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18 Essential Tips for Teaching Kids English (ESL)

Many expats decide to take the leap and emigrate to a faraway nation to begin a new life. To finance their new life in paradise, many foreigners start teaching English as a second language (ESL). More often than not, many prospective teachers have no past experiences with any form of teaching, let alone teaching children a foreign language!

It can be very daunting for first time ESL teachers to know what to do! Often you have very little training, if any, before being thrown straight into the deep end! How are you supposed to manage a group of children if you’ve never done it before? Not to worry, I found myself in the same situation, so let me walk you through some basic tips for teaching kids ESL.

English Only

tips esl teaching
Graduation day for my little students

This is the golden rule for every single ESL school throughout the world; students should only speak English. Of course, that’s also true for teachers, who should only ever speak English around the students. It may sound pretty obvious, but it’s incredibly important to maintain that rule as it teaches the kids the habit of speaking English in class.

People fall into the trap of trying to explain to the students in their native language or acknowledging them when they do. Once the kids realise you understand their language, then they will ONLY communicate with you in their native tongue. Whereas by establishing early that only English gets a response, they’ll know that’s the only way they can talk to you.

The Three P’s: Presentation, Practice, Produce

When teaching any topic, for any age group, there are always three important steps; Presentation, Practice and Production. Presentation is simply when the teacher introduces a new topic or target language to the students, whether it’s a vocabulary word, a sentence or even a sound. This is when the students are shown what it means and how to use it properly.

Next, the students practice the new target language as part of controlled exercises which start off simple and increase in difficulty. During this time, the teacher is there to guide them through each exercise and to act as a safety net if the students need assistance.

The final stage, production, gives the students total freedom to try out the subject matter for themselves. At this point in the lesson, they should understand the topic and what is expected of them so it’s their opportunity to show what they have learned.

Total Physical Response (TPR)

Listening closely.

Learning a language is so much more than just speaking and listening. One important technique for teaching children involves using gestures and physical cues to guide children through their learning, known as Total Physical Response (TPR). It’s such a vital aspect of teaching that eventually you won’t even need to say anything and be able to rely on gestures and facial expressions alone for most of the lesson.

They can be as simple as showing physical examples of big and small with your hands or having a different physical gesture for each letter of the alphabet. Gestures can act as helpful tips for ESL students to remember what they’ve learned and what answer they should be eliciting. They can even be used as cues to guide students and even manage the behaviour of the class!

Use Structured Sentences

Each new topic comes with its own set of vocabulary and sentence structures. The vocabulary is always easy to teach, as students just associate the new English word with something they already know. All it needs is a visual representation, such as a flashcard, and plenty of repetition for new words to quickly get picked up.

Sentences are just as easy. As daunting as they may seem to the students at first, the students just need to recognise exactly what the sentence means and how to complete it.

Many different ways to give tips in an ESL class

For example, let’s say the topic is fruit, and the sentence structure is “I like to eat _____”. First, the students need to recognise what the sentence actually means. That can be done by analyzing each word means; I, like and to eat, then put them all together.

Next, you need to show how to complete the sentence, and what vocabulary words can be used; I like apples, I like bananas. Now you can allow students to try for themselves, where they can use vocabulary words they have learned in class, and also gives them the freedom to use their own vocabulary words, or further extend the topic to other types of food.


How do you learn a new skill? Repeat, repeat, repeat! One of the simplest tips, yet so effective when teaching ESL! Whether it’s a word, a sentence or even a sound, the best way of learning and remembering it is by simply repeating it over and over!

By getting the students to drill and echo these words and sentences endlessly, it quickly becomes second nature and a force of habit to remember. Of course, it gets pretty boring if the lesson is nothing but repeating, there should be plenty of other things mixed in! However, the core message of each lesson or topic should be repeated to oblivion!

Why have so many people chosen to begin teaching ESL? What are the pitfalls? Let’s look at some pros and cons.

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Call Signs and Cues

esl tips teaching
Speaking time

Sometimes students find it hard to know what is expected of them. Many times when you ask a brand new question, the children will just stare at you blankly. By using familiar cues it gives ESL students tips for the type of answer you’re looking for.

For example, if you want a student to tell you the letter A and the phonetic sound a, it’s hard to explain the difference between them. Instead, you can use different hand gestures and vocal cues to guide the students to what you want to say. Such as touching of the ear and the sentence structure “A makes…” lets the student know you’re looking for the phonetic sound of the letter.

Give the Students Visual Encouragement

Kids always appreciate praise for their performance, which is also the best form of encouragement. The students, either individually or as a group, should be rewarded for good performance, good behaviour or simply participating well in the class. One way to keep them motivated throughout the lesson is to give them a visual indication of their progress.

This can be done by placing stars next to their names on the whiteboard or giving students stickers throughout the lesson. These techniques allow the students to physically see how well they are performing and gives them some added encouragement to achieve more.

Maintain Behaviour by Losing Progress

A question for miss

Let’s face it, some children just don’t listen! Obviously, bad behaviour can’t be tolerated and the kids have to participate. So how can you control a misbehaving child? If we remember back to our own days in school, many of our teachers went for the scream until they listen approach. Not only is that completely inappropriate, but it’s also ineffective for many students.

Students need to be made aware that bad behaviour has a consequence. Where you might reward students with stars or stickers for good behaviour, they can also be lost for misbehaving. It may sound tame, but younger children take it very seriously, to the point that a mere suggestion of taking a star away is enough to make them behave. This way they have a direct consequence for their actions and have even more motivation to behave.

Motivate With Praise

It’s no secret that kids can be a nightmare at times! They won’t pay attention, they won’t sit still, and simply won’t take part in your class. Sometimes it’s enough to make you want to scream! However, blowing our top just isn’t the right way to control the kids.

esl tips teaching
Fun during graduation

Shouting doesn’t encourage kids to learn or give them the passion for learning, instead, it just teaches students to be scared when in your class. Should students really be afraid of their teachers?

Undoubtedly the best form of encouragement is praise, which is also a great way to control a misbehaving child. Children adore getting praised, and they’ll try very hard to get it! So if a mischievous or a non-participating kid sees another student getting praised, they’ll emulate that student so they can get the same treatment.

Make Students Set Examples

In each class, some students will instantly understand and perform at the highest level, while some others will lag a little behind, and that’s okay! You can use this difference to your advantage! The top performers in your class can help set examples for the other students.

If you have a question you want answered or a sentence completed, you can ask one of the top-performing students who in turn demonstrates to the rest of the students what they have to do and what kind of answer the teacher is looking for! It’s a way of ensuring the ESL students get given tips without the input of the teacher, which adds to their confidence to work independently!

Which is easier to teach, toddlers or teens? Each group of kids have their own advantages and problems, particularly for ESL! What are they?

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Allow Students to Elicit Their Own Answers

Students have an enormous boost of confidence when they’re able to do the work! It can be as simple as getting praise for answering a question correctly, which quickly brings an enormous smile come across their face! However, some students simply won’t know the answer to every question!

Sit well boys and girls

Rather than giving the ESL students the answer directly, they should be given tips to allow them to find their own answers. It could be as simple as giving them the first letter or the beginning of the word. You could also use TPR and hand gestures to give them that extra push.

If all else fails, when you ask a question to the class that only a couple of the students respond to, then you can repeat the question. That gives students a second chance to answer after hearing what the other students said. It may not seem like much, but it’s that psychological edge of allowing them to elicit the answer themselves rather than the teacher giving it to them.

Give Hints With Incorrect Answers

Continuing from the last point, students often won’t know what kind of answer you’re looking for. One good way of guiding them is by giving them examples. Yet there’s a way that you guide them without feeding them answers, by giving incorrect examples.

It may seem counterintuitive, but is actually such a simple technique and gives very helpful tips for your ESL students! Let’s take the example sentence “A _____ is yellow“. If you ask the student “An apple is yellow?” or “An orange is yellow?“, then they should be able to recognise that those answers are wrong. In turn, it also shows them what type of answer should fit into the sentence.

Be Active

esl tips teaching
A handful of tips for my ESL students

If you want your students to engage and keep their focus in class, then you have to be active! Kids are just little balls of energy, so you have to get on their level, particularly for younger students. Even as a grown-up, who wants to listen to a monosyllabic drag of a teacher as he slowly goes through his PowerPoint? Nobody, and kids even less so!

It can be as simple as moving about the class, acting out scenarios or using exaggerated hand gestures. That goes double for the students, who should be encouraged to do the same! The one thing a class full of kids hates to do is sit still, so use it to your advantage and get them moving too!

Don’t Be Boring

There’s a reason that kids don’t like school; it’s so boring! Even as adults we can appreciate that, everyone had their fair share of dull teachers. More so, if you’re bored while you’re teaching a class, then it will definitely be boring for them! So why not have some fun?

The only way children will learn is by paying attention, and they’ll only do that if they’re entertained. It could be as simple as a change in voice, the use of props or sound effects and even physical gestures. The students themselves can also take part by playing games, acting out scenarios or echoing the teacher’s sounds and gestures! Pretty much anything that keeps them from falling asleep in their chair is a big benefit.

Be the Conductor of Chaos

There’s nothing wrong with the students getting a little loud and excitable! What’s important is that you are in control of that chaos. Much like a conductor, the children should work off of your cues. If the teacher gets loud, so can the students, but when the teacher quietens down, they should too.

esl tips teaching

But what cues can you use? A useful technique is to have different exercises that require different volumes. For example, if the children get a little too excited, a quick way to reign them in is to whisper a word or sentence that you want them to repeat in the same manner. With steps like these, you can keep total control of their excitement levels.

Each Class is Different

You could listen to hundreds of tips on how to conduct ESL classes, but you can’t just rely on one technique. You could have the best lesson plan in the world but that doesn’t mean the class will go the way you want it to. As a teacher, you’ll have to learn to adapt to any given situation.

Teaching is all about adapting to the needs of the students, the entire class and the requirements of the school. You shouldn’t be discouraged if something you try doesn’t work, rather it should motivate you to find a better approach.

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esl tips teaching
Time to play!

Who doesn’t like to play games? Everyone does, and especially kids! It’s by far the best way to get the students to participate and keep their attention on the lesson! Best of all, the kids don’t even realise that they’re actually learning, very sneaky!

Working out what types of games you can play for a given topic becomes a real artform. But once you figure it out, then even the most uninterested kid has a fire lit under them. Games can also be used as a great motivator! If a student wants to play the game then they have to pay attention and participate during the lesson. Win, win, win!

Nothing Wrong With Healthy Competition

Many modern-day parents and even schools discourage any form of competition, from fear that they’ll alienate their students or just want to protect them from the sadness of defeat. Personally, I couldn’t disagree more. Winning and losing is a normal part of everyday life which children should not be protected from.

There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of healthy competition for the students. It could be as simple as splitting the class into teams while reading or playing games. The purpose of the exercise is not to crown a winner or say that one group or student is better than another, it’s to give that added motivation for students to try and participate, which always works.

Of course, you need to be considerate and ensure a student isn’t alienated because of the task. Each student should get encouraged and all the help they need to succeed. Neither should students be made fun of for losing! However, neither should students be protected from losing, it’s just a part of life kids.

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