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Ten Tips for Managing Your TEFL Class

TEFL classes in many parts of the world meet for only a few hours a week—barely enough time for students to get comfortable with English—so every minute counts. Here are 10 ways you can maximize use of your class time.

1. Establish clear protocols for classroom business. Handing out and collecting papers, calling roll, getting desks moved around, and setting up the CD player can waste precious time. Turn over the responsibility for these kinds of tasks to students. Assign roles for a month or for the semester—Keiko sets up and puts away the CD player; Ichiro collects homework, Hana and Yuki hop up to help whenever you need to distribute papers, Akemi cleans the board.

2. Use pair and group work often. People learn to speak a new language by practicing, just as they learn to play the piano. If you allow students to discuss questions and complete tasks in small groups, they get much more “talk time” than they’d have in a whole-class discussion, where one student participates at a time. Do the math: in a traditional, teacher-fronted, hour-long class with 30 students, the average student is lucky to get two minutes to talk. By using group work for at least part of each class, you can increase your students’ talk time tenfold or more. Be sure to explain the rationale for group work to students who are not used to it.

3. Put students in charge of monitoring native language use. “But,” you say, “students will break into their native language if I let them work in groups.” Yes, they will. That’s why you need to structure the speaking task so students produce an outcome in English—either oral or written. Appointing one student in each group to be an English “monitor” will help, too. I like to give each monitor a cup filled with a dozen or so small pebbles—which I call “Japanese stones” in Japan or “Italian stones” in Italy. (I actually use those little black plastic film canisters.) When a monitor hears a group member slipping into the native language, she presents a stone to the guilty party—as a gentle, fun reminder to stick to English. Most importantly, it keeps you from having to play the “bad guy” language cop.

4. Give students clear time limits for tasks. When students have only a limited amount of time to complete a task, it lights a fire under them, motivating them to work hard—especially if they have to report back to the class on what they’ve accomplished. Try setting an alarm clock if you find it hard to keep track of time. Students couldn’t finish a task in the allotted time? Give them a short extension if they’ve earned it.

5. Make sure students participate equally in group discussions. How? By using Spencer Kagan’s Cooperative Learning technique called “Talking Chips.” After assigning a speaking task, give each group a bunch of tokens (e.g., playing cards, straws, chopsticks.) Each student picks up the same amount of tokens (two or three if it’s a small task; more if the task is bigger). Each time a student contributes an idea or a sentence, she submits a “chip.” Once students’ chips are gone, they may no longer speak. All students are required to use all their chips. This procedure ensures that timid students participate as much as their more talkative peers. It also allows you to see when to stop the task (when most hands are empty).

6. Establish a standard signal for getting students’ attention. The classroom can get noisy while students are working together, so consider using a noisemaker of some sort—bell, whistle, castanets, harmonica, rattle—when you need to make an announcement or end an activity. Available at party stores, these little aides will save time, and your vocal chords.

7. Create stable, ongoing groups. It’s time-consuming to create new groups each time you meet your class. So create them for the long-term—perhaps a month or two—altering them only if you see a group that’s not working well together. Generally, the best groups are those that mix students from different levels, so that the stronger ones can help the weaker ones.

8. Work with topics that interest your students. You’ll get a lot more from your students if they find the content of your classes fascinating. Boring materials wastes everyone’s time. Survey your students to find out what topics interest them, or present options and let students vote on their preferences. Adult students, especially, need to have input into the syllabus.

9. Encourage students to give you feedback on your class. After you do a new kind of activity, something you haven’t done before in class—say, a role play or a debate—ask students to rate it, perhaps on a scale from one to five. You can use this feedback to decide if the activity type is worth repeating.

10. Help students become autonomous learners. Impress upon them that class time alone is not enough to develop fluency. Help them locate fun resources for learning outside class: videos with subtitles, pen pals, adapted readers such as those in Oxford Press’s “Dominoes” series, useful websites such as Lyrics.com—where they can find written lyrics for their favorite English songs—and the fabulous Dave's ESLcafe.com—which has a help center, student discussion forums, and self-correcting quizzes.