Thursday, July 24, 2014

Teaching English Abroad when You Didn't Actually Learn How to Teach

Once you find a job living abroad, teaching English, then what?
by Ann Abbott

As I have written before, many Spanish community service learning (CSL) students want to find opportunities that allow them to continue learning languages, to immerse themselves in other cultures and to live abroad. Teaching English in another country is a popular option.

In a previous post, I shared information and resources about how to find a job teaching English abroad.

Once you get the job, though, then what? Jst because you speak English doesn't mean you know how to teach. So when I talked to Kelly Klus, about her upcoming move to Barranquilla, Colombia to teach English, she asked me for ideas and resources. Here is the gist of what I told her.

Speaking English to English Learners.

Kelly will be teaching in an immersion classroom. That means that she will be teaching social studies, science and other subjects in English. So even when she's not teaching English per se, she will still need to communicate with students in English in ways that facilitate their understanding. Here are some resources and ideas.

  • Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen (Lee & VanPatten). This book will give you the fundamentals about how we actually learn a second language and what that means for how we teach. I was a graduate student at Illinois when VanPatten and Lee were there, and I learned so much from both of them. All the techniques I am about to list, I learned from them. They might seem rather obvious, but actually implementing them is harder than you would imagine. 
  • Speak English only. It's so, so hard for many people to believe that you can speak 100% English even with beginning learners. You can! You should! Incorporate the techniques below, and you will see that it is possible and beneficial.
  • Speak slowly. If you are teaching true beginners, you will need to slow down quite a bit. Furthermore, you will think that you are speaking slowly--yet you will not be speaking slowly enough! It's hard to slow down when you are speaking your own language. But you must. 
  • Speak in chunks. If you have a long or complex thought to communicate it, break it down into chunks. For example, if you are describing your mother, you might say the following. "My mother is kind. She smiles. She is happy. My mother loves people. She volunteers. My mother volunteers in a hospital. With cancer patients. She helps patients with cancer." Those are short phrases. Some are not even complete sentences. That's okay, especially with beginning language learners. Research shows we pay attention to the beginning and end of a sentence--so chunk your sentences so students don't lose what you said in the middle!
  • Repeat. You can repeat the same words, or repeat the same concept with different words. In the example above, "my mother" was repeated. "Volunteers" and "cancer" were repeated. And throughout the example, the entire concept of "kind" was repeated with specific examples. Which brings us to...
  • Use specific examples. If you are teaching about sports cars, give students examples: Corvette, Ferrari, Lamborghini. If you are teaching about mammals, list some: humans, whales, monkeys. When you tell students you like chick flicks (really? you do?!), tick off some titles of famous movies starring Cameron Diaz or Rachel McAdams. Your goal is for students to make "form-meaning" connections in their brains. In other words, instead of attaching "chick flick" to an equivalent in their first language, you want the word to connect directly to the concept itself.
  • Give visual cues. The visual cues reinforce what you are saying. Maybe students don't know what the word "curly" means, but if you point to a picture of a woman with curly hair and then make a "curlicue" gesture with your finger near your own hair, those visual cues will match up with the word you are saying: curly. You could also write the word "curly" on the board and draw a curlicue next to it. Those are visual cues, too. 
  • Use comprehension checks. When we want to know if students are following us, our natural tendency is to ask, "Do you understand?" Their answer to that question, though, doesn't necessarily reveal what we want to know. What if they're too polite or shy to say no? What if one person says yes, but the others just didn't say anything. In other words, you need to ask different questions to find out whether they truly understood or not. In the example about your mother, you can ask them to write down true or false and say, "1. My mother is cruel. 2. She volunteers in a school. 3. My mother has cancer." You'll really know if they understood by asking them those short, quick, ungraded questions. 

Approaches to teaching.

I am no expert in elementary or secondary education. If you didn't take any education classes in college, and you suddenly find yourself in the role of a teacher, you'll want to do the following.
  • Reflect on what types of teaching kept you engaged. I told Kelly to think about what classes she liked. What did teachers do differently in those classes to engage her? Were there any specific class periods/activities/assignments that stood out in her memory? If you and all your roommates complained about boring lecture classes, then don't stand up in front of students and lecture them. Do what worked.
  • Read what teachers read. Edutopia has everything from "big-picture" issue-based essays to specific curricular materials.
  • Project Based Learning. Personally, I think that PBL is one of the best approaches to teaching. It engages students in their learning like little I have ever seen and culminates in the application of that knowledge. That's a great way to learn and retain what you learn. 
  • Pinterest. There are so many wonderful resources in the Education section of Pinterest. (Yes, you have to skip past the myriad posts about decorating your classroom.) You might be interested in looking through my boards, too
  • Sometimes you need ideas and inspiration, and the ideas above can give you that. Other times, you need something concrete to do in class--and fast. This is a good site for those moments. Consider posting and selling your own work, too.
I hope that some of these ideas and resources are helpful to you. It's just a start, of course. And please leave a comment to share and tips and resources you have developed while teaching English abroad, either in a school or in private classes. 


  1. This is great!! I taught English for a few weeks when I was studying in Bilbao. It was SO hard!!! All they gave me was a workbook and I had to come up with how/what to teach them. I'm pretty sure I was terrible at it!

  2. Jill, sometimes we underestimate what it takes to be able to teach our own language. But other times we need to just jump in there and do something, figure it out as we go. :)