The Sky is the Limit!

Go above and beyond the basic requirements to get your ESL learners excited about English.

By Tom Duda

esl classroom

Tired of Conversational English

It was noon and the alarm clock played the generic corporate tune that came with the nameless phone that I purchased in the neighborhood Turkcell kiosk at the little mall close to my apartment in Ankara, Turkey. I cursed the device, along with the obnoxious multinational jingle that reminded me of an overly animated customer service representative who hated her job. Sad to say, this was my reminder that I too must rise and do my job. Instead of the mindless jargon, such as "Have a nice day" or "Your call is important to us," I would face the drudgery of a different jargon, which was bestowed upon me by my chosen profession. I would be saying words that, given other circumstances, would not necessarily disgrace my lips. My day would be filled with catchphrases such as, “What kind of movies do you like?" or, “Who is your favorite actor/actress?” I had to focus on teen idols and popular American television shows because young people in Turkey assumed me to be a connoisseur.

All Americans tend to like the same things, or so they assumed, because my tastes were stereotyped as a hip-hop loving, hamburger-eating and reality-TV-show-watching-American. Second language learners' listening skills do not allow for complicated explanations as to why a man in his 40s would not fancy popular culture. However, bubbly talk about the current trends is what made me a popular teacher. I had become an admired, friendly, enthusiastic, cool, and very bored teacher who was beginning to extemporize. Additionally, it engendered a feeling of burnout. I grabbed my untouched bag that contained my unstudied books, and headed over to my unappreciated job. I was left pondering either a new career or a new methodology.

An Unexpected Catharsis

Two aging men fighting over a bus seat and screaming obscenities at one another in a foreign language is hardly means for inspiration; even though such a spectacle always made me laugh. However, that day, it did remind me of one thing; people in Turkey were not as fortunate as I was. Should one be lucky enough to find work, salaries were often below subsistence level. There is virtually no middle class, and if one does not have a corrupt, government official’s phone number somewhere in his address book, or a very good friend in a high place, a decent job is almost impossible to find. Minimum wage was 600 Turkish liras per month, thus many people succumbed to a life of exploitation; hand-collecting garbage on the streets. Daily squabbles, like the one which I was privileged to witness, was perhaps somewhat of a catharsis to the tension that was in the air. I never did venture on to deliberate the mens' rather commanding mustaches. I did, however, realize that some appreciation was in order.  

Putting Appreciation to Use

Refreshed and with a new, more appreciative attitude, I entered my classroom. I welcomed my students. Next, I spoke about the bus fight and the way that I had perceived it. To my amazement, the level of English seemed to rise as my pupils were very interested in speaking, or setting me straight, on what I had perceived. It turned out that most of them were also doomed to public transportation. They had rather developed and strong opinions on the subject. As a result, I realized that I was the one that did not let my pupils converse about more entertaining social topics. I should have taken more time to learn about their lives, because if one doesn’t know the people he is teaching, one cannot procure a sincere channel of communication. From two men fighting on a bus, I learned that rapport is very important in ESL should one want his protégés to benefit the most from his teaching.

Talking about ordering in a restaurant, objects around the house, travel English, and going to the supermarket are necessary topics for a beginner. Yet, how does one make those topics interesting for the teacher as well as his students? Simple language does not have to be boring; it can be equally enjoyable for the instructor and those learning, if the atmosphere is comfortable for all. Asking a question, or teaching vocabulary with regard to a situation can turn into a wonderful learning experience if learners are comfortable, and the teacher is approachable. In the end, everyone will benefit from an open conversational exchange. 

Going Above and Beyond

While you ought to be cautious about sticking to the correct level of coursework, I often enjoyed giving the occasional challenge. I found that when I used simple-level books, students became bored. I listened to the complaints, and decided on extreme measures. I perused a teacher-resource website, Lesson Planet, and found some very interesting worksheets, on astronomy. I must confess this particular subject inspires me and even though my pupils’ language skills were low, they were curious to know and understand every word and concept from the readings. Mars, Mercury, Venus, Mercury are just some of the lesson plans I used. Following this, I moved on to another interesting subject: Egyptian pyramids. Sure enough, they didn’t want the lesson to end. Finally, we studied deadly deserts. I ended up with a very happy group of learners, as I used photos on the overhead projector to make the lesson a very interactive experience.

After that, I returned to the book and I found that I received excellent results on the subsequent lessons. My students were being spoken to like the intelligent individuals they were. The educational quality of the worksheets we used in class helped raise many questions, which in turn helped them learn. Explaining something as simple as a cactus gave me an opportunity to talk about roots, sponges, needles protection from birds, as well as more abstract things like humidity.

Final Thoughts

One must never forget that he must go extremely slow when offering more abstract lessons, and a good rapport with the class is essential. Also, this is not a replacement for regular vocabulary or grammar lessons. They do, however, give everybody a boost in confidence as they discover that with a little effort and guidance, they can decipher real-life and university-life scenarios.

Further Reading:

While the following two articles are not designed for ESL classrooms, both of them would work nicely in an ESL setting. Read the creative ideas, and then adapt them to fit your learners' language level and learning styles. 

Grammar Lessons Don’t Have to Be Boring

Bring Your Lessons to Life with Video