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68 Lessons for Language Teachers from 8 Years of Language Teaching

What I've learned about language teaching since I started teaching

A classroom
Photo by Barry Zhou on Unsplash

Let’s get straight into it.

Lessons on lessons

1. Your lesson plan is just a wild guess at what will happen in class. It’s a prediction about the future. But no one knows the future, so make your plan as flexible and approximate as you can.

2. Work harder in the lesson than in preparation for the lesson.

3. Starting a lesson by saying, “So, what should we work on today?” is perfectly OK. 

4.  Smile at your students. Smile at those students who don’t smile back too.

5. When students ask you a question you don’t know the answer to, say “I don’t know.” Then find out the answer with them — right there and then if possible.

6. Your students should ask more questions than you ask them.

7. You don’t need to have pre-determined lesson aims. You can teach a lesson and have post-determined lesson outcomes.  

8. The longer you spend on a lesson plan, the more reluctant you’ll be to divert from it in the lesson.

9. No one knows the best way to correct students’ mistakes. Use a variety of techniques and you’ll have done your job.

10. Keep hydrated during the lesson.

11. The lessons you teach in teaching training courses are not representative of the lessons you will teach in real life.

12. You don’t always have to monitor your students. Give them a task and then get out of the way. But offer help if they ask for it.

13. Students don’t always have to “figure out things by themselves”. You’re allowed to explain things too.

14. “Can I pop into your classroom and observe your lesson today?” Always say yes.

15. If you’re unprepared for your lesson, you’ll try to compensate for your lack of preparation with meaningless chatter during the lesson. Either be well-prepared or shut up.

16. You can talk as much as you want in a lesson as long as you’re saying something interesting and useful for your students.

17. You always want your students to be more tired than you at the end of a lesson.

18. Most mistakes don’t matter. Always keep that in mind when doing error correction.

19. When a student asks you a question, don’t answer it. Instead, ask, “Who knows the answer?” Then let other students have a go. 

20. Talk about taboo topics. But ask the students if they’re comfortable with doing it first.

21. “Do you have any questions?” is the most frequent question you should ask in class.

22. If you come to class with a pre-determined topic to teach, start the lesson by saying, “What do you know about this topic?” Then teach only what your students don’t know.

23. If you and your students share the same first language, you can start grammar lessons by saying, “Translate this sentence into English. OK. Great. Now let’s practice this grammar structure.” You don’t always need a reading or listening task before teaching grammar.

24. You notice students are making the same language mistake in the lesson. Thank them for this. They’ve just given you something useful to focus on for the next couple of hours.

25. The more you shout at your students to keep them quiet, the more they will shout back.

Lessons on learning and teaching

26. Punishing students with more homework or more tests will make them dislike learning. Punish them and you’ll have shot yourself in the foot. 

27. Students learn what they’re ready to learn. This, sometimes, corresponds with what you teach them. 

28. Frequently ask your students how you can improve your teaching. Accept all their suggestions but then implement only the ones you think will improve your teaching.

29. If you can’t afford expensive teacher training courses, read and apply the knowledge from books about teaching and second language acquisition. Much cheaper, but equally empowering.

30. CEFR levels (A2, B2, etc.) can harm language learning. Let your students know about this.

31. There’s nothing wrong with using the students’ first language — if this helps them learn.

32. Humans have been learning languages for thousands of years without apps, computers, smartphones, online games, websites, or interactive whiteboards. So, you got the point.

33. Don’t teach anything until you know exactly why and what your students want to learn.

34. Teach 10 %, practice 90%.

35. Tests are tools to check if the students learned what you taught them. Take relevant action after every test you give them.

36. Teaching listening involves more than pressing play and having students answer comprehension questions.

37. The way you teach language is highly influenced by the way you view language.

38. Put yourself in your student’s shoes and learn another language yourself.

39. Learn how languages are learned.

40. Some students come from teacher-centered educational backgrounds. For years they made no decisions about their learning and always did as they were told. Wanting these students to be proactive and autonomous from day 1 with you is like wanting a newborn to be an independent swimmer.

Lessons on materials

41. No matter how much you hate coursebooks, if your students want to work with one, then you should use one.

42. You only need a board and something you can write on it with. Anything else is extra and optional.

43. You don’t need warmers and fillers. You can have a conversation with the class whenever there’s some time to kill. A conversation is language at work.

44. Leave your ego outside the school doors and share the lesson plans, materials, and resources you create with your colleagues. Your creativity will help your peers and their students. So don’t be selective and help everyone, not just your class.

45. If one of your students can play a musical instrument or dance or draw or sing, invite them to perform and use their talents to teach something new or revise something old.

46. A textbook is just one of the many tools you can use in a lesson. 

47. Never ban smartphones in class. Never ban anything students can learn with.

48. Don’t give your students a long list of language learning websites to use in their own study time. Give them 1 website to explore in depth. Then another one and then another one.

Lessons on mindset

49. Your students will never be autonomous if you’re the only one who always makes decisions about what they should do in and out of class.

50. Teaching is the anagram of cheating. So you’re sometimes allowed to cheat. 

51. Use banter and treat your students like you would treat your friends.

52. Students don’t have to like you, they have to trust you.

53. Don’t say you’re a language coach if you don’t know what coaching is.

54. What are you going to do when you get texts full of mistakes? Correct everything? Do that and you’ll start hating your job.

55. Your teaching style will always be the worst for some students.

56. “I don’t need your help anymore,” is the best thing a student can tell you. Your ultimate goal is to make yourself redundant.

57. You don’t have to teach all levels, all age groups, or all types of exam classes. It’s OK to have preferences.

58. Never say you know the best way to learn a language. You don’t know that. No one knows.

59. You’re a human, not a walking dictionary or a grammar reference book with legs.

60. There’s no one right way to learn a language. There’s no one right way to teach a language either.

61. If you take the credit when your students succeed, then you should take the blame when your students fail. Don’t take the credit, and you won’t have to take the blame.

62. Number of teachers in class = you + number of students in class.

63. You don’t have to do anything of what the teacher trainers say. You have to do what you think it’s best for your students.

64. You always tell your students they should get out of their comfort zone. But how often do you get out of your comfort zone as a teacher?

65. Having the best teaching qualifications doesn’t necessarily make you a great teacher. 

66. Empathy, patience, vulnerability, honesty, selflessness, open-mindedness, tolerance — these are qualities all great teachers have. 

67. Don’t let your qualifications inflate your ego. Be proud of your achievements but always stay a student. 

68. Question all teaching advice you receive.

Happy teaching! 🙂

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I organise nonfiction book clubs for C1/C2 speakers of English and have a private email list where I share inspiring reflections, book recommendations, and content updates. You’re welcome to join.

Fabio Cerpelloni is an English language teacher, writer, author, and podcaster from Italy. You can find out more about him and his work by clicking on his glass of beer in the photo.