How to Talk to Your Students: Ten Tips from a Retiring ESL Professional

How to Talk to Your Students: Ten Tips from a Retiring ESL Professional

I’ve heard it said that teachers never truly retire.

The lessons of their profession lends themselves to so many others walks of life, and emerges in such a variety of ways, that they remain teachers long after they’ve received their final pay check and endured that tearful farewell in the staffroom.

That time recently came for me, and I already miss my students, the challenge of having to think on my feet, the spontaneity and vibrancy of classroom life. I miss those time crunches when I need to quickly research something, because I always feel I learn better under those kinds of pressures. Most of all, I miss the sense that I’m moving forward every day, honing a skills set and polishing my routines. I seem to have turned into a full-time writer over the last five years, and trying to juggle the two professions has been exhausting; it’s time to move on, but before I do, I wanted to impart some advice on perhaps the most important topic of all: How to speak to your students.

Very briefly, I found during my time as a teacher trainer and observer that many teachers struggle to communicate effectively. Over the last twenty years, I’ve seen the best and worst examples of presentation skills; I’ve been humbled by new teachers who command the classroom with an instant and amenable authority, and I’ve sat with head in hands while stubborn, veteran teachers bored their students to tears. Synthesizing these findings has been the central work of my career. So, without further ado, here are my Ten Top Tips for communicating in the classroom.

Ten Tips from a Retiring ESL Professional

  1. 1

    When in Doubt, Shut Up

    Honestly, this is still the number one problem, as far as I can see. Some teachers take it upon themselves to dominate the conversational space, convinced perhaps that their views are more valid or interesting than those of their students. The value of allowing your students to occupy most of that space can’t be overestimated. It is the key to student-centered learning. Your ego shouldn’t design your lessons; they should be predicated on the students’ learning needs. Almost every teacher in the world can usefully reduce their Teacher Talking Time (TTT), either by being more efficient, or by not saying the next thing that comes to mind. Let someone else say it instead. As it becomes a habit, your relationship with your students will gradually transform, the conversational space will become available to everyone, you’re your students will produce a lot more language.

  2. 2

    Ask, Don’t Tell

    Eliciting is one of the hardest skills to learn. After all, how do you make someone want to say the target language? Well, asking lots of questions is a good place to begin. I’ve been averaging about 3.5 questions per minute of class time, and I invite you to exceed this number on a regular basis. These can be tiny check questions (‘Am I spelling this right?’), thoughtful questions about a story (‘Have you ever felt like she does?’) or big, deep questions which get right to the fundamentals (‘Can society ever achieve genuine equality?’)

    If your questions-per-minute count is low, try a little exercise based on the game ‘Taboo’. Teach a word entirely by asking questions, and get into the habit of eliciting the elements of the word without giving anything away. The chances are, your students either already know it, or can guess it.

  3. 3

    Prepare Like a Professional

    Disagree if you must, but I’m going to reaffirm my twenty-year commitment to lesson plans. Even veterans need them, and new teachers need a full, detailed plan, with timings and interaction patterns. I also like to rehearse the presentation elements of my class in front of a mirror, to a friend, or using a recording. This way, I’ve already heard how I’m going to speak to my students before I do it ‘live’. I hope you agree that teaching is a profession, just like medicine or law; I always try to comport myself as though I’m proud of the work I do. Because I genuinely am.

  4. 4

    Listen to Others

    It doesn’t matter if you’ve been teaching for five days or fifty years, every teacher can learn from every other. Invite colleagues to observe your lessons, and take their feedback seriously. Set aside ego and remember that your professional skills are one of the main pillars of your students’ success. It’s your responsibility to polish those skills on a daily basis, and to remain open to new ideas throughout your career. If your observers tell you that your speaking is rushed or unclear, take heed and resolve to be mindful about it. Also, following someone’s advice to try something new can refresh your interest in your work.

  5. 5

    Assess Yourself

    Take a moment after each class to assess whether you spoke too quickly or slowly, used the right level of vocabulary, hit your objectives, etc. Be honest in those moments; if you made a mess of it, set aside the regret as quickly as you can (a few deep breaths can do the trick) and move straight onto diagnosing the problems. Nearly all behavioral issues are caused by boredom, and the majority of boredom is caused by teachers talking too much and failing to sufficiently engage their students. If the students are bored, that’s not their fault; meet them half way and try to bring some more life and zest to the classroom.

  6. 6

    Teach the Class, not the Plan

    Keep your eyes open in the classroom, looking out for those tell-tale signs of disengagement (phone use, chattering, sleeping, distraction, etc). So what if you’re only half way through your presentation - break things up into short sections, and accept that the attention span of a teenager in the twenty-first century is generally brief. Railing against reality (in this sense or any other) is a fast track to disillusionment. Your list of learning goals must reflect the students’ needs, but it’s also not a sacrosanct contract; be flexible, and when things go off the rails (as they will) go with it and work the problem.

  7. 7

    Employ Non-Verbal Communication

    Years ago, I was asked by an observer if I had Italian ancestry, because my hands were always in motion, expressing and clarifying, cajoling and quieting, eliciting and encouraging. My eyes, too, are part of my teaching method; they indicate whose turn is next, how I feel about an answer, whether I’m about to start laughing, and a hundred other things. Words are only half of your arsenal in the battle to communicate.

  8. 8

    Treat Class Like a TED Talk

    You don’t have to blow your students’ minds in every class, but their lives (and yours) will be measurably better if you set out to engage them by employing a carefully-crafted structure for your class. Set out the topic and goals by elicitation and examples, and then give the class a clear structure to help provide natural divisions between periods of presentation, practice and feedback. Start strong and hold their attention with interesting facts, well-prepared examples, the cunning use of gestures and objects, and your own obvious enthusiasm for the topic.

  9. 9

    Establish Routines

    Repeating structures are dependable and help students know what’s expected of them. Every class will (and should) be different, but eliciting feedback in the same way for ten days (for instance) radically cuts down the TTT spent on classroom management and instructions. Daily chores such as attendance and handing in homework can be ‘automated’ in this way, saving time and energy.

  10. q

    Don’t Forget to Have Fun

    Learning is a shared activity, and sharing automatically implies camaraderie and humor. Be willing to poke fun at yourself and laugh at your own mistakes; the sense that one is being taught by a fellow person, rather than by some omniscient automaton, enlivens the learning experience and helps bridge the student-teacher gap. There’s nothing more human than trying to communicate, except perhaps laughing about it.

Finally, I’d like to share two of my most memorable classroom moments from the last twenty years. They’re examples of how I’ve worked to build a rapport with my students, often very quickly, and how my style of engaging with them yields dividends which run the gamut from better behavior and discipline, through more engagement and enthusiasm, to good learning outcomes and test results.

These two examples represent two apparently contrasting problems: students who are too noisy, and students who are too quiet. My approach to these two issues is similar, however:

Getting the Students’ Attention

(A class of largely Arabic-speaking teenagers on a course in Boston in 2013.)

Teacher: Good morning, my people!
Students: Morning! / Morning, teacher! [Lots of noise and chatter]
Teacher: Kinda noisy in here today. What’s all the excitement about?
Student 1: [Amid chatter] Today is Champions League [soccer]
Teacher: Wait, what? [Cups a hand to his ear] Say that again?
Student 1: [Still amid noise] Manchester United, teacher.
Teacher: [Hand still to his ear.] Who?
Student 2: You know, Wayne Rooney.
Teacher: [Amazed] What, today?
Students: [Starting to quiet down]. Yes!
Teacher: Wayne Rooney is in our school, today?
Students: [Still chattering] No! / Not here! [Largely lost in the noise]
Teacher: Wow, I’m so excited! I’d love to meet him. Where is he? [Looking around]
Student 3: Not here, teacher [Laughing]
Teacher: But… Wait… You said… [Feigns crushing disappointment]
Students: [Suddenly paying attention to this new demeanor] What? /Huh?
Teacher: You can’t promise something like that and then take it away, man. That’s not cool.
Student 3: Promise? Who promise?
Teacher: I heard you say it. I was so excited about meeting him. Not cool, man. [Sulking]
Student 4: [To his neighbor] Why is teacher upset?
Teacher: Well, we had a communications problem, didn’t we?
Students: Huh? / We did? / Still talking about Rooney?
Teacher: You know why we had a communications problem?
Student 4: Because too much talking. Always talking, talking.
Teacher: I agree. So, when I walk in here tomorrow morning, what are you going to do?
Students: Keeping quiet? / Shut up / No more talking.
Teacher: Magic. Thank you. Now, tell me about the game…

I could have yelled above the din, or threatened the students with sanctions. Instead, a little bit of theatrics created a memorable moment; they were unsettled at having disappointed me, even during this, our third ever class together. The next morning, as I walked in, all the conversation stopped and we got straight down to work.

Getting Blood from a Stone

(In China, in 2002, with an all-Chinese class of undergraduates, part way through my Olympic Games exercise)

Teacher: So, we’ve got these three different cities. Are they all good candidates for the Olympics?
Students: Yes!
Teacher: Are they all equally good?
Students: [Silence]
Teacher: Hello?
Student 1: Maybe no.
Teacher: Why not? What makes them different from each other?
Students: [Silence]
Teacher: OK, which town is the biggest?
Students: [Referring to the handout]. Katanga City
Teacher: So, is Katanga the best city for the Olympics?
Students: [Silence]
Teacher: Let’s ask someone. [Gestures to a student at the back]. Hi there.
Student 2: [Stares back, terrified.]
Teacher: You’re perfectly safe. Now, did you like Katanga City?
Student 2: [Nodding]
Teacher: [Cups his ear.] Was that a yes?
Student 2: Yes.
Teacher: Awesome. Why was Katanga the best?
Student 2: [Stares back in silence.]
Teacher: Well, is it best if the Olympics takes place in a big city?
Student 2: Big city.
Teacher: Do Olympics usually take place in a big city?
Students: Yes!
Teacher: Examples, please?
Students: [Quietly at first] Atlanta / Sydney / Barcelona
Teacher: All true! So, does the Olympics need a big city? [Gestures to student 2]
Student 2: Big. Yes.
Teacher: [Looks puzzles for a second, then approaches Student 2.] OK, how does this machine work? [Starts pretending to push buttons on student 2’s head.] Do I have to put money in somewhere?
Students: [Laughing]
Teacher: How many yuan per word?
Students: [Lots of laughing]
Teacher: Talk to me, buddy. Tell me why Katanga is a good city for the Olympics.
Student 2: Because… Katanga is a big city.
Teacher: [Jumps around in unconfined glee]. Holy smokes! A sentence, ladies and gentlemen! We have a positive sighting of a sentence! Call someone! This is huge!
Students: [Cracking up]
Teacher: You know, sentences are my favorite thing! It goes like this… [Gestures low] La mien [the local spicy noodles]…
Students: [Laughing]
Teacher: [Gestures a little higher] Then jiaozi [Chinese dumplings]
Students: [Lots of laughter at the British volunteer teacher using another Chinese word]
Teacher: [Gestures high.] And right up here, sentences!
Students: [Losing it.]
Teacher: So, what’s my favorite thing?
Students: Sentences!
Teacher: Every time, give me a sentence. OK?
Students: OK!

I worked with that same group for another two years, and they never forgot that moment. I became famous for claiming that I enjoyed sentences even more than jiaozi, and for trying to slot money into my student’s ear. This was all pretty darned silly, but that’s exactly why they loved it; they’d never seen a teacher behave like this before. The whole class dynamic changed, and students soon began to encourage each other to produce whole sentences, even without prompting from me, because they knew it made the crazy British guy happy.


A willingness to be just a little bit silly, a readiness to ask rather than answer, and an insistence on being adequately prepared have stood me in good stead throughout my teaching career.

This isn’t the only way of doing things, but I’ve found good humor, engagement and professionalism solve most problems before they emerge. In addition, they’ve made my classrooms a happy place to be for the last two decades, and that’s helped everyone to enjoy the experience of teaching and learning English.

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