8 Dos and Don'ts for Successful Teaching

In this post, we will look at some of the dos and don’t for successful teaching in 4 key areas: planning and preparation; classroom management, getting the most out of your learners; and delivering lessons.

1. Planning and preparation

Do: Plan ahead

Have an outcome in mind, not just for your next lesson, but for the next set of lessons. This is easier than it sounds: if using a coursebook just flip to the end of the unit, normally, if it’s a decent coursebook, there will be a productive task that should incorporate a fair amount of the content of the unit. You may decide to tweak this final task or change it altogether in order to cater to the needs of your students, but once you have this it is much easier to select and/or adapt content from the unit that will be relevant to this task. For example, a final task that asks learners to write a for and against essay on the environment will perhaps require lessons on environment vocabulary, paragraph writing and organisation, linking words and discourse markers etc. Planning in this way will simplify your planning while ensuring that lessons are both purposeful and relevant to your students.

Don’t: Overplan

You may not be at risk of ever overplanning a lesson, so it might be surprising to hear that many teachers are! As with most things in life, when it comes to delivering a great lesson, simplicity is key. A lesson is like a song; if it is simple and it flows, it will stick, while throwing in every chord progression known to man is unlikely to result in anything coherent or meaningful. The best lessons are those in which our learners leave having achieved something they were unable to do before the lesson, not having tried and failed at ten different activities.

2. Classroom management

Do: Have clear expectations

Even with adults we need to be clear in our expectations, and also be aware of our students’ expectations. It is a good idea to be explicit about these at the beginning of a course, and remind your learners of them when needed. This may relate to mobile phones, homework, first language usage or a range of other issues, or it may be pedagogical expectations. For example, one expectation that I have is the need to keep to time limits in reading tasks. Learners form bad reading habits in a second language in terms of feeling the need to read and understand every single word in a text. The bottom line is that they don’t need to read or understand every word, they just need to read enough to complete the task. Although this can be very frustrating for my learners, I always make it clear that it is for their benefit and make sure they are aware of my reasons for having strict time limits. 

Don’t: Have unreasonable expectations

Although it is good to have clear expectations, it is important to negotiate these with your learners, as they need to be reasonable and attainable if they are to be worth having at all. This is essential, as once you have made your expectations clear, failure to follow through on them can lead to serious issues. This is especially pertinent for teachers of young learners, but can be equally important for teachers of adults, as a bit of L1 here and there might quickly develop into full on conversations, to the detriment of learning. 

3. Getting the most out of your learners

Do: Use your learners as resources

Second language learners come to class with a wealth of world knowledge, linguistic knowledge, and personal interests. These can all be used in lessons to get the most out of your learners. Brainstorms, or ‘thought showers’, are a great example of this. Although much of the vocabulary or ideas generated may be over-simplistic or generic, learners, when pushed, will come up with examples that other learners do not know, and would therefore benefit from. It is worth taking the time to explore these, ideally by having the student who suggested a word or idea explain it to the rest of the class. Our learners are an excellent resource, and their interests and contributions can bring real depth to a lesson. Perhaps you have a student who is studying town planning or tourism - so who better to give a presentation or suggest useful vocabulary for a lesson on visiting New York or Paris? Another may have lived in London, so why not have them compare ideas?

Don’t: Let students off the hook

Learning a second or other language can be a frustrating experience. A successful business person struggling to express what food they like or dislike in English will naturally feel disheartened. Some students feel embarrassed or even stupid, and as a result become reluctant to answer or participate, desperately hoping that the teacher will move on and ask someone else. However, the moment you do this, you have failed that student. When a learner realises that they do not need to try, they will not try (and nor will the other learners present). As teachers, there are a range of techniques we can use to elicit a satisfactory answer from a student like this. Firstly, give them time to think. When they see that you are not moving on they will likely offer some kind of response. Secondly, be encouraging with any response provided - don’t say it is correct if it is incorrect, but try and guide them towards a better answer. And finally, rephrase the question or provide scaffolding to help them answer, such as a sentence starter or multiple choice answer.

4. Delivering lessons

Do: Check understanding

It is important to include regular feedback stages throughout lessons. This enables you to gauge the level of understanding of your learners and to address any misconceptions. This can be done by using concept checking questions (CCQs) that can be closed or open, depending on the group or individual learner. For example, “What word do we use before a period of time: since or for?” (closed), or “When do we use the past simple?” (open). Another approach is to use examples of students’ language use, for example, “Carmen, why did you use the past simple in this sentence?”.  

Don’t: Talk too much

Generally speaking, teachers fear silence. As a result, they tend to fill it with chatter. Any teacher-trainer will tell you that the number one criticism of lesson observations is the amount of teacher talk time (TTT). On training courses such as the CELTA or DELTA, you may even be encouraged to script instructions in your lesson plans. This is not a reasonable expectation in your day-to-day teaching, but it does highlight the need to be concise. Remember, if you are talking, the students are not, and it is your students who need the practice! An interesting experiment is to record or video yourself teaching. You will be surprised at how much of what you say is unnecessary.