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Teaching English as a Foreign Language sounds the perfect way to make some money while visiting or living in another country. After all you can speak English so you can obviously teach it, right?

Sometimes the answer to this is yes. There are natural teachers - born communicators who have the ability to explain easily, instantly modifying their own vocabulary, rephrasing and effortlessly incorporating actions, gestures and even pictures so that the person on the receiving end ‘gets it’, even if they do not speak the same language. But these gifted individuals are in a minority. And even if they have these natural talents, they would still need to learn about grammar, pronunciation, language functions and the many other aspects of the English language in order to teach effectively.

So what do you do if you want to earn a living teaching English? The first and most important step is to realise that there is a difference between being a native speaker of a language and being able to pass it on to others. It sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many people think it is easy to teach something that you can do naturally and have been doing all your life. It isn’t easy, but you can learn how to do it well or at least competently enough not to waste your student’s time or money and competently enough not to feel a fraud.
Tools of the Trade
For an English teacher, words are your tools. It therefore makes sense that you know how grammar works and the names of the components making up the texts you read or the things you say. I have heard people say ‘Well, I never learned grammar at school and it never did me any harm. I still speak English better than my students.’ True. But don’t forget one very basic fact. Most of the students you encounter will have learned all the tenses and parts of speech and they will expect you to know them too. They won't have much respect for a teacher who can’t answer the simple question ‘is this an adjective?’ Of course you don’t want to become obsessed with grammar, after all language came first and grammar later as a means of clarifying, categorising and explaining. But just as you wouldn’t trust a mechanic who said to you: ' I can drive, but I haven't a clue how an engine works,' when trying to persuade you to let him fix your car, then students don’t trust teachers who have no idea about how their own language is put together. Therefore rule number one is to study the grammar of your own language. Buy a grammar book, go online, but learn it.

The Art of Conversation
Many new teachers begin (or are persuaded to begin) by teaching 'conversation' in the belief that this is an easy option. What often happens is that you end up doing most of the talking, that conversation dries up altogether or that you start translating, if you happen to speak the student’s own language. The most crucial things to remember about conversation classes are that they should be well prepared, with stimulating material that interests the student (not only  you) and that they are pitched at the correct level. Conversation is not just talking about the first thing that comes into your head as you walk into the classroom, it’s not about correcting the student the minute he makes a mistake and it’s not a teacher (or student) monologue. Discover your students interests - remembering people are always better at talking about their pet subjects, even in another language - then think of ways to prompt conversation: a newspaper article, a picture, a song, a film extract, a cartoon…

Remember many people are terrified of silence so you might consider having some music playing in the background while you chat (this is also great for larger classes) as long as the student agrees to it as some people hate it. An alternative to music is to play a talk show at very low volume so you can just hear the background buzz of conversation.

Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking beginner students have beginner brains. Even if they only know the present simple and a few adjectives, it is much more stimulating to ask them to describe President Bush than to talk about their pencil case. (You can make up your own punch line here!)

There’s More to Life Than Grammar
Once you have entered the arcane world of English grammar you can tend to become - how can I put this - a bit obsessed. But grammar is only a small part of mastering a language. A good teacher should be able to help her student practise vocabulary, pronunciation, reading skills, listening skills, writing and of course speaking. You also need to be able to build confidence (one of the most common problems you’ll encounter) and be sensitive enough to notice that a student's inability to master that day's lesson could be down to the time of day, feeling cold, hungry, tired, sick or upset. They all affect learning. People also just have bad language days (I know I do in Italian!)

Do You Love It?
One of the best ways to learn how to teach English is to go on a short course like the Cambridge/Royal Society of Arts Certificate in Teaching English to Adults (CTEFLA) with its invaluable practical component. It’s tough - tougher than you’d  think, but you will emerge with the confidence to tackle at least the basics. It can be expensive though and you may be tempted to think you can get by without a formal qualification as you have a degree in English, an A star at A level or whatever. You may be able to, with some concentrated self study and by learning as you go along, but if you can possibly afford a course then I would advise you to do it. After all, how else could you explain that while the use of the present continuous in the Macdonald’s slogan ‘I’m loving it’ seems to contradict the grammar books definition of ‘love’ as a stative verb, it's actually a wonderful example of English as a dynamic and ever changing language?

I told you that you could get obsessed with grammar. And I’m loving it!

by Fiona Tankard
Fiona Tankard is a former TEFL teacher, teacher trainer, English language course book author and CTEFLA and DTEFLA assessor and has taught thousands of people how to teach English. She now lives full time in Italy and works as a freelance writer and internet marketing consultant. Her website is www.spiderywriting.com

Posted 08AUG07