You finally did it. You pulled the trigger, and now you're off to the far side of the world (Korea, Taiwan, or China, most likely) to experience the jetsetter lifestyle of a TEFL Instructor. But as you're soon to discover (or maybe already have discovered), it's not all champagne wishes and caviar dreams. You have a job to do to support your new glamourous lifestyle: the job of molding the impressionable minds of Asia's youth, and helping them gain the language skills necessary to succeed in the global marketplace. And despite all the help you're likely to get from your new school administrators, co-teachers, and similarly-employed friends, chances are that there are some things you should try to do when teaching young EFL students that they won't tell you. Thinks like:
1. Reward Good Behavior More Than You Punish Bad Behavior
If this seems obvious, good. It may seem a little bit less obvious, though, when you have a classroom with 15 to 20 kids who have no discernible interest in your lesson plan. It is much more likely that you will encounter a room full of bored students than a room full of disruptive students, and you can't punish every kid that doesn't engage the material. So, you're better off rewarding students that show enough interest to participate. Once you do that, other students will start to join in, until everyone is having fun with the activity.
How do you reward good behavior? Well, some teachers like to give out stickers or candy, but the obvious problem there is that you have to keep buying more stickers and candy to give out. And while that's not a bank-breaking proposition, it is an unnecessary cost, and one that devalues those rewards for more special occasions (I'm thinking perfect test scores or other examples of REALLY outstanding student work/participation). On the other hand, if you just give every student a golf clap or thumbs up when they participate well, you're not going to hold their attention for long.
I've found that the best compromise between tangible and intangible rewards for a student is writing their name on the board when they get a right answer. I know, you're probably thinking "What?! Write their names on the board? But that's what MY teachers used to do when students were in trouble!" Me too, and it's originally what I tried to do in my classrooms, until I realized that students just didn't care if their names were on the board. It wasn't a real punishment, because there were no real consequences other than frustrating the teacher, which is always fun. Until one day, I drew a mushroom next to a student's name, and suddenly every other student wanted their name on the board with a mushroom picture next to it. Or a star. Or a fire flower. Or...well, you get the picture...
Suddenly, what I thought was a tool for discipline became a tool for encouraging competition among my students. Everyone wanted to get the right answer to get a better picture next to their name on the board, so everyone was studying and practicing English more.
And when you have a classroom full of engaged students who want to prove they are the best, you can:
2. Channel Competition Into Learning
One of the great advantages of using psychology to get your students to do their work and enjoy it is that they probably won't realize that's what you're doing. It is truly few and far between the 6 year-old that realizes he or she is being manipulated into enjoying school, which is lucky for the teachers.
Anyway, once your students have begun to seek approval in the form of pictures of fire flowers and Tanooki suits, you have a basic reward system in place that you can use for classroom games and activities. And if your students are emotionally invested in winning games that require understanding of the English vocabulary and grammar that you are trying to teach them, they will all learn at a much faster rate.
Unfortunately, not every student learns at the same pace, and you may find that a few "superstar" students end up crushing their competition in almost every game you play as a class. But remember that you are the final authority on every aspect of class, including who is winning a game! It can be a fine line between playfully challenging superstars more than other students versus just making them feel dumb compared to their classmates, but most superstars will appreciate being singled out for more difficult questions (it does mean more attention, after all, and superstars generally love attention). Depending on the sense of humor of your class, you can even do things as drastic as split them into wildly uneven teams, like superstar versus everyone else!
On the other hand, you may have students who are chronically behind the rest of the class, and they might require special attention that doesn't draw much attention to their deficiencies. In terms of competition, one of the simplest things to do is team these students up with the superstar to find a little balance. But when it comes to typical classroom interaction, one of the best things you can do to help these students is:
3. Ask Leading Questions With Binary Options
Just Make Sure the Binary Options Aren't
Maybe you noticed, but if you ask a kid a simple question that ends with "...yes?" they will typically repeat that one word back to you: "Yes." This takes no cognitive effort, and is enough for a lot of EFL students to coast through classes without doing too much of that strenuous learning business. Your job, then, should be to prevent student coasting by giving them an appropriate challenge. And generally, that appropriate challenge will come in the form of a leading question where you also present the possible answers. Think of it as a live-action multiple choice question with only two possibilities. So, instead of asking a student "Is the sky blue?" (Yes) you would ask "Is the sky blue or red?" (Blue).
Now, questions don't always have to be so simple, and if you don't know yet where your students' abilities are yet, you should err on the side of more challenging. "Tell me about the sky" should precede "What color is the sky?" which comes before "Is the sky blue or red?" (And if they can't get that last one, chuck 'em out the window patiently ask the question of another student). But once you are more familiar with your entire class, you should be able to rephrase the same question for different students in a way that matches their capability. And as you build up the confidence of each student, carefully increase the difficulty level of your questions. Students should feel good about what they have learned, while remaining aware that there is always much more to be learned (and they can do it, too).
When used in combination with positive reinforcement and competitive classroom activities, leading questions will serve you well in the impromptu portions of your class that happen when you have to:
4. Make a Lesson Plan That Covers All Your Class Time, Then Ignore It the Minute Something More Interesting Happens
You've Heard It Before: Go With the Flow.
If you have any experience with teaching, you know that it is impossible to create a lesson plan that will be enacted 100% exactly like you practiced, every time. Not only is it impossible, it's undesirable. Even if you had a "perfect" lesson plan that accounted for every second of class time and potential student action, using that lesson plan repeatedly would eventually become canned and boring, for both you and your students. Honestly, if you put too much effort into a lesson plan, it can be canned and boring before you've even had the chance to use it once!
With that in mind, you should be putting together lesson plans that will cover necessary vocabulary and grammar rules, implementing at least two more activities than you think you will need. That way, you never come up short of time, and you have the freedom to ignore or drop activities that aren't working for a particular class for whatever reason. Also, feel free to extend activities or games that really seem to click with your students. As long as they're having fun and learning the core concepts, don't try to fight the flow of the class.
Of course, if students sense that you are too much of a push-over for playing the same game again and again, they will try to only play that game as a way to avoid real work. There's no way to systematically prevent this sort of behavior, you just have to nip it in the bud when you see it. However, a big clue for this is if your students only want to play "Hangman." If you are playing Hangman more than once a month, I would seriously recommend getting some new activities for your class.
So there you go, 4 tips for better teaching young EFL students. Obviously, this isn't everything you need to know to be a good teacher, but it will certainly help you while you get your bearings in a new environment. Best of luck, and let me know in the comments if you have any other good suggestions!