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Monday, June 19, 2017

How can ESL teachers encourage each other?

As ESL teachers, we are faced with hectic schedules, lesson planning, teacher meetings, and helping our students learn English. It can be both a stressful and rewarding experience. Throughout this process, we encourage our students to keep practicing their English, and to try their best. Yet, how do we stay encouraged?

Avoiding burn out
We will experience this at least one time in our teaching career. Burn out is when you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed out. It can cause you to dislike or make you not want to continue teaching. This is when encouragement helps. If you are working with a staff of teachers, it’s important to encourage each other. Saying things like, “Keep up the good work,” or “You got this,” can be a boost to a teacher’s morale.  Sometimes offering assistance or advice can also be impactful. 

For example, there’s always that one thing we stumble on whether it’s explaining a grammar point, creating an in-class activity, or assigning homework. If you are a new teacher, this can be quite intimidating. Experienced teachers understand and can assist their new colleague. However, experienced teachers have the same challenges. Offering a helping hand really assures the struggling teacher that he/she can do well (even if they don’t know what they are doing)!

Teacher meetings
At most work sites, supervisors will have staff meetings. These meetings tend to be formal. However, teachers can have their own meetings where they discuss their accomplishments and frustrations. It’s informal and a way teachers can offer encouragement to each other. The best part of these informal meetings is they can happen over coffee or a place outside of work.

Always be honest. Teaching is hard work. It is okay to be honest about your hardship in the classroom. If you feel comfortable confining in a colleague about a problem, that’s okay. Trust is important. You want to share your difficult moments with someone who is non-judgmental and expresses empathy. You never want to pretend how you feel. There are ways to express your frustrations without being unprofessional. You may be surprised that you are not alone.

Ask your students for feedback about your teaching style. This may feel uncomfortable, but there are ways to get feedback from students without feeling embarrassed. Turn it into a lesson. For example, suppose you are talking about workplace issues and you are the supervisor. You may give a scenario where students are the employees and they must share their thoughts on a specific issue. In doing that, you can turn it around and ask, “So, just like you gave feedback to a supervisor, how would you give feedback to me as your teacher?”

This works if you are comfortable turning it into a discussion. If you don’t want to do that, you can assign students to write about their experience. This will allow you to not only check their writing skills, but learn how they feel about you and your teaching style. If you don’t receive positive feedback, try not to feel bad. You can use that to improve. I used to ask my students, “What can I do to make your learning experience better?” Students liked this question, because they told me what they wanted and in turn I learned how to improve my teaching style.  This is encouraging for both the teacher and students.

When we tell our students to try their best, apply that to yourself as a teacher. Stay encouraged and know that you ARE making a difference.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Teacher, I want to speak fluent English" How can students increase their English fluency?

"Teacher, I want to speak fluent English." This is a statement I've heard throughout my teaching experience. It's a good statement and students have the right to express this to their teacher. However, it can be a challenge to explain how students can speak fluently. Depending on the level of the class, developing fluency will take time and depends on the student and how the teacher conducts his/her lessons.
I am no expert on how to become fluent in any language, but with practice and patience, becoming a fluent speaker is possible. Here are some tips and ways I have used to help students in their journey to becoming fluent English speakers.

Practice speaking English every day

Before I begin a lesson, I would write “chit chat” (chit-chat means conversation) or "talk time" on the board with a question or topic statement. For example, on Mondays, I would write “How was your weekend?” on the board. Instead of standing in front of the class, I would sit down or we all sit in a circle and discuss our weekend. Sometimes, the conversation would expand from the weekend to a specific topic or event. Students liked our chit-chats because it allowed them to speak freely (formally and informally) about things that interested them. For lower level classes, I would guide the students by asking specific questions like, “What did you do last weekend?” If students were shy, I would start by asking, “did you do your homework this weekend?’ From the “Um…” comments or giggles, I knew their answer. The more students talk, the more fluent they will become. The best way to do this is by including topics students like to discuss. This will also reinforce their grammar usage, vocabulary, and sentence structure.
Field trips

Taking your class on a field trip not only helps students practice English, but introduces them to new experiences. Visiting the library, museums, or cultural events allow students to learn about people, places, and discover new interests. In New York City, we have so many things to see and do that even taking the subway is an adventure! When my students and I would take the subway, questions about the history of our transportation system, or reading the train map became an instant discussion. 

Restaurants are also a great way to practice English. Students get to try different foods, practice placing an order, as well as enjoy a delicious meal. For teachers, this is a nice way to incorporate the experience in lessons. I used to give homework assignments where students wrote about their field trip and why they liked or didn’t like the experience. As part of the assignment, students would read their homework in front of the class. This helped them practice presentation skills. Some students would present a menu or a subway map as part of their assignment.


Encouragement goes a long way. Students will feel frustrated. This is part of the learning process. If you have students that feel upset about not speaking fluent English, don’t despair. Encourage them to keep practicing and assure them that they WILL become fluent speakers. Don’t make guarantees. This is a mistake I think teachers make, because no one can put a time limit on fluency. Everyone learns at their own pace. Some students can speak fluent in a short amount of time, whereas for others it may take longer. However, if students feel encouraged to keep learning and practicing their English, they will become fluent in the language.

Another thing to keep in mind is, some students will be fluent in different areas of English. I’ve had students who were fluent in English writing and reading, but not in speaking and listening. There are many reasons and factors for this, such as, previous schooling, employment, or environment. This doesn’t mean those students won’t be fluent in speaking English, it may take some time and vice versa. As long as they feel encouraged through the process, fluency is achievable.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The many ways of saying “Hello, how are you?” How to break the ice in the ESL classroom

"Hello, how are you?"

Hello, how are you? This is a greeting that is most commonly said to someone we know or meet for the first time. In English, we have the formal and informal ways of saying “Hello, how are you?”

For example, the formal way is “Hello, how are you?” versus the informal way “Hey, what’s up?” We use the informal way of saying “Hello, how are you?” when we are talking to people we know like friends. However, be careful using this with everyone. It is considered impolite to say, “Hey, what’s up?” to people you don’t know, or people in authority such as family or professionals.

As teachers when we first meet our students, sometimes getting them to talk to you is a challenge. The same happens for us native speakers. No one feels that comfortable being the first person to say hello in a group. We all feel some form of shyness when talking to someone, especially in another language. As teachers, it’s important to relate to our students. One way in doing that is by learning something in their language.

You can ask your students, “How do you say, ‘Hello how are you?’ in your language?” This is a great ice breaker, a way to get students talking. If it’s a low level class, you may want to practice saying, “Hello, how are you?” first. If you know how to say that in the students’ language (s), you can say it. This will show a connection between the two languages. Not only that, this may impress your students for being able to speak in their native language.

Here’s an example from an ESL class I taught some years ago. I taught in Chinatown, NY and majority of the students are from China.

Me: Hello class, how are you?
Class: [Silence]
Me: Hello, how are you? Lay ho mah?
Class: Lay ho mah? Lay ho mah? [Laughter]
Me: Hai (yes), I know some Cantonese. So class, how are you?
Class: Good
Me: Ho ho ah! (Good)
Class: Hai ah! (Yes) [Laughter]

The students were happy I was able to translate “Hello, how are you?” into Cantonese, “Lay ho mah?” Most of my students spoke Cantonese. A few students only spoke Mandarin. One student said, “What about Mandarin?” I said, “I don’t know Mandarin. All I know how to say is, ‘Ni hao’” (Hello). The student smiled, gave me a thumbs up and said, “Good job!”

This brief language exchange allowed the students to feel more comfortable with me. For the rest of the semester, I learned more Cantonese and some Mandarin. I loved it, because they were learning from me, and I was learning from them.

I encourage you to have a language exchange with your students. It’s not only fun, but a great way to learn from each other.

Check out the video about this topic on my ESL video series via YouTube here

Thursday, May 4, 2017

“Teacher, why are you so fat?” How to cope with uncomfortable questions

“Teacher, why are you so fat?” This is a question I get asked often. It’s a question I didn’t know how to answer when I first started teaching ESL. It’s a question that can still feel uncomfortable to answer, but after years of being asked about my weight I know it's unavoidable.

The word “Fat,” is a common word around the world. In many countries and cultures, calling someone fat is socially acceptable. However in American culture, not so much. We cannot avoid the word or make people stop calling people “fat,” just because we don’t like it. It is bound to happen whether we like it or not. As teachers, we have to find a way to let our students know what the word “fat” means, and HOW it affects people when called that.

This is a difficult subject to discuss for many of us who are considered “fat.” I am considered fat based on society standards. To some people or in some cultures, I would not be considered beautiful, because I am “fat.” It is unfortunate. I experience this in my own culture and country as well. So how does one cope with being called, “fat” and how can teachers respond to uncomfortable questions from students?

Turn it into a lesson
This can be a challenge. It all depends on your approach. One way to answer a student’s question that feels uncomfortable is by turning it into a lesson. I always like to answer a question with a question. For example:

Student: “Teacher, why are you so fat?”
Teacher: “Why do you say I am fat?”
Student: “Because you look fat.”
Teacher: “What is fat?”

Sometimes asking students questions helps them to interpret and think about what they are saying. It’s also a good way to transition their question into a lesson. I like to use a bubble map to brainstorm ideas about a topic we are discussing. In this case, I would write the word “Fat” in the center bubble, and ask students what they think fat is to them. There are no right or wrong answers in this activity. This is just to get some ideas.

Then, you can tie it into a lesson about describing people, discuss adjectives, draw or show pictures of people who look different; there are many ways to turn the question, “Why are you so fat?” into a lesson. You can do a conversation practice where students describe each other.

Tip 1: When you are discussing the word, “fat,” make sure you let students know the cultural differences in using this word. For example, in American culture it is considered insulting or impolite to call someone “fat.” This is a good cultural awareness discussion, because students need to be aware that not all people take kindly to that word.

Tip 2: Make sure you give examples of the different adjectives or ways we describe people who are considered “fat.”

Some adjectives are, but not limited to:
Plus size
Heavy set
Big boned (not commonly used)
Full-figured (more commonly used for women)

If you are NOT comfortable talking about the word, “fat,” you don’t have to turn it into a lesson. If you feel uncomfortable being asked about your weight (it could be any weight class: fat, skinny, etc.), you can simply tell your student you don’t feel comfortable answering their question.

Try not to take uncomfortable questions personal. Sometimes students are just curious and are not trying to be rude. However, if you sense that a student is being rude or impolite in their line of questioning, let them know. Never get into any arguments with your students. Always maintain your professionalism.

Remember, you are in charge of your classroom. Use good judgment when answering uncomfortable questions. Always be honest and if you don’t feel comfortable, let your students know that. They will respect you for it.

For more tips and advice, check out my latest video from my ESL video series here.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

How to be an effective ESL student

ESL students, it’s not easy learning a new language, culture, and in some cases living in a new country. First thing you want to do is to take a deep breath, and remind yourself why you are learning English. Remembering your purpose in learning English will help you cope through the process.

Keep an open mind
Try not to have too many expectations. Instead, keep an open mind. Being “open-minded,” allows someone to not expect anything and to go with the flow. You will not know how your teacher will be or your classmates. You won’t know if you will like your class. You don’t know if you will understand all the lessons. In the beginning, all you know is you are a new student in an English language class. If you keep an open mind, you will be more open to the learning process.

Be prepared and ask questions
Always be prepared before class. Bring a notebook and pen or pencil to class. If you have a textbook, bring that to class as well. You will be taking notes in class whether you are writing down what the teacher is saying, or what he/she writes on the board. Taking notes helps you to remember what you are learning. It’s also a good way to help you study for an exam. Always ask questions. Asking questions is a great way to reinforce what you’re learning, and it helps you to improve your communication skills.

For most students, studying is something that’s unfavorable. In other words, they don’t like to do it. Even when I was in school, I didn’t like to study. However, studying is very important. The only way to really remember several English skills, such as, grammar, you have to study. Your notes will help you in studying. If you don’t like studying alone, creating a study group can be effective. You and some of your classmates can meet at a library or a local cafĂ© to study together. Studying over coffee can be a fun experience.

Students tend to be shy when their teacher practices a conversation with them
Being relatable
In general, I believe people like to feel they can relate to others. This applies to both teachers and students. You will be communicating with your teacher and other students. Even if you are a shy person, you will be talking to people. The best way to handle the shyness is to be relatable. This is true for even the most outgoing person (like me). Being relatable means to be able to understand other people’s opinions, feelings, and attitudes. It also means to be okay to admit, and understand your and other people’s mistakes. You will not always be right and mistakes will happen. It’s apart of learning. If you can be okay with making a mistake, you can relate to someone who does the same. As students, this helps make everyone feel comfortable.

Take your time
Every student learns differently and at a different pace. You want to take your time with yourself. You don’t want to be too hard on yourself for not understanding everything at once. Remind yourself that you are LEARNING and are not expected to KNOW EVERYTHING in a day. Pace yourself and continue to try your best.

For more tips and advice, check out my latest video from my ESL video series here.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

How to be an effective ESL teacher

This post will focus on ESL teachers and students, but some of the advice I give can be applied to all teachers and students.

ESL teachers, we have a tough job. At times, we are taken for granted or not taken seriously. Sometimes from our counterparts or from people who don’t work in our profession. Everyone has an opinion. I feel your frustration. One thing I've learned over time is to maintain your true self. When you are true to yourself, you can be true to your craft. In my opinion, that’s what makes you an effective teacher.

Be Confident
Being confident in yourself is important in anything you do in life. It also helps to be an effective teacher. Having good posture, a clear speaking voice, and giving eye contact are sure ways to show confidence. It also helps draw the attention of your students. Being energetic is also a plus. Sometimes this is debatable, because it depends on the willingness and personality of the individual. I am not suggesting you have to be “bubbly,” but you want to show interest in your teaching to gain students’ interest.

Being confident doesn’t mean being conceited. There is a difference between feeling confident in yourself and thinking your better than people. Being conceited is a turn off and shouldn’t be expressed in the ESL (or any) classroom or working environment.

Being relatable
I love drinking coffee while teaching :) This picture was taken in 2007.
In general, I believe people like to feel they can relate to others. As a teacher, when students feel they can relate to their teacher, it helps them to feel more comfortable. Being relatable is expressing yourself in a way that students can agree, such as, admitting to making mistakes, showing more of your personality, or showing empathy. This also applies to way of dress.
Dressing in professional attire or business casual attire is a sure way gain respect from students. You don’t want to dress too fashionable or expensive. Be considerate of the economic demographic of the population of students you are teaching. Depending on the culture of the class, dressing like a fashion model can make students feel bad if they are not able to dress the same.

Take your time
As teachers, we are on strict schedules and have to get through the lesson in a timely manner. However, you don’t want to rush or go too slow in teaching your lessons. You want to make sure students are learning from you. What’s the point in getting through five lessons in a week if only ten percent of the class actually learned, understood, or grasped the material? Pace yourself and ask for student feedback. This will help you to find the balance.

Be honest
If you don’t know how to explain or answer a student’s question, state that. Oftentimes, teachers don’t like to admit they don’t know something. I’ve had this happen to me a lot. I found it easier to say, “I’m not sure, but will get back to you with answer,” than pretend I know the answer. Students respect honesty from their teachers. Like our students, we don’t know everything. It’s okay to admit that to your students. Be mindful not to act like you know everything in the beginning of your class semester. If you do and later you admit you don’t know something, students won’t take kindly to your admission. I know from personal experience.

These are just some ways to be an effective teacher. Every teacher and teaching style is different. If you take your time, be honest, and be humble, you will have a successful experience teaching your students.

For more tips and advice, check out my latest video from my ESL video series here.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

“No, I don’t want to say…” How can ESL students encourage each other to talk in class?

Teacher: “Do you know the answer, student A?”
Student A: “Um…I don’t know.”
Teacher: “Who can help student A?”

Students: *silence*

Has this happened to you? Sometimes, teachers will ask for other students to help their classmate in answering a question. Most times, no one will respond to the teacher. Then this may happen…

Student B to Student A: “It’s okay. Try.”
Student A: “No, I don’t want to say.”
Student B: “You can do it.”
Student A: “Well…okay.”

When students are asked questions from the teacher, they can feel intimidated, embarrassed, or shy. One way to help students feel more comfortable is when their classmates encourage them to speak in class.

In my classes, I used to tell students, “Try your best,” or “Take your time, you can do it.” I would encourage students to say this to their classmates when someone felt uncomfortable to speak.

From my ESL video series: How to encourage your students

Body language is another great way for students to encourage each other. Saying “good job,” or showing it by giving a thumbs up, can be motivating.

Here’s an example

Student A: “I don’t know.”
Student B: “It’s okay, try your best.”
Student A: “Okay, I think the answer is…”
Teacher: “That is correct!”
Student B: [giving a thumbs up] “Yay, good job!”
Student A: “Thank you.”

Encouragement is important for anyone who is learning something or trying to understand something new. It’s something both ESL teachers and students should do in class. This allows the shy student to feel a part of the class, build their confidence, and motivate him/her to try their best.

Please check out my video on how ESL teachers can encourage students here.