.

The teacher’s role in helping students develop their skills is to find or produce activities that will engage students and that are at the right level of challenge for them.  The teacher is like a coach, setting up and introducing the practice session and then stepping back and being ready to offer support and guidance.

Also, just like when developing any skill, when learning a language, students should be given opportunities to make mistakes and to learn from them in a non-threatening environment.  This means that the teacher needs to relinquish being the center of attention.
(For more about this, see Introduction to Teaching ESL: Student-Centered Approach)

Question 2: What do you think are some of the greatest challenges facing ESL teachers?

I think ESL teachers often have an image problem.  Their image of a teacher is someone who stands in front of the class talking to the students and conducting the lesson with all the students’ eyes on him or her.  In fact, I recently heard a teacher say that she felt like she wasn’t earning her pay if she wasn’t in front conducting the class.  So the challenge is to break this image and realize that our job is to engage students in developing their language skills and for this to happen, the teacher has to stop being the center of attention.  Teachers are doing their jobs when their students are learning how to write better by actually writing in Writing class, or read better by reading in Reading class and by speaking in Conversation class. Students will actually progress faster when the teachers are on the sidelines giving support.

This doesn’t mean that teachers should never talk to the class as a whole. But we should realize that we are still good teachers even when, or especially when, we are not talking and when students are engaged in an activity.

Question 3A: Let’s talk about how you teach conversation skills.  What is your approach?

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Teaching the Most Interesting Type of Essay Introduction (an Inductive Approach)

Essay introduction

    Dan nervously flipped through a magazine as he waited for the other passengers to get into their seats.  Soon, a very large man sat down in the seat next to him.  His shoulders were so wide that they pushed Dan’s elbow off the arm rest.  The take-off and first 20 minutes were smooth.  Dan lowered the tray in front of him and set his lunch and coffee on it.  Suddenly, the passenger in front of him decided to push her seat back, shoving Dan’s tray into him, spilling coffee all over him.  For the rest of the two-hour flight, he tried not to think about how miserable he felt in his tiny seat and wet shirt.

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

Handout Dramatic Introductions

Most people like stories.  And essays that start with a story are often the easiest to enter.  Like these written by a couple of students:

     “A few months ago, in the middle of the night, when I was staying at home, I heard my house’s gate was shaken violently by someone.  There, I saw a woman who was carrying her baby, standing with panic and asking for help. …”

       “The 40-degree Celsius weather was miserable when we were going on the trail to my grandmother’s house in Bucaramanga, Colombia.  We had been traveling about seven hours and were in El Pescadero, which is the curviest and dizziest part of the trip.

These dramatic introductions are not only enticing for the reader, but they are also fun for the students to write; it gives them a chance to use their imagination and creativity.

At the same time, a good dramatic intro isn’t just a story.  There are three characteristics of especially good ones:

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Amazing Technique to Customize Listening to Movies, Podcasts etc. for any Level of Ability

movies

Lower-level adults understanding mature content

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

This amazingly simple technique revolutionized how I teach listening skills and completely liberated me.

After watching a good movie or a documentary on PBS or listening to an interesting segment on NPR or a TED Talk, I often thought, “My students would really like that.  Too bad their listening skills aren’t high enough.”   It was especially frustrating when I was teaching adult students because it was such a challenge to find mature content that they could understand.

Then I learned about this technique.  By using this, my students at almost any level can understand and enjoy any movie, documentary or program/podcast that I share with them.

I’ll explain more details about using the technique with movies, but here is a brief summary: Basically, the students are not trying to understand the narrator or actors.  Instead, they listen to their instructor tell them (at their listening level) what is being said or even describe in English what they just saw.  Every 10-30 seconds, the instructor stops the video/program, and explains what they had just heard or saw at a discourse level that they can understand.

For example, this came from an NPR segment about recycling.  This is what the students heard the person in the recording say, “They also gave the volunteers cans of soda and after the volunteers had drunk the soda, when the cans were intact, the cans went in the recycling.  But if the cans were dented or crushed in any way, the volunteers ended up putting those crushed cans in the trash.”

The instructor stopped the recording and told them what they had just heard at a level that they could understand, “The researchers gave some volunteers some cans of soda.  The volunteers drank the sodas.  After they finished drinking all of it, some of their cans looked new.  But some volunteers squeezed (instructor pantomimes squeezing the can) so it looked bad.  Do you understand?   Then the volunteers had to throw away their cans.  If the cans looked good or new, they threw them in a recycling bin.  But if the cans didn’t look new or looked bad, the volunteers threw them in the garbage.”  All this input is at their level.  And the information is probably new and interesting for the students.

Using videos for listening-skill development

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Making the Perfect Mixture of Structure and Autonomy in Conversation Activities (Customizing Exercises)

conversation autonomy

Conversational Autonomy

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
Here is the link to the exercise handout:  Expressing opinions

“Ms. Brown, do we really have to do anything we want to do again today?”*  Ms. Brown is probably an extreme case of instructors who try to give their students autonomy because they believe students know best what they are interested in.

The chances are that you are from a different culture, different generation and/or different socio-economic group from your students.  You probably have a different marital status, different interests and/or different goals.  So how can you tap into what will be most stimulating for your students to talk about when they are practicing conversational techniques?  In other words, how can you customize the exercise for your current group of students?

A key phrase in the question is “conversational techniques.”  Students should be learning techniques that they can apply in conversational situations.  Some technique examples are: beginning a conversation, giving understanding responses, clarifying something, politely interrupting someone, rephrasing something, soliciting details, giving opinions, summarizing what was said, ending a conversation.

Let’s say Ms. Brown wants her students to practice giving opinions.  To customize the activity, she tells the students to think of topics that are interesting to them, get into groups and tell their opinions.  But, without any kind of structure, the students will probably just take turns monologuing, not actually engaging in a conversation.

The “perfect mix” of structure and customizing involves three parts:

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