I vividly remember how terrifying my first teaching experience was in Vietnam. I was nervous and had a sore throat, the heat was stifling, the children were noisy and restless because it was Sunday afternoon and I was completely overwhelmed. By the end of that first class I was practically in tears and thought I’d never survive my nine-month teaching contract – but things got better.
I’m over halfway through the academic year and I’ve learnt so much (mostly the hard way) about how to teach. I’m by no means an expert though and I continue to learn and develop my skills everyday. I constantly reflect on how I could do better and search out new games, activities and methods. However, I have developed some essential strategies that have helped me survive my first teaching job – here’s what I’ve learnt so far.
Preparation and Planning
I think preparation is one of the most important parts of teaching. Luckily I love to plan so this aspect of teaching has been quite enjoyable for me. The classes I teach in Vietnam follow quite a rigid curriculum and use a particular set of books so this really structures the planning process. I write out a rough plan for each lesson and then look for relevant resources to use; flashcards, songs, games and videos.
It’s important to make sure you know what resources are available to you so that you can plan appropriately; in most classes I have access to a computer and projector but there are a few classrooms I teach in where there’s nothing but a blackboard. Always have a few back-up activities to hand in case you finish your planned activities early or something goes wrong. If I have extra time or the projector suddenly fails, I usually play a game of splat, bingo or pass the ball.
TEFL Teacher Tips – Games
Games are essential in TEFL teaching, if English lessons aren’t fun then the kids will switch off completely. You’ll find that different games appeal to different classes and some are better suited to younger or older students. Here are a few of the most popular games I use at school:
Splat: you can play this using flashcards or written words on the board. I split the class into two teams and get one child from each to stand with their backs to the board. Then I’ll point at a picture or word which the rest of the class will shout out for the two team members to turn around and splat. The older classes love to use sticky balls for this game but younger kids tend to be too uncoordinated so use their hands instead. Add in a PowerPoint scoring system like race cars on a track or connect four and I’ve found that kids of all ages go wild for this game.
Hotseat: this works with all ages. Stand one child at the front facing the class and hold up a flashcard behind them or point to a word or phrase on the board; the rest of the class has to act out the word or phrase for the student at the front to guess what it is. To make this game more competitive you can split the class into teams and have one student from each team at the front of the class; the fastest one to guess the answer wins. I’ve found this game works particularly well and can be pretty hilarious when teaching topics like emotions, the weather, hobbies, sports and illnesses.
Box Game: we have a PowerPoint template which allows us to conceal a picture behind a set of blocks. When the students answer questions correctly blocks are removed until they can guess what the picture is. This game is a great warmer to review a previous topic or introduce a new one and the children love it, especially if you use obscure or funny pictures.
What’s Missing?: this is a great game for reinforcing vocabulary. Simply stick a load of flashcards to the board, get the students to close their eyes and remove a couple of pictures; students have to figure out what you’ve taken away. If you have a projector you can make a more sophisticated version of this game on PowerPoint; paste a number of pictures to a blank slide and remove some of them on the following slides.
Pass the Ball: I use this in most lessons as a speaking activity to practise words and sentence structures. First I will elicit and write the structure on the board, usually in question and answer format, for example: “What’s your favourite school subject?”, “My favourite subject is _”. I will get the whole class to ask the question and then throw the ball to one student who will answer.
Bingo: this is a good listening and writing activity and a great way to reinforce vocabulary. I’ll usually play this after we’ve done a group brainstorm on the board, I’ll then ask kids to choose and write down four or six of the words in their books and then I’ll call out words one by one. This is a quiet, calming activity good for boisterous classes. I give out stickers to the winners which encourages all the kids to take part, even the ones who normally refuse to do writing tasks.
AEIOU: this game has proved popular with older classes. I write all the vowels and a random selection of consonants on the board and ask children to make words out of them. We normally play in teams; one student from each team will come up, write a word on the board and play rock, paper, scissors to see who wins. Often I’ll play in rounds, asking the class to form things like three letter words, colours, animals, verbs or adjectives.
Teaching aids are essential to get children interested in your lessons. I regularly use sticky balls and a larger soft ball to throw around the class; you need to warn kids not to throw aggressively though, I’ve had a few nasty incidents with balls in the classroom! Flashcards are essential, especially for younger children and I use them as much as possible. If you have video and audio technology available to you, make full use of it.
Songs are a really important tool, especially for younger children, as kids need to move around and make a noise – songs give them the opportunity to do this as well as speak some English. I usually start and end my grade one and two classes with a song and introduce some simple actions and dance moves, which they love. I’ve found that even my youngest classes grow sick of repeating the same songs though so I change them regularly. Dream English have some great songs which you can download for free and the kids love them; here’s a clip of one of my grade three classes singing a Goodbye song.
If you use them correctly, videos can be a great resource as they’ll immediately capture the attention of even the most difficult classes. Be careful not to get lazy with videos though, make sure they are relevant and educational as well as entertaining. For older classes I use videos as a listening, writing and comprehension activity; I’ll set some questions about the video and ask kids to write down the answers while they watch. Sure, there will be some students who’ll just watch the video and ignore the questions but the majority enjoy the challenge. For younger classes who have trouble writing you can pause the video and ask questions or get them to repeat words and phrases instead.
Find videos that are fun, relevant and tap into the kids’ interests and make sure they’re no longer than five minutes. I aim for around three minutes so there’s time to watch the video twice if it’s a comprehension activity; I’ll often edit clips using windows live movie maker. Some of the most popular types of videos I use are:
- Gogo’s Adventures with English – an alien/dragon/dinosaur who comes to Earth, learns English and goes back to his planet to teach his friends. These videos are great for grades one, two and three.
- ELF Learning – they have great vocabulary videos for kids to chant along to. I often set older classes the challenge of writing down all the words they hear in these videos as they watch.
- Sesame Street – who doesn’t love this programme! The kids love the funny sketches; I often use the videos about individual letters or sounds when I’m teaching a phonics lesson.
- BBC Learning – there are some great videos on here for older kids, I like them because they feature real people with different accents, give an insight into British culture and show how multicultural the UK is.
- Disney’s Magic English – most kids love Disney and this series is especially designed to teach English as a foreign language using movie clips and sketches.
- Movie Clips – we’ve had great success using clips from The Nightmare Before Christmas when teaching about Halloween and Christmas – many of my classes are obsessed with this movie.
- Peppa Pig – I showed my grade one and two classes part of a Peppa Pig Christmas special and they were mesmerised – I find this programme really bizarre but the kids love it.
I’ve found that rewarding good work and behaviour is the best way to create a happy, productive classroom. Kids love attention and praise, particularly if it comes in the form of a sticker, ‘Good Work’ stamp in their book or high five.
Classroom Management Tips
The classes I teach at a language centre have just fifteen to twenty kids in them, so I don’t have many problems controlling behaviour. My public school classes, which usually have at least 50 children in, are a totally different story. Keeping these classes under control has been the most difficult element of teaching for me but I have developed some strategies that have helped with classroom management:
- Designing fun, action-packed lessons is the first line of defence; if the children are occupied and amused they are less likely to cause chaos in the classroom.
- Using incentives to get the kids interested and moderate their behaviour has worked well. I use a points system and rewards like stickers and stamps; these work especially well with younger classes.
- I write four rules on the board at the beginning of each class so children know how they should behave: be quiet, raise your hand, try your best, and don’t fight.
I’m not the best at staying calm when things go wrong but it really helps if you can keep your stress levels down in the classroom as kids feed off your mood. There have been instances when my teaching assistant hasn’t shown up, the projector has refused to work or none of the kids have remembered to bring their books and I’ve lost my cool completely. However, I now try to smile and act like everything is fine even when it isn’t; having back-up games and activities for instances like these really helps to put your mind at ease.
Find out more about teaching English abroad in these posts:
Do you have any questions or advice about TEFL teaching?