How to Teach an English Lesson

Part 1: Individual Students

Pants are voluntary when Skype teaching

Pants are voluntary when Skype teaching

Pants are mandatory when teaching in person

Pants are mandatory when teaching in person

Over the past four years, my primary source of income sustaining my travels has been teaching English.And while I’ve taught in schools, I’ve done most of my work teaching and tutoring individual students (both in person and via Skype. Although it can be stressful at times, I really like it because I can make my own schedules, get to know local people, work off the books without a work visa, and (depending on the student) have enjoyable conversations. I intend to keep doing this for the time being, and if you’re someone who travels and needs money for food, I’ve written this post to give some tips on how to teach a lesson.

Get to know your student’s level

This one is pretty obvious but very important. For example, if they are already capable of having full conversations in English and you start by having them say something like “I see a house,” they’ll never schedule class #2 with you. The first thing I usually do at the beginning of their first lesson is ask questions to gage the student’s ability. For example, I’ll have them introduce themselves and see first if they’re able, and which (if any) mistakes they make when doing so. Next, I’ll often check their use of tenses by having them tell me something they did yesterday and something they will do tomorrow. If they answer them both like, “Yesterday I go to work,” and “Tomorrow I go to work,” I’ll know they haven’t learned past and future yet.

Sometimes, the student won’t be able to answer the first two questions (introduction and basic tenses), and in that case, it is pretty obvious to start from the beginning. But if they answer both without any struggle or any grammar mistakes, then it’s time to start asking harder questions. For this, I’ll often ask them to do something like describe a family member, discuss one of their hobbies, or to take me through their daily routine.

Prepare specific grammar lessons

Every English lesson boils down to three primary components: Vocabulary, Conversation, and Grammar. The first to, in my opinion, do not need quite so much planning since they can come up organically within the lesson, but grammar is specific and it helps a lot if you prepare exercises for all the different grammatical forms (i.e. tenses, prepositions, modal verbs). Let’s use prepositions (in, at, on, by, to, etc…) of location as an example. Prepare explanations of how and when each preposition can be used, such as using the word ‘on’ for single days (on Friday, on Tuesday, on the 4th of October) and make it so the student has the opportunity to make their own sentences and practice the rule. Likewise, you can prepare lists of irregular verbs and have students use them to describe their previous week.

It does take a lot of work to structure all of these lessons, but the good thing is that once you do, you can reuse them time and time again. However, just as a word of advice, know how to explain the grammar rules and know the exceptions. Students will often ask you why and they’ll expect you as their teacher to have answers. Now, this may seem difficult and most of you (just like me when I first started teaching) probably have no idea how to explain each of the rules, but fear not because our good old data-recording friend, The Internet, has all the answers. Do a google search if you don’t know why the present perfect is used or if you’re not sure what conditionals are, and soon you’ll have your answers.

Find out why the student wants to learn English

This is very important if you’re teaching adults. Most of them want to learn English for a particular reason (such as work or travel), and expect to be able to apply it such situations. Therefore, if you want them to enjoy your lessons (and to continue paying you to be their English teacher), it is important to find this out as quickly as you possibly can. For example, I had one student who wanted to spend a few months traveling around the US and Canada. She already knew some English, but wanted to improve her ability so that she could have conversations freely with people she met along the way. Therefore, I decided to center all of our lessons around the theme of travel. The new vocabulary I gave her was all travel related, we had conversations about the places she was planning on visiting, and we had mock dialogues such as meeting someone at a hotel and going through an airport. For her, it would be useless if I designed business-related lessons or introduced something like technology related vocabulary. She had a specific want, and hired me to help reach that.

Find vocab to match their English goal

This leads me to the next step. Once you find out why the student wants to learn English, find some corresponding vocabulary. Send it to them between lessons to review and then do activities like constructing sentences and answering questions. Encourage the student to apply these new words in conversation to help get them comfortable using it and periodically revise words you discussed in previous lessons. Feel free to use the internet and online searches for word suggestions and make sure you send accurate definitions and example sentences to help give the student a full understanding.

Have discussions about what interests them

This is important. In your first lesson with a student, make sure to ask them about their hobbies and interests. First of all, it can help you build a connection and get to know your student. If you want them to continue having you as a teacher, it helps a lot if you can from a friendly, personal connection. But on top of this, it is also useful for your lessons. If you know what a student likes, you can structure drills and conversations around those themes. It’s a good way to hold their attention, and will likely increase their participation in the lesson.

Send music and articles

Let me make this clear: use outside material. And by outside material, I do not mean worksheets or things like that (remember how terrible those pieces of paper were when you were a kid? Well, they’re just as bad when you’re an adult.) Instead, use things that you’re student will actually enjoy, such as music in English and articles on something they’re interested in. If done correctly, this can also make you’re lesson significantly easier to plan. For example, if you send a recent article to your student, spend the first 15-20 minutes of the next lesson discussing it. See if they understood and enjoyed it, and make sure to ask many questions to see if they were able to comprehend the material. For me, this is great because I don’t need to prepare drills or introduce new rules for a solid chunk of time. I just get to talk to another person (something I regularly do outside of work for free), and get paid for it.

Also, songs and articles can sometimes contain what I call ‘Bonus Material’. They will often have new vocabulary and colloquial expressions that the student hasn’t heard before. Therefore, during your discussion, make sure to ask if there were any words they did not understand. Once they tell you, you can go over them together and do an activity where the student applies them into their own sentences. By the end of it, you’ve got a whole new list of vocabulary that you never had to look for. It’s great and it means less work for you.

Encourage communication as much as possible

Finally, the most important thing to do in any language class is to encourage conversation. Sure, studying, drills and reading all help, but in my experience, nothing is more useful in learning a language than to apply what you know and practice your skills in conversation. Therefore, the focus of nearly every lesson should be trying to get the student to talk as much as possible. I usually start my lessons by asking the students’ what has happened/what have they done since the previous lesson, and once they give me an answer, I follow up with extra questions that make them go into detail. For example, if they tell me they went on vacation, I’ll ask them to tell me about it, such as where they went, what they did, and what they enjoyed most about it. Depending on the student's level, I may get into harder questions such as asking them to give recommendations on what to do and what not to do.

I highly recommend using this approach, especially when it comes to your very first lesson with a student. When they mention their work, ask them to tell you more about it (ex: how long they’ve worked there and what their specific tasks are). When they mention their family, ask them who their family members are and what they are like. This gives you a chance to listen in and gauge their ability. Look out for any mistakes they make and be prepared to make corrections. The more you year a student talk, the more you’ll get to see where their strengths and difficulties are with the English language. For example, if they continually misuse prepositions (in, at, on, by, to, etc…), such as saying, “Next week I’m going on Spain,” you’ll know to design a lesson focusing on prepositions. Conversation helps you lay the groundwork for future lessons.