ESL Strategies That Work: Lessons from a First Time Teacher

Updated: Aug 11

In the time of Covid-19, all of us are learning to adapt. As a new ESL teacher, I have noticed plenty of us adapting to using new strategies in the classroom. I have spent the last year teaching ESL in Madrid, Spain. I have gathered some insight not only as a new teacher, but one who focuses on the perspectives of students who are acquiring an additional language.

I am giving these tips because maybe you have started ESL teaching online, such as with sites like VIPKid or Cambly, or maybe these strategies can help your everyday ESL students in your classrooms. Hopefully, what I struggled to learn can guide you in your later endeavors.

When I first entered the classroom for my first year of teaching, I had no idea what to expect. Eventually through trial and error, I formed these strategies that pretty much worked every time!


Use media and cultural content your students are familiar with.

If you incorporate media that your students love, they are more likely to reflect on the lessons outside of the classroom. My students had interests such as reality TV, game shows, and music. My lessons enabled them to create their own game show, because my students liked to watch Spanish game shows in Madrid. We created a classroom version of Family Feud, which involved an opportunity to write and talk with each other in English. Their personal investment in this game kept them engaged with the material. Even the shy speakers were comfortable speaking in front of class, because the process of creating something unique to that class’s interests, and then being rewarded with playing the game provided a sense of unity.  

Pair your students.

If you are teaching a group class, their will be a varying amount of levels. If you pair or group your students, they are more likely to collaborate. This also allows your students to work through issues on their own without the pressure of showing the whole class their struggles. In the beginning of the year, my students were completing a group writing project. It was great to see that once in their groups they would find words and phrases by asking each other questions, rather than searching on their phones.

Use your student’s personal goals in your lessons.

My students were on the older end, so I wanted to make sure I could help them with any English language project. I was inspired by the students who stopped me to ask for job interview practice. After these encounters I re-evaluated some of the lessons I was going to give. Making note if your students want to develop their writing or public speaking changes the attitude toward your class from something obligatory to a tool for getting to where they want to go.

Expect a reluctance to talk, and aim to fix this. Get them to speak in class without fear.

Particularly as a student learning a foreign language, there is more fear surrounding speaking in class. Will they sound stupid? Will they be judged by the other students?

In my experience, I had varying levels of success with getting my students to talk. My own strategy was to reward any speaking, and to save correcting mistakes for the end of the lesson. This was to ensure I was not singling out any one student. As someone who has experience learning another language, I made sure to mention that everyone thinks speaking in another language is awkward at first. As well, when I asked the students about their own interests and followed up throughout the semester. People enjoy talking about themselves or their own interests. This strategy gets the students speaking because they really want to convey their points.

Create an individual or class project that has a goal.

Personally, I find motivation increases when there is a goal to achieve besides grades and good marks. An ongoing project during the year such as a blog, a video project, or contacting and collaborating with a cultural organization creates comradery. A class project increases a sense of accomplishment at the end of the year. Your students can also use these assignments for reference in future endeavors, such as job or school applications.

These are tactics that you can start using both online or in person. As well, here is a list of resources for your students that I used (or wish I had used) during this last year.

The Duolingo app

The Babbel app

Speak Well Youtube Channel

Linguee Dictionary/Translator

Good luck to all teachers during this difficult time. Hang in there!


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