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How to Train Novice ESL Teachers

After completing his sports science degree Zackary decided to travel the world for a couple of years.

Teaching abroad is a fun and increasingly popular way to travel, but what most people don’t tell you is that teaching is hard work, it’s never easy, imagine how much harder it is to teach when you don’t speak your students’ language! This was me in Cambodia.

I thought, my volunteering would be assisting qualified teachers who knew what they were doing. That was how I started and was the case mainly for shorter stay volunteers only there for a couple of weeks. However, the schools were severely understaffed and there was more of a need for me to take my own class. I had never taught before and didn’t really know where to start.

I struggled through and after a month, other volunteers began to ask me for help, them having also never taught before, wanting some pointers. Is it even possible to teach teaching? Yes it is!

I came up with an easy 5 step plan on teaching how to teach. It introduces novice teacher volunteers, to teach English as a foreign language, in just a couple of days.


  • Find a quiet place for you and your trainee teacher, without distractions
  • Choose a simple question and response, such as “what’s your name?” “my name is…”. Explain to the trainee that it is always easier to start by teaching the response to students first.
  • Get your trainee to repeat the response, in this case “my names Zachary” with a gesture such as crossing arms across their chest. Point out that they need to speak slowly and clearly and decide if they will teach “my name’s Zachary” or “my name is Zachary” and stick to it.
  • They should point to their fingers to break down the sentence one finger for each word at a time, “my - names – Zachary”. Repeat five times making sure they go in the right direction for their future students. If your trainee is nervous, get them to run up to somebody, anyone will do, to practice. This can help your trainee get over their first nerves.
  • Now get your trainee to prompt you, the trainer, to say your own name and cross your arms across your chest. No need to for the student to use their fingers.
  • Repeat the above again, this time with the question. Then get your trainee to ask you “What’s your name” and prompt you to reply with the correct response.

The hardest part of teaching your trainee is getting them to repeat each word or sentence enough, they will likely be nervous and probably feel it's a bit silly continuously repeating but it is essential for the students to hear natural English as much as possible. When repeating and practicing with your trainee, they will say many times "yeah I get it" and probably "I will repeat it lots of times in the class" but when they are stood in front of a class this can be forgotten. The more they practice and repeat with you the more they will with their future students.

Step 2

  • Get your trainee to create their own gestures, whatever feels most natural to them, for the essential instructions without using English: listen, stop talking, everyone together, just you, two students to work together, good work, nearly there and stop.
  • Get your trainee to practice these on you and anyone else close by.

Eye contact is key when teaching children, it helps them learn. Again, your trainee will be nervous and are likely to not make eye contact. I made flashcards of three faces and stuck them to chairs to get my trainees to consciously practice their eye contact.

Step 3

  • Teach a real class for your trainee to watch. Ensure when planning that you include lots of repetition, perhaps more than you would normally, start with answers followed by questions. Use your own hand-drawn flashcards to teach new vocabulary or prompt sentences, if the students are more advanced. Try to include a simple song to demonstrate how easy and fun they are and end the lesson on a good example of writing practice.
  • Make sure you have a plan and follow this religiously, not going off on any tangents. You can then show this to your trainee, so they have a better idea of what a plan should look like and how to follow it.
  • Get your trainee to write down absolutely everything you do in your lesson. This will be their template for their future lessons. Get them to practice their note taking beforehand, “what am I doing now? Great write it down!” They probably won’t have this opportunity again.

It is probable that you, the trainer, have become more of a relaxed teacher, with more confidence and experience. You will have gotten to know the children and perhaps have picked up a bit of the local language, seeing you interact with the children and speaking another language can scare your trainee and damage their confidence. Let them sit in on a pitch perfect lesson which is systematic and robotic, not one which is advanced.

Step 4

  • Give your trainee a question and answer for a twenty-minute teaching slot of their own, ideally with a few hours to prepare. For nervous trainees twenty-minutes will feel like an hour. If they will have longer than twenty minutes then you may want to include a second question, or the trainee’s own idea.
  • If you used flashcards or a game in your lesson, make sure your trainee does the same in theirs. Ask if they need help preparing them, although they should be happy to come up with their own ideas.
  • Before the trainee teaches for the first time, tell them you will be watching and writing detailed notes on their lesson, to discuss after. Reassure the trainee this is usual practice on all the full time TEFL courses and is a unique opportunity to improve dramatically. You may want to consider filming the lesson.
  • After the lesson discuss the positives and the points for improvement. Be sure to stress the positives as you don’t want to scare your trainee away from teaching.

Step 5

  • Get your trainee to plan out their first lesson teaching English.
  • Brainstorm with your trainee two sets of questions and responses they can teach.
  • Often novice teachers rush through lessons, split the lesson into two halves and plan a question and response for each half.
  • Make sure that your trainee understands their plan and they are confident they can follow it.

After you are done teaching your trainee how to teach English as a foreign language and they are ready and prepared to teach their first class, you may want to give them a quick run over handy hints of what not to do.


  • Expect the children to be at the level their previous teacher says they are at. ¼ of the class may have kept up and the rest are getting by with mumbling and nodding along. Spend a couple of lessons going over previous lessons again to be sure everyone understands it.
  • Choose inappropriate pop songs to sing with the class.
  • Lose control of the class. If you find yourself losing control, simply change activity, for example, all of the students up in a circle singing. This will calm both the students and even the teacher down.
  • Speak the local’s language in the lesson, the students don’t want to hear teachers repeating “hola” or “bonjour” all the way through their English lesson.
  • Make fun of students.
  • Ignore the kids at the back, a very common mistake is to just drill to the students immediately in front of you and forget there are others in the class.
  • Exclude any children, especially if they are clearly being ignored by their fellow classmates.
  • Have favourites, it’s all too easy to give extra attention to children who are smiling back and laughing at your jokes or following everything you say.
  • Let the children sit in the same place for the first couple of lessons. This will keep friends apart and the children more focused on you.
  • Practice spelling tests, a lot of the children need spoken English for jobs in tourism, they can be disheartened by harsh spelling tests.

Depending on how many new volunteers are on the project, you may want to consider teaching how to teach in a group.

Teaching Trainees in a Group


Groups can practice together.

Individuals in the group may not want to ask questions.

There tends to be one more confident person in a group who is comfortable asking lots of questions on behalf of the whole group.

If someone falls behind they can hide at the back and fall even further behind.

When someone in a group understands it, the other trainees have confidence in themselves that they will understand too.

Nervous trainees can hold the entire group back.

Groups are more fun.

There are more distractions.

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Teaching Trainees Individually


Individuals can ask specific questions if they don't understand.

Individuals can feel like they're going through this alone and chicken out.

You can go at the trainee's pace.

Less chances to practice with other people.

They can open up about their lack of confidence and become more open with their trainer.

They may be too nervous to ask questions and not understand something.

Challenges You Will Encounter

"My trainees weren't confident making eye-contact"

This will slow the students down. Practice with them consciously making eye contact over and over with different people and even inanimate objects.

"My trainees expect the children will write faster"

Get them to practice writing backwards, make up a written language and get them to write it backwards, from right to left. The students may not have the roman alphabet.

"My trainee keeps forgetting a crucial stage which they said they knew and understood"

Always go back when a trainee gets stuck, this also provides a good example of what they should do with their future students.

"My trainee actually believed their students during their first lesson when they said they'd understood"

Remind your trainee the importance of only moving on after plenty of practice and they are confident the whole class understand.

"My trainee is overwhelmed and scared"

Give lots of praise and don’t overload trainees with useless information which they don’t need to know at this time.

"My trainees aren't singing songs with their class"

Sing nursery rhymes and funny songs with the trainee from the beginning and stress the importance of songs in learning, but accept that singing isn't for everyone. Some TEFL teachers go through their whole career without singing.

"My trainees are too self-conscious to move their students around"

This is common. However it is very easy to correct. Grab a handful of volunteers outside of class time and have your trainee practice giving instructions to pair up, swap over, move chairs around.

Before I made this guide to teach others, I noticed that novice teachers tended to begin with the alphabet and numbers. Then moving onto acting out famous pop songs for the children to try and grasp the meaning. The kids weren’t practising the language and got frustrated with the teacher when they knew they weren’t learning anything. The teachers also got frustrated too.

Whereas taking a couple of days to teach new volunteers how to teach English, the classes were considerably better quality and a pleasure for everyone.



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