Top Teaching Banana Skins (and how to avoid them)

Solutions to the top three teaching mistakes
By Alex Case

Teaching being the complex task that it is, there are literally hundreds of things that any teacher could do to improve their classes, at least in some small way--that's what can make teaching interesting for an entire working life. Obviously, though, you can't think about all these little things every day, especially if you are a new or trainee teacher. For such teachers, and also if you haven't had the chance to have training or be observed for a while and might have drifted into bad habits, there are three fundamentals that you need to get right so that students get something out of all of your lessons, however relaxed, intense, experimental, free-wheeling etc. they may be.

The top 3 teaching mistakes are:

  • Explaining rather than eliciting
  • Getting timings wrong
  • Not grading your speech well

Solutions to these are:

Decide on how you are going to elicit before you go into class. Think about/find/make a note of the questions, picture prompts or texts you are going to use. Then experiment on other teachers to see if they actually come up naturally with the form you want to elicit. Good sources for pictures are English Grammar in Use, Pictures of English Tenses and the Trouble with series.

Different things work for different people, but sorting out timing problems can be split into three techniques:

  1. Have a system for timings on your lesson plan
  2. Have a filler stage and an optional stage for every lesson
  3. Teach yourself about time

There are two different techniques that you can use on your lesson plan. The simpler method is to have an estimated time for each activity and make sure it adds up to the length of the lesson. These are more easily estimated if you put timings for short stages and sub stages rather than trying to guess the timing for a whole speaking game. Generally, the lesson plan should be split into slots of only 3 to 7 minutes. You can then convert these timings into actual clock times, e.g. if the class starts at 3:15 and the lead-in is 7 minutes long, put 3:22 as the time for the start of the grammar presentation. This makes it much easier to see if you are running to schedule during the lesson.

Obviously it is difficult to say that an activity will take exactly 7 minutes, so a more realistic but more complicated version is to have minimum times and maximum times for each activity (e.g. lead-in 3 to 5 minutes). You then add up all the minimums and all the maximums, giving you have a range of timings for the whole class (e.g. 37 to 51 minutes for a 45 minute lesson). This means that if everything goes as quickly as it can (e.g. the class already know the grammar point quite well) you could run out of material nearly 10 minutes before the end of the class, so you obviously need a filler stage that will take 5 to 10 minutes--preferably something towards the end of the class like a second free production task. If the class is tired and slow, you obviously can't let the class run over to cover everything on your lesson plan, so you need to look at the original plan and see which of these stages can be taken out or cut short if you are running over. Label this "optional stage" on your lesson plan.

After experimenting with these techniques, you really should have sorted out all your timing problems--as long as you can realistically estimate timings in the first place. You can train yourself to do this by thinking about timings in your normal life. Next time you cook something, try to guess when three minutes is up, and only then look at the clock to check. You can do the same thing by estimating how long you've been doing housework, exercising, sitting on the train etc. This not only helps your lesson planning, but also your time management in the rest of your life--important when your lesson planning is not leaving you time to breathe!

Grading your speech eventually becomes natural, but we are talking a year or two of teaching the same level, not a couple of months. In the meantime, you can plan your grading and train yourself by:

  1. volunteering for low level classes
  2. observing low level classes and writing down the language the teacher uses
  3. writing down the language you are going to use for vital stages of the lesson such as grammar explanations and instructions for games. Writing it down is often enough to make it obvious which things students are going to find too complicated to understand, but you can make sure that what you've written is simple enough by:
    1. thinking about categories of language that are difficult, e.g. phrasal verbs and tenses with lots of auxiliaries
    2. seeing if you can translate it into a language you don't know very well, and then possibly translating that back into simple English
TEFL.net ESL Reviews & Articles© Alex Case 2005
Alex Case has worked as an EFL Teacher, Teacher Trainer, Director of Studies and EFL Editor in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, the UK and Japan.