Watch your language: how, and when, and how not to grade.

teachers-appreciation-weekOne of the challenges of teaching lower level students is knowing when, and how, to grade your language. Although by the end of my Trinity I’d just about got my head around how to talk to elementary students, I still tended to find that I’d frequently be greeted by blank stares for the first few minutes of the lesson – before I’d graded my language enough to be easily understood. The first time I taught beginner students I had no idea how to speak to them!

Grading your language is one of those things that seems much easier in theory than it is in practice. You just use simpler words, right? Well, yes… and then some. Like any other aspect of teaching, grading your language is a skill that takes practice. So while you’re getting to grips with it, here’s my ‘Grading Your Language 101’.

 1. Speak slowly (Edit: enunciate and add pauses).

As everyone who’s witnessed the stereotype of a British or American tourist on holiday knows, repeating yourself loudly and slowly doesn’t guarantee comprehension. However, speaking more slowly in addition to other techniques WILL increase your chances of being understood.

2. Use simpler vocabulary.

If you’re teaching a level you don’t have much experience of, reading through an appropriate level coursebook or two before planning your lesson/teaching your class is always a good idea. This applies to any level, not just beginners/low-level students! Having a look at a coursebook will give you an idea of the types of text and what kind of vocabulary your students are likely to be familiar with. A good rule of thumb is not to introduce too much new material at any one time – so if you’re giving students practise of a new grammar point, don’t include lots of new vocabulary as well. Let your students focus on one thing at a time.

The same holds true with your spoken language: use simpler vocabulary for instructions or explanations (times when you want your students to be able to focus on the content of what’s being said, but not necessarily on the individual words being used).

3. Use simpler grammatical structures.puzzled

Grading your language isn’t only about using simpler vocabulary – it’s also important to pay attention to the grammatical structures you use. ‘If you had a million pounds, what would you do?’ isn’t likely to be understood by students who aren’t ready to study conditionals… but ‘Imagine – you have a million pounds. What do you want to buy?’ expresses the same idea (without the complex grammar!). Again, if you aren’t sure it’s worth looking through a coursebook to get an idea of what your students are likely to be familiar with.

4. Use natural English.

Especially if you’re teaching a lot of low-level classes, it’s not too unusual for teachers to find that they are mimicking their students’ English – missing out articles, using ‘is’ instead of ‘are’, or not using full sentences are common ones. This is a bad habit that it’s remarkably easy to get into – even though few people want to admit that they do it! The problem with this is that it provides an incorrect model for your students, and therefore they’re more likely to copy the mistake than to learn to correct their own errors.

5. Say things in a different way.

Don’t assume that the blank expressions mean that your students don’t understand the gist of the question or don’t have the vocabulary to respond – they may simply not understand the way you phrased it. As an example, one of the things I’m most guilty of is the following conversation:

Me: Where are you from?

Student: Russia.

Me: Ah, cool! Whereabouts in Russia?

Student: Sorry, I don’t understand.

When speaking English naturally I always tend to phrase the question this way – for some reason ‘whereabouts’ comes far more easily to me than any possible alternative. If I’m talking to anyone other than a high level or native speaker, though, they’re not going to understand! I could assume that they don’t understand or can’t answer the question and completely write it off… but it makes more sense to ask the question in a different way first, like so:

Me: Where are you from?

Student: Russia.

Me: Ah, cool! Whereabouts in Russia?

Student: Sorry, I don’t understand.

Me: Sorry, where are you from in Russia? What town or city?

Student: Ah! Moscow.

Reframing the question (and using simpler language when doing so!) gives the student another shot at answering, especially if you slipped up and didn’t grade your language enough the first time!

6. Allow them thinking time.

Before jumping in and rephrasing the question, it’s worth remembering that your students need time to think – so don’t jump in and reframe or move on immediately. This is something that most teachers (including myself!) find tricky – not least because it can feel really awkward standing and simply waiting for an answer. When teaching low level students, though, that pause is vital, to give them time to understand the question and formulate their answer. If you want to find out more about thinking time (or ‘wait time’) I highly recommend Rachael Roberts’ post, ‘The wonder of wait time’.

7. Don’t Patronise Your Students.

Your students don’t speak much English, but that doesn’t mean that they’re stupid. I’ve taught doctors, engineers and phD candidates – people far more intelligent than me and with more qualifications than I will probably ever have…but circumstances, situations and priorities have meant that they’ve still been beginner English language students. Yes, you’re going to need to speak slowly, use simple language and perhaps talk about simpler topics than you would do normally, but it’s important not to treat your students like idiots. Bear in mind also that your low-level adult students are not children. That might sound obvious, but many of the ‘beginner’ resources out there are aimed at young learners – particularly if you’re looking to teach vocabulary such as rooms in a house, furniture, clothes, etc. Some of these materials are still fine to use with adult students, but others aren’t appropriate. Use your discretion and be discerning when it comes to choosing materials.

8. Don’t be afraid to use some unknown language.

When I first taught ‘starter’ students (complete beginners) I used to worry about using language they didn’t know, or at least language that I hadn’t taught them or wasn’t in the process of teaching them. On joining my class anything beyond ‘hello’ was new language for them – so wasn’t it a bit much to expect them, six or so lessons in, to be able to understand a text containing lots of new vocabulary? Well, no – because of how we acquire language. Your students might not be able to produce the language, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t understand it. Your students’ vocabulary will grow as they are exposed to new language, so don’t be afraid to introduce them to it! Do grade your language – but don’t worry that your students need to know and be able to produce every word you say.



The Art of Smile and Nod


I read Joanna Malefaki’s post on Disciplining Adult Learners, and was immediately inspired to write my own thoughts on the topic. You see, we spend a lot of time talking about how to manage challenging behaviour in our young learner classes… but much as we shy away from admitting it, challenging behaviour happens from time to time in adult classes too.

Similar to Joanna’s experience, I’ve had students:

  • Openly text/play on their phones throughout the lesson
  • Answer a phone call, then having a phone conversation in the middle of the lesson
  • Ignore instructions (problematic when those instructions are to start or stop an activity)
  • Argue with and openly criticise the teacher
  • Laugh at, bully or otherwise be unpleasant towards other students
  • Refuse to participate in activities (more often than not communicative tasks) because they are ‘pointless and stupid’
  • Repeatedly arrive late (upwards of half an hour), with no apology or explanation

Normal behaviour for teenagers, you might think. But I’ve encountered all of this with adult students too.

The challenge here is ‘what do I do when my adult student is behaving badly?

definitely don’t have all the answers to this one (if you have any more ideas I’d love to hear in the comments), but here are my thoughts.

Remember that in the classroom, you are the boss.

Personally, one of the reasons I find it difficult to ‘discipline’ adult students is simply because of how I perceive their position in relation to mine. Often my difficult adult students have been older than me, and in the case of in-company classes, may well occupy a very senior position. Meanwhile, I’m someone who is being paid to provide a service – and the first rule of customer service is that the customer is always right.

After several years of teaching, my opinion now is that where teaching is concerned, this way of thinking has to go. Yes, I may be younger than this student, earn less money and be regarded as being less senior, but in the classroom, I am the one in charge.

This means that if a student’s behaviour is disrupting their or other students’ learning, I have the right to say something about it – regardless of that student’s age, gender or position.  

(If you ever doubt that you’re in charge, I strongly recommend asking troublemaking older kids, teens or even extremely disruptive adults to stand up and come and take the lesson instead of you. I’ve never had any takers).

Stay calm.stress-kit

Getting angry (especially in front of the student) is simply not worth it. It jeopardises your
professionalism, can turn a positive classroom atmosphere into something very negative, and is unlikely to have the result that you are looking for. I have a bit of a temper, so definitely don’t find it easy to practice what I preach here – but taking a moment to breathe, remaining calm and not allowing things to get heated (however strongly you feel) is more likely to improve the situation than not.

Decide how much it’s worth fighting over.

This is a tricky one… and a personal one, because I do think it depends largely on the situation.

In terms of things like texting in class, the students are only disrupting their own learning. Yes, it’s disrespectful and impolite, but at the end of the day they are the ones who will suffer. This is something I might address if it becomes a regular occurrence, but if it’s only once or twice I may well let it go.

If a studedifficult-people-quotent refuses to participate in an activity, again, that’s fundamentally their problem. I’ll explain to them my rationale for doing it and why participating would be beneficial for them, but at the end of the day I cannot force them to do something they don’t want to do. In this situation I’d simply devote my attention to the other students and ensure they get the most out of the activity as possible.

I will not tolerate students being rude, disrespectful or bullying towards other students in the class. In these situations I will almost certainly make my views clear to the class immediately, and may well speak to the individuals involved after the lesson as well.

In terms of topics such as racism, homophobia, sexism, and political views, it’s a tough call. I’m well aware that my students come from different cultural backgrounds to myself, and therefore their views, while intolerant and unacceptable in my culture, may well be the norm in theirs. Here I think all you can do is make it clear that their views are not universally accepted. If ideas are expressed that really bother you, simply steer the conversation away and make it clear that you are not willing to participate in that discussion.

Put the students in your shoes.

One thing I have found to work well when working with difficult adult students is to ask them to stand in your shoes for a minute – or equally in the shoes of other class members. While teenagers or kids don’t necessarily have the empathy required in order for this to be effective, adults generally do,  and most adults do agree with the idea of ‘treat others as you would be treated’. If they wouldn’t be happy with their teacher  chewing gum, or texting in the lesson, or arguing with other students, why is it ok for them to do so with you?

One thing that’s worth bearing in mind here: remember that your students are adults. While it’s fine to tell them that their behaviour is unacceptable, don’t make a big show of it or single out one difficult student in front of the class. If one or two students are acting out of line, the rest of the class will have doubtless noticed it too – but they are also likely to be watching to see what you do about it! Wherever possible take a difficult student aside or speak to them after class. Make it clear that you consider their behaviour to be disrespectful or inappropriate, but do this calmly and respectfully.

Ask others for advice.

Several years ago I taught a really difficult adult student. The kind who would argue and tell the teacher that they were wrong, who would roll their eyes and sigh loudly if they didn’t like an activity, who would threaten to complain at the end of every single lesson, and who would from time to time simply refuse to participate, instead sitting there, arms folded, glaring at everyone. After several lessons of this (she joined part way through a course), I was jittery, paranoid, and concerned that I was doing things horribly wrong and was a terrible teacher. Until I spoke to my colleagues.  It turns out that almost all of them had had a similar encounter with that student – she would routinely turn up, sulk and pout her way through six months of lessons, and then disappear until she decided that she needed to improve her English again. I never did figure out exactly what her rationale behind this was – but knowing that I wasn’t alone helped a lot.

Even if your colleagues haven’t taught the student you’re currently having difficulties with, they may well have been in a similar situation with a different student. Ask people for help – they may be able to make suggestions, offer advice, or simply make you feel better.

Get back-up.

If you’re teaching on a free-lance or private tuition basis, this one is harder, and I don’t honestly know what to suggest beyond try some of the above ideas and decide how much you’re willing to tolerate.

If you are working for a school, however, it’s worth speaking to your Senior Teacher or ADOS. Even if they won’t speak to the difficult student on your behalf (and sometimes they will!), it can be worth it just for reassurance. The prospect of students complaining gets a lot less scary when you know that the school management has already heard your side of the situation!

Have you ever had problems dealing with a difficult adult student?

What happened, and what did you do?


Interview with an EFL Teacher: Allison

One of my many plans for The Best Ticher this year is to showcase some other voices, not just my own. After all, I’m not the only EFL teacher out there! To kick off my new series of ‘Interview with an EFL Teacher’ posts, I’d like to introduce my friend (and former colleague) Allison. 




Allison is an EFL teacher from Long Island, New York. She did her CELTA in Wroclaw, Poland and currently works in Prague, Czech Republic. In her free time, Allison likes to read, draw, do arts and craft projects and play on her ukulele.

Hi Allison, thanks for agreeing to answer some questions for my site!

So, first thing’s first, the big question: why TEFL?

One of the big reasons I chose TEFL was because I knew someone who had done it; my sister! She taught in Prague and in Japan. She really loved the experience and culture in the countries she was in and inspired me to travel and teach!

Did you have any teaching experience before taking your CELTA?

Yes, actually I did! Before I did CELTA, I received a Master’s in Science in Elementary Education (aka: Teaching Primary School Children). I looked for some jobs after I graduated, but I was a little nervous. I kept asking myself if teaching in one place was what I wanted to do. Before settling down, I wanted to travel. Teaching and travelling seemed like the best option for me. It made me excited to think about the possibilities of living and teaching in another country.

What was your next step after receiving your certificate?

After I got my CELTA, I stayed in Poland for at least a month in order to find a job as soon as possible. While I applied to jobs, it gave me the opportunity to travel around central Europe. 

What’s been your favorite teaching moment?

My favorite teaching moment was when I taught in pre-school in Prague. One day, I arrived to class and a little girl came up to me, grabbed me by the hand and showed me a picture she drew. She pointed out the colors that we learned the week before and said them in English. I gave her a high five and she grinned.

I also love singing songs to my pre-school and primary school children. It’s wonderful to hear them hum the songs that we learned and then they sing it for you. ^_^

What’s the most useful thing you’ve learned?

The most useful thing I learned was that experience is valuable. The more practice, support and resources I got, the more I grew in my teaching skills.

Is there anything you wish you’d changed or done differently?

No, not really. I don’t regret anything and I think everything I learned helped me to become a better teacher.

If you could give one piece of advice to a new teacher, what would it be?

Be patient. The art of teaching is not mastered overnight.

Complete this sentence: “Teaching English abroad is…”

Teaching English abroad is life changing, yet rewarding. 

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions Allison! 

What to do when you can’t stop criticising yourself

Do you remember the first time you thought ‘I can’t do this?’ about teaching? Maybe it was when you were faced with a particularly rambunctious group of kids, or moody teenagers who didn’t want to talk. Maybe it was when your class asked you questions you didn’t know the answer to. Maybe it was your first time teaching pre-schoolers, or an in-company class, and your ‘I can’t do this’ moment happened before you even set foot inside the classroom.

I certainly do. Part way through my first year of teaching, I took over another teacher’s adult upper-intermediate class. In the first week I taught them my lessons seemed to consist of never-ending grammar questions that I couldn’t quite answer convincingly, and I found myself constantly wondering if my class were all afflicted with Resting Bitch Face, or if they actually just hated me. In the second week I taught them I was called into my director’s office, where she gently explained that I would no longer be teaching that group. They had requested a different teacher – any teacher, it would seem, except me.

I didn’t think too much about this at the time. I was 23, had just started teaching, and was pretty willing to just go along with whatever the director of my school said. But several months later when I was given another upper-intermediate class, a snipy, critical voice popped up in my head. ‘You can’t teach upper-intermediate… remember what happened last time? They’re going to ask you questions that you can’t answer. They’ll complain about you if you hesitate too much or you get something wrong. Maybe you shouldn’t have thought you could teach. Maybe you shouldn’t have come here in the first place…’

Sound familiar in any way? Many teachers I know (myself included!) are their own worst critics. It’s easy to say that – flippant-sounding even, but criticising yourself can have a huge impact on your confidence, how willing you are to put yourself out there and say ‘yes’ to new things, and how happy you are on a day-to-day basis.

The good news is that there is something you can do about it. The bad news is that it might not be what you expect.

I was a shy child, and as a teenager, I lacked self-confidence in pretty much every way, shape and form imaginable. Looking back on myself then, I still find it a little surprising that I can now happily stand and talk in front of a class of students! Why do I tell you this? Because I didn’t stop being shy because people told me not to be. 

One common mistake that teachers, teacher trainers and managers make when they’re trying to encourage others to be more confident is to compliment, encourage and try to build up. I’m guilty of this too. A new teacher says they don’t think they can teach kids… Yes you can! You’ll be fine! I believe in you! Does it work? Well, maybe a little. But it’s not the most effective way of helping someone to overcome the inner critic.

Arguing with the inner critic, whether it’s you or someone else doing it, doesn’t helpYour nasty, inner backchat is NOT based on fact or reality (even if you think it is), and logic and facts can’t reason with what is fundamentally an instinctive fear. You can spend hours arguing with your inner critic:

‘You can’t teach this class. It’ll go wrong.’

‘Yes, I can. I’ve planned it carefully, it’ll be fine.’

‘You’ve probably forgotten something.’

‘No, I haven’t. It’ll be fine.’

‘But what about the kids? What if they’re badly behaved? What if you lose control of the class?’

This is an argument with yourself that you are never going to win.

What about looking to someone else for support? A teaching colleague, a mentor, or a manager? This is no bad thing – everyone needs support and having someone to bounce ideas off can really help. However, when it comes to the inner critic, many of its sarcastic, negative thoughts arise in the heat of the moment, and that’s when we make snap decisions without talking to anyone. Also, let’s face it, we don’t tell anyone what’s going on in our heads most of the time (especially the negative, lacking confidence stuff) – it’s human nature to try to act as though we have it together as much as possible.

So, ‘just deciding’ to be confident isn’t going to work. Arguing with ourselves isn’t going to work. And listening to our inner critic is just going to make us stressed out, unhappy, and not doing what we want to do. Don’t worry, we’re now getting to the bit where we talk about the alternative.

#1 Get your head around the idea of the ‘inner critic’.

Part of me always wants to dismiss this idea as being pop psychology ‘woo woo’. But let’s face it, we do all have a voice in our heads that anxiously criticises and undermines our thoughts and attempts to step outside of our comfort zone.

This chart shows some of the differences between realistic, rational thinking… and when it’s the inner critic showing up in our thoughts.

Image from Harvard Business Review

Step one towards beating the inner critic: recognise and notice when it’s the inner critic piping up. This can be as simple as saying to yourself ‘I’m hearing the inner critics worries about this again’ – or even just simply ‘inner critic’.

#2 Look for the motives in what the critic says.

Although it’s not necessarily easy for us to see, our fears and instincts are designed to protect us from harm. The inner critic is no different: it’s usually our mind’s way of trying to keep us safe. Why did my inner critic kick off so badly when I was asked to teach an upper-intermediate class again? Well, although it’s no sabre-toothed tiger, the fear of having the director of my school lose confidence in me is still a threat. My inner critic’s attempts to get me not to teach the class were ultimately attempts to keep me safe.

#3 Visualise getting rid of the critic.

*There are lots of different ways to visualise getting rid of the inner critic, but the one I’ve found most helpful for me is simply to get up and move into a different room or physical space, envisaging that I’ve left the critic behind. Obviously this isn’t possible all the time (it wouldn’t work in the middle of a class, for example), but it certainly does work if, for example, you’re at home planning lessons or preparing for an observation.

#4 Remember that this is a process.

Overcoming the inner critic isn’t about suddenly developing boundless reserves of confidence. Rather, it’s about developing the tools to recognise and then deal with its voice.

This is going to be a process – and one that won’t ever finish. It’s perfectly normal to stop criticising yourself for one thing… only to then hear the inner critic pipe up about something else.

You won’t ever silence the inner critic, but you will get better at dealing with it – and be able to stop taking direction from fear. 


*I’ve encountered and read about ‘the inner critic’ in many different places, but much of my understanding (and some of these ways of dealing with the inner critic) come from a fantastic book called ‘Playing Big’ by Tara Mohr. This book is about confidence, growth, and empowerment – and I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s written for women, but in all honesty I don’t see why men (especially those who are introverted or lacking confidence) wouldn’t benefit from it too. Read it if you want to find out more about the inner critic and how to learn to live better with his or her voice!


Goal-setting with Students (including FREE worksheet!)

I had a really positive response to my blog post about goal-setting for 2017, and it’s prompted a few other teacher bloggers to start sharing their own goals for the year too. I have to say that I’m in awe of the amount some of you have got planned! One thing I have realised, though, is that goal-setting isn’t only important for us as teachers – it’s important for our students as well… and it can be worth taking a lesson (or part of a lesson) to teach our students how to set (and work towards achieving) appropriate goals for themselves.

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve asked students to set English language-learning goals for themselves, and they’ve come up with some or all of the following:

  1. I will watch films or TV shows in English.
  2. I will learn more words.
  3. I will speak English more.

None of these are necessarily bad goals in themselves… but there are some definite problems with them.

Today we’re going to discuss how to get your students to set goals for themselves that they want to keep… and that they’re able to achieve too!


#1 What do they really want to achieve?

One of the first problems I often notice with student-goal setting is that students choose something that ‘sounds like’ a good goal: something that they’ve been advised to do by a teacher or that they’ve heard other students talk about, rather than actually thinking about whether or not it’s relevant or important for them. Choosing a goal that you don’t really care about keeping is an obvious way of setting yourself up for failure! So, how can students be coaxed out of this ‘my teacher told me to’ type goal setting? Well, by thinking about what’s important for them, as learners and users of English.

Try to encourage students to think of ‘real-life’ applications for what they want to do, and avoid ‘language-based’ targets such as ‘I will learn more adjectives to describe people’ or ‘I will learn the second conditional’. In my experience language-based targets are less motivating for students (they’re seen as something they have to do rather than something they want to do), and maintain the mindset that English is something they do in their English lessons, rather than something that can have a practical communicative purpose outside of the classroom.

For lower-level students to consider:

  • Where do I want to speak English?

(at work, on holiday, at the doctors, at home…)

  • Who do I want to talk to in English?

(people I work with, a doctor, shop assistants…)

  • What do I want to talk about/do in English?

(ask for directions, talk about a health problem, order food…)

Lower-level students’ goals in learning English are more likely to be concerned with communicating in specific situations.

For higher-level students (B1+) to consider:

  • What would I like to do in English that I can’t do at the moment? 

As a general rule, higher level students’ aims are more likely to be broader and will include a wider range of activities than simply speaking/listening to/writing English. As their goals are ‘bigger’, they’re more likely to need more individual steps/elements to achieve each goal.**

#2 Break it down.

Once your students have established exactly what they want to do in English, it’s time to think about how they can achieve that. It’s unlikely that their ‘what I want to do in English’ is an achievable goal in and of itself.

Students’ goals are likely to be made up of a combination of the following:

  • Expanding and learning vocabulary
  • Learning about register/increasing their knowledge of formal/informal language
  • Learning how to format different styles of writing
  • Understanding interaction (eg. turn taking, body language, active listening skills)
  • Finding out what is required in order to do something (eg. attending university, doing a particular job…)
  • Exposing themselves to particular types/sources of written or spoken language
  • Trying something they haven’t done before
  • Repeating something that they’ve already tried to do, but unsuccessfully (or that they found difficult)

#3 How are your students going to achieve their goals?

Now that your students have decided what they’d like to be able to do in English, and broken down what things they might need to do in order to do it, it’s time to think about helping them to achieve it!

It’s worth introducing your students to (or reminding them of) SMART goals. If you need a refresher yourself check out my post on goal-setting for teachers. For your students to achieve their goals they’re likely to need to do some (or all) of the following:

  • Refine and practice their study skills (for example ways of learning vocabulary)
  • Set aside a particular amount of time each week for extra study
  • Work on their organisational skills (eg. note-taking, highlighting/underlining key words, keeping their work organised in a folder)
  • Review vocabulary/topics covered in class
  • Ask their teacher questions
  • Ask other students/English-speaking friends or colleagues for help
  • Research things online
  • Complete practice versions of what they hope to eventually do (eg. emails, conversations, application essays…)

#4 Follow up!

It’s all very well encouraging your students to set goals for themselves, but if they’re going to set them and then forget all about them/lose the paper they’re written on never to be seen again, you might as well not bother.

Show your students that you’re as committed to helping them achieve their goals as they are, by following up on it. If your goal-setting lesson is at the beginning of January, why not have a ‘goal-review’ lesson (or part of a lesson) at the end of term, or at Easter? If your students know that they will be being held accountable, they’re more likely to follow through and put in the actual work. If you’d like some ideas on how to work with your students to review their progress, check out Maria Theologidou’s great post on Self-reflection.

As an aside, it’s a good idea to make a copy of your students’ goal sheets (whatever format they may take) before they take them home – no matter how reliable or mature you think your students are, there will always be one who loses it within the first week!

So, there you have it: how to set goals with your students that they will be able to (and want to!) achieve!

For teachers with intermediate (B1) or higher students, I’ve put together a goal-setting lesson plan. This outlines ‘SMART’, asks students to evaluate a selection of potential goals, and then encourages them to plan and set their own English learning goals for 2017.

If you’d like the worksheet, you can download the PDF here: goalsettingforstudents.

Do you set goals with your students? What have you (or they!) learned from the process? 




**As an aside, if you’re doing this activity with teens, and the answer to these questions is *shrug* ‘I don’t know… my parents want me to learn English…’ encourage them to think about things that have nothing to do with traditional learning/being in the classroom. Things like computer games, or football, or film, or music. I have to admit that every time I hear an interview with a football manager/player who’s a non-native speaker, I’m always hit by how motivating and inspiring that could potentially be for a football-mad English learner!

Native Speakers Aren’t Better – So Don’t Believe It.


When I started this blog, I foolishly assumed that I was writing for an audience like my younger self: British (or perhaps American), relatively young (maybe one or two years out of university) who’d taken a TEFL course at least in part because it seemed like a good idea… and then who headed abroad to teach reluctant and terrified. I’ve realised however as my readership has grown that this is only a small part of my audience; there are lots of you out there who are non-native English speakers, working in your home country or trying to navigate the tricky world of visa applications  and not having ‘the right’ passport.

A couple of weeks ago, a teacher emailed me asking for advice (you can do that by the way – my email is on the ‘About’ page). As I highly doubt she’s the only one in this position, my answer evolved into this blog post. So how can a non-native speaker teacher feel more confident speaking English in the classroom?

Students want native-speaker teachers, don’t they?

copy-of-reflection-for-the-week-blankThe honest answer here is ‘not necessarily’. It’s become almost standard practice for language schools to advertise their native speaker teachers as a selling point, and this has a knock-on effect. Schools tell their students that they should want to learn from native-speakers, that native-speakers are better, online teachers sell themselves first and foremost as being native speakers… and so it’s hardly surprising that students have taken this on board. ‘Native English speaker’ has become just another marketing buzzword (as highlighted by the online advert I saw earlier this week: a ‘native English speaker’ advertising their services as an English teacher, written in what was, at best, intermediate level English). To some extent, yes, students want native-speaker teachers… but this is because they’ve been told to, rather than down to any kind of factual research.

Let’s not forget that in many countries, the profile of the ideal ‘English teacher’ extends to cover far more than native language. A friend of mine (white, native English speaker, South African) was asked to lie to students about her nationality and tell them that she was British. Fantastic teachers I’ve worked with who happen to not fit the ‘fair-skinned’ ideal have had their expertise as teachers questioned and been rejected by students on account of the colour of their skin. The world of TEFL (and TEFL recruitment) is unfortunately unethical and discriminatory… and it’s only slowly that this is starting to change.

All of this paints a pretty damning picture – but as mentioned, the situation is changing. In 2011, International House stated that their schools would no longer specifically recruit native-speaker teachers, and more and more jobs boards (and recruiters) are starting to reject the principle that native speaker equals more desirable teacher.

If you’re interested in some more in-depth reading (and what to see for yourself exactly what students thing, Ahmar Mahoob’s paper offers some real food for thought, including lots of direct quotes from students. You’ll see that in some cases students regard non-native speaker teachers as better than native speakers!

In my experience, students’ first priority is to learn. As long as you’re a good teacher, who cares what your native language is?

For a more detailed analysis of the ‘native speaker preference’ check out Andrew Woodbury’s excellent article.

Don’t native speakers make better teachers?

Think of a renowned scientist or academic. Are they necessarily equipped to go into a school and teach their subject? The same holds true for English teaching. Teaching encompasses a whole range of skills aside from just ‘knowing the language’ – if you’re ever in any doubt of that please watch this comedy sketch by Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington. Would any lesson you teach be more appropriately graded, better structured, and have better explanations than what these guys come up with? Then you already have proof that you’re a better English teacher than someone whose sole qualification is to be a native speaker.

I’ve spoken English my whole life – but had to work hard throughout my first couple of years of teaching to understand grammar in such a way that I could present it and explain it to my students. It’s all very well to be able to say ‘this is correct, and this isn’t’, but in order to teach a language you need to understand the nuts and bolts of it. Here, being a non-native speaker can actually be a huge advantage, as you’ve likely had to learn the language in a similar way to your students! As a non-native speaker of English, you’re automatically going to have a greater insight into what students are going to find challenging, what they’ll be confused by and what’s actually pretty straightforward. A native speaker will have to research all of those things – or find them out through trial and error.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some excellent non-native speaker teachers throughout my career, and one thing that’s always struck me is how inspiring they can be for their students. At my first school, our Director of Studies was a non-native speaker – who had started her English studies as a child at the very school we worked at. How encouraging is that?! As a non-native speaker, you have the ability to show your students just what they can achieve – because you practise what you preach every day.

As a final note, if you still needed some more evidence that being a native speaker makes you a better teacher, check out what my students said. From time-to-time I always like to ask my students what they think makes a good teacher (I repeated a version of this activity recently with my adult elementary class) – and whilst they have said ‘you must speak English’, no student has ever specified that a good teacher must be British, or American, or even a native-English speaker.

How can I feel more confident?

Hopefully realising that your students don’t necessarily want native-speaker teachers, reflection-for-the-week-blank-1and that being a native-speaker doesn’t automatically qualify you to be a better teacher is already making you feel more confident. But what can you do to give yourself an extra boost?

  • Fake it til you make it. There’s a lot to be said for acting confident, even if you don’t always feel it. Using positive body language, rehearsing what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it, and even simply going into the classroom with a positive outlook can make a real difference in how confident you appear – and ultimately how confident you feel.
  • Build your confidence in the language. It should hopefully go without saying that as teachers, we should never stop learning. Consider studying for an exam (maybe IELTS or CAE/CPE), and above all, practise, practise, practise. As you grow more confident in using the language in general, it follows that you’ll grow more confident in using it in the classroom too.
  • Experiment, be yourself, and have some fun. Being able to laugh at your own mistakes helps! I asked non-native speaker friends and colleagues for advice while writing this post, and this was some of the best advice I was given. Remember that being a teacher is so much more than simply your knowledge of the language, and your students will appreciate your being yourself.

You can find some more tips on how to be a more confident teacher here.

Butconfidence-comes-not-from-always-being-right-but-from-not-fearing-to-be-wrong what if I make mistakes?

I’ll let you into a secret: I make mistakes too! From my early attempts at grading language where I realised I was missing out articles and actually saying things that were grammatically incorrect, to the sleepy coffee-free Monday morning not so long ago where I spectacularly stuffed up a grammar explanation… we all make mistakes from time to time.

If you do make a mistake, be honest about it – much of this advice also holds true here. Then take a deep breath and move on; the absolute worst thing you can do is to beat yourself up over it.

What can I do to improve my English?

First of all, think about what you’d recommend for your students! Teaching gives you a real advantage here, as it means you have a much clearer idea of what works and what doesn’t. If you’re still looking for some advice, here’s what I’d recommend:

  • Practise! It probably goes without saying, but to confidently use English in the classroom, the key is practise, practise, practise. Although reading and writing in English will doubtless be helpful, I’d recommend focusing slightly more on speaking and listening, as these skills are what you’re going to be using in class on a daily basis.
  • Watch films/TV/listen to the radio or podcasts. Depending on your work context, it might be difficult to get lots of exposure to fluent spoken English. The internet is your friend! I recommend to almost all of my students that they find films or a TV series they like, and regularly watch them in English. If TV isn’t your thing, how about listening to the radio or English-language podcasts – you can even do it while you’re at the gym, on public transport, or doing the housework.
  • Use English as much as possible. Put all your electronic devices into English, write shopping lists/to-do lists in English, even switch your ‘internal monologue’ into English and talk to yourself (either in your head or out loud) – exposing yourself to the language as much as possible will make you feel far more confident in using it.
  • Teach ‘mock’ lessons. This might be a bit of a weird one, but hear me out. In teaching, some of the language we use can be quite different to what we encounter in every day life, and the only real way to practice it is by teaching. This can help you to rehearse parts of explanations or giving instructions for a task. If you don’t have a willing friend or family member that you can teach a small section of something to, I find both pets and teddy bears to be helpful substitutes (with the added advantage that they don’t answer back!).
  • Take a course. If you’ve got time and money available to you (let’s face it, no one went into EFL teaching in order to get rich), you might want to take a course. If you want to take something that’s specifically aimed at English language teachers, here are some offered by TEFL Equity Advocates, as well as this one by Future Learn. There’s also a recording of a great webinar on language development for teachers here.

How do I get a job with the ‘wrong’ passport?

As a Brit I’m all too aware that I’m not in the best position to offer advice – but I can point you in the direction of people who can.

TEFL Equity Advocates – this is an absolutely fantastic website, full of advice, articles, and resources. This site has been the source of several of the articles I’ve linked to in this post, and I wish I’d been able to link to even more of them! For your sanity I won’t, but please, if you do one thing, check out this site.

If you’re a regular user of Facebook, you might want to check out their official facebook group, or this group for non-native speaker teachers.

Although it might seem like you’re fighting a losing battle, please don’t give up – keep fighting. Hopefully one day in the not too distant future the TEFL world will become one of equal opportunity for everyone. 


If you enjoyed what you read here, please consider signing up for my newsletter mailing-list: I’ll send you a monthly round-up of resources and ideas I’ve loved each month, and the occasional extra freebie too! If you’re a new (or newish, or new-at-heart) teacher who’d like a bit of extra support, check out my ELT support group on Facebook – TEFLing Together


How are you going to teach better in 2017?


At the beginning of January everyone always seems to be bombarded with the idea of starting afresh. 2017 is the year to start a new diet, start a new hobby, learn a new language, save money, do more exercise… etc. etc. Since the year as a teenager where I set 72 new year’s resolutions (and didn’t keep any of them) I’ve always been a bit suspicious of new year’s resolutions, seeing them more as a way to set oneself up for failure than anything else. Saying that, though, I do think that setting goals and keeping track of our progress is one of the most important things we can do as teachers – and is a sure-fire way to help you towards better teaching.

Why do I need to set goals anyway?

I know, I know, sitting down and thinking ‘how do I want to improve my teaching?’ is one of those things you do in your end of year review meeting or just after starting a new job… where you’re compelled to write down something (anything!) because your senior teacher/DOS won’t accept a blank box as an answer. What if I told you that setting teaching goals doesn’t need to be like that?

We’ve all had classes where we’ve taught the same coursebook too many times and it seems like we’re not doing anything new. We’ve all taught classes (or even just individual students) where the thought of spending even 45 minutes in their company fills us with dread. And we’ve all taught grammar points or vocabulary topics or different age groups or levels where we genuinely don’t feel confident in what we’re doing. Setting teaching goals (and not just goals that you write down and then forget about) can be the best way to deal with these challenges – to overcome them and become happier, more confident and less stressed teachers as a result!

How do I decide what to work on?

You can simply look at the feedback you had from your last observation… or ask your senior teacher or a colleague to observe you and give you some recommendations. The one problem with both of these approaches is that if the goal doesn’t come from you, you’re less likely to be motivated to achieve it.

Personally I prefer to take a more intuitive approach to goal-setting. You don’t even have to decide on an area to work on now. The huge advantage of setting a teaching goal for yourself is that you can start it whenever you want, so if nothing comes to mind I’d recommend thinking about your teaching over the next week or so. Rather than thinking about what sounds good, or what an observer would want you to say, here are some questions to think about. Make some notes if you want to:

Which classes do I find challenging to work with at the moment? Why?

How do I feel about teaching low level classes? What about high level classes? 

How do I feel about teaching children? Teaching teenagers?

Are there any topics/task types I really hate teaching? Why do I feel this way?

What do I find the most stressful about teaching? 

What is my biggest fear/worry about teaching?

How do I feel about my life outside of teaching? Is teaching having a positive/negative impact? In what ways?

Once you’ve figured out what areas are potentially problematic, you can then move on to the most important question:

What would make me feel happier about this? 

Your goals could be something immediately connected to teaching and learning – for example you want to find out more about language acquisition, or classroom management, or find new filler activities you can use in class. They could be subject-related: maybe you want to improve your language awareness (whether you’re a native or a non-native speaker none of us knows everything there is to know about English!), you want to get to grips with phonetics or a tricky grammar point you struggle with, or you want to learn a new language yourself. They could be more personal goals: you want to get more organised, you want to spend less time planning, you want to understand your students’ culture better.

Those of you who have been following me since the autumn will know that one of the goals I set myself for this was to get more confident in using IPA. Why did I choose this goal? Well, teaching pronunciation has always stressed me out. Although I’ve got better at drilling (and now use this more frequently in my classes) I never really felt confident in doing anything more than providing a correct model. Then in September I started teaching a designated pronunciation class – something which filled me with dread as soon as I saw it on my timetable. What was going to make me feel happier and less stressed about this? Remembering what at least some of those pesky IPA symbols meant, and plucking up the courage to write them on the board during the lesson.

Goal-setting 101

I remember being taught, even at school, that goals and targets needed to be SMART.






Since then, I’ve come across another acronym for target setting which I think is equally important: SMILE.


I don’t mean that you should choose something to work on that you know you’re already good at – after all, where would that get you? However, setting goals allows you to work on weaker areas in your teaching and build them up: as with going to the gym, your aim is to strengthen the weaker muscles to allow the stronger ones to function more effectively. Rather than approaching your teaching from the perspective of ‘what am I bad at?’, consider what areas you can build up to complement your existing strengths. Love teaching kids? Would finding new classroom management techniques allow you to do this more effectively? Enjoy teaching high level students? Would you be able to do this more confidently with a better grasp of grammar?


I think this is equally as important as measurable. As much as it’s important not to give up on achieving your goal at the first hurdle, it’s also important to recognise when a goal is not working – or when you need to work on something else first in order to achieve it. Your goal setting is for you: not your DOS, not your school, and so there’s no shame in changing or adapting your goal to meet a more pressing need. If you need to change your goal, or even abandon it, don’t beat yourself up about it – simply try it again at a better time.


One easy way to make sure that you stick to a goal is to choose something that is integrated into your daily life. Don’t decide to become an expert in teaching business English if you’re only teaching young learners – choose something that you can use and reflect on now. Try to make your goal into something active as well as simply passive. It’s great to expand on your knowledge by reading a teaching book, reading blogs or researching something online – but then choose a way of incorporating that into your classes. If your goal is to research classroom management, choose one behaviour management technique and try it out in your class. If you want to learn a new language, decide that you will set-aside some time to reflect on how this experience makes you feel as a learner, and see if there are any takeaways you can take into the classroom with you.


Your goals don’t need to take up the whole academic (or even the whole calendar!) year. It’s perfectly fine to have a goal that you will do something over the next week or two weeks or month. However, don’t give up once you’ve achieved your goal and revert back to exactly what you were doing before! If something you started doing when working towards your goal was successful, keep doing it – otherwise look and see what you can take away. Did working towards your goal raise any further questions or ideas?


Remember, you are setting goals for yourself here. If your goal isn’t ultimately going to help you improve your life (remember, our aim here is to become happier, more confident, and less stressed), then choose something different! Once you have achieved your goal (or even when you’ve achieved baby steps on the way there) remember to congratulate yourself and enjoy your success!

What does all of this look like in practice? Well, say for example I have a class of 7-10 year olds. Some of the class are really badly behaved, and it’s stressing me out because I’m worried I’m going to lose control completely and won’t be able to get them to do anything. What would make me feel better about this? Finding a classroom management method that will actually work with this group.

What am I going to do? Well, let’s say I’ve decided that I’m going to speak to my colleagues and ask them what classroom management methods they use. How am I going to make this SMART and SMILE? Well, I’m going to take what my colleagues suggest and try three different methods with my class (specific, achievable, integrated). I’ll try each technique for three weeks (bearing in mind that it takes students time to get used to changes in routine!) and after each lesson I’ll make a note of any major problems or positives in terms of student behaviour. At the end of those three weeks I’ll reflect and decide whether or not there have been any improvements (time-based, realistic, measurable). If during the process one of the techniques I use works really well, I’ll stick with that one (modifiable). At the end of the process I’ll hopefully have a better managed class that I’m able to enjoy teaching – and continue using what I’ve learned (long-lasting, enjoyable). I’ll also be able to use my improved classroom management to introduce new games and activities (strength-focused)!

So I’ve chosen my goals… how do I stick to them?

First and foremost, these goals should be easier to keep to than ones you’ve perhaps tried before – because they’re something you want to do. Desire is a far stronger motivator than duty!

Accountability is a really important factor in whether or not we stick to our goals. Tell someone what you’re doing, why you’re doing it – and get them to check up on you if necessary! Even a simple ‘how is it going?’ is enough to give you a big kick up the backside if you know you’re going to be asked. With this in mind I’ve created the TEFLing Together 2017 Facebook group. My hope is that this group is going to be a place where teachers can support, encourage and inspire each other – so if that sounds like something you’d like to be a part of, come on over!

Remember that your goals aren’t set in stone. If you’re trying to achieve a goal that you’ve decided is no longer relevant or helpful, it stands to reason that you won’t be feeling very motivated. If your ‘achievable’ goal suddenly starts to seem impossible, think about moving the goal post or breaking it down into smaller chunks. If your personal life starts to get complicated and it’s no longer possible to spend an hour reading as you’d planned, be kind to yourself. Changing or rescheduling a goal doesn’t make you a failure, and self-compassion is just as important an achievement in itself.

Remember to reward yourself. Don’t just brush your achievements aside – when you’ve achieved a goal, celebrate it! Whether it’s doing something you enjoy, buying yourself something, or even just treating yourself to something special that you wouldn’t normally buy at the supermarket – celebrate your achievement. Why don’t you pop over to the Facebook group and share it with us? 


Are you setting teaching goals for yourself this year? I’d love to hear how you get on…