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The Business of ESL Teaching (Part II)

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The Business of ESL Teaching (Part II)

In a previous article, I wrote about how the language industry has been changing for the better. Specifically, because students have become more demanding in the progress they make, we need to provide not only better lessons, but better service too. You can read the article here:

The Business of ESL Teaching (Part I)

As I explained in the article, students tend to more quickly migrate these days to another school or teacher when progress and/or personalized lessons are lacking. And as someone who runs private and corporate training courses, unless there is a service I cannot provide, I definitely don't want students and businesses switching to the competition.

Let's identify a few additional needs students tend to request, as well as provide solutions with a proven record for success. By implementing these ideas, you increase the value of your lessons. You also increase switching costs, which means it costs students time and money to switch teachers or schools; because you know the students' strengths and weaknesses, their goals, etc, students won't want to make a change to the competition.

Need: Students should begin a course with level-appropriate materials.

How #1: All students should take a placement test before starting a course. In so doing, you have a good idea of what students know well, what they understand but cannot use, and what hasn't yet been studied. Ideally, any placement test should look at grammar knowledge, writing skills, and speaking skills to get an accurate picture of productive and receptive knowledge. You can also gauge accuracy, fluency, communication strategies, how ideas and information get structured, and so on.

This also means that, in a group class, students of equal ability should study together. Mixed-classes may fill seats, but these lessons don't create students who become strong advocates of your lessons. The weakest students in a mixed-level class tend to drop out because the struggle proves too great. On the other hand, the strongest students tend to drop out due to boredom.

Lastly, with this information, you can then select the best textbook and/or resources. All of my students take my 101 Pre-Lesson Comprehension Quiz, which lets me match the right materials for their lessons.

How #2: For the first lesson or two, the class should use supplemental materials rather than an actual textbook. This allows you to further identify strengths and weaknesses, fossilized mistakes, and other areas on which to focus future lessons. It also allows you to better select the right materials and textbook for the remaining course. After all, students perform differently in a classroom setting with other students than alone during a test. With a few opportunities to see students work together in this environment, you can better gauge what materials will be required.

It's a good idea to incorporate a general skill as the primary objective in these early lessons, as these general skills can be applied and practiced in all future lessons. For example, lesson structure often works well, as does active listening where students comment, confirm, and question in a conversation.

Need: Students should have materials adapted to their specific weaknesses.

How #1: Although supplementary materials prove vital for the success of a course, these can also be time-consuming to make and/or find. Adjusting the textbook to better match the students proves an effective and time-saving solution. Here's what I mean.

Let's say you have a fill-in-the-blank exercise with vocabulary. The exercise simply requires students to match the words to the sentence, then check answers. In a class with weaker listening skills, I might:

  • Step 1: Write all the vocabulary words on the board and asks students which words they definitely know (i.e, can use correctly in a sentence), which words they maybe know (i.e, can understand but might not correctly use), and which words they don't know. As a class, we go through the words, elicit examples, etc.
  • Step 2: Give students several minutes to check their dictionaries for the new words, as well as words they might know. Notes are taken of word form, meaning, and even an example sentence.
  • Step 3: Return to the board and clarify all of the vocabulary with information elicited from the students.
  • Step 4: Dictate the sentences without the key vocabulary. Students write down the sentences, and then check for mistakes by comparing information with a partner. If the sentences are different, then the pair must discuss the differences in an attempt to identify the mistake.
  • Step 5: Put the correct sentences on the board. Students then check their answers.
  • Step 6: Have students fill in the blanks with the key vocabulary in pairs. Again, they discuss their answers as they work together.
  • Step 7: Elicit the correct answers from the class, and also provide any additional information and/or clarification.

As you can see, this sort of adaptation of the content allows a lot more challenge. It also targets the students' specific needs. Lastly, it distinguishes your lessons from the competition, which may also use the same textbooks.

How #2: Allow students to pre-study with the textbook and/or self-study. If you pre-assign material for preparation at home, then students come to the lesson more familiar with the content. For example, students can check vocabulary in advance of the lesson, work through some grammar that will familiarize them with the target language, etc. You can then spend more class time on productive practice.

The same holds true for self-study, by which I mean material you might not cover in a lesson. Self-study material could come in the form of articles from Heads Up English that you wouldn't read in class, but which would provide more examples of vocabulary and/or grammar. Dialogues or listening exercises also work well for self-study.

Need: Students want feedback.

How #1: At the end of every lesson, the teacher should provide feedback to the student(s) or class. This can be very specific, as in the teacher briefly talks to each student. For example:

Teacher: "Frank, you did very well in today's lesson. Remember to use linking language to connect your ideas. Pablo, you also did well. Don't worry so much about mistakes because you start speaking, stop, start from the beginning, stop again, and so on. For now, just focus on fluency. Alicia..."

Of course, this can only be done with small-sized classes or with a private lesson. Alternatively, the teacher can provide more general feedback to the class, such as:

Teacher: "Everyone did very well today. Remember that we have been working on fluency skills. Today everyone could speak with one partner for ten minutes, which is something that was very difficult just a few weeks ago. Our goal is fifteen minutes, and I think we can get there."

The feedback at the end of a lesson also connects to setting goals with students.

How #2: With all of my classes, both private and group lessons, I provide notes. The notes contain key and incidental vocabulary, as well as grammar and usage information. The document gets emails roughly two days after the lesson. Here is an example of the lesson feedback.

It's important to provide improved lessons and services. You definitely don't want to become complacent, because the competition will continue to make improvements, provide more customization to their services, and work harder to secure students. Coupled with the ideas presented in The Business of ESL Teaching (Part I), the information can definitely up the value of your lessons.



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