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The DOs and DON’Ts of Teaching English
Throughout the CELTA course your trainers will point you in the right direction with ideas for methodology, classroom management, language analysis, and opportunities for future development. Teaching ESL is not a rigid science, though, and sometimes it can get overwhelming trying to navigate all the choices you can make with lessons or with your career. It can be difficult to take a step back and see the forest for the trees. In order to simplify and consolidate the information, in this humble trainer’s opinion, the overarching best practices of teaching English can be summed up in a few DOs and DON’Ts:
1. DON’T Be Overly Rigid with Methodology
Your CELTA course is a primer on the communicative method of teaching English, which has been the prevailing practice for decades in most pedagogical circles. Encouraging a student-centered environment with ample opportunities for language output is the best way for a teacher to facilitate language acquisition.
However, there is more than one way to crack an egg, and it’s important to adopt different methods that suit your particular learning context. Students in more traditional cultures may actually prefer an authoritative role from the teacher or more rote grammar activities, and there is room to find a happy medium. On the other end of the spectrum, you can experiment with methods like dogme or flipped learning that break from the archetypal classroom environment.
Having fun and developing your own style will also prevent you from getting in a rut and burning out. There are only so many times you can teach the exact same target language in the exact same way before you – and your students – start to lose patience. Like Pablo Picasso said: Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.
2. DO Pursue Professional Development
The CELTA is only the first step of your teacher education. There are so many opportunities to continue to develop once you begin teaching. While you are interviewing for jobs, be sure to ask about any in-service training programs that are offered to the teaching staff. Examples would be a language awareness course, assisted lesson planning, or peer observations.
As a new teacher, the level of support offered should be a primary consideration when accepting a contract. If you are teaching at a smaller school with limited resources, you can still ask a more experienced teacher to be your mentor or pursue professional development online through Cambridge, the British Council, or International House – some of their webinars and online conferences are free!
After teaching for a few years, you may decide to pursue your Delta through Cambridge or a Master’s Degree in TESOL or Applied Linguistics. If you intend to make teaching ESL your career, you will need to develop beyond the basics.
3. DON’T Be A Linguistic Prescriptivist
Language is complicated and always changing. There are dozens of varieties of English that are spoken around the world, and all are considered “correct”. For example, most Americans wouldn’t hesitate to say “I already ate lunch,” but British speakers would typically consider that incorrect, favoring “I’ve already eaten lunch.” One feature of Smoky Mountain English is the doubling of modal verbs (“I might should go for a run today.”) – a pattern that does not exist in most other varieties, and which I’ve been guilty of declaring a “rule with no exceptions” in my ESL classes, until I learned otherwise! There are prescriptive, pedantic rules in English like the use of “whom” or saying “If I were you” instead of “If I was you” that are quite honestly not worth classroom time discussing.
So, if there are no fixed universal rules, how do you teach a language? Don’t worry – I’m not condoning linguistic chaos! A descriptive approach to language is best suited to the classroom. A teacher should value meaning and communicative impact over accuracy. Be aware of the varieties of English and features such as regional differences and register. Be wary when a course book designates a grammatical “rule” and do your own research. Be selective about which errors to correct and how. Know your students’ goals and teach them language that will help them reach those goals.
4. DO Learn (About) Your Students’ First Languages
When I tell people I’ve taught English in 5 different countries and currently lead a classroom with students who represent 6 or more different mother tongues, the first question I usually get is, “How many languages do you speak?!” The truth is: just one really well (English), one medium-well (Spanish), and one a tiny bit (Russian).
However, I know ABOUT many, many languages. I roughly know which languages fall into the same families, which languages are tonal, how different scripts are managed, how different languages approach time markers, and how the sounds vary across regions. I know literally no Arabic, but I know that my Arabic-speaking students will confuse the /b/ and /p/ sounds because those are interchangeable in their language. I know that Brazilian students will use “your” instead of “his” or “her” because in Portuguese the same word “seu” is used for all three functions. I know that Chinese speakers are likely to make errors like “I have two book” because they do not have separate plural forms of nouns.
Part of this knowledge comes from experience and observation, but it’s also possible to learn through research. There is an excellent book by Michael Swan and Bernard Smith called Learner English that describes features of languages and how they interfere with English language learning, which is a great place to start.
While by no means comprehensive and obviously gathered from my subjective experience, I believe that following the guidelines above has made me a much more confident and effective teacher. What DOs and DON’Ts do you abide by when teaching English? I’d love to hear them in the comments!
Erica Lederman is an ESL teacher and teacher trainer who has had classroom experience on four continents in addition to online tutoring. She is currently focused on teaching academic English to university students in Chicago and also running intensive CELTA courses with Teaching House as a freelancer.