7 Handy Hacks: How to Teach Any ESL Class with Ease

Are you looking out for number one?

Even if you’ve never taught a day in your life and have just sat in classes, you already know that teaching isn’t always painless.

It’s like most work.

The trick is to not focus on how challenging it can be, and instead to seek out the secrets, tips, tricks and hacks to make it easier—to make it painless, or at least as painless as possible.

I’ve taught a variety of students from small children that could barely speak their own language to older people who felt like maybe they couldn’t learn anything anymore. I’ve taught students from over 30 different countries and counting, and I’ve discovered certain patterns and strategies that work with most learners. But even more important than my experience wasn’t what I learned to help the students learn better, but what I learned to help make the teacher’s life (mine) easier!

As the Hustler Kid from “Recess” so eloquently put it “Customer satisfaction is job 2. Personal satisfaction is job 1.” In other words, you being satisfied with your job is most important, and here I’ll share with you what I’ve learned to increase satisfaction while teaching and how to teach ESL as painlessly as possible! This simple stuff has allowed me to work less while still being just as effective in the classroom and never sacrificing on quality. It can work for you too!

How to Teach ESL as Painlessly as Possible with 7 Handy Hacks

These hacks will get you teaching ESL more effectively in no time!

Hack 1: Teach What Needs to Be Learned, Forget the Rest

Raise your hand if this scenario sounds familiar.

Student: Teacher, when do I need to use the past perfect tense in real life?
Teacher: The past perfect is used for events that happened before another event.
Student: I don’t understand that…
Teacher: Hmmm… (thinks to self when one actually uses the past perfect) well, um….

The English language is a vast, complicated one when compared to simpler languages like Portuguese or Korean and explaining every tidbit, facet and detail can be a pain. For all parties involved in teaching and learning.

Or you can teach the student what needs to be learned. Of course, if you must follow a strict curriculum, scroll past this hack, but for those who have more control in their teaching, read on.

I myself for example, don’t ever use tenses like the past perfect (using the past tense suffices fine) or the third conditional and when teaching I stress to the students that not only is it not very common in spoken English (how often do you use the past perfect?) but it’s probably not even all that normal in their own language. You’d be surprised how many students agree.

So if something seems like something the student would never need to say in English, it isn’t even worth learning. It might just be worth a quick intro, but not your usual level of detail. The brain can only store so much info and some expressions and tenses (sorry English) just aren’t worth teaching or learning since they aren’t very common in English and only serve to confuse the student. Sometimes they confuse the teacher too!

Now I must clarify, the students’ learning needs come first (naturally) and if they have a proficiency test coming up or really want to learn the certain grammar point (I mean, it could happen) then by all means teach it.

However, if they’re just focused on speaking well, being understood and feeling good while speaking English, then they’ll thank you for letting them know that such-and-such grammar point is kind of sort of a waste of time and brain capacity.

Hack benefits: Less confusion, time is saved, brain has more space for English that’s actually important. If you don’t use it in your language, why would you use it in English? Moving on!

Hack 2: Ask Questions with “How Do You Feel About….?”

This is a golden question great conversationalists and great listeners use quite often. The answer to “How do you feel about….?” will always include feelings, viewpoints and maybe even an anecdote or two. To begin, let’s compare these questions.

Question 1: How’s your job?
Question 2: What do you like about your job?
Question 3: How do you feel about your job?

When it comes to digging for answers or to even get the student talking, the first one is like digging with a spork. Not to mention that it’s pretty vague.

The second question is better but only focuses on what’s enjoyable and leaves so much undiscovered.

The third question however asks for feelings which can range from person to person and usually get the student talking more than the first two do, which naturally evolves into fluency building.

Hack benefits: The student is speaking more (plus) and you’re speaking less and listening more which is less work (big plus). Once feelings are involved it’s easier to branch off to other topics. Ask about feelings on things to connect to the student, have them feel more comfortable and have them speak more, which in turn means you’re working less.

Hack 3: Use a Timer

The timer is my best friend, and for all that the timer does, it deserves that title. The magic of the timer is that when it beeps, no matter what language you speak, you know that it means “Time’s up!”

A common problem I used to have was controlling the time a class finishes and how long activities should take. I’d wing it and end up losing time, which as you know is time lost forever.

But not with the timer!

It’s best to start the timer at the start of the class so everyone’s on the same page, and if possible use a second timer for activities. Nobody can argue with the timer. After all, time is money!

This hack is best to begin with students as soon as you get to know them so they understand how the class is run and can become more time-oriented. After all, how often do we lose track of time?

Hack benefits: Save time, time activities perfectly, schedule more effectively. You can let the class out when the timer says so, instead of later (which, admit it, happens). The timer gives you control of time and more of it. Control is good. More time is even better!

Hack 4: Make Class Easy, Homework Challenging

Back to the topic of time, the number one time waster in class is stalling. When a student is just lost trying to say something and says a sentence in 20 seconds when it should really take four, time ends up adding up here. So how to solve this problem? Simply make class easier but the homework more challenging.

It’s bad enough our minds give us anxiety when a learning opportunity like studying English comes along but it does. Why not lessen that anxious feeling with an easier class that’s very enjoyable, and then have students do all that hard work for homework? Students end up feeling better in the classroom and pretty much the same at home since homework is homework. This creates a better environment in the classroom as well as develops students’ self-study skills.

Then you can let students know that homework is meant to be a challenge, and they are not meant to complete it perfectly—just to the best of their abilities. After all, you will go over it together in class!

Hack benefits: Less time wasted on awkward stalling and confusion from students resulting in a more enjoyable environment in class as well as easier lesson planning. When homework is more challenging or even more plentiful, the students self-study part of their brain starts working. That same part of the brain you want to work in class when they’re taking 5 minutes to explain what they did last weekend.

Hack 5: Make the Students Ask Each Other Questions

I realized when I started asking students questions in class that there were different attitudes and answers than when I asked them to answer other students’ questions.

Students tended to have this feeling of intimidation answering to a teacher since they assumed the teacher was judging them. However, they seemed to be totally fine when speaking to other students and answering their questions—even while I was still observing and assessing their responses. That’s when it hit me. I should just let them ask each other questions!

The students feel more comfortable asking their peers questions, and they feel even more comfortable answering questions from their peers. Plus, you can just sit back and watch it all happen. That, my friends, is efficiency.

Hack benefits: Students are more relaxed, and this generates some good conversation amongst students. There’s less work for the teacher since when students are talking to other students, they’re essentially doing the work for you. That’s the dream.

Hack 6: Use Google Translate

Like I said earlier, “time is money.” I live by this. I also live by simplicity, efficiency and effectiveness. When you’ve got students coming from different backgrounds and speaking different languages, sometimes they’ll have questions about how something translates to or from their native language. You may not know their native language, you may not know it fluently or there may not be an obvious answer. Yes, some teachers will say “never use dictionaries/translation tools” and stuff like “just explain the definition of something to a student.”

To that I say “ain’t nobody got time for that.”

There’s a pace and rhythm in a classroom that’s built as the class progresses. Using time to explain a word and possibly confuse the student even more is a pace killer. The rhythm slows down and it’s not as easy to pick it back up again.

Thankfully, technology has brought us Google Translate. At the speed of your nimble fingers you could explain a word to students and carry on at the accelerated pace you’ve been building up to in this class. It’s almost as if the creators of this tool made it with ESL teachers in mind!

The best part is that students (at least mine) never complain that the teacher is using Google Translate because, well, like you they want English to be as painless as possible. If they have devices or dictionaries, then they can also be welcome to whip them out during classtime.

Hack benefits: Quick answers to student inquiries that keeps the learning pace fast, fun and dynamic. Not to mention you can learn new words in foreign languages and keep the learning atmosphere alive! You (most likely) used dictionaries and translators when you were learning a language, why wouldn’t your students? They exist for a reason.

Hack 7: Have Private Lessons with Alcohol

Okay, before you start going loco, keep in mind that this is for adult students outside the classroom/workplace. Freelance ESL is all the rage now, and what’s best about that is that there are no norms to follow. This means you could do as you please, as long as you retain students, of course.

Well, the great social lubricant of alcohol along with learning languages does wonders. The tension that some students have when learning a foreign language slowly disappears like the sun at 6 p.m. and all of a sudden, teaching becomes less of a chore.

I first experienced this with a student who wanted to meet at an outdoor restaurant and the second we got there he ordered two drinks. I realized this was a game changer after the first 10 minutes because the whole ambiance had changed. There was less awkwardness, mental blocks seemed to not exist and, as the drinks kept coming (only about two more within an hour), the “class” not only felt easier and more enjoyable but it went by faster.

Now it could be taboo to invite a student for a drink or even suggest it, but when put in the right context, the benefits speak for themselves to the students and most will agree.

Hack benefits: Makes teaching easier since you’ve been drinking, makes learning easier for the student since they’re less on edge and builds rapport since you’re drinking together like pals. People speak more after a drink or two. More STT (student talk time) makes the teachers job more painless. Plus, everyone could use a drink every now and again!


As you can see from these hacks, the main premise is to make things easier while still keeping effective learning methods and never sacrificing on quality. Time is saved, discomfort is decreased and best of all, things stay simple.

These “painless tricks” as I call them also create a term I have coined “painless mentality” which is a way of thinking that you’ll start developing after trying these hacks. Your brain will start finding other ways in life that it could make things easier, and before you know it you’re teaching ESL as painlessly as possible as well as living life as painlessly as possible too.

And that is living.

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