Excellence in the ESOL Classroom

Khaled Al-Seghayer offers a discussion of good instructors in the field of English language teaching. See Ronaldo Lima Jr.'s Out of the Box article, "Out of the Reflective Box," Essential Teacher, December 2008.

Teachers are key figures in the learning process. Their influence is fundamental to students' progress (or lack thereof). To achieve the desired results in teaching English (i.e., guiding students to successful second language acquisition), teachers have to be aware of and adhere to certain essentials. They also need to take into account crucial factors such as classroom atmosphere, classroom management, tolerance, patience, and passion. This article highlights a number of variables that I have found characterize excellent ESOL instructors. These attributes are not all-inclusive but seem to be among the most important ones.

You Talkin' to Me?

For English language teachers, being good at using the language is not sufficient; they must also use appropriate teaching techniques. Yet many times language skill is the sole criterion used to qualify—or disqualify—someone for teaching. This observation is based on the personal and perhaps controversial belief that there is no significant correlation between a teacher's own language competency and the language achievement of his or her students. On the contrary, English language teachers must be familiar with and able to adapt and employ a variety of teaching techniques in addition to having an appropriate knowledge of the language. These teaching methods include classroom activities and procedures that employ specific strategies selected by teachers to achieve their objectives. Language competency and teaching techniques go hand in hand in enhancing teacher effectiveness in the classroom.

I Got Attitude!

Teachers' attitudes also influence student success. A positive attitude is essential. Teachers need to be confident that their students are capable of learning another language. If, for example, a teacher assumes that half of the class is incapable of acquiring the passive voice, then many of the students will never learn this grammatical form. On the other hand, if a teacher is convinced that all of the students can produce the /l/, eventually they will all be able to do so. Good English language teachers are those who remain distinctly conscious of their covert attitudes toward their students' efforts to learn English and how those attitudes impact the success of their learning experience.

What's the Plan?

The ability to design an effective lesson plan also is essential to successful teaching. Teachers need to educate and train themselves on how to design a lesson plan that is tailored to the needs and abilities of their students. The educational aims of each lesson must be clear, and activities should be selected that contribute to the realization of those aims. Lesson objectives should be stated in terms of student capability, that is, what the student will be able to do as a result of instruction. These objectives also must specify a goal in terms of student learning and skill (e.g., students will be able to answer yes/no questions using the present tense).

Master This!

Teaching for mastery is another vital method that teachers need to consider. Teaching for mastery means organizing instruction so that all students are given the opportunity to learn what is being taught. Teaching for mastery therefore implies the creative use of a variety of teaching styles. Because different students learn in different ways, the strategic introduction of new techniques may help students overcome a learning problem. For example, if a teacher expects the entire class to master use of the subjunctive, then techniques must be utilized to help the eye-minded (visual) and the ear-minded (aural) students, those who need explanation as well as those who learn best by developing their own generalizations. Teachers must also help students who are hesitant to express themselves for fear of looking foolish as well as those who are eager to express themselves and are unmindful of errors.

Remain Flexible

English language teachers need to be flexible because language learning and teaching are dynamic and subject to change, not to mention the fact that there is no single way to teach English. Maintaining a flexible teaching philosophy allows teachers to accommodate the various learning styles, greater diversity, and numerous goals students bring with them to classroom. Thus, good English language teachers should embrace or at least recognize the constant change in the field of English language teaching. Additionally, they should always try different teaching methods, use a variety of classroom activities, and strive to seek out new ideas. In the hope of finding what works best, teachers should constantly attempt to employ different techniques and approaches that bring more success to students' language learning experiences.

The Manager

Teachers need to be aware of classroom management so that they can maximize available class time and maintain discipline. Their routines must be a function of the age of the students, the physical environment, and the purpose of the instruction. For instance, independent work, small-group conversations, interest-group conversations, and student-led drills can all contribute to the smooth functioning of a class. If the students are actively involved in a class that is set at their linguistic level and takes into account their interests and backgrounds, they will be so busy learning the language that discipline will, in large measure, take care of itself. Being able to handle and organize the classroom means a greater probability of success in implementing teaching plans.

ESOL classrooms are extremely complex places where teachers have to make moment-by-moment decisions to translate a plan into action while attempting to maintain a friendly, constructive atmosphere. Unlike in other classrooms, students in these classes learn through the second instead of the primary language. They deal with all aspects of reading, writing, listening, and speaking in a language other than their native tongue. Teachers have to create an environment suitable for learning. Students need to be shown that the teacher cares about what they are going through and is doing his or her best to help them learn effectively while increasing their proficiency levels. Learners need a rich and safe learning environment that is exciting and engaging, and allows them to take risks. In such an atmosphere, students become self-motivated, willingly playing an active role in the learning process. Consequently, teachers should attempt to create a friendly atmosphere in which students are free to express themselves openly without fear of being embarrassed in front of their peers when they are corrected. Learning is best achieved when students are in a caring, welcoming, nonintimidating learning environment.

Teachers of English should make it clear that each member of the class deserves attention, whatever his or her level of achievement. Students should be equal in the eyes of the teacher and receive an equal opportunity to participate and receive adequate feedback on their performance. Doing so shows students how they are performing and increases their motivation through praise. The last point I would like to make concerning the atmosphere of the ESOL classroom is that, as much as possible, activities should be designed to reflect actual use of the language outside this somewhat closed environment. Students need to be taught the elements of language that will enable them to take the right action and respond appropriately in real-world situations.

A Smile Won’t Hurt

Another crucial characteristic of good English language teachers is tolerance. Students need to feel that the classroom is a place where mistakes are tolerated, where teachers understand that, given the nature of the classes, progress will be slow. Moving from one stage of learning to another takes time, and students should not be upset by their mistakes. Similarly, teachers should not be discouraged or disheartened when students do not accurately use what they have been teaching. Teachers need to encourage students to work hard and to engage in activities that provide ample opportunity for using English. While in the classroom, students need to feel encouraged to use whatever they have learned and recognize that their efforts are appreciated.

Patience and Passion

English language teachers must also be patient. Patient teachers give students sufficient time to internalize the point in question. Successful teachers must also wholeheartedly enjoy the work and be committed to their students. English language teachers can demonstrate this attitude with an enthusiasm for learning English and constant efforts to find new and creative ways to immerse students in the process of teaching them English. Because these teachers usually have students from different cultural backgrounds, they need to show passion for the various cultures that their students represent. In so doing, English language teachers will encourage students to develop a passion to become better English language learners.

It is also important for teachers to maintain classroom dynamics, excitement, and a sense of fun. When students can see their teacher's passion for the presented materials, they have a reason to become motivated. Teachers can engage students by making them responsible for their own learning, creating opportunities for students to take active roles in class activities and maximizing each individual’s participation and contribution. While doing so, teachers should act as a guide, a facilitator, and a resource, not an authoritative figure.

Be Informed

To understand the underpinnings of their own teaching philosophy and to be more effective, English language teachers should continuously seek all sources that keep them informed about issues related to language acquisition. By engaging in these constant updating efforts, they are able to employ the most recent teaching methods supported by current research in the field.

The complexity of the ESOL classroom requires a qualified teacher and an adequate classroom environment. Adoption of some of the qualities discussed in this article and establishment of the supportive environment described here can significantly simplify this complexity and thus enhance the process of learning English. A successful English language classroom is the direct consequence of a qualified teacher.

Khalid Al-Seghayer (alseghayer@yahoo.com) is the vice chair of the English Department at the College of Languages and Translation at Imam University, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.