TEFL TIPS #5 – Asking the right questions.

An important goal of TEFL teaching is to keep students talking, getting them to practice new words and reinforce those they’ve learned. A simple tactic for doing this is asking questions about what they have, whether it be a drawing, a book, or a toy. However many teachers, myself included, often fall into a rut of asking the same questions over and over long after their kids have outgrown them merely because it often seems there are only so many ways for a kid to describe something. Chief among such questions are “What color is it?” “How many are there?” “Is it big or little?”

As teachers, we have to move away from this routine. It’s boring, it’s repetitive, and it doesn’t challenge the kids to think creatively or use their English in new ways. It is important to remember that asking questions isn’t only intended to test their vocabulary, but also to help them think outside the box. Here are some more challenging description methods you can try with your students:

Give it personality: What is its name?
This can easily be asked of toys and drawings, and of everyday objects as well. Oftentimes when I start using this question they’ll simply tell me what something is (“Me draw bunny!”). But simply telling me that a drawing of a bunny is a bunny isn’t enough—by getting them to name that bunny, it often sparks a whole new conversation (“Bunny name is Zombie. Zombie is silly monster; Zombie eats shoes”). Names are associated with personalities and individuality—a concept not lost on children.

Break it down: What shapes is it made of?
Asking what shape something is can be very simple, but asking what shapes something is made of can become very complex and can also be a great way to discover new words. For example, try asking a kid what shapes a teddy bear is made of. They’ll definitely start with the most simple (“Nose is triangle; foot is circle.”) but will soon rise to the challenge of breaking down more complicated portions (“Ear is BIG circle and little circle; tummy is loooooong circle.”). Here the teacher also learns what shapes the kids don’t know and can introduce words like oval or oblong.

Opposites & Abstract: What is it not?
A great way to encourage abstract thinking is to ask the students for the exact opposite of the information they have. Basically, instead of asking “What is it?” try asking “What is it not?”. This challenges them to rack their brain for relevant words and phrases rather than simply identifying what they see in front of them, and then decide whether those words apply to the situation. Further, it helps them practice more varied sentence structure other than “It is _____.” For example, if you’ve asked your students what the weather is, try asking them what the weather isn’t today. Rather than the repetitive “It is sunny,” you’ll be able to elicit a greater range of responses (It’s not rainy! It isn’t stormy. No tornado today!”).

Give these a try.  See how they work in your classroom!


TEFL TIPS #2 – Encouraging Casual English


One challenge that I’ve found working with my youngest students is encouraging them to use English to communicate with each other. They’ll answer my questions, parrot my sentences, and in general express their needs to their foreign teachers using English vocabulary.

However, when it comes to speaking with their peers it doesn’t occur to them to use a language other than their native tongue, especially among low-level learners for whom an “English-only” classroom isn’t a practical environment. While there are certainly plenty of EFL activities for pair and group work to practice common exchanges (“What is your name?” “Nice to meet you.” etc.), such structure isn’t necessarily supportive of spontaneous English.

I thought I’d share a few activities that have helped my youngest learners first begin voluntarily using English with their peers:

Crayon Exchange This activity is as simple as it is practical: sit the kids in a circle and give each student two different crayons. In turn, each student can decide what color they want and should address their classmate to request that crayon. This can start as a simple request (“Andrew, blue crayon please!”) and evolve into a longer structure as it becomes more familiar (“Andrew, please pass me a blue crayon.”). This activity teaches multiple conversation skills: addressing an individual, making a request, and practicing politeness using “please” and “thank you”. It is amazing how quickly students will adapt this skill to other activities and relay exchanges of not simply crayons, but other objects and actions as well.

Game Translations One surprisingly universal topic is children’s games—in most countries I’ve been too there are children playing various forms of traditional hide & seek, red light-green light, and Ro Sham Bo. When I see my kids playing these games I seize it as a teaching moment and give them the game commands in English. The more they play the more easily they begin to incorporate that vocabulary into other games and general play, especially words like stop, go, or hide.

How do you feel? Teaching my students to ask each other how they feel has been a great way to mitigate arguments while using English in a social environment. When my students have a disagreement or become upset, I have the kids ask each other how they feel. While they know basic emotions, explaining to each other how they feel and why takes a great deal of thought and practice—sometimes it demands so much focus that it distracts them from actually feeling angry or sad for very long. This is difficult but challenges students to think outside the box and begin describing abstract concepts. These activities have helped many of my students become more confident using English in a casual manner both in and outside the classroom and can easily be adapted for different levels and ages.


TEFL TIPS #1 – The Almighty Flashcard (1)

A with chalk and number

A flashcard is to an ESL teacher is like the Batmobile to Batmanno ESL teacher I know would be without them!

I think the core of their popularity is largely due to the teacher/student language barriers inherent in ESL education, especially when working with beginners or younger students. A flashcard of an apple portrays an apple in any language: the word may be different but the meaning is understood. An apple in England isn’t a robot in China. That being said, a girl in Thailand sometimes isn’t what a girl would be elsewhere, but that’s not for now…

Flashcards can also be used for a variety of purposes: to introduce new vocabulary, for kinesthetic activities, speaking cues, auditory activities, and much more. What one can do with flashcards is potentially limitless, so what a great prop to start my mini-series, “TEFL Tips”, with…


Activity – Where is the _____? – (Listening/ speaking)

Age – Pre-K, K, primary

Level – Beginner

This is an easy one. It’s great for teaching new vocabulary and children have loads of fun playing it. It’s basically like that game you see novice magicians do at kids’ parties using 3 cups and a pea.

You start by teaching three new flashcards (preferably of related objects). You then turn all 3 over and move them around. When you have stopped, ask the students, “Where is the ____?” The student whose turn it is, then has to say the name of the flashcard he/she has turned over. If he/she has picked the wrong card, then they continue until they select the correct one.

As the game progresses you can start by asking the students if they want you to move the flashcards faster or slower. This normally encourages them to speak, and you are bombarded by screams of, “Teacher, me really really fast!”

So, in addition to learning the vocabularies on the flashcards, the students are using English in a more natural setting and communicating with you.

Just like the Daleks keep popping up throughout series’ of Doctor Who, I’m sure I’ll write many more tips for flashcard use in the future.

Thank you for checking this out!