How to meaningfully support your students

by | Jun 21, 2023 | Online education, Tips for Students

Online teaching, although a far more contemporary industry than traditional teaching, has also become somewhat of a saturated industry in the last couple of years. Reputable online educators know that the internet is polka-dotted with a multitude of English-speaking natives who have done subpar courses and market themselves as experienced, skilled teachers.

Far from saying that one must have a teaching degree to be a valuable teacher, what I am actually saying is that online teaching has become a massive wave which many native English speakers surf simply to make money. And perhaps that isn’t something we can judge either. However, from the position of a student who is genuinely looking to invest their time, finances, and trust in the long-term undertaking of learning a new language, this is not the most comforting revelation.

This article seeks to provide online teachers with a review of two key learning areas to more meaningfully support their online students. As an online English teacher, you may be looking for ways in which to make your lessons more valuable but feel a bit blocked. Make your underlying goal to help students from where they are, not from where you both wish they were. This is what enables you to serve your students. It helps them reach the desire that catalysed everything in the first place – the yearning to become fluent in a foreign language.

1. Take a direct and unmistakable interest in who your students are as people.

Take a direct and unmistakable interest in who your students are as people.<br />

This may seem obvious but not many teachers take the time or open themselves up to this dynamic within the relationship. We are social beings. We thrive on connection, understanding and communication – all of which require safety and compassion. Students are already fighting a flighty nervous system because they are placing themselves in the immensely uncomfortable (and exciting) position of doing the complex work of learning to speak an entirely new language. The least we can do as teachers is look out for the ways in which we can make them feel relaxed, seen and understood as individuals with fears, uniqueness, and stories to tell. Set aside 10 or 15 minutes when first meeting to ask them about  themselves – even if they must reply in their native tongue to begin with.

Set aside 10 or 15 minutes when first meeting to ask them about  themselves – even if they must reply in their native tongue to begin with. Great topics to touch on include hobbies, likes and dislikes, current English level, why they want to improve and how they would describe their personality. Be conscious of cultural differences and mindful of how you are choosing to come on when first meeting one another. You are the person in the driving seat here, so the responsibility of painting the atmosphere falls on you.  Being mindful of the above builds trust and trust is what gives students the confidence to push themselves beyond their predetermined limits. Believing we are capable of more than the limits we have set for ourselves in our minds is what nurtures the internal soil in which learning flourishes.

2. Make the routine areas and difficult feelings valuable.

Grammar sucks. Corrections sting. Fear hinders

The inescapable dynamics of language learning are grey on the best of days, so stay alert for ways to make them valuable in the eyes of your students. When it comes to teaching grammar, don’t flail! Being a native speaker means you will be able to tell when something sounds wrong, but that is not enough. You need to be able to explain why a mistake is incorrect, and in a way that your student will understand. You cannot teach what you don’t know. So, brush up and get sharp. Once you understand the compartments of English grammar and how they fit together, you can begin sequencing the way you teach them. For example, teaching tenses is pointless unless you first teach regular and irregular verbs, and teaching the difference between those is made redundant if you do not first begin by teaching students what normal, non-continuous and mixed verbs are. Additionally, there is a bonus in it for you. Understanding the inner workings of English grammar helps you to compare and contrast English grammar against the grammar structures of other languages. This nurtures an ESL superpower – the ability to predict the mistakes students will make depending on which native language they speak and demonstrate that you understand why they are making those mistakes in a literal and relatable way.

Correct every mistake students make? Well, yes and no

This is a nuanced area. With more advanced students, or students you have developed a long-standing relationship with, go ahead and correct every mistake. Besides, this pushes excellence and self-awareness. However, do not correct every single mistake when it comes to beginners. In my eight years of experience as an ESL teacher I have found that nothing will cause beginner to pre-intermediate students to slam shut like a clam more than pointing out every single mistake they make. Students are different because let’s not forget, they are people. Some are far, far more sensitive than others. Gauge your student’s English level and focus on correcting mistakes that will have an immediate effect on their current use of English; mistakes that they can comprehend and slot into 

Correct every mistake students make! Well, yes and no

their existing frame of reference. Correcting a B2 level mistake with an A2 level student will either be incomprehensible or inapplicable, and chances are they will forget the correction anyway because they cannot meaningfully absorb it yet. Focus on finding out what level of intensity the individual student is comfortable with regarding their correction desires and build up in frequency from there as your relationship and trust grows. That being said, I never let small mistakes slide! By small mistakes I mean the basics. If a student keeps dropping their ‘s’ in simple present, for example, best believe I am going to make them aware of it every single time, no matter how annoying it may be for the two of us. Those basics are the A1/A2 foundation and that needs to be solid right from the start.

Be aware of fear – both your students’ and your own

Students worry they will look stupid if they make a mistake, this is nothing unknown. But what about you? Do you have the humility to admit when you are not sure of something? Being honest and truthful is your best way forward. Don’t give in to the insecurity of needing to look more knowledgeable than you are. Another dimension of this is discomfort. When a student is struggling to find their words and getting caught in an anxious moment of spiralling embarrassment, we can be tempted as teachers and native speakers to just fill in the blanks for them. Recognise that this is not in the best interest of the student or you as an educator. When we rush the awkwardness away, it is because we are unable to sit with our own discomfort as much as we are unable to sit with theirs. I find that during these moments there is such a powerful opportunity for growth. Take a breath, calm yourself down and then emanate that to your student. Remind them that there is nothing to compare themselves to, no one to impress or gain approval from. The space within your class is safe and free from judgement. I have always found that the people making my students feel negatively about the mistakes they make are other ESL learners who struggle to make mistakes themselves.  Many English natives are in awe of any foreigner trying to speak English – especially here in my home country of South Africa (hint hint, come visit!). In fact, they find them inspiring. Remind your students of that truth and help them to recognise themselves as the brave and proactive creatives they are.

Ashleigh Spence

This article was written by Break Into English’s online teacher and blog contributor Ashleigh Spence.