Basic Tips for Language Teachers (Seminar)
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Abstract : This is an outline from one of a monthly series of seminars by Thor May on teaching skills. The seminars are given as a teacher inservice for Chinese English teachers in Zhengzhou, Henan, China. Thor May is currently (2008) employed as a "foreign expert" (language) in a joint venture between Holmes Colleges (China & Australia) and Zhengzhou Railway Vocational & Technical College. He has been teaching language and linguistics since 1976.

Basic Tips for Language Teachers

Thor May
Henan, China

Abstract : The notes [2300+ words] consist of three parts : 1. Some short backround notes on the profession of teaching languages; 2. A few useful links for teaching tips and content; 3. A collection of ten activities which the seminar presenter has invented or borrowed, and found to be popular with students.// This is an outline from one of a monthly series of seminars by Thor May on teaching skills. The seminars were given as a teacher inservice for Chinese English teachers in Zhengzhou, Henan, China. This seminar was conducted on 10 June 2008

1. Background Teaching Notes


1.1 The Language Playing Field

1.1.1 Language teaching is about a) skilled teaching, and b) USING language.

1.1.2 Many of the skills involved in the profession of teaching are common to teaching most subjects. The teaching profession is really about a) persuading people to learn, and b) helping them to learn.

1.1.3 As every salesman knows, persuasion is customer-centered. Selling refrigerators to Eskimos is tough work, just as selling a risk of embarrassment to teenagers is tough work. The salesman must be cunning.

1.1.4 A few people want to know ABOUT the inner workings of language. They are analytic linguists. Everyone else just wants to USE it. Learning a new language, it may sometimes help a student to know something about its inner workings. The teacher has to make a judgement about this, while also remembering her own limited knowledge about how the language works. However, the first duty of a language teacher is actually using the new language herself, and encouraging her students to use it.

1.2 Teaching Lore


1.2.1 Lose the battle, win the war

a) When the teacher can never be wrong, the student can only be a zombie memory machine. Zombie graduates repeat only what they are told, are afraid of responsibility, and never learn again outside of the classroom. This pattern applies equally to leaders and workers/citizens.

A mature teacher can afford to "lose face". A mature teacher can also afford to take risks, and try things that might or might not work. Sometimes students, especially teenagers, are not mature enough to "lose face".


1.2.2  Neither slavery nor tinsel crowns are glorious


"You are nothing but a nothing, you are not a thing at all". This is an old song, and a favourite method of brain washing. You destroy a fragile personality with criticism, then the naked soul, desperate to please, is rebuilt into the "perfect" man or woman by following your strict instructions. Well, this is not only brutal, the long term results are poor. It does not produce confident, creative human beings.

Equally, fake glory is no glory at all. The pompous general with a chest full of medals may well be a confused coward in a real crisis. Like the general, we all want to feel good. Feeling good greatly helps language learning. However fake praise is soon seen as fake praise and does little to help learning. It may breed complacency or contempt. Praise generously when praise is earned. Otherwise, keep your peace with a quiet smile.


1.2.3 Rice with one egg and ten different sauces

Repetition is essential in language learning. However, what needs repeating? Vocabulary needs repeating. Phrase patterns need repeating. That's all. A good teacher will serve vocabulary and phrase patterns up in ten different flavours, with ten different changes of scene. Who wants to eat the same meal every day?


1.2.4 The girl who chose to marry one of three ugly brothers


When a woman or a man chooses their life partner, they will enjoy the good times, and take some responsibility for the bad. (The same goes for choosing leaders). Not everything we have to teach or learn is fun. Telling students to do it is depressing for them. Offer them a choice of topics or methods in each class. Then they will feel much better about it. They will try harder.


1.2.5 We need $1 million by sundown. You fix it !

There are many roads to the end of the rainbow. It is always far better to help students see what needs to be achieved, rather than to tell them what they have to do. Give human beings an attractive goal and they can be amazingly inventive about how to get there.

Goal setting is not just a life-ambition business. It is a class-by-class and hour-by-hour business.

Goal setting as a command from above is weak. It fails easily. Chosen goals are strong and not easily broken. The smart teacher will let students think that their goals are the students' own ideas.

Delegate the responsibility of achieving goals to the students . They will be clever about getting there.

Caveat : In a system where students have been denied choice and responsibility for many years, coaxing them to independent thought is not easy or instant.


1.6 We are going the thrash 'em !


A game is only a game. We can afford to lose, but still have the excitement of trying to win. Perhaps life itself is a game too. The top professionals in every field don't think of their work as "work". They "play" their professions with zest. Surely language learning can be a game like this.

Contests between two halves of a class are easy to set up, and are a quick way to add interest to routine tasks. Contests and games can introduce new ideas memorably and also make revision a pleasure.

The activities chosen for contests and games should have important language learning goals . Students might casually enjoy playing "hangman" for the 100th time, but it might add little to their real L2 language skills.

Students, like parents and administrators, sometimes doubt the value of games and competitions. They might think it is not "real" learning. It is a part of a teachers job to demonstrate to the customers how real learning comes out of these activities. For example, an "experiment" can be set up with the students, where they test whether they learn more about something through doing it the traditional way, or through a game/contest activity.

2. Some Links on English Teaching Tips & Materials

One-stop English

EFL/ESL teaching techniques from The Internet TESL Journal

Hospital English (for nursing students)

Lanternfish ESL Worksheets and Lesson Plans

English Ryan – audio & video lessons for EFL

ESL Activities

Compelling Conversations

ESLbay (ESL directory)

3. Some Teaching Activities


3.1 Naughts and Crosses Competition Scoring



0    x

There are many ways to score a contest. Often a class is divided into two teams for quick scoring.

Interest can be added to the scoring by making that a mini contest too. For example, use a "naughts and crosses" format similar to the children's game.

The object of "naughts and crosses" of course is to obtain three naughts or three crosses in a row, such as 1, 5, 9 (above). These naughts and crosses can be awarded to a team for correct answers to any contest.

1. Draw a "naughts and crosses" field on the whiteboard.

2. Number the squares from 1 to 9.

3. When the student in a team answers correctly, they can choose the square to claim for their side.

4. If a student calls an answer out of turn, his side loses one of their squares.


The board field can be made more complicated for scoring. For example, it can be turned into a bingo board, or even a chess board. However, there is a risk of distracting from the language teaching purpose if the scoring becomes too complex. "Naughts and crosses" adds interest, but is simple enough to keep attention on the true language exercise.

3.2 Instant Drama

- every class member takes a loose sheet of paper.

- divide the paper into 8 horizontal sections (folding is the quickest way).

- create a wide vertical margin

- alternately write (speaker) X, Y in the margin

- each class member writes their student name or number in the top right hand corner.


- you have one minute to write the first sentence of any conversation

- change (timed in one minute intervals)

- change the paper around the class until it is full

- return it to the owner

- correct any mistakes

- practice the dialogue with your partner

3.3 Guess the Stress

English sentences contain one or more tone units. Each tone unit contains a stressed tone peak (or sometimes several peaks). A sentence taken as a unit of information usually has one primary peak (though sometimes several). Identifying these stress patterns is a major learning problem for students, especially if their L1 is a syllable timed language like Chinese.

- the teacher speaks a short sentence with normal stress.

- a student, in a contest of A & B teams, must repeat the stressed word(s) in the sentence.

- calling out is penalized

- the naughts and crosses paradigm is a good game base for this exercise.

3.4  Your Personal Language Course

Text books are notoriously irrelevant to the real needs and interests of students. The language which people speak to them everyday in L1 is, of course, central to their lives and easily attached to memory. I have found it extremely productive to ask students at the beginning of each class to write down three sentences other people spoke to them in L1 the day before. They then translate these sentences (for sense rather than word by word). This activity is popular and valued by students. It is wothwhile however to insist that they keep the accumulating sentences together in a special notebook.

Instructions :

- Write down 3 Chinese sentences someone actually spoke to you yesterday.

- Translate the sentences

- Learn the sentences in L2

- Why? => These sentences have had a real use in your life. Therefore it is worth knowing how to use them.

- Build your own language course, day by day, from these real translations

- USE the sentences in L2

Teaching note :

With weaker students, the first productions of these daily sentences will be predictable and formulaic; e.g. Have you eaten. However, after a few days, these easy options will be quickly exhausted and students will be forced to recall more innovative constructions, especially if a day by day record is kept of the accumulating sentences.

3.5 Da Da Da

- The teacher speaks a sentence fragment, inserting dadada for the missing segments.

- Students, in an A & B team contest, must say a complete sentence containing the words given by the teacher.

- Calling out is penalized

-   Tthe naughts and crosses paradigm is a good game base for this exercise.

=> This may seem all too familiar to the fill-in-the-blank exercises so common in text books. The difference is the dynamism which comes from thinking on your feet. Language production live appears to come from a different place than the fill-in-with-a-pencil ritual.

3.6 Follow Me (spoken)

This game is excellent for building collocation skills, which are at the heart of language learning.


- One student suggests the first word for a possible sentence (or the teacher can give the 1st word).

- The word is written on the whiteboard.

- Students are chosen in rapid succession to suggest single words to follow, which are then also written on the board for all to see.

- Calling out loses a point

- Giving a word which can't follow to contribute to a credible sentence loses a point.

- The game can be made more difficult by limiting possible sentences to a certain topic.

3.7 Journalist

This is an activity which can be fairly brief, or fill a whole lesson. It can be made more or less complex. For example, the subject of the interview can be left open, or given as a requirement.

One description for this kind of activity is given at

Procedure :

1. One student comes to the front of the class. His/her role is "person of interest" (a celebrity, a visiting VIP, an alien from another planet etc.).

2. The students are "journalists". Their task is a) to question the person of interest, and b) to take notes to write up a later news/feature story.

3. It is a good idea to add some reality to the situation by having the questioners follow a professional style. e.g. "I'm Wang Donxu from the Guangzhou Star. I'd like to ask you sir ...... "

4. As with most activities, students will become more skilled and subtle in their questioning if the activity is done fairly often.

3.9 Sell It To Me !

The salesman's spiel is language taken to a high art!

The ability to sell in L2 is a clear and motivating goal for students.

They may even make a living from it!


Now I want to show you something beautiful. Maybe you think all pens are similar. Don't be fooled ! This is very special pen indeed. Did you know that hundreds of hours went into the design of this pen? It was made to fit comfortably into your hand all day. It will work without a refill for three kilometers of writing. Isn't that amazing ! The pen is graceful, durable and practical. It is made from the finest materials. You can be proud to carry it in your pocket. It can be yours for a very reasonable price. When you buy one of these pens you help yourself, and you help people in need. A percentage of every sale goes to those less fortunate. I am sure you will love this pen. The price is a modest $59.95. That's extremely cheap for the quality. Buy one for a loved one too. You will be truly appreciated. How many can I put you down for sir?


1. Choose any object in your classroom.

2. Show students how to "sell" it with good humour, a lot of body language, and convincing language.

3. Choose a confident student to do a bit of selling to the class first.

4. Have one student sell to a small group of 4 or 6.

5. Have a selling session often. Students will soon get the hang of it, and welcome the break from more tiring work.

6. Selling can also be done for a short fill-in slot when other work has run out.


1. Market bargaining

2. Running an auction

3. Write advertising copy. For example, design a sales pitch for an Internet auction like eBay.

3.10 Message Carrier

This activity requires at least two people plus the teacher. Usually it will involve the whole class.

Resource : The teacher will have a series of pictures telling a story. If skilled, she may draw the pictures on the spot, but prior preparation will make the activity more effective. Sadly, only a very few wordless picture books for L2 learning have ever been published, and they are now out of print. (Please, someone get to work on this !!)

Procedure :

a) Divide the class into pairs or small groups.

b) Each group assigns a messenger.

c) At the front of the class the teacher has a small set of picture cards telling a story. She will show these cards to the messengers, one card at a time. She does not show the whole set to the messengers.

d) Messengers come to the front of the room, try to remember what they see, and return to describe the picture, and activities in the picture, to the recorder(s). The messenger must only speak English !

e) Recorders try to sketch the messenger's description. They may also try to write sentences to explain what they hear. They must use only English.

f) When the teacher has shown all the picture cards to the messengers, the recorders will try to assemble what they have heard and retell the story.

g) To close, the teacher may show all the picture cards to the class.


1. A diagram, or series of diagrams may be pinned on the wall for reporters to visit and remember.

2. A written text may be pinned on the wall, sentence by sentence, for the reporters to visit and remember.


Tips for Language Teachers
   copyrighted © Thorold (Thor) May 2008
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