Tips For Teaching Across Language Barriers

Tips For Teaching Across Language Barriers

Teaching students whose native language differs from your own is a challenging, but rewarding, experience. There’s all the challenges of teaching combined with the challenges of communicating across a language barrier. With a few strategies in hand, you can set yourself up for a successful, positive experience teaching English as a foreign language. Check out these useful tips for teaching English to non-native learners in the classroom...


1. Incorporate Group Work

It’s difficult learning a new language, and students are often shy about attempting pronunciation in front of the class. Breaking students into groups for activities helps them practice in a more comfortable environment of a small number of their peers, giving them the confidence to later speak up in front of the whole class. It also breaks up long periods of sitting still and listening, which helps keep students focused.


2. Watch Your Slang

The challenge of slang is it’s often so ingrained in our vocabulary we don’t realize it’s slang until we see a puzzled look on the audience’s face. This introduction to the lesson would be fine for native English speakers “Hi kiddos! Today we’re going to dive into a cool history lesson.” But the words kiddos, dive, and cool could be meaningless to beginner English students. And as students become more confused by words they don’t know, they tend to get frustrated and pay attention less. Work on speaking as simply as possible to avoid using words beyond your student’s knowledge. 


3. Share Your Culture

Students are curious about your life in your “foreign” land, since their only exposure to your culture is likely from movies and TV shows. Connect the lesson’s topic to sharing about your culture to back home. If you’re learning food words, describe a typical or unique meal back home. If you’re learning how to make comparisons, compare the real life of your culture to how it’s portrayed in movies. Integrating examples will help apply the concepts and keep students engaged.


4. Always Model What You’re Expecting

When you assign an activity or homework, it’s important to be very clear of what the end result should look like. The instructions may seem clear to you, but may be confusing to a non-native speaker. Give your students an example of a good response, and explain what made it a good response. It’s always better to over-explain than under-explain.


5. Pause Often When You Speak

Remember that your students need time to hear the words you’re saying, translate them into their native language, and then process the meaning of the words before they really understand you. This takes time, especially for beginner students. Make it a habit to slip in a small pause after each phrase or sentence, and a larger pause after a larger chunk of information.


6. Speak Slow and Clear

Most teachers start off slow and clear, but people tend to speed up the longer they talk. It’s important to continually check your communication to make sure it’s accessible for your students. Speak painfully slow and over-enunciate. It may feel ridiculous, but your students will appreciate being able to understand everything. Remember, you’re not only speaking in a different language but you’re also speaking in a different accent. Oftentimes, schools can only afford to hire English teachers from that country, so students are used to hearing English with their accent. You’ll need to make extra efforts to ensure students can understand you.


7. Give Written Instructions

It’s tedious, but writing the instructions on a board really helps students understand the task at hand. During the time it takes you to write the instructions, students get ample time to process the verbal instructions you just gave. Providing written instructions also allows them to read the directions, which is easier for most students than just hearing the directions.


8. Work With Other Teachers in the School

If you can, try to find out what the other teachers are teaching. You can integrate these into your lessons to help students apply what they’re learning. Take a story they learned in history class and get students to summarize it in English. Encourage them to describe what they did during physical education using as many English words as they can. They’ll feel a bit more comfortable sharing since they’re dealing with information they already know.


9. Go Easy On Yourself

Often, first time English teachers place an unrealistic expectation on themselves. They’re driven to teach well, and believe that the determination and hard work will always result in great lessons. Sometimes, that’s just not the case. It takes a while to adapt to teaching across language barriers. Don’t get discouraged by “bad days” where the lesson falls through or students don’t pay attention or understand the material. It happens to experienced teachers, and it’s going to happen to you. It’s all part of the learning process for you and the students! Trust in yourself and the process and know that you’ll be a great teacher in no time.


By Madison Garner



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