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How to be an Effective EFL Teacher

by David Martin

Over the short history of the ESL/EFL field various methods have been proposed. Each method has in turn fallen out of favor and has been replaced with a new one. Audiolingualism, functionalism, communicative paradigms, and now the fad is "task-based syllabuses." In his critique of the task-based syllabus Sheen (1994:127) points out, "frequent paradigm shifts in the field of second and foreign language teaching have not resulted in significant progress in language learning." Since no method has been proven to be more effective than another, many teachers have jumped on the "eclectic" bandwagon. Common sense would have this as the best available choice since variety is the spice of language.

Other than considering method, what can the EFL teacher do to ensure success? What follows are some DOs and DONTs that I have found to be very useful in teaching EFL in Japan. None are revolutionary; these are principles I didn't necessarily learn in ESL graduate school, but should have been taught.

1. Learn your students' names.

This cannot be overemphasized. You will be able to control your class better and gain more respect if you learn the students' names early on. If you are one who has a poor memory for names, have all the students hold up name cards and take a picture of them on the first day of class. On the second class, impress them by showing them you know all their names.

2. Establish authority from the beginning.

Expect your students to use English 100% of the time, and accept it if they only achieve 95% usage. Do not let them get away with speaking their mother tongue to communicate with their partner. Deal quickly with inappropriate conduct in a friendly yet firm manner.

3. Be overly prepared.

If you don't have a clear lesson-plan down on paper, then make sure you have a mental one. You should know about how long each activity will take and have an additional activity prepared in case you have extra time.

4. Always consider the learners' needs when preparing for each lesson.

Why are your students studying English? How will they use English in the future? What do they need to learn? If many of the students are going to study abroad at an American university, for example, then the teacher should be preparing them for listening to academic lectures and academic reading to some extent. If, on the other hand, most of the students have no perceived need for English in the future, perhaps you should be focusing on useful skills that they may use in the future, but may not be essential--skills such as understanding movie dialog, listening to music, writing an email to a pen pal, etc.

5. Be prepared to make changes to or scrap your lesson plan.

If the lesson you have prepared just isn't working, don't be afraid to scrap it or modify it. Be sensitive to the students--don't forge ahead with something that is bound for disaster.

6. Find out what learners already know.

This is an ongoing process. Students may have already been taught a particular grammar point or vocabulary. In Japan, with Japanese having so many loan words from English, this is especially true. I have explained many words carefully before, such as kids, nuance, elegant, only to find out later that they are now part of the Japanese language.

7. Be knowledgeable about grammar.

This includes pronunciation, syntax, and sociolinguistic areas. You don't have to be a linguist to teach EFL--most of what you need to know can be learned from reading the students' textbooks. Often the rules and explanations about structure in the students' texts are much more accessible and realistic than in texts used in TESL syntax courses.

8. Be knowledgeable about the learners' culture.

In monolingual classrooms the learners' culture can be a valuable tool for teaching.

9. Don't assume that your class textbook has the language that your students need or want to learn.

Most textbooks follow the same tired, boring pattern and include the same major functions, grammar and vocabulary. The main reason for this is not scientific at all--it is the publisher's unwillingness to take a risk by publishing something new. Also, by trying to please all teachers publishers force authors to water down their materials to the extent of being unnatural at times. It is the teacher's responsibility to add any extra necessary vocabulary, functions, grammar, or topics that you feel the students may want or need.

10. Don't assume (falsely) that the class textbook will work.

Some activities in EFL textbooks fall apart completely in real classroom usage. It is hard to believe that some of them have actually been piloted. Many activities must be modified to make them work, and some have to be scrapped completely.

11. Choose your class textbooks very carefully.

Most teachers and students are dissatisfied with textbooks currently available. Nevertheless, it is essential that you choose a textbook that is truly communicative and meets the needs of your students.

12. Don't neglect useful vocabulary teaching.

The building blocks of language are not grammar and functions. The most essential thing students need to learn is vocabulary; without vocabulary you have no words to form syntax, no words to pronounce. Help your students to become vocabulary hungry.

13. Proceed from more controlled activities to less controlled ones.

Not always, but in general, present and practice more structured activities before freer, more open ones.

14. Don't neglect the teaching of listening.

It is the opinion of many ESL experts that listening is the most important skill to teach your students. While listening to each other and to the teacher will improve their overall listening ability, this can be no substitute for listening to authentic English. As much as possible, try to expose your students to authentic English in a variety of situations. The best way to do this and the most realistic is through videos. Listening to audio cassettes in the classroom can improve listening ability, but videos are much more motivating and culturally loaded.

15. Turn regular activities into games or competition.

Many familiar teaching points can be turned into games, or activities with a competitive angle. A sure way to motivate students and liven up your classroom.

16. Motivate your students with variety.

By giving a variety of interesting topics and activities, students will be more motivated and interested, and they are likely to practice more. With more on-task time they will improve more rapidly.

17. Don't teach linguistics.

Language and culture are inseparable. If culture isn't a part of your lessons, then you aren't really teaching language, you are teaching about language.

18. Don't teach phonetics.

By all means teach the more important aspects of pronunciation, but don't bombard the students with minimal pair drills that cannot be applied to real communication. They don't really understand the meaning of any of those minimal pairs you teach anyway, do they? A more rational approach would be to teach pronunciation in context, as necessary. For example, if you are teaching a section on health, teach syllable stress with sickness words: fever, headache, backache, earache, constipation, etc.

19. Don't leave the learners in the dark.

Explain exactly what they are expected to learn in a particular lesson. Make sure that students know what they are doing and why. The lessons should be transparent to the students, with a clear organization.

20. Be enthusiastic! Don't do it just for the money.

You don't have to be an actor or clown, but students appreciate it when the teacher shows genuine interest in teaching. Teachers who are jaded with EFL would do best to hide it, or consider moving on to another profession.

21. Show interest in the students as individuals.

Treat students as individuals, not subjects. Don't patronize or talk down to them; talk to them as you would any other person. Only in this way will true communication take place.

22. Allow opportunities to communicate directly with students.

Students want, more than anything, to talk with the teacher. Don't overdo pair and group work to the point that they haven't had a chance to interact with you, too.

23. Allow time for free communication.

For speaking this would mean allowing time for free conversation, for writing doing freewriting, for reading allowing time for extensive pleasure reading, and for listening, listening for entertainment sake.

24. Use humor to liven up the class.

Make it a habit to get the students to laugh at least once per lesson.

25. Show an interest in the students' native language.

This is especially important in the monolingual classroom. Ignoring their L1 causes some students to think (erroneously) that you don't respect them. If possible, use the L1 periodically as part of the lesson. If nothing else, it will show the students respect, and may loosen them up.

26. Don't have pets.

This is extremely hard to avoid, especially when a student is more outgoing or interesting than others. Nevertheless, try to call on and attend to students as equally as you can.

27. Circulate.

Move about the classroom. At times sit with groups and monitor, as well as joining in on the communication. At times walk about, listen and observe.

28. Make your instructions short and clear.

Demonstrate rather than explaining whenever possible.

29. Speak up, but don't break anyone's eardrum.

If the students can't hear you, you are wasting your breath. Not as bad, but still annoying is the teacher who thinks s/he must speak louder to be comprehended. Research has already proven this to be false.

30. Don't talk too much.

Depending on the subject, you should be talking from about 5% to 30% of the lesson. For speaking or writing, more than 10-15% would probably be too much. Most lessons should be student-centered, not teacher-centered.

31. Don't talk too slow.

How do you expect your students to understand real English if you don't speak at a fairly natural speed? Oversimplified and affected speech will hurt your students in the long run. Shoot for moderate complexity and more repetition if needed.

32. Be sensitive to your students.

Watch their faces and reactions. Do they understand you? Are they interested or bored? Try to be aware of what is going on in your classroom at all times. If you are starting class and one student is still talking, try to gently get him/her to stop. If you are sitting with a pair of students on one side of the room, try to be attentive to what is happening in other groups as well. There may be a group across the room that is confused and doesn't know what to do.

33. Don't be a psychiatrist.

Shy, introverted students are not going to change their personalities overnight in order to learn English. Give these students opportunities to talk in small groups, but don't expect them to shout out answers in front of the whole class.

34. Respect both "slow" and "fast" learners.

Language learning is not about intelligence; the important thing to stress is that the students are improving.

35. Don't lose your cool.

If you do, you will lose hard-won respect. Even if you have to go so far as to leave the classroom, do it in a controlled manner, explaining to the class or student why you are unhappy with them.

36. Be frank.

Praise your students when they are getting better, and encourage them when they are not doing as well as they can.

37. Be a coach.

At times you must be more of a coach than a teacher. Push the students to write those few extra lines, to get into their groups faster, to extend their conversations.

38. Be fair and realistic in testing.

Teach first and then test; don't test things that haven't been taught. Also, remember that the main purpose of language is communication. This means that when marking a dictation portion of a listening test, for example, a "What [ ] your name?" response should get nearly full points because the listener has demonstrated full comprehension.

39. Don't overcorrect.

For example, when correcting a narrative composition at low-intermediate level, it doesn't make much sense to correct mistakes with relative clauses. Likewise, if your class is practicing simple past tense, don't correct article usage at the same time. If you think a student can correct their own mistake, don't supply the correction for them, rather allow for some self-monitoring.

40. Be reflective.

Think about your own teaching. After each lesson is over take some time to reflect. Was the lesson effective? What were the good and bad points? How could it be improved?

41. Keep in shape.

EFL teachers don't have to become jaded with teaching. Get into it. Look at new coursebooks and teacher training books to get new ideas. Share your ideas with colleagues. Go to conferences.

42. Laugh at yourself sometimes.

There are those times when nothing goes right despite our best intentions. We must be humble enough to admit to ourselves and to our students that we just messed up.


Sheen, Ron. (1994). "A Critical Analysis of the Advocacy of the Task-Based Syllabus," TESOL Quarterly 28 (1): 127.

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