21st March 2017

9 mistakes you need to stop making with your teaching

By Sharon Maloney

Having been a teacher trainer for a few years now, I’ve had opportunities to observe and reflect on the good and bad things teachers do in the classroom (including my own teaching skills!) while looking back on those first terrifying (and exhilarating) teaching years with a more experienced eye, and maintaining an understanding of that first foray into teaching and identifying common mistakes teachers make. I’ve asked my fellow trainers what they’ve observed and here’s a list we’ve come up with.

1. Unclear lesson aims: poor lesson planning comes from having unclear lesson aims.

The best-planned lessons often come from a clear understanding of target language, with a strong context for its use.  Clear lesson aims show what target language will be used, how it will be used (what skills and subskills) and in what context or task.

An example of a good lesson aim would be: By the end of the lesson, learners will be able to use the present perfect simple tense, related to travel experiences, and to speak for fluency by extending answers in a conversation.

Having too many aims also hinders a good lesson, because there will then be a need to achieve all the lesson aims if the lesson is deemed to be successful.  One clear lesson aim trumps five vague ones.

2. Too much teacher talk

That feeling of stepping into the classroom can often evoke two different reactions, with the same result. The first is fear, where teachers are afraid of the silence of their learners, thinking that they either don’t care or aren’t listening, when in actual fact, their learners are just processing what is being said. The temptation is to fill that silence with chatter, but to the learner the effect is one of overwhelming, indecipherable noise, which they struggle to understand. The second results in students switching off, thinking they are hearing a lecture.  The other reaction is one that can be viewed as a form of arrogance, where the teacher has a need to control to all aspects of the class, subscribing to an outdated notion that ‘teacher knows best’, perhaps stemming from a traditional, teacher-centred, lecture-style form of teaching.

Nothing is more disheartening or dull for a learner.  New teachers should ensure that there is a balance of teacher vs. student talk, and to plan activities with student communication in mind. Pair and group activities, such as interviews and class surveys, will encourage more speaking. Giving handouts to pairs, rather than individually, will encourage learners to speak and interact more with each other, with the added bonus that they will also help each other (relying less on the teacher) and become more autonomous learners.

3. Not checking instructions carefully

Too often we see great teachers plan fun and kinaesthetic activities, only for them to go awry. This happens mostly because instructions are not clear. To instruct clearly, try some of these strategies: use instruction-checking questions (ICQs), repeat your instructions slowly, demonstrate the activity if necessary (or get students to), do the first sentence yourself, get the students to feed the instructions back.

4. Having the same expectations of all learners

Often a teacher will have a great lesson plan that gets recycled over and over. Issues arise when teachers have a lesson which is fun and engaging, with learners producing a lot of language, and the teacher then uses this lesson again, expecting all learners, all classes to be able to reproduce the same level of language in the same way. This is both unfair and unrealistic to learners, and leads to a lot of frustration for everyone. 

Remember, lesson planning should reflect the needs of your learners and each class is different. If a lesson went well, reflect on what areas worked well and why. Was it because of the way the task was set up? Was it how the students interacted? Are there similarities in your classes? What parts could be adapted and modified for other classes? What modifications would be needed for a new class?  What elements would suit another class?

5. Weak staging and scaffolding of language

One key area of lesson planning that new teachers struggle with is how to structure their lesson effectively. Questions teachers could ask themselves when planning include:

Are my main and sub aims clear?

Is the context of the lesson clear?

Is the target language presented clearly and effectively in an engaging manner?

Have the students been given a chance to practise the target language in a controlled way? How will they practise – on their own, in pairs?

Has the teacher carried out error correction and feedback in practice tasks before moving to freer activities?

Have they had a chance for freer practice or production in a different task-type? How will they do this – in pairs, or groups?

Does the whole lesson flow well? Are transitions from one stage to another logical and purposeful?

Does each task effectively scaffold language in such a way that learners will be able to use it by the end of the lesson with some degree of confidence? Do all the tasks have a clear purpose and does this reflect the lesson aims?

Does the lesson appeal to a range of learning styles, e.g. are there kinaesthetic, visual, auditory tasks?

Are my tasks culturally or age-appropriate and do they relate to learners’ needs?  

6. Not demonstrating or modelling the grammar

A common complaint amongst teachers is “my students don’t know the grammar, but I taught it to them last week!” It is not enough to present grammar, teachers must show students how to apply it. Often when presenting grammar, not enough time is devoted to demonstrating or modelling the target language (in all forms: affirmative, negative and question) and drilling it so that learners can actually use it with some degree of accuracy. Once the form has been presented, demonstrate the target language with marker sentences, or elicit these from learners (for even more communicative practice). Drill learners chorally and individually to ensure they can pronounce the target language, before giving them some practice tasks.  When giving them practice, ask them to notice the language - is the taught structure used at all? How is it used?  Essentially the more modelling there is, the more chances your learner has to absorb and consolidate their knowledge.

7. Presenting form before meaning

English grammar is incredibly complex and nuanced. There are many aspects of English grammar which don’t exist in other languages. With this in mind, ensuring that learners understand the grammatical concepts you are presenting is key. Similar to the concept, oral, written (or COW) approach to vocabulary, grammar concepts must be clarified clearly first so that these concepts are anchored in the learners’ minds. Only then show learners the written form. This makes it far easier for learners to understand and use the language. Visual aids like pictures or videos, timelines, drawings, even telling a story, can convey the meaning far more effectively than giving your learners a bunch of sentences to decipher.

8. Being too rigid

Walking into a new classroom can be a scary experience. New teachers can often feel unprepared or unconfident when delivering lessons and this can result in a tendency to stick too rigidly to a lesson plan or course book, bypassing learner needs or queries. One of the greatest joys of teaching is connecting with learners by understanding and helping them develop. As such, there needs to be a degree of flexibility, where teachers can go off plan when the need arises, whether it be to answer students’ questions or an interesting and engaging topic arises and requires pursuing. Metaphorically speaking, don’t be afraid to wander down a new path once in a while – the view is often much better (though sometimes it does soothe the soul to literally do this too, especially if you are a new path aficionado).

9. Identifying errors

Having a well-defined error correction stage after practice tasks is a crucial component of a well-delivered lesson. Often teachers rush or neglect this stage, without realizing its importance. An error correction stage is essentially the whole purpose of the teacher’s role in a lesson. Students need to know if the task they have just completed is purposeful, by checking their answers and getting feedback on errors, otherwise, how will they know if they are on the right track? This doesn’t only mean written errors in practice tasks, but spoken errors too.

Teachers should also be looking out for phoneme / syllable / intonation errors and drilling the correct form to ensure accuracy. Plan to have a clear error correction stage on your lesson plan. 

If you're looking for professional development here in Hong Kong, check out our upcoming CPD workshops held reguarly throughout the year.

Sharon is Director of Studies for English for Asia and a teacher trainer on the Trinity CertTESOL course. She has over 14 years of teaching and teacher training experience in TESOL. Sharon specializes in teaching young learners and creating material for teachers and students, as well as running professional development workshops for local teachers of young learners in Hong Kong and Macau. Her qualifications include a BA, Trinity CertTESOL, Cambridge Post-Graduate DELTA, and MA TESOL.