Albert Einstein once said, ‘If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”¹
Perhaps an ESL teacher would suggest that Einstein never had to teach the complicated English language! I have been confronted many times by the complex grammar rules as well as the inconsistencies in my native tongue, but I find myself even more challenged when I have struggling students, and I need to think as a young learner. Discovering English teaching methods that actually work for struggling students is something I’ve focused on during my career as an ESL teacher.
I would like to share some ideas with you of how to help beginner pupils or less fluent ones who just can’t seem to understand the concepts.
Assess fluency levels using icebreakers and warm-up games
Begin class with icebreakers and warm-up activities, starting with a middle-level question. If the student cannot answer that, move down a level to a yes or no question and see if they can answer that. If they cannot answer a yes or no question, type or write the question and use a lot of TPR, simplifying each time. This will enable you to understand the level of knowledge your student has. When you have more than one student, you can use this time to determine who can model answers or if any of them can.
Establish clear learning objectives
Break a lesson down into clear learning objectives. Know your grammar rules and vocabulary goals, and always keep them in mind. This allows you to assess whether or not you have had a successful class or if you need to change a students’ learning level or curriculum.
When I teach a class about the future tense, for example, I make sure to keep that in mind when asking my students questions. Instead of asking them, “What did you do today?”, I will ask them, “What are your plans this weekend?” or “What will you do tomorrow at noon?” This helps to reinforce the future and to show the students how the future tense is useful in everyday conversations.
Give examples and counterexamples
When a student isn’t comprehending a statement, it often helps to show them with sample answers as well as opposite statements. I will often ask my students, “How are you?” at the beginning of class. Beginner students tend only to answer with, “I’m fine, and you?” I then give them many examples of how they could be feeling that day by asking, “Are you happy or are you sad?”, “Are you angry or are you excited?” Giving them choices helps them to develop vocabulary and go beyond the rote answers they have heard many times.
If the pupils still don’t understand the examples, I write the sentences on the screen with choices.
How are you? I am sad. I am happy. I am tired. I am angry.
I use my annotate tool and read each sentence aloud while circling the sentence and also making the face that goes along with each emotion. I even go as far as having the students act out the emotions as they learn more and feel more comfortable with the class.
Change words if necessary. It’s possible that when you provide synonyms and options, a student will understand what you are communicating to them.
Recently, I taught a class about “The Amazing Spiderman,” and I was surprised when a student asked me what “amazing” meant in that situation. I had to quickly think of synonyms, and the words “great”, “cool”, “super” and “awesome” came to mind. I typed out all of those on the screen, and they had actually heard at least one of those words, so they obtained a better understanding of the word in that context.
Teach to the students’ learning styles
Try using different English teaching methods to accommodate to their particular learning style (auditory, visual, kinesthetic). Props and pictures will assist a visual learner, TPR and motions will help a kinesthetic student. Songs, chants and repetition are helpful for an auditory learner.
Practice, practice, practice
Practice and review before moving on. Remember your specific class objectives and always be sure to reinforce those goals and focus on them specifically with your students.
ALO7 courseware has excellent games to review vocabulary and then very specific activities for practicing the language structure objectives. If I have extra time, though, I like to play a word game such as hangman or sometimes I will write a story with my students making sure to include the language structure of that day for more practice.
Think like a new learner
It’s pretty safe to say that most of us do not remember learning English since we learned it from infancy. One thing that helped me tremendously in my EFL teaching was to venture into learning a second language. I was able to understand grammar, my own thought processes and to have more compassion for my brave students.
Final thoughts on English teaching methods for less fluent students
Overall, I believe that simplifying our classes and then expanding upon the content is beneficial to all involved. Implement these English teaching methods, and hopefully, you will experience the same level of success I have experienced in both my online and brick-and-mortar EFL classes.
Share your own English teaching methods in the comments below!
Jan Millsaps has been an advocate for the improvement of education models in Latin America for the last fifteen years. She is making a difference one classroom at a time. Jan became an online tutor with ALO7 in late summer of 2017 to help pay off medical bills and to provide for future retirement, if there ever will be such a thing in her life.
Jan has a B.S. in Education, concentrating in Reading (K-12) and Math (6-9). However, she has taught every subject and grade level throughout her 25-year career. The last fifteen years have been dedicated to teaching ESL the majority of the time. She also continues to teach math and reading.
Jan believes education is the key to societal development and works hard to make a difference in the lives of her students both online and offline. She is passionate that her students reach their full potential and become world changers.