how to teach english

How to Teach English, One Skill at a Time

Whether you’re a veteran educator or you’re just getting started, a little help can go a long way.

Sometimes you totally run out of ideas for lesson plans—sometimes your brain is overloaded with fantastic possibilities.

People working in our profession quickly find out that teaching English is so much more than paperwork and drilling grammar.

ESL can be as rewarding for the teacher as it is for the students.

As an ESL teacher, you have the unique opportunity to share your language and culture with students who are eager and enthusiastic about learning.

They’ll soak up all you have to say, mimic your accent, note the idioms native speakers use daily and more just by listening to you speak.

That’s why ESL is a playground for those who enjoy sharing their knowledge with others. ESL teachers with the right know-how can deftly combine language and culture, giving their students the context-based English skills they need to move forward in life, whether they’re traveling, studying abroad, eyeing that promotion or searching for that international job posting to advance their career.

ESL can be a fruitful endeavor for teachers as well, as many teachers use this profession as a chance to travel the world, experience new cultures and share their own.

It isn’t as easy as it looks, that’s for sure, but with a little time and practice you can become the ESL teacher students are psyched to be in class with!

Here, we’re going to help you master the basics of teaching and lesson planning. If you’ve already got that down pat, then stay tuned anyway—the skills lessons we’ve included are bound to give you some great new ideas!

How to Teach English: A Walkthrough for Planning, Preparation and Practice

Unlike conventional teaching, these skill-oriented ESL classes are more in-depth and allow you to really connect with your students.

You’ll develop a working relationship with your students, offering a more intricate learning experience as you share your language and culture with them. ESL teaching is in many ways about building a relationship and in order to do so, you must know your students’ ESL goals, age, English level, interests and background.

The most important aspect of ESL teaching is keeping your ESL material relevant to your students. If they can relate to what you are presenting in your lesson, than they will remain interested in what you ultimately share with them. Relevant lesson plans are essential in ESL and you can only develop an exceptional, relevant lesson if you take the time to get to know your students. Building friendships and an atmosphere of confidence in your classroom will make all that follows that much easier.

Another key aspect in ESL teaching is deciding what to teach and why. There are multiple English levels within ESL and preparing material to meet the required needs of each level is essential. If you have a group of eager beginner level students gazing up at you from their desks expecting to develop new vocabulary they can use in everyday situations, than that is what you should deliver. This goes back to knowing your students and keeping their ESL goals in mind when developing your awesome lesson plans.

Key Components of Teaching English, from Beginner to Advanced Levels

  • ESL Beginner: Subject pronouns, possessive adjectives, question words, singular vs. plural, alphabet, numbers, job vocabulary, food vocabulary, days of the week and family vocabulary.
  • ESL Elementary: Verbs, quantities, past simple, future simple, adjectives, directions, weather vocabulary, month and years.
  • ESL Pre-Intermediate: Possessive pronouns, modal verbs, past simple with irregular verbs, adverbs, clothing vocabulary, hobby vocabulary, landscape vocabulary and superlatives.
  • ESL Intermediate: Conditionals, relative clauses, past perfect, present perfect, formal vocabulary, common expressions, comparing and contrasting with either or neither.
  • ESL Upper-Intermediate: Third conditional, reported speech, future perfect, modal verbs in the past tense, medical vocabulary, technology vocabulary and adjectives relating to personalities.
  • ESL Advanced: Question tags, prefixes and suffixes, future perfect continuous, phrasal verbs, idioms, metaphors, similes and vocabulary with multiple connotations.

You can see that there are various components to each ESL level, so keeping your lessons relevant to your students and their individual needs is essential for building confidence, keeping them interested and allowing them to be successful when learning new ESL material.

Important ESL Skills to Focus On

English skills are the essential areas you’ll focus on when building your lesson plan and will often dictate the aims and objectives you set for each lesson. All of the components listed above are more specific details, and they all fall somewhere within these broader skill sets.

Reading, Discussion, Writing and Pronunciation are four majorly excellent ESL skills to focus on. They’re the four skills that we’ll focus on here today.

You can build on all four skills in the same lesson or dedicate an entire lesson to just one skill. Picking skills to work on is important, as it defines your aims and objectives.

1. Reading skills are extremely important. Students that have the confidence and ability to read and comprehend reading material can begin to build a different English perspective. Articles and short stories are a great example of reading exercises, pairing reading with practice and production questions that will spark discussion with classmates.

2. Discussion skills develop better conversation. Your students begin processing information in English when listening and speaking. They will be required to respond in English to what they hear. For video clips, you can have your students discuss the summary of what they had seen and heard. In a dialogue exercise, students can practice the art of conversation with a partner or in a collaborative group exercise.

3. Writing skills are often overlooked in ESL, yet these skills are just as important as any other ESL skill around. Writing enables students to leap into description, putting their grammar and new vocabulary into practice. Your students can utilize writing in various ways, conveying their thoughts in English to the class, at home or even in their profession.

4. Pronunciation skills allow your students to develop the sounds in their speech to be understood when speaking English abroad or during a business presentation. If your students lack the essential concepts within pronunciation, than they run the risk of being misunderstood and it may diminish the confidence they have built in your classroom after months of ESL study.

Choosing material for your lesson plan will ultimately revolve around an ESL skill your students will need to progress in their learning and allow them to build more confidence in the way they use English. Remembering relevancy and your students’ English goals will ensure that your lesson will be informative and exciting.

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Putting Your Lesson Together with PPP

Once you know the goals, interests and English level of your students, you can than move into the preparation stage of ESL teaching. Putting your lesson together is just as important as presenting your material to your class. Some teachers out there think they can just wing it, putting together a basic outline with little information.

Don’t let that be the case for you. It’s essential to put together a well-developed lesson plan you can easily follow throughout your lesson, giving you more confidence as a teacher with a plan of action your students will more than appreciate.

The first part of an exceptional lesson plan is the “Aims and Objectives” of the proposed lesson. This is the method of delivering new information to your students. AT first glance it seems like it’s just for your own personal use, but it’s really important to not keep this well-thought-out information to yourself.

Let your students in on what you’ve planned for them.

  • Share the aims of the lesson. Let them know what they’ll learn in class each day before getting started.
  • Share the objectives. Explain exactly how they’ll learn with the upcoming lecture and/or activities.

The core behind any amazing lesson is structure. Utilizing Presentation, Practice and Production (PPP) to structure your lesson is a wonderful way to get all your ducks in a row and ready to teach.

For ESL teaching methodology, there are a few different lesson plan structures floating out there, yet PPP seems to stand out among the ESL format choices as the best.

An Intro to Presentation, Practice and Production (PPP)

1. Presentation is the first stage in your ESL teaching method. This is the time when you’ll actually stand in front of your students and deliver the new material you prepared. This is an important part of your lesson, because this is when you really need to get your students’ attention and ensure that they’re responsive to the new material before moving onto the next stage. Do they understand everything? Does something need some further explanation? Are we all on the same page? Once the answer to the last question is “yes,” it’s time to move on to the next step.

2. Practice is the second stage of the PPP lesson plan format. This is the stage in which your students slowly begin to leave the nest, so to speak. You’ll loosen the reins a bit and allow them to begin practicing the new material they learned in the presentation stage. You can employ pair and group activities at this stage, but it’s essential to maintain control of the work they’re doing in some fashion.

3. Production is the final stage in PPP and it’s usually the most fun for your students. In this stage, students strike out on their own. You’ll give your students exercises they can do on their own, in a group or with a partner while you float around the class answering questions that may arise. Production allows your students to develop an understanding of the new material in their own unique way.

4 ESL Skills Lessons for Teaching English

1. The English Reading Lesson

Teaching reading skills is about so much more than just reading. It’s a wonderful way to reinforce your students’ skills in listening, writing and speaking as well.

A straightforward “let’s read this passage” style of lesson can be fun, but it’s your job as a teacher to make your reading lessons more exciting than just reading text and answering questions. Reading lessons should encompass a non-testing type of atmosphere. Getting students involved in activities surrounding reading is beneficial and can lead into learning a few ESL sub-skills along the way.

There are a lot of great ESL reading lessons out there for ESL teachers to utilize and choosing the right one may appear challenging. The essential component in all skills lessons is to keep your students in mind first. You should ask yourself, “Would my students enjoy this material and lesson?”

Sample Reading Skill Lesson

Choose an engaging topic which relates to your students. If your students are young adults, put yourself in the young adult mindset. For this exercise, we’ll utilize the “Smithsonian Tween Tribune,” an online publication dedicated to sharing news with K-12 English speaking students. In this article, there’s a short article describing a scenario in which a stuffed animal tiger was thought to be real in a residential neighborhood. Utilizing this article can help structure your lesson plan from the get-go.

1. In your presentation, put together a few pictures showing tigers, ask questions pertaining to tigers and where they may reside naturally and develop a few vocabulary words you will pull from the article.

2. Time for practice! This exercise can have a worksheet with the article on it as well. Let your students read the article silently to themselves. You can create some communication in your exercise by pairing students up and having each student take a turn reading the article to their partner. This can develop a few great ESL sub-skills.

3. After reading and listening, have your students work through the comprehension questions as an extended practice exercise with their partner. You’ll then review the answers as a class, keeping control and answering questions along the way.

4. Finally, cut them loose for production, letting them develop a writing piece or presentation about how they would react in a similar situation. This reinforces a few ESL sub-skills as well.

2. The English Discussion Lesson

Discussion lessons are essential in any ESL classroom.

Discussion and conversation is most likely the reason why your students are studying English in the first place. They want to build their ESL skills and develop serious English confidence in order to strike out in the world on their own.

They want to discover new perspectives and discuss their thoughts and emotions with others in English.

Giving your students the ability to hold a conversation is extremely important and they’ll hold you in the highest regard for teaching them this critical, multifaceted skill. Not to mention, ESL students tend to enjoy discussion lessons more than any other kind of lesson.

Sample Discussion Skill Lesson

This ESL discussion lesson will allow your students to voice their opinions on a specific subject: Being a celebrity. This topic can be used for almost all ages and most people have fantasized what it would be like to be famous at some point in their life. It is a fun, interactive discussion activity that allows students to work on their English expression while also building vocabulary.

1. Discuss fame in your presentation. You could show a few celebrity photos and discuss movies or TV shows students may know or recognize. It’s also a great idea to implement a few local celebrities your students may acknowledge and interest them as well. For example, if you’re teaching in Colombia, bringing up Shakira might generate some interest.

2. Hand out the worksheet and pair up your students. Let them work through the vocabulary practice exercise together, promoting collaboration and warm-up discussion.

3. Review the vocabulary together and answer any questions that may pop-up. Keep this review session an open discussion, allowing any student to get involved by questioning or answering other students’ questions. This is an extension of the practice stage.

4. After review, have your students fill in answers to questions related to becoming a celebrity. Think of some fun questions about what they’d do with their wealth and celebrity status. This production is the period when they can focus on their writing quietly before you set them loose to ask and answer the questions from their partners. It’s also a great idea to add in a few more follow-up questions to the worksheet to keep the conversation flowing naturally.

Though this topic is sure to keep them talking, walk around the room and ensure all pairs are discussing the topic. Be wary of lingering moments of silence, frustrated partners and partners who keep reverting back to their native language.

3. The English Writing Skill Lesson

As previously noted, English writing skills often fall through the cracks in ESL teaching. In writing, there isn’t much discussion and focus always tends to float towards more interactive lesson plans.

This doesn’t need to be the case. You can easily construct a great ESL writing lesson with a little thought and creativity. Think carefully about what’s genuinely interesting and relevant to your students when developing a writing lesson plan, because no one likes to write about what they aren’t interested in.

Allowing your students to practice their writing skills gives them the ability to communicate more efficiently over personal or business email. It allows them to write letters to loved ones. It allows them to ask questions and chime in on online discussions. It even better enables them to explore social media, allowing them to Tweet, update Facebook statuses and ask questions on Yahoo Answers.

All in all, writing is a pretty great thing, and they’ll see the immediate value.

Sample Writing Skill Lesson

This ESL writing lesson promotes discussion and writing through a fun and interesting interview.

1. In the presentation stage of your lesson plan, ask your students a few interview questions to get them warmed up. A fun one is, “What adjective would you use to describe your day?” This will get them thinking in the right direction.

2. After some interview review, pass out this worksheet of great interview questions and have your students pick 1 or 2 questions from each category. Next, pair them up.

3. During this practice session, each student will ask and answer the interview questions they and their partner picked. It is a great plan to let them pick their questions first, before knowing who their partner may be, adding a bit more mystery to the discussion.

4. Cut your students loose in the practice stage and let them ask each other the questions they chose. Student A will ask Student B and then they reverse roles.

5. In the production stage of this exercise, each student will write a short summary of their partner utilizing the answers they received in the interview.

6. Once the writing summary is complete, you can have them share it in groups, present it to the class in a presentation or hand in for teacher review, whichever you feel is the best option.

4. The English Pronunciation Skill Lesson

English pronunciation skills are essential for your students to master during their language education. Though pronunciation is often difficult for some ESL students, you must continue to work with them to ensure they’re using the correct pronunciation when they speak.

Nothing’s more frustrating to a student that travels abroad than realizing not a soul understands the English they so patiently learned.

Plus, pronunciation ends up being quite important for reading. If they can’t sound out words right while reading a text, they may not connect them to what they’ve already learned. Not knowing pronunciation makes absorbing new language more difficult than it has to be.

Teaching pronunciation can be fun and enjoyable for your students when a little thought and consideration goes towards building confidence.

Sample Pronunciation Skill Lesson

This ESL teacher resource for pronunciation practice covers the various pronunciation sounds ESL students will find challenging during their ESL learning journey. You can utilize this resource to build quality pronunciation lessons of your own with a little creativity.

1. During preparation, pick an area of pronunciation your students have difficulty with. Normally, pronunciation is region-specific. For example, if you’re teaching in Japan, you may have several students finding it difficult to pronounce words with “L” or “R” in them.

2. Using the pronunciation resource, turn to page 17, “R and L sounds,” and utilize these example words in your presentation and practice exercises.

3. Once your students are nice and warmed up, challenge them further using some “R” and “L” tongue twisters. This is a great resource to create your own material from. Have them practice this on their own.

4. Go around the room and have each student go through the tongue twister you’ve picked. You could even divide the class into two groups and have them challenge one another using team based points for correctly sounding off each tongue twister.

5. For the production stage, have students come up with their own English tongue twisters!

As you can see, once you’ve got that PPP structure to back you up during lesson planning, teaching English isn’t so hard. Just be sure to prepare, and give your students plenty of time for practice and production.

You’ve got this—and so do your awesome students!


Stephen Seifert is a writer, editor, professor of English and adventurer. With over 7 years of teaching experience to students worldwide, he enjoys the many aspects of culture and traditions different from his own. Stephen continues his search for writing inspiration, boldly enjoying life to the fullest.

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