A teacher works with two students at a table

17 Key Goals in Teaching the English Language

Being a teacher is more than a vocation, it’s a calling. We’re not just preparing students for a class, we’re preparing them for life.

With such lofty ambitions, what are the goals that every teacher needs to keep in mind?

Here are some goals that will help teachers to inspire students to learn.

And we’re not only going to give you some pointers about student goals, we’ve got one a few just for teachers as well (though of course this will also help with student achievement).

Contents

1. Put All Language in Context

Putting language in context is a crucial goal of language teaching as it helps students understand how the language is used in real-life situations. And we owe it to ourselves as teachers to teach language that students really need.

Here are some of my favorite strategies that any language teacher can use to effectively put language in context:

  • Real-life scenarios: Create situations that mimic real-life scenarios. For example, if teaching English, simulate situations like ordering food in a restaurant, asking for directions or making a phone call.
  • Authentic materials: Use authentic materials such as newspapers, magazines, videos and podcasts. These materials provide real examples of how the language is used in different contexts.
  • Role-playing: Have students engage in role-playing activities where they take on specific roles and interact using the target language. This helps them practice using the language in a practical way.
  • Cultural context: Integrate cultural aspects into the lessons. This can include discussing cultural practices, traditions or current events, which can provide a meaningful context for language use.
  • Task-based learning: Design tasks that require students to use the language to accomplish a specific goal. For example, planning a trip, organizing an event or solving a problem. This encourages communication in a practical context.
  • Storytelling: Use stories or narratives to present language in context. This could be through reading texts, watching videos, or creating stories together as a class.
  • Field trips or virtual tours: Take students on field trips or virtual tours where they can use the language to interact with the environment. This provides a rich context for language learning.
  • Multimedia resources: Incorporate a variety of multimedia resources like audio clips, videos, images, and interactive online activities. This helps expose students to different modes of language use.
  • Contextualized vocabulary: Teach vocabulary in the context of a specific theme or topic. For instance, when learning about food, introduce vocabulary related to cooking, dining out or grocery shopping.
  • Authentic communication activities: Encourage students to engage in authentic communication activities, such as interviews, surveys or debates, where they need to use the language to achieve a communicative goal.
  • Project-based learning: Assign projects that require students to use the language to research, create and present information on a specific topic. This allows for language use in a meaningful context.

2. Infuse Your Teaching with Cultural Knowledge

Fortunately, being both a teacher and an informant is a pretty easy combination. You probably already inform a great deal in your classroom as you plow through the curriculum.

When sharing an example with your students, give “added value,” explaining not only the obvious reason you’ve shared the word or phrase, but also adding background information about the utterance itself.

For example, if you’re teaching the difference between “may” and “can” (this one was classic with my mom, how about yours?), you won’t just give the two examples with explanations of their differences:

May I use your telephone? (polite request)

Can you fix this? (request for information on the capacity of the person to do something)

Go a step further and explain how, when you asked your mother, “Can I have a glass of soda?” she would reply by saying, “Yes, you can, but you may not,” highlighting how using the polite form was an important part of your upbringing: your mom considered the “can” question impolite.

This type of additional information places an otherwise academic explanation into the framework of language as a living, vibrant device for communication.

3. Turn the Tables and Make your Students Teachers

Hand the teacher role over to your students! This is an excellent way to offer them a theme to speak about in English. It also encourages an attitude of comparison between their native language and English.

A true bilingual person will always be aware, while speaking a second language, how things are expressed in their own language. This is natural and should be encouraged. Sometimes the expression of ideas will be very similar, while with others there may be a huge difference.

In English, for example, a straw breaks a camel’s back, while in Spanish, “la gota que colma el vaso” (one drop overflows the glass). While you make a connection between the straw and the camel, ask your Spanish speaking student to imagine why it’s a glass instead. Ask any student to explain to the rest of the class, in English, how they express the same idea in their native language.

4. Allow Students to Discover Their Own Talents

As with any team effort, the coach will first evaluate the individual talents of each team member and then assign them their best slot in the game. John is fast, so he becomes a running-back. Peter is stocky and firm on his feet, so he becomes a tackle guy. Jane has a strong right arm, so she becomes an outside hitter.

  • Do a student survey in class.
  • Place general talent headers on the board: sports, language, art, music, history, science, mathematics, etc.
  • Ask for a show of hands of students who believe they’re strong in any of these categories and list their names under each header.
  • Group the students, then, into these categories and ask them to work on a group accomplishment list in this field.
  • Have each group share their list with the rest of the class.

Find ways that certain accomplishments overlap between categories. A person who has excelled in mathematics will certainly be able to help a person who’s great at science. A student who understands music can be very helpful to someone trying to learn the rhythm of a language.

5. Nurture Student Talents

Now, ask your students about their strong points in English.

  • Juan says that he loves grammar—he becomes the guy who checks to make sure that sentences are well-constructed.
  • Akiko believes that she knows a lot of phrasal verbs—she will oversee replacing literal verb use with more metaphorical expressions.
  • Inga has strong organizational skills—she takes charge of making sure any group project is well-planned and executed.

When you allow students to lean on their natural talents and knowledge of English, you’ll find them cooperating and helping one another, creating a pleasant and productive team environment for all.

6. Foster Team Spirit in the Classroom

No matter what aspect of English you’re teaching, always come back to the concept that the individuals are working as a team towards a common goal.

Like dealing with level diversity in the classroom, where your best strategy may be finding a common need that all students share despite their proficiency, giving your students common goals will head off a number of otherwise difficult situations in the classroom, including discipline problems.

Sometimes we English teachers get trapped in the idea that we’re teaching some kind of “standard” English to our students. I’ve personally met teachers who have asserted that theirs is the “correct” pronunciation, vocabulary and structure, while the rest are variations.

English, though, is a widely spoken language, both by natives and non-natives. Behind each English speaker there’s a rich cultural heritage that makes their use of the language unique, yet part of the overall, world-wide use of English. You as a teacher will have reasons for speaking English as you do, and you should share those reasons with your students.

7. Share Your Heritage

Do a personal inventory of who you are, where you come from, why you currently speak English.

  • Are you first, second or third generation in your country?
  • Are you a native speaker, did you learn English as a child/adult, was your home bilingual?
  • Were all of your ancestors English speakers? What part of the world did they come from and what was the nature of their contact with the English language?
  • How are you connected to your native land? Are you patriotic?
  • If you learned English as a second language, why did you choose English instead of another language?
  • How important was language to you and your family as you were growing up?
  • Did you live in a culture where English was easily identified by accent, vocabulary, expressions?
  • Did you have to make a special effort to normalize or standardize your English before becoming a teacher?

As you move through your school term, share personal, language-related anecdotes with your students. When “Every little bit helps” comes up in the text, share that your mom always continued that wisdom with “…. said the old woman, as she peed in the ocean, while trying to drown her husband” (make sure your group won’t be scandalized!)

An engaging activity for your students is to ask them to create their own family tree, identifying their own heritage, the history behind why they speak their own native language, the future they expect upon having learned to speak English.

8. Share Your Experiences

The most valuable sharing you can do is that of your own experience in language learning. While many may think this means studying a foreign language, you can also share your experience studying your native language.

In the case of a second (or third!) language:

  • Describe and contrast the ways your past teachers tried to get you to understand. These can be pleasant memories, like that foreign language festival or when Ms. Lane encouraged you to recite that poem, and you won a third-place ribbon.
  • Tell anecdotes between what language class was like in your high school as a college entrance requirement versus the way you’re teaching English to your students as a means of communication.

If your native language is English:

  • Recall any difficulties you had while learning to use English in your day-to-day life. Share a silly childhood pronunciation problem, or a total lack of understanding of spelling rules in grade school (and that time Mrs Lovegrin caught you cheating on a spelling quiz!).
  • Remind your students that all of us (native speakers, too!) have had to study English, its idiosyncrasies, its rules and regulations.

When you talk about these experiences, you’ll connect with your students, letting them know that you, too, have had to jump through the hoops to get where you are.

9. Share What it Means to Be Who You Are

Students often look at a teacher as that authority figure at the head of the class, with the blackboard and chalk and the book with the answer key. This distance between the teacher and student, often necessary, can become a barrier between people who are striving to communicate.

You’ve become a teacher for some reason or other. Though none of your students may want to be a teacher when they grow up, one way to share those reasons is to assume that all of them want to be teachers in the future. Let your students know exactly what being a teacher means to you. For example:

  • Share a story about your favorite teacher; ask them to share as well.
  • Tell them about that particular moment when you just knew that you wanted to teach, and why.
  • Ask your students to make a list of qualities of a good teacher and compare those qualities to what you offer them.
  • Talk about education, what your education has been, what you think education means in the modern world.
  • Ask your students about the importance of education in their lives, if they feel they’re getting a good deal.
  • List ways with your students that all of you can improve education, how to act upon those that are within your reach.

Remind your students that you’re constantly learning new information, either through outside workshops, summer language programs or even within the current classroom. Reinforce the idea that learning is a lifelong activity.

Either in our own personal lives, in our communities or in the world-at-large, each of us will participate in huge changes that will come. Being able to use English, being a speaker of the current global language, means being able to actively participate in this change.

10. Open the World of Communication for Your Students

The principal way in which we communicate our thoughts is through language, either spoken or written. Through language we can listen to, understand, debate and negotiate what goes on around us.

Only a few years ago, a foreign president would’ve addressed the American people through an interpreter or a spokesperson. Recently, the president of France directly addressed the American people, in English and without middle-men.

Whether it be a small, personal relationship with someone on the internet who lives on the other side of the world, or perhaps someone with whom we want to do business, learning to use English will open doors for us.

11. Champion and Include Human Causes

With your students, brainstorm ways communicating in English makes it easier to imagine and reach goals in the world, such as:

  • Ensuring a clean planet for ourselves and future generations
  • Understanding world conflicts and leading them towards peaceful relations
  • Facing human rights challenges across cultures
  • Dealing with cultural conflicts at home

12. Demonstrate How Change is Natural Through Language Learning

Part of the magic of learning a second language is the act of “decoding.” People who speak or study other languages find themselves actively using a part of their mind for this decoding, the action of looking at the new code, comparing it with the familiar code and, finally, breaking the new code while keeping a hold on the old.

Monolingual people usually forget that period when, as babies and youngsters, they had to figure out what their parents were saying to them while they learned their native language. Once the native language becomes old-hat, conscious decoding occurs primarily when a new word or unfamiliar expression shows up in reading or conversation.

On the simplest level, this code-breaking may involve learning nouns and verbs that look different between the native and second language. “Chair” is quite different from “silla,” “hablar” doesn’t look at all like “speak;” however, the English speaker learning Spanish has little choice but to learn the words “silla” and “hablar” if they want to be understood.

On a more complex level though, students will begin to understand that the change is not simply one of replacing a Spanish word with an English one. The change will be in how the speaker of one or the other language views reality.

In English, we may say “I’m hungry,” and that will represent a state of being, accompanied by a rumbling in the belly. A hungry Spanish speaker, though, will say “Tengo hambre”–literally translated to “I have hunger.” This isn’t a state of being, but rather something they possess. Once having chomped down on that apple or cookie, the English speaker will have changed their state of being. The Spanish speaker will have stopped possessing the sensation of hunger.

When these differences come up, point them out to your students. Look at how the metaphorical language of English differs from the metaphors used in the students’ native language. 

The basis for success in imparting your knowledge as an English teacher is motivating your students to want to learn what you have to share. You need to not only inspire your students, you want to be an inspiration to them.

13. Help Students Learn the “Mission Statement”

Language learning is a lifelong process. After over 30 years of living in Spain, at least 25 of which I have considered myself a fluent Spanish speaker, I find myself constantly studying Spanish.

Not a day goes by that I don’t learn a new word or expression. I see a phrase in a news article or hear it in a translation of a film. I look at those, note them, use them for several days, and they become part of my ever-growing proficiency in Spanish.

Though I can say “I have learned such-and-such” in Spanish, I also keep present the concept of “I am learning” and “I will have learned.” “I will have learned” became my mission statement.

Do a mission statement activity with your students. This differs from generating objective statements: it’s broader, outlining a progressive attitude that can be fomented through achieving small goals:

  • What do you plan to do with your English knowledge? (Look for a job overseas? Join an NGO and help the needy? Translate the great works of your culture to English so others can enjoy them?)
  • What will you have to do every day to make English useful to your long-term plan? (Take skill-specific classes that will help you in your work? Learn diplomatic language to deal in local conflict resolution? Pour through previous translations to see if they can be improved upon?)
  • At what point do you believe your English study will be over? (Once you’ve landed the job? Once you’ve returned home from that far-away country? Once your translations have been published?)

This type of exercise should help your students realize the importance of a learning attitude, that study will never end, that human beings learn something new every day.

As the old Spanish refrain goes, No te vayas a la cama sin haber aprendido algo nuevo. (Don’t go to bed without having learned something new.)

14. Give Students Tools for Learning

Read the clues: giving fish vs. teaching how to fish. Sound familiar?

Your job as an English teacher should go way beyond simply explaining, diagramming, translating, grading, informing. You will want to share, on an almost daily basis, the many tools available for learning. You can begin by brainstorming with the students in class.

What tools do we use in the classroom?

  • Blackboard and chalk
  • Note and textbooks
  • Pencils and pens
  • Flash cards and realia
  • Video and audio recordings

Now, take each of these tools and place them outside of the classroom.

Where can we use each of these tools in the outside, real world?

  • Blackboard and chalk (in a board meeting, at a restaurant, at a sporting event)
  • Note and textbooks (at the kitchen table, on a long train ride, sitting on the sofa on a rainy day)

Make a list of tools not related to the classroom:

  • Carpenter tools
  • Mechanic tools
  • Kitchen utensils
  • Sewing materials

Now, put those tools into your classroom and discover how they can be used for English study:

  • Carpenter tools: explaining the use of each tool, giving directions on use, types of materials that can be manipulated or changed with the tool and how, etc.

This exercise allows students to connect with how almost everything they have around them contributes to learning, whether it be within or without the classroom setting.

15. Show the Benefits of Learning

Learning has benefits. We don’t always stop and look at them, though. Do a “benefits” exercise with your students:

  • When did you learn to walk? What are the benefits of having learned to walk?
  • When did you learn to speak your native language? And the benefits?
  • …. to add and subtract?
  • …. to use a computer? A cell phone? A gaming console?
  • …. to make friends?
  • …. to deal with conflicts?
  • …. to use English classroom language?
  • …. to order food in English?

Make the “when did you learn” exercise a regular part of your class plan. It can be language-related (When did you learn to use the irregular form of “go”?) or it can be life-related. The answers should always be a moment the student feels they have learned, coupled with how having learned has improved their lives.

Make a habit of evaluating the benefits of learning: it’ll contribute to converting learning itself into a beneficial activity.

16. Carve Out Your Personal Teaching Niche

Coming from a Latin noun meaning “nest,” a niche is that carved-out spot in a wall where you put something decorative, like a bust or a statue. That’s a pretty image, isn’t it?

Related to people, though, a niche is that area they carve out for themselves, where their particular strengths or abilities can be showcased. When thinking about your niche as an English teacher, you should consider what you can showcase of yourself. You’ll want to identify a personal teaching focus.

Make a list of your past “life achievements.” Scribble down everything you’ve been proud of, or recognized for, as a person.

  • That time you won a blue ribbon in a pie-eating contest
  • The applause you received during the curtain call of the school play
  • The scholarship you received because of your high SAT/ACT test results
  • That year that you actually made it to the end of the town marathon

These accomplishments reflect not only your personal interests, they reflect those things you’re good at.

Now, make a list of “headers” involved in English teaching:

  • Test preparation
  • Pronunciation

Combine the two lists, slipping your past accomplishments under the English teaching header that you feel it most closely resembles.

Getting a good grade on an exam will naturally fall under “test preparation,” while running the marathon may best fit “business English.” Pie-eating contests? Well, you’re not embarrassed to be silly in front of a lot of people, so slip that one into “listening/speaking.”

When you’ve finished, you’ll probably find that one of those headers has many more accomplishments listed under it than the others. That’s where you’ll begin chipping away to create your niche.

17. Flesh Out Your Personal Expertise in the Classroom

Once you’ve identified your expertise as an English teacher, that expertise should become a foundation for all of your teaching.

A teacher who has an expert grasp of grammar sometimes doesn’t understand the subtleties of pronunciation work.

Another teacher may have the creativity to excite students with role plays or games but know only the basics of sentence structure.

A third teacher may control the material involved in standardized testing while having only a cursory knowledge of conversational dynamics.

Though I have a strong linguistic background, a complete understanding of English grammar and years of academy ESL teaching experience, I discovered early on that my niche was based upon my flair for the theatrical. Before becoming an ESL teacher, I pursued a Masters in Fine Arts in theater, direction and management. From that education, I was able to parse together a series of talents that could be used in the ESL classroom.

Consequently, I focused on two areas: pronunciation and improvisation.

Theatrical voice study gave me a complete background in the production of clear pronunciation of complete utterances for communicating to an audience. It was there I also learned the IPA, the importance of stringing sounds together, how it’s physically done.

Improvisation and interpretation classes, as well as direction, aided me in working with ESL students in a variety of activities, from role plays to actual theatrical performance and movie making.

Everything I taught, I taught through pronunciation. Grammar, phrasal verbs, idioms, conversational English, business English, all passed through the filter of “how are we going to get those concepts out of your mouths?”

Choosing a niche is actually choosing that personal filter through which you’ll be teaching everything. This means that you may not focus so much on one aspect (grammar in role play or drama in sentence structure). You’ll be leaving that aspect to the expertise of another teacher, while fully taking advantage of your own strength that the other teacher may not have.

 

What I’ve shared above is meant to help you, as an educator, improve yourself both as a teacher and as a communicator. Some of the ideas involve self-analysis and perhaps answer some questions you’ve been avoiding.

When you’ve worked together with your students in reaching these goals in your professional life, you may find yourself in an entirely different environment in your English classroom.

We can’t ignore the importance, nowadays, of English in a global world. Your part in that evolution has gone beyond simply teaching grammar and pronunciation. You’re the inspiration, the agent of change, the vocational catalyst for yourself, your students and your corner of the world.

 

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