Three Rules for ESL Classroom Control

Most of my experience teaching ESL has been in Asian countries, teaching young kids with very limited knowledge of English. This presents a number of problems in terms of classroom control. On numerous occasions, I have seen red-faced coworkers scolding students.

Why do you keep doing that when I’ve already asked you several times to cut it out!”

The bewildered student inevitably stares back with wide eyes, full of fear and confusion. I think to myself: This kid doesn’t know what [keep verb-ing] means. He doesn’t know the present perfect phrase ‘I’ve already asked”. He probably doesn’t know the word “several” yet. And there’s no way he understands the separable phrasal verb “cut it out”.

It’s no wonder that teachers such as this find classroom control so difficult.

One of the most important elements of classroom control is also one of the most important elements of ESL teaching in general:

1. Speak at your students’ level. All too often, teachers will stop paying attention to the words coming out of their mouths, rattling off euphemisms, complicated tenses, and vocabulary words that are way beyond the students’ level. Students who find themselves confused and unable to follow the teacher’s words will naturally become restless, start shifting, maybe talk to their neighbors or draw pictures, attracting the bewildering scolding of the teacher.

Even when all of the students understand perfectly, however, there may arise behavior problems in class. This brings up the second rule:

2. Use an angry voice. As a teacher myself, I know that nothing ruins my day like when I genuinely find myself full of anger in a classroom. This makes it difficult to teach and run an effective classroom. You should thus separate your emotions from your voice. When bad behavior erupts, warn the students in a very loud, stern, and serious voice that this behavior will not be tolerated. And once you’re done with the angry voice, try to return to normal, without letting the anger overtake you.

Finally, the last, and perhaps most difficult rule of ESL classroom control.

3. Earn the respect of the students. ESL teachers are often expected to play games and clown around with the students, especially since it can be so hard to teach a foreign language through lectures and standard classroom practices. However, it is important to find a way to play games and be silly with the students without them viewing English class as simply a rule-free play zone. One effective way to accomplish this is to start out every class with a very serious and methodical tone – no joking, no silliness, and use your angry voice (see rule #2 above) if necessary. Once you have established this baseline, essentially showing the kids that this is a real classroom and not a playground, then you can gradually loosen the reins and allow some fun and silliness into the class – without letting it completely take over.

At the same time, it is important that, as a teacher, you are not overly strict and threatening. The students will naturally be curious about you, given the cultural differences of ESL classrooms, and it is very useful to share information about your life and get to know them. As with making friends, trust and mutual respect are the cornerstones of a constructive relationship between the teacher and students. Once trust and respect have been established, classroom control will virtually take care of itself!

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