Staying on Track: How to Monitor Your Students’ Practice Time

Staying on Track: How to Monitor Your Students’ Practice Time

Once you’ve set your students going on an exercise, what do you normally do next?

Some teachers prefer to take this time to grade assignments, catch up on paperwork, read the news or check Facebook, or even just zone out for a while. While I can’t recommend these last two, there’s nothing wrong with using class time to get ahead on those tedious tasks which would otherwise be taken home. At the same time, your students’ practice time is a great opportunity to reinforce language learning and assess their progress toward the day’s objectives, so I would encourage every teacher to leave their desk and see what your students are up to.

Monitor Your Students’ Practice Time Using 6 Wonderful Tips

  1. 1

    Watch for New Structures

    We need to ensure that our students are using the target language. The best presentation in the world isn’t going to result in a genuine increase in language ability if the students aren’t using these new words and structures. From your desk, you might be able to hear a general wash of English, and assume that the day’s targets are being hit; not until you get up close will you be able to hear the truth of the matter.

  2. 2


    If we’re close enough, we can hear and correct errors. Our students are using this language for perhaps the first time, and will inevitably make mistakes in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary choice. The best ways to correct these errors are:

    • Repeat the mistake back to the student as a question. E.g. “He have a red car?” In my experience, the student sees the problem nine times out of ten.
    • Gentle encouragement toward the right answer works well. “Be careful of…”, or “Did you say ‘have’ or ‘had’?” Try to keep clear of depressing admonishments such as “That’s wrong”; work with what the student has said, rather than insisting they simply do things your way.
    • Drilling of tricky pronunciation is an important problem-solving method. Tease out the mistakes your students are likely to make and prepare tips and tricks. For example, almost everyone has trouble with ‘th’, so consider some light-hearted ways to correct this.
    • Refer to your examples. Point to the board, the textbook, or the student’s notebook, reminding them of that forgotten helping verb or helping with a confused word order.
    • Ask a classmate. Bounce the problem off a neighbor. “Hey, Maria, try this… ‘He have a red car’. What do you think?” I find peer-correction to be a terrific way of learning. It encourages a useful mutuality in the learning process, and turns every student into a potential teacher.
  3. 3

    L1 Is Always Available

    It strikes me as a very odd thing to do, during ESL lessons, to require ten Spanish speakers (or Chinese speakers, or Turks, etc) to speak a second, entirely unrelated language together. It is a strange and artificial process, and you’ll encounter some resistance. In conjunction with a class rule forbidding any language but English, monitoring reduces the use of L1 (the students’ own language) and encourages the students to self-police on this important point.

  4. 4


    After a long day at school, your students may well become tired and begin to wander off topic. They may also suffer from one of the range of problems best described under the umbrella term, ‘distractibility’: ADD or ADHD, for example. Monitoring should not be done harshly, so that some Sword of Damocles is hanging over the students every time you stand up to listen to their practice, but you’re there as a reminder that a classroom is a work space, and that ‘student’ is a job title.

  5. 5

    Engaging with Students

    Monitoring also shows your interest in your students’ work, and in their lives as individuals. You’ll learn a great deal about how they came to be here, how they spend their free time, their families and work aspirations, just from listening. Students tend to work harder and more consistently for teachers who obviously value and respect them as people.

  6. 6

    Extra Work

    If your students finish the exercise, monitoring gives you the chance to recognize this and find a way of keeping them busy. The alternative is to risk behavioral issues or dozing off. Keep additional exercises in your back pocket for just this situation:

    • Check questions. These questions test the students’ understanding of the material and can range from a simple, closed (yes/no) question to a more thorough investigation of grammar skills, synonyms or general knowledge.
    • Puzzles. There are a range of free and excellent online tools for creating word searches and crosswords, either of which are a terrific tool for consolidation, and provide a treat for those who have finished the initial work satisfactorily.
    • Short readings. Additional reading exercises - preferably short and light-hearted - continue the use of today’s target language while keeping the students engaged on a small task.
    • Writing practice. Almost any ESL exercise can be extended by writing a journal entry, a short opinion article, a description, a letter or an email.
    • Vocab practice. I encourage my students to write sentences using the new word or structure, so that they have done so independently. This sets up spontaneous use, a sign of true fluency.

When monitoring your students, be close (but not too close) and if necessary, kneel down so that you can clearly observe the mechanics of pronunciation; is the tongue truly emerging by 1cm to produce the ‘th’ sound? Move steadily around the circle or through the room, keeping an eye on those from whom you’re furthest, and an ear on those closest to you.

Look out for laughter; most of the time, it’s a good thing, but it can also be a sign of distraction or poor behavior. Be aware of cellphone use, and consider banning phones if they’re proving a problem. Look around for those who seem to be finished; have them prove to you that they’ve absorbed the target language. If they’re reading a dialogue, have them reverse roles; if they finish that, ask them to move on to free practice and create their own dialogue.

Monitoring is an excellent way to quickly solve problems one-on-one, to ensure your students are using the target language correctly, and to gain a little insight into their learning habits and daily lives.

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