Teaching Myself How to Teach English

I panicked.

 

It was only my second day teaching English in Tajikistan and I panicked.

I sat alone in my room flustered and close to tears because I had no clue how I was going to come up with four hours of English lessons every day.

I planned out what I thought would be my first four lessons the night I arrived in the village of Shing, but we whipped through everything on the first day. So after nearly five hours of lessons the previous day and over two hours of lessons that morning, I just froze. I literally sat there with twelve eager faces staring at me, unable to think of anything else I could possibly do.

Shing, Tajikistan
 

Teaching English in Tajikistan is one of the hardest things I have ever done.

 

I thought I prepared myself for it. I took an online TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course before leaving the United States and I thought it taught me a lot. In retrospect, the one thing it really didn’t focus on at all was how to teach total beginners. When it came to lesson planning, I was able to choose the level for which I planned my lessons and I always went with intermediate. At that time, I never pictured myself working with beginners or with children.

I expected to be teaching adults in Tajikistan – my hosts, the homestay owners who needed to learn English to better interact with tourists. As it turned out, my students in Shing were my host’s family – four of his daughters (ages 14, 18, 34 and 36), his daughter-in-law (20) and several grandchildren (ages 10 to 16). Everyone was at a beginner level, but they caught on at different rates, so it was hard to balance teaching what many still needed to practice while not completely boring the others.
 

My picture dictionary saved me.

 

Before heading to Tajikistan, I found a website with sample lessons for beginners. I couldn’t print them out, but I figured I could pull them up online when I arrived. I also bought a picture dictionary, thinking it might come in handy. As it turned, my internet connection was too slow to access any of the sample lessons, so the picture dictionary ended up forming the basis for a majority of my lessons. With absolutely no resources available other than pen and paper, I may have relied on it more than I should have, but it worked.  I used it to teach the alphabet and pronunciation, as well as numbers, days, months, colors, action words, food and clothing.

While I initially started or ended lessons simply saying and repeating words, or asking them to read the words, eventually I branched out. Once I taught action words, I pointed to animals in the dictionary and asked them to say what each animal does. When we learned colors, I did the same, asking what color different animals and objects were.


 

Finding my rhythm.

 

By the fourth day, I had settled into a rhythm with two hours of lessons in the morning and two hours of lessons in the afternoon. I used the morning lessons to review and expand on what we learned the previous day and then I introduced new concepts in the afternoon. Each lesson began with a short review, but I soon realized that the more I taught, the more there was to review so I could use that to fill some time. I also observed that they dutifully took notes on just about every word that came out of my mouth – to the point where I realized that if I gave them a lot of new vocabulary to write, it took up more time. That may not have been the best approach, but I think they benefited from both the repetition and the writing.

I also tried to mix things up by playing games or having them interact with each other in different ways. After we learned action words, I tried charades (acting out the words they learned). It took them a while to get the hang of it – many would announce their action before doing it instead of waiting for people to guess. But it worked and I think they had some fun with it.  While my attempt to introduce Twenty Questions bombed, they loved sticking pieces of paper to their foreheads with the names of animals that they had to guess (thanks Jill for the suggestion!).

My most exciting breakthrough may have been teaching them how to pronounce the sound “th.” I discovered that in the phrase books they had, the “th” sound is translated as either “c” or “z” because there is no equivalent sound in Russian or Tajik. I noticed how much they struggled with the sound as we worked through the dictionary, so I spent a few minutes demonstrating where they needed to put their tongue in order to make the “th.” In addition to drawing a lot of laughs, I think most of them got it.
 

As hard as it all seemed and as nervous as I got before every lesson, I think they actually learned something.

 

More often than not, once I got the lesson going, things went fairly smoothly. As much as Dodojan rolled his eyes at me and urged me to move on while I was waiting for the others to grasp something, Mohpisand and Mehron and Farhunda seemed to hang on every word I said. It was gratifying to me that by the time I went for a walk with Jonona and Shohpisand three nights before I left, they were using bits of English here and there and asking me what things were called as we walked.  The next day, when Mohpisand, Farhunda and Boborjan took me hiking, it was even better, with Mohpisand trying to use English whenever she could and constantly inquiring about things – a shortcut, a shadow, a rock, steep, flat… And while Boborjan wasn’t quite as inquisitive, he did use the word “jump” at every opportunity.
 

In the end, I feel like I must have done something right, even if I didn’t always realize it.

 

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25 thoughts on “Teaching Myself How to Teach English”

  1. Ahh Katie, as an ESL teacher I completely empathise with you here! I did an online TEFL, too, and it was useful – but it didn’t teach me anything on what to do with complete beginners. Luckily it was a few months after I started teaching before I encountered that, so I wasn’t quite so nervous.

    It sounds like you had a great experience in Tajikistan, and it’s always so gratifying when you see your students learning, developing, and inquiring about things in their surrounding environment. Nice work, Katie Teacher!

  2. I just want to say I’ve been enjoying your blog. At one time in my life, I spent a lot of time living and traveling in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Such a great, interesting part of the world! (I also taught English — in Poland, and when I would get hung up for ideas, we would have lessons in colloquial English. I remember doing one on all the different ways to use “get” in English.)

  3. Great job, Katie! I am sure you felt very proud when they were using English by the end of your stay. Clearly you did something right!

  4. Hi Katie, I just started following your blog, thanks for sharing your story about teaching English, I felt like I was right there with you as you were writing about your experience! I am about to take that route to teach abroad, it is my life dream that I must fulfill. Have you seen any issues about older teachers through your travels?
    Tammy

  5. Katie, teaching English is something I think I’d be nervous about as well! How would I create enough plans to last for the amount of time provided? I know there are classes and training, but speaking English and teaching it are two different things.

    You’re finding your rhythm pretty quickly I think 🙂 Keep being kind to yourself!

  6. I’m glad you found a few ways that worked for teaching them English. Sounds like you were successful, especially considering you had very little resources to work with.

  7. I’ve found games are definitely a great teaching tool, particularly for keeping the lessons fun for everyone when the students are at different levels. Slower students can use games to become more comfortable with the language, while more advanced students can be entertained by participating in the activity. It sounds like you made a lot of progress in a short period of time – awesome!

  8. I love the photograph of your students! It looks like they are having a great time which I think is so important when learning a language. You won’t want to learn if it isn’t presented in a fun way. It sounds like you came up with good lesson plans. When I volunteered at a school in Sicily teaching English, it made me realize just how hard it is to teach beginners. You really can’t go in with no plan.

    1. Thanks! And yes, it did end up being fun even though I was still soooo nervous every day! It kind of makes me annoyed now with the volunteer programs that claim anyone can teach English because it is so much harder than I imagined, even with hours of training ahead of time.

  9. I understand the difficulty being a beginner yourself in teaching ESL. I am in a similar situation and was asked to mentor international students at a Bible College. Three of my students are from Korea and I am to give a lesson today for one of the wives. I think she understands some English but doesn’t speak any.
    What I am asking, now that you have done it, and you were starting afresh with what you know, what would you do different. What tools can I get to help me to help them. What games are useful and fun?
    Just beginning!

    1. No, I volunteered through a local community based tourism organization that was looking for Russian or Tajik speakers to teach English to their homestay hosts.

  10. Hi Katie,

    If you are still teaching, and for the benefit of those who might find your blog and get ideas from it, I recommend easy plays and skits as well as games, which are already mentioned above.

    Here’s a video of an example, you can see just how simple and repetitive the script is, and that means absolute beginners can use it.

    I’ll post a script here too, but first the video:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xiHrZusIeFA

    You would prepare that skit by first teaching the vocabulary words only, then the key sentences in the play, using games which allow for constant repetition.

    And then bingo, you start putting it together, it would be ideal in a small group teaching situation.

    Here’s an easy play script for anyone to use:
    http://www.teachingenglishgames.com/PDF/Free_ESL_Play.pdf

    All the best
    Shelley

    1. Thanks Shelley. It was a year ago that I was in Tajikistan teaching – just a month-long volunteer assignment. Your suggestions are good ones, although one of the biggest things I struggled with was explaining how to do any kind of games/play-acting type activities. My Russian was not always good enough to effectively explain how to do activities.

      1. Hi Katie, thanks for your reply to my comment.

        Now you aren’t teaching – so I won’t bother you with any more replies, but in case anyone in need of help comes across your blog I wanted to say that with teaching foreigners the key is not to try to explain, but to DEMONSTRATE.

        Some teachers have classes made up of students from different countries and are thus forced to do everything in English, even with complete beginners.

        At first you could think this is impossible, but actually things are not as bad as they may seem! By using pictures, even really bad stick figure sketches, tone of voice, facial expressions, acting and demonstration it’s amazing how much one can get across to the class.

        With my classroom games for example, when I was teaching in Nepal I had to SHOW how the games were played rather than explain them, and it worked.

        I must admit that it took a few goes before the students understood Simon Says but they did! Eventually one kid understood it and explained to the rest of the class what the scoop was.

        I won’t bother you again, but like so many others who commented on your blog, I have been in your shoes so I really felt for you!

        All theh best.
        Shelley Ann Vernon
        (My books are on Amazon)

  11. Hi Katie! I would like to work as a volunteer in Tajikistan. Which organisation did you go to to get your TEFL certificate? Thanks, Bria

    1. Hi Bria,

      I did an online TEFL course before I left, but it wasn’t one that is really recognized. The organization I volunteered with in Tajikistan didn’t require a certificate and I was never planning to work as a teacher so I didn’t want to spend the money.

      The ZTDA, who I volunteered with, were just looking for volunteers with some teaching experience and some proficiency in Russian, Tajik or Farsi.

  12. Hi there, I had that experience too – probably every teacher has at some point, so now I always over-prepare and have plenty up my sleeve in case something is a flop.

    For a small group like your group of daughters try using skits to vary things, and also language drill games to work on vocabulary and sentences – it’s much more fun learning like that, though what you are doing is great, but you could be having more fun and being just as effective, if not more effective.

    I don’t want to clutter up your blog with a massive post with games and so on that you could be using, so let me just give you a link to a free skit that you can try out with them, once you have taught them the vocabulary.

    It’s important that the students know the vocabulary before you get to the skit otherwise it becomes a drag putting it together because students hesitate the whole time since they don’t know the words.

    Here’s the link to the plays page and the free skit is on it.
    And also I’m giving you a link to a video of teaching with games demo (it’s one on one but everything there can be applied to a small group), that should give you loads of fun ideas too.

    and for the video demo lesson:

    All the best
    Shelley

    1. Thanks Shelley. This post was actually from about 2 years ago – I am no longer in Tajikistan teaching English. But thanks for the tips!

  13. It sounds like both you and your students had a wonderful learning experience. When you have little to no resources, you really do have to dig deep to teach and connect with your students.

  14. I struggled for the first few months of teaching and never really hit my groove with the kids even after a year or it. University students are certainly more my style.

  15. A lot of TEFL courses focus on grammar and as you mentioned teaching adults. But actually I think most jobs out there are for teaching children. I say that based on my experience teaching in China, Korea and Taiwan.

    To teach beginners or children you don’t need to recite grammar rules.

    I had a similar experience when I first started. I took an in-class course, paid a lot of money and did NOT find it very useful for teaching children in Taiwan.

    It was too much theory and grammar. You need some structure to your lessons, classroom discipline, rules and fun.

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