5 Reasons Why Your English Lessons Suck

Have you ever planned an English lesson that you thought would be a real cracker, one you were sure was going to set the class afire, only to find it fizzled like a wet fart when you actually tried it out? You’ve seen the looks on your students’ faces: boredom, indifference, perhaps even disgust as the stench of your own ineptitude wafts around the room. English lessons aren’t easy.

To make matters worse, whilst wallowing in failure, perhaps you blamed the students for their unresponsiveness, or the lesson topic itself for being a real dud. Not your fault, right?

Your Fault

One of the main struggles teachers face early on in their careers is a lack of English activities outside the book that remain relevant to the teaching points. It’s not enough to play a meaningless, time-killing game for half an hour when your students are paying to actually learn the language. You wouldn’t do that, would you?

To make things even more difficult, much of a teacher’s success hinges on making the lesson not just productive, but engaging, entertaining if you will. It’s not easy.  Students are demanding. They don’t just want to learn English, they want to have fun doing it. That’s a tall order, especially for someone as boring as you.

What can be done?

Perhaps it is indeed your activities fault. Some activities and lessons just aren’t that great. Some are flat out boring. The same goes for classes. That said, I’d mortgage the house I don’t have to bet that the common denominator in all your failed lessons is you. Yes, you are probably the one mucking everything up.

So, with all that in mind, let’s look at 5 reasons why your lessons suck.

1. Your students don’t understand you.

Communicating with people of limited English ability is an art that takes a long time to master. It’s hard growing up in a world where language is taken for granted and then being thrust into a situation where this is taken away. Frustration often takes over for those teachers fortunate enough to recognize what’s happening. Many teachers never get to that realization. Most overestimate how much their students understand.

don't understand

Fixing this means concentrating on three things: grade, pace and brevity.

  • Grade — the appropriate level of vocabulary and grammar. You can’t use the same words and constructions for elementary students that you would for advanced students. Now’s not the time to show off your erudition with million-dollar words.
  • Pace — the speed at which you’re talking. Have you ever heard someone speak in a language you’re not familiar with and it sounded as if they were auctioneers? Slow down. If you’re speaking slow enough that it starts to feel condescending, you’re probably at the right pace.
  • Brevity — expressing things concisely. See the next point.

2. You talk too much.

No surprise there. You’ve probably been hearing it your whole life. It practically goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway and make it bold. The more you talk, the less your students understand.

talk too much

More bad news —  you’re not that interesting. Just because your meditation retreat in Chiang Mai was a real eye-opener doesn’t mean it has to be a mouth-opener too. Wasn’t it silent meditation? That’s a noble, if obviously difficult, objective. Take a page out of the Buddhist monk’s playbook and consider the value of an unexpressed thought.

This cascades into the next point:

3. The more you talk, the less your students do.

Higher Teacher Talking Time = Less Student Talking Time

student talking time

I suck at math, but even I get that the more time you spend talking in class, the less time your students have. I don’t know if there’s an ideal ratio of TTT to STT, but the best I’ve seen was probably 40:60.

Many students have little chance to communicate in English outside of class, so facilitating opportunities for them to speak isn’t just a goal, it’s the goal. Creating these chances is of paramount importance in your English lessons.

It does take some time to give instructions and check for understanding. Often the actual practice time given to students is not much longer than what it takes to set up the activity.

Activities shouldn’t drag on and on. It can be difficult to sustain English-only communication for longer than five minutes at the lower levels.

With this in mind, using TTT for anything other than facilitating student production of English becomes superfluous. You simply don’t have time to waste by yapping away irrelevantly about your last vacation.

4. Your activities aren’t connected to the lesson

A lot of teachers assume that playing a game in class instantly relieves the boredom of the book and that having fun is what students really want anyway. Students do want to have fun, but throwing in a game that has no relevance to the lesson smacks of an unprepared teacher who is just making things up as he or she goes along.

what's relevant

It takes very little effort to connect an activities to the English lessons. Look no further than the lesson’s theme or grammar point. Are you teaching about food? Make sure your game or activity features food somehow. Are you teaching Simple Past? Use it!

Students aren’t stupid. Activities purely for the sake of entertainment are transparent and will eventually alienate the students who are there to learn.

5. Your activities are inefficient.

Too many games consist of two teams with only one student of either team involved at any given point while the rest of the class looks on idly, twiddling their thumbs, or worse, becoming distractions and thus a classroom management problem. Don’t complain when students start checking their phones or pulling hair or speaking their native language when your activity hasn’t given them a chance to do anything.

When you’re planning your English lessons, keep an eye out for ‘efficient’ activities– anything that has all the students communicating at once. These will almost by necessity be activities that are done in pairs or groups of three.

Larger groups = less ‘Student Talking Time’

large group

Once the group size reaches four or larger, it’s too easy for weaker or shyer students to get lost in the mix. Keeping groups to three or fewer affords more speaking opportunities per student.

Final Thoughts

It’s worth remembering that the first three points all relate to ‘Teacher Talking Time’. Most English lessons become disasters when the teacher makes the lesson more about him/herself than the students. Use your talking time to set up an activity, then shut up and let your students take over.

Embracing your Inner Neanderthal

Verbose. Loquacious. Garrulous. Long-winded. Discursive. Concisely-challenged. All those beautiful synonyms describe you, a purveyor of verbal diarrhea, perfectly. I could talk forever about how you talk too much. Having flogged this dead horse, I hope by now you get the point — words are the enemy of understanding.

The perceptive reader will note the irony of me talking at length about how talking is a bad thing. You, on the other hand, probably didn’t notice a damn thing. Fair enough. I guess I’ll have to show you how this works.

Let’s start with a real classroom example of why words — those beautiful, delicious nouns and adjectives that make English so great — have no place in the classroom.

“Teacher, what does *** mean?”

You, the word puker, say, “Oh, alright, well let’s crack open the dictionary and see what it has to say.” Your fat fingers fumble the pages until you finally get there. “A domesticated carnivorous mammal occurring as a wide variety of breeds, many of which are traditionally used for hunting, herding, drawing sleds, and other tasks, and are kept as pets.”

Native speakers of English might even take a second or two to move from the definition to the concept it’s trying to relate. So imagine the wide eyes and arched brows and what-the-fuck faces of your poor elementary students who didn’t understand a single word of  the definition, let alone the concept of ‘dog’ you were trying to teach.

No, you don’t need to open your mouth to teach the word ‘dog’. You don’t need to say anything for the majority of words you teach at elementary levels. You simply have to show them. Let’s try this again.

“Teacher, what’s a dog?”

You find a picture online. “This is a dog.”

dog

No Internet in the classroom? Use your phone you troglodyte. No phone? You do have a whiteboard, right? Get your marker.

“This is a dog.”

Dog Doodle

You don’t need to be Picasso, but perhaps you’re even more challenged than I thought. Then I guess you have no choice.

“This is a dog.”

Gay pride dog costume.

That’s right. Get down on your hands and knees and say bow wow. Take a dump on the floor and sniff it if you have to. Anything is better than opening a dictionary and blathering on about the canine genus. And guess which one your students will remember.

Humans are visual creatures. It’s no coincidence that the first attempts at written communication were images and verbal communication was little more than grunting and gesturing. The larger irony here, probably lost on you of course, is that we’re not relying on language to teach language. Instead, we’re reverting back to our caveman instincts when concepts were shown rather than told. So embrace your inner Neanderthal and go spear a mammoth or dance naked around a fire, but whatever you do, don’t say what can’t be understood.

 

 

Show and Tell

Remember when you were a snot-nosed third grader that brought in some bullshit toy that no one else cared about? And since showing it off wasn’t boring enough, you had to open your yapper and tell your classmates about it, as if your blathering would add any degree of interest. Not much has changed.

The whole appeal of show and tell is the showing, of course, not the telling. Would kids rather be shown a new video game or told about it? Would you rather be shown the Mona Lisa or told about it? Why would I tell you how much I hate you when I could just do this?

Middle Finger

Words simply don’t have the same impact as images.  Yes, there are exceptions. We will always remember ‘I have a dream…’ and ‘…one small step for man…’, and we probably won’t forget ‘I’m in love with someone else’ or ‘you’re not the father.’ But by and large, our brains don’t remember this way.

Pop Quiz: What do the following all have in common?

“Life is like a box of chocolate…”

“Do you feel lucky, punk?”

“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

“Mirror mirror on the wall…”

“Beam me up, Scotty.”

“Luke, I am your father.”

“Hello, Clarise.”

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Famous movie quotes, right? Can you name the movies? You can probably picture all of them. Forrest Gump sitting at the bus stop. Dirty Harry standing in front of a mirror. Dorothy holding Toto. The only thing is, no one ever said these oft-attributed quotes. They’re all (famous) misquotes.

It’s dangerous to attach percentages to how much we learn via any particular sensory input, but research consistently shows a higher degree of retention through visual stimulus rather than aural. If you spend enough time in the field of learning and retention, you’ll eventually come upon Edgar Dale’s ‘Cone of Experience’. I could tell you about it, but you probably wouldn’t get it. Better show you instead.

Edgar Dale's Cone of Experience

The first thing to notice is that this looks a lot more like a triangle than a cone. What the fuck, Dale? The important thing is that verbal symbols (a bullshit expression that just means ‘spoken words’) occupies the least amount of learning retention. The quality of learning then grows with seeing written words, pictures and motion pictures to doing demonstrations to finally experiencing.

But don’t take my word for it. Old Ben can say it far better than I ever could.

Benjamin Franklin Quote

They wouldn’t put just anyone on the hundred dollar bill. And money talks, folks, but as we’ve just seen, people don’t learn from talking. So I don’t expect you to actually learn anything from what I’ve just told you. We both know how slow you are on the uptake to begin with.  I’m going to have to show you, aren’t I?

Pace, Grade, Brevity. (What we talk about when we talk about talking.)

As fun (and accurate) as it is, it isn’t enough to merely say that you talk too much. That only hits one third of the equation — brevity. There are still two other factors, namely pace and grade, to be conscious of whenever you’re addressing your class.

Pace (peɪs) n. rate or style of proceeding at some activity

teacher talking time (stfu)

Have you ever listened to Eminem and had to rewind because he was rapping too fast to be understood? Me neither. He whines too much. It was probably about his mom, anyway.

The point is that  what seems like a completely normal pace of speech to us can sound like an auctioneer’s sale to beginning-level students. So how slow do you need to speak? Slow. Painfully slow. Slow to the point where it feels awkward and patronizing because it’s as if you’re talking to small children.

Grade(grād) n. an accepted level or standard.

POTC quote

Generally speaking, most new teachers are given beginner-level classes. Just as students in these levels are severely limited in vocabulary, so too must the teacher restrict him/herself to language that the students can understand. It’s not as easy as it sounds. How do you know how much vocabulary your students know? Often you don’t, at least not until you get into the classroom. A good rule of thumb is to assume they know nothing. Aim for the same level of vocabulary you’d use when talking to a toddler and adjust accordingly only when you’re positive most of the students can understand you.

Brevity: (brĕv′ĭ-tē) n. concise expression; terseness

the dude

Brevity isn’t just the soul of wit, it’s the essence of understanding in an EFL classroom. To put it simply, the shorter you can keep your expressions, the more likely you are to be understood. To put it even more simply, talk less.

A Case Study

The following instruction was taken verbatim from a teacher addressing an elementary class:

“Okay. Alright guys. Let’s open our books to page 98 and let’s review the different aspects of hotels which we’ve been studying for the last two weeks.”

Even if this had been delivered at an appropriate pace, which it wasn’t, there is approximately zero chance of elementary students understanding this sentence.

Check out the grade. Many elementary students won’t know ‘alright, guys, page, review, aspects’. ‘…which we’ve been studying…’ is grammar they won’t have encountered yet.

How about the brevity? More like, what brevity? That’s the opposite of brevity. That’s longwindness, garrulousness and verboseness all wrapped into one big travesty of an instruction.

What is the essential information the teacher was trying to convey? ‘Open your books to page 98.’ That’s it. That’s all you need, and you don’t even need that. Could you get your students to open their books to page 98 without saying anything? Sure. Just write page 98 on the board and mime opening a book. The rest is extraneous verbiage you needn’t waste your breath on.

Learning to speak with grade and brevity at a slower than normal pace is a crucial aspect of TTT, a skill that some experienced teachers struggle with (often without even being aware of it). But how are you supposed to teach if you can barely talk to your students? There’s the rub.

Time for some show and tell.

Teacher Talking Time (the Subtle Art of Shutting the Fuck Up) Part 1

So your first time in class ended up being a greasy shit smear of a lesson. A real turd. Are you still wallowing in it or have you recovered enough to wash your sheets? Have you been able to piece together what exactly went wrong? Maybe you’ve suppressed the whole experience, written over the whole memory like a trauma victim because your fragile Millenial ego couldn’t handle the embarrassment.

The unhelpful answer to your problem is that you suck at TEFL, but you already know that or you wouldn’t be here. The better answer is that you crapped the bed with verbal diarrhea. Your instinct was to talk. That’s what teachers do, after all, don’t they? But that is precisely the wrong approach in an EFL classroom. What typically happens is new teachers talk their students into a mess of incomprehension, and then either try to talk their way out of it if they’re perceptive enough to recognize the meaning behind those blank stares, or just keep on yapping if they’re not. And you, you’re a yapper.

Maxim 1: New teachers overestimate how much their students can understand.

Your first misstep was talking to elementary level students as if you were gossiping to your best friend back home. You assumed your students were following you when in actuality they started tuning out after a minute of your garbled gapping. You failed to pick up the subtle signs of incomprehension, and they are subtle; students (particularly in Asian cultures) don’t typically raise their hand to profess their own ignorance. Most new teachers have an Aziz Ansari level of awareness of non-verbal cues.

Here are the signs:

Or perhaps:

Or maybe even:

Maxim 2: The more you talk, the less they understand.

Silence feels awkward. We have an almost genetic compulsion to fill it with idle platitudes and uninteresting chit chat, especially you. But it isn’t that your students don’t want to hear it (though I certainly don’t), it’s that they simply can’t understand it.

There’s something disarming about communicating with someone who speaks a different language. Whatever charms, wit , sense of humor and irony you have (and let’s be honest it ain’t much) are rendered useless with the loss of language as a medium of transmission. The sheer act of making yourself understood is as humbling as it is frustrating, not to mention exhausting.

It’s also unnatural, in a way, not to be able to use language to communicate. Most of us grow up surrounded by people who readily speak our own language. If you’ve never lived abroad, how many times have you actually had to express yourself to someone who couldn’t understand a word of English? Not many if I had to hazard a guess.

Only when you’re faced with someone who can’t understand you do you realize how essential language is to communication, how expressing yourself simply and concisely is a skill that takes a lot of practice to develop. As with everything, some are naturally better at it than others. Some people have a knack for pith just as some love hearing their own voice, and we both know which you are.

So how do you get better? The first step is awareness of the problem. If you’ve read this far, you can consider yourself aware of it. You’re welcome. The second step is being conscious of every word that comes out of your mouth and taking into consideration three things: grade, pace and brevity.

 

Crapping the Bed (Your First Class)

So you’ve got a new class and you, a budding new teacher, show up hours early and painstakingly prepare a kickass lesson chock full of fun activities. You’re scared you don’t have enough to do, so you plan things down to the minute just to make sure every last moment is accounted for. You’re nervous, palms are sweaty, vomit on your shirt already (mom’s spaghetti), but your well-designed lesson plan is your road-map to see you through so you don’t get lost in the weeds.

You walk into class and find two dozen faces staring at you. 48 eyes watching your every movement. You say hello. One returns the greeting while the others just sit there impassively. They’re nervous too, but you don’t know that yet and it doesn’t seem to matter because now you’re starting to panic since their silence would seem to indicate that they must be judging you. Somewhere deep in the recesses of your mind, a seed of doubt sprouts.

You make your way to the teacher’s desk to drop your bag and get things ready. You take out a book, put it back, take it back out again. You shuffle a few papers, pretending to look through them. You fumble a marker because you’re clumsy when you’re nervous. [New teachers ALWAYS drop something.] This teacher’s desk is your safe space, your island in rough, uncharted seas. And now you’re just killing time so you don’t have to leave it. But leave it you must.

You walk over and take your place at the front of class.

“Hello, my name’s Todd (of course that’s your name). How are you guys today?”

You’re answered with silence. You swallow a pit of fear and feel cold beads of sweat forming on your brow. You decide to single a student out in the front row.

“Hi. How are you today?”

Front row student stares at you wide-eyed, then turns to another student nervously with a look that seems to say ‘what the fuck is this guy on about?’ He smiles awkwardly but never replies. Screw it, you think. Let’s do an activity.

“Ok, guys. I’d like to get to know you a bit better so let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves. Can you maybe tell me your name, age and what you like doing in your free time?”

Silence.

“Okay?”

Now heads are turning, looking for someone to break this thick gauze of what-the-hell-is-happening.

“Can we start with you?” you ask, indicating a woman in a green shirt. Green shirt lady’s eyebrows perk up in perfect arches of incomprehension and no-fucking-way. “Come on, guys. Someone. Anyone. Bueller?” Of course they’ve never seen the film and your stupid joke falls flat but you laugh anyway to hide your growing exasperation. Your emotions fluctuate between humiliation and annoyance. Growing desperation looms over your thoughts.

What the hell is wrong with you guys. Say something.

But your students look like this:

deer in headlights

And you do too, you just can’t see it. But you feel it. Your exasperation nurtures that seed of doubt in your mind, and though you’re only minutes into what was supposed to have been a brilliant lesson, that doubt begins growing and pokes through the soil as conscious thought: what in God’s name was I thinking? 

Yes, this is what it feels like to crap the bed. The bad news is that you can’t uncrap it. Your students have already seen quite clearly that you have no idea what you’re doing. The good news is that you’re not alone. Nobody’s first class comes without a certain amount of incontinence, so you don’t need to go home and slit your wrists. The key thing is to roll with it. Handle yourself with a sense of humor and a modicum of poise and your class will forgive you. Lose your cool and all bets are off.

More importantly, recognize that this is a moment of truth. Lesser teachers (and there are no shortage of them) will mosey into the teacher’s room nagging about how horrible their students are, how they can’t do anything. Well of course they can’t, you naggots (not actually a word, but you get it), that’s why they’re in a classroom.

The best among you will look at this moment as an opportunity for self-reflection. What happened? What did I do wrong? How can I improve? If these are your thoughts, then first thank your parents for raising a well-adjusted human being. There aren’t enough of them or you in this world. Second, go home and cringe as you relive your failure over and over again, wondering what happened. Maybe have a long, cliched stare in the mirror.

So what did go wrong? That’s the easy part. Without having seen you teach I can tell you exactly what happened. How could I possibly know that? Because every single teacher makes the same mistake. I did. We all did. Remember, nobody craps the bed alone.

It starts the moment we open our mouths.