17. Basic Tips for Language Teachers

Abstract : These notes [2300+ words] con­sist of three parts : 1. Some short back­round notes on the pro­fes­sion of teach­ing lan­guages; 2. A few use­ful links for teach­ing tips and con­tent; 3. A col­lec­tion of ten activ­i­ties which the sem­i­nar pre­sen­ter has invented or bor­rowed, and found to be pop­u­lar with students.// This is an out­line from one of a monthly series of sem­i­nars by Thor May on teach­ing skills. The sem­i­nars were given as a teacher inser­vice for Chi­nese Eng­lish teach­ers in Zhengzhou, Henan, China. This sem­i­nar was con­ducted on 10 June 2008

1. Back­ground Teach­ing Notes

1.1 The Lan­guage Play­ing Field

1.1.1 Lan­guage teach­ing is about a) skilled teach­ing, and b) USING lan­guage.

1.1.2 Many of the skills involved in the pro­fes­sion of teach­ing are com­mon to teach­ing most sub­jects. The teach­ing pro­fes­sion is really about a) per­suad­ing peo­ple to learn, and b) help­ing them to learn.

1.1.3 As every sales­man knows, per­sua­sion is cus­tomer-cen­tered. Sell­ing refrig­er­a­tors to Eski­mos is tough work, just as sell­ing a risk of embar­rass­ment to teenagers is tough work. The sales­man must be cun­ning.

1.1.4 A few peo­ple want to know ABOUT the inner work­ings of lan­guage. They are ana­lytic lin­guists. Every­one else just wants to USE it. Learn­ing a new lan­guage, it may some­times help a stu­dent to know some­thing about its inner work­ings. The teacher has to make a judge­ment about this, while also remem­ber­ing her own lim­ited knowl­edge about how the lan­guage works. How­ever, the first duty of a lan­guage teacher is actu­ally using the new lan­guage her­self, and encour­ag­ing her stu­dents to use it. 

1.2 Teach­ing Lore

 1.2.1 Lose the bat­tle, win the war

a) When the teacher can never be wrong, the stu­dent can only be a zom­bie mem­ory machine. Zom­bie grad­u­ates repeat only what they are told, are afraid of respon­si­bil­ity, and never learn again out­side of the class­room. This pat­tern applies equally to lead­ers and workers/citizens.

A mature teacher can afford to “lose face”. A mature teacher can also afford to take risks, and try things that might or might not work. Some­times stu­dents, espe­cially teenagers, are not mature enough to “lose face”.

1.2.2  Nei­ther slav­ery nor tin­sel crowns are glo­ri­ous

You are noth­ing but a noth­ing, you are not a thing at all”. This is an old song, and a favourite method of brain wash­ing. You destroy a frag­ile per­son­al­ity with crit­i­cism, then the naked soul, des­per­ate to please, is rebuilt into the “per­fect” man or woman by fol­low­ing your strict instruc­tions. Well, this is not only bru­tal, the long term results are poor. It does not pro­duce con­fi­dent, cre­ative human beings.

Equally, fake glory is no glory at all. The pompous gen­eral with a chest full of medals may well be a con­fused cow­ard in a real cri­sis. Like the gen­eral, we all want to feel good. Feel­ing good greatly helps lan­guage learn­ing. How­ever fake praise is soon seen as fake praise and does lit­tle to help learn­ing. It may breed com­pla­cency or con­tempt. Praise gen­er­ously when praise is earned. Oth­er­wise, keep your peace with a quiet smile.

1.2.3 Rice with one egg and ten dif­fer­ent sauces

Rep­e­ti­tion is essen­tial in lan­guage learn­ing. How­ever, what needs repeat­ing? Vocab­u­lary needs repeat­ing. Phrase pat­terns need repeat­ing. That’s all. A good teacher will serve vocab­u­lary and phrase pat­terns up in ten dif­fer­ent flavours, with ten dif­fer­ent changes of scene. Who wants to eat the same meal every day?

1.2.4 The girl who chose to marry one of three ugly broth­ers

When a woman or a man chooses their life part­ner, they will enjoy the good times, and take some respon­si­bil­ity for the bad. (The same goes for choos­ing lead­ers). Not every­thing we have to teach or learn is fun. Telling stu­dents to do it is depress­ing for them. Offer them a choice of top­ics or meth­ods in each class. Then they will feel much bet­ter about it. They will try harder.

1.2.5 We need $1 mil­lion by sun­down. You fix it !

There are many roads to the end of the rain­bow. It is always far bet­ter to help stu­dents see what needs to be achieved, rather than to tell them what they have to do. Give human beings an attrac­tive goal and they can be amaz­ingly inven­tive about how to get there.

Goal set­ting is not just a life-ambi­tion busi­ness. It is a class-by-class and hour-by-hour busi­ness.

Goal set­ting as a com­mand from above is weak. It fails eas­ily. Cho­sen goals are strong and not eas­ily bro­ken. The smart teacher will let stu­dents think that their goals are the stu­dents’ own ideas.

Del­e­gate the respon­si­bil­ity of achiev­ing goals to the stu­dents . They will be clever about get­ting there.

Caveat : In a sys­tem where stu­dents have been denied choice and respon­si­bil­ity for many years, coax­ing them to inde­pen­dent thought is not easy or instant.

1.6 We are going the thrash ’em !

A game is only a game. We can afford to lose, but still have the excite­ment of try­ing to win. Per­haps life itself is a game too. The top pro­fes­sion­als in every field don’t think of their work as “work”. They “play” their pro­fes­sions with zest. Surely lan­guage learn­ing can be a game like this.

Con­tests between two halves of a class are easy to set up, and are a quick way to add inter­est to rou­tine tasks. Con­tests and games can intro­duce new ideas mem­o­rably and also make revi­sion a plea­sure.

The activ­i­ties cho­sen for con­tests and games should have impor­tant lan­guage learn­ing goals . Stu­dents might casu­ally enjoy play­ing “hang­man” for the 100th time, but it might add lit­tle to their real L2 lan­guage skills.

Stu­dents, like par­ents and admin­is­tra­tors, some­times doubt the value of games and com­pe­ti­tions. They might think it is not “real” learn­ing. It is a part of a teach­ers job to demon­strate to the cus­tomers how real learn­ing comes out of these activ­i­ties. For exam­ple, an “exper­i­ment” can be set up with the stu­dents, where they test whether they learn more about some­thing through doing it the tra­di­tional way, or through a game/contest activ­ity.

2. Some Links on Eng­lish Teach­ing Tips & Mate­ri­als

One-stop Eng­lish http://www.onestopenglish.com

EFL/ESL teach­ing tech­niques from The Inter­net TESL Jour­nal http://iteslj.org/Techniques/

Hos­pi­tal Eng­lish (for nurs­ing stu­dents) http://www.hospitalenglish.com/

Lantern­fish ESL Work­sheets and Lesson Plans http://bogglesworldesl.com/

Eng­lish Ryan – audio & video lessons for EFL http://www.englishryan.com/

ESL Activ­i­ties http://www.eslactivities.info/

Com­pelling Con­ver­sa­tions http://www.compellingconversations.com/

ESLbay (ESL direc­tory) http://www.eslbay.com/

3. Some Teach­ing Activ­i­ties

 3.1 Naughts and Crosses Com­pe­ti­tion Scor­ing

There are many ways to score a con­test. Often a class is divided into two teams for quick scor­ing.

Inter­est can be added to the scor­ing by mak­ing that a mini con­test too. For exam­ple, use a “naughts and crosses” for­mat sim­i­lar to the children’s game.

The object of “naughts and crosses” of course is to obtain three naughts or three crosses in a row, such as 1, 5, 9 (above). These naughts and crosses can be awarded to a team for cor­rect answers to any con­test.

a) Draw a “naughts and crosses” field on the white­board.

b) Num­ber the squares from 1 to 9.

c) When the stu­dent in a team answers cor­rectly, they can choose the square to claim for their side.

d) If a stu­dent calls an answer out of turn, his side loses one of their squares.


The board field can be made more com­pli­cated for scor­ing. For exam­ple, it can be turned into a bingo board, or even a chess board. How­ever, there is a risk of dis­tract­ing from the lan­guage teach­ing pur­pose if the scor­ing becomes too com­plex. “Naughts and crosses” adds inter­est, but is sim­ple enough to keep atten­tion on the true lan­guage exer­cise.

3.2 Instant Drama

a) every class mem­ber takes a loose sheet of paper.

b) divide the paper into 8 hor­i­zon­tal sec­tions (fold­ing is the quick­est way).

c) cre­ate a wide ver­ti­cal mar­gin

d) alter­nately write (speaker) X, Y in the mar­gin

e) each class mem­ber writes their stu­dent name or num­ber in the top right hand cor­ner.


f) you have one min­ute to write the first sen­tence of any con­ver­sa­tion

g) change (timed in one min­ute inter­vals)

h) change the paper around the class until it is full

i) return it to the owner

j) cor­rect any mis­takes

k) prac­tice the dia­logue with your part­ner
3.3 Guess the Stress

Eng­lish sen­tences con­tain one or more tone units. Each tone unit con­tains a stressed tone peak (or some­times sev­eral peaks). A sen­tence taken as a unit of infor­ma­tion usu­ally has one pri­mary peak (though some­times sev­eral). Iden­ti­fy­ing these stress pat­terns is a major learn­ing prob­lem for stu­dents, espe­cially if their L1 is a syl­la­ble timed lan­guage like Chi­nese.

a) the teacher speaks a short sen­tence with nor­mal stress.

b) a stu­dent, in a con­test of A & B teams, must repeat the stressed word(s) in the sen­tence.

c) call­ing out is penal­ized

d) the naughts and crosses par­a­digm is a good game base for this exer­cise.
3.4  Your Per­sonal Lan­guage Course

Text books are noto­ri­ously irrel­e­vant to the real needs and inter­ests of stu­dents. The lan­guage which peo­ple speak to them every­day in L1 is, of course, cen­tral to their lives and eas­ily attached to mem­ory. I have found it extremely pro­duc­tive to ask stu­dents at the begin­ning of each class to write down three sen­tences other peo­ple spoke to them in L1 the day before. They then trans­late these sen­tences (for sense rather than word by word). This activ­ity is pop­u­lar and val­ued by stu­dents. It is woth­while how­ever to insist that they keep the accu­mu­lat­ing sen­tences together in a spe­cial note­book.

Instruc­tions :

a) Write down 3 Chi­nese sen­tences some­one actu­ally spoke to you yes­ter­day.

b) Trans­late the sen­tences

c) Learn the sen­tences in L2

d) Why? => These sen­tences have had a real use in your life. There­fore it is worth know­ing how to use them.

e) Build your own lan­guage course, day by day, from these real trans­la­tions

f) USE the sen­tences in L2

Teach­ing note :

With weaker stu­dents, the first pro­duc­tions of these daily sen­tences will be pre­dictable and for­mu­laic; e.g. Have you eaten. How­ever, after a few days, these easy options will be quickly exhausted and stu­dents will be forced to recall more inno­v­a­tive con­struc­tions, espe­cially if a day by day record is kept of the accu­mu­lat­ing sen­tences.
3.5 Da Da Da

a) The teacher speaks a sen­tence frag­ment, insert­ing dadada for the miss­ing seg­ments.

b) Stu­dents, in an A & B team con­test, must say a com­plete sen­tence con­tain­ing the words given by the teacher.

c) Call­ing out is penal­ized

d)   The naughts and crosses par­a­digm is a good game base for this exer­cise.

Teacher Note:

=> This may seem all too famil­iar to the fill-in-the-blank exer­cises so com­mon in text books. The dif­fer­ence is the dynamism which comes from think­ing on your feet. Lan­guage pro­duc­tion live appears to come from a dif­fer­ent place in our heads than the fill-in-with-a-pen­cil rit­ual.
3.6 Fol­low Me (spo­ken)

This game is excel­lent for build­ing col­lo­ca­tion skills, which are at the heart of lan­guage learn­ing.


a) One stu­dent sug­gests the first word for a pos­si­ble sen­tence (or the teacher can give the 1st word).

b) The word is writ­ten on the white­board.

c) Stu­dents are cho­sen in rapid suc­ces­sion to sug­gest sin­gle words to fol­low, which are then also writ­ten on the board for all to see.

d) Call­ing out loses a point

e) Giv­ing a word which can’t fol­low to con­tribute to a cred­i­ble sen­tence loses a point.

f) The game can be made more dif­fi­cult by lim­it­ing pos­si­ble sen­tences to a cer­tain topic.
3.7 Jour­nal­ist

This is an activ­ity which can be fairly brief, or fill a whole lesson. It can be made more or less com­plex. For exam­ple, the sub­ject of the inter­view can be left open, or given as a require­ment.

One descrip­tion for this kind of activ­ity is given at http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Chauhan-Drama.html

Pro­ce­dure :

a) One stu­dent comes to the front of the class. His/her role is “per­son of inter­est” (a celebrity, a vis­it­ing VIP, an alien from another planet etc.).

b) The stu­dents are “jour­nal­ists”. Their task is a) to ques­tion the per­son of inter­est, and b) to take notes to write up a later news/feature story.

c) It is a good idea to add some real­ity to the sit­u­a­tion by hav­ing the ques­tion­ers fol­low a pro­fes­sional style. e.g. “I’m Wang Donxu from the Guangzhou Star. I’d like to ask you sir …… ”

d) As with most activ­i­ties, stu­dents will become more skilled and sub­tle in their ques­tion­ing if the activ­ity is done fairly often.

3.9 Sell It To Me !

  • The salesman’s spiel is lan­guage taken to a high art!
  • The abil­ity to sell in L2 is a clear and moti­vat­ing goal for stu­dents.
  • They may even make a liv­ing from it!


Now I want to show you some­thing beau­ti­ful. Maybe you think all pens are sim­i­lar. Don’t be fooled ! This is very spe­cial pen indeed. Did you know that hun­dreds of hours went into the design of this pen? It was made to fit com­fort­ably into your hand all day. It will work with­out a refill for three kilo­me­ters of writ­ing. Isn’t that amaz­ing ! The pen is grace­ful, durable and prac­ti­cal. It is made from the finest mate­ri­als. You can be proud to carry it in your pocket. It can be yours for a very rea­son­able price. When you buy one of these pens you help your­self, and you help peo­ple in need. A per­cent­age of every sale goes to those less for­tu­nate. I am sure you will love this pen. The price is a mod­est $59.95. That’s extremely cheap for the qual­ity. Buy one for a loved one too. You will be truly appre­ci­ated. How many can I put you down for sir?


a) Choose any object in your class­room.

b) Show stu­dents how to “sell” it with good humour, a lot of body lan­guage, and con­vinc­ing lan­guage.

c) Choose a con­fi­dent stu­dent to do a bit of sell­ing to the class first.

d) Have one stu­dent sell to a small group of 4 or 6.

e) Have a sell­ing ses­sion often. Stu­dents will soon get the hang of it, and wel­come the break from more tir­ing work.

f) Sell­ing can also be done for a short fill-in slot when other work has run out.


1. Mar­ket bar­gain­ing

2. Run­ning an auc­tion

3. Write adver­tis­ing copy. For exam­ple, design a sales pitch for an Inter­net auc­tion like eBay.

3.10 Mes­sage Car­rier

This activ­ity requires at least two peo­ple plus the teacher. Usu­ally it will involve the whole class.

Resource : The teacher will have a series of pic­tures telling a story. If skilled, she may draw the pic­tures on the spot, but prior prepa­ra­tion will make the activ­ity more effec­tive. Sadly, only a very few word­less pic­ture books for L2 learn­ing have ever been pub­lished, and they are now out of print. (Please, some­one get to work on this !!)

Pro­ce­dure :

a) Divide the class into pairs or small groups.

b) Each group assigns a mes­sen­ger.

c) At the front of the class the teacher has a small set of pic­ture cards telling a story. She will show these cards to the mes­sen­gers, one card at a time. She does not show the whole set to the mes­sen­gers.

d) Mes­sen­gers come to the front of the room, try to remem­ber what they see, and return to describe the pic­ture, and activ­i­ties in the pic­ture, to the recorder(s). The mes­sen­ger must only speak Eng­lish !

e) Recorders try to sketch the messenger’s descrip­tion. They may also try to write sen­tences to explain what they hear. They must use only Eng­lish.

f) When the teacher has shown all the pic­ture cards to the mes­sen­gers, the recorders will try to assem­ble what they have heard and retell the story.

g) To close, the teacher may show all the pic­ture cards to the class.


1. A dia­gram, or series of dia­grams may be pinned on the wall for reporters to visit and remem­ber.

2. A writ­ten text may be pinned on the wall, sen­tence by sen­tence, for the reporters to visit and remem­ber.

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