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How to Teach Someone English (as a Foreign Language)

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One way of doing it…

Many people think that teaching English‏‎ is simple. There is a common misconception that if you can speak the language, you can teach it but the simple fact is that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Teaching someone English is challenging for lots of reasons.

It’s a bit like saying because I eat regularly I’m going to open a Michelin starred restaurant. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

So, for people who think it’s just a matter of walking into a classroom and speaking, this article is a very general introduction to teaching English for people who have never taught before. It gives just the vaguest idea of what is involved and how to go about teaching.

If you are serious about learning how to teach English to someone who speaks it as a second language then it may be worth looking at our online TEFL certification course.

Know your Students

Before you can figure out how to teach someone English you need to know why they are learning and what they need to learn…

People don’t just learn to dance. They learn ballroom dancing. Or Latin American dancing. Or line dancing.

And it’s the same with English.

People learn English for different reasons and they learn different sorts of English because of that. Why they want to learn English is very important to you, their teacher.

Some people want to learn enough English just to go on holiday and order a meal. Others want to be able to conduct international business. Others want to pass an English exam so they earn more money at work.

So why do your students want to learn English? In other words: what sort of English do they want to learn?

  • General English‏‎?
  • Business English‏‎?
  • EAP – English for Academic Purposes‏‎?
  • Or perhaps one of the other varieties of English‏‎.

The next step is to find out how much English they know already. Most people around the world have at least a very basic knowledge of English even if it is just a few words: pizza, taxi, police, chocolate, golf, jazz, ninja… These are all words which are pretty well understood everywhere in the world.

At the other end of the scale you might be teaching someone who has spent their life working with spoken English but finds it very hard to read and write in English. Or maybe someone who speaks reasonably good English already but wants to improve.

Obviously, teaching English to someone who knows only the basics will be very different to teaching a student who is already at an advanced level.

Finally you want to find out a little bit about what your students enjoy. A 16 year old boy will not enjoy the same things as a 40 year old woman and vice versa!

This process of working out what your students know, what they need to know, and what they find interesting is called a needs analysis‏‎ and is a critical step in teaching English. If you don’t do a needs analysis then you may well be wasting your time as a teacher.

Understand Your Own Grammar

So you know what your students like, what they want to learn and how much they know already.

But how much do you know?

You may well be able to speak English perfectly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you know how English works. In the same way that most of us know how to drive a car, how many of us really understand how the internal combustion engine works?

You may not have a student ask you, “When do we use the present perfect simple‏‎?” in the first few lessons but you will very soon have a conversation like this:

Student: I have went to the cinema.
Teacher: No, I have gone to the cinema.
Student: Why do we say that?

So why do we say, “have gone” instead of “have went”?

So as a teacher you do need to have a decent knowledge of the basics of English grammar in order to explain to your students why something is the way it is.

NB: If you know little or nothing about grammar, or if you need refreshing your memory our Grammar foundation course for TEFL teachers might help.

What’s the Scenario?

So you know all about your students and you know about English grammar. Next comes the teaching set-up.

There are many different teaching scenarios and each one needs a different way of teaching. You might be teaching in a classroom in front of 40 students. You might be teaching a private lesson in someone’s front room. You might even be teaching online.

Each scenario demands different skills from you as a teacher.

What would you do if two students started arguing at the back of the class?

Or if your students wouldn’t listen to you and refused to take any notice of anything you said?

How much do you charge for a private lesson if you go to a student’s house or if they come to your house?

What do you need to consider when teaching English to someone who is Arabic? Or Chinese? Or European?

What happens if the boss in your school doesn’t pay you?

In other words, it’s not just about learning how to teach someone English, it’s about knowing how to adapt to the scenario, manage your students and understanding their needs… And so much more….

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that if you can speak English it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can teach it.

But the good news is that teaching English isn’t difficult. It’s not rocket science.

The basics of English grammar are reasonably logical and reasonably simple to learn, and classroom management (keeping students in order) isn’t hard to master once you know how.

So if you are thinking about teaching English, don’t just step into the room blind and start talking. Think about what you need to do and above all get a little training in. This will make you much more effective as a teacher and make your job much easier as well.

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