10 Simple Rules That Work for ESL Teachers

One of the first things you do when you start a new class is lay out the rules.

Raise your hand!

Eyes on your own work!

But it’s time for teachers to learn the ESL rules–after all, if you’re teaching ESL, you’re going to have to follow some rules too if you want to survive.

Teachers need to hold themselves to certain standards, just like students do. It’s not enough, as an ESL teacher, to just know how to speak the language. Really communicating English to an ESL student is far more than knowing how to speak your own language (though that’s a good place to start).

We’ve got 10 important ESL rules to follow as a teacher to make your classes even more effective and your teaching worthy of that A+.

10 Simple ESL Rules to Breeze Through Your Lessons

1. Do Your Homework!

You probably send your ESL students home with a fair amount of homework every evening, but don’t forget that you have homework to do too! Each ESL class demands an enormous amount of preparation from the teacher — just picking a lesson and exercises out of the textbook isn’t enough.

Imagine that you’re planning a 1-hour long lesson on a grammar point. You should be planning an interesting 5 minute lead in activity to get your students thinking, a core lesson, and several different exercises that test what you’ve taught. This is important, as if you’re planning on teaching something like the present perfect, you need to choose an exercise that tests the present perfect, not the present simple!

There’s no reason to use ready-made lessons, as you’ll need to target your class’ needs, but you can find some great handouts and worksheets online to make this part of your homework a little bit easier.

And of course, you can also plan homework for your ESL students to do once they’ve learned the lesson at hand.

If you’ve done your homework right, you’ll know what problems are likely to arise, what questions your students may have for you, and what the answers are to all of the questions you plan to ask your students before the first bell even rings.

2. Don’t Point

When teaching ESL, you’re obviously going to have to call on your students now and again. Sometimes, you’ll want to call on them by name, but other times, it’s easier not to break the flow of a quick-paced activity, in which case, you may be tempted to point.

Resist the urge!

Pointing is just plain rude, particularly in certain cultures.

One of the first things little kids learn in school is not to point. But there’s another reason you should avoid pointing at your ESL students–it puts them on the spot, making them feel as though they’ve done something wrong. Instead, gesture with an open palm to invite the student to participate. This gesture is far less aggressive.

3. Don’t Be an Echo

It can be very tempting as an ESL teacher to repeat a student’s response, whether it be correct or incorrect. The problem with this is that no matter how talented an ESL student is, when you repeat what they’ve just said, it will always sound a bit different than the way that they pronounced it… and this will make them feel as though they are being corrected, or worse, as though you’ve stolen their correct answer and made it your own. For example:

Teacher: Can anyone give me the name of an animal?
Student: An elephant?
Teacher: An elephant, right!

The teacher has appropriated the student’s answer. The teacher should have said, “Yes!” or “Great idea!”

By making a rule of not echoing in the classroom, a teacher is also permitted to use echoing as a form of gentle correction.

Teacher: Can anyone give me the name of an animal?
Student: A elephant?
Teacher: An elephant, right!

Especially if the an/a distinction is not part of the lesson, there’s no need to zero in on it, but by restating the sentence correctly, the student hears the difference and appropriates it.

Which brings us to…

4. Correct the Grammar Point, Not the Sentence

As an ESL teacher, you will hear many, many sentences that are not utterances that you, as a native speaker, would ever consider saying. And yet as a teacher, you need to resist the urge to correct every mistake you hear.

Learning English is unlike many other subjects in that it’s hard to learn just one part at a time. A student learning even the simplest of structures, like the present tense, runs the risk of making a mistake with pronunciation of an unfamiliar adjective, choosing the wrong article or even forgetting words entirely!

Resist the urge to overcorrect, particularly with beginners.

Overcorrecting makes students nervous to participate, and it isn’t helpful. If a student has not yet learned a grammar point and uses it wrong in class, it’s best to ignore it and focus on whether the student has used the grammar point at hand correctly.

If a student includes an incorrect structure in a written assignment, it is up to you to decide whether the student will benefit from correction and explanation or not.

5. Be Consistent

By creating a consistent atmosphere, students will begin to understand what to expect and will be more primed to succeed in your class.

Try to create a regular class structure, so that students know that every day, you will give them an opportunity to ask questions right before the end of class, or that at the beginning of the class, you will ask them to participate in a game. When students know what to expect from the class structure, it is easier for them to zero in on the novelty of the class, namely, the lesson itself.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t change it up every once in a while! Having a game day or a movie day is a fun treat for both you and the students. But when your regular class schedule is consistent, these special occasions are even more exciting.

6. Get to the Point

Know where you’re going with your lesson. If you’ve followed the steps of doing your own homework, this will likely be a no-brainer, but especially for new ESL teachers, it can be easy to let the students decide how long you’ll be spending on each activity. Try to be the invisible puppet master instead!

This doesn’t mean that the students need to know from minute one what they’re going to learn, but you do.

If you’re starting class with a game, make sure that the game is going to end with an introduction to the focus of the class–for example, if you’re asking students to describe themselves, the class will likely be about adjectives.

If you’re asking students to describe their house, maybe you’ll be talking about prepositions. If you’re letting students try some tongue twisters, maybe you’ll be concentrating on pronunciation. Make sure that each activity leads into the next whenever you decided that it would. 

Students might not know where you’re going with the game or intro activity, but you absolutely should–and you should ideally be able to wrap up the class in a way that validates everything from even the first activity.

7. Stay Relevant

Every ESL teacher needs a good textbook, but that’s not enough to make sure that your students are staying interested in their English language lessons.

In addition to this, you can scour the web and the TV to make sure that you’re making the most of current events, movies and pop culture by bringing those things into the classroom.

That being said, be sure to bring in relevant outside sources intelligently. There’s no reason to discuss a modern song if you’re just going to talk about it.

Get creative! Use “Came in Like a Wrecking Ball” to introduce “never” and “ever.”

Explore negative contractions with “What Makes You Beautiful.”

If you’re doing your homework, you’re sure to find creative ways to include even more songs and other types of pop culture in your class.

8. Don’t Let Students Hide, But Don’t Put Them in the Spotlight

In your ESL class, you’re sure to have a variety of students. Some will be gregarious, and some will be almost painfully shy. As an ESL teacher, it can be difficult to find the proper balance between inviting shy students to speak without scaring them and asking the more outgoing ones to step aside without silencing them.

One of the best ways to deal with this is to ban hand-raising in your class. Instead, invite students to participate–at random–when you want to incite an answer from the class. When you establish this as a rule, students will become used to your prompts and will not attempt to hide or over-participate.

9. Keep Things Moving

You can fit five activities into an hour-long class–if you’re prepared! There’s no need to continue most classroom activities for longer than 10 or 20 minutes. Any longer, and students will begin to lose interest, so the activity won’t be as useful.

That isn’t to say that you can’t spend the whole class on one theme. Imagine you’re planning on having the students debate. Start with a 5-10 minute class brainstorming session. Then separate students into teams. Give them 10 minutes to prepare their arguments. Five minutes will allow each group to give an opening statement, then count 10 minutes for rebuttal and 5 minutes for concluding statements.

Use the remaining portion of class to introduce the follow-up homework assignment and answer any questions. One activity, parceled out intelligently, can last the whole class without causing boredom!

Of course, sometimes there are things you can’t plan for. Maybe an activity takes longer than it should, or you end up with 5 or 10 minutes at the end of class. Be sure that you plan for both eventualities–always know what you can skip if you need to (or assign this part of the class as homework), and have a few quick-and-easy listening games in mind to fill up any extra time.

10. Give Students the Tools to Succeed

There’s one more trick to help students gain the self-esteem they need to shine in your class. And that is:

Make sure they know the answer before you ask the question.

When you start a new class, start by asking an easy-to-answer question. For example, imagine you’re beginning class with a listening comprehension activity. Ask students, “Who is the person being interviewed?” or “Is the interview about politics, art, or history?” Once they’ve gotten one question right, everything will seem easier, and you’re welcome to ask more precise and more difficult questions–they already have the tools to succeed!


The sad truth is, if your students are failing, this is a failure of the teacher’s. If you follow these ESL rules, though, you’re already well on your way to helping your students succeed today, tomorrow, and for years to come!

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