Most English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers start teaching with very little training and often end up making it up as they go. I know, I was there. I made all the common mistakes and I didn’t even know I was teaching ineffective classes until I started studying more about teaching and had a chance to visit classes of more experienced teachers. Not only novices make these mistakes, but many long term teachers also haven’t really had the opportunity to observe quality English classes and have less than optimal lessons. Here are some activities and practices that I believe to be ineffective.
1. Focus on the Activity Rather than Student Needs
It is easy to get caught up in a popular game, song or craft activity without ever really considering if it is in students best interests or not. The goal of English classes is to help your students learn English, not pass the time as quickly as possible. Make sure you are focusing on games, activities and stories that are giving your students the English exposure they need. In once a week English classes, extended crafts, inappropriate songs and pointless activities should be avoided. There are many great chants, games and books that are appropriate for the ability of your students. Spend the time to find or develop activities that will facilitate your students’ learning.
2. Communicating at Inappropriate Levels
Novices teachers often come into English classes and talk just like they would to a native English speaker. It can take a long time to learn to simplify language and speak at a level appropriate to students. Experienced teachers know exactly what students have previously learned, what language targets they are weak at and what new targets are coming. By offering regular review and slow introduction of new targets teachers can maximize learning. This really is an art and I believe it takes several years to get good at it. If you are interested in researching more this is often referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky) or “L+1” (previous learning plus a little more).
This is one of the primary reasons I avoid textbook-based lessons for children. It is impossible for teachers to get a good understanding of all the targets in a textbook if you are just going to the next page in the book. Can you name all the key language targets in the textbooks you are using? Do you know which areas your students are having difficulty with? Do you know what is coming up and have you been slowly introducing those targets in advance? It is very hard to answer yes to those questions if you take a linear approach to teaching.
3. Not Teaching What Students Need to Learn
What are the most important language targets your students need to learn next? Is it shapes? Do they really need to say, “rectangle” and “diamond” in the near future? If not, then don’t waste time teaching it. Do they need to learn animal sounds? “Chick, chick, quack, quack, oink, oink.” Will that help them communicate more effectively in English?
Teach what students need to learn, don’t just pass the time with silly activities. If your students only had one more class in English, what would you teach them so that they could communicate something, anything? Start with simple expressions like, “please, thank you, here you are, bathroom please.” Then move on to vocabulary that they need to know like, “food, toys, school supplies, verbs, etc.” After that, start introducing grammar and longer sentences. Always think about the next most important language target that your students need to learn. I can bet it isn’t going to be the “Alphabet Song” or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Every language target can be made fun with the right games and activities. Don’t settle for ineffective lessons just because you haven’t thought about the needs of your students.
4. Inadequate Preparation
It drives me crazy when teachers show up to class without any idea of what they are going to cover. Making up lessons as you go is a waste of your students time and money. It is also more stressful for the teacher. Take some time to think about what you are going to teach and how you are going to teach it. Think of the vocabulary you will cover. What games will you use? Take out all the materials you are going to use in the class and lay them out in order so that you are not searching through drawers in the middle of the class. Make sure you have extra games on hand in case one activity bombs or you run out of time. It doesn’t take much longer to properly prepare for a class, but the quality of the lesson will be substantially better.
5. Speaking the Students’ Native Language
Classes are to teach English, not for you to study a new language. Proficiency in the native language of your students can help you understand students needs more, but that doesn’t mean you need to be using that language in class. Virtually everything can be communicated in English. You don’t need to explain games, just play them and demonstrate.
Teachers new to a country frequently try to use the little language they have picked up in class. The problem is that students will most likely understand those easy targets in English so there is no need to use the students’ language. Never say expressions like, “thank you, here you are, what’s this?, yes, no,” etc. in the students’ first language (L1), they will know or will soon learn these words in English.
6. Racing Through the Textbook
In order to really acquire language targets, students need multiple exposures in a variety of contexts. Many teachers just read through the pages in a textbook without much review or evaluation of whether or not students are able to use that English.
Remember that you are teaching what students need to learn, NOT the next page in the textbook. If students don’t understand, do the same target again with different games or activities. If students forgot an old target, and they often will, go back and review. If it is too easy, then don’t be afraid to skip sections, but the criterion of difficulty must be evaluated on students’ needs.
When I first started teaching, I often thought that particular targets were so easy that they were a waste of time. However, what is easy for the teacher isn’t always easy for students. This is particularly a problem when teaching adult students. Teaching basic English to beginner students gets boring fast so teachers want to bring in newspaper articles or talk about current events. Sure those activities are interesting for the teacher, but they are seldom in the interests of your students.
7. Little Communication in Class
Many teachers get up to the front of the room and talk at the students like they were giving a speech. In order to learn to communicate in English, students have to actually communicate. They need to ask questions, express their own opinions and talk to each other. Effective teachers try to get out of the way as much as possible. Students don’t need to listen to you talk or drill vocabulary. They need to be able to use the language in real contexts. Even beginner children can be encouraged to speak and ask questions if they are taught key expressions in the beginning.
Don’t stick to one drill pattern. Constantly vary the pace and try to personalize everything to your students particular interests. For example, don’t do long repetitive drills like “What is it? It is a dog. It is a cat. It is a bird. etc.” Those types of lessons bore students to death. Introduce appropriate questions that your students can understand. “Do you have a dog? What is your dog’s name? What color is your dog? How many dogs do you have? Do you want a dog? Where is your dog? Where does your dog sleep? What does your dog eat? Does your dog like chocolate? etc.” Even boring drills can be made interesting by introducing relevant questions. This is also a great way to review previous targets or introduce new ones. Even better, get your students to ask each other questions whenever possible.
The Key Take Away Point
If there is one lesson that you should take away from this post, it is that you should always be teaching what your students need to learn. Don’t let your materials, textbook or biases control the classes. Try your best to accurately evaluate students’ abilities and then deliver suitable games and activities to teach the most appropriate language targets. There are dozens of effective ways to teach any target so constantly experiment to make your lessons as memorable and fun as possible. If you are teaching young children and even beginner adults, English flashcards with pictures can make your classes much more fun and help you focus on what your students need.