Stay Ready! 5 Knockout Strategies for Everyday English Language Learning

You stare across the classroom at your students, their eyes locked on your every move.

“Are you ready?” you ask, “you’d better be, because it is time!

As a teacher you need a wide array of skills to draw from and you need the ability to recognize which of those skills to use at any given time. If you were a fighter you’d be a Mixed Martial Artist. Like an MMA fighter in the terrain of the teacher, preparation is key.

As the newly-crowned UFC Featherweight Champion of the World Conor McGregor says it, “I stay ready so I don’t have to get ready!”

He wasn’t, of course, referring to the challenges of the English language learning classroom, but the maxim holds true nonetheless.

Why You Should Put Pep in Your Prep!

The better prepared you are for your lessons, the more effective they will be. It is a truism, sure, but a truism of such value that it warrants the repetition.

For newer teachers this can seem burdensome but, in the long run, establishing good classroom routines and lesson planning will assist you in become more effective and more efficient.

Reap the Rewards of Routine

As language teachers, we constantly strive to keep our students engaged on the long road to language fluency. It is no easy task. We need to offer opportunities for students to practice their listening, speaking, reading and writing skills with a wide variety of activities to suit the wide variety of learning styles of our students.

And this requires polished transitions between these activities to maximize the learning time available, and that’s where we can reap the rewards of routine. The key to establishing clear routines is to offer chances to rehearse the procedures and to introduce them early in the course. For some discrete ideas on effective classroom management see here.

“I Love It When a Plan Comes Together”

Lesson planning is an essential skill to develop. While initially time-consuming, as the depth of the educator’s experience grows, the more efficient lesson planning becomes.

I like to think of a lesson as comprising of three clear parts: the intro, main activity and plenary. This type of division works for most lessons and goes as follows:

  • Intro: In the intro. the teacher will share with the students what they will be working on. It offers an opportunity to assess the prior learning of the students and/or tie the learning into a broader theme or sequence of lessons. It gives the teacher a sense of what pace the students can manage. Brainstorming together on the board is a great way to open a lesson and see what the students know already.
  • Main Activity: Or activities! These activities will normally be either individual, paired, group or whole-class activities. These activities should be structured around the central objective of the lesson.
  • Plenary: Some time should be set aside at the end of each lesson for the plenary. The plenary can take many forms, for example, group presentations, an oral quiz, performing a drama, etc. Whatever form your plenary takes it should offer the teacher an opportunity to assess informally the students’ learning. This is a crucial part of the assessment cycle and provides essential information to inform planning for future learning.

5 Standout Strategies for English Language Learning

1. Be Objective

By objective I mean: Have clear objectives established for each and every lesson.

And, just as importantly, share that objective with your students. Too often I have seen otherwise competent teachers begin their lessons without sharing with the students explicitly what the focus of the day’s lesson is.

Your students aren’t training to become detectives! They are language learners. Sharing the lessons objectives from the outset provides a clear focus for their work. It also allows them to activate any related vocabulary or knowledge they may have about the topic.

A great practical way to do this is to write the objective or objectives on the board at the start of every lesson. This soon becomes second nature, and clearly communicates what the student needs to focus on throughout the different elements of the class.

I find my students appreciate objective statements that tell them where they are going. Utilizing the first person can also bring this home to them. You may wish to use regular sentence starters to write your objectives. e.g., “By the end of this lesson you will be able to…” or “I understand how to…”

The beauty of this tactic is that not only does it provide a clear focus for the student, it provides a clear benchmark for the educator to measure the success of the lesson. Measure the lesson’s success against the objectives and you will know when it is time to move on or revisit the material.

2. Same, Same, but Different!

Despite the proud protestations of unisex hair salons and various items of unisex clothing—one size certainly does not fit all! No more so than in the classroom. Our students are diverse not only in their linguistic and cultural backgrounds, but also in how they learn. This must be reflected in how we approach teaching them. To achieve this, we should build differentiation into our lessons.

There are number of ways to differentiate, including differentiation by task, resource and dialogue. Let’s look at a practical application for each of these to assist the English Language Learner.

  • Differentiation by Task: Essentially this means setting different tasks for students according to ability, but based around the same objectives. For example, you may have a less difficult worksheet prepared for a struggling student. This can lead to difficulties if employed insensitively. Especially in the “face” cultures of Asia.

An excellent strategy around this is to prepare the same worksheet for everyone, but containing progressively more difficult tasks. The stronger students will quickly complete the easier tasks and be challenged by the later, more difficult tasks. While the weaker students will spend time practicing the more fundamental exercises at the start of the worksheet.

  • Differentiation by Pace: Too often the pace of a class can default to the needs of its slowest member. While it is important to ensure that our struggling students are catered to, it is equally important to ensure that stronger students are continuously challenged. You can do this by having a series of extension tasks prepared for higher level students. Extension tasks generally should be based on the same objectives as the main activity.

When designing extension tasks for your students think of them as an opportunity for students to deepen their knowledge. For example, if the students have completed a worksheet on the differences between there, their and they’re, you might challenge them to write (and ultimately perform) a brief dialogue employing these terms. Open-ended creative activities are a great way for your higher level students to set their own upper limits!

  • Differentiation by Dialogue: This method of differentiation can take many forms. From the vocabulary choice and grammatical constructions of the questions you direct to specific students to the how you explain a task to specific groups of students.

When giving instructions prior to a task, you can give repeated, more detailed instructions to those students who require it. As you get to know your students over time you can better gauge the sophistication of the language you employ with individual students, modeling structures and vocabulary accordingly.

3. Represent! Non-linguistically Speaking…

The aim of language teaching is ultimately to help our students to attain full fluency. To get beyond the translation between mother tongue and 2nd language in the mind. Much of what we do as language teachers involves words, that is, linguistic representations. To get beyond the translation stage of language learning we need to get our students to “feel” the target language. Employing non-linguistic representations is an effective strategy here.

So, what does this fancy term actually mean?

It simply means to enhance the students’ understanding of the material through a variety of activities that appeal to the senses. Examples of this in a classroom context could include: using graphic representations of concepts, making physical models, having students create mental images, drawing pictures and pictographs to represent their understanding and incorporating physical activities into their learning.

Luckily, technology is on our side here. There are some wonderful online tools to create non-linguistic content, here are just a few I recommend: readwritethink, prezi and gliffy. All of these sites offer at least some free features for your students to get started!

4. Co-opt Cooperative Learning

When you ask your language learners who choose to learn English why they want to learn the language, you will get a variety of responses.

I recently posed this question to a group of university students and answers ranged from a desire to work in tourism, traveling abroad, doing business with foreigners to becoming an air steward.

The one thing all these things have in common is that, at the core, all the answers were about communication.

This should not be surprising given that language is itself about communication.

Why, then, are so many classrooms organized to prevent communication other than that between teacher speaking and students listening dutifully at rows of desks?

Cooperative learning recognizes the hugely important social aspect to language learning. Setting tasks that encourage the students to work together, whether in pairs, small groups, or as a whole class, is important.

A simple example of a cooperative learning activity you can use is Think-Share-Pair.

In this activity, each student writes down their answer to a question you have set, they share it with a partner before presenting their partner’s response to the group. It can often be used as an intro. to activate prior learning before you teach an objective, “In groups, list as many occupations as you can,” or as a plenary, “In your teams, name five things you learned today.”

Activities like these encourage the development of the five main areas of cooperative learning: positive interdependence, face-to-face interaction, social skills and group processing. These situations helpfully simulate situations that arise naturally in the world outside the classroom, whether related to work or play.

5. Set Meaningful Homework Tasks

Classroom time by nature is a crucial element of the language learning process.

But, by nature, it is limited. Sometimes prohibitively so. Well-directed homework tasks can therefore be paramount in this process. The key to making the most of homework tasks is to make them meaningful.

It’s also important to make homework tasks appealing! For this, I would recommend using the FluentU program.

You’ll be able to set native content homework with due dates and even track student progress. Get started by requesting a free trial to explore all of the possibilities.

That homework should be meaningful in terms of language learning should be self-evident, but they must also be meaningful to the student. Given that language learning is a long-term commitment it is important to ensure we endeavor to keep the students motivated and setting homework tasks related to their needs is important. For example, a corporate client studying English may not necessarily see the benefit of writing original metaphors for homework. Where possible, tailor your tasks according to the needs of your students.

The students’ environment will dictate the parameters of many tasks you can set. For example, if you are teaching foreign students in an English-speaking country, you may wish to set a task such as “go to the post office and send a letter” or “join the local library.”

Such functional tasks are great ways for students to use themed vocabulary and practice real life language application. They may not be possible if you are teaching English in a non-English speaking country. You might opt to send them to tourist destinations where there are tour guides and businesses that cater to (or that are owned by) English-speaking expats. If that’s not possible, there are still options.

Luckily, technology can come to the rescue here. There are numerous software applications available online, most of which are free and which allow people around the world to interact with each other in real time: Skype, Line, Facebook and WhatsApp to name but a few. These will offer opportunities to interact with other English speakers with similar interests.

Even if students are not confident enough to take their English skills into cyberspace just yet, you can encourage them to take their first steps by employing a buddy system where they are partnered up with another student for online chats. I found this works well when you partner intermediate students with beginning students. It helps the intermediate students feel greater confidence, and they can often be very sympathetic mentors as the beginners’ struggles are still very fresh in their minds.

Even without the Internet, English language news and other programs are widely available worldwide. Often I will task adult students with watching the international news in their own language followed by watching it in English. It is important here to encourage students not to rely on subtitles when watching the news in English, unless their focus is more on aspects of reading.

The key to setting homework that is meaningful is to reflect on the specific needs of the student in terms of language, their personality and preferences and what is possible in the environment they are in. A little reflection goes a long way!


So there you have, a potpourri of strategy for the tactical teacher.

One size does not fit all, so adaptation is key, but with a trim here and a tuck there I’m sure your students will be well on their way to English fluency.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.

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