Tag: teaching ESL

An update and a plan

One of my goals in blogging about teaching has been to focus on improving as a teacher. To that end, I’ve started writing about one group, in particular, that challenges me. You might want to start at the beginning.

Feeling a failure

My evening courses take a break for the month of February. That means that I’ve had three weeks to process things, but it also means that one block of lessons ended at the end of January and the next block begins next month, in March.

And that means that students have to sign the next contract. There are always students who leave groups, and certainly, there will be new students in March. Even though I still take it personally when students leave my groups, I generally know that I shouldn’t and I’m generally okay with them leaving.

The the “problem group” however, I had a student who was always challenging. (The whole group was challenging, remember?) He was from Vietnam but had lived in Germany since the GDR and spoke German with a thick accent. In English, his accent wasn’t better, but he was motivated to learn.

You know where this is going: he left the course. Of course, he didn’t blame me. Instead, he did the German thing of bringing a bottle of sparkling wine and saying farewell. And, who knows, he might have reasons aside from not making progress.

But, I know that he didn’t make the progress he wanted to make, and I blame myself.

This means that I’m motivated to do better.

The plan

As you’ll recall from the first and second posts about the problem group, you’ll know that one of the things that worked was using “conversation drills,” but that one of the problems I had was that, quickly, it became repetitive.

Learning from it, I’d like to start out with a few different ‘drill conversations,’ to be able to rotate through them.

Also, you’ll remember from my post on reusing things, that I’ve become a fan of reusing activities in things like an envelope review. So, in addition to my amazing vocab worksheets, I plan to use a sort of gentle, drawn-out grammar-review strategy that I’ve started using with other groups. (I’ll try to write more about how I’ve started going about it, soon.)

One more thing I hope to have finished first is a set of matched role cards for the telephone, with a card for the caller and a card for the ‘recipient’ of the call (who will work at a hotel or whatever). The goal is to use them as a recurring activity that adds structure and predictability, but gets more simple conversations going.

Lastly, something that I used to do and somehow got away from, was a vocabulary review strategy that had students translating entire sentences–containing the target vocabulary–from German. (Because I think L1 belongs in the classroom.) The idea is that, in addition to reviewing vocabulary, students would have to form well-formed sentences or questions, and practice this.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

In Defense of L1 Use in the Classroom

On my other blog, I’ve already written about this. I think that a new blog is an excuse to revisit the topic again.

There’s a truism in English language instruction that using the students’ language in the classroom slows — or even prevents — learning. I’ve even heard school managers say that they prefer not to hire teachers who speak the students’ language for fear that it will be overused in the classroom.

I have some thoughts about this. The summary is that L1 (the students’ first language) is a tool like any other. It’s no less welcome in the classroom that PowerPoint.

Why L1 use is problematic

There’s a risk that, as soon as students realize the teacher speaks their language, they won’t try as hard to communicate in English. It’s a real risk. I can’t count the number of times that students have said to me — or to the other students — “das kann ich nicht auf Englisch sagen” before explaining something to the group.

Then, this concept that can’t be expressed in English becomes a topic. Sure, the teacher can provide the vocab quickly. But what if the grammar is beyond their reach?

It’s the teacher’s fault

There was a younger version of me who quickly became frustrated with the students. “It’s a language lesson. If they can’t say it in English, they should just sit on it until they can.”

Stupid students.

But, it’s not their fault. My realization was creeping. First, I realized that I don’t get to select for students. And, obviously, just talking to them doesn’t help. It’s human nature to want to share.

In fact, I realized, I worked hard to create an atmosphere where they felt comfortable sharing. I worked hard to start a conversation that they wanted to be a part of. After all that, why wouldn’t they switch to German?

The students aren’t stupid. It was the stupid teacher who either lost control of the conversation or chose a topic that wasn’t appropriate to the classroom’s language level.

In general, the solution is to keep the conversations shorter. To keep them a bit more superficial until students have the language skills they need. And, of course, to use the reduced time to include more speaking activities.

Why use L1 at all, then?

I had a funny experience applying at the language school where I do most of my teaching now. The school — located in Germany — is run by a French woman who teaches English and French. I showed up on time and was welcomed in.

We spoke for fifteen minutes or so in German about my teaching history and philosophy. Then, she laughed and asked, almost apologetically, if it would be okay if we switched to English. “I just want to hear how you speak,” she said. I was the first native speaker (still the only native speaker at a school staffed with Germans who teach English) who’d arrived and didn’t immediately say “I’m more comfortable in English.”

“That’s good,” she said. “It’s important you can speak German.” From explaining where the toilets are, or the parking rules, or summarizing a grammar lesson, she expected her teachers to be able to communicate with the students in German.

It was liberating to be allowed to use German (so many schools say it’s part of their philosophy not to use it at all) and I’ve realized a few things: 1) students respect your language learning expertise more if they know you’ve learned a language and 2) there are a ton of words that can be explained simply by writing it on the board. Germans might not know the word “laser” when they hear it, but when they read it, everything is clear.

Even more, it helps to understand what the students are trying to tell you when they use figurative language. “What little Hans doesn’t learn, big Hans will never learn” — “I think you mean, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.'” — “Is it different in English?” — “It is.”

Translating from L1

More than any of those reasons, there are two situations in which L1 use seems called for in the lesson to me. The first, is when students say “Hmm. How do I say redselig?” and I answer “you know the word for gesprächig, is it really different?” “Right! Talkative!”

Naturally, we hope that students learn to find synonyms on their own, but they come to me for help. With time, they learn the strategy of “hmm, I’ve stumbled across a word I know in German that I don’t know in English. What other, similar words could I use?”

And this is a specific example of a more general situation. Students want to relate something they’ve experienced, heard, said or read in German. It’s going through their head in German and they’re basically translating it as they go, rather than spontaneously combining vocab in English.

This happens all the time. On vacation, they’re making small talk to acquaintances and they want to tell a funny story that is a core part of their personality. Or, very frequently for some of my students, they’re communicating with customers in a conversation they can have on autopilot in German. And they hit phrases left and right which they can’t translate.

Translating from German to English, my students assure me, is much harder than translating from English to German. And no matter what the language school’s philosophy is, it’s an important part of how they use English.

Some guidelines

My use of L1 is informed by a few guidelines: does my use of L1 contribute to my students’ work towards their goals? (This can range from language-specific goals to the goals of creating an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable, or praising their progress when they’re still close to it to see it.) Are students ready to quickly switch back to English once L1 has been used? Do they understand that L1 is something we rely on to support the lessons, not supplant them? Do I feel as though I’m in control of L1 use, or do students use it to try and take control?


If you teach for a school where L1 use isn’t encouraged or even allowed, maybe you’re lucky that you don’t have to think about this. On the other hand, though, if you get to use L1 in your classroom, I suggest it can be done well.

How do you handle this? Do you even speak your students’ native language? When do you use it in the classroom?

Conversation Drills

I mentioned conversation drills in my first post on my trouble group. I thought I’d explain them here.

The drill

The teacher walks into the classroom. Or, more frequently, the teacher is in the classroom, laughing with the students in German and suddenly it’s time for class to start. The teacher says the most ridiculous thing: “William, what is your name?”

The class laughs, but William answers. “My name is William.”

In some versions of the drill, the teacher writes ‘name’ on the board. Then, the teacher asks “where are you from?”

“I am from Dresden.” William answers.

The teacher is also from Dresden, but he asks. “Dresden? Is that in France?” Maybe the teacher writes ‘hometown’ on the board.

“No, it’s a city in Germany. In the east of Germany.” William answers.

The conversation continues for a few more questions. Advanced students like to tease the teacher by adding “and you?” at the end of their answers. Others begin writing the sentences that they’ll need for this conversation down. (Especially if spelling is a part.)

Then, when the conversation has covered everything, the teacher says “Great! William, now you ask Andrea!” And the whole thing continues. If William forgets to ask Andrea where she’s from, the teacher can point to the word ‘hometown’ on the board.

Students make mistakes. That’s okay. Everyone knows the answers when the other students are speaking, but when they’re in the spotlight, they choke up. That’s fine.

As the drill continues, everyone has a turn. If students are getting bored — if they can cover more material — the teacher can change up the conversation after half of them have been through it.

Why drill like this?

This is a drill that fits into my concept that English is a circle. It gets students into the circle, and gives them a chance for a feeling of success. The school where I do most of my teaching now has an emphasis on speaking, and I routinely get students who learned English somewhere else and can explain the grammar and pass a vocabulary quiz, but who just can’t speak.

Starting with a few basic sentences — or, if your students speak better, a few basic structures — and drilling them gives them a chance to “make a switch in their heads” (student wording, not my own) and to relax into the feeling of “people around me are speaking English. I understand them.” If they’re lucky, they’ll even get to the point where they understand even a few things without translating in their minds.

My sense is that the adults I teach come to me already convinced that they are too old to learn a language. Giving them the opportunity to feel successful in even a small way is a great way to start the lesson on a positive note.

Further, it’s part of my continuing campaign to make the English lesson a place that people want to come to. After all, after a long day at work, they could just as easily decide that they’re ‘too tired’ for a lesson and text me they’re busy. But, miss one lesson and you’re afraid of the next.

Beginning with a feeling of success — for some people, I think, the only time in the day they get to feel they’re good at something — makes the English lesson they can look forward to, even if they’re tired.

The “Trouble Group”

I grew up surrounded by education. When the teachers in the family talked about ‘troubled kids’ or a ‘trouble class,’ it meant there was something wrong with the kids. (In the 1980s, kids still had things wrong with them. I don’t know what today’s vocabulary is.)

That’s not what I’m talking about.

The trouble is me

When you’re blessed enough to have students who are engaged in class and do the homework, any difficulties you have are not because something is wrong with the students. It’s because something is wrong with you, as a teacher.

The trouble, it turns out, is me.

And, as the next block of lessons begins for my “trouble group,” I want to fix the trouble.

The group

I have a group of five students who pay regularly to come to lessons, and who have been coming for years. (I’m the third or so teacher.) But, where there isn’t much forward progress.

In my time with the students, there hasn’t been much forward progress, because there never was. A previous teacher abandoned the book when it became clear that they’d covered more material in the book than they had mastered in reality, meaning that “moving forward” in the book detracted from class time.

I inherited the group and tried for a year to run a conversation class, the way I would with an A2 or B1 group. But we never moved forward.

Since I started working on teaching vocab better (you’ll get tired of me and vocab, I’ll cover that somewhere else), we’ve mastered vocabulary, but the group is not great at forming sentences.

Some things that have helped

This is the class with which I pioneered bringing a student up to the board every lesson to do the same activity each week. (Same activity, different student.) Doing it once for each person meant that we had five weeks of the same thing, giving the ‘mental muscle memory’ time to form with basic questions.

In addition, planning activities that I can do once, but then put in the hands of a participant has helped. Because this group is good at vocabulary, but not great at producing language, activities where the leader only needs a few fixed questions and instructions worked well.

The plan

In the past, I sort of coupled this group on with my other low-level groups for material, but I shied away from doing some of the drills that are commonplace in lower levels. After all, they’ve learned English for so long that to basically ‘reboot’ the class would be to reinforce that they haven’t received what they paid for.

I realize, now, on an intellectual level, that I’ve done them a disservice. Nonetheless, it’ll be hard. Tomorrow, when I go into that classroom, my goal is going to be to do the drill conversations. Not for half an hour, but to make it our new “welcome to the lesson” ritual.

I’d like to quickly establish a new ‘routine’ for the class that includes the drill in the beginning (because English is a circle — I’ll write on that, soon, too), a bit of small talk, a student-led activity and then a worksheet or something similar. It’s more than I include in a normal lesson, but it keeps each lesson component somewhat shorter, meaning we should be less frustrated with the repetition.

As for grammar, I printed a list of grammars that are needed to be at an A2 level. One of my more general goals for the near future (not just for this lesson) is to get better at ‘stacking grammar’ so that, after one grammar is reviewed, we continue to stress it in some kind of structured (for me, even if the students don’t perceive it that way) manner until it has become truly automatic.

Part of the grammar stacking will be in the conversation drills. Part will be in worksheets and homework. But there need to be other parts, as well.

The Journeyman

Hi, my name is Toby and this will be a blog about me. Not to confuse it with the other blog about me, this will be a blog about me as an EFL teacher. And, while I know what I — the guy on this side of the keyboard — plan to get out of it, I’m not sure what’s in it for you. But, I think it might be more than nothing.

What’s in it for me

Even if nobody reads this blog, I think it’s a good idea for me. The fact of the matter is, reflecting in writing  has always been a good strategy for me. There’s something deliberate and intentional about forcing your ideas into (more or less) well-formed sentences. It slows you down, it gives you a chance to hear that other, more critical voice that might have been drowned out.

So, after more than a decade in teaching EFL in Germany, I’ve learned to embrace the idea that I’m a journeyman EFL teacher, as defined at Dictionary.com: “any experienced, competent, but routine worker or performer.” I’m the kind of teacher who my boss can send to a company and know I’ll do a solid job.

But I’m not amazing. And I’m not sure I want to be. (It turns out that amazing teachers get paid the same amount as solid teachers and seem to invest a lot more of their time per unit of teaching time.)

Nonetheless, I had a realization this spring that I could either spend the rest of my life going through the motions that I have learned and always be ‘a solid teacher,’ but slowly learn to hate my job. (And, probably, to hate Germany.) Or, I could make myself responsible for enjoying my job more.

That’s what this blog is going to be about: my experiments and adventures in having fun teaching EFL in Germany.

What’s in it for you

There’s a thing that Germans say about teachers: “They’re right in the morning and free in the afternoon.” And, while I am not always free in the afternoon, I have gotten comfortable with the idea of being right in front of a group.

To that end, there are going to be several blog posts on what I’ve found to be the ‘right way to teach.’ They might be beneficial to you. They might also offer you an opportunity to correct me. And I invite corrections, because I’m certainly game to improve, provided it doesn’t mean a higher per-unit investment of my time.

Further, my first immediate project — in addition to codifying what I think I’ve learned about teaching — will be blogging about some ‘troublesome’ groups that I teach. I think that taking a pseudo-scientific approach might be good for them. (Pseudo-scientific in the sense of “Here’s what I want to accomplish. Here is what I’m going to try. After x number of lessons, I’m going to reflect on whether it worked or not.” There will be no control groups.) Maybe you have similar challenges and, even if you can’t share solutions, coming along for the ride might help.

Is there more I can do for you? Let me know?