Having worked extensively with new teachers on initial training courses, and provided professional development activity for recently qualified teachers in many different language education settings, I have noticed some common needs and puzzles that new teachers experience, no matter where they trained, or where they are working.
Here are some of those needs, and some ways of overcoming them early in your teaching career.
1) Pronunciation teaching
The ability to handle pronunciation effectively in class is a key point that sets a teacher apart from the crowd. Students appreciate pronunciation work, and the effects of continued attention to how students speak are noticeable in how they perform as they learn.
Most initial TESOL training courses include a significant amount of input into phonology (the systems governing how sounds are formed in specific languages – in this case, English), but it is admittedly a highly technical area, so many teachers stop thinking about phonology theory after they have completed their language awareness exam and teaching practice, and focus more on the methodologies that they learnt on the course. This should not be the case: pronunciation is as important as vocabulary or grammar in developing learners’ language skills, so don’t neglect it.
- There are plenty of good activity books for pronunciation work out there, and with continued use, the theories they practice will become second nature to you and your learners.
- Don’t just focus on the theories behind phonology – think of ways of integrating a focus on the sounds of English into the language you teach.
- Pronunciation work can (and should) accompany any grammar, vocabulary or speaking work that you do, so make a drilling session part of any presentation of new language that you lead with your learners.
- Keep your eyes and ears open to any unusual sound-spelling links, sounds which change when you say a sentence quickly, and how phrases sound different when they are spoken compared to when they are written.
- Also, listen out for student errors – error correction is a key part of pronunciation development, so don’t be afraid of correcting student language when it sounds strange.
2) Lack of error correction
Another area where even experienced teachers face difficulties is error correction. It is natural that errors and mistakes are part of learning – that is why pencils have erasers – so it is natural that our learners will not perform perfectly as their language develops. It is a core part of any teacher’s job to correct learner language when this happens.
Error correction is not just expected by learners, it is actively campaigned for; as Director of Studies positions that I have held, one of the most common complaints about teachers was that they did not correct students when they got something wrong.
Having the confidence to step in sensitively and identify an error, then prompt for correction, is a skill which any new teacher should develop early on.
- Listen carefully to what your learners say and how they say it. If you hear a problem, think: is this a good time to step in? If the student is in full flow, and making a good point, then leave the error until later – you don’t want to interrupt his fluent speech.
- If, on the other hand, you are teaching an accuracy-focused stage, say in a grammar lesson, then the benefits of early correction will be shown later in the lesson, when students need to use the form you are teaching. Timing is everything with correction.
- Secondly, be careful not to correct too soon. In an ideal world, the student should be able to self-correct, so simply highlighting errors with a raised eyebrow, or a hand gesture that students understand as your cue for ‘something needs attention’, may be enough for the student to realise and correct. If not, then don’t be too hasty to give a learner the corrected form. This can step on the learner’s confidence, and shuts down an important opportunity for interaction.
- Open up the sentence to the rest of the class, and see if anyone else can correct it. This isn’t as exposing as you may think – if this is part of your routine in class, learners will come to expect this as a correction technique, and will engage more with each other’s language – an important part of being involved in the language classroom.
- Finally, if no-one else can give a satisfactory alternative, it’s up to you to model the corrected form and ask for the student to go on. Make sure they finish by producing the correct sentence in its entirety, demonstrating that they have picked up the problem and dealt with it. Remember – you are the teacher, and it is your job to manage errors, so don’t let them slide. Your learners will appreciate it.
3) Over-reliance on textbooks
Early in a teacher’s career, the textbook used by the class may seem like a ‘bible’, to be followed to the letter, page by page. Textbooks are important, and give structure and direction to a curriculum. However, one size does not fit all, so make sure that the book you are using can give your learners what they need.
Be critical when you select what to teach, and don’t be afraid to adapt or supplement the book with more personalised content. This will give variety to what you teach, and students will be more engaged in materials that you specifically tailor for their interests and needs.
- Find out what makes your learners tick – what do they love? What do they hate? What language issues do you notice when you are teaching them? These three questions can inform your choice of texts, topics and tasks as you move through their course of study with them.
- Take a broad view and look for the way that different coursebooks teach the same language point. Be prepared to adapt games that the class enjoys playing to work with different language, or use an off-the-shelf game such as word dominoes, sentence jigsaws or spelling games or crosswords to work with the language you are teaching.
- The textbook is your friend, but the learners are the centre of what you are doing, so don’t let the book override the real reason you are in the classroom – to engage your learners and develop the specific language items that they need.
As a new teacher, remember that you need to keep developing past the basic skills that you learnt on your TEFL course. Engage with pronunciation, materials adaptation and most of all, the language that your learners produce in your classes, and you will get more out of your time in the classroom, as will the students you teach.
Further Readings: Tips On How To Become A Successful Teacher