ESL training

Back to the basics


During the first lesson of English didactics for my university students, I lay out the task: for the run of the course, they were going to work on creating their own “method” for teaching English.  Each student would write two lessons, including a number of activating materials and activities, a cross-curricular connection, and a simple means of assessment.  The lessons were to fit the ability and interest of their class, and fit into a given didactic model.

Of course, the students stared at me, wondering what on earth half of that even meant.  I continued on, explaining that the word “method”, often used by Dutch educators to mean the textbook they use, is actually a misnomer.  We weren’t, therefore, going to actually make up a “method”, but create a series of lesson plans that we would publish for our own class.  Heads started nodding warily, as students realized they still lacked too much information to even begin with this task.

After that, I passed out the post-its.  Time for them to start thinking up their questions.   As they handed in their questions, I sorted them into topic piles.  The students sorted themselves into groups, and I handed each of them a pile of post-its, along with some handy search terms.  They were going to find information – any information at all – that was going to help them figure out the whats and hows for the task at hand.

As I read the questions, I remembered my own beginnings as a young teacher.  The kinds of questions I’d had, way back when.  “How do I keep their attention?” one student asked.  Another: “What is a didactic approach?” or “What is a cross-curricular connection?”  Others asked “How do I know what children like?” and “What is their level of English?”  These questions pulled me back from my lofty dreams and years of experience back to the nitty-gritty of the basics: these Freshmen students were ready to learn, with heads full of questions.  Time to get to work!

We spent some of the next lesson discussing our position regarding the use of L1 during the English lesson.   It’s easy during these discussions to think that one’s own opinion is better or more valid because most people agree on it.  It was a bit of an eye-opener when we realized that just because less people have a certain opinion, doesn’t make it less valid.  It just means we have to listen carefully and take everyone’s opinions into account.


It was important to help students remember what it was like to learn a new language from scratch.  I decided to teach them a short, 10-minute lesson in Russian.  No, I don’t really speak Russian, but I figured out just enough to teach them the words for apple, orange, and banana, and to learn how to ask and answer “What’s this?”  That simple example really hit home, and we refer to it often.  It was only ten minutes, but we learned so much: how to start and end a lesson, how to introduce new vocabulary, basic classroom management, how to play a simple game of pass-the-question, how to keep it fun, and most importantly, how to give the students a feeling of success in a very new and strange environment.

We have a few more lessons to go with our class, and every time we get together I put on my “back to basics” hat, looking at my material with the eyes of the inexperienced.  It’s an enriching way of teaching, to say the least, and one I hope to keep going in the years to come.


Practice makes perfect!

Working as a new college lecturer this past school year, I was grateful to the woman who had held the position before me, as she had carefully prepared nearly everything I would need to do in the course of the year.  Course outlines, test matrices, and student teaching assignments were all ready-made.  Finding myself jumping into in the deep end was made a lot easier due to her thorough preparation.  I later found out that in college, contrary to the grade schools I’d worked at previously, any changes in planning must go through a number of committees whose primary task is to ensure continuity and quality of the overall program of study.  Any changes I wished to put into action, therefore, would have to be carefully planned and documented months in advance.

As I began teaching, I started seeing things in a different light.  How would I like to change this lesson, or that test?  How could I adapt the program to create more space for the skills I wished the students to develop?  I talked about this with my supervisor, and she encouraged me to look at different ways of teaching and testing, so that the program could be optimized.  As a former developer of early ESL programs in The Netherlands, I was finally, truly, in my element.  It was time to roll up my sleeves and develop a program that would take students past the books and truly equip them to teach early ESL in their own schools.

The first question I thought about was, what do future ESL teachers need to be able to do?  I brainstormed, making a list of skills they would need: long-term planning, lesson planning, assessment skills, classroom management (in English), the ability to select appropriate material for their class… at the end of the day, the list was quite long. After that, I pared the list down to a few basic items, resulting in a basic kit of skills that would enable any teacher to teach ESL at beginner level.  Then I focused my attention on the perfect student teaching assignment.

I thought back to my own experience as a starting ESL teacher.  Where did I grow the most?  When did I develop the best?  I realized that I learned the most from my experience when I started teaching parallel groups.  It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the growth resulted from my teaching the exact same lesson three or four times in a row.  The first time, I was trying out new games, new stories, and new songs.  Each reaction from the children was new, and I had to keep up with them, instead of being able to anticipate what they might not understand and what they might find difficult or – on the other side of that coin – too easy.  By the time I did the lesson the third (or even fourth!) time, I was able to anticipate the children’s needs and reactions, making the lessons go much smoother.  No longer having to focus on the material, I was able to make better contact with the children, resulting in more effective learning.

By practicing the same lesson a few times, the students can effectively apply the PCDA cycle.

By practicing the same lesson a few times in a row and reflecting on their experiences, the students can effectively apply the PCDA cycle to their teaching practice.

How could I pass on this experience to my own students?  The answer came equally quickly:  instead of teaching one lesson to the entire class, I decided to require them to teach the same (short) lesson multiple times to smaller groups.  Between each round, the student will have to answer certain questions regarding the level of input, the children’s output, and the match between the two.  The student will also have to reflect briefly on the amount of interaction during the lesson and experiment to increase that interaction.  By giving the same lesson three times in a row, the learning experience will then be deeper and more effective.  The lessons pulled out of that mini-experience will be things that can be applied to the larger group, in a broader context.  Not only that, but the mini-experience will form the basis for the rest of their learning during the course.

With this plan in mind, I can honestly say that I am greatly looking forward to my student teachers’ experiences next year and hearing about what they learned.  Here’s to next year!