/ New to ELT, Teachers


After years of daily classroom routine, teachers tend to do things automatically, without even noticing that they do these things that way. These can be even bad habits (talking to students while continuously wandering about the classroom, using monotonous tone when giving feedback or just repeating ‘good job’ even after a mistake, etc.) and a supervisor after a classroom observation can (and should) help notice and correct them. However, there is a long list of good habits we usually do without thinking about them. When in 2011 I was asked to coordinate 12 teachers and recruit new ones, I had to realize that these good things are not so obvious to everyone. Let’s see some teaching observation notes.

So I’ve put together a quick list and I’d ask all future or freshly recruited teachers to take a look at it before they enter their demo lesson or their first real lesson:

Use the board

Sicily has taught to many of us that we cannot take for granted to have a black/whiteboard in the classroom in a public school (mind in a public office where you are supposed to teach clerks). But if there is any, let’s at least give if for granted that the teacher makes good use of it. Write onto it: every new word, a new grammar structure and its analysis must go onto the board. Students might recognize a word, but they need to see it and write it down in order to remember it (or its spelling). The board is your saver even in critical situations: you can play games at it even with bigger classes (spelling race, Hangman, Pictionary, Blockbusters, etc.) or you can draw on it and elicit a word without changing into students’ L1. A good part of your lesson preparation should be spent designing your whiteboard plan.

Use the course book (or any other material your students have)

You might not be so lucky to have a book to follow (which makes life easy), but if your students were given a course book, why not to use it? What sense does it make to give them loads of photocopies and leave the books untouched? Have you ever seen those copies at the end of the school year? You don’t have to teach the student’s book from cover to cover, but you will definitely find a good text to read, an excellent grammar explanation with exercises or a great picture to describe. Take advantage of them.

Keep eye contact with your students

I had never thought that I would need to explain this to new colleagues, but when I got promoted I had to acknowledge that due to nervousness or cultural habits some teachers talk to students without looking at them. I remember some university lecturers doing the same while walking up and down in front of the auditorium. However, language teachers teach effective communication to their students, so when talking to your students, sit down and look into their eyes. You will be surprised how easy it will become to maintain their attention.

Pay attention to ALL students

Your aim is not to get the correct answer from one student, but to make sure that ALL students will know the correct answer (and be able to figure it out on their own) even if they don’t speak up right after your question. Very eager students will make you feel comfortable, because they make sure that there won’t be any silent moments in your lesson. Nevertheless, they lead you to a disaster: their eagerness will definitely demotivate the other students and this is not what you want. So keep all your students active. If one answered the third question in a row, give him/her a couple of minutes to relax and call the other students. This also leads to another point:

Learn your students’ name

I have a German first name with a Hungarian surname and I live in Italy. After years, I don’t really mind if somebody calls me something different from my name, but similar to it in sounding (Emma or something like that will do it). So perfection is not the main issue. But after the first couple of lessons, you should be able to recall your students’ first name. If not thanks to your memory, then put a blank sheet onto your desk and jot down the students’ names in their sitting order while taking attendance at the beginning of the lesson and use this cheat sheet. You might be able to know them by heart before you need to mix them up for the next speaking activity.

Elicit continuously

There is a huge difference between my mother-in-law and myself when talking to my kids. She overuses modal verbs (you must do this or that, you can’t do this and that), while I continuously ask questions (can we do this? which one do you want: this or that? what color is this or that?). The same change language teachers need to make in their language use: instead of teaching/lecturing, they are supposed to elicit. As one of my colleagues would say: don’t talk longer than 20 second without asking a question (read his post here).

Correct mistakes

It sounds obvious, but don’t take it for granted that every teacher does it. You should. Error correction makes the big difference between a teacher and a foreign friend. You don’t have to correct all mistakes, but you need to correct some, let’s say the most typical ones, from lesson one. Then with some extra reading, you can learn tipps and tricks when and how you can/should correct mistakes (post about it coming soon).

Give task before listening/reading

As a native speaker of a language, you might be able to read or listen to something without any expectation, previous lead-in or comprehension questions and give a summary afterwards, but ESL students are not the same as you. Even at higher level, it might be difficult for them to just understand a text/track. They use the picture next to the text to make assumptions about its content and they need a reason for listening or reading. Just think that they will have to tackle accent/dialect and speed of speech of different speakers, tone and intonation which might contradict to the words, background noise, new vocabulary, tricky grammar structures, etc. All this in the fear of missing something out or misunderstanding a word. So help them and teach them help themselves. Analyse visual aids and the title, let them listen twice, asking them to listen for something specific each time. The first time something simple (number or intention of the speakers, the main topic of their discussions, ergo the gist of the text), the second time give them more questions. If you take a look in any of the modern course books, their writers follow the same methodology. Point out if the answers to the questions are in chronological order in the text and explain how to exclude incorrect answers to get the correct ones.

Make sure they know the correct answer

You might ask a student for the correct answer in an open class feedback session and think that everybody else heard or understood it. But it’s rarely the case. Students talk to each other even in these moments, they might get distracted, are still checking the text for the answer or just can’t make the answer out. Therefore, repeat or even better make the answering student repeat the correct response loudly and clearly or write it onto the whiteboard. Working on a question and never finding out whether the answer was correct can easily discourage students.

Make students take notes

It happens rarely that you have such a good structured book that you don’t need to add anything. Teachers usually have their own way of visualizing new structures and this is what they put onto the whiteboard. But it’s enough to think of a new lexical item with a trickier spelling pattern. Students might understand what you have written onto the whiteboard, but they won’t remember it after an hour or a day. So make sure that they take notes and copy every important detail from the board into their block notes. This is important also for adults, not only for Young Learners. Check, though, that they don’t copy everything from the whiteboard, be a guide for them and make clear what is important to have in their notes for a revision at home.

Check homework

You might not always assign homework, but any time you do, clarify in what way it will be corrected. If the book has an answer key, ask your students to check their answers at home, this way you save some classroom time. If the answers are not given to the students, and the exercise offers limited options as correct answers (closed exercise), decide whether you can copy the answers for the students or write them onto the whiteboard before the lesson and ask them to correct it in the classroom. Also this way you save time, since you have to discuss only those questions that students didn’t get right. In case, the questions in the homework assignment are open, you will need to go through the possible answers with the students. You need to leave enough time for this in your lesson plan. Finally, if the homework assignment was free writing, you will need to collect these and prepare a feedback lesson/session. By the way, feedback…

Give feedback also on written homework assignments and tests

There is nothing more demotivating than working on a homework assignment and not giving any feedback or just a superficial one: ‘Well done’ or ‘Try harder’ or 12/20. Stop for a second and think about this: your student found time in his/her maybe busy schedule or sacrificed his/her free time to do something you asked him/her to do. Have respect for this and find the time to correct these assignments as soon as possible (in my previous school one week was the max time allowed). The same for the tests: don’t only give your student the test papers with the result (e.g. 79%), but prepare a lesson or at least an activity which deals with the problem-fields. Try to get your students explain you and each other why one answer was not correct and reteach all points that were not taken in by the students before the test.

Think in advance HOW to do an exercise

You might want the students to listen to a track, but some of them find the transcript in the book and read it while listening (which turns this exercise into a reading activity). Or you want students to answer several questions and you start reading them out loud, but students are only staring at you over their closed books. Plan also when to give the instruction to open/close the book, to open/close their notebook, to write or just listen and when to start/finish an exercise.

Don’t let chats go for too long

One of the poorest explanation of teacher candidates after a demo-lesson without any progress in the syllabus or book has been that ‘students wanted to talk, so I did conversation with them’. Apart from the fact that conversation isn’t equal to ‘chit-chat’ (see my post on this topic), there must be a reason why courses follow a syllabus. You need to get things done. But even in a course where the teacher has the possibility to design the whole program, there must be a start point and a destination where students need to get by the end of the course. Moreover, chit-chats usually involve only one part of the students, the more extroverted ones, are done in open class, so not all students are active, often mean too much talking time from the part of the teacher and train only two skills (listening and speaking) and maybe some vocabulary. Even grammar clarifications seem to be ineffective due to the lack of targeted practice. So don’t think that you had a good lesson, if it was mainly chatting about everything and nothing. Focus on your teaching aims and target language.

Be genuinely interested in your students

Another thing that is for most active teachers obvious, but still nothing we could take for granted. Some (new) teachers misunderstand students’ interest in them and think to be the center of the lesson. Needless to say that the teacher conducts a lesson, might sometimes feel like a showman (without this you cannot keep tired adults awake from 8 to 9.30 pm), but not the star. Your students are. In addition, they need to learn how to use the language, so make them talk about themselves, listen to their opinion, to their life stories. Your interest must be genuine, though, students might not understand your language perfectly, but they understand your intonation and other non-verbal signals.

Lead into new topics, set context

You know that you have to teach, for instance, Present Perfect today and that you want to do 4 exercises from the student’s book and the workbook. Still, you can’t start your lesson saying: “Today we are going to discuss Present Perfect, here is the form…”. You need to lead into the topic, create a story (set context), that takes students to the form, which can then be elicited from them using one sample sentence possibly made up by the students. Even if you change into a new topic, do it smoothly, asking questions that direct students towards the next lesson phase.

Finish up your lesson with elegance

Don’t expect your students to understand, now they have to stand up and go home. When you have finished the lesson (or when the time is up), assign homework (write the relevant page and exercise numbers onto the whiteboard), remind them of coming tests or up-coming assignments, thank them for their cooperation and say Goodbye. You can continue chatting to them while you are collecting your materials and walk them out of room, all this gives style to the end of the lesson and also guarantees that you can have your 5-minute break before the next lesson.

Don’t worry if you cannot keep in mind all these points in your first lessons, have an action point for every coming lesson and work on these points one after one. Step by step and day by day…This list is open and if you can come up with any new ideas, do not hesitate the leave a comment.


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