As an ESL teacher for 13 years, I have always appreciated the different age groups that I have taught. It’s never easy but I do try to make it fun. These are some of the things I have done and you can also do whether you are a teacher or not.
Many of the techniques and approaches I will mention here apply to all levels.
No matter what age and ability level you are teaching you should always try to promote learning through fun, accommodate different learning styles, have clear classroom management systems in place and aim to be a positive role model. Here are some specific ideas for dealing with each age group…
Kindergartens (aged 4-6)
Depending on your approach, these cute kids can either be the nicest young people you will have the pleasure of teaching or a nightmarish group of unruly children that reduce grown men to tears! Teaching young children properly is not for the fast quitter as it will take time to get into the swing of it. There is a good chance that at some point you will have to deal with crying, toilet issues, screaming and students who have the attention span of a gold fish. Some useful tips are:
- Be clear and direct in how you speak. Use simple 1 or 2 word commands and be prepared to apply a firmer tone to your voice when need be.
- Be animated and lively. Not everyone will be comfortable with jumping around, singing and dancing for an hour but it will certainly make you more likable if you are able to act silly in class.
- Use TPR activities whenever possible: Kindergartens tend to respond extremely well to TPR (Total Physical Response) based activities whereby they produce the language through physical actions. If you are teaching animals, have the students doing the actions and noises, when teaching them feelings; have them performing the emotion etc.
- Short, sharp games and activities: The best way to keep your kids’ attention and save time dealing with bored students is to keep things moving all the time. When planning your lessons, start off by introducing your grammar point or vocabulary then run through a series of 5-10 minute games and ALWAYS have back up plans. When you see students losing focus, move onto the next activity.
- Change the environment: mix up your classroom setting often to steer them away from boredom. Get them on their feet, swap the seating plan and sit them in a circle on the floor.
- Don’t be afraid to use your teaching assistant: younger learners will struggle more than anyone to grasp your meaning in English.
- Use gimmicks: any small change or new object that you bring into class will feel like a completely new adventure to your young students. Surprise them by bringing in a simple gimmick to use in your activities such as a ball, a dice, a puppet or some pictures.
- Reward them: sweets/candy obviously gives young children an incentive to learn but without this kind of luxury you can easily keep them eager by giving them other kinds of rewards. A high-five or pat on the back after a successful activity and at the end of class will make them feel like they have achieved something, as will the opportunity to do some drawing or colouring activities during the lesson.
Juniors (aged 7-12)
Junior classes vary significantly depending on your students’ maturity, personalities and ability. You will find though that when you have developed a good overall structure to your lessons and a decent repertoire of activities you will be able to apply a fairly similar approach to all of your lessons. Teaching this age group will be demanding in different ways than teaching kindergartens. To make your lessons engaging and in order to maintain a good learning environment you should aim to:
- Have a clear structure to your lessons: try to follow the 4 Ps structure to your lessons. Get administrative procedures and miscellaneous tasks done first then introduce your topic, grammar, vocabulary and focus the remainder of the lesson on practicing and drilling the new language.
- Expose them to different cultures: at this age your students are more intellectually capable than kindergartens and more eager to learn about the world than many of the teenagers you will encounter. It will likely be the case that your students are interested in a particular aspect of western culture. Whether they like basketball, hamburgers, music or clothes, take some time to teach them about your culture and give them something different to learn about in English than the grammar and vocabulary set for each lesson.
- Classroom management: put good systems in place for dealing with badly behaved students and rewarding good learning. Juniors will generally respond well to some form of team points system whereby you put the students into teams at the start of the lesson and give out/take away points accordingly. This way they will largely discipline themselves.
- Cater for different learning styles: at this age your students’ brains are unknowingly adapting and developing towards a particular style of learning. Generally speaking, the major learning styles are thought to be auditory (learning through hearing), visual (learning through having something to look at) and kinaesthetic (learning by physical activity). You don’t need to study educational psychology to learn how to cater to your students’ needs. All you need to do is be aware that your students have unique ways of taking in information and use a variety of techniques and activities to give everyone in your class the best chance of learning.
- Take an interest in your students’ lives beyond the classroom: taking a few seconds to ask a student about an aspect of their life outside the classroom will make a big difference. If they think you care about them they will generally be more inclined to care about what you have to say in the lessons.
- Be a positive role model: try to set a good example in how you interact with people and approach your work. Show them that successful learning can happen through having a good work ethic, being respectful to others and having some fun with your tasks.
- Motivation: it is likely that some of your students will have already had a day of school before they come to your evening class to practice their English. At this age they are becoming harder to motivate. Through positive re-enforcement and giving them something every lesson to show for their time you can keep them enthused. Praise is very important. Be liberal with giving praise to all of your students- regardless of how significant/insignificant whatever they did to earn it is.
Some ESL teaching jobs involve working with teenage students or ‘seniors’- as they are often referred to as. It’s unlikely you will have to deal with crying, screaming and downright crazy kids to the same extent as the younger groups but you will have some challenges along the way. For many of us, our teenage years were synonymous with thoughts of school being boring, authority figures being the enemy and learning another language being a pointless venture. The mentalities of many young adults abroad are no different. Before you start to panic about the prospect having to teach English to a classroom of adolescents, here are some things you can do to make your life easier and lessons better:
- Keep the dry content quiet: if your aim for the lesson is to teach something complicated like Past Perfect tense, don’t write this on the board or make them aware of what you are trying to feed them. Start your lesson by giving them situations and explaining that in these cases we use a particular piece of language then get stuck into some activities to practice it. If you have a particularly dry piece of reading to focus on, find ways to make it more interesting, make fun of the characters and have them rewrite a part of it to make it more fun.
- Be a team leader: rather than going into class and seeing yourself as an authority figure, try to imagine yourself as a team leader or mentor amongst a group of colleagues. Show some empathy, take an interest in their lives outside the class but at the same time guide them through the tasks. Tell them that you are on their side and that you know how it feels to be in their shoes. Having this mentality will help you to earn the respect that can be so vital to whether or not you succeed with this age group.
- Be a role-model: don’t let them see you as the same kind of old, boring and robotic authority figures that they most probably see their parents and school teachers as. Try to make them think you are different, cool/interesting and that you actually care about how they feel. If they admire you as a person they will be more willing to follow your instructions and will listen to you when they get out of hand.
- Make yourself the object of humour: taking yourself too seriously when teaching teenagers decreases your chances of creating a good learning environment. Sensibly make fun of yourself when the opportunity arises. Instead of having the students use their new language to insult each other, have them write crazy stories about you in mildly uncomplimentary ways. Done in the correct way, making yourself the figure of fun puts your students at ease in your classes and will most likely actually increase their levels of respect for you if you are perceived to have an ability to see the funny side of life.
- Use grown up gimmicks: whilst having teams and giving out points may work for younger teenagers, it will certainly not be as effective as fake money! Photocopy some foreign currency or raid the school’s Monopoly set and take some fake cash into your class. If a student gets a correct answer or goes the extra yard to try and improve their English, give out the money. You can even go a step further by getting them to bet against each other about whether sentences are grammatically correct.
- Research their interests: If the key to impressing juniors is caring about their interests, with teenagers you should go a step further and learn about their interests. Take some time before class to find about the country’s popular singers, movie stars, national laughing stocks. Throw these names into your lesson, use them as the subject of a sentence accompanying a new piece of grammar, have them write stories involving these people, get them to analyse pictures of them etc. The more material they can relate to the better.
- Get them moving around whenever possible. An English class at this level won’t involve much jumping around and making animal noises. However, when you’re faced with this potentially lazy age group, it is vital that you don’t let them sink too far into their chairs during the lesson and spend too long daydreaming about happenings outside school. Get them up to brainstorm ideas on the board, set activities that involve walking around asking each other questions and sneak in 5 minutes of Tai Chi!